May 07, 2007
The Atheists Come Marching On and On...
Matt and Kevin are musing over what accounts for the recent spate of books aggressively defending atheism and attacking religion. "It seems especially odd to me." writes Matt, "because it's so contrary to the spirit of non-theism to go around writing books like this. The whole strength of the non-theistic intellectual enterprise over the years has simply been to go about our business without talking about God."
You're seeing, I think, a few forces at work here. One is that the rise of the Christian Right, and particularly the post-2004 narrative that they and their worldview reelected Bush, has merged religion and politics, and it would be contrary to the spirit of politics not to go around forcefully advocating for your views. The conflation created a new situation in which atheists actually had to argue down the Christian Right, since their beliefs were now morphing into policy positions.
Another is the nascent confidence among atheists that they're maturating into a real movement with a certain amount of sway, safety, and -- for lack of a better term -- evangelical potential. I don't think, as Matt does, that atheism is traditionally taken up by those who ignore the question of God. Those folks are generally agnostics. Atheists, in my experience, tend to dislike religion with a particular intensity, blaming it -- rightly or wrongly -- for all manner of historical atrocities, modern ills, and intellectual crimes. For some time, it wasn't safe, at least occupationally, to detail those complaints publicly. As a market has emerged for such opinions, however, and the Christian Right has courted enough controversy that their beliefs have become fair game, you're seeing the public expression of this form of atheism, which is as much an anti-theism as anything else.
May 05, 2007
The Wages of Atheism
I've never said this before, and never will again, but I'm with Karl Rove. I deeply envy individuals of faith, and would happily bargain away whatever satisfaction I supposedly derive from my bold freethinking for a sense of serenity, a perceived connection to a more permanent and grounding plane, and a steadying faith in the continuation of my consciousness. I know many atheists and even agnostics who seem to extract great pleasure from their worldview and its implications, but I'm manifestly not one of them.
March 21, 2007
Harold pulls no punches:
Consider the dilemma of the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and a leading figure in the Southern Baptist firmament.
Writing in his blog this month, Mohler acknowledged that " the direction of the research" increasingly points to the possibility that a "biological basis for sexual orientation exists."...how to reconcile a God who creates homosexuals with a God who condemns practicing homosexuals to hell? A mysterious God may be well and good, but a capricious or contradictory God can inspire so much doubt that He threatens the credibility of the entire religious enterprise.
After all, there are few American believers who don't profess at least some faith as well in the verities of proven science and the rightness of our national credo's commitment to human equality. By effectively insisting that God is a spiteful homo-hater, his followers saddle him with ancient phobias and condemn him to the backwaters of American moral life.
Snap! Though, frankly, this stuff doesn't seem particularly troublesome for religion. So much as there's an ongoing -- and loud! -- effort to remain culturally conservative, the nation's various churches and sects have proven nothing if not responsive to market pressures. Rock and roll, for instance, used to be devil music. Now there's Christian rock, rock and roll services, and pastors leading their flocks in loud renditions of "Let It Be." If the bulk of the nation's believers ever appear turned off by the church's discomfort with homosexuals, we'll find, rapidly, that that particular biblical admonition about as relevant as those surrounding it. Here, for those who forget, is Leviticus 18:22, the Bible's clearest statement on homosexuality:
20: Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her.
21: And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.
22: Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
23: Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.
Somehow, the churches get along without putting much emphasis on carnality with thy neighbor's wife. In a generation or two, they'll get along without making an overly big deal of homosexuality. And it will sound very, very weird when us old fogies recall the days when it was a dominant cultural concern.
September 25, 2006
The Problem With Judaism
I'd mostly associate myself with Matt's discomfort over the explicit zionism (and hawkishness) projected from rabbinical pulpits these days. The last time I entered Bat Yahm, the synagogue I grew up in, was for a reunion of my confirmation class. Seemed innocent enough. But the point wasn't the pretzels, or the juice, or the connections, but an extended lecture on the Jenin Incursion, the lies of the American media, and the obvious fact that the Jews would be "perfectly in their rights to deport the entire Palestinian population" and proved their moral superiority daily by not doing so. After shouting back for awhile, I eventually stood up, turned heel, and strode out. It was the last time I set foot in that temple.
