Hey look, it’s March and I haven’t posted anything on here since December. Granted, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
So I was thinking earlier about how little effect Mere Christianity had on me. I wrote two posts about it over four (!) years ago. I didn’t trash it entirely, but neither did it impress me much. Which causes me some confusion when people mention about important it was to them, whether they’re Christian or not. Did I just read it too late? The amount of mental energy I had to expend to find the flaws in its arguments was pretty minimal. It’s not like I’ve never been affected by arguments for God/religion; the prime mover argument was the entire reason I was a deist throughout high school. In any case, I’m perplexed and I probably always will be.
I find it an amusing exercise to go back and read some of my old posts on here. The Mere Christianity posts are a good example. The post about Expelled and its comment thread is also entertaining (I’m too lazy to go find links). Occasionally it feels like someone else entirely wrote them (the MC posts more than the Expelled one). I read through the arguments and find them to be clever and powerful; well, no shit, why else would I have written them? It’s a weird sort of narcissism and navel-gazing.
I’m almost entirely unable to read Piece of Mind anymore. Excluding the occasions when Steve pops in, it’s a painful exercise in condescension and faux self-reflection. The bumbling, innocent manner in which its done no longer softens it enough. You can read the first paragraph of a post and know exactly where he’s going. I’m pretty sure repeating yourself without your readers noticing is one of the key skills necessary for long-term blogging. I never developed it. Either Mark’s losing his skill for it or I’m becoming more sensitive to wasting my own time.
Of course, I shouldn’t bash anyone’s writing. Half the posts on here are a mess of soft language and qualifications for every statement. The number of times “seems” appeared on this blog is appalling. And of course, this section is another result of that phenomenon; I like Mark and don’t want to bash him personally, so I’ll follow up my criticism with some self-deprecation.
Since I don’t have cable anymore I don’t subject myself to TV news much, but I had a chance to watch Fox News a bit this week (hooray for motel rooms). I’d rather watch Fox than the other networks because it’s more interesting. CNN is the normal sort of brain-dead and Fox is the interesting sort. MSNBC is just annoying. Anyway, they were talking about the “deeming” gambit House Democrats were floating, where they would vote on a package of health care fixes and at the same time deem the Senate version of HCR to be passed. The report implied this was unconstitutional, which is plainly ridiculous, and showed a Democrat saying it would help some members who didn’t want to vote on the Senate bill. Then Brit Hume gave his opinion that it was nonsensical that it would help anyone, since they’re essentially still voting for the Senate bill and everyone would know that. At this point you have to wonder why Hume is getting paid for that sort of analysis. It’s immediately obvious without any foreknowledge of the idea that the point is to allow some House Democrats to say “I have this objection to the Senate bill, so I voted for a bill with a fix for that objection.” The point is not to hide a vote on the Senate bill, but to allow members to defend themselves against certain objections to the bill. Now, this is still stupid politics. Your average college Republican can come up with the attack ads: “Democrats think you’re so stupid that they could hide their vote on the Senate bill from you by voting on a bill that says it is passed, rather than on the actual bill.” You’d think people would demand Fox at least provide competent conservative analysis, but apparently not.
There’s a meme from a couple of popular bloggers where they list the ten most influential books for them. I’ll go with five, since I’m pretty young and books (as opposed to blogs and magazines) have had a lesser impact on my thinking:
5. 1984 by George Orwell – This is the first work of fiction that actually impacted me. Every novel I’d read up to that point, even the ones I liked, had nothing like the emotional impact of this one. The implicit goal of all my fiction reading has been to find other books that have the power that the end of 1984 does. I’ve only found two: The Road and Spin.
4. 9/11 by Noam Chomsky. Do liberals always have a Chomsky phase? This was the first “book” of Chomsky’s I read and his arguments had the curious effect of inspiring a completely different way of looking at things while not quite seeming correct. It took a few years to work through that, but I feel like I’m better for it.
3. Dying to Win by Robert Pape. This turned around what I thought about terrorism and provided a window into how powerful political science can actually be.
