[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Gregory Desilet info at gregorydesilet.com
Mon Nov 3 13:35:25 EST 2014

Lee—I agree with Ed. A very well written post that sharpens the lines of discussion. You make an excellent case for parallels between what you call the Christian Church and the Church of the Enlightenment. This is also a claim that has been made by Karen Armstrong against the New Atheists (who I’ve argued are both wrong in significant ways—but this is not the place for that discussion; for those interested there is more on this theme here: http://www.amazon.com/Radical-Atheism-New-Spirituality-Metaphysical-ebook/dp/B005ZJJLDI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415037845&sr=1-1&keywords=Desilet+Radical+Atheism).

As well as you make your case, though, I think you are misunderstanding where I am coming from. I have no dog in the fight between the naturalists and the supernaturalists. Though I lean toward the naturalist position, I am still open to the possibility of the supernatural (but I would argue there is really nothing that exists that is “supernatural” because if it exists wouldn’t it be in an important sense “natural”?). I don’t see much evidence for it (the supernatural) but then I have not had all the experiences there are to have. I don’t think any of us fully understands what is “natural” sufficiently well to make hard claims about what is possible in nature and what is not.  

So I disagree when you say this about me: “As a good member of that church [the Church of the Enlightenment], or so I imagine you to be, you wish to continue to exorcise the demon of "belief in the supernatural" from the thought and policy of societies and government.” I draw the lines a little differently.

Belief in the supernatural is not my target. In my view, the lines needing to be drawn are between accountability and unaccountability regarding authority. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that societies and governments do not fare well when authority is unaccountable. In this regard, divinely inspired texts are within the circle of my target but are not the sole target. Here I think Bob misunderstands me as well when he suggests that I am “interested in finding the motivation of authoritarianism and locate it in the belief that text X is divinely inspired.” I don’t believe such texts are the sole source or perhaps even the primary source of motivation for authoritarianism. But I do believe that as soon as a group of people believes a text to be the word of God it amounts to stepping on a banana peel and initiates a skid straight into authoritarianism. And there may also be a bundle of motivations involved in believing a text to be divinely inspired, but one clear consequence is authoritarianism—even where the text in question may claim to be, as you claim for the New Testament, anti-authoritarian. You can’t fight the authoritarian fire with more fire. And the history of the Catholic Church as an institutional religion perfectly illustrates this.

I was raised Catholic and I also find the current Pope to be a somewhat agreeable figure. But the interesting steps he has taken since becoming Pope have all been steps toward the de-sacralization, de-divinization of the Bible insofar as he has opened the Bible to interpretation by human agents such as himself. And I suspect he will also get around to altering Church dogma on the infallibility of the Pope! All of these steps are steps toward making the authority of the Church accountable—which is to say, subject to human revision, correction, and oversight.

To repeat my position, the health of human community and governing authority is very much contingent on adopting the view that all persons are created equal and all texts are created equal. This ensures that every authority figure and every authoritative text (law) is accountable—subject to revision and modification by other human actors.

Initially in this series of posts I targeted religion because I expressed an interest in Burke’s alignment of religion and fascism—the latter as a perversion of key elements of the former. I argued that the “perversion” comes into play in those cases where the religion is practiced by way of adherence to a text claimed to be of divine source.

There are cases, such as that of the Catholic Church mentioned above, where the religion in question, historically based on claims that its text is the word of God, adopts what is essentially the position that a text is accountable and therefore subject to human interpretation. When, for example, Pope Francis says, referencing the Book of Genesis, that God is not “a wizard with a magic wand”—this must be understood as making the text accountable. Here the Pope makes the Bible accountable to science. (Search “the Pope and Genesis” to see the hell his views are raising in Christian circles).  

This is a positive development with respect to moving toward a healthier culture of authority that at the same time undermines the consequences of believing a text to be in any significant way the words of a divinity. Along these lines, it has always been my belief that Jesus becomes a greater force of anti-authoritarianism when viewed as a man and a spiritual philosopher rather than the son of God. Too much ugly political and spiritual mischief has resulted from believing him, literally, to be the son of God.

My arguments here do not speak against belief in the supernatural. Instead they speak only against using the supernatural as a basis for earthly authority. And, to repeat, with regard to earthly authority, there are many other ways to justify making such authority unaccountable other than by way of grounding it in supernatural authority. But the latter has been a very popular and successful means of doing so throughout history and therefore the conversation Burke opens to this phenomenon by discussing how and when fascism and religion are closely related is worthwhile. This may be one reason why the Catholic Church never took an openly opposed stance against Nazism and, as many have illustrated, was arguably seduced by its radical authoritative stance and consequently complicit in many of its actions. 


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