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Habermas on Rawls on Religion December 14, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy, religion.
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In his blog on Habermas and Rawls, Thomas Gregersen has published a link to a new afterword by Habermas about the young Rawls’ analysis of religion in his senior thesis from 1942, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.” This piece apparently wasn’t known to exist until after Rawls’ death in 2002. In 1942 Rawls was 21, and since I’m right now grading what seems like a stack of several thousand papers 🙂 from students in that age-bracket, I am acutely aware of the quality of writing and argumentation…however, I’ll pursue Rawls’ own text at a later date, and leave it to Habermas to “grade” Rawls!

I thought you might find it interesting to (1) see Gregersen’s blog, (2) read the Habermas piece .

An excerpt from Habermas’ review, quoted by Gregersen:

“I will limit myself here to four observations. (1) This confident work, which is strikingly mature for a twenty-one-year-old, merits interest in the first instance as a surprising biographical testimony concerning the work and personality of the most important political theorist of the twentieth century. (2) The philosophical substance of the senior thesis consists in a religious ethics which already exhibits all of the essential features of an egalitarian and universalistic ethics of duty tailored to the absolute worth of the individual. (3) At the same time the posthumous insight into the biographical sources of the author’s work offers an outstanding example of the philosophical translation of religious motives. It is as if one were examining the religious roots of a deontological morality based on reason alone under a magnifying glass. (4) The student’s senior thesis also foreshadows his later recognition that the secularisation of state power must not be confused with the secularisation of civil society. Rawls owes his unique standing in the social contract tradition to the systematic attention he devotes to religious and metaphysical pluralism.”

Of course it is always fascinating when precursors to a thinker’s prominent contributions can be found in his or her early writings. But that shouldn’t detract from the significance of a good thinker being able to change his or her mind…


Another religious threat to education April 11, 2010

Posted by michaelmussachia in Uncategorized.
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Simon Gardner posted a commentary on RichardDawkins.net (http://forum.richarddawkins.net/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=110266) about a proposed “Religious Bill of Rights” in the U.S. senate:

“Colorado Senator, Dave Schultheis proposed a bill, SB089 (1), this past week, which would have undermined important democratic institutions. Fortunately, poor negotiating skills made killing the bill in committee possible(2). The vehicle for this subversion was a Religious Bill of Rights, that, in addition to being an insult to the First Amendment, was deemed generally redundant to the ‘real’ Bill of Rights.

This Bill was purportedly necessary for the protection of religious persons from attacks on their religious rights in the public school system despite the fact that there was no evidence or even anecdotal testimony to support such ridiculous claims. The particulars of the Bill and it’s outrageous demands have been well covered (3)(4). The two most controversial areas of concern are first, that teachers would not have to teach anything that may disagree with their religious views, and that they could openly display their own religious material in their classrooms and, second, that students could refuse or oppose course material for the same irrational reasons(1). The part of the story that I would like to draw attention to is the resulting affect any such Bill would have on the ability of the elected officials of the school board to implement the wishes and demands of the electorate. What is the affect on our democracy if the curriculum of our public school system is influenced by dictates from either one, or even several competing, religious theologies?”

While it looks as though the bill isn’t going anywhere, it’s nature reveals the degree to which religious zealots in this country are still trying to undermine education. It’s 2010. We’ve sent space probes beyond the solar system, explored the nature of matter down to the subatomic level, and gained tremendous insight into the evolution of life, including ourselves, and yet we still have to defend scholarship, science and reason against religious fundamentalists. I wish some of these people could crawl back to the Dark Ages where they would feel less threatened in their beliefs.

