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2024 | Book

Religion and Social Criticism

Tradition, Method, and Values


About this book

This volume brings together emerging and established religious ethicists to investigate how those in the field carry forward the practice and tradition of social criticism and, at the same time, how social criticism informs the scholarly values of their field. Contributors reflect on the nature of the moral subject and the ethical weight of human dignity and consider the limits and possibilities of religious humanism in orienting the work of social criticism. They compare religious sources and forms of research in religious ethics to secular sources and the tradition of liberal social criticism. And they offer proposals for how religious ethics can help humanists navigate our complex and multicultural moral landscape and what this field reveals about the ultimate ends of humanistic scholarship.

Table of Contents

On Religion and Social Criticism
In an effort to understand how religious ethicists carry the practice and tradition of social criticism forward, the contributors to this volume investigate the unique religious resources that religious ethicists draw upon to evaluate social practices and the methods of humanistic scholarship that encourage dialectical exchange about matters of religion and ethics in our multicultural politics. While we draw from diverse intellectual, methodological, and religious commitments, we all have academic and personal connections to Richard B. Miller, with the diversity of our perspectives and projects reflecting the breadth of his own interests. Individually and collectively, our chapters give textual shape to the robust interdisciplinary conversations that Miller’s research and teaching have inspired over the course of his career, especially those pertaining to the content of and justification for humanistic scholarship. Throughout this volume, we aim to offer guidelines for and advances within the study of religion through social criticism.
Caroline Anglim, Bharat Ranganathan

Humanism, Human Dignity, and Social Criticism

Which Criticism and Whose Humanism?
Richard Miller throughout his works has made an argument for the importance of social and cultural criticism in the work of ethics and drawn especially on arguments in liberal political theory to do so. Lately, he has joined many other scholars, including the author of this chapter, in calling for a form of humanism, what he calls “Critical Humanism.” In this chapter, I set Miller’s arguments in the context of the larger debate about a renewed humanism and isolate key contemporary advocates. In the end, I contend that humanism commits one to a form of hermeneutical, or interpretive, framework in which the complexity of human existence can be understood, and dehumanizing ways of life criticized through cultural forms. Further, I contend that the religions with their symbolic, ritual, and narrative forms provide an indispensable rhetorical resource for that hermeneutical stance, with the resulting position being, on my account, Theological Humanism drawn from Christian sources. Theological and Critical humanism form, I show, a hermeneutical circle important for the study of religion.
William Schweiker
Christian Humanism on the Individual and Human Dignity
This chapter examines two necessary elements of any humanism: the human person as individual, and the irreducible dignity of each person. It does so from the vantage point of Christian humanism, focusing on three authors from different eras: Julian of Norwich (1342–ca. 1416), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), and Pope Francis (1936–). Their respective accounts of selfhood and human dignity have much to contribute during a time of hyper-individualism marked by violence. In particular, these three humanists, however different their explanations might be from one another, all give insight into how to check and repair the dislocation and distortion of the ideas of the individual and dignity.
Julia A. Lamm
Social Criticism and Islamic Ethics After 9/11: How Muslim Anthropologies Matter
Moral subjectivity is an important theme in Miller’s body of work, even though he invokes the term infrequently. Miller’s moral subject is the bearer of inherent and inviolable dignity and, on account of this dignity, the bearer of certain inviolable rights, the bearer of the right to defend those rights against threats, and the bearer of the right to be indignant against actual infractions. A subject forfeits these rights, including, notably, the right to pursue and revise his or her conception of the good, only if the subject threatens to deny or actually denies other moral subjects this right. It is the embrace of reciprocal and hence equal freedom to determine and pursue the good that makes someone a moral subject and an equal member of a community of moral agents. To refuse such consent is to merit rebuke, ostracization, and even punishment from a moral society. While I stand in fundamental agreement with Miller on this point, in this chapter I consider the difficulties that Miller’s account of the free moral self presents to accounts of religious identity, especially Muslim identity as conceived by the moral authorities and religious doctors of the Islamic tradition. I stage a dialogue between Miller and prominent Islamic thinkers and highlight what each can (and also, alas, may not be able to) learn from the other. I conclude with some suggestive ideas in Miller’s account that could bring the two into alignment and even reinforce what I am calling the troika of religious authenticity, moral selfhood, and human dignity.
Faraz M. Sheikh

