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"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, 30 June 2006
Religion: Two Hundred Thirty Years and We Still Argue
Topic: God and US

Religion: Two Hundred Thirty Years and We Still Argue

The week was dominated by the news of the Supreme Court decisions, particularly that amazing one on the last day of the court's term (all discussed here), and the current invasion of Gaza by the Israelis with them taking parts of the Palestinian government into custody, blowing up lots of infrastructure so as the week ended there was no water available there at all, and buzzing the government buildings in the Syrian capitol with the fighter-bombers we've sold then over the years, all to get that one soldier back. Things are a bit hot there. Then there were the calls for the New York Times to be charged with treason for printing a story about how we traced the terrorists' financial transactions, which the administration had actually boasted about doing some years back. It was supposed to be a secret? Guess so (discussed here along with the flag-burning business). And the week ended with this - "The American military is investigating accusations that soldiers raped an Iraqi woman in her home and killed her and three family members, including a child, American officials said Friday. The investigation is the fourth into suspected killings of unarmed Iraqis by American soldiers announced by the military in June. In May, it was disclosed that the military was conducting an inquiry into the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha last November." We are the good guys, we really are.

And those were just the major stories. We live in turbulent times, and just where this all is heading is unclear. This country seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, or seems so to some, and you even get discussions of whether our president can be charged with war crimes - see this and this - theoretically possible but politically quite unlikely, even implausible. That's new. War crimes? That's unprecedented.

But the Fourth of July is fast approaching, and we can use the day to feel good about things - or not. Are you patriotic? Yeah, maybe you are. But are you godly?

Why should that come up now? Well, under the major stories there's some disagreement about core values that's getting nasty.

Things used to be different. Susan Jacoby is quoted here on the matter of church and state -
Those who cherish secular values have too often allowed conservatives to frame public policy debates as conflicts between "value-free" secularists and religious representatives of supposedly unchanging moral principles. But secularists are not value-free; their values are simply grounded in earthly concerns rather than in anticipation of heavenly rewards or fear of infernal punishments. No one in public life today upholds secularism and humanism in the uncompromising terms used by Ingersoll more than 125 years ago.

Robert Green Ingersoll on July 4, 1876, the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence - "Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. It is impossible to be juster than just. Secularism has no 'castles in Spain.' It has no glorified fog. It depends upon realities, upon demonstrations; and its end is to make this world better every day - to do away with poverty and crime, and to cover the world with happy and contented homes."

These values belong at the center, not in the margins, of the public square. It is past time to restore secularism, and its noble and essential contributions at every stage of the American experiment, to its proper place in our nation's historical memory and vision of the future.
Yep, there are those of unchanging moral principles - Jesus is their savior and they know in which parts of the New Testament he was just kidding about tolerance and loving your neighbor and all the rest - and the rest of us just have no values. And the government should operate on those unchanging moral principles - and deal harshly with gay folks and those who would let other religions be and all the rest.

And there's no "making the world better." Life nasty, mean, brutish and short, and people need to be kept in line - and anyway the end is coming with its Rapture, and improving things thus seems kind of pointless.

But why would the issue of church and state and basic values come up this week? Well, someone stirred the pot again, and that would be the rising young star of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois. He gave a speech at a conference of Call to Renewal, a religious group that wants to reduce poverty in America if they can. That speech would have been harmless enough, but he called for Democrats to embrace religious rhetoric from public platforms, and for the party to just lighten up about school prayer and all the other faith-based issues. It was, maybe, a "get religion and give in" speech. It raised some eyebrows. Liberal politics can be fused with religion? Really? For liberals religion was always a private matter, not political.

From a quick survey the reaction were mixed. From the left Michelle Murrain said this - "In the end, I think that this is very positive. He is right, most people in this country have some sort of faith, and Republicans have exploited this to forward their basically immoral agenda. He's not saying, and I'm not saying that we need to do the same. What he is saying, and I agree, is that politics and religion do mix, and we (that is, progressives) ignore that at our own peril." But another staunch Democrat said this - "I would agree with Obama that Democrats need to reach out to the Evangelical community, but let's not be stupid about it. Let's not compromise our principles and our beliefs in the basic humanity of ALL Americans in a cheap, transparent effort to woo a few more votes come November."

