Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Veneer of Progress / Beyond the Natural

Rod Dreher is the editor of The American Conservative magazine. He's become a bit of a celebrity in Christian circles for pushing the so-called "Benedict Option", which argues that American culture has become incompatible with Christianity and that Christians need to disengage from the culture rather than try to transform it. One could also argue he's trying to transform an exoteric into an esoteric religion. I don't know if such a thing is possible without fundamentally changing the nature of the faith itself.

I was working on a post about Dreher because like so many Christians he seems to think Gnosticism can mean whatever he needs it to mean whenever he wants to attack someone else within his own religion. In this case he was attacking a nun who was pushing Transhumanism. Strangely enough it seems that the only places you see serious discussion of Transhumanism anymore are in religious circles, both pro and con, I should note.

For some reason I followed a link to another discussion where Dreher was unloading on a trend I thought was extremely curious, and that is atheists going for divinity degrees into order to facilitate "activist" work. I didn't care at all to read it into this any further until one of these atheists chimed in to bother Dreher.

The poster in question called himself "Schmendrick", which was all too appropriate given the pile of utter nonsense he dropped. 
As one of the millennial “nones” and with a friend who I’m also sure is a “none” at heart attending a Divinity School precisely so he can go into activism and social work, I can assure Mr. Dreher that for a non-trivial number of us, we search for meaning apart from the divine because divine metaphysics make no sense to us…all the supernatural stuff cuts against everything we see in daily life, which is a constant celebration of the power of naturalistic knowledge. Cell-phones, computers, the internet, advanced mathematics, space travel, self-driving cars, drones – the world of the young is filled to bursting with evidence that man can successfully understand, manipulate, and control the whole visible world (and huge swathes of the invisible one) without any recourse to mystery or supernatural explanations...If you want to re-sanctify the culture, the biggest hurdle is squaring the idea that the human spirit is fundamentally not of this world with the history of the past two hundred years, which rather decisively show that the human spirit is actually fantastically good at relating to and mastering this world.

Where do you begin? Even in the context of naturalistic science, this thinking- so dominant within his generation- is so profoundly ignorant, narcissistic and solipsistic as to be beyond the pale of reason.  

First of all, drones? FUCKING DRONES? Does this Schmendrick realize that half the things he champions here are surveillance devices?

But more seriously, please note that this is the voice of wealth and unimaginable privilege, youth and health. It's the voice of someone raised in absolute comfort and security, which is not the experience of huge swathes of humanity even today. It's not the voice of someone whose father was killed by security services or whose sister died of dysentery because there was no clean water or whose brother was maimed fighting a bitter insurrection against a corrupt government.

It's not the voice of a terminal cancer patient or abuse survivor. It's not the voice of a laid-off steel worker who'll never find full-time employment again. It's not the voice of a single mother who takes a bus at 5:30 in the morning to work 12 hours in an illegal factory that pays below minimum wage and ignores all state and Federal safety and worker protection regulations.

In other words, it's not the voice of the overwhelming majority of humanity, struggling to get through the day in an increasingly Social Darwinist world. 

It's the voice of someone who's been mediated their entire life by a corporate oligarchy which wants everyone to think and believe the exact same way.

And our "naturalistic knowledge?" Increasingly, we're learning more about what we don't know than what we do. And we're learning just how limited our tools are in the face of that ignorance and how our footprint on the planet seems to be confined more and more to urban centers, since our explorer spirit has largely been extinguished.  

As to "controlling the whole visible world", the fact is we don't really know what's in our solar system, in our forests, in our oceans, or beneath the earth's surface. Anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot or a liar. The uncountable majority of the earth's surface has never been foot-surveyed. The depths of the ocean may as well be on another planet.

"Mastering the world?" We've been enjoying a brief and unusual temperate period, one in which the unimaginable violence of the planet has been relatively restrained. But already we are seeing an increase in tectonic and volcanic activity (as well as related activity like sinkholes), activity against which all the self-driving cars in the world will be next to useless.

This is now the fourth anniversary of a disastrous storm here in which a soft, gentle snow resulted in explosions that sounded like the invasion of Normandy, as branches weighed down by leaves were unable to cope with the additional weight. We lost power for a week. Cars, homes, powerlines were all destroyed by nothing more than a foot and change of snow. Technology was useless in the face of this.

Never mind the Superstorm the following year.

California and the Southwest continue to struggle against an historical, maybe even prehistorical drought. We still see floods (like the recent one in South Carolina), monsoons, tsunamis and other disasters that take every scrap of technology, machinery and transportation we have and toss them in a septic stew that can form overnight and take years to recover from.

Huge chunks of the globe are currently experiencing war and political upheaval. There are huge migrations underway that will bring political chaos and social unrest in their wake. The European project is almost certainly doomed, its vaunted and envied welfare state will almost certainly collapse for good within the next year or two. And all of this is presuming that the superpowers don't go to war over the many flashpoints that are flaring up presently.

