"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Palate Cleanser

I think the market is a great green god....

Because I have more to say about Thomas Lessl and Galileo and science and modernity.  But as an interlude, a word from Charlie Pierce:

Sooner or later, it's up to the voters to decide to stop being stupid about their own self-interest, and to stop falling for scams about how the Poors and Browns are the ones stealing all their money.
Yes, but since that particular scam has been run since at least the days of Reconstruction, and since even now the "preferential option for the poor" is to make them rich (or else blame them for not being rich, because morals), and it is still news to people that Dr. King was murdered during his leadership of a march for economic, not just racial, justice....

Well, don't expect that situation to change anytime soon, despite the very best efforts of Senator Professor Warren; who is, after all, only one Senator.

The fix is in; and animus towards the poor and against the minorities (now "illegal immigrants" represent that rising tide which will swamp all our boats; but even that term is not about race, because it's never about race) is bone deep in America, and digging deeper every year.

The prospects for peace are awful.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How should we then understand?

"In Carl Sagan's rendition of this legend these anti-Copernican scholars are not merely transformed into 'skeptical ecclesiastics' but--for added dramatic effect--high officials of the Church.  Sagan accomplishes this embellishment by borrowing an illustration, a painting by Jean-Leon Huens that was originally used in a National Geographic rendering of the legend. Instead of scholars Huens shows two cardinals adorned in scarlet robes and skull caps.  One puzzled-looking ecclesiastic in the painting's foreground is actually shown squinting into the eyepiece of Galileo's instrument.  It is the other Cardinal who depicts the anti-empirical church.  A caricature of haughty religious dogmatism, this fellow stands nearby, his nose slightly elevated, hands folded across a plump belly, peering with nonchalant disdain at a sketch of the moon held up to him by an animated Galileo.  The faces of the Cardinals are pallid, bathed only in the dim and greenish glow of the moon.  But Galileo's face is illuminated by a distinctly different light.  As if it reflected the sun itself, Galileo's countenance burns with intelligence and just the slightest hint of righteous anger."--Thomas Lessl*

I was simply going to read this article linked at Thought Criminal, but I couldn't resist noting how its examination of the "Galileo legend" also examined popular thinking about science and religion; and not, as it turns out, just popular thinking.

Begin with this quote:

…examination of the Galileo legend suggests that the scientific culture embraces an ideology of progress that has its roots in a positivist vision of history similar to the one popularized by August Comte in the nineteenth century.  Such tales depict science as the vanguard of an evolutionary movement whose march toward the future advances even in the face of bitter opposition from a religious competitor which is destined by nature to be replaced by science.  Evolution necessitates a struggle for survival, and thus science’s progressive character can be shown in its ability to outbid religion for existence.  Religious culture, by contrast, must then be shown to exhibit features which make it unsuited for survival in a changing human environment.   If science is the culmination of evolutionary progress then other knowledge cultures must be shown to be antiquated.  Thus science is almost never demarcated against commerce, government, or art.  Only other cognitive cultures such as religion and occasionally philosophy can serve as suitable antagonists.

By making Galileo the definitive founder of modern science, this tradition creates an exaggerated sense of division between secular science and other intellectual traditions.  If scientists can construct the origins of science in a way that makes it appear to have arisen out of whole cloth, completely distinct from the other currents of western culture, they can also assure that its institutional autonomy will be respected by outsiders.  Science’s honor belongs to itself.
The legend is that Galileo was punished for heresy; that he barely missed the fate of Giordano Bruno; and that his story presents us with a parable of the conflict between science (reason) and religion (superstition).  I leave it to Mr. Lessl to give you all the particulars of the legend and its transmission; I'm interested more in the implications of that legend for the modern understanding of science, and of religion.  (What he has to say in passing about the limits of empiricism, limits identified by the historical truth of Galileo's story, is fascinating; I'd like to spend time just exploring it.)

Lessl develops the idea that the legend of Galileo became central to how science understood itself, and even to how we understand modernity.  Does that seem like an exaggeration?  Then consider this quote from Bertrand Russell which Lessl provides:

He is therefore, the father of modern times.  Whatever we may like or dislike about the age in which we live, its increase in population, its improvement in health, its trains, motor-cars, radio, politics and advertisement of soap—all emanate from Galileo.  If the Inquisition could have caught him young, we might not now be enjoying the blessings of air-warfare and poisoned gas, nor, on the other hand, the diminution of poverty and disease which is characteristic of our age.

The “he” in the first sentence is Galileo, from whose brow all modernity sprang like Venus from the brow of Zeus.  And they say mythology is an ancient practice irrelevant to modern understanding.  As Lessl notes:  “A  science that sprang from Galileo’s head would owe nothing to any other institution or intellectual culture, while remaining indispensable as the source of modernity’s greatest benefits.  A perfect balance is accomplished here [in the passage from Russell].  Science needs society, and thus should offer it its wealth.  But science owes nothing to society, since it sprang up under its own power.”

I am reminded again of the singular genius of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.  The church preserves human knowledge after a holocaust unleashed by science.  The church even recovers modern science when a monk is the first person to understand the principle of generating electricity and using it to power a light bulb (which he also invents; although it’s an arc light, not a vacuum sealed bulb).  Eventually science recreates the conditions for holocaust, and the church, in the form of a handful of monks, leaves Earth for colonies in space.  Science, as ever, owes nothing to society, even as it destroys it twice.  Religion, on other hand, offers society both an alternative, and continuation.  It is in the world and not entirely of the world.  Science, entirely in and of the world, still imagines its place is above the world, and superior to it.  Human arrogance loves to be fed, no matter the consequences.

And interestingly, Galileo’s fate seems to have rested in the hands of a small group of academic critics:  his peers, in other words, who resented his efforts and their results.  Never, ever, cross swords with your professional colleagues:  not, at least, in certain settings.  Forgiveness is the hardest act of all, and apparently the least natural to humans.  “It is helpful to think of this in the most personal terms possible:  Galileo’s science nullified the life’s work of a majority of the natural philosophers then in the employ of the Italian universities.  Lives, careers, and reputations were at stake for these secular academics, but this would not have been so for the clergy.”

Ox.  Gored.  Whose.  Or, as Deep Throat put it:  “Follow the money.”  Always wise advice.

One reason for this continued view of Galileo’s trial is that “It serves as a reminder that non-scientists—and those of a religious bent in particular—cannot be trusted to subject their judgments to the rigors of scientific discipline.”  I’ve encountered this on websites (especially the deep thinkers who toss out Plato and Aristotle with the Hebrews and the first century Jews, since both are products of the Bronze Age), and it prevails in academic settings where any expression of religious belief can be career poison.  I met a pastor who worked in Europe in a non-ministerial capacity.  He said he kept his ordained status, even his relationship to the church, a secret because in the academic and professional circles he worked, such a status would be career ending.  Today one is simply not allowed to be rational, if one is religious.  I’ve been told my thinking is obviously flawed since I have a seminary degree.  I’ve been told this, however, by anonymous and small minded people on the internet.

