Links 8 – 28/9/13

Links for the week. You know the drill.

1. Ethics as Spectator Sport – Brad Littlejohn shares another fantastic O’Donovan quotation.

2. A Bot Called Cricinfo, ‘We Were Burning Through a Million Dollars a Month’ – The history of one of my favourite sites.

3. Class(ic)ifying Jamie Smith – An older piece written by my friend Joseph Minich. Just re-read it over the last week.

4. The Great Spaces-After-A-Period Controversy

5. Why Firms?

6. 5 Surprising Things That Have Cow Parts in Them – Reminiscent of this TED talk.

7. To Feel Younger, Lean to the Left

8. Agriculture Needs More Women

9. Pascal and the iPod

10. Do You Really Have Free Will?

11. Beyond Geography – Different forms of business organization.

12. How to Write Faster

13. How The West Was Won

14. From Batchmates to Siestas: Philippine English

15. Designs for Great Architectural Landmarks that Were Never Built

16. The Antichrist

17. Bento – Everything that you need to know about web development, neatly packaged.

18. How to Design a City for Women

19. Paul and the Faithfulness of God Samples – I pre-ordered my copy months ago. This is why Derek Rishmawy is also excited about it.

20. Synaesthesia Sells

21. Adherence

22. Is It Racist to Call a Spade a Spade? – Mentions Matt Colvin’s article on the subject.

23. The Violence in Our Heads – Fascinating cross-cultural research on schizophrenia.

24. The Critics and Jesse Pinkman – A video of Jesse’s woes can be seen here

25. The Eight Hardest Breaking Bad Scenes to Score

26. Every Thing That Walt Jr. Eats For Breakfast on Breaking Bad

27. Chinese Man Has New Nose Grown on Forehead

28. Why a Decline in Smoking Led to the Smoking Ban

29. The New Old-School Birth Control

30. How to Write a Theological Sentence

31. Thankful Villages: The Places Where Everyone Came Back From the Wars

32. Why We Need Small Towns

33. On Preaching ‘To The Men’

34. Empty F-16 Jet Tested by Boeing and US Air Force

35. Rhyme of Time

36. Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood

37. The Fall of the Bathroom Wall

38. Talk With Me – Philosophy as conversation

39. The Good News About Power – James K.A. Smith reviews Andy Crouch’s latest

40. Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos

41. How LucasArts Fell Apart

42. Forget Foreign Languages and Music. Teach Our Kids to Code.

43. We are Terrifyingly Close to the Climate’s ‘Point of No Return’

44. It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity.

45. Natural or Supernatural Law

46. What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?

47. Peter Williams on Slavery in the Bible

48. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Trailer (see a clip here and a conversation about it here)

49. Theologians in Conversation: Radical Orthodoxy

50. Elizabeth Loftus: The Fiction of Memory

51. Journey of the Guitar Solo

52. Conduct Us

53. 10 Awesome Vinegar Life Hacks You Should Know

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Links, On the web, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

65 Responses to Links 8 – 28/9/13

  1. David McKay says:

    Terrific collection of links, thanks!

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Some thoughts on the the James K.A. Smith article by Minich:

    1. Not all areas knowledge are or need be coloured by our social imaginaries. A good deal of reality is simply available to all human beings. It makes at least some sense to talk about Christian anthropology, materialist anthropology, African anthropology, but it is obscurantist nonsense to talk of Christian physics, African physics etc. The Dawkins of the world are right, there is only physics. Much the same applies to other areas of knowledge, like mathematics. Smith even admits to this last one in his comments on the Mark Regnerus controversy.

    1a. Smith is often just flat out ignorant about science. I’m all for rigourously questioning of the knowledge claims of science, but you actually have to know a good bit what claims are being made and why scientists are making them before you start challenging them.

    2. As Doug Wilson points out, the cultural frame of reference of so many of these postmodern Christian thinkers is just horribly impoverished. It’s mostly pop culture junk. All Peter Rollins’ illustrations come from bad 80s TV and the like. Smith isn’t much better. His culture seems to run all the way from Spiderman movies to David Foster Wallace, garbage all, though to be fair, he does appear to have read some John Ruskin too.

