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Mind

Amanda Marcotte, Symmachus and pluralism & public discourse

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFebruary 24, 2007 2:41 AM

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When Amanda Marcotte was hired by the Edwards campaign I was a bit confused. After all, John Edwards is running for president, so I assumed that he was doing this for a reason and not casually. Amanda Marcotte was presumably leaving her job and moving to North Carolina, so I assumed that she was taking this seriously. But my own first thought was that the man running for president of the United States just hired an atheist! As an atheist myself I am well aware of just how peculiar we are in the American landscape, and I don't mean peculiar in a good way, at least in the eyes of most Americans. We all know what happened. But it made me consider the nature of pluralism in a nation where the majority of Americans are of devout Christian faith, particularly when another president, Mitt Romney,comes from a relatively heterodox religious majority. As an atheist I didn't have particular issues with what Marcotte said that was "blasphemous," after all, I don't think the Virgin Marry ever existed as a virgin, if she did at all. That being said, it seemed trivially obvious that Christians, let alone Catholics, would be outraged. I do not believe in God, nor do I believe in the holiness of the mother of God, but, I do have a mother myself. If someone used her in a satire to make a political point I'd be reflexively angered. Now, some of you may say that making an analogy between my own mother with that of the mother of God is specious, but I do not think it is at all. Religion is not one thing, but a phenomenon that emerges out of the sum totality of human psychology. One aspect is a personal, emotional, almost paternal or maternal relationship to the gods that humans revere. Mary is not a god per se, but semantical gymnastics are pretty irrelevant to me, it seems clear that the niche she inhabits in the cognitive landscape of Christians in the Catholic and Eastern religious traditions is a divine one. And this divine being evokes an emotional attachment, and profaning the divine is blasphemy.

Blasphemy is ancient and universal, and it does not begin or end with the God Abraham. Its use and abuse in the public sphere is often intimately related to politics. For example, there is some evidence that the persecution of the philosopher Anaxagoras for atheism was in part related to his closeness with the charismatic but controversial political Pericles. We all aware of the concept of "taboo" in offending the gods, in societies ancient and "primitive." The codification of blasphemy in the "higher religions" is simply an extension and refinement of a convential human process, where deviations of word and deed from what the community holds good and true is treated in a harsh manner. But the key point is community, because blasphemy can not be understood outside that context. What is blasphemy in one context is clearly acceptable in others. A clear example in the old concept that Christians who engage in the eucharist believe they are literally consuming the blood & body of Christ, a man (and a God). For a Christian this act is sacred, imbued with profound significance, and yet both ancient pagan Romans and 19th century Chinese found the practice repulsive and blasphemous. I use these two examples to illustrate the common response of those outside of the community, when that response was totally independent. After all, 19th century Chinese were not aware of the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Rather, their reaction was a straightforward human revulsion to what is assumed to be cannibalism.If Christians were a minor sect Marcotte's blasphemy would have been irrelevant and dismissed, the understanding of the sacred of small time cults is of no interested to the community. But what is the community? Historically the United States was a Protestant nation, but today Protestants form only about 50% of the population. And, even within this group the traditional denominations, such as Episcopalians or Methodists, are in eclipse, quite often to "non-demominational" churches which do not have a deep rooted tradition and are often a bubbling background epiphenomenon. In the 19th century Marcotte's mockery of Catholicism would have been welcomed in American life, as an anti-Catholic sentiment was normative and common amongst the powers that be, culturally descended as they were from English Protestant religious sentiments. But today Roman Catholics are 1 out of every 4 American, and for the past few generations Catholics have become thoroughly "mainstreamed." One can say the same of Judaism. And, I suspect one will say the same of Islam, and in the future Hinduism and all the other various diverse cults which are proliferating in our great nation.I use the term "cults" significantly, because I believe that the 21st century in the United States is a peculiar and new age in the history of the West, or, it is a rebirth of an old age, that of Imperial Rome. Though different periods in the Roman Empire were characterized by the ascendence of particular cults, whether it be that of Isis during the reign of Vespasian, or Sol Invictus during that of Aurelian, it was a pluralistic polity. The rise of Christianity during the 4th century changed that. Though many assume that the conversion of Constantine Christianized the Empire, that is not true. For example, until 400 the Senate in Rome remained generally pagan, as did most of the aristocracy of North Africa, and much of the military leadership. The conversion of the Empire was a gradual thing, with those who were attached to the Imperial court leading the vanguard (e.g., the bureaucratic elite was far moreChristian than the aristocratic or military elites).1 - In the West we forget that Nestorious, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was ejected from his position because he denied that Mary was the mother of God, rather, she was only he mother of Jesus the man.2 - Let us ignore the fact that many Protestants reject transubstantiation.

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