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One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted, but practiced.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But looks can be deceiving. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs leads to harm (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that harm is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suffocation of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence at the article’s head, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators are to be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left merely with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).

 

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Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent, is sovereign over everything. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

What is Free Speech? Don’t Ask Peter Van Onselen

I like reading The Australian newspaper, but whenever I come across an article by one of its star columnists, Peter Van Onselen, I always find myself having to remember that he has a PhD. Why must I do this? Because I naively believe that possession of a doctoral degree means that a person is capable of engaging in subtle thinking, and rendering sound judgments based on fine distinctions — skills that Van Onselen consistently, and conspicuously, fails to practice.

Recently, I highlighted Van Onselen’s rather facile (and erroneous) equation of religiously conservative wedding operators who decline to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding, and racist business owners who refuse to serve someone because of the colour of their skin. Last weekend, he committed another grievous sin against clear-headed thinking (article paywalled, unfortunately). Speaking about the recent furore surrounding the date of Australia Day, Van Onselen argued that conservatives who doggedly oppose Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are guilty of high hypocrisy for supposedly “shut[ting] down debate about whether Australia Day should” be shifted to another date. After caricaturing the views of S18C’s opponents — it is quite misleading to say their goal is that “humiliating and intimidating rhetoric should prevail” — Van Onselen suggests that their dismissal of such discussion amounts to “mind-boggling” sanctimony. He gleefully thinks he’s exposed an egregious example of moral posturing by political conservatives: of individuals hobbled by unacknowledged double-standards, whose apparent devotion to principle masks a willingness to censor others if their own sacred cows are at risk of slaughter.

To be sure, Van Onselen does make a number of pertinent points later in the article. But when it comes to the alleged inconsistency of free speech advocates, he only manages to cite one example of the phenomenon he claims to have uncovered. In the first couple of paragraphs, he makes passing reference to Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, who apparently labelled calls to change the date of Australia Day as “ridiculous”. If this is the most troubling instance Van Onselen can find to substantiate his argument, then I’d say the prospects for the Australia Day debate are pretty healthy.

Let me put this as plainly as I can. Whatever one thinks of changing the date of Australia Day, or of dismissive responses to such calls, there is an entire world of difference between criticising another person’s view as “ridiculous”, and deploying the apparatus of the state to silence individuals — on pain of financial penalty — who utter views that are deemed unacceptable. This is precisely what happened to a group of university students at the Queensland University of Technology a few years ago, under the auspices of S18C. It dramatically highlighted the problem with the law, and why so many conservatives have opposed it as an affront to free speech. If Van Onselen can’t distinguish between this and the (robust) dismissal of a view with which one disagrees, I’m not really sure what else to say.

But say something I will. Just so there is no misunderstanding, free speech advocates — and in particular, advocates of the repeal of S18C — do not argue that a person ought to be immune from criticism, or even ridicule. In fact, advocacy of free speech demands that all ideas be exposed to such scrutiny. Nor does it mean that one is obliged to listen to, or entertain, an idea that another person propounds. What the so-called “hairy-chested warriors” for free speech (Van Onselen’s words) argue for is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship or punishment — especially when it is practised by the state.  As an embodiment of this kind of legalistic restriction upon freedom of speech, S18C represents just such a threat. There is absolutely no weight to the charge of hypocrisy that Van Onselen levels at political conservatives (who, aside from Tudge, remain curiously anonymous). They oppose S18C as a corrosive element in a modern liberal democracy, since it hampers the free exchange of ideas. But again, this in no way entails that ideas should remain quarantined from either critical examination or blunt rejection. Meanwhile, calling an opinion “ridiculous” hardly qualifies as “shutting down” debate, whatever Van Onselen thinks. A sense of proportion would certainly go a long way.