    3. Smith doesn’t have a adequate conception of what religion is. Religion is the belief in and interaction with irreducibly personal (i.e. supernatural) entities in the world. As Richard Carrier points out, in the best essay every written on what we mean by supernatural, that means the presence of gods, ghosts, souls, purposes, essences etc. in the world. And, as Martin Buber long pointed out, we relate to personal entities in a fundamentally different way to material and mechanistic entities. So, no, going to the mall is not religious except in a highly metaphorical sense.


    I want to push back against Minich a bit too. Religious and non-religious people may share a common reason, but they may not share common perceptions, so the premises on which they are basing their reasons may be radically different. Not surprisingly this leads to disagreement. We seem to have some dim awareness that this is at the lack of agreement between the religious and the irreligious. Religious people tend to make accusations of blindness to certain realities on the part of the irreligious, while the irreligious in turn accuse religious people of seeing things that aren’t really there.

    Turns out that, while there is a lot of reality that all humans perceive in common, culture can quite substantially alter what we see. Joe Henrich et al. (who did the WEIRD paper) and T.M. Luhrman are especially good on this. (Iain McGilchrist is also very good on how certain cognitive styles result in a willful blindness to certain aspects of reality.) This is where Smith’s talk of cultural formation comes in. I would say that the very way we do life in modern Western societies tends to suppress our religious perceptions. So, effective evangelistic efforts need to focus on changing the whole person, not trying to argue them into belief. Contra Minich, it isn’t just the will, but the perceptions, which can be corrupted.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      “at the lack of agreement” should be “at the heart of the lack of agreement”

    • Thanks for the comment. Some remarks in response:

      1. I partially agree with you. However, Dawkins and his ilk are good examples of the ways in which science can become framed by broader philosophical commitments, or even how science can become totalizing, becoming a sort of reductionist pseudo-philosophy itself. Science depends upon pre-scientific philosophical commitments at numerous points and often articulates these as if they themselves were pure science.

      For instance, recalling one of our recent discussions, there is more than a little philosophical baggage bound up with many uses of psychometrics, even though mathematics is being employed throughout. It definitely doesn’t function as science shorn of all assumptions, despite what many would like us to think. One of the key questions arising in such areas concerns the appropriate scope and use of mathematics. The same thing applies to physics and biology. To say ‘there is only physics’ can often function as a reductionist and highly tendentious philosophical claim. For instance, Sam Harris believes that science can give us an objective morality. While the actual content of mathematics and other sciences may not be explicitly founded on Christian commitments, science and mathematics themselves are integral parts of our social imaginary, constantly tempting us to reductive forms of scientism or to the belief that everything can be measured or rendered commensurable.

      Besides, the sciences have different aspects. For instance, we have science as the human practice of the discipline, science as empirically established knowledge content, forms of science and mathematics that are highly theoretical as opposed to experimental, and ‘science’ as ‘worldview’ (here that term is appropriate). While one might well argue that we cannot have ‘Christian sciences’ as sciences highly determined by distinctively Christian convictions, it seems clear to me that we can and do have ‘non-Christian’ sciences. Much of the actual practice of science is affected by immorality in various respects: pride, dishonesty, mistrust, wrath, envy, etc. One could also argue that there are many theoretical forms of science that are incompatible to some degree or other with Christian faith. And certainly contemporary reductionist scientism is far from religious neutral.

      2. I think that Doug Wilson misunderstands the purpose of such frames of reference. The philosophers who adopt these frames of reference are typically highly cultured, and it seems quite unlikely to me that Jamie Smith is an exception in this regard. However, much of the work of ‘postmodern’ thinkers involves attempts at hermeneutical engagement with the actual culture in front of us. For this to take place, you must think and write about popular superhero movies, hit TV shows, rap music, wrestling, toilet design, low quality romantic fiction, and first person shooter video games. Engaging with such things isn’t necessarily a sign of the limits of one’s cultural references, or the primary objects of one’s tastes, or even an imprimatur upon demotic tastes more generally.

      3. ‘Religion’ is an essentially contested concept. There is no universal definition or concept of ‘religion’. It is a highly constructed concept, especially in the modern era. Smith’s more functionalist use of the term probably has more in common with pre-modern uses of the term than your more substantivist use does. Ancient uses of the term religio encompassed many things today that we would consider quite ‘secular’. For instance, Augustine writes: ‘We have no right to affirm with confidence that “religion” is confined to the worship of God, since it seems that this word has been detached from its normal meaning, in which it refers to an attitude of respect in relations between a man and his neighbour.’ So, modern stipulated definitions notwithstanding, Smith is entirely in order and in keeping with the Christian tradition when he applies the term ‘religion’ to broader social relations and ritual practices.