So it goes.

I don't want to recreate and discuss the entire article.  It is quite fascinating, especially as it details how much modern popular thought is shaped by a mythology which its adherents find abhorrent when that term is applied pejoratively to religion.  I’ve actually encountered people who deride my citation to Mendel because he was a 19th century figure, and so out of date.  Yet Galileo continues to be the font of the modern world, and the first proof against the vile superstitions of religious belief (and all the better that his opponent is the Roman Catholic church, as that feeds the latent Protestantism in Anglo-American culture, with its lingering opposition to all things “Papist”.).

I should just mention one of the last themes identified in this story:  that Galileo represents disinterested objectivity, while religion represents emotional adherence to faith, which becomes “believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  This is the last redoubt of the religion v. science battle:  that the former is irrational because it is subjective, the latter wholly rational because it is objective.  Post-modernism had, I thought, marked “paid” to the idea of objectivity (Kierkegaard eviscerated it in the mid-19th century; then again, that was the 19th century, we are modern now!), but still it lingers on, as does logical positivism, a zombie idea that truly won’t die.’  Or:  “Though classical positivism has long been dead as a philosophy of knowledge, the widespread following that the Galileo legend seems to enjoy suggests its persistence as a philosophy of history.”

Without any reference to Kuhn, Lessl points to a number of studies indicating even scientific research is guided by “an emotional commitment to a particular research outcome.”  After all, curiosity itself is an emotion.  The article also references the story of the “church officials” who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; except they weren’t church officials, but secular academicians with a vested interest in rejecting Galileo’s ideas.

On and on it goes:  this legend is reproduced and repeated by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking; by Fred Hoyle and Isaac Asimov.  And why not?  It is a story that very much supports a particular view of the privileged place science must hold in modern society:  a privilege it earns by resting its history on mythology.  (And the citations to Einstein and Hawking illustrate the perils of popularizing science in order to make it "accessible."  The value of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan and Bill Nye deserve even more reconsideration.)

At the end of his discussion Lessl quotes Richard Lewontin, a passage I think deserves especial attention:

Either the world of phenomena is a consequence of the regular operation of repeatable causes and their repeatable effects, operating roughly along the lines of known physical law, or else at every instance all physical regularities may be ruptured and a totally unforeseeable set of events may occur. One must take sides on the issue of whether the sun is sure to rise tomorrow.  We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.

Lewontin’s argument, that either the world is an Aristotelian (another Bronze Age thinker!) series of cause and effect, in which every effect, however small, can be said to have a cause, or otherwise the entire edifice of science falls because one miracle undoes all, is pure nonsense.  Life itself is miraculous, in the sense that we cannot explain why matter should be animate, and why animate matter should pass on animation, even as animate matter itself becomes inanimate.  And why?  When does animate matter cease its animation?  Because it can “no longer sustain life”?  That’s as circular an argument as you can find: it begins with no answer, and ends with no answer.  The answer simply is:  “Because it’s always been that way.”  My daughter is a miracle:  she is sui generis and irreproducible as well as irreplaceable.  Does this mean the universe ceases to make sense, or that it actually makes more sense.  On which subject must I take a position:  that my daughter is unique and marvelous to me, or that the sun will come up tomorrow?  Which is more important to me?

And love?  Do we explain love as simply cause and effect, as simply chemical reactions in neuro-transmitters?  What is love, then?  Why is it powerful, why do we devote so much energy to it?  Why art?  Why music?  What are the causal relationships that makes us musical, loving, artistic, curious, philosophical, religious?  The answers from the Lewontin’s of the world always involve a reductio ad absurdum:  we are religious because we fear death; we love because we mistake lust for something nobler; we create art because we like to keep busy; we are philosophical because we like to chase our own tails.

It is an answer which is no answer at all, and which simply wishes to foreclose the questions, because the answers are not as simple as even quantum mechanics; are not reducible to mathematics; because we run from the implications of Godel’s proof of incompleteness.  And we run, inevitably, to mythology:  especially the mythology which affirms our special place in the world, and sets boundaries between us and them:  whether "they" are people of different ideologies or religions, or simply of a different economic class.

I cannot let go of the fact that modern religion provides us with a stronger critique of poverty than does modern philosophy or modern science.

*I would just add to Lessl's analysis of the painting above, that Galileo is shown turned toward the light in the painting; the Cardinals look into the darkness.  Such things are not accidental; and imagery is a very powerful force in socialization; it always has been.

Or if they would just renounce Islam

...I'm sure E.O. Wilson would welcome them into his tribe.

White responded to criticism of her Texas Muslim Capitol Day plan in the comments on her Facebook post.

 "I do not apologize for my comments above," she wrote in one comment. "If you love America, obey our laws and condemn Islamic terrorism then I embrace you as a fellow American. If not, then I do not."
Well, since her objection is based on nationalism and not based on religion, that's okay.....

The Problem of Evil

"human kind Cannot bear very much reality"

It was Jan Sobrino's observations that, I later realized, brought the issue to mind.  There is so much discussion of evil in the world, and what causes it.  Too little, however, do we bother to examine the question of evil itself:  that is, what is "evil"?  Because reflexively, we think of evil as what is done to us; which excludes evil as something we do.

Let me give you a perfectly mundane example:  I walked into the kitchen as I was writing this.  The radio is in there.  NPR was running a story about business meetings, and it noted that the people who run meetings often don't realize they aren't doing it well.  But the people who attend the meetings report the meetings are not run well.  The problem, the story reports, is a lack of self-reflection by the people in charge of so many unproductive business meetings.

Not exactly an "evil," perhaps; but it nicely (and serendipitously) illustrates the point:  evil is what is done to us (bad meetings by poor leaders), not something we do (those who lead meetings don't think there is a problem).  What is missing is any sense of self-reflection, any sense that you and I are participants in the world, active agents rather than acted upon.  We shun, in brief, responsibility (which is, oddly, the root of "too many meetings":  multiple meetings diffuse responsibility and delay the need to make hard decisions).

So ISIS is evil, and Al Qaeda, and religious belief in general, because all true religious belief is fanaticism (the Sam Harris postulate, let's call it).  But nationalism is not evil, nor a source of evil, not even when it destroys social orders and leaves other nations open to the predations of fanatics, religious or otherwise.  Tribalism is good so long as it is our tribalism, because then, of course, it isn't tribalism at all (and so E.O. Wilson imagines we would all be holding hands and singing "Kumbayah" by now (with no reference to God, of course!) were it not for religion (which has made absolutely no moves toward ecumenism in the last century or so, right?.  Honestly, if these people would just read the scholarship on fundamentalism alone, they'd understand fundamentalism is a response both to the modern world and to ecumenism, which is part of the modern world.).  Tribalism itself is evil, and we are not evil:  they are!  Nationalism is the assertion of privileges for our tribe.  Seldom do we see it as the excuse to inflict evil on others.