***

I said earlier that having a PhD should mean that one is least able to demonstrate a commitment to fine-grained thinking. But it now seems reasonably clear that the distinctions Van Onselen fails to recognize aren’t fine at all. Rather, they’re quite obvious — so obvious, in fact, that someone without an ideological axe to grind, and without a penchant for trying to humiliate so-called “reactionaries” in every article,* is able to see it quite easily.

*Just Google “Peter Van Onselen” and “reactionaries”, and observe the results.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a rather boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable, indeed), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

Progressive Pieties, Islamist Terrorism and the Catholic Church: A Study in False Equivalence

I am often left feeling bemused when I read progressives’ attempts to make sense of Islamist terrorism. Previously, the trope that impoverishment and anomie caused people to perpetrate terroristic acts was in vogue. Whilst this explanation was never entirely bereft of merit – the lives of many young men who yielded themselves to such murderous rage have been marked by social or economic dislocation – it dramatically underplayed the formative role of ideas and ideology as legitimating forces of politico-religious violence. Moreover, the many examples of comfortable, seemingly well-connected and well-resourced individuals engaging in terrorism undercuts the thesis that poverty or marginalisation are the primary drivers: Osama Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire, whilst the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is a trained surgeon from a prosperous Egyptian family. Such profiles extend to the so-called “foot soldiers” of radical Islam. The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had been studying for his PhD in Germany at the time of his heinous act, whilst the infamous “Jihadi John” – grisly poster boy for Islamic State – was a young British man who’d attended Westminster University. Poor and wretched souls (economically speaking) they were not.

Thankfully, one doesn’t hear this alleged explanation bandied about with quite the same confidence. Even many on the Left have begun to recognize that there may be a causal connection between certain conceptions of Islam and terroristic violence after all. They have subsequently retired the older view that putatively religious acts of terrorism were nothing more than a proxy for merely social, political or economic grievances. Labor’s Anne Aly, for example, has rubbished the idea that economic deprivation, say, can do the heavy lifting in this regard – an opinion that is all the more significant, given that she herself is a Muslim.

But the passage of time has not necessarily seen a vast improvement in progressive approaches to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism: having quietly abandoned one means of obfuscation, some on the Left have enthusiastically adopted another. One might call it the idea of religious equivalence, or the notion that all religions may, with equal likelihood, fuel acts of violent extremism (whether political or not). Even if some forms of, say, terrorism have their roots in Islamic doctrine, so the progressive might concede, it is equally true that other religions – Catholicism, for example – can justify such acts with comparable ease. Thus, one witnesses otherwise intelligent and well-travelled individuals claiming that terrorism perpetrated by the IRA and Protestant Loyalists during the Northern Irish “Troubles” was religious violence – on par, say, with the macabre theatrics of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, who self-consciously drape their acts in theological language. I won’t delve into why such a claim is wildly mistaken; others have ably accomplished that task. I merely point to it as yet another progressive attempt to deflect criticisms of (radical) Islam as an ideological incubator for violence and wanton bloodshed.

Child Molestation as a Form of Catholic Extremism?

Not so long ago, the former Premier of NSW (and self-identified Catholic), Kristina Keneally, penned a piece for The Guardian Australia, which included a species of the foregoing argument. Hers, however, contained a novel twist.

In her article, Keneally does not cite alleged examples of Catholic-inspired terrorism to argue that her own religious tradition is just as prone to corruption. Instead, she suggests that child molestation, rampant within the church for so many years, was actually a form of “Catholic extremism” – a distortion of teaching that was nevertheless discernibly Catholic, like the supposedly debauched interpretations of the Koran that mark out Islamic radicals. Keneally’s main point seems to be that certain (read: conservative) expressions of Catholicism were in some sense responsible for permitting the horrors of child sexual abuse, fostering these abhorrent acts. For her, the phrase “institutional sexual abuse” is too “bland”, too anodyne, to describe what she believes is indelibly linked to various elements of Catholic dogma. The supremacy of the Church’s authority, a belief that God was providentially protecting it from scandal, or the efficacy of prayer in securing moral transformation: these things, Keneally avers, have led inexorably to the destruction of scores of young lives. Indeed, she writes:

The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualized and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.”    

