I recently read Jonathan Price’s “Culture by Subtraction” (February) and thoroughly enjoyed it—not least because it grants the rather respectable name of “cultural habit” to what has so far been called my countrymen’s “arrogance”!
When reading, I could not help wondering what the author thought of the relationship between the past, the present, and the future as far as culture is concerned: How do cultural habits turn into cultural artifacts or art, and how does a cultural tradition reinforce such habits, thereby improving our society’s resilience to the changes mentioned? How do new cultural habits form? Even in Europe, cultural habits disappear (as do regional languages such as Breton or Basque in France). This disappearance lends credence to the impression that the only true cultural habits are those inherited—and the new ones, well, they do not deserve such a name. To what extent is this true?
The article points out quite well that “the impossible” creates a space for an “infinite number of permissibles.” I believe that the invasion of technology into our lives is doing precisely the contrary: The many possibilities destroy the space for what is typically human and cultural (the dinner table over the tablet).
Last but not least, the author provides us with quite a topical manner of understanding the double force quartering culture today. They are no newer than those described in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism: the centripetal, “atomizing” force of the prominence of the “I” (as found in the recent surge of social-media use, or the popularization of selfies) and the centrifugal force of the prominence of the “all of us” through “fashions,” and recently and very clearly, the appearance of “causes” (“Je suis Charlie”). Those two forces work in conjunction to replace persons with a mass of individuals—and to prevent the formation of educated minds and hearts, able to comprehend stakes beyond the “here and now” demagogically promised. “Looking beyond”—this is perhaps why “cult” and “culture” are derived from the same word.
Jonathan Price’s elegant little piece “Culture by Subtraction” is a pleasure to read; his conclusion, argued effortlessly, is comforting to anyone who recognizes a virtue in French stubbornness. I do, however, have a worry particular to culture’s identity in a political age such as ours.
Price asks us to strip away our politics, our religion, our “merely” personal concerns, and to find our culture in what remains. If one is European, he hopes, quite a lot remains—habits, preferences, and prejudices that wall off a social playground in which one can be secure of the safety of one’s luggage or the origin of one’s cheese.
The problem is that custom (the primary element of culture Price discusses) becomes political when challenged, even when the challenge is ultimately unsuccessful. When a local custom such as eating pork at school lunch is defended with a Gallic shrug, the shrug is now more meaningful. Once confronted, insistence amounts to valuing custom over some other imperative, such as inclusivity. If eating pork is what “we” do, then those who don’t eat pork aren’t “us,” despite what they may claim. So eating pork in school, in short, is no longer apolitical. The innocence of “our custom” cannot survive in such a political age.
Eating pork in French schools makes a political statement, just as having a Confederate flag on the wall in rural Louisiana makes a political statement, even if everyone else in town has one, too. For a shared social agreement, when it becomes self-conscious and deliberate, is also a shared disagreement. And if a conscious, controversial “custom” takes on the nature of a political position, it will be passed on to future generations under a stronger guise than that of mere custom. Instead, it will become a political stance primarily, and its liability to die out is consequently greater.
At a recent drinks party in Oxford, I overheard a don complaining about those in her college who wear tweed, “not just because they think it’s the 1930s.” What she meant, of course, is that her college is lousy with conservatives. I hope my friends at that college continue to wear whatever they like, but they should not do so under the illusion that they are merely dressing “as one does.” Moreover, they should not be confident that what is now a political statement, even if it endures, can ever return to being a polite local custom.
Oxford, United kingdom
Jonathan Price is insightful in describing culture as “an infinity of small habits handed on with gratitude,” but I think that other defining characteristics, also incapable of subtraction, are at best only implicit in his account. What about, for example, the organic overtones of the term “culture” with its connotations of cultivation, or the background role in most stable cultures of some form of unifying civil religion with an inevitably particular first principle, such as the flag in the United States or the Queen in England?
Oxford, United Kingdom
Jonathan Price replies:
A writer is lucky to receive such thoughtful letters from readers offering more than the line that culture is the problem rather than the solution. It is easy to compose a list of wicked customs—suttee, female genital mutilation, black slavery—so that taken together “culture” contracts a bad name even before “Kultur” gets mentioned. I believe I partially succeeded in steering the conversation away from that wasp’s nest and toward the existential threat of the disappearance in American life of various forms of common culture.
