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The beliefs of Western liberal society are at a fundamental crossroads. In one direction, lies secular humanism — at the other, lies ancient Judeo-Christian heritage and its supposed claim of relevance. Most individuals walk a very fine line between the two; holding onto the cultural implications of religion, while also not minding its declining involvement in government. Belief acts as a mediator which holds this delicate balance together.

Belief, in and of itself, is a obligatory view. It is a tenet you live your life by, and it has profound implications on your social psychology and the general organization of a civilization. It would be foolish to discredit the influence of religiosity in the West, in spirit and in practice. However, belief can function as a sort of ideological trapSimply put, acting on a belief is not equivalent to actually believing it. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides us with a story to illustrate this point, in which he tells us the tale of physicist Niels Bohr.

“A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!” [1] 

In an excellent passage, Zizek essentially explains the function of belief in modern society. Although individuals may personally not believe an ideology, they act as if they do because they take it others believe. In fear of reprisals, they then live as if the belief is theirs. But there is a twist: what if the other individuals do not believe it either? With this, an entire belief system is build upon the existence of non-belief among individuals. I take religion to be in this same stride, functioning as a belief in a sea of disillusioned disciples.

Such a statement is hardly revealing to the standard American Christian household. The father takes his son to Church, to educate his child on Christian values. The father, himself, was pressured to do so by his own parents. They would be disappointed if he raised his children without such a pretense. The father, himself, does not believe, but acts as if he believes to give a proper impression on his parents. The child lacks the belief also, but to not disappoint his father, he refuses to tell him. Instead, he acts as if he believes. Here, we have a situation of two non-believers, paradoxically imposing a belief on one another. Would it not be another twist of irony to say the father’s parents do not believe, just as the father and the son do not? This belief is likewise solidified, passed through familial relationships, and built upon a structure of non-belief — giving those trapped within this dilemma the illusion of a belief that is absent from the individual’s own choosing, being imposed on them by the technicalities of human relationships.

This is the death of God. The death of God is not external invasion unto the Christian church hierarchy. It is not an attack from outside the prayer circles — it is within them. It is when God as an entity becomes irrelevant to the actual substance of belief, being replaced by a complex foundation of non-belief. In Europe, trends of non-belief are stronger than in the United States. According to surveys by the Financial Times/Harris Poll, only 27% of individuals living in France truthfully believe in a Christian God or Supreme deity. This is contrasted with 73% of those in the United States [2]. Bearing in mind the different histories of European and American ancestry, I take it that such a large disparity between religiosity is largely due to the culture of the United States. Religious disbelief is looked down upon, even persecuted, in American media and society — denigrated in excessively negative terms. The question is, how many of the religious belief structures in the United States are founded on fear of consequences? Potentially, very many, I would say.

However, the implications extend further than Zizek’s story on ideology. Equally important are those that believe (for cultural reasons generally), but live their lives as if they do not. Done through ritualistic ends, their religious ideology becomes a routine rather than a philosophy of action. For many Western Christians, this is the reality. They find themselves lofting to church on some Sundays, and then vehemently arguing over whether we should say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, and fighting to preserve prayer before football games [3]. The extent of Christian ideology in American culture has largely become a gimmick of cultural preservation more than anything else, serving as the last backlash of a decaying social phenomenon.

Christian ideology makes many universal claims. It promotes objective truth and meaning, a belief system that is dogmatic and said to be true by its disciples. They have this bastion of knowledge, the key to God’s judgement and mercy, that is said to be the absolute truth. And yet they live their lives as if this is hidden, only resurrecting (excuse the pun) it when socially beneficial. If an individual held such truth of the universe, would they not devote their entire lives if they believed so strongly it was true, rather than bickering over trivialities on cable television? The charade of these religious charlatans defending “Judeo-Christian America” is a testament to the hypocrisy of the ideology in the hearts of those that follow it. True belief would not frequent itself in discussions on media sensationalism, in an attempt to keep what always has been in American society; it would prepare, and act, in the interests of God and rely on his judgements. Perhaps if they took God’s objective truth to its fullest conclusion, they would sit and pray rather than rely on themselves. If they are so convinced of their beliefs, they would be equally be convinced God would give them a hand.

