The Raving Theist

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Audacious

January 22, 2007 | 15 Comments

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, in his bestselling The Audacity of Hope: Reclaiming the American Dream, shares his thoughts on the ideals of this nation’s founders:

Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities or minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.

Read literally, the passage states that the common undesirable feature of inquisitions, pogroms, gulags and jihads is that they are brought about by people who believe in truth and consistency, not that they involve violence and suffering. I suppose this might have been the founders’ thesis. Some of them did endorse slavery, or hanging for horse-thievery, so their ultimate concern might simply have been to avoid the eternal sameness of the cruelty rather than cruelty itself. What could be more insufferable, after all, than the arrogance of someone who believes that the thumbscrew should forever be preferred to the rack?

On the other hand, Obama refers to an “American Dream” that needs “reclaiming.” This implies that he favors one state of affairs over another – possibly even in an absolute sense. The subtitle isn’t “The American Dream, But I May be Wrong and Humbly Admit It Might Be Best to Continue As We Were Without Reclaiming Anything.” Furthermore, throughout the book he identifies policies he supports and attacks policies he rejects — without the slightest hint that they are equal, or even that the truth lies in between. This seems to embrace rather than reject absolute truth.

Comments

15 Responses to “Audacious”

  1. nekouken
    January 22nd, 2007 @ 11:32 am

    Actually, read literally, the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag and the jihad are consequences of a single-minded path, not single-minded paths themselves. His point is that when an ideology is carried past the point at which it is clearly a bad idea, you get jihads and gulags. As for the American Dream, it’s also not a path to follow but a destination, and the beautiful thing about it is that the path to it changes for every generation; the American Dream, of course, being for your children to be happier and more successful than you are.

    Nobody starts at the Inquisition, but after a few dozen generations of suppression of dissent from the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, torturing Jews and other nonbelievers, a wholly unreasonable activity, might seem reasonable to the people who have been following that path. In other words, we should be wary of the fact that the choices we make and the paths we follow may lead to undesirable conclusions. That’s what Obama thinks, that’s what the Founding Fathers thought (it’s rare for a ruling class to provide a means of fixing any mistakes they may have made, no?), and it’s what more people need to think.

    After all, look at the War on Drugs; it’s a clear failure, the path of moral rectitude (outlawing drugs) has not lead to the desired outcome of a drug free America, but instead has led to the wholly undesirable outcome of a drug-rich America with an exponential increase in violent crime on the side. It was the government’s failure to deviate from this ideological path that led to this disastrous conclusion.

  2. "Q" the Enchanter
    January 22nd, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

    Arguing for an interpretation isn’t laying claim to an absolute truth. Maybe Obama’s not careful (as most people rarely are) to distinguish the idea of absolute truth from the issue of whether human beings have epistemic access to absolute truth. But I take his idea as meaning that while there may an “absolute” or objective way things are, our knowledge of the way things are is confined to the incremental steps we take toward (and, sometimes, away from) the limit point of our possible grasp of it. Thus, whether or not there is absolute truth, we do not seem to have the capacity for infallible knowledge of it.

    Nothing in these twin conceptions of truth or knowledge is in tension with having strong beliefs or with finding other beliefs unreasonable. And its very consistent with maximizing the degree of humility we strike before other competing interpretations of the world–a humility that tends to abjure the concept of “heresy” and the violence that usually attends its employ.

  3. "Q" the Enchanter
    January 22nd, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

    Arguing for an interpretation isn’t laying claim to an absolute truth. Maybe Obama’s not careful (as most people rarely are) to distinguish the idea of absolute truth from the issue of whether human beings have epistemic access to absolute truth. But I take his idea as meaning that while there may an “absolute” or objective way things are, our knowledge of the way things are is confined to the incremental steps we take toward (and, sometimes, away from) the limit point of our possible grasp of it. Thus, whether or not there is absolute truth, we do not seem to have the capacity for infallible knowledge of it.

    Nothing in these twin conceptions of truth or knowledge is in tension with having strong beliefs or with finding other beliefs unreasonable. And its very consistent with maximizing the degree of humility we strike before other competing interpretations of the world–a humility that tends to abjure the concept of “heresy” and the violence that usually attends its employ.