In Keneally’s eyes, child sexual abuse is a manifestation of “radical Catholic ideology”, just as the burning of Christians or the mass rape of women from minority religions is a manifestation of radical Islamist ideology.

Keneally’s is certainly a creative approach to a knotty problem. However, her analysis suffers from several critical defects, which prove fatal to her argument. Most obviously, it is quite wrong to equate child molestation within the Catholic Church and, say, Islamist terrorism as twin exemplars of some wider phenomenon we might call religious extremism. Radical Islamic terrorists explicitly justify their actions by releasing written tracts replete with references to the Koran and the example of Mohammed. For example, after ISIS-affiliated terrorists massacred scores of revelers in Paris entertainment districts in November 2015, the organization released a celebratory post about the carnage, quoting from the Koran to explain the reason for the attack. The quote is drawn from Sura 59:2: “Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers”.

Other statements, whether disseminated by ISIS or some other extremist outfit, are laced with similar theological legitimations. The purveyors of such violence are convinced that what they are doing is a form of religious fidelity, warranted – even demanded – by their sacred texts. Mark Durie, an expert in Islamic theology, comments that “ISIS fighters are taught that non-Muslims, referred to as mushrikin (‘pagans’) or kuffar (‘infidels’), deserve death simply by virtue of their disbelief in Islam.  For ISIS, killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, ‘fight and kill the mushrikin wherever you find them’, and Sura 9:29, ‘fight (i.e. to kill) the People of the Book’”. And in a widely-cited article on ISIS for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has written about that group’s consistent efforts to couch their actions in the language of apocalyptic jihad. Radical Islamists, far from being reticent about their motives, seem proud to stand on a theological system that is drawn directly from Islam’s foundational traditions.

By contrast, there are no biblical texts, church traditions, theological commentaries, sermons, homilies or papal encyclicals justifying child sexual abuse or enjoining the faithful to engage in it. No priests charged with sexual offences have, to my knowledge, cited any sacred writings to rationalise their crimes. This is not merely a case of there being no such attempts to sacralize child abuse; the very structure of the Christian religion renders the possibility that someone would do so illogical. The alleged parallel swiftly dissolves when one compares Mohammed and Jesus, both of whom act as moral paradigms for their respective followers. Unlike the life of Islam’s founder – which seems to offer ample warrant for war-like activity among the putative soldiers of Islam – Christ’s life offers no such grounds for the molestation of children. Where one set of macabre and notorious acts appears to be explicitly justified by adherence to a religious creed, the other represents a grievous betrayal of that religion’s overriding ethos and vision.

What of Keneally’s claim that certain elements of Catholic dogma have, in corrupted form, helped sustain the practice of child sexual abuse amongst the clergy over the years? To the extent that this is true, it still falls far short of anything remotely resembling a distinctively Catholic form of extremist violence. Take the alleged relationship between Catholic ecclesiology and the entrenchment of child molestation. Large, labyrinthine organizations may make the exposure and prosecution of such crimes difficult, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about this. As the historian and commentator, Gerard Henderson, has helpfully pointed out, the current Royal Commission into these matters found that proportionally, child sexual abuse has been more common in the Uniting Church – the structure of which is far more diffuse – than in the Church of Rome. This is certainly revealing, for it suggests that a strongly hierarchical organization is not unusually susceptible to this kind of wickedness; if anything, the data points in the other direction. Here is what Henderson has written about the matter (bracketed annotations are mine):

“[There were] 2504 incidents or allegations [of child sexual abuse] between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017 [i.e., over a 40-year period]. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015 [over 65 years]. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church.”