2. The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Books really didn’t have that much influence on my religious views. This Talk Origins article had more influence on me than any book on this list. But this book was still a big deal. The clear and concise way they go through and show the problems with the stories in the Old Testament is incredible. It moves you beyond skepticism about what’s in the Bible to be able to say “this is what doesn’t make sense and here’s why.” It makes the fuzzier New Testament criticism a disappointment in comparison.
1. What Liberal Media by Eric Alterman – The first political book I ever read and the beginning of my interest in partisan politics. The book isn’t the greatest in the world but if I hadn’t read it who knows what I would think about politics right now.
How is this not awesome? Conservapedia has a Conservative Bible Project going. Because the people who do the NIV translation are a bunch of feminist liberals. Seriously. So they’re going to translate the KJV into more modern English.
For example, one of their suggestions from Mark is to replace Pharisees with “intellectuals” or “skeptical teachers.” One instance:
Jesus perceived immediately what the intellectual types were thinking, and he asked them, “Why are you so hostile to this?
If one of your goals is to enhance the intellectual force of the Bible, the phrase “intellectual types” isn’t helping.
(for reference, here’s what the NRSV translation is: “At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?”)
This is also an obvious example of the flaws in what they’re doing (flaws? no way!). The fact is that Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees is a conflict with a conservative religious establishment. The Pharisees are representatives of the ruling priests (from what I’ve read, anyway). Jesus’ is rebelling against a religious establishment, which is not a particularly conservative move. Characterizing the representatives of that establishment as “intellectuals,” which undoubtedly conjures up an image of anti-capitalist radicals in academia who want to destroy the very foundation of our country in their minds, is a bit misleading. Jesus is rebelling against tradition and is trying to shake the foundations of the contemporary religious establishment. You can make a better case that he’s analogous to their view of intellectuals. It would be stupid to do so, but less so than the Conservapedia alternative.
That’s not to say that verse is inconsistent with conservatism, just that using it to score conservative points obscures what Mark is describing. The world is too complicated to impose narrow ideological categorization on every event. Conservapedians, can’t handle that.
But we really already knew that, didn’t we?
Since most of the time when I link to The Corner, it’s to mock it, I thought I should link to a post approvingly. Amazingly, it’s a post about religion and politics.
I’d quibble with the quote that “secularists ask that individuals with religious reasons pretend to think and act on some other basis.” Secularists ask that individuals don’t advocate for policies with no support other than religious dogma. If they can come up with an argument that demonstrates the benefits or harms of the policy, great. If not, the policy isn’t one we should adopt.
I don’t think that’s really “pretending,” so much as acknowledging that it’s not the job of government to govern the spiritual lives of a society. It’s the logical conclusion of a belief in the separation of church and state. It is absolutely an ideology, but one that is broad enough that it encompasses a wide array of political views (even if conservatives have rejected it in greater numbers than liberals).
You’ve committed your life to Jesus. You know you’re saved. But when the Rapture comes what’s to become of your loving pets who are left behind? Eternal Earth-Bound Pets takes that burden off your mind.
We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each
Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you’ve received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.
I wonder how much money they’ve made.
I think I’m less surprised by the “death panels” and related nonsense about health care reform. It’s a leap that’s surprisingly easy for them, no matter how insane it is. For example, this was said about me in 2004:
I’m glad I’m old – maybe I’ll get to die naturally before his generation wants to kill me off.
That comment was prompted by my support of John Kerry and abortion rights. I said nothing relating to even euthanasia.
The far Right has been primed to believe the Left is a death cult. Abortion is the classic example with the rhetoric about encouraging a “culture of life.” It stands to reason that those opposing you are participating in a culture of death. Terri Schiavo is a more recent example; the Right went nuts claiming she was alive and Leftists were supporting her murder. Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a book called The Party of Death, for crying out loud.
The fact is that the far Right in this country already has a mental landscape that is perfect for these claims to take root. Existential issues with death, worries about increasing secularism, a deeply held belief that we’re participating in genocide, and the the fervent paranoia that accompanies Democratic presidents all work together to produce this kind of insanity. Honestly, could anything less absurd come of this?