      As regards Minich’s position, he wouldn’t disagree that there are differences in perceptions and that cultural and sin can affect us in these regards. However, Minich believes, as I do, in a proprioceptive conatus common to human beings from across human cultures, which provides significant resistance to movements in the direction of cultural relativism and enables us to be rather more sanguine about the possibilities of cross-cultural communication and persuasion.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Smith’s more functionalist use of the term probably has more in common with pre-modern uses of the term than your more substantivist use does.

        The ancients used it this way because they were all (give or take a Democritus or two) all supernaturalists.

        Ancient uses of the term religio encompassed many things today that we would consider quite ‘secular’.

        That’s because the ancients were thoroughgoing supernaturalists, so even those supposedly ‘secular’ things had a supernaturalist cast. Everything had a supernatural cast.

        I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, using the word religion in the sloppy way that Smith and others do obscures the fundamentally different way we relate to personal and mechanistic things. Since perfectly good words that can encompass the latter (worldview, philosophy, metaphysic, social imaginary etc.) we should use them.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        The philosophers who adopt these frames of reference are typically highly cultured, and it seems quite unlikely to me that Jamie Smith is an exception in this regard.

        You would be wrong. As Camille Paglia and others have charged, the original postmodern philosophers (Derrida, Foucault) were highly provincial in their culture and simply didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to the premodern world. With Smith, a 21st century American, the situation is even worse. I’ve read quite a bit of Smith and he certainly is up on the trendiest poets and novelists but I have seen nothing to indicate any but the most superficial engagement with the classics. He simply never refers to them. Which isn’t surprising when most people I know personally, in literature departments or editors of prestigious literary magazines, have only a superficial acquaintance with the classics. They mostly just read stuff published in the past couple hundred years, if that. If that’s the case for our literary intellectuals, why should we expect more of our philosophers. Derrida and Foucault were at least familiar with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment French culture, but that was not America and the situation has regressed considerably since then even in France.

        I’d also note Minich’s (damning) observation that Smith doesn’t seem to be all that familiar with pre-modern philosophy. If he’s not all that up on pre-modern work in his own discipline, it’s highly unlikely that he’s all that familiar with the art and literature of the past.

      • I am not going to defend the breadth of Smith’s cultural knowledge in its entirety. There are definite areas of lack, as Minich points out. However, he shows evidence of substantial engagement with richer traditions. He is hardly uncultured or limited by modern pop culture, as your original comment suggested.

        Also, as I pointed out in response to it, Doug Wilson simply misunderstands the primary purpose of such cultural references in the first place.

        Besides, there is an academic provincialism manifested in the writings of more than a few writers who are well-versed in the classics and their particular church or academic tradition but lack the most rudimentary knowledge of the dynamics and values of the culture on their doorstep. In its own ways, this can be no less damaging. Paglia is right to criticize Derrida and Foucault for the limitations in their knowledge of the pre-modern tradition, but she is also someone who habitually writes about characters such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus, so I doubt that she would agree with your original point.

      • Granting your claim for the sake of argument, surely it is entirely appropriate for a supernaturalist like Smith to use the term to show that supposedly ‘secular’ practices establish or involve spiritual commitments and relations. The fact that the people engaging in these practices don’t perceive themselves to be relating to or in reference to anything supernatural is of little consequence: the term ‘religion’ is not primarily about internal states of mind or subjective beliefs.

        The idea that you have to believe in something supernatural to engage in practices that are ‘religious’ is certainly not a biblical one. What we do means much more than we think and the Bible is quite prepared to expose spiritual realities of religions that are unacknowledged by their devotees. There are many religiously devoted servants of Mammon out there who would vehemently deny that they were anything of the kind.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        As Buber points out, we relate in a fundamentally different way to material possessions than we do to personal things. Overly broad definitions of religion obscure that.

        The Bible doesn’t even need a word for religion, because everybody (with the rare, non-Hebrew exceptions noted) in the ancient world simply assumed that the supernatural existed. There simply was no materialist conception of reality to contrast with the religious conception of reality.