We see our support of the systems which "reinforce present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion" as evil only if we pay attention to what our support does; so we don't pay much attention.  Instead, evil is the fault of someone else:  corporations; the Koch Brothers; Republicans; FoxNews.  There is always a catalog of evil-doers, and we are never in it.  So whatever Stephen Weinberg does for his family is not evil but merely ethical, because Stephen Weinberg couldn't stand one moment of self-reflection on the consequences of what he thinks is an ethos, at all.  He cannot bear it, so he will not do it; he pronounces himself good, and is done with it.

But how different is he from the rest of us?

Some of this is what can be fairly labeled "boundary work," and is well explained this way:  "This is who we are, and that is who you are--behave accordingly."  To do this we create "artificial boundaries in a field which is 'naturally' continuous."  Distinctions between religious fanaticism and the demands of either nationalism or capitalism are actually hard to maintain; the fields can be said to be "'naturally' continuous."  But we can't have that, because that implicates us in evil; so we must establish boundaries.  And any attempt to break down those boundaries, disturbs us.

So in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free:  but there is forgiven and unforgiven, and that is something that must be earned.  Why else do we read the anointing in Luke as a story of a woman weeping over her sins, rather than trying to seduce a customer?  Do we find it easier to participate in a movement for her empowerment (and so release from the forced life of prostitution as the only option for a woman with no family support?), or do we demand she earn our forgiveness, and God's?  Ah!  Are we evil now because we condemn this woman?  Or are we simply insisting she "behave accordingly," and entering a roomful of men and touching one of them, indeed washing his feet with her tears (body fluids!) and drying them with her hair (which Paul tells us should be bound, not free!) is not appropriate, and certainly not Godly,  behavior?

How easy it is to say:  they are evil, but we are good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Log and the Speck

Something about Danish figurines just completes this post....

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the mujahideen who resisted the invasion caught the attention of Charlie Wilson who decided they needed U.S. help.  Did the Soviets invade in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Christianity?  No, of course not; the Soviet Union was officially atheist.  Did Wilson support the mujahideen in the name of Christianity or Islam?  Of course not; the United States is officially without a national religion or church.

Much later, George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan.  Did he do so in the name of Christianity or the Methodist church?  No, he explicitly stated the conflict in Afghanistan was not with Islam or on behalf of Christianity.  He invaded to eradicate Al Qaeda, the successor group to the mujahideen.

Bush also invaded Iraq, an officially secular nation, in order to avenge his father, or because of WMD, or just because.  Reasons didn't much matter for that one, except in no case was the reason religious.  In each case, in fact, the reason was nationalism: the Soviets wanted to tighten control over Afghanistan, the U.S. wanted revenge for 9/11, and the U.S. well.... just wanted to knock off Saddam Hussein.

And now we face Al Qaeda as an international force, where once it was confined to Afghanistan.  And a successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq is ISIS, who fights in the name of Islam; or so it says.  What can be said is that both groups refuse to fight in the name of nationalism.  Huh.  Imagine that.

And yet according to the insights of Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and now E.O. Wilson, the problems in the world are all the fault of religious belief?

How big is that piece of lumber in their eyes?  I think it's blinded the lot of them.

Well, I'm glad somebody finally figured that out!

I am not suffering fools gladly this afternoon.

John Dominic Crossan, a Jesuit priest trained in literary theory, studied deeply in anthropology and archaeology and, at a time when other people would be retiring to rest on their laurels, produced two dense tomes on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, based as much on those two subjects as on historical knowledge, and a book on the early years of the Christian church.  He went on to write two, slightly more "popular" books about Jesus and Paul, resting both more heavily on Biblical archaeology than on anthropology.

Rudolf Bultmann wrote his magnum opus explicating the Gospel of John in a manner thoroughly German in its erudition and scholasticism, a book that is a meditation on that gospel in its place in Biblical scholarship (his footnotes are dense discussion with other scholars at a level the text of most books never reach) while simultaneously holding a discussion with Kierkegaard (he directly cites and quotes Philosophical Fragments several times) and the work of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the last two centuries.  He quite holds his own with Heidegger.

There is an entire branch of sociology, itself a science, devoted to the study of religion.  Anthropology, another science, is equally interested in the subject, from a scientific point of view.  And now comes E.O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, and rather than follow in the footsteps of Dom Crossan and steep himself deeply in the sciences of anthropology and archaeology or even sociology before he speaks, writes a book about what he thinks is wrong with religion in the modern world.

What is is about ignorance that makes people think they are so smart?

N.B.  The Meaning of Human Existence?  Really?  I haven't seen a title that arrogant and ill-earned since Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained.  What is it about ignorance and arrogance that they so often go walking hand in hand?

Let Us Now Praise Non-Famous Men

"What can we do to take the crucified people down from their crosses?"

From a link provided in comments below:

According to Jon Sobrino of San Salvador's Central American University, compassion must have the central place in the life of the Catholic university. College students and universities themselves must learn to embrace the "preferential option for the poor."Sobrino argues that if the Catholic university is to exist in a world of massive suffering and not function simply as an "ivory tower," it must be committed to the poor. Far from paternalistic philanthropy, the preferential option entails solidarity-identifying with the poor, being converted by them, and participating in movements for their empowerment. If the Catholic university does not actively side with the poor in appropriate ways, it will tacitly side with the status quo and reinforce present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion.
You want radical thought, there it is.  From a Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest; not from Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Weinberg.  Sobrino's thought is centered on the question "How should we then live?" and his answer is:  in a way that doesn't side with the status quo and reinforce injustice, oppression, and exclusion.  It is a way of thought he derives from his Christianity, not in spite of it.  You want to curse the darkness, you can join the way of the world:  of the Mahers and the Dawkins and the Harrises.

You want to light a candle, you want to truly do the difficult work of effecting good in the world:  you take up the challenge of Sobrino and Gutierrez and Romero and MLK and even Francis I, or anyone else who truly challenges the world as it is at such a fundamental level, and you look at your place in the "present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion."  And consider how it is you see them at all, and from what perspective, and why they are there, and what the alternatives are.

You don't have to be Catholic, or attend or work for a university, or even be Christian, to do it.  But it is much harder, and a much worthier effort, than listening to the babble of the world.  Even the Gentiles can do that much.

If only education were a unitary thing....