Because I’m sort of masochist about these things, I was perusing the Biologos site earlier. Biologos is Francis Collins’, our new head of the NIH, organization. It’s aim is to reconcile science and religion, or at least provide its own perspective on how they interact. It’s pro-evolution, thankfully, but still mostly ridiculous.
For example, here they are talking about the atheist retort “If God created the universe, what created God?”
In many faiths, God’s origin is straightforward. Christian doctrine teaches that God is eternal and thus had no beginning.
Theologians have debated the relationship of God to time for centuries and no doubt will continue to do so. It is a question that we probably cannot answer. In one thoughtful response, God is the creator of time itself, and thus exists outside of time seeing all of history at once. Verses like those above are often used to support this view. On the other hand, this view is often critiqued by Biblical scholars including Clarke Pinnock, John Sanders and Gregory Boyd4, who point out that God is portrayed in scripture as acting in time….God certainly seems to be in time and responding to the unfolding course of events. But of course, given the difficulty our time-limited minds have in grasping this philosophical problem, there is no compelling reason that God could not be both outside of time and capable of acting within it.
This is the sort of silliness that our high-minded theological betters come up with fairly often. Well, it could happen, so what the hell, eh? It is indeed difficult to find compelling reasons against nonsense. How can you have a moral agent that exists outside of time? Thinking, making a decision, and then acting is so bound up in the concept of time that to separate them is to make it incomprehensible. Even if you were to someone how say that an agent could exist outside of time and not make decisions there, to place itself in time is a decision that would require time. Or maybe he’s in both realms simultaneously and this is like trying to prove that love is green.
The next section is pointless meandering (not that I’m criticizing, I’ve done plenty of that on this blog). After that comes this:
Suppose as a religious believer you ask the question, “What kind of a universe is most compatible with my belief in an eternal God?” In this case the response affirms but does not prove the reality of God. The universe that we experience appears to have had a beginning; it appears to be finely tuned for life; it appears to have a place for love and purpose. These appearances affirm as plausible your prior belief in God.
Now suppose you start from the atheist assumption. In this case the universe must not really be as it appears. It cannot have a real beginning, be tuned for life and love, and purpose can’t be anything other than illusory epiphenomena — the curious byproducts of chemistry and physics. The whole picture has a claustrophobic bleakness.
This is cute, but wrong. First, is the universe really the most compatible with belief in a God? It seems to me that for thousands of years human beings though they were a) the center of the universe and b) the direct creation of a higher power. What we currently know is that the Universe is vast and overwhelmingly hostile to human life and that we occupy a suitable niche in some insignificant corner of it. It seems like an awful waste of space, doesn’t it? Furthermore, we are the end result of several billion years of very gradual change. Directed or not, it’s what I’d expect of a god who created us in his image. Compatible? Sure. The fact that there are religious believers shows that. But it wouldn’t be my first pass at the question. Then again, God works in mysterious ways so who’s to say what’s the most compatible?
As for their account of the atheist view, what the fuck? I confess to not understanding the idea that we all have nothing to live for if there’s no purpose to the Universe. It’s like they expect a conversation like this to be the formative experience of our lives:
[Boy|Girl] 1: Wow, I really love that [girl|boy].
[Boy|Girl] 2: You know, your feeling for that [girl|boy] is a mechanism to encourage you to further our species.
[Boy|Girl] 1: You’re right! My feelings for that [girl|boy] have now vanished.
If you’re really stopped from enjoying life by the thought that you aren’t an invisible man’s special snowflake, I think you need to relax a little.
Furthermore, I think an atheist would point out that the assumption that all conceivable universes are possible is not a good one. The parameters of our universe are likely constrained, though how and why are open questions for scientists to answer.
Now, the conclusion!
But we can also state confidently that denials that God is creator are fraught with even more unresolvable difficulties and ultimately provide a far less satisfactory grounding for a worldview in which meaning and purpose play important roles.
Err, okay then. A whole article of muddled confusion and hand wringing about how atheism is bleak and we get a completely unsupported conclusion. Did you expect more?
So Prop 8 is ok, but the 18,000 gay couples already married can stay that way.
Some might say that the 18,000 existing gay marriages are a loss for the religious right. I say it’s an opportunity. For what? Gay marriage cap and trade.