The death of God does not involve the elimination of religion, nor does it involve the tearing down of religious institutions. It involves the hollowing out of religion by its believers. It makes God into a centerpiece of disbelief, propped by complex interlocked relationships and cultural enforcement. A belief propped by non-belief, it finds itself as the comfort to those that fear the destruction of their religious and cultural identity. It finds itself as the poster-child of reactionary backlash, the broken center of the exaggerated dichotomy of secularism and religiosity, and the illusionary opponent of civil institutions by religious disciples that lack the belief themselves. During the height of Catholic ascendancy, the belief was not so fractured. Prayer was seen as a powerful tool; the Devil was a real distinguishable threat. We have long abandoned such views, despite what is heard in Evangelical circles (I can assure you there would be little hesitation for them to take human action over prayer if their own lives were in peril). Let’s be frank, God is dead –The emperor has no clothes on, we are looking straight at him, but we are too naive to admit it.

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Bernie Madoff — the con, the criminal, the fraud, and the scum of the corporate establishment. These were the titles given to this corrupt financier, but above all, he was said to simply be a “bad egg” in a basket of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and “job creators.”

However, despite these claims, Madoff’s case is not unique. Madoff’s real crime was that he stepped outside the circle of appropriate corporate conduct, whose edge tends to gravitate farther and farther away from lawfulness as income rises. The reality of wealth privilege within the institutions that are publicly seen as ‘just’ is a causality of a system that rewards excess. Most shocking, however, is how the personal endeavors of these individuals clash with their fraudulent actions. Madoff, perhaps, is the epitome of such a phenomenon. Although stealing billions of dollars, he was also a devoted philanthropist. His largest beneficiary was the Picower Foundation, which allocated the funds to organizations such the Boy Scouts of America and the Children’s Aid Society. NY Times reports the funds as:

* 2007 — $23,424,401 (See the 2007 Form 990 filed by the Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.)
* 2006 — $20,184,183 (See the Form 990.)
* 2005 — $27,662,893 (See the Form 990.)

In total, $958 million was donated to the Picower Foundation.

Other charities were involved, and were almost entirely dependent on Madofff’s funds. As reported by the NY Times, some of them included:

  • $145 million to the Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation
  • $20 million to Tufts University
  • $18 million to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles
  • $19 million to the Madoff Family Foundation
  • $90 million to the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization
  • $100 – $125 million to Yeshiva University

These are incredible amounts of money, so abuse comes to no surprise; but is it not an anomaly that the worst white-collar criminal in history was also one of the ‘greatest’ philanthropists, by modern standards? Acting as a perverse indulgence, charity might not be as chivalrous of an act as socially understood. Seen as a mechanism of redemption, this behavior is typical in this category of criminal activity. Bernard Ebbers, convicted in 2005 of similar crimes, showed the same phenomenon, having donated over $100 million dollars to charity over the course of ten years. Corporations are no exception; Enron was also a known giver to charity, 

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay exemplified the company’s philanthropy, endowing several professorships at the University of Houston and Rice University, while the company itself was known for its generous gifts to arts groups, scholarship funds, and the Texas Medical Center.

Such behavior, interestingly enough, correlates with the religious attitude seen when the Catholic Church held immense power in Europe during the Middle Ages. In an effort to ‘save’ those in Purgatory, having commited sins on Earth, priests charged individuals sums of money for indulgences, or remissions, to free or limit the time their loved ones would be trapped in this supernatural lingo. Priests, making huge individual profits, attempted to justify their accumulations through Church-sanctioned actions. In effect, they stole with one hand and ‘saved’ with the other.

In a modern twist, corporate crime is looking  for that same metaphysical ‘salvation,’ and they certainly found it in charity. Functioning as an egoist drive, this behavior only highlights the disparity of behavior within certain classes of the social strata. Little rationality can be viewed amongst those that accumulate such large reserves of finance power, as they scramble to find redemption in a sea of fraud and narcissism. It is this crude revelation that illustrates the paradox of corporate conduct — as long as you appear charitable, what is done behind closed doors is forgivable. Or so the twisted mindset goes.

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More info on the “Paradox of Fraud and Philanthropy” 

Just as a quick note, I’ve gotten to moving most of my old posts from Blogspot onto this medium. So if any of you are wondering “hey, look at all these new posts!” they’re simply writings that have been accumulating over the last few months on my old blog. Be sure to check them out, I managed to set them by date accordingly as they originally were — but please forgive me if there are any formatting issues, I’ll be fixing them in the upcoming days.