It’s also worth pointing out that other large institutions, both religious and secular, have sought to protect perpetrators in an effort to preserve the “greater good” (often window-dressing for naked self-interest and reputational advancement). The BBC is a good example – all the more so, as it is a non-religious, non-sectarian entity. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012, it was alleged that the BBC had protected other stars accused of sexual abuse, whilst serious institutional failings allowed perpetrators to ply their evil trade with impunity. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired an inquiry into the whole sordid saga, said that a “macho culture” prevailed at the broadcaster, which fostered rampant sexism and sexual harassment. She went on to indict the BBC for the institutionalised fear that many experienced, such that they felt unable to speak out. Finally, she excoriated those who were more concerned about individual and corporate reputations than they were about sexual predation. The point is that a tawdry and desperate attempt to cling to the laurels of an institution’s moral authority – at times leading to the craven abandonment of the victims of abuse – isn’t unique to religious bodies. Acquiescing to the supposed demands of the “greater good” cannot be given a peculiarly religious or theological gloss, for the very reason that this phenomenon – grubby though it certainly may be – is something common to every sector of humanity.

The contention that warped conceptions of prayer saw church institutions fail to act against suspected child molesters is also flawed. It may well be true in an individualised or historical sense, but what does this tell us about the purported link between Catholic doctrine and child sexual abuse? Keneally is simply unsuccessful in substantiating the broader claim that such practices are instances of a species of so-called Catholic “extremism” – i.e., that there exists a necessary link between the one and the other. I’m sure there were some Catholic faithful who, as a result of their belief in the power of prayer, did not respond adequately to accounts of abuse. But praying for the transformation of sinners – even those guilty of the most heinous of sins – is logically consistent with labouring for justice on behalf of victims, and bringing perpetrators to account. Prayer itself is a morally neutral mechanism. Assuming its efficacy, it may be used to try and secure either just or iniquitous aims. In that sense, it is like a car: a tool, which can be used ethically or unethically. More than that, an authentically Christian view of prayer must include the conviction that one’s supplications are directed towards a righteous God, who cares for the poor and watches over the vulnerable. The Book of Psalms brims with images of a deity who welcomes and listens to those who practice righteousness (Ps 15), who rescues the poor (Ps 35:10) and vindicates them (Ps 113:7). For the follower of Jesus, such prayers are often accompanied by acts that seek to secure relief for the oppressed – again, as a consequence of authentic faith. To be saturated in the Christian scriptures, then, is to pray with a fervent desire for justice to be accomplished – the very antithesis of the (unnamed) individuals Keneally cites as evidence for “radical” Catholicism.

The ongoing comparison with Islamic extremism illuminates the point. Whereas prayer that implicitly permits inaction in the face of abuse is a violation of Christian petitionary principles, terroristic violence in the name of Islam would seem to bear the imprimatur of sacred Koranic texts. Again, it may be helpful to refer to the justifications Islamists themselves have offered for their barbarism, as cited above. There is nothing morally neutral about those statements, for they seem clearly to enjoin the killing of non-Muslims as a direct manifestation of religious devotion. Similarly, there appears to be little room for saying that radical Islamists are guilty of distortion, since the texts in question are bracing in their clarity. To that extent, at least, there is a clear – one might even say necessary – causal connection between acts perpetrated by the likes of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the theological ideas they regard as their touchstone.

Towards the end of her piece, Keneally expresses obvious pessimism about the future. Her fear is that such crimes may still find conducive environments within the Catholic Church, as seminaries become “more orthodox and traditional”. Keneally implies that the underlying and sustaining cause – that nefarious wizard behind the curtain – of all that we have witnessed is none other than moral and religious conservatism. This seems to apply, with equal measure, to both supposedly literalistic interpretations of the Koran and to what Keneally sees as reactionary Catholicism. Her concern that the problem of child abuse within Catholic institutions may not abate ultimately rests on the assumption that conservatism and/or religious traditionalism provide settings that enable, harbour or conceal such offending. Unfortunately for Keneally, this jars with the historical evidence. The relatively widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church is once again instructive. The UC has long adopted a “low” form of ecclesiology, where the autonomy of the local church and its members is highly prized. Moreover, it has embraced female ministers, knows nothing of compulsory clerical celibacy, and has long championed the rights of same-sex attracted people (up to and including support for same-sex marriage). Indeed, the values and outlook of the UC tend to resemble modern progressive culture, such that in many areas, the boundary marking out the Church’s distinct identity has all but vanished. These convictions witness to a relatively liberal institution – one which nevertheless proved to be even more vulnerable to high rates of child sexual abuse than the Catholic Church.