And this is all during one of the environmentally moderate periods. What would happen if our Biosphere got cranky? Or heaven forbid, our Sun? Every scrap of technology we have could be instantly rendered completely inert by a bad enough solar storm. Who knows what could happen if we suddenly found ourselves faced with a magnetic pole shift.

Many scholars believe that the so-called Dark Ages of Europe were brought about because of a natural disaster that brought down the once-formidable social infrastructure of the Roman Empire to nearly Neolithic levels. A similar catastrophe today would end it all.

How brainwashed, how fooled we are by the veneer of progress. Turn these gadgets off for a week and the Schmendricks of the world would be curled into fetal positions, unable to take in solid food. The arrogance, the ignorance, the sheer audacity. And this is what Divinity Schools are filled with? No wonder the churches are emptying. 

I wouldn't even bother to argue for a super-natural worldview to a Schmendrick (note this is different than mere supernaturalism). The naturalistic worldview is now dominant. But it's going to fail and we will all suffer the consequences of that. Already it's failed to deliver on its most extravagant promises (unless you have a bungalow on the Moon you're not telling me about). When it finally collapses, only then we will try something else.


  1. That is what you call both barrels!!
    and bloody fantastic to boot. :)

    I almost choked on my laughter as I read 'Schmendricks' point of view, until I realised he( he sounds like a he...) might actually be serious..........

    1. He's dead serious. Which is why this society is finished. Read this:

  2. There is a definite reaction against the facts lately. I heard a radio interview with some WSJ journalist who was scoffing at the idea that a return to economic growth was inevitable. I had to wonder if he had been paying attention to his own newspaper.

    1. The facts aren't looking too great. And we have a increasingly Soviet press that thinks reality is treason to the Great Leap Forward.

  3. They say they don't teach the Classics anymore, but in reality these Schmendricks couldn't be bothered, would rather take in a (ugh) TED Talk. Otherwise, they would know:

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. - Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

    >"First of all, drones? FUCKING DRONES? Does this Schmendrick realize that half the things he champions here are surveillance devices?"

    Of course he knows this. He WELCOMES it, as do so many of his ilk, a generational shift that was inevitable with time. The eternal Mommy and Daddy watches over him as he mutters into his safety blanket that he has nothing to hide, so why worry?

    And in his world, there's an app for everything, from getting his laundry done by that single mother who takes a bus at 5:30 in the morning, to getting his Thai fusion dinner delivered by that laid-off steel worker. In his thinking they are exactly where they belong, serving him invisibly so he doesn't have to be more than a bit vaguely guilty about it, but then, there's an app for that, too. Send $20 to Bono's favorite charity and all his sins are forgiven.

    1. Well, you lived in the belly of the Beast so I think we should take heed of your observations here. I think you're right. Which is yet another reason it's all going to fall apart. The incredible injustice built into this new paradigm.

  4. People like Schmendrick are the same kind of people who say things like, "True religion is about living a good life here and now, not about the supernatural or an afterlife." Karen Armstrong, whom I roundly dislike, said that, in essence, in an interview in Salon several years (at a time that Salon was more worth reading).

    She was talking about the Axial Age and the development of world religions, and arguing that they were about the realization of the individual and enhancing human life. The interviewer asked her something about metaphysical teachings and teachings on the afterlife, and she got testy, saying in effect, "No, no, no! That's not what religion is reeeeally about! It's about the here and now!"

    Which is easy to say if your here and now is that of a comfortable, white academic/writer in the First World. That kind of stuff totally disgusts me.

    1. Armstrong is one of those public intellectuals who is desperate to butter up her audience, not challenge or educate them. She exists to cement their prejudices and instill them all with the magic power of SmartThink®, that wonderful consumer product that gives you that fresh, zesty feeling of erudition and moral superiority.

  5. I also agree about the term "Gnostic". It's getting to be where conservative Christians use "Gnostic" more or less like Eric Voegelin did, where it boils down to meaning "something I don't like". To apply it to transhumanism doesn't make a lick of sense to me.

    1. It didn't seem to make sense to a lot of his readers. I think Dreher was reading a certain troll's drivel and thought he could score some cheap points by bashing a philosophy he doesn't even begin to understand. You want to talk about religious communities dealing with hostile majorities? How about the Druze, Yazidi and Mandaeans, all ancient, all Gnostic to the core, Rod? He's so out of his depth.

  6. I actually read Rod Dreher's blog regularly, since though I usually disagree, there are some interesting discussions there. His Benedict Option seems hopelessly muddled, since he will say he doesn't mean to go Amish and physically withdraw from society--rather, he means to shore up the (conservative) Christian faith by withdrawing from mainstream culture and emphasizing faith.

