Thursday, July 30, 2009

John Scheid and scholarly biases in the study of Paganism

In his book An Introduction to Roman Religion, John Scheid ("widely respected as one of the most original as well one of the most authoritative historians of Roman religion" - quote taken from the BMCR review here) writes that
Since the mid-nineteenth century, when it first became the subject of specialist research, the study of Roman religion has been affected by a variety of influences. Christianity, in particular, has often provided the yardstick by which it has been judged. The fact that it had been under the Roman Empire that Christianity developed seemed to justify the generally disparaging judgement passed on traditional Roman ritualistic polytheism. It seemed to support the notion that a 'superior', 'true' religion had triumphed over an 'inferior' one, and to justify writing of the 'conversion' of the Romans.
[pp. 4-5]
Scheid then goes on to list three specific ways in which this Christianizing bias has strongly colored the scholarly study of Roman religion:

1. Roman religion was characterized as "decadent" and "cold": "This approach was very much due to the sway of German idealism." The main idea here is that Roman religion failed to meet people's spiritual needs, thus explaining the supposed ease with which Christianity triumphed. To illustrate this, Scheid quotes Theodor Mommsen's 1854 The History of Rome:
... the forms of the Roman faith remained at, or sunk to, a singularly low level of conception and insight ... [The religion of Rome] was unable to excite the mysterious awe after which the human heart is always longing, or thoroughly to embody the incomprehensible and even malignant elements in nature and in man ... The Latin religion sank into an incredible insipidity and dullness, and early became shrivelled into an anxious and dreary round of ceremonies.
[pp. 6-7]
2. Roman religion was characterized as "swamped with foreign cults". According to Scheid, this view "was pushed to such absurd extremes that even the triad of Capitoline deities (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), the guardian Gods of the Roman state, were represented as being of 'foreign' origin."

3. Roman religion was characterized as not "pure". According to Scheid, the study of Roman religion has been marred by "the Romantic concept of closed, 'pure' cultures and by the idea of decadence -- as if true Roman religion only existed before its contamination by decadent imports from the outside." In opposition to this "Romantic" vision of Roman religion, Scheid insists that "the idea that one might be able to reconstruct a 'pure', unadulterated state of Roman religion is itself a modern myth."

Scheid is not without his own biases, though. He himself uncritically perpetuates a number of false notions about religion in general, and Roman religion and Christianity in particular. And despite Scheid's correct identification of some of the errors that others have made as a result of using Christianity as a "yardstick", Scheid's own errors have the same cause.

Briefly here are the five most obvious such errors:

1. Roman Paganism "was a religion without revelation." (p. 18)

2. Roman Paganism "involved no initiation and no teaching." (p. 19)

3. "Those who did not enjoy the same social status could not belong to the same religious community." (p. 19)

4. "It was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other 'non-religious' social relations." (p. 19)

5. Late antique Roman Paganism was in a state of marked decline. Traditional religion had largely disappeared from most of the populace except for the elites, who had transformed it "into a kind of philosophising religion." (p. 191)

Each of these errors opens up its own quite substantial can of worms. I list them here now, in hopes of being able to return to them later, to at least make it clear that I am not giving some sort of open-ended endorsement of everything Scheid has to say - like any work of solid scholarship, Scheid's book must be approached with a critical eye and mind.

Finally here are two sizeable excerpts from Greg Wolf's BMCR review of Scheid's book (also linked to above), focussing on Scheid's "methodological charter":
Scheid's own stated methodological preference is for an historical anthropology of Roman religion. Study should proceed through careful case studies, each based on "a detailed analysis of all aspects of the ritual" in Dumézilian mode. Those familiar with Scheid's scholarly publications will not be surprised to see that anthropology takes priority over history. Put otherwise, the study of constants precedes the discussion of variables. Where this matters least is in discussion of the rich evidence for cult from the last generation of the Republic and the earliest imperial centuries. The density of evidence, especially for the cults of the City, allows rich interpretations to be developed, especially for scholars such as Scheid (not that there are many others) who are equally happy with Ciceronian theology, votive inscriptions and sanctuary archaeology....

Anthropologists are forever discovering history and historians anthropology. Many anthropologists are now preoccupied above all with the study of change, and have produced detailed critiques of the practices of writing and conceptualization that their predecessors employed to construct "ancestral traditions" and "ethnographic presents". Those of us to whom Scheid's championing of historical anthropology seems the only sane way to go beyond the catalogue in the study of Roman religion, maybe need to import this new anthropological sensibility into our own studies. It is to be hoped Scheid's textbook, with its bold methodological charter will entice many more students to engage in just such a project.