The widely-read lefty Duncan Black said this - "If you think it's important to court evangelicals, then court them. If, on the other hand, you think it's important to confirm and embrace the false idea that Democrats are hostile to religion in order to set yourself apart, then continue doing what you're doing. It won't help the Democrats, and it probably won't even help you, but whatever makes you happy."

In response to that there was this - "What nonsense! Obama's speech was far more critical of the cynical use of religion by the religious right than an attack on Democrats."

Maybe it was, but that's not how people saw it.

On the other side, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, thinks Obama offers "secularism with a smile," that he "seems to believe in the myth of a universal reason and rationality that will be compelling to all persons of all faiths, including those of no faith at all. Such principles do not exist in any specific form usable for the making of public policy on, for example, matters of life and death like abortion and human embryo research." That's here - there's no such thing as universal reason and rationality, as those two things never did anyone any good (the Enlightenment and all the science and political theory that arose from it was a crock, it seems). And anyway, you cannot be rational about abortion and human embryo research - you can only be right, or wrong. Rationality has nothing to do with it.

Michelle Goldberg, the author of the new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, thinks something even deeper is at play. She's a bit alarmed about what she has named, probably rightly, Christian Nationalism. That's what her book is all about - all the organizations with the explicit aim of creating a Christian nation, not exactly a theocracy, but a government that is run on purely Christian principles, allowing those of other religions and values only limited rights and little say in things. There a whole lot of these folks.

But she understand them, as she explains here -
When I was in Dover, PA during the intelligent design controversy, a preacher's wife told that if evolution is true, life has no meaning. "Where's this universe heading?" she asked. "What's the purpose of it all? There's no standard, no guidelines." Obviously, Democrats should not join Republicans in pretending that they have a lock on divine truth, but they can speak to people's anxiety, their hunger for community and purpose. The religious right offers people a narrative arc, not just about their own lives, but also about America's decline and imminent resurrection. Democrats need a mobilizing vision as well, one that speaks to the despair that underlies so much of our politics.
Ah, it's the existential despair thing. Since the secular left offers no comfort for "the absurd" - just fixing this policy or that and repairing roads or whatnot - the party that offers "meaning" in this sorry world gets their support.

Now THAT'S hard to counter. And she says that the trouble with Barack Obama's recent speech about religion and the Democratic Party is not "his embrace of religious language in the service of liberalism" -
Religious speech can be transcendent, and genuinely Christian ideals about justice and mercy can inspire even non-believers. The right has successfully convinced much of the country that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith, and speeches that work to counter that myth are valuable.

Unfortunately, Obama's rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republican myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.
Yeah, the other side really should take the religious right's rhetoric seriously, and should engage and argue with the movement's ideas and not just scoff at it all as fanaticism. There is a "spiritual void at the heart of American life" - social movements that offer people meaning and "existential solace along with practical policy solutions" are a good thing.

Obama -
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.

They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
Yeah, he gets it. People do have a problem with that nothingness scenario. Those of us who have made our peace with it are just too smug. And he suggests keeping the God words in the Pledge of Allegiance is no big deal, or voluntary student prayer groups using school property to meet, and certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - are fine, as they fix things.

But Goldberg contends this is silly, as there really is no battle at all -
It is a common right-wing talking point that liberals want to take the phrase "under God" of the pledge of allegiance. Undoubtedly, some of us regret that, during a moment of Cold War panic in 1954, our government amended the historic pledge to put the word God in it. However, there is now no organized movement to take it out. The California man who sued over the pledge a few years ago represented no one but himself, and in 2002, when the 9th Circuit voted in his favor, many ardent defenders of church/state separation groaned. "This is a godsend for the religious right," Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told me that day. "They're going to raise millions of dollars on this issue. I'm sure even as we're speaking, there are presses running overtime printing fundraising letters saying, 'Save the Pledge of Allegiance!'" Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had recently ruled that public money could be used for religious school tuition. "We're on the verge of tax-supported religion in this country. It's a startling change of policy, and instead of taking a hard, serious look at that, we're going to spend a couple of months arguing about the Pledge of Allegiance."
You do notice that no liberal anyone knows and not one Democrat is fighting against the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. What's the deal here? The left did what, exactly? They should be asking why the government is funding specific religious education, but they're not even doing that.