Religious Ethics, Practical Ethics, and Social Criticism

Inhuman Weapons: Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles and the Moral Salience of Culture to Their Use in Central Asia
Just war literature largely rejects asymmetry of military capability between combatants as a valid moral ground for prohibiting the use of lethal uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) in combat. In this chapter, I apply Richard Miller’s “ethics of ordinary life” to defend the ethical salience of the “asymmetry objection.” Miller’s “ethics of ordinary life” foregrounds insights from cultural studies and ethnography, as well as the particularities of lived religion and local custom to qualify abstract concepts and widely held moral norms. Following an “ethics of ordinary life” approach, I examine the deployment of lethal UAVs in support of counterinsurgency efforts in Pashtun dominated regions of Afghanistan. I argue that the asymmetry objection gains force in this context because UAV use insulates operators from any battlefield risks, violating Pashtun conceptions of honorable combat to such a degree that it undermines the legitimacy of counterinsurgency operations. More than an affront to Pashtun values, the centrality of legitimacy to successful counterinsurgency operations means that UAV use in this context makes it impossible to satisfy the just war criterion of “reasonable chance of success,” calling into question the moral permissibility of deploying lethal UAVs in this theater of war and highlighting the importance of cultural knowledge to ethical inquiry in general.
John Sianghio
Prophetic Social Criticism, Solidarity, and Just War
Richard B. Miller’s account of liberal social criticism strikingly finds in the prophetic voices of religious traditions moral resources for cultivating a community of political solidarity and for fostering resistance to political power embedded in just war morality. This chapter explores the interrelationship and tensions between liberal social criticism and prophetic moral criticism, assessing whether Miller’s observations about prophetic narratives and voices intimate that prophetic criticism contributes something to the ethics of solidarity and just war that otherwise is neglected by secular or philosophical interpretations. I examine this issue initially by providing an exposition of the ethics of prophetic moral critique, incorporating exemplary narratives in the biblical literature, which focuses on a calling of a community to moral accountability. A prophetic ethics relies on a morally thick narrative of gift, empathy, memory, and community to move communities and social structures from oppression to social justice and care for the vulnerable that contrasts with the morally thin liberal critical narrative of rights and individualism. A prophetic moral voice may thereby provide different reasons or motivations for assuming similar ethical commitments of respect and equality advocated by liberal social criticism.
Courtney S. Campbell
Moral Distress and the Intrapsychic Hazards of Medical Practice
In this chapter, I will consider Miller’s reading of Augustine on the emotions that should arise in a person who, in pursuing justifiable ends, causes morally undesirable eventualities. Drawing on Miller’s article “Augustine, Moral Luck, and the Ethics of Regret and Shame,” I focus on the concept of what he calls “intrapsychic luck” and argue that it offers a new, further humanizing insight into discourses on moral distress in modern medicine. Moral distress, which was first coined in the nursing literature in 1984, has since gained traction in the wider medical literature, with some now hypothesizing it as a root cause of clinician burnout. I will briefly review this development and re-describe moral distress as a feeling of agent-regret that aptly arises in circumstances of what Miller calls “extrapsychic luck.” On this picture, intrapsychic luck clarifies an added source of moral distress that attends to the self’s anarchic desires. I illustrate this point in terms of the pervasive threats of self-interested careerism and commercialism in modern health care and the clinician’s struggle against self-alienation. I show that this struggle further elucidates moral distress as a deeper problem of professional identity and conclude by considering some practical implications of that insight.
Daniel T. Kim
Recognition on Demand: A Study of Religion in Conscience Protection Clauses
In Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine (2003), Richard B. Miller studies the motives of parents when they refuse medical treatments for their children and offers suggestions for how to balance the norms of beneficence and autonomy in pediatric care. In this chapter, I expand on his work by evaluating the limits of physician autonomy and the appropriate models of mutual decision-making in cases where professional standards cannot be met because of physicians’ religious or moral objections. After surveying important pieces of legislation that protect freedom of conscience in healthcare, I argue that many of these policies and laws attempt to justify the potential threats and burdens to patients that follow from physician refusals by appealing to the goods of moral or religious diversity in medicine. Similarly, medical ethicists and religious scholars who support conscience protections often appeal to the goods of religious diversity in public life and more generally to the unshakeable goods of religion without fully accounting for the material, social, and physical harms that may follow from these protections. Ultimately, these ideas about the goods of religion and religious diversity deplete the power of religious frameworks to find any leverage in materialist critiques of medicine or medical law because they necessitate something Miller has called “recognition-on-demand” or respect and accommodation without questioning. In short, this narrow conceptualization of religion and its place in public life strips religious ideas of their power to engage in social criticism. As such, this chapter contributes to debates on the meaning of a democratic commitment to pluralism and the degree to which individual religious beliefs or moral principles ought to be accommodated in the workplace.
Caroline Anglim
The Grieving Storyteller: Grief Narratives as a Source of Moral Reflection
In one of his most important books, Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Richard B. Miller argues that medical ethicists have too frequently focused on abstract moral and legal principles in wrestling with the issues raised by contemporary medical practice. Drawing on the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, Miller suggests that ethicists must attend to both the “experience-near” realities that patients and their families confront and the “experience-distant” work of connecting those realities to the theoretical principles that might help illuminate the existential and ethical problems faced by patients and families. In a useful analogy, Miller argues that the best strategy is to tack back and forth between the near and the distant such that one artfully occupies the intermediate space between personal and impersonal perspectives. In this chapter, I follow Miller’s advice to seek out the intermediate space between the lived reality of the bedside and the reflective domain of the scholar’s office. For most bioethicists that space is found in one of three ways. One encounters patients and their families as a clinician or as an observer of the clinical encounter. One attends carefully to illness narratives as a source of experience-near material. Or one reflects on one’s own experience as a patient or family member encountering medical practice. This chapter suggests that it is possible to combine these approaches. Specifically, I draw on the experience of accompanying my wife through her illness and death from ovarian cancer, as well as on grief memoirs to illuminate a neglected area of health humanities scholarship. Drawing on Arthur Frank’s classic study of illness narratives in The Wounded Storyteller, this chapter delineates similarities and between grief narratives and illness narratives. A comparison of these two genres suggests why the grief of patients and families is so often overlooked in accounts of the clinical encounter.
Paul Lauritzen