Why they hate Francis Collins

I was curious to see how the crowd over at was reacting to the Collins nomination. What I found was that many of them are in agreement with Sam Harris that Francis Collins, and apparently all evangelical Christians, should be barred from holding the position of Director of NIH. Here are a number of the comments left by registered users at Dawkins' "Clear Thinking Oasis" on teh internets:

"someone holding such irrational beliefs is not the right person to run the NIH"

Scot Rafkin:
"Yes, he should be disqualified."

"It would be nice if scientists were not influenced by the cultures in which they grew up, but sadly such is not the case for all of them. It is those strong cultural predilections that make Collins unfit to head the NIH."

Scot Rafkin (again):
"Collins shouldn't be running the NIH even if he knows the science."

"he (Collins) will always be suspect in my opinion. It's a bias on my part I know but I can't help it."

I won't belabor my disgust with Collins."

I have emailed both of my Senators requesting they vote against this nomination."

phil rimmer:
"If Collins maintains that evolution is purposeful then he sets himself out of the mainstream of scientific theory with this thumpingly unscientific, unproveable view. This is a SCIENTIFIC mark against him and can have repercussions on the decisions he may make."

"it's not just his science but his rationality that's in question."

Steve Zara:
"Francis Collins is a deluded ranting idiot who should not be allowed public use of a stapler, let alone all of USA health policy."

there's risk if this person is that nuts, sooner or later he's gonna prove to be incapable of reason in some other sphere."

"We're not suggesting a religious litmus test, but a rationality litmus test. A logic litmus test."

As the last comment especially shows, some of these folks are squeamish about what they are proposing, so they insist there is no "religious litmus test", despite the fact that their supposed "rationality" litmus test automatically, and explicitly, excludes Collins on the basis of his religious beliefs.

Richard Dawkins himself weighs in with this: "Isn't he disqualified, not by whether or not he leaves his beliefs outside the laboratory and the committee room, but by the very fact that he is capable of holding such beliefs at all?"

So what is going on here? The Dawkins gang claims to be all about science, truth, reason, etc. But really it is nothing but a cult of personality headed up by a man who modestly thinks of himself as "The most formidable intellect in public discourse." Like all creepy personality cults, Dawkins' is based on blind acceptance of things that are not true. Of these beliefs, perhaps the one most tightly clung to is that "science and religion are incompatible."

To Dawkins, Harris & Co., when Francis Collins says "I believe" that statement alone, coming from a scientist of Collins' stature, constitutes the same kind of existential threat as the one faced by the Pope when Galileo pronounced "it moves". In both cases these are things that an eminent scientist must not be allowed to say, because, well, because ..... Because if such things are said by respected scientists, then they might actually have some validity!

And so Dawkins and Harris and their ilk must lead their droogies in the solemn ritual of the "two minute hate" with Francis Collins playing the part of Emmanuel Goldstein.

The purpose of such an exercise is not to change anyone's mind, but merely to reinforce the already established conditioned response. The bell is rung, the doggies drool.

The rantings of the New Atheists are not intended to appeal to reason, but to emotion. One can only engage in rational debate with those who are capable of reasoning, and by definition, according to Richard Dawkins, those "who are capable of holding such beliefs" as those held by Francis Collins, are thereby pronounced inherently incapable of any kind of reasoning or logic.

Without blinking, much less thinking, the loyal atheists eagerly accept what they are told to accept by their dear leaders: that one of the world's most acclaimed scientists is incapable of "thinking like a scientist"!

And speaking of loyal followers, Sam Harris, who is the Lieutenant Elroy Carpenter to Dawkins' Captain Binghamton, is the guy who really got this ball rolling with his NYT op-ed piece attacking Collins. Harris has actually had Collins in his sights for a while now. For those of you who don't know, he became completely unhinged when he wrote a review of Francis Collins' 2006 book The Language of God.

In the first paragraph of the review Harris calls the book "vile". In that opening paragraph Harris, a man who makes his living by writing, actually wrote this sentence about Collins: "He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes." While spewing this kind of histrionic bilge, Harris actually proclaims that he speaks on behalf of all those who care "about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States."

In the second paragraph Harris predicts "lasting harm to our discourse" because of the evil Francis Collins and his vile book. Harris' concern for "our discourse" is getting a little creepy at this point - I half expect to hear him say something about an "international conspiracy to cause irreparable damage to our intellectual discourse and to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids". But soon Harris has shifted to the main menu: mocking Collins' religious beliefs more directly.