I'm cribbing this from Charlie Pierce, but if you want a reason to keep universities in the hands of the church (no, I'm no advocating all colleges and universities revert to religious hands, just arguendo), this presents you with a good one:

But it doesn't take much sleuthing to uncover the Republicans' distaste for the centers and institutes dotting the UNC landscape that were created to explore issues of poverty, civil rights, the environment and energy policy. Places like the Center for Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. The board of governors has 34 such centers under scrutiny. Why? The explanation is found in a paper published two weeks ago by conservatives at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy-a nonprofit named for Art Pope's father. The paper is entitled "Renewal in the University," and it sings the praises of academic centers which "restore the spirit of inquiry." But not centers that look into poverty. No, they are the problem, writes author Jay Schalin, because they threaten "thousands of years of Western thought." What we need instead, Schalin argues, is to replace such disruptive centers with new centers paid for by rich people like Pope-"privately funded academic centers" that reinforce for students the traditional values of "liberty" and "free-market economics."
I would exhaust my day looking for examples in the "thousands of years of Western thought" that are examinations of the problems and solutions to poverty, starting with the Greeks (who were making statues of the poor, to draw attention to the failures of Greek social order), coming up through the work of Dr. King and Dorothy Day (to name just two).  The bulk of those arguments would be from, or informed by, the Christian church, an institution also responsible for the very idea of a university system.  William Buckley famously argued that the university should return to its religious status in order to regain its moral authority.  I never really agreed with him, but at least he was more sensible than this.

Concern for poverty is far more "traditional" in Western thought than concern for liberty; and especially for "free-market economics."  On the latter, the best response I can point to (still), is Dr. Swift's "Modest Proposal."

I only fear Mr. Schalin would miss the satire in it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"New Styles of Architecture, a change of heart..."

"The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love."--Walter Brueggeman

This clause was enough to make me pay attention:  "In a world of scarce resources...."

And already we're back to Solomon and the theology of scarcity v. the theology of plenty (which alone puts the lie to the atheist chestnut that the scriptures are Bronze Age (or Iron Age, opinions vary) texts with no relevance to modern existence.  Then again, modern atheists are merely evangelicals insisting their position on God is the only one that should be allowed; that it another argument, but its also quite certainly an argument from scarcity, an argument for a theology of scarcity.)

Southern Beale quotes that from the American Enterprise Institute, who uses the opening rhetorical twitch to argue for, of course, limited use of scarce resources to actually help, you know, people.  But that is always the point in the theology of scarcity:  people are too damned expensive!  Other things must be protected first, especially, in the modern worship of the market as a great green god:  money. Because, you see:

In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals — including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.
Especially by the people in power.  Consider these quotes as a partial response to the presumption of AEI:

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization -- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. -- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings -- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play. -- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. -- Martin Luther King, Jr
Start with Bellamy's idea of education that must be something other than an education in buying and selling.  He calls that "an education in self seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization."  No education today reflects Dewey's idea:  "the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality."  Education today is all aimed at getting a job, and being a consumer and a producer of goods, at seeking at the expense of others.  The most desirable lot of human beings is reflected back to us in "The Wolf of Wall Street" or the celebrity of Donald Trump and the Kardashians.  As Robert Kennedy points out, the GNP does not allow for the health of our families; indeed, the AEI says it can't:  resources are too scarce.  Triage must be performed.  Some must die, and so decrease the surplus population.  People are too expensive; the are just too damned many of you!

As my friend at Thought Criminal never tires of pointing out:  what atheist position is going to champion the ideals of Bellamy, Dewey, Mill, Kennedy, or King?  Stephen Weinberg fancies himself a moral avatar because he is brave enough to admit his selfishness, that he cares first for his family and then for his friends and really not at all for society at large.  Ethics understands this as an entirely unethical stance (has Weinberg even read Crito?); Weinberg proclaims it the new basis for ethics.  O brave new world, that has such ignorant creatures in it!

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

You may want to dismiss that because it is a religious text that makes a religious claim.  But tell me what Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris has written that is of greater moral value than that; tell me what Bill Maher has said which contributes more to the moral discourse of humanity than those words.  Is it better to be anti-religious, or to show unfailing love and do justice and right on the earth, and to take pleasure in those things than in one's own sense of cleverness?  Which is better: the pronouncements of AEI on how to deal with scarcity, the ramblings of Stephen Weinberg on what he imagines ethics are, or this "Bronze Age" text:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly;
all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain,
set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

Both texts from the same book of the Bible; both rest on the authority of God, but not on presenting  the commands of God.  The king who dealt justly and fairly proved he knew God; but the world rewards the king who sets his eyes and heart on gain alone, ignoring the innocent blood he sheds ("In a world of scarce resources....") and the cruel acts of tyranny such greed must perpetuate.  Justice and fairness, after all, require constant self-reflection, constant regard for the other and constant evaluation of one's motives and actions.  Stephen Weinberg's ethic starts and ends with regard for himself.  The cause of the lowly and the poor is of no importance to him whatsoever.  How does he deal justly and fairly with anything?

The theology of scarcity is that there isn't enough now to go around, so we must hoard what we have and protect it from other claimants.  We must regard them as savages who have to be eliminated.  The theology of scarcity is that we cannot share, because to share is to lose.  The widow who fed Elijah during the famine should have saved her oil and meal for herself and her son; even though it probably would have run out, and they would have starved to death.  But who can know the future, and who can trust in a world that is actually abundant?  Better to trust that there will never be enough.

Better?  According to whom?

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Delusions of Godhood...again

I can be fairly accused of worrying too much about the ignorance of Richard Dawkins, but Thought Criminal sends me in search of Marilyn Robinson's review of The God Delusion.  The original is behind a paywall, so I have to link to a pirated version.  I promise to take only a few bites:

The odd thing about Dawkins’s work, considering his job description, is that it does not itself seem the product of a mind informed by the physics of the last century or so. A reader might find it instructive to start with his last chapter, in which he does acknowledge the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications. This chapter is an interesting lens through which to consider the primary argument of the book, especially his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and — a favorite word — probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and the material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is perceived. For us, he says, “matter is a useful construct.” Quoting Steve Grand, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, he offers these thoughts on the fluidity of matter: “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.” Earlier, Dawkins attributes the origins of the illusion that we have a soul to the persistence of a childish or primitive tendency toward dualism — “Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ’soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body.” Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.

I do not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion. My point is simply that Dawkins’s critique of religion cannot properly be called scientific. His thinking is reminiscent of logical positivism. That school, however, which meant to carry out a purge of language it considered meaningless, specifically metaphysics and theology, by subjecting statements to the “scientific” test of verifiability, plunged into all sorts of interesting difficulty, as rigorous thought tends to do. Dawkins acknowledges no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.

I don't disagree with Robinson's point, but there is nothing innate about dualism.  It is a Platonic concept, and rather peculiar to Western thought.  Perpetuated by the Church (as was Aristotle, who wouldn't have been keen on it.  When Aquinas folded "the Philosopher" into Catholic doctrine, he was writing at a level beyond the ken of almost everyone else in the Church at the time.  So much for "liberal" Christianity and the "true" Christianity found only among the people), it found renewed expression in Descartes' ventures into philosophy.  But Descartes' dualism was later derided as the "ghost in the machine."  Because dualism is not innate, it is cultural and philosophical. Language can be fairly said to be innate; we do seem to have, in Stephen Pinker's words, a "language instinct."  Dualism is a cultural artifact.