What’s more, the recent experiences of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne suggest that moral and religious conservatism has been no more a barrier to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse than its liberal counterpart, and may have gone further in trying to arrest it. Under the archbishopric of Frank Little, clergy guilty or suspected of sexual abuse were often moved from parish to parish, shielded from scrutiny. By contrast, Little’s comparatively conservative successor – a man by the name of George Pell – established the so-called “Melbourne Response” in 1996 (soon after he became archbishop) with the co-operation of Victoria Police. The aim of the programme was to provide assistance to abuse survivors, which included the co-ordination of compensation packages. It was by no means perfect, and a fair amount of legitimate criticism can be levelled at it. But the “Melbourne Response” was one of the first initiatives of its kind to try and systematically address a problem that had beset the Church for many decades. Thus, the unfolding direction of historical events (at least in Melbourne) was precisely the reverse of what Keneally seems to assume.

Conclusion

Trying to have an honest conversation about these matters is sometimes difficult. I certainly understand the impulse to avoid offence, or to deflect criticism of a particular religious group because of fears concerning abuse and societal ostracism (even if they are exaggerated). But when those impulses lead a person to blunder into a thicket of false analogies, muddled analysis and historical ignorance, broader discussions regarding the causes of terrorism are hardly well-served. Kristina Keneally has tried to persuade us with what she sees as piercing honesty, allegedly exposing child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for the degenerate religiosity it is. Degenerate? Most certainly. Religious? Well, no. If what I have said is true, then it is an affront to true Christian piety. Despite Keneally’s pretensions to insightful – even subversive – analysis, her article exemplifies all the calumnies I have just mentioned. Ultimately, it serves as a testament to the overriding influence that a rigid progressive orthodoxy can exercise upon intellectual honesty and clarity of thought.

Challenging the Secularist Narrative

In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.

For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?

One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.

***

As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

Technologizing the Good News

Not so long ago, I was enjoying a rather restful weekend on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Reading the daily newspaper one morning, I happened upon an advertisement for an upcoming business forum in Australia (I forget where exactly, but that isn’t important). One of the keynote speakers was Guy Kawasaki, an ex-Apple executive, who was dubbed a (former) “Chief Evangelist” for the tech-giant. The turn of phrase caught my eye, since I’d never come across it before. But it wasn’t simply the fact of the title’s unfamiliarity; what struck me in particular was the evocative use of a distinctly religious term: evangelist. It is, I think, quite instructive, and offers a window – unwittingly, perhaps – into the significance technology bears within modern (Western) societies. What I want to do here is reflect on what the title itself says about the kind of society we inhabit, and the values, priorities and constructs that dominate it.

Before moving on, however, it’s necessary to provide a brief summary of the concept of “Chief Evangelist” (hereafter, CE). The development of CEs marked an evolutionary shift in the way companies – particularly technology companies – market their products. Salesmen of previous generations would ply their trade during allotted hours, in order to sell discrete consumer items to potential buyers. By contrast, modern CEs style themselves, not as salespeople per se, but as heralds of personal and social transformation through the application and adoption of their favoured technology. This isn’t as a “snake-oil salesman” approach to marketing, where every kind of sales technique, no matter how crude or artificial, is used by the marketer to boost profits. Pioneers like Kawasaki urge CEs to live out the change they encourage consumers to pursue, to ensure their proselytization is genuine. Time-limited working hours are meaningless for a person who considers the product he commends to be a way of life. CEs seek more than just a burgeoning list of mindless consumers; their aim is the conversion of people to life-changing technology through the use of winsomeness, honesty and story-telling.