It's all a myth -
Similarly, no one is stopping religious kids from gathering together to pray at school. Last year, when I was writing about the myth of the War on Christmas, I interviewed Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and an expert on religion in public schools. He's presented as a heroic voice of sanity in John Gibson's ridiculous book "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought." This is what he told me: "The big picture is that there's more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There's no question about that. But it's not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools."

In the last two decades, Haynes said, "religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways ... many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school." In this evangelical climate, I suspect many students who practice minority religions, or no religion at all, are made to feel far more alienated than when I was in school during the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, when schools have stopped kids from engaging in religious speech - say, not letting them hand out religious tracts at lunch - the ACLU has stepped in to defend them, and they've been correct to do so. Liberalism, at its best, stands for free speech, even when that speech is annoying.
So the problem here is that Obama is basically saying the left and the progressives, and the major players in the Democratic Party, should stop doing what they're not doing.

What should be at issue these days? Goldberg has some ideas -
The relevant argument, then, is not about whether there will be prayer in public schools. It's about whether there will be government-mandated prayer in public schools. The argument is not whether religion can do good things in people's lives. It's whether the government should fund religion. The argument is not even whether religious groups should contract with the government to provide social services - Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and others have been doing that for decades. It's whether religious groups that do receive taxpayer funds should be permitted to proselytize on the public dime, and to refuse to hire those of the wrong faith. The relevant debate is about government-financed religious discrimination. The rest is just a smokescreen to make it seem like defenders of the First Amendment are the ones on the offensive.
Yeah, it's all upside-down.

But what should the government be doing?

One of the contributors at Firedoglake says it seems so simple -
Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The first amendment puts the free exercise of religion right next to the freedom of speech and the press, and both of these next to the freedom to participate in the political realm shared by all. For over two centuries, society in general and the courts in particular have struggled with how to hold these three in tension. ... We all want our own beliefs respected, and part of that respect is the freedom to express them in public.

One big aspect of the whole "separation of church and state" discussion is generational. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court made two major rulings that causes the TheoCons to scream for the heads of the Court. In 1962, the Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (370 US 421) that the "Regent's Prayer" used in the public schools of the state of New York was unconstitutional. This prayer said "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country." (Students forced to pray for teachers: was this what Jesus had in mind when he said "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you"?) The next year, the Court ruled in School District of Abingdon Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (374 US 203) that the practice of a daily Bible reading led by the teacher followed by a recitation of the Lord's Prayer by the class is similarly unconstitutional.

Maybe it's because I never went to school in NY prior to 1962, but I like letting schools be schools, churches be churches, mosques be mosques, holy groves of trees be holy groves of trees, and so forth. But for some of a certain age who DID attend such schools, the loss of these prayers and practices felt like having a part of their school heritage cut out. The TheoCon leaders tapped into this pain, turned it into anger, and have used it ever since to fuel a "return to God" movement against the Court and all who agree with these rulings.
It that same existential despair thing - and the votes you can generate from it. Mix it with nostalgia for the good old days that never were, and you win, big time.

And the "return to God" things is really working (emphases added) -
Some of the more recent cases have cut into this protection of the religious rights of those in the political minority. In Employment Division of the State of Oregon v. Smith in 1990 (494 US 872), Justice Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority that the state was within the law when it fired a Native American drug rehabilitation worker for using peyote as part of a Native American religious ritual. The most disturbing part of Scalia's opinion was this, because he accurately assessed the import of his ruling: "It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs." (p. 891)

In other words, Scalia says that those who practice minority religions or those with practices rooted in opposition to prevailing religious beliefs only have such rights as the majority deigns to give them politically. This worries me greatly, because I break the laws of California (and at least 22 other states) every Sunday by providing alcohol to minors, some only just old enough to walk. It is part of a Sunday morning conspiracy of lawbreaking that goes by various names, including Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord's Supper. According to a compilation of state liquor laws as found in the Alcohol Policy Information System, run by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH), at least 23 states provide no exception in the law for alcohol used in religious ceremonies. The only thing keeping me and my co-conspirators out of jail is the willingness of the various district attorneys and police departments to look the other way. (It's just a sip, officer...) That's not very comforting.
But that's the way it is.