Nathaniel Helms’s points are well taken, especially his final salvo. Innocence is lost, perhaps irrevocably, when culture is challenged in a certain way. Sometimes it becomes too self-consciously held, other times too ideologically enforced, or it can descend into kitsch. I doubt eating pork at French schools, as a public practice, was ever fully apolitical, just as opting out of eating pork cannot be. We must distinguish the habit of eating pork from the questions of whether to eat pork and why. Even if the custom was always in some way definitional of the majority, the habit was hardly ideological until after being firmly challenged. There was always a “we” who did and some others, like French Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians, who did not. “They” were not completely like “us.” Opposition is implied as soon as any cultural habit is formed, and sometimes one is formed in order to distinguish one’s own from others'. Think of marriage customs in many cultures or male circumcision in the Hebrew Scriptures.
But once a custom is attacked and defended, its nature can change for good. Custom moves from the realm of social and political definition to that of justification. It may even become a litmus test of belonging. It is interrogated on one side and bolstered on the other. Some unjustifiable customs should be interrogated, and as a result abandoned. But the stance that says we can retain only what does not exclude, or what is justifiable by “public reason,” precludes culture and most customs. Anyone who cherishes life lived in community with others, friendship, free association, and history should flee such standards. Culture is in principle non-universalizable, being the habits of a discrete group of people that is necessarily smaller than “all.” Since culture is by its nature incapable of defense on liberal grounds, that is all the worse for culture, we are told. And we should resist this.
I’ll address Grégoire Riobé and Fr. Andrew Pinsent’s respective points on history and cultivation together, and perhaps only obliquely, since I see them as necessarily bound up in one another. If culture involves “an infinity of small habits handed on with gratitude,” we can fail in the traditio or in the gratitudo, or in both. Something that is handed on implies both a giver and a receiver. And gratitude would need to be present on both sides to maintain the gift in time before and after it is received. But why would one give in the first place? And why would one be grateful to receive? Gratitude is a fitting response to belonging, and humans understand the story of their belonging as their history. In a sense, everything has a “history”: rocks, trees, planets. But humans inhabit certain stories as their history in which and to which they belong. Culture is part of what persists in those stories as they are handed on, new additions included.
The word “cultivation” usually evokes “high culture”—Bach not lederhosen, Matthew Arnold not Lady Gaga. But the more organic relation of “cultivation” to culture that Fr. Pinsent suggests is illustrated well by “agriculture” as a seasonal, recurring story, quick enough to notice but slow enough to integrate into human history. It is no wonder that culture has frequently twined itself to seasonal growing cycles. Most of us are now as far from farming as we are from gratefully handing on meaningful customs. We cannot all go back to the farms, but we must preserve a culture that leaves us with more to cultivate than mere selves.
Kenneth Colston’s musings on the “confessional” dimension of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“Hamlet the Confessor,” February) represented an unusually cogent engagement with what is arguably the Bard’s greatest and most misunderstood play. This being said, I am nonetheless prompted to defend Hamlet from the negative judgment of him that permeates Colston’s critique of the play.
We will not understand the man who is Hamlet unless we endeavor to empathize—nay, sympathize—with the rage he feels upon discovering that his beloved father has been murdered in cold blood by Claudius, a loathsome Machiavel of a man who commits fratricide and regicide, presumably after having already committed adultery with his brother’s wife. Furthermore, on the subtextual level, we will not understand Hamlet’s rage against spies, such as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, unless we understand Shakespeare’s own rage against Elizabeth’s spy network and its role in the arrest of Catholic priests, such as Robert Southwell, whom Shakespeare almost certainly knew well.
Nor will it do to demonize Hamlet with claims that he is “guilt-ridden and suspicious in every scene,” that he indulges in “misanthropy,” and that he “mopes in self-indulgent acedia.” He has every right to be suspicious, considering the network of spies endeavoring to enmesh him, and his righteous anger against his murderous uncle and his disdain for the treacherous spies, posing as friends, is not synonymous with misanthropy. Even if he does hate these particular men, he doesn’t hate mankind and is quite clearly a loyal friend to the honest Horatio.
