Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature

To be decided

The Devil’s Empathy

Real life has called me to undertake several many hours-long drives this weekend and I’ve had plenty of time to listen to podcast interviews that have queued up on my thumb drive. One that I listened to on my way back home this afternoon was with psychologist Professor Paul Bloom who iconoclastically argues that empathy is not necessarily a good thing at all.

For the interview itself go to the Late Night Live site, Is Empathy Always a Good Thing. Philip Adams is a great interviewer.

The most current event that came to mind while listening to Bloom’s arguments was Donald Trump’s appeal to Americans to feel empathy for the families of persons murdered by “illegal immigrants”.

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Empathy can be (has long been!) a tool to justify persecution, war, genocide.

Go for compassion. Even Paul Bloom argues that compassion is the greatest moral good in us.

I was heartened to hear Bloom even put in a positive word for Peter Singer’s contribution to the moral advance of humanity. Singer has persuaded many of us, millions, yours truly included, to look at the data, the facts, before deciding where our contributions will do the most good. Don’t always rely on the cute images of suffering children that sway with empathy alone.

 

Are you “politically correct” or are you “an arsehole”?

I used to have this tireless insistence on sticking to my principles and changing for no-one.

If you don’t like me, fuck you! I know who I am and I know what I mean and I’m not responsible for other people’s interpretations. And if you can’t see my point of view, you’re just too dumb, or too sensitive, to understand it.

But the world doesn’t work that way. Your words and actions have real effects on the people around you, especially if you have a large public platform. And you should give a shit about the impact of your words and how you make other people feel even if you don’t agree with their reasoning.

Sam Harris would call this “political correctness”. I call it “not being an arsehole”.

T1J — 12:00-12:37 @….

Why are our enemies always so irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal and just plain nuts?

Another notice via Mano Singham of a worth-while article by a “politically conservative” writer, Stephen M. Walt. (Though I think Mano has mistakenly linked to an article about Walt’s article and not the Walt article itself.) Some of Walt’s words of wisdom as cited by Tom Boggioni …..

Noting a New York Times piece that marveled at Kim’s transformation, Walt dismissed it out of hand.

“America’s self-defeating tendency [is] to portray adversaries as irrational, crazy, deluded, risk-seeking, suicidal, or just plain nuts,” he wrote. “Instead of seeing foreign-policy disputes as the product of straightforward conflicts of interest or clashing political values, even well-experienced U.S. officials and knowledgeable pundits are prone to seeing them as a reflection of personality defects, paranoia, or distorted views of reality.”

“Similarly, many Americans continue to view international terrorists as deeply disturbed, irrational, deluded, or simply crazy individuals, instead of seeing them as politically motivated, calculating, and more or less rational actors who have adopted a particular tactic (sometimes including the use of suicide bombers) because they believe (with some basis) that it offers the best chance of realizing their political aims,” . . . . .

He then wrote,

“Some of the individual attackers may indeed be driven by wholly fictitious beliefs, but to dismiss these groups and their leaders as simply crazy underestimates their own resilience, strategic behavior, and capacity to adapt.”

It’s always been this way, hasn’t it? During the Cold War era weren’t we always being told how deluded the various liberation and anti-imperialist movements were — they had fallen for the crazy communist propaganda. And the Palestinians, too, are irrational, crazy, deluded, suicidal hate-filled terrorist lovers who just want to kill Jews. And as for those Muslims, well, ……

 

Free Will Debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris — and a plea to a third party…

I used to be fascinated by the question of free will. I still am, but it is some times since I have read the various debates. I see that Richard Carrier has posted a review of an online debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris at Dennett vs. Harris on Free Will that will be of interest to some.  (As you may guess from my recent post addressing Harris’s views on another matter, I think Sam Harris comes out as the less clear thinker in such a debate.)

I don’t know if I have Richard Carrier’s attention with this post but just on the off-chance I do, with well-meaning intention I would like to add another comment on an unrelated matter. Carrier writes:

In his response, after 200 words of introduction, Sam Harris first burns 600 words complaining about Dennett being mean to him, treating criticism as an affront to his dignity that requires elaborating on for some reason. This is not a good start. It is usually a red flag for not having an actual defense. It’s the sign of a hack: If you can’t rebut content, complain about tone.

