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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 22 December 2006
The Real Christmas - Getting the Story Straight
Topic: God and US

The Real Christmas - Getting the Story Straight

For the traditionalists at Christmas - not amused by films like Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa a few years ago, and the subsequent comedies with dissolute elves or feuding neighbors or magic trains - this year brought them their gift, the earnest and lavishly photographed The Nativity Story. It didn't do that well. Catherine Hardwicke is no Mel Gibson - no blood and guts and unremitting torture. How were you supposed to market this thing? Still, out here in Hollywood there's no end of talk about how to tap an overlooked goldmine - the folks who hate Hollywood, the evangelicals and the religious right, and all the folks who faithfully attend the many giant mega-churches with their soft-rock "Contemporary Christian" services. Look south - Orange and San Diego counties are full of them, and their professional congregations with heaps of disposable income. The parking lots are filled with the newest and largest SUV's, their kids look well-fed and have all the cool new toys and snazzy clothes, and that must mean something. That must mean a new, rich audience to be drained of some of their dollars.

But this year's attempt to tap that market didn't work out. The film in question did just okay for a week and the faded fast. Perhaps the target audience wasn't that large, or perhaps not all that dissatisfied with the secular junk Hollywood produces year in and year out. I could be that they separate entertainment from matters of faith and this is not what they expected from a movie. They may all think the separation of church and state is something that should, after two hundred thirty odd years, be revisited, but apparently they think you don't go to the movies for a God fix. The movies are to provide a secular fix. Or it may be something else entirely. New Line Cinema hasn't yet figured out what went wrong.

The film did generate some comment in the UK when it opened there in early December. Michael White in the Telegraph has an item where he seems to be saying the film may have been just too earnest - "Was there really a stable? Three kings? Any shepherds? Even the gospels can't agree, so maybe it doesn't matter if the kitsch angels and snow globes are all wrong too. It's the way we like it."

New Line Cinema seems to have got the Christmas thing all wrong. Everyone likes the muddled mess of secular and religious, and it was always so, from medieval art to now, especially regarding the nativity -
In the history of art it comes in every form, from intimate, stable scenes to teeming Busby Berkeley spectacles with squadrons of formation-flying angels. "There is a marked difference between Protestant introspection and Catholic display," says Charles Saumarez Smith, the National Gallery's director.

In less elevated terms, it comes conveniently packaged for the modern home, with winking lights and nodding donkeys: singing, dancing, ethnic, edible, inflatable, not to say theologically confused.

On the internet you can buy cribs at which Mary welcomes Father Christmas and a penguin to the manger; the Holy Family look worryingly like the Flintstones; or the baby Jesus is a sort of Eucharistic truffle, robed in chocolate with a vin santo filling.
The film went the other way, as it was "produced in consultation with learned theologians." It was supposed "to cut through centuries of fantasy, embellishment and kitsch, and tells the story as the Gospels do" Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, said it was "Biblically accurate" and the Catholic News Service rejoiced - "'Hollywood finally gets it right." But getting it right doesn't make for great box office. Getting it right is rather irrelevant in Hollywood - ask any author who has sold the rights to his book and doesn't even recognize the film version, passed through a series of screenwriters' changes and preproduction casting negotiations, then suggestions from the marketing people. Oxford becomes Malibu and the protagonist is not a don but now a woman who runs a catering firm - that sort of thing.

But Michael White is really concerned with something else. What if there is no "right" to be getting right in the case of the nativity? New Line Cinema may have had a bigger problem. Bethlehem may not have been as the Victorians imagined it, "some snowy hamlet in the deep and dreamless sleep of the Home Counties, more Reigate than Ramallah." They changed things for marketing purposes themselves, of course

But here are the problems -
To begin with, it's odd that just two of the four Gospels have anything to say about the Nativity. Mark and John offer no comment at all.

Only Matthew and Luke, both written 60-70 years after Jesus's death, give the story.

And, according to Geza Vermes, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and author of a recently published study, The Nativity, it isn't even the same story.

"In our traditional understanding Matthew and Luke are nicely fitted together and their contradictions ignored," says Vermes. "But what they say is totally different. And what's more, it appears nowhere else in the New Testament. No repetition. No reference. From which I conclude that it's a secondary addition: a splendid prologue to the life of Jesus supplied by men who had a reason to supply it."
The whole things was a marketing effort, part of the multinational "Jesus was the son of God" PR campaign -
For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, the objective was to show how Jesus's birth fulfilled the prophesies of the Torah. For Luke, a gentile writing for gentiles, the objective was to explain Jesus in terms that a pagan audience reared on myths of gods impregnating mortals would understand.

… The Virgin Mary is actually called Miriam - she was Jewish, after all - and her virginal status is important to Luke because it fits the Classical image of maidens begetting divine children.

Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has an Annunciation made to Mary by an angel. Western painters stress her detachment from the mess of birth by showing her in seated composure.

Painters of Eastern icons let her lie down. And nowhere does The Bible tell us she wears blue. Her wardrobe largely derives from medieval meditations and visionary experiences, such as those of St Bridget, who had a keen eye for detail.

Joseph is usually depicted as a bit-part actor in the drama and as old, although The Bible does not indicate his age. Some pictorial traditions make him a comic figure and certain cathedrals had a vested interest in adding homely details - notably Aachen, which became the proud possessor of St Joseph's stockings, which had been cut up to make clothes for the infant Jesus. Jesus In paintings, he is usually depicted naked with what would these days be thought an unseemly attention to his penis.

… The Three Kings - only Matthew mentions them. He doesn't call them kings. And he doesn't say how many there are. The earliest nativity scenes show just two, and their number and status were upgraded later, on the grounds that there were three gifts, one of which was frankincense, associated with royalty.

More practically, though, the upgrading of the kings was also connected with the church's desire to allot a role in Christian life to rich potentates (who would otherwise be struggling through the eyes of needles) and get their money.

The kings also symbolized the universal outreach of the Church, to Europe, Africa and Asia. And again, certain cathedrals had a special interest in them: Cologne claimed their bodies and declared them to have died at the respective ages of 109, 112 and 116.

The Ox and Ass There is no mention of them in the Gospels. But if Jesus was born in a stable it would be reasonable to assume their presence. And the first person to make a point of it was St Francis, who is said to have begun the tradition of cribs and nativity re-enactments in the 13th century.

The Shepherds are found only in Luke. Important as a statement of the access ordinary people have to Jesus.

The Star in Matthew but not Luke, and the subject of endless debate as to what, if anything, it might have been. There is no unchallengeable recorded evidence of starry phenomena around this time.
And so it goes. Click on the link for more. But you see the problem New Line Cinema faced. They did eighty percent Matthew, ten percent Luke, and ten percent what's been added on through the centuries. This is what passes for getting it right. Well, both Matthew and Luke agree that the birthplace is Bethlehem, but even that may have been marketing - "important as the fulfillment of prophesy: it establishes Jesus as successor to King David, who was also born there." On the other hand, "Luke has Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem as temporary residents, for the census - which is why they ended up in a stable when there was no room at the inn. Matthew says nothing about a census, stable or inn, and gives the impression that Mary and Joseph are permanent residents in that 'house'."

So what are clerics to do? White chats with them -
Few clerics I approached - including the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster - were prepared to risk a comment. Of those who were, the most forthright was the director of the Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelism, Mgr Keith Barltrop, who agreed that "Matthew and Luke put their Gospels together in a certain way to make certain points, but a Catholic would believe them to be based on history and essentially true. At the end of the day, it's a matter of faith."