As for the old chestnut that Hamlet is a hopeless procrastinator, it would be much fairer to see him as one who does not act rashly but with prudence and temperance. He refuses to act upon impulse, seeking to discover whether the apparition is an “honest Ghost,” nor does he succumb to the temptation to suicide, soliloquizing himself into a God-fearing rejection of the sin of self-slaughter. He does not act until he has come to an acceptance and embrace of divine providence, quoting the Gospel and declaring that “the readiness is all.” In the end, he lays down his own life so that the “something rotten” in Denmark can be purged. Well might we agree with the noble Horatio, as he holds his dead friend in his arms, that flights of angels are singing Hamlet to his rest.
Kenneth Colston’s piece “Hamlet the Confessor” demonstrates what unconfessed sin can do to the soul. Drawing from the lines of Hamlet, he shows the unquietness of a person unwilling or unable to confess his sins to a priest, who is thus left to deal with his guilt and anguish alone and without the comfort and aid of auricular confession to a father confessor. He correctly, I believe, attributes these themes in Shakespeare’s work to the tumultuous religious times of Henry VIII and after, what he and others called the “great muddled middle” between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology and practice.
Colston, however, attributes the spiritual angst of Shakespearean England, personified by Prince Hamlet and company, at least in part to a distinctly Lutheran theology of confession. The influence of Calvin and Geneva would have been a better target. Though Colston tries to make Hamlet a “theology dropout” because he studied at “Luther’s Wittenberg University” and identifies the ministers who surrounded Henry VIII as Lutheran, in fact all non–Roman Catholics at that time were pejoratively called “Lutherans” regardless of theology, and young Prince Hamlet, as far as we know, never declared a major.
Whatever differences there may have been among Rome, Wittenberg, and Henry VIII at that time, the actual theology of Luther and his colleagues regarding confession can hardly be blamed for the angst of the fictional Hamlet or the real angst of the Christian in Shakespearean England. Luther and those who followed him did not cast away auricular confession as other reformers did, but praised it and upheld it as commanded by God. Confession and absolution find a place in Luther’s Small Catechism right between the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar, where he writes that the Christian should confess his sins and receive absolution “from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”
Luther did not “demur” on confession as Colston says. Rather, he forcefully defended Confession and absolution as a gift from Christ to his Church for the sake of troubled consciences. If poor Prince Hamlet would have heeded the writings of that famous professor from his alma mater, he, and indeed the Shakespearean-era people he represents, would have been spared much turmoil of the soul.
Kenneth Colston replies:
Brandon Ross and Joseph Pearce’s thoughtful amplifications of my argument are well taken but take me to have judged Luther and Hamlet more harshly than I meant to. I could have been clearer.
I agree with Ross, and tried to acknowledge in my third paragraph, that Calvin’s “condemnation” of confession would have been more theologically correct or a “better target” than Luther’s “demurral,” but Shakespeare adds to his sources for the play that Hamlet is from Wittenberg, not Geneva. (He may have in mind Calvin’s city, by the way, in “Measure for Measure,” where prostitution becomes a capital offense.)
I also acknowledged that Luther “recommended” confession. By “demurral,” I meant Luther’s famous frustration with its efficacy in his personal case, his refusal to see it as a sacrament, and his denial of the exclusive authority of the ordained clergy. In “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” “secret confession” is indeed “a highly satisfactory practice,” “useful,” “necessary,” and “a singular medicine for afflicted consciences,” but absolution may come through a “brother” or “neighbor.” Not reserving it to the order of presbyters is what the Church of England’s Lancelot Andrewes claimed to result in “doubt,” and guilt-ridden “doubt” is what I claim Shakespeare depicted as part of Denmark’s “rottenness.”