Collins' personal account of a spiritual turning point in his life seems to be particularly offensive to Harris and many other New Atheists. They are especially appalled at the idea that anyone could find not only beauty in nature, but the image of the Divine in that beauty. Someone really needs to sit these boys down and explain to them the difference between Atheism and Philistinism, and also maybe introduce them to Plato while they're at it.

It is important to be clear about Sam Harris' motive in his review. It is not at all simply a matter of critiquing ideas he does not agree with. Harris is consumed by a Manichean megalomania that would give Girolamo Savonarola a run for his money. In addition to multiple dire warnings about the fate of "our discourse" we are also warned about grave dangers posed to "the stature of science in the United States" and even "the fate of American society" itself. Collins is not just wrong, he is not just guilty of "intellectual misconduct", he has brought discredit on us all: all Americans "should be ashamed" that such books are produced in our country!

Sam Harris, who isn't qualified to teach a remedial science class in middle school, nevertheless believes that he is qualified to weigh in on the intellectual merits of a man like Francis Collins. The sad fact is that Harris is almost completely innocent of any understanding of either science or religion, much less how they do or nor not relate to each other. The same is true, at least with respect to religion, for Richard Dawkins who basically brags about his ignorance of the world's many different religions in his The God Delusion, a book whose title instantly reveals just how myopically ethnocentric Dawkins' grasp of "religion" is.

Harris and Dawkins share a simple agenda: to stigmatize ideas they don't agree with and to ostracize the people who hold those ideas, especially those who dare to actively promote those ideas. In doing so these "New Atheists" besmirch the good name of atheists who have traditionally been champions of religious tolerance and diversity. And the New Atheists actually help provide ammunition to the very Christians they attack, who already whine on cue and howl "intolerance!" anytime someone makes a legitimate criticism of their religion.

And that is a point that shouldn't be lost in all this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with criticizing Francis Collins' religious beliefs. In fact, many of the basic tenets of Christian theology, including (but not limited to) the Trinity, the Incarnation, Creation Ex Nihilo, Eternal Damnation, and Original Sin, are demonstrably illogical and in some cases arguably offensive. But those who can't tell the difference between critiquing a person's beliefs and blacklisting people from government jobs on the basis of their beliefs, are in no position to decry, even if they were able to recognize, the logical or moral failings of others.

Gates' arrest raises serious constitutional issues

A growing number of voices are weighing in on the freedom of speech issues raised by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates for "disorderly conduct".

An analysis piece published in the Los Angeles Times looks at whether or not citizens of the United States of America have "a right to mouth off to the police." On that point, it turns out, opinions differ.

Maureen Dowd starts off her column on the subject with the declaration "Being obnoxious is not a crime."

In this column Christopher Hitchens talks about a recent incident in which he was the target of verbal abuse by a police officer who, Hitchens points out, "was wearing a uniform that I helped pay for." He ends with a characteristic Hitchensian rant:
Race or color are second-order considerations in this, if they are considerations at all. I was once mugged by a white man on the Lower East Side of New York, and then, having given my evidence, was laboriously shown a whole photo album of black "perps" at the local station house. The absurdity of the exercise lay not just in the inability of a half-trained and uncultured force to believe what I was telling them, but in the certainty that their stupidity was helping the guilty party to make a getaway. Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn't have the presence of mind to do so, that needn't inhibit the rest of us.
In a blog entry at the Huffington Post, civil liberties attorney Harvey Grossman is highly critical of the "middle ground" approach that seeks to place equal blame on Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley:
The parties are apparently going to affirm that perspective with a beer at the White House. This is a calming resolution, but it sends the wrong message about the proper role of law enforcement under our Constitution ....

Everyone knows that as prudent people we ordinarily should not get "lippy" with a police officer, but Professor Gates is not guilty of violating that maxim. He was standing up for his rights. The Constitution protects our right to protest injustice, including on those occasions when we are the victims. Gates was exercising his rights and Crowley violated them.
This is not an abstract issue. Just last Saturday night a Washington DC attorney was arrested, he claims, simply because he said, loudly and within earshot of a group of police officers, "I hate the police." Pepin Tuma claims that one of the officers took particular exception to this constitutionally protected expression of opinion, and not only called Pepin a "faggot" but physically abused him while placing him under arrest for, you guessed it, disorderly conduct.

Finally, in my opinion it is wrong for Hitchens to insist on minimizing the roll that race plays in this. Gates was justified in thinking that he was being "profiled" because he is Black. But even if it could be proved (and its far from clear how one would go about doing this) that Gates was not being profiled, he was completely within his rights to voice that opinion and to do so, in his own home, in a way that the police officer in question didn't like.