This isn't that hard to learn about.  Critiques of dualism are not new, and they aren't arcane.  Dawkins teaches at Oxford.  And yet he's completely clueless on the subject that is his current claim to fame.  Too bad I can't get tenure so I can spout nonsense and make money on it.  P.T. Barnum was right.

“There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.”

Dawkins is writing there of the Amish.   Robinson precedes that quote with a paragraph about Dawkins' apparent ignorance of "the history of modern authoritarianism."  Really, for an Oxford professor, Dawkins seems singularly uninterested in the subjects he writes about.  It isn't really hard to find out the Amish give their children the choice of staying in the community, or leaving.  They prefer members of their community stay voluntarily, not by force.  It may not be a choice you want to make, but it is one freely made by the children themselves (as free as any choice is made).  If Dawkins had a child would he begrudge the child's decision to, say, take monastic orders?  Again, these things aren't hard to find out, or too complicated to consider from more than one point of view; but it is all clearly beneath the research efforts of an Oxford don.

Call it breathtaking condescension, if you will.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I think we all saw this coming

Amid a fledgling primary campaign, rural Iowa state lawmaker Joni Ernst crafted a quirky hardscrabble persona that propelled her to both the forefront of the race and, eventually, the United States Senate....

The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies. And the brothers’ late grandfather Harold Culver received $57,479 from Washington—again, mostly corn subsidies—between 1995 and 2001. He passed away in January 2003.
If you're doing the math that's an average of something over $30,000 per year for 14 years.  Not to begrudge farmers their subsidies, but imagine any family receiving that much in aid from AFDC or even unemployment benefits.

It would never happen, because such people need to learn not to depend on government "handouts."  But farmer's children can depend on them, get government jobs, be in the military, go to the U.S. Senate, and still rail against "government spending."

Yeah, I know:  same as it ever was.  Kinda hard to say you learned to "live within your means," though, when you had a government backstop of $30,000.00 a year that wasn't affected by how much you earned that year (at least not to the extent it would be for welfare payments).

Buh-bye, Joni.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Joni Ernst meant to say last night

It was her "Republican cloth coat" speech.

 You know you were thinking it. If you're of a certain age.....*

*I might as well explain that, and save you the trouble:  "And the bar is now buried below the level of the ground, and she says it was a "cloth coat Republican" speech, which is a reference that I understood, but which is lost on anyone under the age of 60."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Can't you take a joke?

No, seriously:  this will not stand!

"When we're insulted, and when we've had an image, then I think we'll have to sue, I think we'll have to go to court, in order to have these words removed," Hidalgo told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced."

Why?  Because, FoxNews, that's why!

Hidalgo's comments about a lawsuit came after a series of Fox segments suggested there are parts of Paris and other European cities where Islamic law is practiced and where police are fearful to work. The "no-go" zone segments were widely mocked and challenged as inaccurate, particularly by French media outlets.

Some critics have accused the network of using the controversial "no-go zones" idea to perpetuate a fearful narrative about Muslims, particularly in the days since terror attacks in Paris.

One Fox show, for example, displayed an inaccurate map of the alleged "no-go zones" in and around Paris. On another show, a guest who was identified as a security expert claimed that Birmingham, England is a "totally Muslim city where non-Muslims don't go in."
Free legal advice to FoxNews:  claim it was an attempt at humor.

No, seriously; I understand that's a defense Dieudonne has available to him under French law, that no one could take the comment seriously, therefore it was not harmful.

It could work for Fox; that, or insanity.

Same thing, really.*

P.S.  "No-go zones" are a wonderfully self-reinforcing meme.  No one ever knows anyone who goes there or is from there, because no one can go there!  It's a no-go zone!  Which proves they must exist; I mean, if you knew someone from a no-go zone, it wouldn't be a no-go zone, would it?

It only stands to reason.

It's some catch, that Catch-22.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

The stone man is the safest remembrance of all

One of the more popular statements of Dr. King is drawn from his most famous speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In the context of the speech, it is a radical call.  Let us be more radical, still, and renew the challenges of Dr. King:

Don't pass judgment, so you won't be judged.  Don't forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back.  And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.  Why do you notice the sliver in your friend's eye, but overlook the timber in your own?  How can you say to your friend, 'Let me get the sliver out of your eye,' when there is a timber in your own?  You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you'll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend's eye.

--Matthew 7:1-5, SV.

Don't pass judgment, and you won't be judged; don't condemn, and you won't be condemned; forgive, and you'll be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you; they'll put in your lap a full measure, packed down, sifted and overflowing.  For the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.

--Luke 6:37-38, SV

Jean Paul Sartre tried to create an ethic that didn't involve God.  His conclusion was that each person, in choosing an ethic for herself, chose for all humankind.  The ethic of the atheist Frenchman in the 20th century was little different from the one propounded by the Jewish prophet in the 1st century in the latter's most famous sermon.  And it is still a wildly radical standard that we still struggle to accept as valid, much less to put into action.

We can say that is the fault of religion, or religious institutions; but without them we wouldn't have these words preserved for 2000 years.  Without religious institutions, Dr. King would never have been selected to lead the civil rights movement and become the inspirational figure he is today, even if that figure is a pale image of the prophet he actually was.  And what institution can stop us from living according to a standard we accept as right?

And still Dr. King's source material is more radical than he dared to be;* and King was so radical we all sanitize him to fit a plaster saint into a niche in our moral houses.   Religion is dangerous, but not because it inspires us to violence.  We need no inspiration to seek power over others, we only need an excuse, and if it isn't religion it's tribalism or nationalism or simply racism.  Religion is dangerous because it dares us to be more fair, more just, more equitable, than we even imagine is possible.  Religion points us to a world that terrifies us with it's very vision:  imagine a world without judgment, a world ruled by forgiveness and not condemnation, a world where giving is more important than receiving, where the standard we apply is acknowledged to be the standard applied to us.  Is such a world possible?  And yet, if it isn't, what hope have we?

That is the danger of religion.  That is the radical nature of belief.  That is why Dr. King was a prophet, and why there is yet a long journey before any of us can see the Promised Land.

*A source material his defenders still deny.  West's article at Salon mentions King's Christianity if only because West is a seminary professor.  But the "real" Dr. King?  This article makes no mention of King's Christian faith at all, while it purports to return to consideration of his "real legacy."  Yet listen to King's speeches, or read his words, and try to ignore the religious basis for his radical vision.  The only way to do it is to ignore King in favor of a "King" of your imagination.  And in comments:  where are the atheists decrying any use of religion in the public square, declaring religion "dangerous" and based on "myths" and something that needs to be expunged not just from the body politic but from civilization itself?  The usual suspects are there; but their praise of King is unqualified; and absolutely silent on the fact that he was a Christian minister from the start to the finish of his public career.

Thus do we honor the legacy of Dr. King.....

