The scandal of the idea of mortal sin iv: Hellfire

he scandal of the idea of mortal sin is really the scandal of the idea of everlasting punishment.  That a person may deprive himself of heaven doesn’t really bother us.  Nobody deserves heaven, and for heaven to end up filled with the defiantly unrepentant would contradict its nature.  No, what bothers us is the idea of eternal physical torture.  This is not just an issue of sexual sins.  An infinite punishment of this sort is out of all proportion to any human offense, according to our very basic intuitions of fairness.  One may say that these intuitions are wrong in this case, but they cannot just be dismissed as “feelings”, since they are integral to all our moral reasoning.  One must show how they are wrong.

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President Obama is right

Americans can’s sue a sovereign nation.  Not the Vatican.  Not Saudi Arabia.  To imagine otherwise is either to suppose that America has some sort of authority over all other nations or to partake in the liberal drive to eliminate politics and the the responsibility of political authorities with impersonal procedure (that is, with authority hidden and irresponsible).  The judiciary is still part of the government, and legal rulings are acts of some government’s authority, not of some sort of disembodied Voice of Justice.  If one nation has a grievance against another, it may pursue it through the arts of diplomacy and warfare, if it decides that its desired satisfaction is attainable and worth the cost.  President Obama agrees with former President Bush that antagonizing Saudi Arabia doesn’t serve the country’s common good.  This may or may not be true, but it is at least an answer to the right question.

What men want

I had to have surgery on my colon a few weeks ago; it had gotten twisted, and I now have two feet less of it than I did before.  Everything went okay, but it will be a few weeks before I have my energy back, during which time I’ll have to save my energy for teaching, proposals, and my daughters.  Expect light blogging.

While the doctors were doing tests on me, they found a bunch of other stuff wrong.  Apparently I have very high blood pressure, and at some unknown time in the past one of my kidneys died.  It’s nothing that will kill me tomorrow, but it did get me thinking, in my hospital bed, that I may not have as much time left as I had thought.  Set aside for a moment practical worries about my life insurance and retirement savings.  I asked myself what I really want to get for myself out of the remainder of my life.  I found that the thing that I really cared about was that my children should remember me, and I wanted them to remember me as I was, being able to chase and throw them, and not just as I will be when frail and dying.  They’re 5 and 2 right now, so I’ve got to hang on a while longer; I have no recollection of my paternal grandfather who died when I was 2, nor of my kindergarten teacher I had when I was 6.  Interestingly, I found that I felt no urgent need to be known and remembered by grandchildren, much less by future generations in general.  Nor could I work up much interest in my ambition to finally find my problem and make a big contribution to physics, which I had thought was the whole reason I’d done all that work of going through school and postdoc and getting tenure.

It was a clarifying experience; I believe I have genuinely discovered something about myself.  It’s well known that humans care a great deal about things that happen after they die–their legacy, the fate of things they love that survive them–even though they will necessarily not be there to experience it.  This could create problems if we let the eventual extinction of humanity impose a sense of futility on everything.  Fortunately, our horizon of concern doesn’t extend nearly so far.  I just need 16 years to see my daughters to adulthood.  Not that I’ll then face death with any particular stoicism.  The survival instinct, the terror of oblivion, stays till the end, or so I imagine.  But I’ll have accomplished the real objective good (see my discussion of desires and goods in The Audacity of Natural Law) that I most want.

While I was in the hospital, the Democratic candidate for President took the unprecedented step of delivering a speech attacking illiberal internet sites.  The Alt Right is naturally thrilled, and I am happy for them if also a little jealous.  Religious conservatives are, one regrets to admit, now too unimportant to be worth attacking.  And to think this wasn’t so a mere decade ago, back when George W. Bush, and not Donald Trump, was Hitler.  I’ve learned not to let the Democrat attack machine get my hopes up.  I doubt Trump is any more a principled racist than GWB was a theocrat.  Nor should we imagine that the Alternative Right, which by and large has no interest in preserving Christendom or the patriarchal family, could really deliver us from the evils of the modern world, even if serious persecutions were not coming its way.  Still, the spread of particularist ideas is to be welcomed, especially in Catholic circles.  For too long, our intellectuals have spoken of “solidarity” as this ever-expansive force, internally driven to smash the boundaries of real, distinct communities, limited only by an antagonistic principle of “subsidiarity” that allows these defectively-solidaristic (because non-universal) communities some space to control their own functions.  What these people have gotten wrong is not a failure to appreciate subsidiarity, but a failure to understand solidarity.  Love of one’s family, one’s neighborhood, one’s ethnic group, one’s country, one’s religion, desire to preserve them, happiness at being immersed with fellow members of them–that’s real solidarity.  Catholic social thought will not be healed until the bishops repent their condemnations of racism.