But the real issue in this item isn't "the protection of beliefs of those in the political minority" - or the rights of those who just don't believe. You can make an argument for the church - any church - to support the separation of church and state. This doesn't have to do with the courts and all - it has to do with the question of "who speaks for the church?" You want these clowns in Washington speaking for your church? Have you no pride?

The idea is that the separation of church and state because it protects both church and state -
Bush has wrapped himself in the cloak of Evangelical Christianity. He ran for office twice on a platform of Christ guiding his policy. Check that knee before it jerks. However, we are now a global community, many people are being introduced to Christianity through this overtly faith branded administration and ... the current administration is giving Christianity a bad name. Which is the ever-loving point behind the separation of church and state.

... It's one thing to have to clean up my own sins and (as a pastor) the sins of my church. My mess, my problem. But having the sins of the White House attributed to me and my beliefs is more than I want to deal with. (It's bad enough that I have to take them as an American, but as a Christian? No thanks!)

... Think about it: who do you want speaking for your beliefs and your church (or whatever your collection of like-minded folks might be called)?
Yeah, but the Christian Nationalists got a taste of political power - having the force of the government behind you to make everyone else do what you think is right - and that's pretty heady. Bush may be an embarrassment at times - a bit dim-witted and inarticulate - but the power is intoxicating. It's a trade-off.

Some don't like it, of course. See Andrew Sullivan from early May - My Problem with Christianism: A Believer Spells Out the Difference Between Faith and a Political Agenda.

He does not use the term Christian Nationalists. He prefers Christianism. He explains it this way -
Christianity... is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.
That may be overly clever, but it captures what's going on - you have specific values and beliefs, and if you get enough political power, you can insist others subscribe to those particular and specific values and beliefs, and behave appropriate to them, or face the penalties under the laws established by the political system. How could you resist the tempatation?

But then, when "the discourse about faith is dominated by political fundamentalists and social conservatives, many others begin to feel as if their religion has been taken away from them."

Who would that be?

The list -
The number of Christians misrepresented by the Christian right is many. There are evangelical Protestants who believe strongly that Christianity should not get too close to the corrupting allure of government power. There are lay Catholics who, while personally devout, are socially liberal on issues like contraception, gay rights, women's equality and a multi-faith society. There are very orthodox believers who nonetheless respect the freedom and conscience of others as part of their core understanding of what being a Christian is. They have no problem living next to an atheist or a gay couple or a single mother or people whose views on the meaning of life are utterly alien to them - and respecting their neighbors' choices. That doesn't threaten their faith. Sometimes the contrast helps them understand their own faith better.

And there are those who simply believe that, by definition, God is unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls. If God is ultimately unknowable, then how can we be so certain of what God's real position is on, say, the fate of Terri Schiavo? Or the morality of contraception? Or the role of women? Or the love of a gay couple? Also, faith for many of us is interwoven with doubt, a doubt that can strengthen faith and give it perspective and shadow. That doubt means having great humility in the face of God and an enormous reluctance to impose one's beliefs, through civil law, on anyone else.
Sullivan claims a clear majority of Christians in this country fall into one or many of those camps. The evangelical right would say they're not "real" Christians.

And there's the political tidal wave -
... the term "people of faith" has been co-opted almost entirely in our discourse by those who see Christianity as compatible with only one political party, the Republicans, and believe that their religious doctrines should determine public policy for everyone. "Sides are being chosen," Tom DeLay recently told his supporters, "and the future of man hangs in the balance! The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will." So Christ is a conservative Republican?

Rush Limbaugh recently called the Democrats the "party of death" because of many Democrats' view that some moral decisions, like the choice to have a first-trimester abortion, should be left to the individual, not the cops. Ann Coulter, with her usual subtlety, simply calls her political opponents "godless," the title of her new book. And the largely nonreligious media have taken the bait. The "Christian" vote has become shorthand in journalism for the Republican base.
So what can the majority of "not good enough" Christians do about it? The idea here is the worst response, would be to construct something called the religious left, no matter what the junior senator from Illinois thinks -
Many of us who are Christians and not supportive of the religious right are not on the left either. In fact, we are opposed to any politicization of the Gospels by any party, Democratic or Republican, by partisan black churches or partisan white ones. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?
So Sullivan is having none of this mix of church and state -
That's what I dissent from, and I dissent from it as a Christian. I dissent from the political pollution of sincere, personal faith. I dissent most strongly from the attempt to argue that one party represents God and that the other doesn't. I dissent from having my faith co-opted and wielded by people whose politics I do not share and whose intolerance I abhor. The word Christian belongs to no political party. It's time the quiet majority of believers took it back.
Good luck with that. It may be too late. No one believes there is any "quiet majority," anymore than they believed Richard Nixon when he said there was a "silent majority" behind him all the way, agreeing with everything he did, who just didn't say a word for some reason. It's pretty to think so. And it's foolish.