Pearce rightly pounces on my “negative judgment” of Hamlet. I confess—mea maxima culpa—that I should have clarified that it is not my only or final judgment. I agree with Pearce that Hamlet has good reason to hate the Danish court and that he is also a sacrificial scourge against corruption and a forgiving agent of providence. Throughout the play, he is many things (witty, loving, cunning, improvising, manic) in addition to being anxious, despairing, and misanthropic. By these melancholic characterizations, I am referring to the existential sourness in the first soliloquy’s “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt . . .” in the second scene of the play, before he knows the guilt of his “murderous uncle.” “Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” are how the “uses of this world” seem to him as we first encounter him alone.
To be sure, he has reason for despair: The loss of his father and quick marriage of his mother have indeed flattened his world. In the second scene of the second act, although not without the cause of betrayal, as Pearce reminds us, Hamlet says that man, “like an angel in apprehension,” “the paragon of animals,” “the beauty of the world,” and even “like a god,” is a mere “quintessence of dust.” He says, “Man delights not me, nor woman either.” Indeed, I could show that he manifests many of what Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas called the daughters of acedia: interior restlessness of mind, verbosity, rancor, malice, instability of place and purpose. It is Hamlet who accuses himself of “craven scruple” and “thinking too precisely on the event” as late as the fourth act. Still, he is also all that Pearce demonstrates. Andrewes would have recommended, as for everyone, a valid confession.
I enjoyed Msgr. Hans Feichtinger’s “Refugees in Germany” (February) and I agree that Western civilization is based on Christianity. However, I believe the problems concerning Muslim immigration are not clearly defined in the article. For decades, Muslims have been committing murder and destruction in the name of their God and their religion. More importantly, the Muslim community, including national and religious leaders and spokesmen, has refused to condemn the violence and killing in the name of Allah, giving tacit approval to the practice. Thus the distinction between Islam and Islamists mentioned in the article becomes less important since nonviolent Muslim leaders and clerics are complicit by their silence. I might point out by contrast that when a Jewish man shot up a mosque in Jerusalem, every Jewish organization in the world condemned the shooting.
The article concludes by discussing Muslim integration. For decades, millions of Europeans and Asians came to America to become Americans and meld into our society. Muslims, however, do not wish to integrate, or to partake in our common culture. They live in ghettoized communities, keeping their clothing, language, beliefs, and culture distinct.
In summary, we have every reason to believe that the violence will continue. The failure of the “peaceful” Muslims to condemn or disavow violence on the part of their brethren will continue. And they will not integrate.
Hans Feichtinger replies:
In his letter, Vernon Sternhill points to a very serious issue: The responses of Muslim governments to worldwide Islamist terrorism are insufficient and unconvincing. Moreover, inter-Islamic solidarity with Muslim refugees is “weak.” Still, we must not confuse (religious) Islam with (violent, political) Islamism. This distinction, however necessary it may be, does not mean that Islam can simply be thought of as having the same relationship to Western society as does Christianity or Judaism. I do not think that all Muslims coming to America or to Europe simply “refuse” to become members of society and partake in common culture. Rather, they find this very difficult or impossible because they wake up in a culture, caught between Judeo-Christian and secular strains, which not only is not their own, but which is in itself uncertain and confused.
The arrival of many Muslim refugees in Europe and in America is an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by big words like integration, culture, and society. As Americans have to discern whom to vote for as their next president, these questions are politically decisive, and thus inevitably divisive, because not everyone can be right. Many political voices still propose a view according to which “secularism” and “separation of church and state” are the (conveniently simple) answers. They try to make models and traditions developed within the (Western) Christian world now also encompass Islam. I share Sternhill’s skepticism that solutions based on such concepts will produce a future without Islamic terror. The question is, of course: What do we do—now, in the situation we have?
My suggestion is to start with being more aware of and more honest about the political language and solutions that have been prevailing up to now, and to acknowledge their shortcomings. This begins with realizing that the kind of secularism still favored by many is not the solution but rather part of the problem: It is blind to the religious reality as such, and is bent on either explaining it away or quite aggressively making it go away. We would be wise to realize that (post-)modern secularism and its solutions are products of the Christian world. They will be rejected by many Muslims as Christian ideas.