Perils of a dying language

From the Guardian, the last two speakers of Ayapaneco won’t talk to each other:

The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction.

There are just two people left who can speak it fluently – but they refuse to talk to each other. Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company.

“They don’t have a lot in common,” says Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, who is involved with a project to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco. Segovia, he says, can be “a little prickly” and Velazquez, who is “more stoic,” rarely likes to leave his home.

With thanks to this delightful article on the demise of non-ASL sign languages.  I admire these people’s commitment to tradition, although even I would say that when you’re down to a handful of speakers/signers, it’s time to let it die.

Democratic consensus not so strong as we had been led to believe

At the Journal of Democracy, Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk review data from recent World Values Surveys indicating growing rejection of democracy in the younger generation–not just dissatisfaction with elected leaders but with the liberal democratic structure. (Hat tip to First Things.)  Excerpts:

The decline in support for democracy is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a “cohort” effect rather than an “age” effect. Back in 1995, for example, only 16 percent of Americans born in the 1970s (then in their late teens or early twenties) believed that democracy was a “bad” political system for their country. Twenty years later, the number of “antidemocrats” in this same generational cohort had increased by around 4 percentage points, to 20 percent. The next cohort—comprising those born in the 1980s—is even more antidemocratic: In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. Although this trend was somewhat more moderate in Europe, it was nonetheless significant: In 2011, 13 percent of European youth (aged 16 to 24) expressed such a view, up from 8 percent among the same age group in the mid-1990s (see Figure 2).

Historically, citizens have been more likely to engage in protests when they are young. So it is striking that, in the United States, one in eleven baby-boomers has joined a demonstration in the past twelve months, but only one in fifteen millennials has done so. In Europe, the picture is a little more mixed: Young respondents are more likely than older ones to have attended protests in the course of the past twelve months, but they do so at lower levels than previous cohorts did at the same age. This decline in political engagement is even more marked for such measures as active membership in new social movements. Participation in humanitarian and human-rights organizations, for example, is about half as high among the young as among older age cohorts. Thus we find that millennials across Western Europe and North America are less engaged than their elders, both in traditional forms of political participation and in oppositional civic activity.

In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule”—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and those who want experts rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Similarly, while 43 percent of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when Figure 3—The Widening “Political Apathy Gap” 53% 41% 48% 38% 63% 67% 52% 52% 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 1990 2010 1990 2010 United States Europe Interested in Politics 16-35 36+ Note: We compared the shares of U.S. and European respondents who reported being “fairly interested” or “very interested” in politics across two age cohorts: those 16 to 35 years old and those 36 or older. European countries included in both waves (constant sample) are Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Sweden. Number of valid responses: United States, 1990: 1,812; United States, 2011: 2,210; Europe, 1990–93: 13,588; Europe, 2010–12: 8,771. Source: World Values Surveys, Waves 2 (1990–94) and 6 (2010–14). Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk 13 the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19 percent. In Europe, the generation gap is somewhat less stark but equally clear, with 53 percent of older Europeans and only 36 percent of millennials strongly rejecting the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify having the army “take over.”

The idea that support for military rule has markedly increased among wealthy citizens of long-established liberal democracies is so counterintuitive that it naturally invites skepticism. Yet it is consistent with similar survey items that measure citizens’ openness to other authoritarian alternatives. In the United States, among all age cohorts, the share of citizens who believe that it would be better to have a “strong leader” who does not have to “bother with parliament and elections” has also risen over time: In 1995, 24 percent of respondents held this view; by 2011, that figure had increased to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of citizens who approve of “having experts, not government, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country” has grown from 36 to 49 percent. One reason for these changes is that whereas two decades ago affluent citizens were much more likely than people of lower income groups to defend democratic institutions, the wealthy are now moderately more likely than others to favor a strong leader who can ignore democratic institutions (see Figure 4 below).

This is not all good news.  Rule by experts is arguably the natural outcome of liberalism, and desire for it indicates an unfortunate faith in the Leftist nonelected government, while desire for a strong leader may just reflect eight years of adulation of President Obama by the media.  Still, a quarter of young Americans were willing to say that democracy is a bad form of government.  I would never have expected this.  We anti-democrats have the impression, based on mainstream political discourse, of being a completely marginal minority, but this is not true.  The World War II propaganda is starting to wear off, and children who grow up on the narrative of Western wickedness will be less likely to accept its current political arrangement as obviously superior.  Could this be the moment for we authoritarians to make our case?