      • Yet Jesus and the Church have been quite happy to personify material possessions as Mammon and speak about our relationship with those possessions as the serving of a master. If Smith is looking for precedent, he has a good one in our Lord.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        she is also someone who habitually writes about characters such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus, so I doubt that she would agree with your original point.

        Paglia has nothing but scorn for people who only know or refer to pop culture. The objection, mine, Paglia’s, Wilson’s, isn’t to people who make pop culture references; the objection is to people who only make pop culture references. Don’t make strawmen.

      • If the complaint is about people only making pop culture references then it seems to me that you are dealing with strawmen too.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Yet Jesus and the Church have been quite happy to personify material possessions as Mammon and speak about our relationship with those possessions as the serving of a master.

        There’s nothing wrong with figures of speech. There are certainly many ways that shopping is like religion. The comparison is certainly illuminating, which is why Smith is worth reading. The problem is reifying your figures of speech. That is what Smith has done, and I think it has lead him to say some very stupid things.

        Again, the way one relates to material things is very different than the way we relate to persons. Any discussion in this area must not obscure that.

        Anyway, there needs to be a word for human interaction with supernatural agents, and that is in fact how the word religion is primarily used. Other uses are valid, but figurative.

      • The comparison between the service of the master of Mammon and the service of God is thicker than that of mere loose metaphor in the gospels. Even though the personification is probably to be read as metaphorical, the service of Mammon and the service of God are related through the contrast. The way that people relate to material things can apparently be rather like the way that we relate to God. Both receive our service.

        Buber’s contrast is problematic too as it can lead us to overplay the personal relationship dimension of religious existence. Much ‘religion’ is not directly relational at all (hence the constant ‘religion vs. relationship/spirituality’ framing in popular discourse), as ‘religion’ typically focuses upon the service, not upon the relationship per se. Many ‘religious’ people of various cultures haven’t even believed in the gods of which their acts are supposedly in service. There can be active religion even when ‘relationship’ is fairly minimal, very indirect, or even non-existent.

        And, as I have already pointed out, no matter how the word ‘religion’ is primarily used in regular discourse, Smith’s is a valid and illuminating use of it. There is no rule that says that one use of a word must rule out all others.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Materialism, both of the philosophical kind and of the vulgar popular kind, might fairly be described as an anti-religion, since they are both predicated on the denial of meaning to anything except material stuff.

      • Yes, materialism can rightly be referred to as an anti-religion. We could also speak of our society as an anti-culture. However, it is also appropriate to speak of our society as a culture and materialism as a religion. These statements are all true and all illuminating. However, they all only hold as far as they go. Scripture is full of such statements and will cause all sorts of problems for people who love absolute definitions and statements (Proverbs 26:4-5).

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        If the complaint is about people only making pop culture references then it seems to me that you are dealing with strawmen too.

        The references to art and literature in Smith and Rollins are almost entirely limited to pop culture, with occasional references to recent highbrow artists and writers like David Foster Wallace. Not a strawman.

      • I’ve seen Smith reference non-pop culture sources on several occasions on Twitter and in his works. Rollins, on the other hand, I have no interest in defending. The several instances that I have seen of his thinking and work come across as the products of a wannabe philosophy, with little original or substantial to say.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Thankfully Smith has provided us with lists of exactly what he’s read and thought worthwhile each year for the past few years:

        Note that these are not just his favourite works works published in those years, as they include Endo’s Silence, an old Shakespeare anthology, William Faulkner, Rimbaud. There some other references to George Eliot, Maupassant, and Robertson Davies on his site (and the George Eliot quote seems to have been lifted out of an article). Make no mistake, there are certainly some fine works in there, but it’s all really narrow. Almost all from the past 100 years. Nothing before 1800 except a new translations of Gawain and the Shakespeare anthology. Smith may be well read compared to your average accountant, but for a someone who has pretensions of being a major thinker, this is an exceptionally narrow cultural frame of reference.

      • I really don’t think that you can tell much about the scope of someone’s knowledge of their field of study by a list of their favourite recreational reading from the past several years. You’re reaching here.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Smith is better with philosophy. He reads Pascal and Augustine, for example. Probably others that I can’t be bothered to look at. But then that’s his specialty.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I really don’t think that you can tell much about the scope of someone’s knowledge of their field of study by a list of their favourite recreational reading from the past several years. You’re reaching here.