I am wondering how in the Muslim world something like the separation of church and state may have existed in the past and thus could be reconstructed in the future. For now it does not look like that, and important Muslim countries show no signs of moving in that direction. The whole concept of integration, therefore, needs to be reevaluated. De facto, we are asking Muslims to partially convert to Christianity (albeit its secular derivatives) if we expect them to embrace such concepts and the congruent forms of behavior. Many of them see it that way, and they are not entirely wrong: “Western civilization is based on Christianity,” as Sternhill correctly states.
The problem lies in the fact that many today prefer to deny that, or to claim that we have moved on to a new place where our past plays no role anymore. At closer inspection, this is an ultra-individualistic approach, incapable of appreciating the profound impact of history, tradition(s), and the civilization to which we belong (and to which we then hopefully contribute). Social philosophy, since Aristotle at least, and anthropology should have taught us something. In theological language: Individualistic secularism is a (Christian) heresy as it picks and chooses what it likes. And it is compounded by a post-Protestant mind-set according to which the individual can choose a particular expression of modern culture (before it was: of the Christian tradition), without any limitation or determination by the community (formerly: the authority of the Church).
Simplistic ways of discriminating between (good) Islam and (bad, erroneous) Islamism appear to me to be attempts to introduce the—again, Christian—distinction between the true Church and heretics into the Muslim world. And as the Muslim world has no pope to make that judgment, the enlightened Western intelligentsia is happy to take over the role of the Universal Inquisition. Analogously, suggesting that Islam will only need some more time, centuries, before evolving to the state of contemporaneous Christianity is paternalistic, and often dishonest, in the sense that Muslims need to be accommodated for the time being, until their religion disappears, or dissolves into better, purely humanistic teachings.
Muslims “will not integrate,” Sternhill claims, and he may be partially right. The fact is, hardly any Western society or government is able to explain, to others or to itself, what integration is, and what we are expecting people to integrate into. Accepting Muslim immigrants confronts us with our own fragile self-understanding (never mind the shouting of apparently self-confident candidates on the campaign trail). And we are confronted with the limits, both historical and systematic, of a secularism that quite obviously is unable to help us. Realizing this may not be much, but it is a start.
Stefan McDaniel’s reflection (“Gaul Divided,” February) on competing visions of France’s future makes an important contribution to understanding the current debates about France’s soul and national destiny. He is absolutely correct to emphasize the corrosive, even nihilistic, consequences of the social eruption which was May 1968. Despite the Maoist, Trotskyite, and Castroite rhetoric that accompanied that “revolutionary psychodrama,” as Raymond Aron called it at the time, its long-term consequences have been tied to the dissolution of the very idea of social and political authority. It has given rise to an antinomian libertarianism of the left that European elites confuse with freedom. McDaniel traces all of this deftly and authoritatively.
The genius of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is to show the spiritual sterility of a freedom without moral content or spiritual substance. A secularism that insists on generalized hedonism, hostility to transcendence, and the neutralization of the Christian religion in civil society (that is, the spirit of Charlie Hebdo) can hardly expect to win a contest with a religion that preaches “submission” as its very alpha and omega. Political Islam, for all its pathologies, gives men and women a reason to live and die.
What is needed in France—and the West in general—is a restoration of an understanding that liberty flourishes only in a society that bows before moral and political authority within their proper spheres. Fabrice Hadjadj, the Jewish Arab convert to Catholicism cited by McDaniel, is right to ask if European liberty in its present form can provide reasons for which to give one’s life. Éric Zemmour, for his part, is right to look back to Charles de Gaulle as the last French statesman who could speak to France of France, and who knew, as Charles Peguy put it in Notre Jeunesse (1910) that the “derepublicanization” and “de-Christianization” of France are part of the same debilitating process. Postmodern nihilism despises both heroes and saints—any authoritative model of how one ought to live.
But Zemmour’s The French Suicide is finally an exercise in nostalgia and despair. What France needs is a restoration of a properly political vision that combines a stalwart defense of republican liberty with an understanding that France is, and remains, in Pierre Manent’s words, “a nation of a Christian mark.” McDaniel puts it well near the end of his article: “The good in the Age of Enlightenment can no longer endure without the Light of the Ages.” The spirit of liberty, rightly understood, and the spirit of religion are necessary allies in the fight against postmodern nihilism.