Almost as forthright was the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who complains that 'our modern minds want photographic evidence: someone at the cribside with a Polaroid to show us what we see on Christmas cards … Well, nobody was there with a Polaroid, and the gospel narratives don't work like that. They don't inform us. They initiate us into an awareness, a way of seeing and being, and that's the way the early church would have understood them."
The film folks should have asked. Getting it right doesn't matter. The target audience my have implicitly realized that - they were bored with the carefulness.

People want the non-boring version, as Alastair Smart in the same issue of the Telegraph explains here -
The most apposite demonstration of our celebrity-obsessed times must surely be Madame Tussauds' Nativity scene of 2004.

The waxwork depicted Victoria and David Beckham as Mary and Joseph with Kylie Minogue as a pert-buttocked Angel of the Annunciation, and - contentiously - President Bush, the Duke of Edinburgh and Tony Blair as the Three Wise Men.

The scene was criticized as both a new low in the cult of celebrity worship and preposterous blasphemy. The display was open for only a few days before James Anstice, a religious protester, decapitated Posh and knocked over Becks on the grounds of 'waging a war against crap'.

Anstice appears to be fighting an unwinnable war. For instance, the Our Lady of the Snows church in Belleville, Illinois, last year displayed a life-size Nativity scene made from Lego.

Kitsch abounds even in Naples, the world capital of Nativity scenes since the 18th century, when the Bourbon king Charles III ordered them to be made there. Today, countless artisans in the city's Old District work all year to construct presepi. For every exquisite, hand-carved Madonna and Joseph, there's a 25-piece scene made entirely out of dried pasta.
Yeah, well, Alastair Smart says the we here on the other side of the pond have them all beat -
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which has played annually at New York's Rockefeller Center since 1933, is a fine example. More than a million visitors witness this gaudy extravaganza of high-kick dance numbers and skating routines, culminating in the 'Living Nativity' play, for which the vast stage becomes a desert that Mary and Joseph - with live camels, sheep and donkeys for company - cross in search of an inn.
But wait! There's more -
For instance, www.stpatricksguild.com offers a Nativity Bake Set, which allows you to recreate the manger scene out of gingerbread and cookies; an Outdoor Inflatable Nativity, a 9ft tall display with self-inflating, biblical figures; and, most interestingly of all, a Kneeling Santa, a wooden figurine of Father Christmas humbly, if incongruously, kneeling at Baby Jesus's crib.
And you thought Santa didn't visit Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, didn't you? Read your Bible - but not too carefully.

But surely someone respects Jesus and wants to get this all right? Karen Armstrong, Saturday, December 23, in the Guardian (UK), says that someone really does -
In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one.

This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child. It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilizations was by no means inevitable. For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honored in the Qur'an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity.

… The Qur'an is horrified by Christian claims that Jesus was the "son of God", and depicts Jesus ardently denying his divinity in an attempt to "cleanse" himself of these blasphemous projections. Time and again the Qur'an insists that, like Muhammad himself, Jesus was a perfectly ordinary human being and that the Christians have entirely misunderstood their own scriptures. But it concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians - especially monks and priests - did not believe that Jesus was divine; of all God's worshippers, they were closest to the Muslims (5:85-86).

… The Qur'an insists that all rightly guided religions come from God, and Muslims are required to believe in the revelations of every single one of God's messengers: "Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob ... and all the other prophets: we make no distinction between any of them" (3:84). But Jesus - also called the Messiah, the Word and the Spirit - had special status.

Jesus, it was felt, had an affinity with Muhammad, and had predicted his coming (61:6), just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Qur'an, possibly influenced by Docetic Christianity, denied that Jesus had been crucified, but saw his ascension into heaven as the triumphant affirmation of his prophethood. In a similar way, Muhammad had once mystically ascended to the Throne of God. Jesus would also play a prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.
Someone call New Line Cinema - there's a film here if they want to "get it right." But then that hypothetical film wound have no audience. Who wants to watch ninety-four minutes of well-filmed mutual respect? There's no market for that now.

Posted by Alan at 21:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006 21:13 PST home

Thursday, 21 December 2006
The Voice of God
Topic: God and US

The Voice of God

For those of us who face Christmas in America with dread, or on a good day, when the shopping went well, with ironic skepticism, certain Christmas songs murmuring on the radio are appropriately dreadful. One of those is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Yeah, Judy Garland singing that in her husband's Meet Me in St Louis, from 1944. There was a war on and no one was coming home - unless in a box, or maimed, or mad. The song is one of hopeless hope, one of those "you'll never get what you want" things. It's about "muddling through somehow." What else are you going to do? It's a downer.

The other Christmas song that isn't exactly a downer, but similar, is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, from another war. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words and they were published in 1864. It was put to music shortly after. Each of these items were written, then, at the worst time in a long war. The "World of Christmas" link here tells us this of the Bells piece - "This hymn is full of despair as it was written during the stressful times of American civil war. One can sense it clearly in the next to last stanza. Stanzas 4 and 5 mention the battle times and are hence, often omitted from hymnals."

Of course those stanzas are dropped. Here's the full thing -
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll'd along th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bow'd my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men."

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men."
Done right, even done by Frank Sinatra, that might bring tears to your eyes. We here on earth may have screwed up big time, but God is not dead, and he's not dozing off. The good guys will win and the Man in the Sky will make sure of that.

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail" - but then what if His idea of just who is wrong and right doesn't match what we deeply believe? You have to have pretty big brass balls to tell everyone that you know for certain what God thinks about just who's right and who's wrong. The received text - the Bible - is ambiguous (all those slightly different versions of the creation, and only two somewhat contradictory accounts of the birth of Jesus). Some view the Bible as extraordinarily useful myth, others as the literal word of God - but the latter requires some fancy tap-dancing. Bishop Usher read the text carefully in the late nineteenth century. The world is no more than six thousand years old, and that's that. Take THAT, Charles Darwin and all you geologists. Nowhere is there any mention of gay marriage, nor is there anything much that would help with what to do about Saddam Hussein or the Social Security System. All that calls for a lot of inference.

But that never stopped the fire and brimstone crowd, or perhaps these days the "red state" crowd. We are God's people and the president has said he's doing God's work, as he believes God Speaks through him - "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."

This sort of thing - "I know what God thinks so what I do is right" - irritates some people no end. One of them is Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author, who offers this -
I was walking across Central Park on my way to Bible-study class around 8:30 Saturday morning - take that, Red States - thinking about God's role in history. Long story short: I think it's zip, nada, null set, etc. Why? Look at Ahmet Ertegun. What kind of God would have killed him BEFORE the Stones show at the Beacon, rather than after? OK, look at the Holocaust, Cambodia, AIDS in Africa, honor killings for Islamic homosexuals, George W. Bush being the leader of the most powerful nation in human history, half the world living on less than $2 a day ... etc. Is there any justice on this earth? The only possible answer can be: Not that any of us can figure out. And if God is just (and merciful) then clearly, he's not around, or not interested, or non-existent. I don't profess to know whether God exists - personally I think so, because I believe in a kind of intelligent design as the source of the order of the universe - but that is, I think, as far as it goes. What's the upshot of all this deep thinking? Just this: If someone, say, George W. Bush, tells me that he is doing something or has done something because God willed it, I'd tell him to fuck off. Nobody knows God's will or can explain why the universe operates the way it does if the spirit they follow is, in fact, a benevolent one. (And if it's not, well, then it should be resisted as forcefully as possible.) In any case, most of the people throughout history who claim to know God's will have tended to get a lot of the rest of us killed, burnt, raped, tortured, pillaged, thrown out of planes and the like. The crucial distinction in political culture in the world today is between God and the Enlightenment; that is imposed theology or reason. Bush, Osama, Pat Robertson, and Fidel Castro are all on one side of this argument. (Marxism/Leninism is an ideological form of "God.") Those of us who think for ourselves are on the other. I'm all in favor of "religion in politics." This is after all, a religious country, and the most popular religion - Christianity - happens to be on my side in most things. Just don't tell me you know what "God" thinks about anything. You don't. For all you know, he thinks you should go to hell.
Just a note - Alterman is not a Deist, he's proudly Jewish. He's just fed up with the "we know what God really thinks" people. They'd probably say it's resentful envy on his part. God just didn't choose to speak to him. He doesn't talk to New Yorkers, you know. God doesn't think much of that place, as we've all been told, repeatedly. (New York, and specifically central Manhattan, isn't mentioned in the Bible, but no matter.)