God is Not Dead, etc., Part 2 March 16, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Getting back to the issue of non-religion in Scandinavia (sorry it took so long—I’ve been swamped with work): I appreciate the comments, but I’m afraid I’ll have to burst some bubbles. It may seem as if Scandinavians have found a way to live beyond religion, in a meta-spiritual cultural stage, hitherto only achieved by Zen-masters. But the real story is a bit more complex. Strange to say, in the land of Kierkegaard issues of faith, God and the afterlife are simply no longer conversation topics—not because these issues don’t exist, but because they are considered embarrassing. The original NY Times article by Peter Steinfels reported that people only reluctantly confess to believing in God. Here I should mention that in Denmark (contrary to in Sweden) there is no separation between church and state, and (at least when I was a kid) religion, i.e., Protestantism, was taught in elementary school. You’d think that this would create a climate for an open and passionate discussion about religion. Not so; what has happened is a separation of ritual from the supernatural. As the article points out, there is much emphasis on celebrating religious holidays (Christmas, Easter and Whitsun), but truthfully, very few Scandinavians are completely aware of the religious connotation of the latter two—and the Christian underpinnings of Christmas have blended together with remnants of the ancient pagan Yule celebration (which never really went away). But this doesn’t mean that the rituals have lost importance, on the contrary.

Here we need to take a detour around the concept of secular religion. On occasion, Americans celebrate cultural rituals (usual historic anniversaries) with a passion that is typical of religious rituals. If you have ever participated in such rituals, you can probably relate to the rituals that in Scandinavia have all but replaced religion: They have little to do with national history, but everything to do with family traditions. The American celebration of Thanksgiving comes closest to this phenomenon. Celebrating Christmas, Easter and Whitsun is not only an occasion for family to get together, but the celebrations offer solace, “comfort and joy”—not because of the promise of religious transcendence, but because of a familiarity stretching back generations, involving foods, hymns and songs, traditional gifts, dinner toasts and speeches, all performed according to a rigorously observed pattern. These traditions used to be centered around the observance of the religious holidays, of course, but sometime during the 20th century a subtle shift happened: Instead of the family traditions being secondary to the religious meaning, the religious subtext has now become secondary to the family traditions. (And, as an aside, this strong commitment to the greater concept of “family” provides an unquestionable underpinning for the value system that the Steinfels article identifies as Christian values.) Criticism of/disregard for these traditions (as has been happening lately due to the influx of immigrant groups) is considered a cultural and personal affront, frequently resulting in anger that almost reaches the level of the anger displayed by other cultures taking offense at what they consider blasphemy.

So where did religion go? For all intents and purposes, religion has become the external occasion for this celebration of deep, internal family connections (real or wished-for); the holy texts are being read in church, but for many, maybe most of the congregation, it isn’t the message of the text that is all-important, but the comfort in the childhood memories of having heard the same text with loved ones. That being said, this is not equivalent to saying that Danes and Swedes have no true religion—many have. Aside from small communities which are traditionally Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, many others consider themselves deeply spiritual, but it is a spirituality of a (for American standards) strangely amorphous kind, a vague notion of meeting loved ones in the hereafter, and of departed loved ones watching over you, with God and Jesus as friendly overseers. In my view, the author of the study, Phil Zuckerman, is mistaken if he thinks that Danes have no interest in religious issues, or in some kind of reassurance of life after death—they just don’t have any interest in talking about it. This is not in itself a departure from Lutheranism which regards one’s faith as an ultimately personal matter. But perhaps one of the contributing reasons for this reluctance to air one’s personal religious views is that throughout the 20th century intellectuals, chiefly the so-called culture radicalist—a highly successful and influential mid-century Danish cultural movement with Marxist sympathies without being outright Marxist—have taught the Danish public that religion is for dummies, and nobody wants to be considered a dummy. So the lack of interest in religion is a façade, covering a spectrum of attitudes from an outright rejection of religion, to a lukewarm oblivious traditionalism and/or a celebration of family cohesion, to a deeply personal faith that one just doesn’t talk about. My impression is that similar attitudes can be found in intellectual, “Blue” communities in the United States as well. Whether this is a peek into the future of religion in America, and whether the Danish/Swedish form of non-religion ought to be considered a desirable alternative to American present-day religious disagreements and politics infused with religion, is something that you have to decide for yourself. I personally can’t help but think that it is not the ultimate answer, being to a certain extent founded in group-pressure in a small culture where it has made sense to seek homogeneity over individual expression for generations. Besides, the youth in Sweden and Denmark are rebelling against their parents, as usual. Guess what? They’re becoming religious…