Daniel J. Mahoney
Recently I finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and I was glad to then turn to Stefan McDaniel’s “Gaul Divided.” Submission was a quasi-surreal experience akin to 1984 or Brave New World; I oscillated back and forth over whether it could happen. By the end, I thought it could, until I remembered that Islam as Houellebecq describes it is more invention than reality. Moderate Muslims play little role in political life, and there are no intellectual, attractive apologias for Islam selling millions of copies. Until this happens, and until moderate Muslims around the world gain more of a hold over their radical coreligionists, Islam seems destined for a more marginal or antagonistic role in liberal societies, not a colonizing one.
Ross Douthat (among others) catalogued this and other ways in which Houellebecq’s fantasy might not come to pass, but I’m curious. If deconstructionism is a form of nihilism with no future, will people want to embrace the religious foundation of the past? At the heart of progressivism lies a rejection of Christianity and its cultural dominance. This, along with post-colonial guilt, explains legislating against traditional mores pertaining to women and sexuality in formerly Christian countries and the tolerance of violence against women and gays in Muslim ones. It seems likely that European leftists would prefer to continue down the path to hedonistic suicide rather than embrace l’infame. Do the less committed then turn to Christianity by process of elimination? Would their conversion be deep enough to provide the real religious foundation that a new Christian culture would require? Would they be numerous enough to counteract the demographic realities of France’s future? And if Houellebecq’s moderate Islam were to arise as a real alternative, why not have polygamy with your metaphysics?
Stefan McDaniel replies:
I am reassured that my analysis rings true to an acute and knowledgeable observer like Daniel Mahoney. I might push back against his apparent disdain for nostalgia (which I consider a high virtue when it has a proper object), but on every point that really matters, we firmly agree. I will simply take the opportunity to elaborate the Manentian prescription, which should interest readers of First Things. The “properly political vision” Manent calls for is a renewal of the idea of covenant.
Like Israel, France is a sacred community in direct relation to the biblical God (viz. Jeanne D’Arc and de Gaulle, whose stories might as well come from the Book of Samuel), who both emboldens it by his fidelity and chastens it by judgment. Note that on this view, Israel proper is not an intolerable rival for the claim of chosen nation, but the people whose history gives clearest proof of God’s fidelity and justice, enabling other nations to enter their own covenants with sober confidence. In this connection, it is fascinating to observe that French Jews like Zemmour, Alain Finkielkraut, and Sarah Vajda have taken the lead in rehabilitating French nationalism. My own theory is that the Jewish experience has taught some Jews a uniquely intense appreciation for the good of nationality. Such Jews wish to enjoy it themselves and want non-Jews to enjoy it, even (which shows a remarkable generosity) when it means defending proud anti-Semites and making their own relationship to the national community more awkward and precarious.
Nathaniel Peters raises a related and critical question (one that also happens to interest Manent): Islam may not equal Islamism, but might it be that Islamism is the only political form that Islam can take? Of course, I don’t know. But I do think that we can get clearer on the answer with some courageous theological dialogue. As I understand them, the Qur’an and Islamic tradition generally assert that the Jewish and Christian revelations, originally divine, are now tainted by fabrications. If the notion of covenant is among the alleged fabrications, then it will be much harder to accept covenant (as distinct from a unilateral law) as an adequate relation between God and a human polity.
As for the demographic future of faith, I prefer to prophesy after the event. I will say, however, that Peters can himself influence the outcome by moving to France and having children.
I once read that the Los Alamos physicists during the Manhattan Project refused to consult doctors. Instead, they read medical books on their own, diagnosing themselves and prescribing their own treatments. They assumed that medical science must be trivially easy for anyone who could master nuclear physics.
After reading Edward Feser’s review of Jerry A. Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact (“Omnibus of Fallacies,” February), I conclude that some contemporary scientists must have much the same attitude toward philosophy. If you can do population genetics or you are comfortable with tensor calculus, then surely philosophical argument must be a snap. No need for any special training. Wing it, and you will be as good as a pro. Sadly, this is not the case, as amply demonstrated by some of the efforts of the “New Atheists.” When a philosophical pro such as Feser subjects their texts to an appropriately astringent analysis, he makes their logical lacunae and sophomoric mistakes glaringly obvious.