Alterman's readers elsewhere aren't hearing much from God either, or so notes Dave Richie in Birmingham, Alabama. Richie also heard no divine word -
Thanks so much for sharing your religious views. My, in such mine fields you choose to tread!

But, no, I don't believe He gives a flying whatever about our "history" nor does He play a significant role. He does not come down here (I think, down) and visit miracles upon us in violation of His own natural laws. The maladies we suffer we bring entirely upon ourselves, i.e., the election of Mr. Bush or the selection of John Kerry.

For Him to interject Himself in these processes would undermine the concepts of intellect and free will. We can neither blame Him for our predicaments nor credit Him with the solutions. It is for us to use His gifts to figure it out for ourselves.

The unholy right wing in this country has chosen to inject God into our public debate from time to time and it has cost them votes, including mine. I have had many of my friends come to call themselves "conservative democrats until these idiots get out of my bedroom!"

I believe you have nailed the lunatic right wing in this country. But, be careful. On the same page you claim "moral superiority." Too tempting to go there, was it not?

Appreciate your courage.

From the ever shrinking Red States, DR
So from deep in God's state this guys thinks God isn't dead, or sleeping - he's just expects us to grow up, and start thinking. Funny, that used to be the mainstream view - God gave us free will and moderately efficient minds. Perhaps, by default, He must have meant for us to use them. Why else would He set things up that way? Times have, obviously changed.

Another reader, Bill Dunlap, from Oswego, Oregon, notices something quite curious -
Speaking of God, Eric, isn't it telling that no one who claims to know God's will or hear God's voice ever hears the Almighty say, "No, no, no don't do that. For My sake, please don't do that."
That is a funny thing, and very convenient. God doesn't say such things? You'd think He might, now and then.

But a brief tangent is called for. Alterman mentions Ahmet Ertegun, and the reference may merit some explanation. Ertegun was the European-educated son of a Turkish diplomat and grew up in Washington. Ertegun died after being injured in a fall backstage before a Rolling Stones concert on October 29, just some weeks ago.

That may seem odd, but Jon Pareles explains it all in the International Herald Tribune with his appreciation, How Ertegun Shaped American Pop Scene -
The sheer improbability of Ahmet Ertegun's career makes it an all-American success story: the tale of an outsider, from Turkey no less, who loved African American music so much that he became a major force in pop history. Points of friction in American culture - class, ethnicity, race, religion - mostly provided him with sparks.

Ertegun, who died on Dec. 14 at 83, was an old-school music mogul, a self-invented character with the urge to start a record company. He was, by all accounts, a charmer: a man of wealth and taste who had stories to tell, a shrewd business sense and a keen appreciation of all sorts of pleasure. He wasn't a musician, but he had an ear for a hit, one that served him for half a century.

When Ertegun and a partner floated Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from a dentist, it was one among many small independent labels trying to serve the taste of postwar America. But while the others had their handfuls of hit singles and disappeared, Atlantic kept growing. With Ertegun as chairman, the job he held until his death, it was a major label by the 1960s, the home of multimillion sellers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and the core of the Warner Music conglomerate that continues to survive in the currently embattled recording business.

David Geffen, an entertainment mogul, said Friday that he had once asked Ertegun how to make money in the music business. Ertegun said he would demonstrate, got up from his chair, hunched over and shuffled slowly across the room. Geffen didn't understand, so Ertegun did it twice more. Finally he explained: "'If you're lucky, you bump into a genius, and a genius will make you rich in the music business,'" Geffen recalled. "Ahmet bumped into an awful lot of geniuses."
So Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, got down with black gospel and gave us Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, and Aretha Franklin, and then the Stones. He discovered and popularized them all. God works in very mysterious ways. And Ahmet Ertegun missed that last Stones concert at the Beacon. Go figure.

Well, we may never know what God is up to - we're just along for the ride, assuming He expects us to do our best to be decent to each other and as reasonable as we can manage, with the reason He nicely supplied us all, or supplied to most of us. But then, that is a very secular thing to say.

And secularism is bad - Bill O'Reilly says so all the time on Fox News in his rants about the "secular progressives" (he's taken to calling them the SP's) and their war on Christmas that, as far as anyone can tell, O'Reilly made up to keep his ratings high. No one has a big problem with Christmas. They just don't like to be shoved around by the God Squad telling them what to say and how to act. It's free country, damn it. If someone wants to say Happy Holidays to a Jewish friend, why is Bill O'Reilly on that person's case? What the big deal? And his ratings, while slipping, are just fine.

On a more scholarly note, Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst sort of side with O'Reilly in their column The Problem with Secularism. You know it's scholarly because Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at St. Martin's College, Lancaster (UK), and Adrian Pabst is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. This is not Fox News, people.

And what they're up to is this -
Geopolitically, the resurgence of religion is dangerous and spreading. From Islamic fundamentalism, American evangelism to Hindu nationalism, each creed demands total conformity and absolute submission to their own particular variant of God's revelation.

Common to virtually all versions of contemporary religious fanaticism is a claim to know divine intention directly, absolutely and unquestionably. As a result, many people demand a fresh liberal resistance to religious totalitarianism.

But it is important to realize that this reduction of a transcendent religion to confirmation of one's own personal beliefs represents an ersatz copy of liberal humanism. Long before religious fundamentalism, secular humanists reduced all objective codes to subjective assertion by making man the measure of all things and erasing God from nature.

This was a profoundly secular move: It simply denied natural knowledge of God and thereby eliminated theology from the sciences. Religion, stripped of rationality, became associated with a blind unmediated faith - precisely the mark of fanaticism. Thus religious fundamentalism constitutes an absence of religion that only true religion can correct.
Got it? Secular humanism is bad. It created fundamentalism, somehow or other. And fundamentalism is not really religion. It's a perversion of religion. What we need is to get religion back in the sciences, to mix them up again. Then everything will be just fine - that will cut the legs out from under both the nutty fundamentalists and arrogant scientists.

It's an interesting idea. And they back it up with this -
Darwinism is close to being completely rewritten. Hitherto, it had been assumed that forms of life are the product of essentially arbitrary processes, such that (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) if we ran evolution again life would look very different. However, evolution shows biological convergence. As Simon Conway Morris, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, has argued, evolution is not arbitrary: If it ran again, the world would look much as it already does.

Nor is natural selection now thought to be the main driver of biological change. Rather, life displays certain inherency, such that the beings that come about are a product of their own integral insistence. All of which means that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and theology. Indeed, evolution is no more arbitrary than God is deterministic. Similarly, in cosmology and physics the idea that the world was produced by chance has long been dismissed. The extreme precision of the gravitational constant that allows a universe like ours to exist requires an explanation. Rather than envisioning the world as an intended creation, secular physics posits infinite numbers of multiverses existing alongside our own. Thus, the sheer uniqueness of our universe is qualified by the existence of all other possible universes.