The "partisanization" of Judaism, however, doesn't strike me as a particularly unique phenomenon. I assume the complaints of Matt and myself are fairly close echoes of those voiced by liberal Christians whose congregations have become wings of the Republican Party. The difference, as my girlfriend pointed out, is that the average few miles in DC, or Kansas, or California, will contain a multitude of churches, while the religious "market" supports fewer Jewish options. So there isn't an obvious place for many Jews -- myself included -- to turn.
December 31, 2005
Raisins in Paradise
Recent scholarship on the Koran suggests that the 72 virgins promised to Islamic martyrs may actually turn out to be 72 raisins:
For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for "houri," which means virgin, but Mr. Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin."
Mr. Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns of Paradise by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word paradise was derived from the Aramaic word for garden and all the descriptions of paradise described it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins, mentioned often as hur, Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of sexual favors.
Somebody's going to be disappointed in the afterlife. (Unless those raisins are really good.) In this vein, it's interesting to consider the commentator al-Suyuti, whose more traditional views of heaven were recorded over 500 years ago:
"Each time we sleep with a houri we find her virgin. Besides, the penis of the Elected never softens. The erection is eternal; the sensation that you feel each time you make love is utterly delicious and out of this world and were you to experience it in this world you would faint. Each chosen one [ie Muslim] will marry seventy [sic] houris, besides the women he married on earth, and all will have appetising vaginas."
It seems that al-Suyuti may be due for an appetising experience either way. I haven't found scholarship on the fate of female martyrs, but here's one female Islamic fundamentalist's opinion:
MD: According to the Koran, male martyrs are welcomed to paradise by 72 beautiful virgins; and women martyrs?
A: A woman martyr will be the person in charge, the manager, the officer of the 72 virgins, the fairest of the fair.
Administrative authority might appeal to some people, but to me it doesn't seem like quite as good a deal. Especially if you only end up being in charge of 72 raisins.
December 25, 2005
Islam Is a Religion of _____
Religions that are nominally unified can mean lots of different things to different people, especially at different times in their history. You can see this in the history of Christmas. Conservative Christians of the past -- for example, both Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans during the 1660s -- banned the celebration of Christmas as part of their general dislike of fun. To Cromwell and the Puritans, banning Christmas celebrations didn't seem like a slight against Christianity. It was the truly Christian thing to do. Today's Christmas practices are those of a society where corporations spur us towards massive consumption. The mutability of religion is also evident in all the different forms of Judaism, with their different dietary restrictions and views of appropriate behavior on the Sabbath.
This is why I see discussions of whether Islam is a "religion of war" or a "religion of peace" as confused. (Over at Redstate, you occasionally see people arguing the "war" side and contemplating horrific evil as a result.) Muslims who feel peaceful will find some way to believe that peace is commanded by the Koran, and Muslims who feel warlike will find a religious justification of violence. The character of a religion is determined mainly by what its adherents feel like doing.
If one really wants to change the face of Islam, the solution is to change the way that the majority of Muslims feel. Gore's old comment that "'Draining the swamp' of terrorism...must also mean draining the aquifer of anger that underlies terrorism" was exactly the way to respond to the problem. I can see Gore following up an invasion of Afghanistan and non-bungled capture of Osama Bin Laden with a massive program to help the poor and feed the hungry throughout the world, specifically including the Muslim world. It would've been many billions cheaper than the Iraq War, increased our credibility with Muslims on anti-terrorism issues, and helped us make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, further neutralizing anti-American feeling in the Islamic world. An America that the majority of Muslims saw as a friendly nation could credibly support liberal versions of Islam so as to purge antifeminist and intolerant practices from Islam. When most foreign Muslims felt that they were at peace with the West rather than at war, they would actively oppose violent anti-Americanism in their own countries, and be firm allies against terrorism.