And concludes with:

Maybe some day Harris will realize all the mistakes he made here, and how he may be making them elsewhere too. The outcome will be marvelous.

Richard Carrier knows what it is like to have critics treating him and his works unfairly, very unfairly, even falsely, “being [extremely] mean to him”. Richard is known not to shrink back from complaining about such treatment in some of his response. Now in Richard’s case complaining in such cases about “tone” is not a sign that he has no “actual defense” or that he is “a hack”. But that’s not how people tend to react. Complaining in the heat of the moment about tone and unfair treatment can create the impression of being shrill. It certainly robs one of the moral high ground one has just gained by being the subject of bitter and false accusations. That moral high ground becomes evident by a response that shows up one’s attackers for what they are. The moral high ground is clear for all when an unprofessional attack is confronted with a professional and civil response.

I think it is a shame that John Loftus (an anti-Christian polemicist) and Richard Carrier cannot work harmoniously and supportively together. Recently, for example, John Loftus in his post Dr. Wallace Marshall Highly Endorses David Marshall’s Book, “Jesus is No Myth” added this disappointing remark:

Richard Carrier thinks this book is bad to say the least, but I find Carrier to be shrill, very offensive and exaggerated in defense of his own work.

Richard, you know you have the method and logic on your side (generally) so there is no need to display anything but the sound method and logic of your arguments against the criticisms. People don’t “work” in an ideal righteous and rational world of our own liking. The most devastating and memorable critiques I have seen against unfair or obtuse critics come from scholars like Michael Goulder, for one, who always responded with scholarly but wry wit. The punch line usually came towards the end — leaving room for readers to be impressed by the devastating logical dismantling of the opponents.

Another scholar I like and who demonstrates calm, devastating critique in a scholarly manner is Crispin Fletcher-Louis. He has the ability to demonstrate, for example, that Larry Hurtado is an apologist some of whose arguments are without merit in the scholarly world by calm scholarly prose:

If, as we have argued here, the New Testament nowhere in fact presents direct evidence to support Hurtado’s account of religious experience in christological origins then, for his thesis to have any credence, he surely has to explain why it is that the early Christians buried the evidence for what really happened and created so thoroughgoing an alternative story.

Fletcher-Louis, C. (2009). A New Explanation of Christological Origins. Tyndale Bulletin, 45. pp. 200f

Ouch! That’s a professional way to say that Hurtado’s argument is baseless and flies in the face of all the evidence for which there are other far more cogent explanations, that Hurtado is arguing like an apologist despite his claims to be doing otherwise.

There are a number of points where I think Richard goes beyond the evidence, too, and that his main arguments would be stronger without some of those loose bricks. I have had to tidy up a few of my own in the past. But that’s not the main point here.

The main point is a plea to do a Saul to Paul turnabout. It’s okay for those “on the top” in the professional world to display their bigotry, bias and falseness. What puts the spotlight on those warts is a calm and scholarly and professional rebuttal of the content, ignoring the “tone”. The contrast is immediately evident. Those “on the bottom” of the pecking order can never afford to look like the aggressor or as if they are prepared to get as dirty as their opponents. I know. I sometimes in the past crossed the line in responses to a few critics whom I considered blatantly dishonest — and it always backfired.

End of plea.

 

Why We Connect Moral Judgments to God(s)

. . . . religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions 

How is it possible to live a moral life if we don’t believe in a god?

Without belief in God, some believers shriek hysterically, we would have no moral code. We would believe we would be free to kill and steal and do all sorts of other horrible things.

Christians, Muslims, Jews claim that their God gave humanity its moral laws or codes. Other believers attribute moral interests to their respective deities, too. Gods are so interested in the morality of our actions, we are told, that they will even punish or reward people according to whether they have been good or bad.