    In the Internet Age, I don't see how you do that without more or less giving up most or all media, which he seems uninclined to do. In fact, he's heavily into pop culture, he's a big foodie, and while he talks about humble withdrawal, he took his family to spend a month in France about two years ago, and went to Italy for a few weeks this year to research something he was working on.

    Ironically, he's always criticizing modern Christianity for losing its emphasis on asceticism!

    He strikes me as a basically decent guy who just isn't self-aware enough to see how contradictory his thought is, and how he essentially wants to have his cake and eat it, too. The tipping thing about the Benedict Option is that he's been in full freakout mode over same sex marriage for years, and went totally hysterical after the SCOTUS ruling last summer. He's freaking out now that the Pope may--may--loosen the rules about divorced Catholics receiving Communion. It's really re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Also ironically, he's said numerous times that if one of his kids turned out gay he wouldn't reject them, would maintain the relationship, etc. That's laudable, and as it should be; but once more, it's totally contradictory. If gay marriage threatens to erode the very basis of our civilization (and he's essentially said that many, many times, then how is it OK to be OK with your gay kids? It's like saying, "Bobby joined ISIS but I'm maintaining the relationship...." I'm not arguing for an anti-SSM stand or saying that gay kids ought to be mistreated or shunned--far from it. What I'm saying is that once again, he seems to want to have his cake and eat it, too. Rail at SSM and the dissolution of society caused by the gay agenda, but simultaneously say, "Hey, I'd hang with that nice gay couple down the street!" (and yes, he's literally said both of those things). The mind boggles.

    1. I don't understand the guy and I don't really understand the Benedict Option. He's trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube and pretend that the past 2000 years didn't happen. But it's not my fight. Schmendrick was right in one way, young people are going to want something besides tradition to hold on to. He just doesn't realize how illusory the things he puts his faith in are, how easily they can all be taken away.

  7. "After simmering years of censorship and repression, the masses finally throng the streets. The chants echoing off the walls to build to a roar from all directions, stoking the courage of the crowds as they march on the center of the capital. Activists inside each column maintain contact with each other via text messages; communications centers receive reports and broadcast them around the city; affinity groups plot the movements of the police via digital mapping. A rebel army of bloggers uploads video footage for all the world to see as the two hosts close for battle. Suddenly, at the moment of truth, the lines go dead. The insurgents look up from the blank screens of their cell phones to see the sun reflecting off the shields of the advancing riot police, who are still guided by close circuits of fully networked technology. The rebels will have to navigate by dead reckoning against a hyper-informed adversary.

    All this already happened, years ago, when President Mubarak shut down the communications grid during the Egyptian uprising of 2011. A generation hence, when the same scene recurs, we can imagine the middle-class protesters - the cybourgeoisie - will simply slump forward, blind and deaf and wracked by seizures as the microchips in their cerebra run haywire, and it will be up to the homeless and destitute to guide them to safety.”
    ― CrimethInc., Contradictionary

  8. Exactly my point. "How easily they can all be taken away."

  9. Two cents: if many people today didn't take this line for all its worth- hook line and sinker- that our world has no cracks, everything is explained, and we can fill in what we don't know with some pretty good guesswork... all that is Science with a capital S and plenty of Scientists out there have the same belief... and it is a belief after all isn't it.

    The truth is we live on an island, a big island we think, but no so big after all, and a part of that island we can understand a little bit, enough to get thru the day, to send a man to the moon maybe, yes even fly some drones... we can solve a few problems... but the island itself hasnt been mapped out as you say. We are a page in the House of Mystery...

    We don't really know what is here- pretty obvious Bigfoot is a reality- but he has kept his distance. And on all sides we are surrounded by the Unknown. Dark matter... forget dark matter there is so much we don't get that's a little slice of the pie- dark matter is just a little slice- and what we do get you can hardly taste.

    Of course there was a time we thought we knew everything there was to know... and yes some people seem to still buy into that idea... but you don't need a degree to know it aint true...

    Anyway you did a superlative job. Quite an intelligent counter to a very prevalent worldview that holds very little weight. Good job... and quite interesting to boot.

    1. Thank you James. The island metaphor is excellent since the Schmendricks of the world live on an island that they mistake for the world. But schmendricks throughout history have done so only to watch those islands sink beneath the waves. Everyone thinks they are the Crown of Creation until the city walls are knocked down.

  10. We're doomed, Chris. We're relying on our technical prostheses. So what? That asteroid is coming and people don't wanna see it, so what? We're going to die. There's no hope at the macro scale. The universe is vast and deep and we will be gone, will be gone, will be gone... So what? All the shit will be gone either; all the violence, the ignorance, the stupidity, the suffering; isn't this a release?

    But I'm probably to optimistic here. All the good things will be gone. The ignorance and the brutality are probably unkillable.