So July Fourth will mark two hundred and thirty years of getting this church and state thing settled. The "Founding Fathers" probably thought they made things quite clear. And they sort of did, actually. But after all these years people still don't like the idea. The transitory news of the day comes and goes. This pesky issue is always around.

And for those of us who have embraced the absurd, who are "destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness" and are fine with it - that's the way things are, and you do your best to do good things, be kind and tolerant, and inquisitive - look at all this and smile ruefully.

Posted by Alan at 23:21 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006 23:42 PDT home

Saturday, 25 March 2006
Troublemaker: The Ant Man Speaks
Topic: God and US

Troublemaker: The Ant Man Speaks

The Man
E. O. Wilson, or Edward Osborne Wilson, (born June 10, 1929) is an American entomologist and biologist known for his work on ecology, evolution, and sociobiology. He currently is the Pellegrino Research Professor in Entomology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, at Harvard University.

Wilson's specialty is ants. He is famous for starting the sociobiology debate, one of the greatest scientific controversies of the late 20th century, when he suggested in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) that animal (and by extension human) behavior can be studied using an evolutionary framework. He is also credited with bringing the term biodiversity to the public.

Wilson's many scientific and conservation honors include the 1990 Crafoord Prize, a 1976 U.S. National Medal of Science, and two Pulitzer Prizes. In 1995 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in America.
There's much more at the link. This is the fellow who argued that the preservation of the gene, rather than the individual, is the focus of evolution. Richard Dawkins did a riff on that in The Selfish Gene (1989), a book that caused some stir arguing that all human behavior, even altruism, is a non-conscious attempt to forward our own particular genes on in time, or some such thing - we're all puppets but we really should know about the strings.

Dawkins is a "popularizer" explaining things in simple terms. Wilson is the real deal, as you see it what he's written -
Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0801883296
The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967, Princeton University Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 0691088365 - with Robert H. MacArthur
Insect Societies, 1971, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674454901
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975, Belknap Press, ISBN 0674816218
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2000, Belknap Press, ISBN 0674000897
On Human Nature, 1978, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674634411 - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Genes, Mind and Culture: The coevolutionary process, 1981, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-34475-8
Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind, 1983, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-71445-8
Biophilia, 1984, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674074416
Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects, 1990, Inter-Research, ISSN 0932-2205
The Ants, 1990, Belknap Press, ISBN 0674040759 - Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, with Bert Holldobler
The Diversity of Life, 1992, Belknap Press, ISBN 0674212983
The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1559631481 - with Stephen R. Kellert
Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, 1994, Belknap Press, ISBN 0674485254 - with Bert Holldobler
Naturalist, 1994, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1559632887
In Search of Nature, 1996, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1559632151 - with Laura Simonds Southworth
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998, Knopf, ISBN 0679450777
The Future of Life, 2002, Knopf, ISBN 0679450785
Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus, 2003, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674002938
From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books 2005, W. W. Norton
Of course in this day and age Wilson is something like the antichrist to the Intelligent Design crowd. That last title is his annotated complication of Darwin's works, or four of them. With recently polling show more than half of all Americans believing that the biblical account is creation is literally true, it's a wonder Norton published it. Why bother? But he has argued, again and again, with evidence, that what we do, and what we call aggression, altruism and hypocrisy, are just adaptations. They can be explained mechanistically. This put him at the center of one of the greatest scientific controversies of the last fifty years. He pretty much started it.

This God stuff, even this free-will stuff, may be nonsense.