Why is this at all significant? Calling oneself an evangelist could simply be a rhetorical trick – an attempt to elevate the mundane activity of generating profits to a more rarefied, spiritual plane. But something more substantive than clever re-badging seems to be at work. Briefly, the word “evangelist” comes from the Greek evangelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news”. The Christian evangel is the good news that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God himself has come to inaugurate his kingdom, to bring about a new order of justice and peace, and to accomplish the comprehensive renewal of creation. An evangelist, then, is someone who spreads this message. For the chief salesperson at a technology company to adopt this as a title implies, at the very least, a belief in the fundamentally transformative power of technology. Drawing on a term with deep Christian roots is certainly suggestive; after all, CEs seek to win people, not merely to a new consumer item, but a new way of life. Customers are converted to a gospel-like narrative, which its proponents claim is guaranteed to bring about a dramatic change in the quality of one’s existence – a source of unmitigated good, in other words. The religious overtones are difficult to ignore.

***

I’ll return to what a specifically Christian theological perspective might have to say about all this in a later post. At any rate, the phenomenon of technology firms draping their activities in religious language – to which CE is testimony – provides a particularly clear manifestation of the enveloping devotion the modern world has to technology, and the faith it places in such advancements to generate further progress. It simply makes explicit latent attitudes towards technology in societies saturated by it. Technology evangelism seems to represent a wider reality common to high- and post-industrial societies, the development of which certainly owes much to such advancements. Sociologists call it the fetishization of technology. “Fetishize” is an ugly word, but it aptly captures the enrapturing commitment the modern world has to technology. In its original context, a fetish was an object of extreme devotion. Often bearing religious significance, a fetish would be used in cultic and spiritual practices. But fetishes were also held to contain within them mystical or supernatural powers that could bring blessing and riches to devotees.

The concept of CE taps into both these streams: the constant allure of technology as something that gives substance to modern existence; and an almost mystical belief that the fashioning of technology can somehow bring about, not merely a more convenient or comfortable life, but a kind of salvation. It is, as I said, simply an overt example of a pervasive (if implicit) phenomenon, making itself felt in a variety of ways. At the same time, the message of technology evangelists fuels such fetishization by upholding and driving a narrative that casts technology in the role of saviour.

Fetishizing technology reflects the proclivity to accord great worth and value to the fruits of technical knowhow. Ours is truly a technocratic age, where technological accomplishments determine so much of modern life. We are soaked in technology, particularly those consumer products that have reached a point of complete ubiquity. Our lives, even our identities, are wrapped up with them. If this strikes some as an overstatement, just consider the extent to which we rely upon technology, even for the most mundane moments of our lives: the way we head home after work and fire up our gadgets has a faintly ritualistic quality, and reflects the deep value we unthinkingly place upon them. Certainly, it’s easy to ignore one’s own dependence on the luminous artifacts of our sophisticated age. However,  the centrality of technology in modern life, not to mention its pervasive – and invasive – presence in our lives, is palpable. This is true, not only in the case of technological expertise used for vital ends (e.g., medical technology), but for those instances where technology – and here, the role of CEs is especially germane – fills what may be called an existential “gap” with electronic amusements.

Even a cursory glace at contemporary data seems to bear out the claim that modern society is awash with, and drawn to, consumer technology. The Pew Research Centre, for example, has found that American teens, aged 13-17, are obsessive users of personal devices: 92% go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are “constant” users and 56% admitting they access the internet “several” times a day. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of adolescents have access to mobile technology, which means that are permanently “connected”. It certainly makes one wonder whether modern consumers of personal technology aren’t themselves consumed – filled with a need (unacknowledged, perhaps) to constantly curate their online selves, to view the world through a technological lens, and to allow their experience of reality to be constituted – shaped – by the complex electronic instruments they use.