What follows is from a book first published a decade and a half ago so others more in the know may be able to contribute more current insights or simply alternative explanations. Pending those updates here is Pascal Boyer‘s explanation for why people connect moral interests to gods or spirits or ancestors that he set out in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer writes:

[W]e know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people’s moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to supernatural agency. Finally, even religious people’s thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than by codes and models. (p. 191)

Boyer begins by addressing the many cross-cultural studies that demonstrate beyond all doubt what all parents have always known: that even young children have moral intuitions. They don’t need to be taught by a thunderous voice from heaven that it is wrong to intentionally deceive someone else with misleading information. No-one taught my infant that it is wrong to lie before he  told his first lie with clear signs of associated guilt. Further, young children know the difference between “moral principles” and “conventional rules”. In a classroom, for example, they know the difference between shouting out in class and stealing someone’s pencil case. They also know that stealing an eraser is not as serious as hitting others.

Most significantly, they know that

social consequences are specific to moral violations. (p. 179)

If they forget or disregard an instruction not to leave their notebook beside the fireplace they will not be surprised or troubled by the worst consequences in the same way they expect to suffer social ostracism or condemnation for being caught stealing.

So experimental studies show that there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialized moral sense underlying ethical intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are easily distinguished by very young children). (p. 179)

There is something remarkable about such moral intuitions in the story of our development to maturity. Certain actions are seen as immoral for their own sake no matter what, and that understanding does not change into adulthood. Stealing an eraser is wrong, period. Now there might be circumstances where you, the thief, think stealing it is justified — the owner doesn’t care; its owner stole something from you earlier so stealing the eraser is rationalised as “just deserts”; etc. — but the fact remains we know that stealing the eraser is nonetheless a moral breach.

So it is all the more interesting that no such change is observed in the domain of moral intuitions. For the three-year-old as well as for the ten-year-old and indeed for most adults, the fact that a behavior is right or wrong is not a function of one’s viewpoint. It is only seen as a function of the actual behavior and the actual situation. (p. 180, my highlighting in all quotations)

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The Secret Power of Psychics, Astrologers, Tarot and Palm Readers . . . .

I used to do astrological birth charts for people and I thought I was pretty good at it. Each one required hours of work, too, since I was able to work with so much detail: sun signs, ascendants, house cusps, positive and negative angular relationships, etc etc etc. Even people who did not believe in astrology admitted that my birth chart readings were often accurate. Some sceptics, on the other hand, pushed what I considered to be an unreasonably narrow interpretation on what I had said to “disprove” my claim. My interest in the field was sparked by a hitch hiker I picked up one day while driving through “hippie” commune territory in northern Queensland: just like the Samaritan woman who was astonished when Jesus was able to tell her all about her life, so I was astonished that this stranger was so quickly able to tell me “all about myself”, even my time of birth. I had to find out how he did it and that eventually led me to believing I was investigating how astrology worked.

I was too smart, of course, in my own mind to believe that the planets had some sort of mystical powers on persons so I convinced myself that I was trying to understand the apparently hidden scientific reasons it “really worked”.

With that background I bookmarked Mano Singham’s blogpost, Are all mentalists frauds?, back in January this year and finally today I managed to catch up and read it.

[T]he psychology department chair called me into his office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down for doing palm reading, for taking people’s money under false pretenses, that there was nothing to this paranormal stuff, etc. I sat there listening to him and after he calmed down I said, “would you like me to read your palm?” So he stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left.

Two weeks later he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand out, and said “tell me more”!

This really showed me how powerful this stuff can be. — Ray Hyman in the interview.

Mano nails what lies at the core of their “powers”. At least what he says coheres perfectly with my own experience and explanation. At one point Mano quotes Ray Hyman, an erstwhile palm reader, in an interview with a psychologist:

By high school, even though I was a skeptic about most things, I believed in palm reading because it seemed plausible to me since the palm is physically connected with the body.

[T]he late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. . . . . She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had.

(My emphasis)

We see what we expect to see.

The scales began to fall from my own eyes when I faced up to the fact that the more details I included in my birth charts the more opportunities I was creating to find points of contact with the subject.

I also undertook detailed comparison of the various sun signs and what I had till then too often swept to the back of my mind finally came thuddering to the fore: if we removed the headings (Pisces, Gemini, Taurus…) from each description and put all of those anonymous character profiles in a bucket, then have persons pull them out one by one until they found “the one” that describes them, I think we would more often than not have a problem. Without the birth date identifiers attached to each description I believe most people would have great difficulty assigning any one of them to themselves.