        Uh, someone’s recreational reading is very, very, very relevant to how cultured they are, which is the whole subject of our discussion. Besides Smith is the one who is always talking about how our activities, including our recreational reading, form our souls. And it does!

        So, if he isn’t doing that for recreation, he must be doing it professionally. Problem is, I see absolutely no indication that he’s reading Homer, Virgil, Horace, Moliere, Shakespeare (more than an anthology of him anyway), Milton, whoever, in his purely professional capacity, nor that he has looked at any other art form in that capacity either, so my assertion that Smith has a very narrow cultural frame of reference stands. He isn’t reading premodern literature or looking at premodern art in any capacity. Which means he has a narrow culture. You’re the one reaching here.

      • Remember we are talking about favourite books of each year here, not the only books that he read during that year. Many of us won’t mention classics on such a list, even though we do read them.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Remember we are talking about favourite books of each year here, not the only books that he read during that year. Many of us won’t mention classics on such a list, even though we do read them.

        He does mention classics in those lists, just not many of them.

        Since he shows no evidence in any of his writing that he’s read Homer, Virgil etc., given that most people in academia, even in literature programs, don’t read them either, given that he never mentions such reading on his blog, and given that he doesn’t mention them on the lists of what he has read, I’m feeling pretty confident that he hasn’t read any of them at all. Besides it is just not plausible that he wouldn’t find any of those works good enough to put on his favourite list along with Walter Scott, Faulkner and Rimbaud, who do appear on the lists.

        You’re coming very close to insulting my intelligence here.

      • Most of us read Homer and Virgil long before we reached our mid-30s.

      • Can I be frank here?

        In my time interacting with you, you have struck me as someone who is often looking for a nit to pick, or a pretext for an antagonism. These antagonisms are often quite unnecessary, as differences or disagreements could be registered without establishing these oppositions. In fact, in certain cases, these differences might be able happily to co-exist as two mutually informing and conditioning valid perspectives. In many respects, I think that we are dealing with such a case here: I think that an exclusive focus upon Smith’s broader definition of religion would be unhealthy and believe that narrower definitions (which would also be unhealthy if they were exclusive) need also to be used to hold it in balance. It isn’t even necessary to stop using the single word ‘religion’ in both of these senses.

        You frequently show a prescriptivistic insistence upon your favoured definitions for key terms in a way that constantly undermines rather than advances discourse. In this, you seem to place a weight upon terminology and framing far beyond what is necessary. Terms are important and we can rightly demur from other people’s terms on occasion as perhaps not the most helpful. However, you have on more than one occasion treated such discussions as if they were hills to die on. People don’t always have to use terms in the single precise sense that you prefer. Sometimes people avoid or adopt terms on account of illuminating or obfuscating relationships that they might establish, paying attention to concerns beyond that of someone who approaches terms with a narrower scientific mindset.

        Your seeming reluctance to cut people slack, to approach differences non-antagonistically, and to believe the best (or at least explore charitable interpretations) makes productive discourse very difficult and enjoyable discourse near impossible. For instance, in this comments thread you have treated us to at least two arguments essentially based upon silence abetted by believing the worst: the claim that James K.A. Smith is not at all versed in the classics and the claim that Joseph Minich has no seeming understanding of noetic blindness.

        Your claims about Smith’s dependence upon pop cultural references are also essentially arguments from silence. Knowing that some of Smith’s books contain no such pop cultural references at all and have a significantly different set of interlocutors, it seems likely to me that the pop cultural references that Smith makes have rather a lot to do with the subject matter of his books and that classical cultural references wouldn’t be appropriate in the contexts.

        I see little to be gained from continued discussion here. Thanks for the continued interaction to this point. I will leave you to have the final word.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Most of us read Homer and Virgil long before we reached our mid-30s.

        No they don’t. Even literature students.

      • How do you know that Smith didn’t?

        I have read Homer, Virgil, and many other classics. However, it would be nigh impossible to gather the scope of my knowledge of such classics from my writing, because I hardly ever reference them. I see no reason why Smith wouldn’t be the same.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        There is no rule that says that one use of a word must rule out all others.