What He's Saying Now

Wilson now is being a bit more blunt, if possible, and that came up this week here -

Religious Belief Itself is an Adaptation
Sociobiology founder Edward O. Wilson explains why we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions, denies that "evolutionism" is a faith, and says that heaven, if it existed, would be hell.
Steve Paulson, SALON.COM, March 21, 2006

That's a hoot.

This is an interview Wilson gave Paulson before Wilson gave a sold-out lecture at the University of Wisconsin, and it's full of starting comments. It's a fascinating read, if you're willing to watch a brief ad to get to it (it's worth it).

What follows are some highlights with comment, only a sample.

Paulson does note that sociobiology, that once got everyone so upset, is now pretty much mainstream. Universities have departments for it now. The good old days are gone as when -
Fellow Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin denounced sociobiology, saying it provided a genetic justification for racism and Nazi ideology. Wilson's classes were picketed. In one famous incident, demonstrators at a scientific meeting stormed the stage where he was speaking and dumped a pitcher of water over his head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!"
Wilson does upset people. And that book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge does have "the effect of elevating science at the expense of religion and the arts. In his view, knowledge of the world ultimately comes down to chemistry, biology and - above all - physics; people are just extremely complicated machines. Paulson also notes that Wendell Berry called this scientific reductionism, and a "modern superstition."

Anyway, the two of them talked "about Darwin and the growing rift between science and religion, as well as Wilson's own take on religion - his 'provisional deism' and his personal horror of an eternal afterlife in heaven.

Cool. Provisional deism? Thomas Jefferson and his fellow deist might have been onto something.

There's much here on the new Darwin editions, and on Darwin's being deeply religious, then shifting - "But what really turned him against religion was the doctrine of damnation. He said if the Bible is true, you must be redeemed in Christ and be a believer in order to go to heaven. And others will be condemned. And that includes my brothers and all my best friends. And he said that is a damnable doctrine. Those are his words."

Darwin would have little use for Pat Robertson, who called for Disneyworld to be destroyed by God (a hurricane would be handy) when they hosted a gay event, for something the same for Dover in Pennsylvania when they voted out the school board after his side lost the Intelligent Design case, who saw Ariel Sharon's stroke as God's punishment for the Gaza real estate deal, who called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela. Pat Robertson has little sue for Darwin of course. Maybe the whole thing does revolve around damnation. Pat's in favor.

As for Intelligent Design itself, there's that recent statement from Vatican's scientific spokesmen - the Church has no problem with Darwin and evolution. It's perfectly acceptable - evolution is just God's way of "creating the diversity of life." But you can still be religious - the human soul was injected by God, as they would have it, and that's just another matter entirely. So we're just talking two different things. They do the soul stuff. Darwin and Wilson can do the evolution stuff. Peaceful coexistence.

Maybe. Is there such a thing as a soul? What is it? What about neuroscience and all the discoveries of how the brain works and center for cognition and emotion and all the rest?

Wilson - "Yeah, that's the dilemma. Of course, there is no reconciliation between the theory of evolution by natural selection and the traditional religious view of the origin of the human mind."

Oh. This brain and soul stuff is a problem - "Well, you have to choose between the scientific materialist view of the origin of the mind on the one side, and the traditional religious view that the spirit and the mind are independent of the process of evolution and eventually non-corporeal, capable of leaving the body and going elsewhere."

It seems you have to just believe in that soul. The evidence points the other way.

Note this exchange -
Paulson: This is not a view that all scientists subscribe to. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about how science and religion are two entirely separate spheres. And they really didn't have anything to do with each other.

Wilson: Yeah, he threw in the towel.

Paulson: He dodged the question.

He dodged the question, famously. That's no answer at all. That's evasion. I think most scientists who give thought to this with any depth - who understand evolution - take pretty much the position that I've taken. For example, in the National Academy of Sciences, which presumably includes many of the elite scientists in this country, a very large number would fully accept the scientific view. I know it's 80 percent or more who said, on the issue of the immortality of the soul, they don't care.
They don't care? No, they don't. They're on the trail of what can be figured out.

But is there common ground? Wilson is having none of it - "The only common ground that I see is the one that was approached by Darwin himself. Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn't say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views."

So we're hard-wired for religion. It's just another evolutionary adaptation. This guy will be shot sooner or later.