  4. Kate B.
    January 22nd, 2007 @ 5:47 pm

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain, unalienable rights…”

    Oh, yeah. That definitely sounds like a “rejection of absolute truth.” Yee-hah.

  5. Dr. BDH
    January 22nd, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

    More muddled philosophizing from a self-proclaimed Christian believer. What else is new, that he’s the press’s current Democratic golden boy? Unfortunately, the only philosophy we ever hear from American politicians is muddled and religious-based. It hardly bears criticizing, does it?

  6. Mijae
    January 23rd, 2007 @ 6:53 am

    Thanks for posting something interesting again, RA ; ) I started to feel sympathetic for Obama at first until I read an excerpt of his book talking about faith.

    He describes how he knew about many different faiths, and was raised by a non-religious mother (not sure if she was an all-out atheist and he’s just too wishy-washy to call her that or what…) that he claims to greatly respect, so he has a perfectly good example of how non-religious people can be good and morally upstanding. And yet despite this example, despite his knowledge of contradicting faiths, despite his proclaimed need to look at all sides of the issues, which you’d think would just emphasize the contradicting “truths” of religion… he finally just decided to go with Christianity because he fit in better that way. He fudged around with some different wording about relating to people from a similar context or some crap, but that’s what it boils down to.

    While the no-absolute-truth idea bugs me, I’d at least be able to respect him a bit if he’d stayed an HONEST waffler and kept up his waffling even when it came to religion.

  7. Andy Holland
    January 23rd, 2007 @ 10:07 am

    But the inventors of the Gulag, the atomic bomb and the abortion mill were those who believed in no absolute truth. So there goes Obama’s thesis and credibility.

    As Einstein pointed out, every reference is relative to the ABSOLUTE reference frame of light. Life is the light of men; but men prefer the darkness to the light, their deeds being dark.

    Those who murder for whatever reason reject the absolute truth of life and because of them, according to St. Peter, the Way would be ill-spoken of. However, the way of life is still the absolute truth, and choose life and live is the absolute law.

    You cannot escape the abolute truth of life, and the reality that those who choose death for others are against the absolute truth of life.

    Obama is a practicing reed shaken by the wind dressed in soft clothing as a prince, and those are his credentials. Another empty suit.

    andy holland

  8. nekouken
    January 23rd, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

    Andy Holland wrote:

    “But the inventors of the Gulag, the atomic bomb and the abortion mill were those who believed in no absolute truth. So there goes Obama’s thesis and credibility.”

    Here you are misreading (perhaps deliberately) what Obama says here. By “absolute truth,” you clearly mean “religious truth,” but that isn’t really the only kind of absolute truth there is. The soviets believed in the absolute truth of the state (communism was not, as is so often parroted by modern theists, an atheist regime, as the state was used to replace traditional religion, and everyone was expected to worship and tithe to the Party). I’m not even sure what an “abortion mill” is, but the atomic bomb was not an end in itself, so I don’t see how the last two in your list even apply to this.

    The point isn’t that people do horrible things with or without religion, and really, religion isn’t even Obama’s target; it’s the tendency of people to take an idea to be so focused on their goals that they fail to notice when their actions seem unlikely to accomplish them, and that is something of which most people are guilty, with or without a holy book.

    Mijae wrote:

    “(not sure if she was an all-out atheist and he’s just too wishy-washy to call her that or what…)”

    Isn’t it possible that she simply didn’t care about religion? This idea that agnosticism is somehow “wishy-washy” rather than practical, reasonable and, frankly, a rare instance of humility in a world where very few people will admit they don’t know everything is… well, it’s evidence suggesting you’re one of those latter people.

    “And yet despite this example, despite his knowledge of contradicting faiths, despite his proclaimed need to look at all sides of the issues, which you’d think would just emphasize the contradicting “truths” of religion… he finally just decided to go with Christianity because he fit in better that way. He fudged around with some different wording about relating to people from a similar context or some crap, but that’s what it boils down to.

    While the no-absolute-truth idea bugs me, I’d at least be able to respect him a bit if he’d stayed an HONEST waffler and kept up his waffling even when it came to religion.”

    As a non-theist who’s fully aware that a) politicians lie and b) no confessed atheist/agnostic will likely ever be elected president in my lifetime, I’m fine with a non-theist politician who has to claim to be a Christian in order to get elected. It’s not like he’s going to have a lock on the fundie vote, he’s just doing something politically wise by distancing himself from the profound stigma of the word “atheist.” If he’s got to lie about something, better to lie about his imaginary friends than pretty much anything else.