In other words, it is the recognition of the birth date that predisposes one to recognize and identify with the connected character description. Yet if we mixed up the birth date labels I think many of us would identify with much of what the new description has to say.

Are you diplomatic? You fit the Libra profile. But if you are adaptable, you are a Gemini, or a Pisces. The different terms can and do apply to pretty much the same personal habits of behaviour, at least close enough for a sensitive and thoughtful person to fit with any of those profiles. Are you analytical? Then you must be Virgo; but if understanding, then Pisces. Or if intellectual, then Gemini or Aquarius. And so forth.

If your sun sign was significantly wrong in some respects then we had your moon sign, or triangular or square patterns between “significant” points in the chart, or the overall shape (bucket, cluster, splay…) of the points on the chart, or which planets were in retrograde, and on and on and on. There is always something there to explain whatever needed explanation.

And if someone didn’t fit a description at all we would suspect his birth was premature or delayed, and sure enough, we’d find out we were right even about that!

Here’s an exercise I would love to try out on a group of people. Write out each character trait used in all twelve astrological sun signs (preferably get a few authorities so we are not relying upon one author alone) and then have each person select, say, 6 traits that best describe them. Next step: see which sun sign those 6 selected attributes match and ask if they are the same as their sun sign. No doubt there will be some matches, so the next step is to assess whether the number of matches are statistically better than mere chance.

Ray Hynam’s account (I have truncated a longer passage that Mano Singham quoted and linked to) hits the mark. I presume a book he addresses, The Full Facts About Cold Reading by Ian Rowland, does the same.

Witch Hunts, an Economic Explanation

I just read an interesting article, How Medieval Churches Used Witch Hunts to Gain More Followers, by Becky Little discussing another article by two economists arguing that “the Catholic and Protestant churches promoted themselves by persecuting witches.”

The original article, Witch Trials, is by Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ and is available as a pdf download. Their abstract:

We argue that the great age of European witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. Analyses of new data covering more than 43,000 people tried for witchcraft across 21 European countries over a period of five-and-a-half centuries, and more than 400 early modern European Catholic-Protestant conflicts, support our theory. More intense religious-market contestation led to more intense witch-trial activity. And, compared to religious-market contestation, the factors that existing hypotheses claim were important for witch-trial activity — weather, income, and state capacity — were not.<

No doubt historians will debate the economic interpretation, but it looks like one more perspective to consider. I have not yet read the original article since I will need to set aside some decent time for it given the detailed datasets attached to it that would need to be analysed.

One interesting point at a glance is that the Catholic nations appear to be significantly “less guilty” than the Protestant ones.

Time to reflect on conspiracy theories, once again

Derek Arnold

Twenty years since Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, or is it the anniversary of her murder by British Intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family? The Royal Family certainly had motive enough to want her dead. She was destroying their reputation as a bastion of conventional morality and without that bastion the royal family could not survive. So — arrange for a drunken chauffeur, lots of paparazzi, a narrow tunnel on the route, a pre-positioned strobe-light and alert operator,  and plots to delay ambulances, and the deed is done.

Salon.com alerted me to a Conversation article by Derek Arnold, Why Princess Diana conspiracies refuse to die. Excerpts I find especially pertinent:

I’ve found that belief in conspiracy theories is more about a refusal to accept the randomness of life and tragedy than it is about the existence of evidence (or lack thereof).

Sounds like the same reason “we” believe in God, ghosts, angels, superstitions, fate, diets.

As political scientist Michael Barkun details in his book “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” conspiracy theories usually hinge on three core beliefs:

  • Nothing happens by accident. For this reason, the horrible machinations of “evil” conspirators become more believable than a fluke or an accident.
  • Nothing is as it seems. Successful conspirators hide their identities and actions; we must, therefore, always be wary, even when there’s little reason for suspicion.
  • Dots can always be connected. Though conspirators attempt to hide their actions, patterns exist everywhere.

Another book I would like to read.

Today’s 24-hour news cycle also cultivates an opening for conspiratorial thinking. Among journalists, the race to break a story can lead to gaps or errors in reporting. We also tend to forget that as readers, many stories, especially breaking ones, are a work in progress. It can take months – even years – to ever know the full story.