The trouble is that this supposition sounds more bizarre than religion. Moreover, to posit this paradigm leads to the Matrix hypothesis that we are actually only a virtual simulation run by other universes more powerful and real. So religion finds itself in the strange position of defending the real world against those who would make us merely virtual phenomena.

Philosophically, if one wants to defend the idea of objective moral truths, it appears ineluctably to require some sort of engagement with theology. For if there are universals out there, we need to explain why they care about us or indeed how we can know them at all. And if human beings do not make these truths, then it seems an account of the relationship between ultimate truths and human life can only be religious.
You can of course think long and hard about that passage. It comes down to "there's stuff we don't know and patterns we can't yet explain, so there must be a God." But here it is put in thick and academic terms, so it sounds quite impressive. This is quite impressive lipstick on the usual pig.

Their take-away - "In the new, post-secular world, religion cannot be eliminated and, properly figured, is in fact our best hope for a genuine alternative to the prevailing extremes."

In sports betting that is know as covering the spread. In the world of insurance you'd say they're inserting a "properly figured" stop-loss clause. But the "God people" won't like this and the scientists will shrug. No one is going there, this odd middle. But it certainly sounds impressive.

On the other hand, there is the operational. Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College - the Cluett Professor of Humanities there and the author of Mystic Bones - has a few things to say. It's different in the pits - when you're teaching about religion. On the other hand, he was a close personal friend of Jacques Derrida. When Derrida died on October 8, 2004, the New York Times published a snarky obituary of that odd philosopher, and Taylor, outraged by it, and proceeded to write a "correct" obituary to the Times, which they published a few days later. He gets grumpy.

His matching column - both appear in the International Herald Tribune on December 21 - is about what happens when you even talk about all this -
More American college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of "political correctness." But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche's analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including "unacceptable" books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major U.S. universities have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
And he tells his tales -
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.
No one does doubt any more. It seems that doubt has become politically incorrect. The distinction between the study and the practice of religion gets all muddled. You now cannot talk about what it "is" or what roles it has and does play in cultures. You get in trouble.

Here's what he'd like -
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: Unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not… Isn't that what Alterman was saying he had concluded walking across Central Park last Saturday?

What would God say about that? We're waiting for his word on the matter, so we can doubt it, as He would like.

Posted by Alan at 20:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006 06:16 PST home

Wednesday, 13 December 2006
Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle
Topic: God and US

Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle

It just never ends. Back on April 24, 2005, you could read Who is YOUR Copilot?, a discussion of the news items regarding complaints by Air Force cadets of religious intolerance at our Air Force Academy out in Colorado. Some Jewish cadets were not happy with being told, over and over, that they, or their people, had killed Jesus, and with taking crap, and getting hassled, and getting crap assignments. The place was evangelical - and "others" just weren't wanted. The Air Force Academy was Jesus' place.

The news item cited at the time is no longer available on the web, but it opened with this -
Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.
The Air Force promised to address this, and some chaplains were reassigned, but the story sank into oblivion.

And the matter of Lieutenant General William Boykin, now deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence, touring the country telling Christian groups, while in uniform, that radical Muslims hate America, "because we're a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan," has been floating around since 2003. There's a profile of that guy here, with the classics - on hunting down Osman Atto in Mogadishu - "He went on CNN and he laughed at us, and he said, 'They'll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.' Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Boykin apologized. A ten month investigation carried out by the Defense Department later concluded, in August 2004, that Boykin had broken at least three rules in giving the speeches - not clarifying that he gave the remarks in a private capacity, and he hadn't received clearance for making the remarks, and he hadn't declared the reimbursement of travel funds by one of the religious groups hosting the speaking events. But the report made no comment on the actual remarks he made, and no action was taken. It was a freedom of speech thing - and he got the job as deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence. The New York Times reported on March 18, 2006 that, when asked by Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone to "get to the bottom" of abuses committed by an elite counterinsurgency task force - torture and homicide and all that - Boykin found no pattern of any such thing, despite the ample evidence that there was. Jesus' soldiers don't do such things. This is the man who pretty determines much of how we deal with the bad guys - he assesses their motives and tactics and all, to shape our righteous response. Oh well. He also has claimed, at various times, God made George Bush, the younger, president - guiding the Supreme Court the first time and the voters the second time. This god is obviously a jokester.

And now this business has come up again. On December 10, the Washington Post gave us the latest -
A military watchdog group is asking the Defense Department to investigate whether seven Army and Air Force officers violated regulations by appearing in uniform in a promotional video for an evangelical Christian organization. In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers are in the video. They describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military.
Actually, a Republican congressman, J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, a number of Bush appointees, and various high-ranking Army officers and Pentagon civilians appear in this ten-minute promotional video. So they're enthusiastic. No problem, but the Post item seems to imply that the word in the Pentagon is that your career is over unless you get with their take on Jesus. Get born again, or get out.

You can watch the video on YouTube here and here, or see it using Windows Media Player or QuickTime. It's a bit odd, or if you're a born again person, maybe it isn't.

Bonnie Goldstein at SLATE does the background work. The video was made for the evangelical organization Christian Embassy. Their mission is clear. This is a non-profit organization that "comes alongside presidential appointees in the White House and federal agencies to help direct their focus on Jesus Christ." They buck up souls at the sub-cabinet level. The organization was founded by the late Reverend Bill Bright. The man who also founded the Campus Crusade for Christ International. The aim is that everyone should become an evangelical Christian, damn it!

Goldstein notes that most of the government officials who appear in the promotional video probably violated a particular federal prohibition against proselytizing in the workplace. So there is a law in this matter. And there's the additional problem - the video puts special emphasis on the ministry's presence at the Pentagon and military personnel appear in uniform as they say how wonderful and awesome Christian Embassy is, and both military and civilian Pentagon employees are shown in their Pentagon offices. That almost certainly violates a Defense Department directive forbidding "use of official position" to promote "non-federal entities."

Oops. On December 11, the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that polices separation of church and state in the United States military, sent a letter about the video to the defense department's acting inspector general. If you click on the Goldstein item you can see all five pages of that. The letter, by Ezra Reese, counsel to the foundation, enumerates a long list of regulations that the video appears to violate - and it points out that the video further appears to violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. It basically asks the inspector general to find out who approved the taping at the Pentagon.

But you know nothing will happen. The battle to keep the military, and the nation, from becoming a de facto evangelical theocracy was lost long ago. What are left are the skirmishes. And de facto trumps de jure, as they say. And Bonnie Goldstein is a Jewish name, isn't it?

The Post item offers an interesting quote that illustrates that point -
"I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate," Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. "And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I'm an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."
Everyone in the military swears an oath to defend and uphold the constitution. This is DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers. These guys just make the constitution third in their list of priorities.

The blogger Lambert seems upset -
So, which is it, General Catton? Is supporting the Constitution first one your list, or third?

I believe AA has the right take on "God" (or a higher power, or The God of Your Choice, if any). They always add the qualifier "God, as we understand God."

What if, for example, the God of General Catton's understanding told him to heave a nuke at the Satanic regime in Iran? Would he do it? By his own confession of faith, yes.

And this is not farfetched scenario: the Air Force academy has been heavily infiltrated by Christianists.

Can a Christianist ever be loyal to the United States?

If we take General Catton's words seriously- as we've learned over and over again, with the right, that we should do -the clear answer can only be:

No.
But this is a losing battle. One of the litigants in the Air Force Academy matter, Mike Weinstein, was interviewed on this matter and said these guys should be court-martialed. But then he sees what is going on -
I was in Topeka, on a book tour, and the local Episcopal priest came out to support me and five hours later his church was burned down. And the local synagogue in Topeka, where I was to speak that night, was desecrated with spray paint saying, "F**k you, Jews" and "KKK," all that stuff.
Speak about the separation of church and state and bad things happen. These guys play rough. Note that in late November an Episcopal church was burnt down near Sarasota, New York - wrong theology.