If what is done by Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne is the “new” atheism, then I am an unapologetic advocate of “old” atheism. That is, I favor atheist advocacy that is argument-dense and skips the invective. Lampooning your opponents as ignorant Bible-beaters may be lowbrow fun, but it is bad manners, and, more to the point, ineffective. Don’t call them names. Defeat their arguments. That is the worst thing you can do to them. However, defeating your opponents’ arguments requires (a) taking their best arguments seriously, and (b) doing your philosophical homework. “Old” atheism is therefore hard. Caricaturing with broad strokes is easy, but it cannot be said to advance rational debate.
In fairness to Coyne, he is no doubt understandably frustrated that his excellent book Why Evolution Is True still needed to be written. Over forty years ago, Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Even back then it had been true for a long, long time. Coyne is exactly right that the continued cultural resistance to evolution has its source in ideology rather than science, and that the obscurantist ideologies are religiously motivated. However, the way to address this issue is not by setting up simplistic false dichotomies between “faith” and “fact.” True, if you define “faith” as Ambrose Bierce did—“Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel”—then it is easy to equate religious belief with obfuscation. Again, though, the purposes of rational debate are not served.
From the first publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin had religious allies. Darwin gladly accepted the aid and support of such allies. Harvard botanist and conservative Congregationalist Asa Gray was perhaps Darwin’s leading supporter in the United States. Evolution’s conflict is not with religion per se, but with certain dubious theological tenets. The best antidote to bad religion is good religion, but you lose the potential aid of the latter when you tar everything with the same brush.
Keith M. Parsons
The university of Houston-Clear Lake
Edward Feser replies:
I thank Keith Parsons for giving us a little of that old-time atheism. That the dispute between theism and atheism is essentially a philosophical disagreement rather than a matter for empirical science to settle is as true today as it was in Aristotle’s age, or Plotinus’s, or Aquinas’s, or Leibniz’s. And as the “old atheist” philosopher David Stove once said, “it takes a philosopher to catch a philosopher.”
Yet as philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once lamented, the scientists of his generation—Feynman, Schwinger, et al.—despite their brilliance, were, compared to the generation of Einstein and Bohr, “uncivilized savages” who “lack[ed] depth” when addressing matters of philosophy. Sadly, the generation of Dawkins, Krauss, and Coyne makes even Feynman and company look like philosophical giants. Combine these premises and we get the conclusion that contemporary skeptics are well advised to look to professional philosophers like Parsons rather than to amateurs like Coyne if they want their atheism to be improved as well as “new.”
A note to Christopher Alexander, author of “Making the Garden” (February): I am an architect. For the past forty years I have been designing juvenile corrections facilities. My design philosophy is that “environment cues behavior.” I tell my clients that if they continue to lock detainees in cages, then these detainees will continue to behave like animals. One client went so far as to refer to detainees as “lions, tigers, and wolves.”
Instead of steel bars, we use security glass and provide good sightlines, views to the outside, and plenty of sunlight. One corrections officer told me that after working in one of our facilities, he no longer goes home with a headache and that he enjoys being able to see the sky, to know if the sun is shining and to watch the sunlight hit the floor of the day room and travel across the floor as the day progresses. I have seen firsthand the therapeutic value of using simple expedients such as color, texture, views of nature, natural materials, human scale, and ease of orientation within our detention facilities.
An example of the neuroscience behind good design is in the work of John P. Eberhard and others. In one experiment, they showed that the simple expedient of installing a landscape mural, in effect “recreating the beauty of the Earth,” in the high-stress intake area of a jail reduced blood pressure and elevated the mood in the space.
One of our juvenile detention facilities has won numerous awards both here and abroad. An architect on one jury described the facility as displaying “optimism that belies the building typology.” I was astounded to learn that our building design could evince such an elusive emotion. The comments of the guard and the juror give witness to the ability of good design to awaken deep-seated emotions as well as physical benefits and provide “empirical hints of the presence of God.”
Thank you, Mr. Alexander, for your insightful work, for your perseverance in the face of adversity, and for pointing to a higher realm to which we architects might aspire.
New York, New York