What we got instead was an administration that makes it easy for Muslims -- the Sunni majority and the Shiites of Iran as well -- to see us as a nation at war with them. Any real hopes for America to subtly guide the development of Islam were lost, and I don't know how they can be found again.
December 05, 2005
Yummy Yule! (or: Why Does Bill O'Reilly Hate Hanukkah?)
To defend the obvious - a favorite activity among contemporary philosophers - I'll reveal the unobjectionableness of "Happy Holidays!" and "Merry Christmas!" through a semantic analysis. December 25 is Christmas, and the holidays of many peoples occur in the surrounding times. The sentiment expressed by either of these utterances is the speaker's wish for the listener’s happiness or merriment during these periods. This is a sentiment that none should take ill – after all, happiness and merriment in late December are good things, even for Hindu-raised atheists like myself.
This does nothing to make the “Merry Christmas!”-instead-of-“Happy Holidays!” movement any less creepy. “Happy Holidays!” manages to cover Hanukkah, New Year, and various other holidays as well. What does “Merry Christmas!” have to recommend it? Well, it does include the word “Merry”, which is cool in an old-fashioned kind of way. Now, if the merryness of “Merry” were the central argument of the anti-“Happy Holidays!” faction, I would accord them more respect. Sadly, their actual arguments are rooted in an appreciation for trivial forms of religious domination. It's fine to have forms of religious domination this trivial, but it's wrong to desire them.
(The whole issue is, of course, a right-wing attempt to fan the flames of the culture war and generate more of the Matter With Kansas.)
October 04, 2005
Godless, Orderly Heathens
Liesa notices a study on religion in industrialized democracies that finds something interesting:
[Paul] found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
This conclusion will come as no surprise to those who have long gnashed their teeth in frustration while listening to right-wing evangelical claims that secular liberals are weak on “values.” Paul’s study confirms globally what is already evident in the U.S.: When it comes to “values,” if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt red states in the dust.
All quite true. Not only are secular countries more socially sound than religious ones, but the so-called blue states have lower crime/std/divorce rates than the supposedly more spiritually grounded red states. This would, of course, all change if liberals just allowed prayer in schools or the ten commandments etched into homeroom blackboards, but they're pigheaded about that.
Of course, much of this is very tough to accurately assess. Income matters here, as does inequality, wealth, race, and a variety of other markers that correlate with religiosity. There's little to no evidence that religion is to blame for social dysfunction or crime, but nor is there any truth in the oft-posited argument that it stops it. All of which brings us down to the nub of the debate -- this really is, as the right claims, about values. It's not about public policy, not about societal outcomes. This is total ephemera, a rock 'em sock 'em robots pitting belief systems and socio-spiritual structures against each other. What that means, though, is that it should be argued there. Wanting religion in the public realm is a perfectly defensible viewpoint, but justifying that by arguing it'll improve the world and heal societal ills is, well, bearing false witness.
Update: As some have pointed out, what this study basically shows is that the US is more dysfunctional than Europe. True 'nuff. And indeed, crime and so forth are much more heavily correlated with things like racial tensions, economic inequality, and similar factors. It's nevertheless true though that religion is anything but a miracle cure for societal ills, whatever their cause. Neither the godliness of America nor the piousness of the South save either from serious rates of societal dysfunction. As such, the conclusion stands, but I should make clear that it's not the ostensible point of the study.
September 01, 2005
Man, Falwell must be pissed! Generally, the first post-tragedy faux-pas is reserved for him. Rumor has it that once the death toll reaches 100, he immediately retires to the study with a blood-filled chalice and a biography of Genghis Khan to craft his statement. Remember this post-9/11 gem?:
JERRY FALWELL: The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."