The guys at the Pentagon may be relatively harmless.

On the other hand, they must investigate the death of Pat Tillman from friendly fire, and they're finding that hard to do -
[Lt. Col. Ralph] Kauzlarich, [formerly the Army officer who directed the first official inquiry,] now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more - that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know...

[T]here [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is - I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
No, they're just pissed. Tillman's brother, an atheist and patriot, like Tillman, did write this -
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
But our leaders are born again men of Jesus. How could this be?

This battle has been lost. And anyway, maybe the surviving Tillman brother probably just ate too much tofu. This "devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals." That's the word on the evangelical website WorldNet Daily. You will find more analysis here. It's the soy! Did you know it reduces the size of your penis too?

And these guys are in charge.

But then, an unlikely soldier has joined the losing battle. You might want to skim this discussion of the latest from the new German pope. Benedict seems to argue that torture, or anything like it, is never, ever acceptable. You can say it saves lives, but that is an immoral argument - it's just rationalizing and pure crap, or whatever the Latin for crap is. And waging war in the name of God is, it seems, a no-no in the pope's eyes. He's not with George on this at all. Things have changed since the Crusades.

The item ends with two quotes -

"This is a point which must be clearly reaffirmed: war in God's name is never acceptable!" - Pope Benedict XVI

"I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." - George W. Bush

Now what? Of course, Roman Catholicism - the Cult of Mary - was always suspicious. Kennedy had to say his country came first to get elected back in 1960 - and the KKK way back when wanted to rid the South of blacks, Jews… and Catholics. Now the Catholics are at it again. They say George isn't God's voice on earth. And we put seven Jesuit-educated Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. Ingrates!

And we wonder why the rest of the world is troubled with us.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006 07:09 PST home

Friday, 13 October 2006
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Topic: God and US
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Richard Dawkins is that evolutionary theorist and science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Yep, they have one of those. And he first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which oddly enough introduced the term meme to us all, and started the whole field of memetics. There is one of those too. But the book was actually about something else - "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities." Our genes drive our behaviors - they're just working on replicating. And that even explains altruism. Of course altruism should be an unexplainable paradox to the Darwin folks - helping others costs precious resources and can even limit one's own health, and life. So it shouldn't have anything to do with Darwinian survival of the fittest and all. Others had said it was a group thing - individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species. One of Dawkins' Oxford buddies, W. D. Hamilton, said altruism arose as a matter of kin selection - individuals behave altruistically towards their close relatives, as they share many of their own genes. Another fellow, Robert Trivers, had his theory of reciprocal altruism - one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularized all this and too it down to the gene level - natural selection is "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other" and that explains all behaviors. And other books followed.

But Dawkins is best known as an outspoken atheist and foe of "Creationism," which he has called a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood." As for religion in general, he has his credentials - Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, vice president of the British Humanist Association and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. He calls religion a "virus of the mind, and in 2003, the Atheist Alliance set up the Richard Dawkins Award in his honor. He has nothing but contempt for religious extremism - Islamic with its terrorism to Christian fundamentalist and its silliness. He's big on education and consciousness-raising as the main tools for opposing religious dogma. And he invented the term "Bright" to describe his side of things, a bit of improving the image of atheists. Lots of folks resent that, of course.

As for 9/11 and where were are now, he's said this -
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
And he certainly stopped. He's through playing nice.

If one is to believe Wikipedia, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya, had "a normal Anglican upbringing" and just never got the God thing at all. He began doubting the existence of God when he was about nine years old - the customs of the Church of England seemed "absurd" and had more to do with dictating morals than with God. Then he stumbled on evolution when he was sixteen, and that was that - evolution and science could account for the complexity of most everything in simply material terms, and no "designer" was necessary. And the rest is history. From 1967 to 1969 he was out here - assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. Then it was Oxford. The only other detail is the amusing fact that he met his third wife, Lalla Ward, through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with the woman on the BBC series "Doctor Who," before Adams became famous with the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" stuff. Adams and Dawkins think alike, and their irreverent Brit attitudes match. That's kind of cool.

But Americans never quite got the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing - far too clever and too British. There was even the movie - and that bombed. And if they don't get Arthur Dent, they certainly don't get Richard Dawkins, and his actual first name is Clinton, which is really unfortunate. And he's an atheist.

We are a religious people. Consider this from Madison's Capital Times -
The main spokeswoman for a group supporting Wisconsin's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions has little regard for the separation of church and state, which she calls a "fictitious wall."

"Speaking of it as if it has some kind of constitutional authority is completely bogus," said Julaine Appling, president of the Wisconsin Family Research Institute, at a debate Thursday at Edgewood High School.
So much for the constitution and that pesky first amendment that says the government cannot establish a state religion. The guys in Philadelphia way back when were just kidding? Well, they might have been.

And everyone knows Jesus hates gay folks, and the current House scandal is upsetting, so you find Cliff Kinkaid of the religious right of Accuracy in Media (they set the record straight, of course) saying this - "It's early in the probe, but we may be looking at emerging evidence of a homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill."

But Dick Armey, über-Republican, is getting worried -
Freedom is a gift from God Almighty, and we have a responsibility to protect it. Christians face a temptation to power when we are fortunate enough to have a majority of support in Congress. But government can never advance a faith that is freely given, and it is corrosive to even try.

... And so America's Christian conservative movement is confronted with this divide: small government advocates who want to practice their faith independent of heavy-handed government versus big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of "righteousness" on others through the hammer of law.
Yep, we all believe, but let's not get all crazy here.

Enter Richard Dawkins in a new interview - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - sure to stir things up even more. (As mentioned elsewhere, see this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.) Now we have an interview conducted by Steve Paulson for SALON.COM - and it's long and nicely outrageous, and worth a careful read. Paulson says Dawkins is religion's chief prosecutor - "Darwin's rottweiler," as one magazine called him - and perhaps the world's most famous atheist. Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, "I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." The occasion here is the publication of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion.

Here are some highlights.

Why he became an Atheist -
I started getting doubts when I was about 9 and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right. And which one I happened to be brought up in was an arbitrary accident. I then sort of went back to religion around the age of 12, and then finally left it at the age of 15 or 16.

So God and religion just did not make sense intellectually and he turned against religion because of that, of all things?

Yep -

Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
But isn't he really an agnostic? Well, if you wish -
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
There goes again, being all logical.

And he's asked about the link between being logical and intelligent and an atheist - isn't that elitist?
It's certainly elitist. What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around. As for citing the evidence, a number of studies have been done. The one meta-analysis of this that I know of was published in Mensa Magazine. It looked at 43 studies on the relationship between educational level or IQ and religion. And in 39 out of 43 - that's all but four - there is a correlation between IQ/education and atheism. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Or the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

Yeah, yeah, but what is so bad about religion?

That question sets him off -

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

… I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die - anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed - that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically - the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York - all in the name of faith.
But, but, but… there are peaceful religion. And here he concedes -
You certainly need to distinguish them. They are very different. However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children - sometimes even indoctrinating children - to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith. Now, the faith of these moderate people is in itself harmless. But the idea that faith needs to be respected is instilled into children sitting in rows in their madrasahs in the Muslim world. And they are told these things not by extremists but by decent, moderate teachers and mullahs. But when they grow up, a small minority of them remember what they were told. They remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue. And it only takes a minority to believe what it says in the holy book - the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran, whatever it is. If you believe it's literally true, then there's scarcely any limit to the evil things you might do.
That's not much of concession, but then you have to decide what to teach the kids -
I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true - like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.

