Journalism vs. Wisdom, part I

To reduce things upfront, you can think of this series as footnotes to the opposition between the Greek Sophists and Socrates, respectively.

Why do I call this blog “ad absurdum”?  I don’t cheer those who caricature opponents, but there is something to be said for those who try to boil down their own views in good faith to opponents who’d otherwise waste time trying to “pin” them down. The secular study of religion depends on this approach, but advocating a methodology is never as easy as pitching an idea. So, what’s “to be said” will mostly wait for the next post. What I want to review here is an ongoing trend of criticism which seems the opposite of my approach, an effusive rhetorical criticism of what some now call the regressive Left.
In an article published earlier today, Jamie Palmer perfectly diagnosed a pervasive problem in modern journalism, beginning with a quote which I will neglect to source:

if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one.

My own motives may be suspect if I told you the source upfront. We all tend to navigate the daily “feed” of news stories, commentary, and the figures who we associate with one type or another, by a kind of smell. Someone who supports an outsider may smell musty, until we realize some horrible truths about the insiders, in which case the outsider smells like fresh fruit. A distasteful critic smells like bad milk, unless you listen long enough to find a small bit of sympathy for their point of view. Like music, sometimes a point of view takes a few listens before you can properly “hear” what is being laid out for you.

The underlying difference between journalism and all other forms of literature or conversation is its limits. In some places, limitation is praised by association with economics, or being “economical.” Periodical publications depend on what is popular at the time, and typically edit for the sake of short attention spans. Relevance is important, the confluence of news events and the urgency of one issue above another is always worth considering, even apart from sales. But, as Palmer hints in her article, there is a strange tactic that seems rewarded in the compulsive arena nurtured by, for lack of a better word, “clickbait.” That is, find someone making an unpopular argument, short-cut to the worst impression an outsider might have, use that to make a scandalous accusation, and then make sure that you beat this person to any punches by accusing them of doing precisely what you have just done.-d6132a89bafb5220

Much can be said about this tactic being used in the current presidential primary races, in
both parties. Politicians are caught between trying to appeal to “values” and appealing to “coverage.” Jorge Ramos may have been right in saying the rise of Trump was a failure of journalism, just as many public intellectuals are saying of Hillary Clinton and her strategic evasion of unplanned publicity. What makes it disturbing to the relative intellectual underground is that it’s been latent for many long years. Problems in the academic system itself are what led to popular science writing as a market in the first place, going back at least as far as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman’s views on teaching. These problems, of content and reform, are structured by economic circumstances, the entire framework of how professionals depend on CV’s/resumes, letters of recommendation, and an otherwise distinguished reputation that holds them at a distance from the students, colleagues, or laymen who might approach them with any question or comment.
My own work in studying religion could on one hand be seen as jealous and incompetent (ex: see my comment on the Religious Studies Project), and it’s likely that I’ll face that criticism as soon as I receive any prominent recognition. But I want to continue Palmer’s critique of the way Omer Aziz accuses Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz of trying to capitalize on a hot-button issue. In reality, it’s the moderates who make the easiest profit by slandering philosophers in a way that appeals to the uninformed.


For this first round of Journalism vs. Wisdom  I want to turn toward a character who just last year was a viral sensation. As an academic, he may survive the silence and resurface when the cultural opportunity presents itself.

“I have a Ph.D. in the history of religions,” Reza Aslan famously told Fox news, belaboring his articulation in order to exaggerate his condescension. I loved it, most liberals loved it. He was the next Jeremy Glick, a rare voice of reason tearing down the Potemkin set of a Fox News show. Unfortunately, Aslan’s claims about himself were simply false, and I’ll go on to explain why his comments on other areas are almost equally false.

Aslan has two masters degrees, one in theology and the other in creative fiction, which go very well together. His Ph.D. is in sociology. What’s concerning to me is the silence of the academic community on this fact "oh, is my shirt unbuttoned again?"(with the exception of Elizabeth Castelli, who explained in The Nation how his “cringeworthy” rhetoric and writing style betray a “reader” rather than researcher). The only explanation may be that Religious Studies is still a fledgling discipline, and it’s possible that any publicity is good publicity for department chairs across the country. Attractive guy, ain’t he?

