Category: Religion

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.

And:

COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

And:

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And:

COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

Is marrying your cousin bad for democracy?

The title of the paper is “The Churches’ Bans on Consanguineous Marriages, Kin-Networks and Democracy” and the author is Jonathan F. Schulz, here is the abstract:

This paper tests the hypothesis that extended kin-groups, as characterized by a high level of cousin marriages, impact the proper functioning of formal institutions. Consistent with this hypothesis I find that countries with high cousin marriage rates exhibit a weak rule of law and are more likely autocratic. Further evidence comes from a quasi-natural experiment. In the early medieval ages the Church started to prohibit kin-marriages. Using the variation in the duration and extent of the Eastern and Western Churches’ bans on consanguineous marriages as instrumental variables, reveals highly significant point estimates of the percentage of cousin marriage on an index of democracy. An additional novel instrument, cousin-terms, strengthens this point: the estimates are very similar and do not rest on the European experience alone. Exploiting within country variation support these results. These findings point to the importance of marriage patterns for the proper functioning of formal institutions and democracy.

I recall reading related ideas in the MR comments section from Steve Sailer and others.  For the pointer I thank Alexander B.

Tis’ the season to be jolly?, or Who needs the child tax credit?

…interest in sex peaks sharply online during major cultural and religious celebrations, regardless of hemisphere location. This online interest, when shifted by nine months, corresponds to documented human births, even after adjusting for numerous factors such as language and amount of free time due to holidays. We further show that mood, measured independently on Twitter, contains distinct collective emotions associated with those cultural celebrations. Our results provide converging evidence that the cyclic sexual and reproductive behavior of human populations is mostly driven by culture and that this interest in sex is associated with specific emotions, characteristic of major cultural and religious celebrations.

That is from Ian B. Wood, et.al., in Nature, via Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also refers me to a new paper arguing that “the company” came before and stimulated the development of “the economist.”

*Between Quran & Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities*

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

*Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity*

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

India marriage markets in everything

India’s government has expanded a scheme offering payment incentives to Hindus who marry members of the country’s poorest and most oppressed caste, the Dalits.

A scheme introduced in 2013 offered 250,000 rupees (£2,900) to encourage Hindus from higher castes to marry members of the “untouchable” community, in the hope that it would help to remove the stigma of intercaste marriage and foster greater social cohesion.

To qualify, the annual income of the spouse from the high caste had to be less than 500,000 rupees (‎£5,800).

The government envisaged about 500 such marriages annually, but less than 100 have taken place each year.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment announced it would scrap the income ceiling, and said all couples in which one spouse is from the Dalit caste would receive the cash incentive.

Here is the article, via Eric D., also read the last few paragraphs.

My Conversation with Sujatha Gidla

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

War dissolves customs

…the role of wars in dealing the coup de grace to lingering customs is quite remarkable.  Contemporary observers noted this development without comment or simply attributed it directly to the catastrophe.  But war was less a cause of change than a precipitant of changes already under way.  Edgar Morin makes precisely this point when he writes that in the parish of Plodémet “the war of 1914 accelerated and amplified most of the processes set off in 1880-1900.”  Like the Great Revolution in peasant parlance, the Great War became a symbolic dividing line between what once was and what is, so that informants in a survey used terms like jadis and avant de guerre interchangeably.  Yet wars are not watersheds for customs, but difficult times in which people are forced to focus on essential matters and come to see things differently.  Many festive customs were not necessarily suspended by the Great War.  In the countryside, mourning was almost as universal as hardship; two years for parents, one for siblings.  There were few pigs to slaughter, no festive family meals, no public festivities.  And after the war there was the great influenza epidemic.  By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives.  Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten.

That is from Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.

Why isn’t the Indian caste system more protested in the United States?