Second, such fetishization also implies a near-religious veneration of technology and the allegedly transcendent power it possesses to secure dramatic, revolutionary – even redemptivechange for the human race. Again, we could point to a number of examples. Some contemporary advocates of development assume that simply imposing technical expertise upon an impoverished nation will ensure its entry into a new stage of  economic and social prosperity. Or what about neo-conservative advocates of military intervention and foreign nation-building? As political scientists Jonathan Clark and Stefan Halper have suggested in their book, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, belief in America’s ability to reshape other parts of the world is driven partly by an overweening faith in the power of weaponized technology to not only win wars, but to secure a stable platform for the radical transformation of countries according to the model of Western liberal democracy. Despite their obvious differences,  both examples encapsulate the central  belief that the mere application of technology to problems will invariably and inexorably solve them.

* * *

The fetishization of technology – of which the evolution of CEs is but one manifestation – is problematic, failing to account for the ambiguities and imperfections inherent within every human endeavour. The issue is not so much to do with technology per se. Rather, it is a question of framing: how modern societies frame and construct technological progress, what it is and what it does. How we invest technology with certain meanings, and the uses to which we put it are, therefore, fundamental. Specifically, the issue concerns the inflated sense of confidence that flows from the presence and application of technology to modern life. Talking about the “good news” of technology’s unremitting blessings to people simply elevates its significance to a point that it cannot hope to reach in practice. Unfortunately, advocates subscribing to this kind of underlying philosophy may not be able to see this, so committed are they to the narrative of technological salvation.

Technology, for all its undoubted benefits (and let’s be clear: technological change has enriched our lives in manifold ways), cannot hope to do what some of its advocates think it can do. Or, to put it more precisely, technology cannot be the basic subject of an evangelist’s message for two, related reasons. First, it is but an instrument in human hands; it cannot function as the ultimate basis for change (redemptive or otherwise), since it is only a contingent tool used by the individuals who create it. Second, technology needs to be framed morally if it is to be of any use to humanity. That is, if technology is to create the kind of change its advocates promise, then it must first be embedded in a particular moral structure. Recall the earlier example of development advocates tacitly relying on technology’s power to transform impoverished and under-developed nations. As the economist William Easterly has pointed out, technical knowledge must be integrated with a particular set of moral values if it to be of use. He himself argues that it needs to be wedded to a philosophical-economic commitment to strong property rights and open markets if it is to succeed (something with which I happen to agree). At any rate, Easterly’s wider point is clear.

Technology, then, can never function as the bedrock of positive, enriching, life-giving change without being married to a particular ethical and philosophical view which allows it to assume that role. By itself, it is morally inert, static – neutral. Humans are the ones who decide to develop and employ their technical expertise to harness the forces of nature so that suffering may be alleviated. Alternatively, it may be used to add to the sum total of human misery.  After all, nuclear energy can either power a city or destroy it; the technology itself remains the same. Nazi Germany produced a technological monster, pressing it into service as the instrument of a racist, genocidal ideology. As such, arguing for the inherently beneficent power of technological progress is simply reductionistic.

But aside from deeper moral structures, and the manner in which they influence the way we use technology, there is also the question of technology’s limits. This is not always readily acknowledged by advocates and evangelists for technological veneration. On the contrary, it can breed a certain kind of arrogance, which unjustifiably inflates the power of technology to produce desired results. Underlying such an attitude, it seems, is the human tendency to believe that the imposition of complete rational control over events is a possibility.