Thursday, January 15, 2015

All is forgivable....

If first we understand....

So, here's the fact of the matter:  of the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims, more than 3 times as many live in the Asia-Pacific region as live in the Middle East/North Africa.  The third largest number live in sub-Saharan Africa.

And yet all pronouncements on what is acceptable to Islam continue to come from Middle Eastern countries.  Which is sort like saying all pronouncements on what is acceptable to Protestants in America can come from Germany, or the Archbishop of Canterbury.  And, of course, all identification with Islam continues to refer to people of Middle Eastern ancestry; which, again, is like saying all American Christians are WASP's.

Then there's the problem of who is a terrorist.  They're all Muslims, of that we're sure.  Well, no.

As Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, noted in its report released last year, the vast majority of terror attacks in Europe were perpetrated by separatist groups. For example, in 2013, there were 152 terror attacks in Europe. Only two of them were “religiously motivated,” while 84 were predicated upon ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs.

We are talking about groups like France’s FLNC, which advocates an independent nation for the island of Corsica. In December 2013, FLNC terrorists carried out simultaneous rocket attacks against police stations in two French cities. And in Greece in late 2013, the left-wing Militant Popular Revolutionary Forces shot and killed two members of the right-wing political party Golden Dawn. While over in Italy, the anarchist group FAI engaged in numerous terror attacks including sending a bomb to a journalist. And the list goes on and on.

Have you heard of these incidents? Probably not. But if Muslims had committed them do you think you our media would’ve covered it? No need to answer, that’s a rhetorical question.
I just pause to point out three gunmen in Paris riveted the world's attention, perhaps because they claimed to act in the name of Islam (and on behalf of Al Qaeda), while rocket attacks against two French cities drew no international attention at all (probably not even from "Charlie Hebdo").


Mostly what the terrorist are, when they self-identify as Muslim, is related to the so-called "Middle East" (which isn't even a continent (hello again, Egypt!) but a region (which seems to include Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well).  In fact, if there is any binding relationship among most of the terrorists, it is that they are Arabic, or identify with Arabic culture.

Which is not to slam Arabic culture, or to excuse some kind of racial profiling, but to point out that people like Bill Maher and Tom Friedman are (surprise!), surprisingly (or not) ignorant.  Islam is not what endangers the world.  The culture of a small region of the planet is what endangers the world.

Well, if anything endangers the world besides just human nature.  When most of the terrorist acts in Europe are by separatist movements, not "Muslim terrorists," it's kind of hard to even blame culture for what scares us.

To me, that's kind of "the thing."  We are not beset by mindless religious zealots:  we are beset by violent people growing up in violent cultures.  The people who rallied to defend Cliven Bundy didn't do so on religious grounds; they did so largely because they live in a culture that promotes violence as a rational response to the world around them (and I don't mean because they grew up on TV and video games).  The violent culture of the American South has been linked to the Scots-Irish forebears in many a scholarly study.  It's not racism to identify the roots of that violence in the culture of Scotland and Ireland (although I suppose it could be, if they weren't white):  it's sociology, and even anthropology.  It's cultural analysis, in other words.

So why isn't there an analysis of terrorist violence springing from the Middle East that takes into account the dominant culture of that region?  Probably because it's easier to be ignorant about Islam and to take that ignorance as deeper knowledge.  Which is pretty much the excuse for the violent nature of the culture of the Scots-Irish in the South.  Education, you know, is supposed to cure all that.

Funny thing, though; Bill Maher has an Ivy League pedigree.  He's not violent; but he's not all that educated, either.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nous sommes tous "Heroes"

I wrote what follows as a comment to a blog post at Thought Criminal.  Even as I wrote it, I thought I should just make a blog post of it myself.

So I will.

Free speech is far more complex than public discourse generally acknowledges.

Is it "free speech" to praise Hitler in Germany, and to advocate the resurgence of the Nazi Party?  I don't know the ins and outs of German law, but I understand there is no equivalent "First Amendment" protection for neo-Nazis in Germany that there is in America.  And that's probably a good thing for the world, as well as for Germany.

In this country the government will allow you to make anti-Semitic remarks (against Arabs or Jews, but let's not dissect that term, shall we?).  But will society?  No government will bar me from writing the "N-word," but society would excoriate me severely.

How free is my speech?

There are always limits: the question is, where do we place them?  I think "Charlie Hebdo" is largely childish and puerile.  The question is:  does society owe them protection to be so inflammatory?  Two otherwise innocent policemen died because "Charlie Hebdo" inflamed two flammable idiots.  Is that a price we're okay with paying for "free speech"?

And is the current rage to buy an issue of "Charlie Hebdo" support of the magazine?  Or support of the idea that we will not be cowed by the criminal acts of three people?

It's a complicated topic.  Free speech must be allowed by governments; but people are free to form their own opinions.  Muslims are even free to be offended and angered, as are any other people.

What they aren't free to do is commit murder.  And that brings us back to the central question:  how inflammatory can one be in the freedom of their speech?  Can I shout "Fire!" In a crowded theater?  Can I use the "N-Word" in print, just to prove how "outrageous" I am?

I am still "Charlie" because I stand with the values of Western civilization against criminal acts.  I am not "Charlie" because I stand with everything "Charlie Hebdo" publishes, or has ever published.  Freedom of speech also brings responsibility.  When the editors and journalists of "Charlie Hebdo" even recognize their actions were indirectly responsible for the deaths of two policemen and four other Parisians in a kosher grocery*, then I will admire them.

No man, after all, is an island.

Adding:  even as I post this, I'm finding out this isn't an abstract question:

France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism, announcing Wednesday that 54 people had been arrested for those offenses since terror attacks left 20 dead in Paris last week, including three gunmen.


France has been tightening security and searching for accomplices since the terror attacks began, but none of the 54 people have been linked to the attacks. That's raising questions about whether President Francois Hollande's Socialist government is impinging on the very freedom of speech that it so vigorously defends when it comes to Charlie Hebdo.

Among those detained was Dieudonne, a controversial, popular comic with repeated convictions for racism and anti-Semitism. Like many European countries, France has strong laws against hate speech and especially anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. In a message distributed to all French prosecutors and judges, the Justice Ministry laid out the legal basis for rounding up those who defend the Paris terror attacks as well as those responsible for racist or anti-Semitic words or acts. The order did not mention Islam.


Dieudonne, a comic who popularized an arm gesture that resembles a Nazi salute and who has been convicted repeatedly of racism and anti-Semitism, is no stranger to controversy. His provocative performances were banned last year but he has a core following among France's disaffected youth.

In the Facebook post in question, which was swiftly deleted, the comic said he felt like "Charlie Coulibaly" — merging the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher market Friday, a day after he killed a Paris policewoman.

In a separate post, the comic wrote an open letter to France's interior minister.

"Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I'm trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie," he wrote.

Je suis Charlie, but not you?