    1. Well, you gotta cling to hope. You'll find it gets you out of bed in the morning.

  11. Dreher occasionally sticks his head out of his churchy turtle shell to do things like write glowingly of Kripal's Authors of the Impossible ( but then yanks his head back in and freaks out about any cultural "assault" on his hidebound conservative Christian traditions, such as people now getting gay chocolate in his Christian peanut butter. But he does now and then try to widen his view, at least about things paranormal.

    1. It makes me wonder. I was actually taken aback by his freakout over gay marriage, I thought he was a little more enlightened than that. And this Gnostic-bashing is not only atypical it's also dumb as dirt. He should be studying the Gnostics in Iraq for survival pointers.

  12. I think 'ol Schmendrick is a product of this.... (

  13. A breakaway civilization will split for the stars, meanwhile the meek shall inherit the earth. Where does that leave the Schmendricks?


    The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism

    Worth a viewing when you have the time.

    "Schmendrick" wouldn't understand. Even if he tried.

  15. "Many scholars believe that the so-called Dark Ages of Europe were brought about because of a natural disaster that brought down the once-formidable social infrastructure of the Roman Empire to nearly Neolithic levels. A similar catastrophe today would end it all."

    Certainly, the Saxons emerged as a formidable fighting force out of necessity as climate change destroyed the agricultural base of their German homeland. If you look at the Medieval period, it was far from a truly "dark age" with an incredible amount of prosperity, peace and even advancement of thought up until the 1300's. Then climate change (possibly due to volcanic activity - not just man-made or deforestation and over farming soil depletion) and the devastation of the plague (brought about in part due to improved trade with the Orient) led to wars, famine and death. As a result, the Christian faith grew even more widely out of these social, political and natural disasters. Certainly, the world looked like it was headed toward the tribulations foretold in Apocalypse - or, more likely, the Church promoted the interpretation of Biblical prophecy to sell that conception. Even today, much of the Apocalyptic thinking actually emerged from those times rather than the original Christian Church.

  16. "We don't really know what is here- pretty obvious Bigfoot is a reality- but he has kept his distance. And on all sides we are surrounded by the Unknown. Dark matter... forget dark matter there is so much we don't get that's a little slice of the pie- dark matter is just a little slice- and what we do get you can hardly taste."

    A lot of people aren't aware that there are very convincing and mainstream models of the universe based on Relativity that require no dark matter or dark energy to explain its expansion and motion.

  17. I love that you want to have a conversation about synchronicity but what you don’t talk about is probability – and we need to. You must know that probability is the most prominent rejoinder to claims of synchronicity.

    In technical terms something is significant when its likelihood of happening by “chance” is statistically low. That is how gold standard randomised controlled trials (RTC) determine “significance”. That is “science”. Now I agree that what we are looking at can never conform to RTC protocol. In fact if you want to critique science you attack the extent to which they fail to meet their own criteria. A lot of the “evidence” generated by “science” can be critiqued in this fashion. So don’t be disappointed when sync can’t meet the gold standard. Little can.

    But you can ask yourself: How likely is it that this happened by chance?

    I don’t want to piss on people’s syncs. Some awe me. But there is a lot of noise around them. It’s important to me because I think there is significant “communication” that is being lost in this “noise”.

    Consider this: The opposite of “science” is treating all results as if they were of equal validity and reliability. There is no critical appraisal. Frankly, that is how I view the current state of sync.

    To some extent I am guilty of this but in my defence I subscribe to “grounded theory” and am currently in an empirical mode of “observation”.

    My biggest concern is “theory-ladened observation”. I have been there so I can tell you that when you look for something you will find it.

    It’s such a delicate terrain that we as syncers traipse. Develop your own gold standard.

    That’s what I want to say: Have a gold standard.

    There are other areas of human experience that cannot meet the RCT Gold standard. Smoking never has. As a discipline Social Work never will. They formulate their own gold standards. So will we....Or not...Thoughts, Chris?

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  20. I've stated and restated this many, many times over the past several years as I have ideas along the same lines. So I can only conclude that you don't actually read my work. I'll post this as a courtesy nonetheless.

    "The entire mechanism behind Synchronicity is meaning, not mere coincidence. Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.

    It's why I have argued that people should concentrate only on those coincidences that are supercharged with meaning, so much so that they are nearly supernatural in their content. Those usually are the ones that lead to life changes, from the small and curious to the huge and profound.

    Throw the rest back."

    I also wrote this recently: "Well, I think the first thing you need to do is de-science the shit out of (Synchronicity). Take it entirely out of the realm of science (or pseudoscience) and back into the realm of the paranormal, where it belongs. Whether you choose to view it through the lens of psi or mysticism is your call."

    I should add we discussed all of this in the most recent Synchronicity post.