        Smith’s use of the word is misleading. I do think there is a rule against that, or should be.

      • Many of us have found Smith’s to be an illuminating use of the word. It would be problematic if he denied all qualifications. But he doesn’t. What he says is true … as far as it goes.

        There are many things whose definition presents us with unclear edges, admitting both broader and narrower ways of framing things. ‘Religion’ is one such reality. These different ways of framing things need to be held in a productive tension. The fact that a narrow definition can be correct needn’t mean that a broader one is wrong. Definitions of such realities are far more fluid and less strictly scientific than you seem to allow for.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Again, I’ll note Smith’s deficiency in knowledge of pre-modern philosophy. If he’s deficient in his specialty, he’s probably deficient elsewhere, as all the other evidence seems to suggest he is.

        Listen, a few weeks ago, I had to correct Tony Jones, a goddamn classics major from Dartmouth, on how the ancients viewed homosexual activity. Really basic stuff. The level of ignorance out there, even among Ph.D’s and academics is absolutely astonishing. I see absolutely no reason to make an exception for Smith on this, and, in fact, see a good deal to indicate that he, to a large extent, shares in the problem.

      • Philosophers have their areas of expertise too. I know philosophy professors who know the classics well, but whose knowledge of philosophy after Kant might be considered patchy at best. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t competent philosophers. We are all deficient in various areas of our fields. People who have read the widest often have a lot of shallow knowledge, which is a liability of another kind.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Many ‘religious’ people of various cultures haven’t even believed in the gods of which their acts are supposedly in service.

        A wild exaggeration. Many pagans emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy and didn’t inquire too closely into exactly what people believed, but the overwhelming majority of the people who performed those ceremonies did truly believe in their gods. Without a critical mass of believing people, the ceremonies etc. simply wouldn’t have been performed.

        And I’m not sure our situation is entirely different. More than a few people showed up at church because it was the socially acceptable thing to do. Similarly, mentally handicapped people or children may not know anything about what worship means even though they are participating in it. But somebody has to supply the belief, or the whole thing collapses, as indeed we have seen when a lot of people suddenly realized they didn’t actually need to show up in church anymore because nobody else believed that much either.

        Smith talks about the inefficacy of mere intellectual understanding or even assent. That’s totally true. But what I don’t think he emphasizes enough that practices devoid of the internal aspect of religion are just as useless. Going through the motions isn’t going to actually do much formation unless you are actually aware of what they mean. At some point or another that’s going to require some verbal catechesis of some kind, though it may just be from scripture readings. Belief need not be explicit either, but it needs to be there.

      • Hardly a wild exaggeration. ‘Many people’ isn’t the same thing as the majority of people in such cultures.

        And it isn’t necessarily a majority that needs to believe. All that you need to do is give people little way of discovering whether their neighbours do or don’t truly believe. There doesn’t have to be an actual person to supply the belief, just the idea of such a person. Families do this with Santa Claus every year: parents go through the ritual in the belief that their children believe, while children go through the ritual not to disabuse their parents of that belief. Thus practices can continue without anyone believing at all, provided that people don’t discover that fact. We are constantly displacing belief onto others and going through the motions for them. People are also always reluctant to speak up to say that the emperor has no clothes when they don’t know what their neighbours think or see. Of course, no one sees the emperor’s clothes.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Oh, and by the way, Smith has a Goodreads page, which includes the books he didn’t like. It’s not much different.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        provided that people don’t discover that fact.

        1. The whole thing couldn’t have got started without the child’s belief.
        2. It don’t last long.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        What he says is true … as far as it goes.

        He absolutizes it. That’s too far.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I notice you do have a reference to Virgil on the blog:
        I saw Epictatus and Handel in there too somewhere. That`s a lot more pre-1800 stuff than Smith already.

        You don`t typically blog at all about your reading of fiction and poetry. Smith does. You have referenced Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but not much.

        I`d contrast Smith with Peter Leithart, who obviously is well read in the ancient world and is obviously just generally quite learned in general. I don`t know as he is completely up on the latest pop culture, but he certainly knows who Camille Paglia is, so he can`t be completely out of the loop. Doug Wilson too, whatever you might say about him, is not without knowledge of pop culture.