*As I understand, the "third gunman" was inspired by the actions of the brothers to invade a Jewish grocery store and shoot four patrons to death there, before holding the rest of the customers hostage.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Goodbye to all that....

I've written before about the Christian basis for "Harry Potter."  But on Twitter, J.K. Rowling marked "paid" to the arguments that all Muslims are responsible for the criminal acts of three people in Paris.

It's something I can't improve upon.

Mere images

I like this for pretty much one reason:  the assertion that religion is the root of all evil in the world is not only childish and ignorant, it's an argument for driving everyone we fear or don't like into the sea, because it's easier than sorting out how we fit into each other's world.

And while technically that attitude may not be racism because it isn't only about race, it is the raison d'etre of racism, the telos of it, if you will.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday Morning very cloudy and rainy....

"Religious moderation is a product of scriptural ignorance." - Sam Harris

NTodd puts me on to this; which isn't to say he at all "agrees" with it.  He has his take (which is better than my take, honestly), I have mine.

Satire is well and good; but satire is better when it is grounded in reality.  There isn't a lot of fact-checking necessary to read the most famous satirical essay in Western culture, by Jonathan Swift.  Indeed, Swift includes in it his own ideas about how to address poverty in Ireland; and much of what he satirically attacks is still the attitude prevailing in America today (where we might as well treat the poor as a market commodity, there are so many of them and we are as indifferent to them as to corn or pork bellies).

I can't speak to the Quranic passages quotes above as well as I can to the Biblical passages, but then we don't need to take this seriously enough to engage in overkill.

Deuteronomy 12:6-10

6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; 7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; 8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: 9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Deuteronomy doesn't say to stone Gentiles (i.e., all who are not children of Abraham).  Admittedly, it says to stone the heretic, the chaser after false gods, who would lead you away from the God of Abraham; but the admonition is limited to family.  I could go into the historical context of the passage, but the end result is the same:  I don't advocate stoning anyone (nor do I know any Christian who does, even the most literal fundamentalists; don't know any who use Philemon to advocate for slavery, either).  Stick simply with what the scripture says, and it doesn't say what Betty Bowers says it does.

Revelations 2:18-29

18 And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass; 19 I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. 20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. 21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. 22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. 23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. 24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. 25 But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. 26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: 27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

I don't know where in 2:18, or the following verses, it says unbelievers will burn in hell.  Yes, that's a Christian doctrine, but one I, an ordained Christian pastor, reject and do not teach.  Partly because I don't find any support for it in the Bible.  Again, what's the joke?  That Betty Bowers can't read?

Matthew 15:22-28

22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Admittedly this has been a very controversial scripture since feminist readings began re-examining our exegesis of scripture.  But it is most commonly cited as the example of a woman teaching Jesus something about humanity.  It's a passage that comes up in John as the "woman at the well" story, where the woman is a Samaritan.  Here, and in Mark 7:24-30 (where Matthew got the story), the woman is a Gentile, so the reference to "dogs" has to do with boundaries between Hebrews and non-Hebrews.  So, yeah, technically true; but still, not all that funny when you put it back in context.

My point is:  if Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert were this sloppy about their satire, they'd be as funny as Dennis Miller, and as respected.  Mock the scriptures as you please, but please:  don't be so dumb about it.

If you're going to use satire to promote, or even mock, understanding, use some understanding to do it.  I don't care for satire that insults my intelligence.

Friday, January 09, 2015

or Saints and Sinners

This is one of those days I could just outsource to Charlie Pierce.

First, I learn Archbishop Oscar Romero may soon be fast-tracked for canonization.  Even though I am a staunch Protestant, I like it.  I may pray to St. Romero just on general principles.

But also:

Oscar Romero, who was a bishop in what Bill Maher assures us is a stupid and dangerous institution, now is fast-tracked to sainthood because his life is finally being recognized as the blessing it was to the people of El Salvador. If Papa Francesco really canonizes him in that country, there won't be a dry eye in the hemisphere.

A gratuitous jab; but I like it.  Puts me in mind of this:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"


Terrorists rarely have territory under their control. They have no structures to which they can point. Their clandestine existence means that the only way they can demonstrate their existence is to act. In doing so, they communicate not only with their adversaries but also with their supporters and their followers throughout the world. By reacting, governments communicate for them, too. By bombing their training camps or labeling them public enemy number one, governments also demonstrate the existence and strength of their terrorist adversaries. Any government that refused to react, however, would soon be dismissed as weak...In South America civilian governments were replaced by the military when they were perceived as weak in the face of terrorism...In both Brazil and Uruguay, the brutal behavior of the military state did succeed in destroying the terrorist movements, but the costs were far higher than any democracy could pay. Part of the genius of terrorism, therefore, is that elicits a reaction that furthers the interests more often than their victims.

Which goes along with what I noted Juan Cole to be saying, earlier; and again provides a gratuitous jab at Bill Maher, at least insofar as he represents liberal atheists in the public sphere, now.

They really need to get a new agent....

"Bill Maher: Religion is the Crystal Meth of the People"

I can't improve on Mr. Pierce's choice of title, or on the picture he used.  Still, for some reason I have this burning desire to correct others:

In English churches, state-selected priests would merely incant the liturgy. Upon hearing the words "Hoc" and "corpus" (in the "For this is my body" passage), newly literate and impatient artisans in the pews would mockingly whisper, "Hocus-pocus," finding a tough slang term for the religious obfuscation at which they were beginning to chafe. (Ed. Note: prior to reading this piece, I had no idea that was the origin of the term. History is so cool.)
Emphasis in original.  And n.b. to Mr. Pierce:  no.  Not at all.

"The notion that hocus pocus was a parody of the Latin words used in the Eucharist, rests merely on a conjecture thrown out by Tilotson."--The Oxford English Dictionary, "Hocus Pocus."

The late Mr. Hitchens was, at least on the subject of atheism, Bill Maher with a British accent.  Mr. Hitchens' attitude and knowledge were pure Oxonian (or impure, in the case of the latter topic), the grandfather to the Ivy League which Mr. Maher, as Mr. Pierce points out, so ably represents.

Maher's atheism comes down to little more than pure Ivy League snobbery -- he's smarter than you are, you superstitious git. His movie, Religulous, shows Bill being smarter that [sic] a collection of religious grotesques. His criticisms are obvious, his conclusions easy and glib. 
Replace Maher's name with Hitchens', and drop the movie reference; you don't have to alter anything else in that statement.

Hitchens was never less an intellectual snob than Maher, and never less condescending, especially when he was dead (sorry!) wrong.

OED also tells me "hocus pocus" dates from the 17th century, so it comes after Shakespeare, not from the reign of Henry VIII (as Hitchens' context would imply).

Honestly, what is it with atheists and ignorance?

Portraying the "Other"

Sorry; but at some point, you gotta make your point.

Can we talk about "Charlie Hebdo" without invoking racism?