Religious Ethics, Methods, and Social Criticism

Political Polarization and Tending the Flames of Hostility
An important role of social criticism is to call out social and political policies and actions that disrespect the dignity of persons, wrongfully constrain their liberties, violate their rights, or otherwise undermine the moral foundations of democratic society. Focusing on the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, Richard B. Miller argues that violence committed in the name of religion is intolerable and must be denounced. Moreover, such behavior justifies feelings of indignation. This chapter draws parallels between the 9/11 attacks and the violent takeover of the US Capitol on 1/6/2021. It argues that, in both cases, the behavior was intolerable and ought to be condemned. Yet when we reflect on 1/6, we can perhaps discern more easily some of the dangers of recommending indignation as a response to harmful political action. Indignation typically includes some hostility, and hostility rarely stays within reasonable bounds. This chapter examines the Capitol attack in the context of extreme political polarization. It argues that indignation and hostility, while understandable, threaten to undermine the basic respect that we owe each other as persons. It homes in on the hostility that many Americans feel toward the people who participated in the attack, toward other Americans who share many of the attackers’ conservative social values, and toward fellow citizens who continue to tolerate and even celebrate a political figure who allegedly helped to instigate the event, foments hostility, and continues to undermine public trust in governmental institutions that protect people’s rights and liberties.
Diana Fritz Cates
Normativity and Solidarity
What methodologies should characterize religious ethics? How should religious ethics relate (or not relate) to religious studies? These questions have long confronted religious ethicists. But in the last decade, debates about what is and isn’t religious ethics have expanded and intensified, including not only disciplinary relationships and methodological commitments but also what the meaning and goals of religious ethics ought to be. In this chapter, I first briefly rehearse recent debates concerning whether and how religious ethics ought to be practiced. Second, I offer my own constructive proposal. Drawing from Richard B. Miller and David Hollenbach, my proposal argues that religious ethicists should use normative methodologies and by informed by a sense of intellectual solidarity. Given that we live in increasingly diverse and interconnected communities and are confronted by ever more pressing moral and political issues, however, demands that we move further to employ methodologies that are normative and solidaristic.
Bharat Ranganathan
Religion and Social Criticism
Bharat Ranganathan
Caroline Anglim
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