About one-sixth of India is Dalits, or “Untouchables.”  And while Western criticisms of caste segregation are a long-standing observation about India, I hardly hear serious complaints over the last two decades or so.  In contrast, the apartheid system of South Africa met with demonstrations, boycotts, campus activism, frequent dialogue, and so on.  Why don’t we see some modified version of the same for the Indian caste system?  No matter how you compare its relative oppression to that of South Africa, it still seems like a massive system of unjust and opportunity-destroying segregation, and an efficiency-loser as well.  Here are a few hypotheses, not intended as endorsements but rather speculations:

1. The caste system is simply too difficult for most Americans to understand, whereas apartheid could be represented more readily in what I dare not call simple black and white terms.

2. Most of the Indians who migrate to the United States are higher caste or at least middling caste, and they sway American opinions of India in a way that South African migrants to the USA never did.

3. Libertarians don’t want to focus on the caste system because it persists without active government support being the main driver.  Democrats don’t want to focus on the caste system because Indian-Americans are often leading supporters and donors.  It doesn’t feel like a Republican issue either.  So who is there to push this one for domestic ideological reasons?

4. Talking about the caste system makes harder the (justified, I should add) program of raising the status of non-minority whites in America.

5. Talking about the caste system would focus light on caste-based discrimination in the United States, and distract attention from other domestic issues.

What else?  Overall I find this a disappointing topic to ponder.  Perhaps all politics, like envy, really is local after all.

I am indebted to Sujatha Gidla for a useful conversation on this topic.  My formal Conversation with her will be up in a bit, I still recommend her book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Montesquieu’s *Persian Letters*

There is a new edition out, edited and translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.  This eighteenth century bestseller could hardly be more relevant today.  Is it possible to lead a philosophic life?  How do political leadership and wisdom intersect?  How do Christianity and Islam differ politically?  How does politics reflect gender relations in a society?  Is there a case for optimism in modernity?  I still am not sure we have improved on Montesquieu’s investigations, although I cannot claim he gives us final answers.  This is a volume of polyphony, with travel as a source of learning and liberation as a major theme throughout.

Harems play a role too, here are the final paragraphs from Roxane to her sultan master Usbek:

You were astonished not to find in me the ecstasies of love.  If you had known me well, you would have found in me all the violence of hatred.

But you have had for a long time the advantage of believing that a heart such as mine was submissive to you.  We were both happy you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.

This language, without doubt, appears new to you.  Could it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with grief, I could still force you to admire my courage?  But it is done: poison consumes me; my strength abandons me; the pen falls from my hand; I feel even my hatred weaken; I am dying.

The introduction and notes are outstanding, and also of interest for those of you who are piqued by Straussianism.  You will note that the book was first published anonymously.

“Jokes in a serious work are acceptable on the condition that they hide a profound sense beneath a trivial form. It is in this way that Montesquieu, in his novel, Persian Letters, has written one of the most philosophical books of the eighteenth century.” – Alexis de Tocqueville [link]

I am pleased, by the way, to have once had the chance to spend two days with co-editor Stuart Warner discussing Persian Letters and nothing but (thank you again Liberty Fund!).  I cannot think of any person more qualified to have undertaken this endeavor.

You can order the volume here.

Which are the happiest castes?

There is a new paper on that topic by Bert Van Landeghem at Sheffield, here are the main results:

A large number of empirical studies have investigated the link between social status and happiness, yet in observational data identification challenges remain severe. This study exploits the fact that in India people are assigned a caste from birth. Two identical surveys of household heads (each with N=1000) in rural Punjab and Andhra Pradesh show an increasing pattern in economic welfare across the hierarchy of castes. This illustrates that at least in rural regions, one’s caste is still an important determinant for opportunities in life. Subsequently, we find that the castes at the top are clearly more satisfied than the lower and middle castes. This result, which is in line with predictions of all major social comparison theories, is robust across the two case studies. The pattern across low and middle castes, however, is less clear, reflecting the complex theoretical relationship between being of middle rank on the one hand, and behaviour, aspirations and well-being on the other hand. In the Punjab sample, we even find a significant U-shape, the middle castes being the least happy. Interestingly, these patterns resemble those found for Olympic Medalists (first documented by Medvec et al. 1995).

I am looking forward to my conversation with Sujatha Gidla.