American neo-conservatives, who have been extreme in their zeal for war and regime change in the Middle East, are a case-in-point (Clark and Halper detail this in America Alone). Their faith in a relatively straightforward application of American power to achieve desired ends was buttressed by a deep belief in the power of sophisticated military technology to effect change – to bend reality, in other words, to the will of those who wielded it. It was the conviction of some, prior to the second Iraq War (2003-), that such power would allow the United States to accomplish a swift and comprehensive victory in that country, with very little cost. But that faith turned out to be tragically misplaced: the United States, for all its might, could not successfully fashion a functioning democratic state out of Iraq. Fourth-generation warplanes could identify and destroy enemy targets with impunity, but they could not seed an open, pluralistic culture – or even prevent the country from sliding precipitously into a sectarian bloodbath. The technology employed in that war could secure narrowly-defined aims, perhaps, but it was impotent in the face of a situation marked by diabolical complexity. Even if one couldn’t say that technological arrogance was the main reason for the disastrous forays the US has made in the Middle East in the last 15 years, it has certainly been a contributing factor. And, as if to underline the point, it is but one example of how technology – itself morally neutral, as we have seen – is viewed as the means by which man gives life to the delusion that he can exert mastery over the vagaries of objective reality.

* * *

The inability of mere technological advance to realize the utopian goals of technology evangelists is seen, too, in more mundane (though no less tragic) ways. The author and prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has written extensively about the plight of what he terms the “underclass”, or the lower reaches of Western societies. Having worked closely with many of those who languish in that environment – characterised, he says, by chronic relational instability, feeble family structures, domestic violence, resentment, enraged jealousy, child neglect, and so on – he argues that the problem faced by the benighted is not material indigence, “but poverty of soul”. In Life at the Bottom, Dalrymple  admits that he was forced to accept the “terrible conclusion” that what besets the denizens of the British underclass is “spiritual and emotional vacuity”, lives “emptied of meaning”. Its members are privy to the latest in personal forms of technological wizardry – smartphones, plasma TV screens (Dalrymple says that the modern Briton watches 27 hours of TV a week), tablets, games consoles, and the like – but seem to live lives that are bereft of anything that ennobles or enriches. Technology has not been able to prevent families from fraying, or arrested the moral enfeebling of wide swathes of society. Contrary to the beguiling message of the CE, the accumulated results of technological progress do not constitute a sufficient condition for human elevation.

Moreover, it seems that in the case of the lower classes of British society (and there’s no reason to think that the same hasn’t happened elsewhere) technology has actually contributed to the moral, spiritual and existential decline of certain sections of contemporary society. Again, I am not blaming technology as such; as I have said, its influence upon the state of human beings depends on the moral frameworks we have created for ourselves. It can be used to create networks and connections across vast tracts of land and sea where none existed previously. Equally, however, it can be used to wall people off, until their worlds have shrunk to the size of a glowing Android screen. Certainly, this is a phenomenon affecting all sections of modern society, even if the results amongst the lower classes are especially bleak. Such is the magnetic allure of digital TV (or the internet, or a smartphone app) that those whose lives lack the animating force of transcendent meaning may well be given over to that which only succeeds in further blunting one’s imagination and domesticating one’s ambition. If Dalrymple’s observations are anything to go by, products of this kind can, by themselves, only ever offer a superficial, yet ultimately empty, form of spiritual and psychological fulfilment. This is a far cry from the promise of technological salvation.

* * *

I have intimated already that the message technology evangelists seek to convey is simply a product of the world in which we live. It only has currency because of the present saturation we experience as members of the technological age. The original evangel was something entering the present world from outside, to change it, to heal it, and to renew it. By contrast, the gospel of technological salvation is a message that simply reflects the cultural and economic norms of contemporary Western society. Despite what its advocates may think, it is not a radically new word from above, for it simply articulates what is already a widespread (if mistaken) assumption. And, if what I have said is in any way true, then technology can never function as the basis for some kind of salvific “good news”. Rather, it seems to represent one more example of the tendency to try and realize one’s vision of utopia within the limits and chaos of the present world, simply through the application of human ingenuity. Ultimately, however, it is a Quixotic project that will dash the hopes of its adherents.