“We would all be better off if we learned more about religion itself”

I take issue with this quote just the same. What is It?  Religion has no definition except the literal translation of the word: re-attachment. If religion prescribes no world views or morals, there is nothing for religion to reattach us to. Aslan puts all of his effort into mystifying religion simply to play up his credentials as a sophisticated scholar. But, again, this salesman’s trick flatters the academic world. As Yale anthropologist David Graeber has noted, the old Foucault mantra that “knowledge is power” has frequently been appropriated “by scholars who find themselves trapped in extremely hierarchical but also well-paid academic environments who are in no way involved with social movements, but wish to think of themselves as actually more radical than those who are.”

Naturally, my own problems with academia have to do with the fact that most philosophical discussions of religion take place outside of universities. It’s the detailed analysis of dates, names, rituals, sects, written theologies, etc. which are taught and discussed in classrooms, but public funding for this comparative discipline is always placed in political jeopardy when the public grows suspicious that taxpayers and students are subsidizing Marxist critiques of religion.

“It is really the single most basic idea about religion, that it marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with.”

By contact we have to assume he means prolonged exposure. He’s of course defending Islam here, but even the “most basic idea” can be wrong because religion has few standard applicable criteria. It’s just as difficult to compare bobsledding, wrestling, and badminton under the definition of sports.
Any element of culture becomes entangled with other cultures when people have to reconcile one mental disposition with another. Christopher Columbus, a self-described missionary of Christ, certainly didn’t apply Christianity to his encounters with natives. Neither did the Church embrace the spiritual revolution of the 1960’s. In other words, religion never stoops to lower versions of itself, which is why the Romans called the first Christians “atheists”. Only in the sense of arranged marriages, treating wives as property, is “marriage” a relevant term: religion, because of its role in anchoring us to the divine, can’t escape its own requirement that other forms of culture have to make sense within its worldview.

These public appearances were part of a publicity tour for Zealot (which Castelli described as a “remix”), a somewhat respectably detailed account of what we know about the life of Jesus. The footnotes earn him enough academic credit to get by, though none of those footnotes reference a book published six years earlier, called Jesus of Nazareth, by Paul Verhoeven. To repeat this theme of insider versus outsider, Verhoeven studied math and physics in college. He went on to become a famous filmmaker, meanwhile participating as the only non-religious panelist in the “Jesus Seminar,” a diverse group of scholars and theologians who tried to reach some consensus on who the historical Jesus was. How did this racy action film director manage to join? He spent most of his life doing the research himself, out of the simple spiritual fascination of a storyteller. I intensely recommend that you at least read an excerpt of his account. Aslan must have found it a perfectly easy opportunity to adapt an outsider’s book and re-sell it with his credentials: Verhoeven’s token comparison for Jesus is with Che Guevara; before him, outsiders Kazantzakis and Martin Scorsese depicted Jesus calling himself “the saint of blasphemy.” Aslan simply summarized these insights with the word “Zealot”—61fnnphatdl-_sx331_bo1204203200_harmless if he had credited any of these or other cultural explorations of the historical context of the Jesus story (Jose Sarmago, for instance). But it seems academics can only ever reference other academics.

“if we had a better understanding … of what religion actually is, its malleability, its historical construction, then I think we would be in a better place to criticize those aspects of religion that deserve criticism.”

To my knowledge, Aslan has never directly confronted any aspect of religion that deserves criticism, other than the occasions where people take it literally. With that in mind, it’s clear that the academic perspective of knowledge as wealth classifies religion as something having more to do with literature and the arts, rather than anything philosophical–which is ironic, considering the “most basic” sociological definition of religion was offered by Peter Berger in 1962: religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.
How could that not end up being philosophically or politically ideological?

“[Sam Harris] knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.”

The point of studying neuroscience, as a philosopher, is that you can apply it to the thoughts and experiences that people have. When Harris criticizes the brain surgeon Eben Alexander, who said his expertise gave “Proof of Heaven,” nobody was interested in Harris’ neuroscience background. It doesn’t matter who is supposedly qualified, journalism favors those who make the most aesthetic claims or arguments.

The unspoken side of everything Aslan says is that you are unsophisticated and unworthy if you interpret religion differently from him. Again, it’s an invocation of the authority of the academic study of religion–something which seems distinguished only when he holds it over the heads of laymen. Meanwhile, I’ve never witnessed a discussion between religious studies academics (or members of any social science for that matter) that wasn’t already swimming in a broth of irony about our struggle to escape the “soft science” slur.