Oh yes. One really notices the differences among various media here. A few (less popular ones, unfortunately) conspicuously stress how little is known in the early days, and they do not broadcast speculative figures of “numbers dead” or “suspected identities” of perpetrators of atrocities in the first twenty-four hours of an event — which I suppose is why they are too boring for a wider audience.

But perhaps the biggest reason we tend to give credence to conspiracy theories is our own mortality.

Studies have shown that many of us feel that we have little control over our own lives. This leads to something called “anomie,” a type of weariness that makes us view the world as an adversary, with people and systems out to get us.

Return to the similar reasons for believing in god.

To simply think of Princess Diana’s death as a “tragic accident” gives us less control over own fate. No matter how logically messy the details of a conspiracy theory might be, they do, strangely, soothe our own sense of worth and place in our world.

Like asking Jesus or Mary or God, lords of the universe, to take time to interfere with a burst of rain to allow us to get to an important appointment on time.

(I bet the Queen really did order MI6 to get rid of Diana, though.)

 

 

Humans!

Kensington council warned of ‘criminally lax’ safety standards years before Grenfell Tower fire

If only we would target criminally negligent authorities, managers and owners the same way we target terrorists.

If there is no God, is murder wrong?

Michael Shermer (head of The Skeptics Society and whose book Why People Believe Weird Things I liked; some of its arguments actually apply to many Christian believers, academics included) has posted a video challenging the fundamentalist/conservative Christian claim that without God there is no secure basis for morality.

Dennis Prager, someone better known to US readers, posted the usual dogmatic nonsense @ ‘If There Is No God, Then Murder Isn’t Wrong’.  (See below for the video)

Now Shermer has responded with – ‘If There Is No God, Is Murder Wrong? He pretty much knocks out the argument with his first question or point one of four. Happily both videos are short.

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul
English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »

Evolution of Innate Morality

Rosa Rubicondior blog discusses the New Scientist article, Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others

See Evolution of Innate Morality

Is your dog capable of moral judgements? Is it watching you and evaluating your trustworthiness?

According to a team of researchers from Kyoto and Hokkaido Universities, Japan, it might well be doing so.

Almost to a man or woman, theists will tell you that if gods provided us with anything, they provided us with morals. Neither Christians, Muslims or Jews seem to be able to understand how we could possibly have got morals from anywhere other than their holy book, revealed, so they claim, to mankind specifically to tell us how to behave and what rewards of punishments we could expect to ensure compliance.

Video from the New Scientist page:

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Radicalisation — whether extreme sports, cults or terrorism

Yes, time for me to finish blogging on what the research has shown about how radicalisation works, how people are recruited into terrorist organisations, religious cults, . . . even extreme sports . . .  As Jason Burke (whose works I have blogged about here, most recently on “the new threat“) points out: it’s all the same mechanics.

https://twitter.com/burke_jason/status/830797108059971585

 

https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/830462741987131393

 

Now to complete those posts on Friction, How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us

Religion and Understanding the Zealots, Theirs and Ours

A few weeks ago in the course of explaining why I called this blog “Vridar” I posted a few remarks about American author Vardis Fisher. The name “Vridar” was Vardis Fisher’s fictionalized autobiographical name in the last novel of his Testament of Man series, Orphans of Gethsemane. I was pleased to read last evening that I am not alone in my interpretation of some key aspects of Vardis Fisher’s life and interests . . . and I wonder if I even share some of his reasons for taking a special interest in the violence and trauma arising from the politics of the Middle East. The bolding in the critic’s quotation is, of course, my own.

In a period of the resurgence of fundamentalist religions in many parts of the world, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man may be a text of some significance.

Fisher, raised by a strict Mormon mother on a solitary Idaho homestead, commanded a more sympathetic view of zeal than could most American intellectuals of his time. Possessed of a dual consciousness, Fisher rejected the rule-bound exclusivity of any self-appointed “chosen” people, but was all the same drawn to the passion of the prophet. In Testament of Man, he carried out his own arduous quest — to understand the moral development of western humanity. He donned the prophet’s mantle to warn against the dangers of fanaticism. Chronicling the spiritual development of his forebears, Fisher created a prophetic work [i.e. the Testament of Man series of novels] mourning the lost opportunities of Judeo-Christian tradition. He identified those points at which, in his opinion, a wrong turn was taken, a wrong road chosen.

