Cultured Despisers Never Die: They Just Take New Names.

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On Religion: Speeches to Its’ Cultured Despisers was a witty and influential book by Freidrich Schleiermacher, first published in 1799.  Considered a sort of Ur-text for modern Protestant theology, Speeches tried to save religion from the sneers of thinkers who prided themselves on their Enlightenment views.  If you were ever a college student, you were probably a Cultured Despiser too.

There is a way, though, in which they never quite move on.  Today’s Cultured Despisers are the proponents of Scientism: the belief that science conquers all and renders the humanities and religion superfluous.  We’ve been through Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom I otherwise liked a lot) and we now have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist/linguist, who likes to think that what he does is “hard” science as opposed to the mushy thinking of lesser disciplines.

Pinker has been in the news increasingly because of his TED Talks and his theory, really, that the world is getting better and better.  We are the most “civilized” we have ever been. Not surprisingly, such a rosy evolution is due to Science and, in particular, the triumph of Science over Religion.  In Pinker’s words, “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken.” (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

While the notion that human beings are becoming ever less violent is a happy one, it seems belied by the facts of history.  It was last taken seriously as part of the pre-WWI belief in the inevitable triumph of progress.  Remember Emile Coue:  “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better?”  While I suspect that a theory of inexorable human progress is at least arguably un-Christian, the greater concern is Pinker’s mistaken assumption that religious fundamentalism is a justifiable stand-in for religion in general.* What is true, rather, is that science and religion both depend upon metaphor for intelligibility.

My real beef with Pinker is his belief that religion (contra science) is a closed system which cannot take in new discoveries or information.  Just as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the truth ought be accepted from whatever source it comes, so have Christian theologians argued that “the religion of the incarnation” cannot be hostile to new knowledge because truth is always an ally.   One of the earliest modern examples of this is the Anglican Lux Mundi (“Light of the World”), a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians in the late 1880s.

It simply strikes me as a silly (and banal) argument to be having.  Experiences of faith and awe do not fit neatly into categories or “non-overlapping criteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould once described science and religion.  The truth is that virtually nothing worth describing can be described without interpretation and metaphor.  Not love.  Not grief.  Not freedom.  Not art.  Not poetry.  Not music.  Not physics.  Not really.

When what we see exceeds our ability to explain (whether it’s redemption or the multiverse), we none of us give up our belief in ultimate intelligibility.  We continue on, probing, in expectation that the belief will be justified.  And that, regardless of which category we are overlapping, is called faith.


* The errors of fundamentalism ought not be mistaken for the errors of religion.  See Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013.

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160 Million Daughters Missing: Sex Selective Abortions

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Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl (Public Affairs, 2011).

Hvistendahl’s provocative and amply documented book doesn’t contain a single moral or legal prescription for how to contain the trend toward gender-determined abortions in a world where sex ratios have become so radically skewed that over 160 million girls who are supposed to be here (the equivalent of all women in the U.S.) simply do not exist.

Nature, apparently, would produce 105 boy babies for every 100 girls.  Instead, the average worldwide ratio is what Hvistendahl calls a “statistically impossible” 107 boys to every 100 girls.  In Asia, the disparity is much larger: in one region of China, the ratio is 163 boys to 100 girls; in Armenia 120 to 100; in India, 116 to 100.[i]

These numbers are growing.  While female infanticide continues in some cultures, most of the disparity is traceable to modern ultrasound screening for gender, followed by the second-trimester abortion of female fetuses. The reported premise for the West’s exporting of these technologies has been that the easiest and cheapest means of population control happened to be sex-selected abortion lest people continue to have babies in the hopes of acquiring a son.

Hvistendahl’s thesis in Unnatural Selection is that the major share of responsibility for the untenably large gender disproportion can be blamed on the West’s enthusiastic promotion and large-scale funding of, in fact, abortion following gender determination.  With massive aid from the United Nations, China, as we know, mandated this policy.  Certainly, a portion of UN funds was spent on posters plastered throughout Chinese villages proclaiming, among other things:  “You can abort it! But you cannot give birth to it!”

Hvistendahl presents statistics demonstrating that, even if all such practices were curtailed immediately, it would take until 2050 to correct the imbalance.[ii]

In the meantime, the consequences of excessively male-populated societies — historically, at least — are said to include increased violence and war and a sharp restriction of the rights and freedoms of women.  Further, the status of women becomes ever more degraded as their very sparsity leads to their trafficking and sale.  In an online article on Salon (June 30, 2011), she notes that:

“The State Departments’ 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, released last week, lists the dearth of women as a cause of rampant sex trafficking in and around China.”

So why is Unnatural Selection so controversial, sparking columns and tweets and reluctant dinner conversations?  I have been wholly drawn into the conversation by the tension expressed in the U.S. between so-called “pro-life” conservatives and so-called “pro-choice” progressives.  It is profoundly unfruitful when the only positions presented require a subscription to the notions that either  (a) abortion is a criminal act or (b) abortion is a basic human right which cannot be inhibited by the state.  The yawning gap between the two is unbridgeable by compromise or flexibility .

Yet the moral issues embedded in Hvistendahl’s argument are complex and do not lend themselves to the all-or-nothing approach with which the question is often treated. Talking about the media coverage of the book at dinner this week with a friend, she abbreviated the conversation by asking:  “Well, but would you ban abortions in this country because of abuse in Asia?”  And I said I would not, but that gender-selection and the right to abortion may not be precisely the same thing.[iii]

The questions for us are urgent: how do we think outside our usual divisions?  How do we stem victimization of women in many Asian and Third World nations while protecting the rights of women in this country? And even if one acknowledges  that the right to abortion is not absolute, as Hvistendahl has done [iv], is it possible to set limits that could change the alarming trajectory we are on?

Hvistendahl doesn’t think the world has lots of time to dither over the moral awkwardness of these questions:

“Four decades ago, Western advocacy of sex selection yielded tragic results.  But if we continue to ignore that legacy and remain paralyzed by heated U.S. abortion politics, we’re compounding that mistake [and, citing an Indian public health activist] if the world does not see ten years ahead to where we’re headed, we’re lost.”

Somebody is going to have to give.

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[i] Americans, it should be noted, are not exempt from the gender-selection trend. Hvistendahl cites a recent Gallup poll indicating that “almost twice as many Americans say they would prefer male to female offspring.”  Less than 30% of respondents said they would “choose to have a daughter rather than a son.”

[ii] She quotes Christophe Guilmoto, a French demographer, for the proposition that “gender imbalance resembles an epidemic.  In the number of lives it has touched, he says, sex selection merits comparison with AIDs.”

[iii] At least one person, blogger Matt Yglesias (Think Progress, June 27, 2011), in arguing that the problem is “less about abortion than about sex selection,” pointed out that there might be gender-selection possibilities which did not involve destruction of a fetus (e.g., a “boy” pill), but would nonetheless remain problematic because they would “express the inegalitarian idea that men are more valuable than women.”  See http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/06/27/254554

[iv] http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/06/30/abortion_sex_selection_debate