I love Robertson's response there: "Well, yeah" (think Pat! Falwell's gone mad, how do you calm this!?). Might as well be "Huh?". Takes quite a quote to leave Robertson speechless, but Falwell's a master. Unfortunately, he's getting slow in his old age. The flood should've been his moment -- this one was motherfucking biblical, yo! But this time, he got beat:
“Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage. “From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence’, New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. May it never be the same.”
Driving with the girlfriend today, I asked her who she thought would be the first to take the Sodom and Gomorra angle on this. Silly girl -- she thought no one. "Even they're not that bad." Oh but they are! This was inevitable, Noah groaned as soon as he flicked on K-HEVN's weather report; he knew the link would be made. What irritates me, though, isn't the allegory, it's the fallacy.
Louisiana has one of the lowest divorce rates in the nation. Of the two red states in the top 10, they're one! They flash a lot of titty, sure, but they vote Republican and attend church, too. And a respect for marriage wasn't enough for them, they recently instituted Covenant Marriages; a marriage contract that requires counseling and a pledge and only allows divorce after a six-month trial separation or on biblical grounds. Tony Perkins wrote the law, folks! And if that weren't enough, they voted to ban gay marriages!
Sodom and Gomorra ain't what they used to be. And punishing New Orleans because college kids fly in to get drunk every once in awhile strikes me as smiting with a pretty large brush. I think God's more targeted than that. And speaking of targeted, why're we giving Mississippi the deluge? And what's up with San Francisco still standing?
It's not that theists are dumb, it's that some of them seem really selective with their evidence. Divine retribution is fine and well, but if we're going to slap its imprimatur on something it damn well better fit. AIDS? At the beginning, I can understand why some thought it was punishment, though taken in light of past plagues, it's certainly no sure thing, and once it jumped to heteros, that was pretty much the end of it. But the hurricane? America's got so many gayer places to smite! And who's getting killed? The poor, not the gays. Unless God hates poverty, I'm not seeing this one.
It's always struck me that the God of the wingnuts was a might inefficient character. If you were going to find his hand in things, you had to a) look really hard, b) squint, c) ignore a bunch of contrary evidence, d) accept that God works in ambiguous and cruel ways, e) squint harder, and d) get special 3D glasses. This flood is biblical in its power but indiscriminate in its aim. The Divine Being, if indeed one exists, surely works in more elegant ways.
August 23, 2005
It Was The Christian Thing To Do
I don't know what everybody's getting so upset at Pat Robertson for. I mean, sure, it's not exactly neighborly to call for Hugo Chavez's assassination, but neither is it necessarily un-Christian. The Bible, after all, offers no shortage of grounds on which you can put a man to death. All we need to do is catch him on one.
Think he's ever masturbated? If so, Genesis 38:8 says he's finished. Exodus 12:12 lets us off him if he's ever struck another man with a deadly blow, a particularly helpful passage if we let Robertson do the deed himself with a blunt object -- they can exit stage left together. I don't know if Chavez ever hit his parents, but Exodus 21:15 finishes him if he did. Better yet, he sure seems like he was stubborn and rebellious as a kid, a juvenile heritage that we can stone him for (Deuteronomy 21:18). If Hugo's got any friends who pray to a God other than the fearsome overlord of the Bible, we can take him down for letting them live (Deuteronomy 13:6). But screw it, we can basically throw all this out and follow Titus 1:10 which says, in essence, that there are tons of talkers and deceivers, many though not all of them Jews, who we can silence for the good of the community. I'm sure Hugo fits in that category fairly neatly.
So enough of this pious squeamishness. Compared to the Bible, Tony Soprano is an all-too-merciful wimp. Chavez has had it coming to him for a long time. But then, so has Pat, George Dubya, any number of on-air evangelists and on-pulpit preachers, your humble host, and all you sinners reading along. The Bible, if read unmercifully, is a cruel, indiscriminate tome that leaves little room for saints and none at all for sinners. So what a shame that the current crowd exults in the blood and gore, justifying their actions through obscure rules meant to regulate the social behaviors of a tribe of nomads rather than following the professed verbatim quotations of the peaceful man-lord they worship as savior.