… Children ask questions. And when a child says, "Why is it wrong to do so and so?" you can perfectly well answer that by saying, "Well, how would you like it if somebody else did that to you?" That's a way of imparting to a child the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by." The world would fall apart if everybody stole things from everybody else, so it's a bad thing to steal. If a child says, "Why can't I eat meat?" then you can say, "Your mother and I believe that it's wrong to eat meat for this, that and the other reason. We are vegetarians. You can decide when you're older whether you want to be a vegetarian or not. But for the moment, you're living in this house, so the food we give you is not meat." That I could see. I think it's child abuse not to let the child have the free choice of knowing there are other people who believe something quite different and the child could make its own choice.
So much for Jesus Camp and the next generation of Christian warriors.

And as for science and religion coexisting and getting along together - the moderate American compromise view - where science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions and we all get along -
I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion - supernatural religion - would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

But, but, but… science doesn't say anything about why we're here, and religion does. Doesn't that count for something?

Paulson flat-out asks him, what he, as an atheist, sees as our purpose of life.

Ready? Here it is, the answer to the BIG QUESTION -

It's not a question that deserves an answer.

… If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

… There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't - even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer - what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?
As you recall, the comic version of this response, is the answer to the BIG QUESTION ABOUT EVERYTHING in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - after the long search and all the adventures it was… 42. It'll do. If you're going to make things up, or say it was written by someone three thousand years ago and seven translations deep, one thing is as good as another.

This is followed by a great deal on the war between the intelligent design folks and the scientists - our new Scopes trails in Pennsylvania and Kansas - and it's amazing, but it comes down to this -
There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on - we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.
Yeah, but why should we even worry about such things?

When the book was first published in the UK the previous month, Joan Bakewell, explained in The Guardian -
These are now political matters. Around the world communities are increasingly defined as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and living peaceably together is ever harder to sustain. Champions of each faith maintain its superiority to the rest. Recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI show the man in his true colors: an absolutist pointing up with intellectual precision the incompatibility of Islam and Christianity. He did this long before he was Pope, writing the declaration of John Paul II that all religions other than the Catholic faith were defective. Since his election he has demoted efforts at rapprochement with Islam and, on a visit to Auschwitz, failed to address the papacy's collusion with Nazism. The Pope is, of course, held to be infallible by the Catholic Church. Islam's response to all this - "if you dare to say we're a violent religion, then we'll kill you!" - compounds not only the idiocy of rival dogmas but also the dangers. Islam's sharia law invests the law of the land with its own religious and often brutal priorities. Apostasy is punishable by death, as is homosexuality. Christian observance is put under increasing pressure.

Dawkins is right to be not only angry but alarmed. Religions have the secular world running scared. This book is a clarion call to cower no longer. Primed by anger, redeemed by humor, it will, I trust, offend many.
It will certainly do that on this side of the pond.

And why are unicorns hollow? The answer is clear - 42, of course.

Posted by Alan at 22:50 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006 23:08 PDT home

Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Religion: Sleepers Awake!
Topic: God and US
Religion: Sleepers Awake!
Everyone knows Bach's "Sleepers Awake" - even if you didn't know that's what you were hearing. You can go here and click on the little button and have it play in the background while you consider the following.

The was a bit of a buzz on Wednesday, September 13, due to this item in the Washington Post, on the fifth page of the "A" section, because it wasn't that important - Bush Tells Group He Sees a 'Third Awakening'.

Whatever is he talking about? He's talking about how it seems to him that America, the most openly and fervently religious nation on earth, is primed to get really into it now -
President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

"A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me," Bush said during a 1 1/2 -hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. "There was a stark change between the culture of the '50s and the '60s - boom - and I think there's change happening here," he added. "It seems to me that there's a Third Awakening."
The Post reminds us that the First Great Awakening refers to a wave of "Christian fervor" in the American colonies from about 1730 to 1760 - the Second Great Awakening is generally believed to have occurred from 1800 to 1830. And there was a third already. The president's math is a bit fuzzy. He's not one for detail. We're also told that Bush aides, including Karl Rove, have read Robert William Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism" (on sale at Amazon here if you're into such things). Note, Rove denies he enlisted three clergymen to exorcise Hillary Rodham Clinton's left-wing spirit when he moved into her West Wing office in 2001, no matter what that new book says.

Should we be troubled by such religious fervor in the White House?

The Post says no -
Bush has been careful discussing the battle with terrorists in religious terms since he had to apologize for using the word "crusade" in 2001. He often stresses that the war is not against Islam but against those who corrupt it. In his comments yesterday, aides said Bush was not casting the war as a religious struggle but was describing American cultural changes in a time of war.

"He's drawing a parallel in terms of a resurgence, in dangerous times, of people going back to their religion," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was not open to other journalists. "This is not 'God is on our side' or anything like that."

That's good to know, even if you don't really believe it.

And anyway, there's no official transcript of any of this. The Post is reporting on highlights of the private meeting reported in the National Review by Rich Lowry here.

Lowry swoons -

He exudes an easy self-confidence. When he mispronounces a word or comes out with some malapropism, he asks what the correct expression is or makes fun of himself. He often slips self-deprecating lines or amusing comments into his answers. A woman whose job it is to sit off to the side unobtrusively and record the session for posterity with a large mike - and who must be very accustomed to listening to him talk - can't help breaking into a smile at regular intervals.

Bush's confidence goes well beyond comfort in his own skin. He exhibits a sincere, passionate, and uncompromising conviction in his principles. He is arguably losing a war in Iraq that could destroy his hopes for the Middle East and sink his party's hope in the midterm elections. But there's no wobble in Bush. If anything, the opposite.

... Where critics see the radical attacks on the forces of moderation and liberty - in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere - as evidence of the looming failure of Bush's long-term strategy, the president sees them as confirmation of the essential rightness of his vision: "The ideological struggle is being manifested as radicals attack young democracies. The attack of Hezbollah is destabilizing for Lebanon. That's where much of the focus has been. But it also destabilized the emergence of a Palestinian democracy. And it should be - it's noteworthy that extremists and radicals flocked to Iraq to stop the emergence of a democracy. And it's just - people say, well, all these problems are overwhelming. No, all these problems help remind us what the task is."
No one much knows what that really is any longer, but the president does. He doesn't waver, from whatever.

For a typical leftie reaction, the opposite of Lowry, but from a self-described Christian, see this -
First off, I don't need to get my Christianity lessons from my president.

Second, he sure as hell isn't the messiah, predicting the future of Christianity and implying he's one of its leaders, and for him to speak that way is downright scary. It's scary from a foreign policy perspective, from my perspective as a Christian, and my perspective as an American.

Third, it is completely inappropriate to talk about the war on terror being linked to some alleged Christian revival in America. I thought the war was on terror, not on other religions. Not to mention, is Bush somehow implying that we will win the war on terror by spreading Christianity? Is this a crusade now? It's one thing to talk about the origins (at least part of the origins) of the current terror battle being in radical Islam, it's quite another to say that somehow Christianity is also involved in this battle. We are not fighting the war on terror on behalf of Christianity.

… It's really time for more Republicans and/or conservatives to start speaking up. This man is your president. He's quickly moving from incompetent to delusional, all the while endangering our entire nation.
That may be an overreaction. He just said people seem to be getting a lot more religious, that they see things now in terms of unambiguous black and white - pure good and pure evil - and that how he sees the world and the wars we're in, so he's glad everyone is getting fundamentalist religion and coming around to his view. He finds it interesting. Okay, maybe it's not an overreaction.