“You bring your morals and your values to the scriptures; you don’t extract them from them.”

Jesus said none can reach the Father except through Him, and he introduced the idea of Hell, which was not in the Old Testament. Islam developed its major characteristics in part because of a prohibition of idols, which applies as much to Western culture as putting faces on street signs or getting distracted by a woman’s face. Much has been observed, documented, and explained about the effects of Hindu beliefs on culture, such as the way the caste system has allowed men in the Ksatriya class to rape and murder Dalit women with relative impunity. No, the scriptures do not always condone violence or discrimination, and yes the politics of colonialism made the class system more rigid. But the doctrine of reincarnation is central to Hinduism, and the Bhagavad Gita implies (as much as any Abrahamic historical text) that the pain of war is superficial compared to the perpetually obscured plans of the divine. In other words, all is justice under God’s eyes. Religious beliefs imply the grounds for certain practices and cultural values by framing the world in particular terms–terms which are unchangeable to believers, but mystical and abstract to academics. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word sacred means, in practice. Furthermore, Aslan makes not even the slightest effort to offer a counter explanation of where values originate.

Having a genuine sense of curiosity about another person’s point of view is the basis of why I got into religious studies–but Aslan doesn’t seem to get this feeling with anyone. He also joins Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who slander Sam Harris as racist and Islamaphobic. This was the general background to Jamie Palmer’s article that I referenced at the beginning. Harris’s most referenced, most tangibly true, mistake was a public statement hypothetically endorsing profiling in airport security. What does a terrorist look like?  Certainly, Arab, we guess at first thought. Images of Sikhs, (mistaken for their turbans) or otherwise friendly brown-skinned folks, are the natural counter-examples that come to mind. No, we should not profile people who seem Muslim in the same sense that the NYPD or Baltimore police profile blacks for street crime. Again, naturally seems Harris is overlooking all of this, and that is why he’s called racist.

Having worked for two years at an airport, going through TSA before clocking in each day, pos8b-1-webwatching my customers come through TSA during the entire shift, all I can say is it’s obvious to me (as it is to many others) that the Department of Homeland Security operates by the same superficial bureaucratic authority as many other flawed institutions, including the now hotly debated Democratic establishment. Security protocol is a dressed up roulette; to the extent there is discrimination, it’s a $1 Billion list of suspicious traits sold by academic psychologists, which comically mirror common traits of anyone putting themselves through the anxiety of airline travel.
Truly, the United States has an unflattering record of conflating immigrant races with ideological enemies. The classic example is Irish Catholics: electing Kennedy as president was a final blow to the notion that the Irish were an insurgent anti-democratic group, beholden to the Pope.  During WWI, all Germans (the largest immigrant group at the time) were suspected anarchists, and German language newspapers and school instruction were virtually outlawed.
But all of this strays very far from a very simple set of observable facts. My grandmother, the widow of an Air Force Colonel (a man who wrote a master’s thesis on the military failures of Iraq, a man who worked in intelligence operations during Vietnam) has been pulled aside for special screening multiple times. I’ve seen similar things happen very often, disabled people asked to get out of their wheelchairs, all for the appearance of “blind justice.”  The fact is that security has nothing to do with justice, it has to do with prevention. Discrimination in screening is different from discrimination in common policing: it’s the difference between incarceration, between incurring a criminal record, and simply being asked to step aside for a few extra moments. Granted, the debate is slightly more complicated, but we have been absolved from hearing the rest of that debate by those who prefer a knee-jerk reaction to things which seem racist at first glance.

The ultimate point of contrasting journalism and wisdom is the same point Socrates was ultimately making when he taught free logic lessons in the streets of Athens. The Sophists taught the “wisdom” of how to join the upper class, how to use rhetoric and treat “truth” as an art form (much as Reza Aslan and other mystics suggest it is, at least when it comes to religion).
Socrates was (likely) wrong about the afterlife, wrong about many other things. But there is an obvious, serious difference between making unwarranted, loaded assertions (aided by a cocktail of two old rhetorical fallacies: ad hominem, and from authority) and, on the other hand, simply asking naive questions about things that affect us all.


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