  3. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Smith is also a bit too enamoured of the philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor in his big book on secularization makes the claim that people are really just as religious as they ever were. It’s just been displaced into a different form. I say that is absolute nonsense. The diminishment of our supernatural perceptions in WEIRD societies is real (see Henrich et al.), it is precisely what is being referred to when we talk about secularization, and it is important.

    This doesn’t mean that people have become totally irreligious. Most people, even in the Europe and other highly secularized places, still believe in some kind of spirit or God, and have other supernatural intuitions. But they are much diminished from what they once were.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Using an overly broad definition of religion also blinds people to significant phenomena that really are taking place, like the radical decline in supernaturalist belief in WEIRD societies. We are becoming more autistic. That’s real and it matters.

      • Using an overly narrow definition of religion blinds people to the spiritual orientations and character of secular activities. Our activities aren’t secular just because we presume or want them to be.

        Sure, there is a radical decline in supernaturalist belief. I don’t see this being denied by anyone. And we don’t need to adopt a highly stipulated single prescriptivist definition of a term that has broad and varied meanings in order to say this. We have different ways and words that we can use to make this point, without all hinging on a particular word (and it is possible to use the same term in a number of its different senses in appropriate contexts).

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I don’t see this being denied by anyone.

        Taylor does and I think Smith follows him.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I notice that you haven’t denied what I have said. No one has ever said that materialism is neutral with regard to religion, so your objection doesn’t hold. A narrower definition of religion, unlike a broad definition, simply does not result in any confusion here.

        Materialism is a religious position in the sense of a position on religion, i.e. a denial of religion, an anti-religion, the very opposite of religion. But just because opposites have some necessary relation to each other, like north and south, doesn’t make them the same thing.

      • A broader definition of religion is quite compatible with a narrower one. We can rub our tummies and pat our heads at the same time.

        I don’t see anyone saying that they are the same thing in an unqualified sense. They are simultaneously radically different yet also continuous with each other. Stressing one aspect of this in a particular context doesn’t mean that you deny the other.

  4. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    From reading second hand accounts, I am skeptical of Zizek’s value as a philosopher, but apparently business is always good for cool sounding philosophical jargon:

  5. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    As regards Minich’s position, he wouldn’t disagree that there are differences in perceptions and that cultural and sin can affect us in these regards.

    I suspect he would agree with my line of thought once he heard it too, but there is no indication in the essay that he is aware of that line of thought.

    There are certainly things that all humans can perceive, but that mostly seems to the lowest common denominator stuff that can lead us to agree on physics. People can be spiritually blinded. How can you begin to talk about Christian sexual ethics with a person who can’t “see” purity?* You can’t.

    • He is quite aware of it. However, he isn’t prepared to give the same ground to the idea that communication is impossible in such situations. And I have had many fruitful conversations about Christian sexual ethics with people who haven’t ‘seen’ purity.

      There is a difference between saying that sin, brokenness, and cultural factors can disorient us and saying that there is no common underlying orientation to natural law. Minich is tackling the implication that there isn’t a deep natural orientation, without denying for a moment the reality of radical disorientation.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      He is quite aware of it.

      He shows no indication that he does.

      he isn’t prepared to give the same ground to the idea that communication is impossible in such situations.

      Are you mad? Try communicating the concept of red to someone who has been blind from birth. It simply cannot be done. They just have to see it. In some circumstances, communication, or at least argument, is impossible. Now, there are things you can do, like give someone eye surgery, so they can now see red for themselves. A good deal of morality and religion would seem be analogous to this.

      And it’s not exactly like this is alien to scripture:

      And I have had many fruitful conversations about Christian sexual ethics with people who haven’t ‘seen’ purity.

      Well, there are always the utilitarian arguments for Christian sexual ethics. But that is more surrender than victory.


      As a more general point, I happen to think that natural law is true, but there are good reasons natural law arguments have been such an abject failure in convincing secular people of certain moral truths. And if we keep doing the same things, why would expect different results?

      • Joseph is writing for the Calvinist International and attended a Reformed seminary. It would be surprising in the extreme if he did not both know and positively affirm the reality of noetic blindness.

        Even though we have to wrestle with noetic blindness and disorientation, it is not as if people are devoid of any natural orientation to or vision of the good. People are not unorientated or completely without vision, left entirely to their own devices, so there is definitely basis for communication.