And former Clinton aide, Bruce Reed, here is amused by the numbering problem - "As if stagnant incomes and a sputtering foreign policy weren't giving Republicans enough troubles this fall, President Bush revealed yesterday that under his watch, one of America's great awakenings has gone missing. First the Bush White House lost track of Osama bin Laden. Now they've lost count of America's religious revivals."

Here's the Reed count -
The First Great Awakening took place in the mid-1700s, during the heyday of Jonathan Edwards, of fire-and-brimstone (not Two Americas) fame.

The Second Great Awakening, led by New Englanders like Harriet Beecher Stowe's father Lyman Beecher, helped fuel the abolition movement. Bush alluded to that awakening yesterday, suggesting that his base was a lot like Lincoln's - Abraham, not Chafee. Just as many of Lincoln's strongest supporters were deeply religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and slavery as evil, Bush said his strongest supporters feel the same way toward terrorism. The Mormon Church also emerged during this period, but went on to become part of Bush's base, not Lincoln's.

The Third Great Awakening, in the late 19th Century, helped fuel the social reforms of the Progressive Era, and emboldened reformers of all stripes, such as William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation, and Mary Baker Eddy. Bush did not claim any of them as his base.
And the Robert Fogel book mentioned above covers the forth - the rise of evangelical Christianity since the 1960s and the emergence of the Christian right. And Fogel has a handy chart, if you're keeping count.

Reed's assessment -
Bush is like an evangelical Dr. Evil, the villain in the "Austin Powers" movies who was cryogenically frozen in the 1960s, thaws out three decades later, and tries to shock the world by demanding "one million dollars!"

Which Great Awakening is the president rubbing out? Does he discount the First, which helped put "endowed by their Creator" in our Declaration of Independence and "In God We Trust" on our coins? Does he refuse to recognize the Third, which led to Prohibition as well as William Jennings's Bryan's last stand for creationism?

Or course it doesn't matter. The president is just pleased that the nation is turning away from complexity and more and more folks are with him, thinking in terms of absolutes, and resisting anyone who says things are more complex than simple good and evil. He's a happy camper. It's a winner in the November elections.

The question is, of course, is he reading the nation right?

That depends.

USA Today reported on a new study, written and analyzed by sociologists from Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, in Waco and conducted by the Gallup folks.

Baylor's Christopher Bader, "you learn more about people's moral and political behavior if you know their image of God than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of church attendance or belief in the Bible."

So forget who's an evangelical, who's a tweedy New England Episcopalian, and who's New Age. It's the image of God you buy into - and there are four available -

1.) The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly," Bader says. Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says. "(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools." They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

2.) The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, Froese says. They're inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. This is the group in which the Rev. Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor and communications director for his father's 5,000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Overland Park, Kan., places himself. "God is in control of everything. He's grieved by the sin of the world, by any created person who doesn't follow him. But I see (a) God ... who loves us, who sees us for who we really are. We serve a God of the second, third, fourth and fifth chance," Johnston says.

3.) The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. "This group is more paradoxical," Bader says. "They have very traditional beliefs, picturing God as the classic bearded old man on high. Yet they're less inclined to go to church or affiliate seriously with religious groups. They are less inclined to see God as active in the world. Their politics are definitely not liberal, but they're not quite conservative, either." Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.

4.) The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us," Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It's also strong among "moral relativists," those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don't attend church, Bader says. Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.
Some of us prefer the Randy Newman version -
Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind


I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind


I burn down your cities - how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind
That must be option five.

And for some immediately applicable cynicism see this on the Baylor survey -
All fascinating stuff - but what has me really interested is the studies findings that four in ten say there were once "ancient advanced civilizations" such as Atlantis and about one in three Americans say they belong to denominations that theologians consider evangelical. Those two groups must be about equivalent in numbers, right?

What an untapped constituency! Atlanteans! Just as dumb as uber-rightwing Evangelists. (In some weird cases the two are even the same thing.) You could tell them anything and they would believe it.

Given that I now expect Karl Rove and George Bush to claim that the "Third Awakening" will be that of believers in Atlantis and that al Qaeda and the Islamofascists in our midst were collectively responsible for the fabled continent's destruction, I'm here to pre-emptively put the record straight.

Dick Cheney and his Illuminati friends sank Atlantis. They did it to stop the Atlantean's Tesla-style technology supplanting their eventual plans for an oil hegemony.

Ok, sorry - I can't keep a straight face anymore. The trouble is, there are people out there who actually believe something like that… The difference is, accusations of moonbattery from the uber-right aside, the left doesn't give its wacked-out extremists as much of a voice as the Right does. The Right's equivalent of the Atlanteans (you know, people who believe the Earth is only 4,000 years old and Darwin was a Satanist plant) are people with direct access to the White House and somehow I just don't see a Dem presidential candidate inviting the Atlanteans, Illuminati-nuts and Draconian-theorists to run a campaign contribution drive.
But what if they're right? What if God chose George Bush as his agent in earth? That would argue for the Randy Newman view.

Of course, what's happening may be only incidentally related to religion, as Christopher Hayes argues here -
On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today." He wasn't alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.

Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert - first in rhetoric, later in fact - a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

… How did we get here?

The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late '90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it "changed everything." But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come - the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
Then see Digby at Hullabaloo with Pimping the Greatest Generation -
I don't think younger people can understand the depth of the generation gap between the baby boomers and their parents, the Greatest Generation. It was a chasm and it turned families inside out for many years. But by the 90's our parents were starting to get very old and for many of us, the fetishizing of the Greatest Generation was a form of generational rapprochement.

For conservative baby boomers, however, it had much more resonance. Vietnam was their war, of course, the most lethal, meaningful hot war of the Cold War, but they had largely avoided it like most of their age group, even as they extolled the warrior virtues and supported the policy. (This led to cognitive dissonance that never left them.) They also sat out or opposed the successful, defining social movements of their generation - civil rights and women's rights - and were looking back at a life made up of nothing more than petty culture war resentment. By the time they came into power even the Cold War was over - resolved by the last presidents of the Greatest Generation. It looked as if the conservative baby boomers were going to be left without any meaningful legacy at all. You could feel their emptiness.

Karl Rove and other rightwing operatives saw a way to feed that gaping void with WWII kitch while furthering their long standing narrative. As Hayes also makes clear in his article, the entire Greatest Generation campaign was partially designed to further the conservative culture war by evoking that epic generation gap and portraying the WWII parents as the proper role models.
Hayes -
Even before 9/11, Karl Rove understood this all too well. In his essay "Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror and the Uses of Historical Memory," David Hoogland Noon, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Southeast, writes that even in his first campaign George W. Bush "consistently referenced World War II not simply to justify his own policy aims, but more importantly as a cultural project as well as an ongoing gesture of self-making," positioning himself as "an heir to the reputed greatest generation of American leaders."

"In the world of our fathers, we have seen how America should conduct itself," Bush said in a 1999 speech at the Citadel. Now, the moment had come "to show that a new generation can renew America's purpose." Throughout both his campaigns, Bush would go out of his way to criticize the dominant ethos of "If it feels good, do it," instead calling for a "culture in which each of us understands we're responsible for the decisions we make."

Bush's allusions to the Greatest Generation were so persistent that the press came to see him - a Boomer child of privilege known for his youthful carousing - as a kind of throwback. Reporting on Bush's first inaugural address, Newsweek's Evan Thomas wrote that "Bush wants the White House to recover some of its dignity, to rise above baby-boomer self-indulgence and aspire to the order and self-discipline prized by the Greatest Generation."
Digby -
Yes, the press veritably quivered with excitement that the "grown-ups" were back in charge. The absurdity of it all was staggering, of course - the boomer man-child who never had a real job and drank himself into oblivion until he was 40 representing the Greatest Generation - but there it was. When 9/11 hit shortly after he took office it was a seamless transition. (They even put him in a flight suit and tried to pass him off as a heroic WWII pilot.) This yearning for "grown-ups" to take charge is a conservative boomer psychological condition. They and the political class are the only ones who are still fixated on the 1960's; the rest of us moved on sometime back.