Categorizing Islam

Richard Spenser and Msgr. Stuart Swetland have been having an argument about whether Catholics are allowed to dissent from the claim that Islam is a religion of peace.  Msgr. Swetland was running the Newman Center at UIUC back when I was a student there, and I have all good memories of the place and at his “Theology on Tap” discussions.  (At the time, I was more liberal than him.  I can only imagine how horrified he’d be at how I’ve turned out!)  It would be a shame if I were to spiritually imperil myself by failing to welcome the latest Muslim invasion.  But have I?

Swetland helpfully lays out some of the major “magisterial teachings on Islam since VII”.  (Presumably this is because the Church only started making official pronouncements about Islam circa 1960.)  They fall into two broad categories:

  • Doctrinal:  Muslims worship the true God, and they have many true beliefs about Him.
  • Moral:  Muslim morality has a lot going for it, like prayer and almsgiving.  Also, Islam is a religion of peace.  It is non-violent and tolerant.

What a relief–I agree with both of these!  I have argued before that Muslims certainly do succeed in referring to the one actually-existing God, both in their speaking and their worship.  I have also affirmed that Islam is a religion of peace, at least in the same sense that Catholicism and democracy are peaceful.  It aspires to a state of universal tranquility, and it only resorts to violence over what it perceives as egregious, provocative violations of its vision of right order.  I believe I have even affirmed here and there that Islam is theoretically more tolerant than liberalism, in that it can concede some space to something other than itself, whereas liberalism will brook no deviation from “equality”, “non-discrimination”, and “tolerance”.

The above evaluate Islam according to the categories of truth and morality.  They do not address how Islam is to be evaluated according to a third, completely independent, category–the political categorization of friend vs. enemy.  The friend/ally is not necessarily ideologically correct, the enemy/threat is not necessarily morally bad, and so forth.  The question does not pertain directly to the essence of Islam at all, but rather to its causal influence on the Catholic Church and the historic people of Christendom.  In terms of the friend/enemy distinction, it is abundantly clear that Islam is an enemy.  Consider the following:

  • Muslims in the West always ally politically with the anti-Christian Left.
  • Even if they didn’t, the presence of large numbers of Muslims in Christian lands would destroy the ability of Christianity and the civilization it created to continue functioning as a common culture in these lands.  Given the extreme aggressiveness shown by Muslims, even modest numbers of them lead to the de facto banishment of Christianity from public life and the establishment of Islam as a privileged faith immune to public criticism.
  • Muslims continue to savagely persecute Christians in the Middle East.  (Pope Benedict’s statement that middle eastern Christians have “let themselves be challenged by Muslim devotion and piety”, quoted by Swetland, is unintentionally funny.  That’s one way of putting it.)  In Europe, even as a small percentage, they have already begun terrorizing us and harassing our women.  (Of course, it’s only a minority that do this.  Most of the Muslims being settled in your town won’t be raping your daughters.  Doesn’t that make you feel better?)  One needn’t, and shouldn’t, make assumptions from this fact about any individual Muslim one meets, but one certainly can have statistically reliable expectations about what effects a large cohort of Muslims will have.
  • The behavior of the Catholic Church over the first millennium of Islam’s existence, particularly that sanctioned by the popes, is explicable only in terms of a response to a threat.

So, as long as one keeps the three categories straight–doctrinal, moral, and political–one can affirm Catholic teaching and practice through her long centuries dealing with this terrible foe.

Is it possible to praise other civilizations without denigrating the West?

Fred Reed at The Unz Review wrote an interesting article on the intellectual achievements of the Mayan civilization.  The punchline:

It is interesting that Europe invented neither writing, zero, nor its number system, but the Mesoamericans did all three. Perhaps the Indians were enstupidated by the admixture of Spanish blood.

Usually essays about the admirable qualities of Native American societies are at least as much about the immorality of the West, but this actually read more like an essay on medieval Islamic civilization.  I’m sure you’ve encountered the type.  I have no problem with Muslims having things to be proud of, and it actually fits best with my worldview if our great rival monotheists created one of the more accomplished civilizations, but I cringe every time I start reading about the greatness of Islamic civilization.  I know that what I’m about to read will take a great deal of space belaboring the barbarism, illiteracy, and stupidity of Europe.  And it does, every time.

Can we just lay off the shortcomings of the West for a while, dammit?  After all, writing had already been invented before our civilization started, so we couldn’t have invented it no matter how ingenious we were.  As for zero, that’s a rare accomplishment.  Not having come up with it on our own doesn’t make the West stand out negatively among the dozen or so civilizations of world history.  Pick any breakthrough, and most of the world’s civilizations will not have developed it independently.

I’ll repeat what I said before:  the most astounding accomplishment of any civilization is its very existence, the fact that it created a distinct way of human life.  We should never let ourselves think that our worth as a people depends on these silly accomplishment competitions.