But their work featuring Mohammed could be sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.
Now, if the drawing of a "hook-nosed wretch" is clearly meant to portray a Jew, no one would hesitate to call it racist, even "anti-semitic."  But a "Semite"  can be an Arab, so even the term is not really limited to the descendants of Abraham; except that we insist it is.  And why?  Mostly because of the Holocaust; which is a good reason; but it is not good reason enough to render all things Jewish as sacrosanct, while all things semitic but not Jewish are treated as "other."

I'm not convinced, by the way, that depictions of Mohammed are automatically blasphemous.  What truly seems to provoke acts of terrorism are not 19th century style depictions of Mohammed as an historical figure, but crude, cartoonish depictions meant to insult, deride, or provoke an outraged response.  So, when we speak of responses to portrayals of Islam in non-Islamic countries, are we talking about religion?  Or about cultural imperialism?

I often feel like someone trying to catch a slippery eel when following those debates. It slinks about, hides behind stones and water-weeds, dashes across some open water, the sun glints on it, I attack, and the eel is gone. Take the way the term "racism" is used here. It doesn't have its usual definition of applying to people who "look different" from one's own racial group (however that is determined). It applies to people who might or might not "look different" but who certainly have a different religion.

The term is incorrect. I'm not sure what the correct term is, but it's not racism, and calling it racism makes the analysis more difficult. Clearly people who "look different" can face the usual type of racism and it's also possible that the religion of those people will be labeled because the people are seen as "other."
It's hard to say the term is incorrect in light of comments like this:

"That's my question about these guys because if we know they were speaking unaccented French and they had, you know, ski masks on, do we even know what color they were," Bream said. "What the tone of their skin was. I mean what if they didn't look like typical bad guys?'
Or sweeping statements by people like Bill Maher that all religions "are stupid and dangerous."  What, really, is the difference between saying that, and saying that all members of a racial class (and what is the race of Jews, pray tell?  Do all Jews really "look different"?  From whom?) have characteristics which automatically make them both stupid and dangerous?  Is the reasoning behind that statement, or behind those of Richard Dawkins, really distinguishable from the reasoning behind white supremacist remarks?  Those kinds of sweeping generalizations are the very definition of racism, and it wasn't that long ago that some "white" Europeans were considered separate (and inferior) "races" from more "advanced" Europeans, namely the ones establishing the categories.  We can't really argue that racism is all about clear physiological differences without first establishing a wholly indefensible basis for those differences; and how that reasoning differs from Bill Maher's comments, or Richard Dawkins', is a mystery to me.

And so much of this discussion rests on misunderstanding and sheer lack of knowledge:

Or has, say, the specific history of Europe caused changes which now mean that Europeans are out of step with large chunks of the rest of this globe? What was the role of reformation in Christianity? What was the role of getting the church out of absolute power? When did literal interpretations of the Bible become the minority voice? And what is happening in that sense inside Islam? I'm also intrigued by the somewhat similar situation in the US. Is the slippery eel I'm trying to catch something that is similar in Islam and, say, right-wing US Christianity

The Reformation didn't remove Rome from imperial power; politics did that.  German princes defended and even housed Martin Luther, and gave him a base from which to form his own church. They did it in large measure for the same reasons Henry would do it slightly later in England:  to establish their political power.   Henry VIII took over the church in England for his own purposes, not because he was a reformer like Calvin, who ran Geneva, or Luther, who needed protection.  The church never had absolute power, either.  Look to Napoleon crowning himself; stories of emperors being forced to come to the Pope in the snow are singular, not plural.  Richelieu was an individual in France, not an institution in Europe.  If you want examples of absolute power, look to Calvin's Geneva, or Plymouth Plantation in America, or Salem when Massachusetts was still a colony; and even then, such power didn't last long.

Literal interpretation of scripture was always the minority voice, and it started pretty much in response to German Biblical scholarship.  Literalism is still not quite 100 years old; in a 2000 year history where major Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, branches of the Orthodox church) have never taken it up, it's rather blind knowledge of recent American history to imagine this voice has been marginalized rather than always been at the margins.  As for nationalism in Europe v. religious identification in Islamic countries, is it really that hard to understand the Enlightenment was a European event, not a universal one?  That the Jeffersonian "wall of separation" is a recent invention, and a Western one, and was not the norm for human civilization, Western or Eastern, for much of human history?

Can we really not understand that our experience and our culture is not normative, and that much of what we are seeing in Islam is, like fundamentalism in America, a reaction to modernism, not an evil aberration of "others" bent on our destruction?  If there is a justification behind the argument that we created the evil that now afflicts us, it is in the knowledge that we don't understand other cultures, and don't try to.  The colonialist attitude of the 19th century is alive and well in the 21st; Mark Twain would have no trouble recognizing what he condemned in American attitudes.  If anything, he would probably further despair at how little has changed since his lifetime.

I'm not even sure this advances the conversation all that much:

My theory is that the conditions are three (the first of them not being a condition at all but the usual state of things): First, you must have a holy book from several thousand years ago which describes the mores and rules of the society then. Second, you must have a rule (either real or self-determined) that the book is the literal word of a divine power and must be interpreted that way: literally, never changing, never referring to some local circumstances then. Third, your religion must be non-hierarchical enough so that no higher level of the faith pyramid can tell you what the correct interpretation of god's words should be.
The "holy book" of Jews and Christians describes mores and rules of the society then; on the other hand, so do Shakespeare's plays.  As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Scripture may describe those things (what literary work doesn't?), but it doesn't necessarily prescribe them.  Even the most rabid literalists, for example, don't use Philemon to justify slavery today.  And in the same way that the Koran guides Islam, haditha informs interpretations of the Koran; it's an idea the Muslims got from Jewish midrash.  Christians, of course, have commentaries dating to the first century and continuing to the present day (pretty much what every sermon on Sunday morning is).

That the interpretation itself must be both literal and unchanging is, as I say, an idea still less than 100 years old.  It is true that religious fundamentalism is a product of very recent history; but that says more about recent history than about religious belief throughout history.  As for being non-hierarchical, here again we mistake the power of the papacy with absolute power over all Catholics.  The bishops in America don't like everything Pope Francis says; and while they don't publicly contradict the Bishop of Rome, like the police of New York city the bishops know how to slow walk his ideas.  And if the power of the Pope is so great, how does one explain Bill Donohue?  Almost no one agrees with his interpretation of God's words, except for Bill Donohue.  Despite Donohue's paltry influence, never doubt that there are Catholic fundamentalists at large in the world.

Fundamentalism is a subject for study, of that there is no doubt.  You can do it with nothing more than internet access.  It's a subject considered across several volumes, and ranges from Islam to Hinduism to Soviet Marxism (!). (Stephen Jay Gould even applied it to Dennett and Dawkins.)   It is, in short, complicated.

Most of the world is.  Regarding it from the perspective of the internet is something I've more and more come to consider a grand waste of time.

As well as a source of no little despair.