What better way to show you have some new ideas and aren’t all “gay marriage will lead to people marrying hamsters” than to riff on the hip new emissions cap and trade policy that’s making waves in Washington (or will, anyway).
You’ve already got a cap: 18,000. You need a rate of decrease. You don’t want to seem strident, so you go with 2,000 a year. You shouldn’t have any problems getting that from the number of divorces. That gives you almost a decade to wipe out gay marriage. Long time? Maybe, but you remember that California is well and truly fucked anyway. You probably don’t use “fucked,” though.
Now, let’s say that in any given year, half the marriages end in divorce. So maybe after the first year you have 7,000 (16,000 minus 9,000, keep up) licenses to auction off. What do you get for those marriages? How much would you have paid to marry your wife? One thousand? Two thousand? Ten thousand? In any case, you’re talking millions per year in new revenue (and you didn’t even factor in the death rate!). Now, it’s not enough to cover the $8 billion budget shortfall (unless you’re going to ask $1 million plus per marriage at the outset), but you’ll be doing your part to help California.
There are fringe benefits, too. The new gay marriage loan industry? Just what the struggling mortgage industry needs!
Why are you all looking at me like that?
Michael Gerson has written a column about religion that doesn’t make me want to throw things.
At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of “American Grace,” based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, “religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens.” They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.
Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are “more powerful, supercharged friends.”
Notwithstanding my hard-core secularism, this is more or less the conclusion at which I’ve arrived. Religion is a powerful social construct here. Europe is different and I haven’t quite reconciled that in my mind yet (their generally more extensive social programs replace some of religion’s functions here?).
I dislike the conclusion, but what can you do? It’s still a bit much to say our society would collapse without religion. A lot would change, but why couldn’t we follow a path similar to some European countries?
This Pew survey about support for torture by religious affiliation is enlightening.
For a group that prides itself on values, evangelicals are the least likely to say torture is never justified, preferring the more relative “sometimes” and the awful “often” options. Mainline protestants have the fewest undecideds and the most in the “never” category and are pretty evenly split between often/sometimes and rarely/never. The unaffiliated prove themselves to be the most anti-torture (but they’re not sure about it, having a higher number of undecideds and fewer “nevers” than the mainline Protestants).
But I like the break out by church attendance. Weekly or monthly churchgoers are pretty comparable, but the bigger jump comes when you go from monthly attendance to seldom or never. I guess all that torture in the Bible goes straight to their heads.
But really, we’re a more pro-torture country that we should be, and that’s disheartening.
I will never understand why people who incorrectly predict the apocalypse (Jesus, William Miller, Hal Lindsey, etc) influence society like they do.
This week, there are festivities dedicated to one of those false apocalyptic prophets. One would think this settles it:
And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Versions of those statements are fairly well-attested, with similar sayings showing up in the other gospels. Alas, Jesus’ cult went on to bigger things.
Humans are not particularly rational. I’m not, you’re not. The best we can do is strive to make sure our beliefs have some grounding before we reach our intellectual limits. We create institutions and follow certain methods to help ourselves. But we have to understand our limits and realize that people will come to different conclusions. Coercing everyone into coming to the same conclusion will not work nor is it desirable.
But that does not imply that individuals must treat all views as equally valid. It does not mean that all views have merit. It’s depressing how often critical discussion of religion is met by calls for tolerance, which in this context implies criticism is somehow less valid speech than religious expression. It serves to cover a belief that the standards we use to judge philosophies and world-views in every other area of our society are not valid here. And of course, those standards are not abandoned for a reason, but because the person lacks the introspective ability to question his or her belief that feelings are a reliable indicator of external reality.
And why would you want that ability? If you can’t believe without evidence, you can’t create a supreme being in your own image. I’d love to believe in a god who’s responsible for love and music, who gave us these amazing minds and expects us to use them against anyone who would oppress his children. It would make me feel better to believe in a supreme being who reflects my values. But what reason do I have?
We’re not rational. We hold irrational beliefs. But the rotten core of religious liberalism is the rejection of the idea that we should strive for something better. In some ways, that’s worse than the odious beliefs on religious conservatives.