When analyzing debt and economic growth, usually only government debts are examined. They are seen as a corollary to economic crises, devaluation of currencies, and government defaults — and while I’m not going to dispute or discuss these claims here in this post, perhaps on a later day, I will say that they are misleading trends of analyses in relation to the current financial crisis. There is another ‘kind’ of debt that is up for discussion and more pertinent to the crisis of 2007 — credit market debt, which consists of domestic non-financial sectors (household debt, business/corporate debt, and government debt) and domestic financial sector debt.

This explosion of credit began around the time of the institution of ‘Reaganomics,’ where individuals took to lending and spending over saving despite stagnant wages. 

A more detailed look of the trend since 2002, with its peak. The shaded area depicts the length of the recession.

However, the above graphs show the total credit market debt. Broken down, household (consumer) credit debt depicts the same trend.

What does all this mean? Fundamentally, this means that the expansive economic growth of the previous three decades were on shaky footing to begin with, likely leading to the global economic collapse that followed. The impact of the credit boom since the 1980s is described in an article by the research institute Center for American Progress (CAP) by Christian E. Weller. He writes:

“The debt is highest among the middle class. Middle-income families before the crisis had a debt-to-income ratio of 155.4 percent in 2007, the last year for which data are available, for families with incomes between $62,000 and $100,000, which constituted the fourth quintile of income in our nation in 2007. This ratio is higher than for any other income group. Families in the top 20 percent of income (with incomes above $100,000) had a ratio of debt to income of 123.6 percent, and families in the third quintile (with incomes between $39,100 and $62,000) owed 130.7 percent of their income. Households in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (with incomes below $39,100 in 2007) owed well below 100 percent of their income.”

Shocking as it is, this is the not the first time such a credit upsurge occurred. There was a similar phenomenon that occurred before the Great Depression of the 30s. Samuel Brittan, in his review of Richard Duncan’s ‘The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy,’ writes:

“It is certainly striking how both the 1929 Wall Street crash and the 2007-08 financial crisis were preceded by a huge credit explosion. Credit market debt as proportion of US gross domestic product jumped from about 160 per cent in the mid-1920s to 260 per cent in 1929-30. It then fell sharply in the 1930s to its original position. Later it surged ahead in two upswings after 1980 to reach 350 per cent of GDP in 2008.

The corresponding graphic, using the analysis by Jeffrey Gundlach, Chief Investment Officer from TCW:

This analysis of crises in relation to credit market debt is attributed to economist Irving Fisher, and his ideas were largely ignored in favor of mainstream Keynesian view of economic crises, which argued that they were caused by an insufficiency of aggregate demand. Since the recent economic crash of 2007, Fisher’s ideas have enjoyed a resurgence in economic thought. His theory on debt deflation has been of significant fascination in the heterodox Post-Keynesian school of economics, and is now beginning to enter the mainstream. Economist Paul Krugman discusses Fisher’s ideas in one of his posts on his blog “Conscious of a Liberal” in the NY Times — below is the graphic taken from the article (with added information).        

Since the total credit market debt owed has been stagnant since late 2009, reaching its ‘peak,’ and if GDP steadily keeps rising, it is likely that debt deflation will occur all the same as it did during the Great Depression. However, the issue of private debt and its hindrance on the consumer is still an issue — and if spending is ever to increase significantly, the issue of wages and consumer debt must be addressed.

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– An analysis of the total credit market debt by Crestmont Research.

The joke, as Zizek tells it, goes along these lines:

A man is convinced he is a grain of seed. He is quickly taken to a mental institution where the doctor eventually convinces him that he not a grain of seed; he is a man. He is then supposedly cured and is permitted to leave the hospital. However, once he steps outside, he immediately rushes back in trembling with fear. “There is a chicken outside,” the man says “and he is going to eat me.” The doctor tells him, “Come now, you know very well you not a grain of seed, but a man.” “You and I surely know that,” the man tells him, “but does the chicken know?”

This just tells us the nature of psychoanalytic study — it not enough to convince the truth to the patient, but one must also be convinced that others assume that same truth. It is this struggle of truths that encapsulates the psychiatric field, which attempts to normalize individuals who have accepted a reality different than that of one’s peers.

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