In dishonoring the Mother, demonizing the “other,” [in  privileging law over ethics, and failing to synthesize love of wisdom with love of God, humanity set a course that has led to Inquisition and Holocaust. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that course has yet to be adequately altered. Religion and reason have yet to be reconciled, and Reuben’s passionate appeal in The Island of the Innocent has yet to be answered: “But there’s a job to be done or there’ll be no Alexandrias. We’ll have a world of Jerusalems”(63).

Zahlan, Anne R. 2000. “A World of Jerusalems”: The Middle East as Contested Space in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.” In Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora, 191-207. Moscow, Idaho; University of Idaho Press.

The four novels set in historical Palestine that Anne Zahlan discusses are

  • The Divine Passion (1948)
  • The Valley of Vision (1951) — set in the kingdom of Solomon
  • The Island of the Innocent (1952) — set in the time of the Maccabean revolt
  • Jesus Came Again (1956)
Although it can be tiresomely didactic, The Island of the Innocent serves as the philosophical centre of Fisher’s monumental sequence. At novel’s end, all hopes for a marriage of the best Judaic and Hellenic principles are buried with Judith and Philemon. The work’s repeated debates as to the merits of reason and faith, beauty and righteousness end in violent encounter and the tragic failure of synthesis at the heart of the Testament of Man. Zahlan, pp. 201f.

The anthropology and sociology that informed Fisher’s views have been superseded in the academic world but read as human dramas they have not lost their relevance for today. Of The Island of the Innocent Zahlan writes,

The Island of the Innocent is a daring book. Perhaps only someone raised among Mormons withdrawn from a world of “Gentiles” could, in the last 1940s and early 1950s, have written such a work. In the years after World War II when the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were being exposed, Vardis Fisher had the courage and clear-sightedness to maintain an adamant opposition to exclusivist religion and politics. Having been exposed as a boy to theocratic-fortress mentality, he could insist on the need to resist the powerful temptation of a tribalist response to even the most extreme persecution. (p. 201)

The tribalism permeating so much of Israeli society and politics is no less problematic today.

Rejecting or misunderstanding teachers such as Joshua [Jesus], the people of Vardis Fisher’s Holy Land continue in the erroneous ways of their ancestors and base three major religions on rejection of the Mother and deification of the Word.

Fisher’s Middle East focuses on Jews and centers on Jerusalem. . . . His concentrating of theological, ethical, and political struggle on the Jews does not, however, unreasonably privilege Jewish perspectives. In fact, he dwells on dissensions among Jewish believers as, in later volumes of the Testament, he emphasizes divisions among Christians: Hasidim contend with Letzim, and Essenes with Pharisees, as do the factions of the early church among themselves. A onetime citizen of the Mormon Zion, Fisher no more endorses ways of thinking such as those that underlie right-wing movements in contemporary Israel than he does any other exclusivist ideology. To the degree that he deals with the historic relationship of the Jews with other peoples, Fisher foregrounds tensions similar to those that plague the Middle East today.

Interestingly Anne Zahlan introduces another scholar who has also influenced my views, Edward Said, and as I have done in posts here singled out a tragically ironical point that Said makes about antisemitism:

In the second half of the twentieth century, Said explains, the “myth of the arrested development of the Semites” underwent a curious bifurcation: “[O]ne Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”15 In the aftermath of World War II, anti-Semitic hostility has been redirected to Arabs; Israelis now serve the western imagination as new colonial heroes who stand in for “white men” in a depraved Orient. Some of Fisher’s depictions of “the Syrians” and “Antiochus of Corinth” fit an updated Orientalist model of cruel barbarians besieging devout Hebrews, but the author of the Testament of Man takes no stand above or distant from the Semitic peoples he describes. . . . 

Portraying the Middle East as he does, Fisher looks not only back but also “ahead” to . . . his own [world]. He depicts the birthplace of western civilisation was a battleground, painting a picture colored by pained awareness of the failings of his own culture. (pp. 205f)

So I’m not alone in my dual interest of religion and politics, in particular seeking to understand the roots of religion and the violence of religiously minded people today — all the while idealistic enough to do my little bit for a world of Alexandrias competing with the Jerusalems.