  9. Mijae
    January 25th, 2007 @ 6:45 am

    Well, I do think many agnostics ARE being wishy-washy by just trying to avoid the harsh-sounding label of atheist. When it comes down to a matter of making yourself sound acceptable and staying out of trouble rather than an honest dedication to the idea of deity as inherently unknowable, wishy-washy sounds like a fair description.

    But I think I wasn’t quite clear with what I meant in that last comment… I have no idea what the exact position of Obama’s mom is, but I think even if she was a flaming atheist, Obama himself would be too wishy-washy to label her as such in his book. ; )

    I doubt he’s just an agnostic or atheist faking it to get by, though. He also wrote in his book about an incident where Alan Keyes called him out for not being a serious Christian, and Obama seemed to be quite unnerved by it. Though he had to look “on the other hand” at how seriously Keyes took his faith… it was kind of amusing actually.

    He’s almost certainly such a highly liberal Christian that he’d be more honest as a full agnostic, but he does seem to honestly value the idea of faith, and his identity as a Christian. I’d still greatly prefer him to a Republican candidate of course, but that’s not saying much, is it?

  10. sam
    January 26th, 2007 @ 4:29 am

    Equating Jihad with Gulags and Pograms is the most
    stupid thing I have ever heard.

    Pograms and Gulags are the opression of a powefrul state
    or majority against a minority.

    Jihad is the struggle of the opressed against the pograms
    and gulags.

    The only common thing I see between all of them is
    Jews……..

    Pograms and Gulags are traditionally associated with Jews
    being persecuted by hateful Europeans.

    Jihad is the struggle of people persecuted by Jews (and
    the USA) against the gulag like conditions they are
    subjected to, by the pograms of Israel.

    So OF COURSE anything against jews is bad, so
    must also be Jihad.

    But the fact is that saying that Jihad is on par with
    pograms and gulags is the MOST RETARDED THING ever.

    But it is in line with the world wide brain-washing that
    has occured since the WWII.

    Wake up people!

  11. RK
    January 26th, 2007 @ 6:00 pm

    Whether he truly is theistic or not, it is safe to assume that Obama knows that proclaiming himself to be an atheist would essentially kill his presidential campaign and/or future political career. All things considered…if he is indeed an atheist, I (regrettably) believe that he has painted himself in the best light.

  12. Lucy Muff
    January 27th, 2007 @ 1:45 am

    Andy holland is onlyone what is making sense here. Rest of atheists is too dumb for words, as usual.

  13. JUST_ANOTHER_PRIMATE
    January 29th, 2007 @ 10:00 am

    Ahem …. I believe that Hitler’s stance could be view as believing an absolute truths — that the Arian race should reign supreme etc …. (and quite ‘possiblly’ that he was ultimately doing god’s work) ….

    Relativists and absolutists have both been responsible for unspeakable atrocities. Seems like neither faith nor a disbelief in god matters when it comes to mankind being cruel to others of their species.

    Although —– One absolute truth is that: Andy Holland is a dork.

  14. Some Guy
    January 30th, 2007 @ 11:11 pm

    Just talk about Brian Flemming or something.

  15. Todd
    February 3rd, 2007 @ 8:07 am

    When I read the passage, I inferred that Obaba was talking against dogmatic thinking.

    True, he does state, “… rejection of absolute truth,” but he follows it with “the infallibility of any idea or ideology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, …”

    It seems to me that nekuoken nailed it in the first post. Obama seems to be against the idea of ‘staying the course’ at all costs regardless of the consequenses. Identifying the American dream as an ideal is not the problem… Identifying the way to get there and declaring that way the ONLY way IS the problem. The end product of the American dream essentially doesn’t change. The process of getting there must constantly be evaluated and modified. The former requires humility, the ability to admit you were wrong, and the ability to correct for mistakes made. The latter is a trait of said tyrannical consistency.

    An analogy: You decide to take a vacation by car to Florida. No problem. You plan your driving route. No problem. You decide you will stay with your driving route and drive 55mph regardless of the consequenses. Potential big problem, particularly when you get to the bridge that is out.

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