        Natural law arguments aren’t the same thing as natural law, even though they are commonly confused. The persuasive power of the former may be limited, but the latter is very powerful.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        People are not unorientated or completely without vision, left entirely to their own devices

        This is a hail mary, more hope than knowledge.

      • It seems to me that you have a rather deficient understanding of natural law if you would deny that.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        The fact that there are purposes and meanings to things doesn’t imply that people will necessarily be able to recognize them.

      • True. But natural law is operative within us, more as a matter of the gut than the head (hence, I spoke of a proprioceptive conatus). We can’t just escape it, even though our minds can be partially blinded or rendered hostile to it. For this reason, we are never purely abandoned to our own devices and reasoning.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        We can’t just escape it

        I question that. It’s pure assertion.

      • Natural law isn’t an argument, a series of principles, or a set of concepts. We may well be able to escape and deny that sort of thing. Natural law is not something primarily arrived at externally, but something operative within the creation and within us. As the creation is never entirely depraved, this proprioceptive conatus is never completely removed, even though it can become disoriented.

  6. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    It would be surprising in the extreme if he did not both know and positively affirm the reality of noetic blindness.

    I wouldn’t be that surprised. He left it out of an article where it was extremely relevant.

    • I really don’t think that you have followed his argument very well if you think that he gave any indication that he would deny such a concept. The impression that I am getting is that you haven’t grasped his point. Noetic blindness is a given for him (and, if you want, I can ask him to clear this point up): now re-read the article and perhaps his point will be clearer to you.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      You’re reading things into the article because they ought to be there. But they’re not.

      • Well, I have knowledge of Joseph’s theological background and allegiances and have read many, many of his thoughts on this and related topics (I’ve also stayed with him and spent many hours chatting in person). I am pretty certain that I know where he is coming from here. Your comments really don’t convince me that you are following his argument here.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        This is kind of an admission that nothing of the sort in the article. And it should be. You’re right that I don’t have insight into his heart. But in the article discussion of these issues is completely AWOL. A major oversight, and perhaps an indication that he hasn’t really thought through these issues. (I just don’t find people making big mistakes or having partial or flawed understanding of issues to be implausible, sorry.)

  7. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I’m going to take one more shot at Smith. Another big problem with overly broad definitions of religion is that they tend to spill over into areas where they obviously don’t belong. The problem, for example, with equating religion with ultimate worth, is that animals too seem to find certain things of ultimate worth. My dog really, really likes chicken skin, and makes eyes at it that could almost be called worshipful. But we wouldn’t actually speak of him as worshiping, nor would we speak of a lion being religious when he’s chasing down some tasty morsel across the Serengeti. Why not? And the answer can’t simply be that they are animals and we are human.

  8. Wow! Happy to do some clearing up. If read closely, I clearly state that the only “essential” problem is the will. Of course our perception is disoriented, but not ubiquitously, and not ineradicably (as the will is apart from saving grace). And any disorientation of perception qua reality is “testified against” in human nature – which underlies its various expressions in culture. That this is so is manifested by the fact that we can always speak to God’s image (whether this is admitted by our interlocutors or not) in discourse.

    And so, the “essential” problem of will always leads to problems of everything else. My argument, however, is that these other problems can be (more or less) gotten at. It is not impossible for unbelief to co-exist with proper ontology, for instance. Rather, the lone impossibility is that I disbelieve while (at the same time) evaluating reality as good “for me” – because of innate rebellion – a fundamental insanity. Satan has better theology than all of us – but his evaluation of reality (God’s Lordship, etc) is not “good for me,” but rather “Reality bites.” That’s the big thing, And it distorts perception (both individual and cultural) in all of us. But the sage exceptions to this distortion show that the essential thing is the broken Adamic will itself – the petty and irrational hatred of the teenage son for the father. The gospel implies but does not create a new ontology. It rather fixes our rebeliion toward the Reality which communicates itself to all humans – despite varying levels of suppression – birthed in a diseased will.

    Hope that helps.

  9. Paul Baxter says:

    Wow, long discussion there. I actually wanted to say how much I enjoyed the OTHER Smith link (about the Andy Crouch book). I did wish there was some discussion there of the relationship of Christians to other, i.e. non-church, institutions of power, but one can only do so much at once.

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