One big problem for the Republicans is that a majority in this country now are too young to give a damn about any of this. Rove might be able to tap in to the yearning of middle aged right-wingers to be involved in an epic struggle that competes with their parents' greater accomplishments, but the young conservatives who are required to sustain this endless war don't have the same psychic needs. They didn't grow up in the shadow of a generation who fought and won two existential battles; their boomer parents either failed to rise to the occasion (in opposition or battle) when they had the chance or rejected the whole war fetish all together. These young conservatives' idea of glory is winning a fast paced video game. If 9/11 had even had a modicum of the same sense of threat as Pearl Harbor, we would have seen a similar rush on the recruiting centers and we didn't. In fact, the strongest youthful supporters of the war, the College Republicans, commonly say things like this: "The people opposed to the war aren't putting their asses on the line," Bray boomed from beside the bar. Then why isn't he putting his ass on the line? "I'm not putting my ass on the line because I had the opportunity to go to the number-one business school in the country," he declared, his voice rising in defensive anger, "and I wasn't going to pass that up."

That's quite a stirring call to arms isn't it?

This rhetoric of epic struggle that rivals WWII and The Cold War serves the simple political purpose of rallying the conservative base so that the Republicans can maintain power. It is guided by the deep psychological need for conservative baby boomers to find some meaning in their pathetic lives and a cynical attempt to co-opt some sunny, simple vision of the Greatest Generation - who would be the last people to claim the depression and the wars of their lifetimes were either sunny or simple. The younger conservative generation sees it as a cynical political game, which it is.

The entire campaign is built on a Disneyfied version of WWII and boomer childhood nightmare cartoons of The Cold War. They are trying to squeeze all the bogeymen of the 20th century into Osama bin Laden's turban in the hope that they can cop a little bit of that Hollywood heroism themselves. (After all, their hero Ronald Reagan didn't actually fight in any real war either - he just remembered the movies he was in and thought he had.) It is deeply, deeply unserious.
So maybe the moral absolutism here has less to do with religion than with this Not the Greatest Generation feeling of inadequacy and meaninglessness and all that. Or maybe it's both. Either way it's is deeply, deeply unserious.

For a hint of where that can lead see Dahlia Lithwick here on the current dispute with the White House insisting congress authorize the CIA be allowed to us "enhanced interrogation" techniques - waterboarding and freezing and that sort of thing - saying the Geneva Conventions' Common Article Three about ''outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment" must be rewritten, for us, to forbid treatment that "shocks the conscience." The White House says that wording is more precise and useful, legally. It's a game - and also deeply, deeply unserious. You want to codify torture? Just do it. Don't dick around with this moralistic crap. Just say God wants you to do it, or that it worked just fine in World War II.

And call it the Fifth Awakening if you'd like.

___

Footnote:

So just why do humans have religion? For a discussion of that see Kim Sterelny in The American Scientist here, where he reviews Daniel C. Dennett's book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

As noted in the magazine, Kim Sterelny divides his time between Victoria University in Wellington, where he holds a Personal Chair in Philosophy, and the Research School of Social Sciences at Australian National University in Canberra, where he is a professor of philosophy. He is the author of Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition (Blackwell, 2003), The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and The Representational Theory of Mind (Blackwell, 1991) - so this is heavy going, but it is interesting.

Try these nuggets -
… secular theories of religion are corrosive. Religious commitment cannot both be the result of natural selection for (for example) enhanced social cohesion and be a response to something that is actually divine. A cohesion-and-cooperation model of religion just says that believers would believe, whether or not there was a divine world to which to respond. If a secular theory of the origin of religious belief is true, such belief is not contingent on the existence of traces of the divine in our world. So although a secular and evolutionary model of religion might be (in a strict sense) neutral on the existence of divine agency, it cannot be neutral on the rationality of religious conviction.

I think this is true of all secular models of religious conviction, even the "economic model," the one that most aspires to neutrality. According to this model, which Dennett discusses in a chapter titled "The Invention of Team Spirit," religious belief is an instance of ordinary economic behavior. People join religious communities and sacrifice time, money and freedom to secure concrete rewards: immortality-despite-death, guaranteed bliss, supernatural intervention on their behalf and the like. These things are not available elsewhere; you can't just purchase them online. No wonder that the suppliers of such services stay in business. The trouble, of course, is ensuring delivery.

… Dennett has based his case in part on work of cognitive anthropologists Atran and Boyer, who in effect have argued that religion is a spandrel - a side effect of certain other cognitive adaptations. The simplest hypothesis is Atran's idea that religion is a consequence of our tendency to anthropomorphize, to project intentionality onto the world. We treat people as intentional agents - creatures that act as they do because of their thoughts and preferences. That regarding people this way is an adaptation is almost uncontroversial. As Dennett himself has persuasively argued in many of his works, it is often adaptive to treat other systems as intentional agents, especially when they are well-designed, well-functioning systems. But we habitually overuse this productive heuristic. It is harmless to talk to your cat, and it may well be productive for a hunter to conceive of his prey as actively planning to avoid or escape his attentions. But it is not adaptive to shout at and kick the step for being in the way after you have stubbed your toe on it. Likewise, we get no capacity to intervene in or predict the weather by thinking of storms as produced by divine agents. To the contrary, we get a false sense of control, which imposes a double tax: the price of the sacrifices we make, and the risks we expose ourselves to by embracing the illusion.

… The best-known adaptationist ideas about religion link it to the striking fact that people must cooperate to survive. Generating resources jointly is an ancient feature of human lifeways, and we are adapted to and for cooperative social worlds. Wilson, Joseph Bulbulia and others have argued that religious belief is one of those adaptations. A community that believes in an immensely powerful and knowledgeable enforcer gets the benefits of its norms being followed without paying the costs of policing them. Dennett does not discount this hypothesis completely, but he is more inclined to endorse less obvious proposals that link religious belief to psychic benefits.

One such argument is that religion facilitates placebo effects: Perhaps the belief that you are the object of divine concern has real and crucial health benefits, particularly in a premodern world. Another is Boyer's hypothesis that religious belief simplifies choice-making in an informationally complex world.

… Dennett has long been involved in synergistic interaction with Richard Dawkins, so it is no surprise that Dawkins's memetic view of religion plays a role in Dennett's theory. Religion thrives, according to Dawkins, because its tenets and customs - its "memes" - like so many DNA or RNA-based genes, are structured to ensure that they are passed from one generation to the next (the Shaker practice of celibacy not withstanding).

Here Dennett's theory is nuanced. He points out that today's organized religions are reflective, self-conscious systems, which include not just beliefs about the supernatural but also rather strict ideas about how these beliefs are to be interpreted, warranted and fit together. Early religions may have a more or less direct biological explanation of the kind we have been discussing. But modern religions depend on massive investment in the mechanisms of cultural transmission. They cannot exist without the apparatus of holy books, seminaries, catechisms, theologians. So here a theory of cultural inheritance and cultural evolution comes into its own. Biases in preservation and transmission will be central to the explanation of the success and failure of modern religions. In contrast to Dawkins, though, Dennett does not assume that the dynamics of religious memes are virulently pathological. For him, this is an open empirical question.
But there is that bit about religious belief simplifying choice-making in an informationally complex world. It just doesn't make the choices any better.

Posted by Alan at 21:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006 21:57 PDT home

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