What went wrong here (or right, depending on your point of view)-

This -
Paulson: You grew up in a religious family?

Wilson: Oh yes, I grew up fundamentalist. I grew up as a Southern Baptist with strict adherence to the Bible, which I read as a youngster. As a child, I was warned by counselors and routine religious training that the truth was in the Bible. Redemption was only in Christ and the world is full of Satanic force. Satan himself perhaps - but certainly his agents, witting and unwitting - would try to make me drop my belief. I had that instilled in me. You have to understand how powerful the religious drive is - the instinct which I consider tribalist but probably necessary - in most societies for continuing day-to-day business.

Paulson: That's an interesting perspective. Basically, you're saying it's necessary but it's wrong.

Wilson: Well, you see, that's the dilemma of the 21st century. Possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century is the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth - the religious instinct - but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it's just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems - for example, the environment. But generally speaking, the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is a sectarianism in the world today, and traditional religions can be exclusionary and used to justify violence and war. You just can't deny that this is a major problem.
Gee, and he doesn't even mention the war in Iraq and the business with the man in Afghanistan sentenced to death by the new government we installed for converting to Christianity sixteen years ago. He doesn't need to.

So what does he believe? He says he's a provisional deist - "Yeah, I don't want to be called an atheist."

He doesn't want "to exclude the possibility of a creative force or deity." But then this - "I do feel confident that there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity." If there is or ever was such a creative force or deity it's long gone, and seems to have nothing to do with who we are and what it all means. Those who created us? "Well, they are now either lurking on the outer reaches of the universe, watching with some amusement as the eons passed, to see how the experiment worked out, or they moved on. Who can say?"

The guy deals in reality. Others don't. And you cannot get around it -
Paulson: Would you like there to be evidence of God? Forget about this as a great scientific discovery. Just personally, given your background, would that be thrilling? Would that be comforting?

Wilson: Well, it would certainly give you a lot of material to study and think about the rest of your time. But you didn't ask me the right question.

Paulson: What's the right question?

Wilson: Would I be happy if I discovered that I could go to heaven forever? And the answer is no. Consider this argument. Think about what is forever. And think about the fact that the human mind, the entire human being, is built to last a certain period of time. Our programmed hormonal systems, the way we learn, the way we settle upon beliefs, and the way we love are all temporary. Because we go through a life's cycle. Now, if we were to be plucked out at the age of 12 or 56 or whenever, and taken up and told, now you will continue your existence as you are. We're not going to blot out your memories. We're not going to diminish your desires. You will exist in a state of bliss - whatever that is - forever. And those who didn't make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think, a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this one to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of the eternity that you've been consigned to bliss in this existence.

Paulson: This heaven would be your hell.

Wilson: Yes. If we were able to evolve into something else, then maybe not. But we are not something else.
We're not something else? Some would disagree, but then Wilson would ask why they think so, as the evidence keeps mounting we're just what we are, thinking and temporary mechanisms, trying to live long and be happy.

And that's not so bad. Wilson thought through the heaven thing. We want that? Best settle for happiness here.

Posted by Alan at 16:23 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 25 March 2006 16:25 PST home

Tuesday, 14 March 2006
Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist
Topic: God and US

Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist

Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the author, most recently, of The Parallax View (MIT Press) - "The Parallax View not only expands Zizek's Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences) but also provides the systematic exposition of the conceptual framework that underlies his entire work."

Indeed. Something to read with a stiff scotch in the evenings.

Now the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, an offshoot of the University of London, located in Bloomsbury, was formed in response to a simple question - "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?" The question angered them. So they do research and write and hold seminars and all that sort of thing. And they explain things.

In the Tuesday, March 14 edition of the International Herald Tribune (Paris) Slavoj Zizek argues something quite unpopular - Atheism Is A Legacy Worth Fighting For.

Oh my. He jumps right into it.

The item had appeared in the parent publication of the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, two days earlier here, but the Times requires registration so the Paris link is best if you want to see what he says in detail.

In short he argues that the there is a tradition of atheism in Europe (really) and those who work from that grand tradition are those who should be running things. The believers have messed things up. Step aside -
For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
What about that? A good idea?

Zizek covers the basic Dostoyevsky thing - if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted and we're in a world of hurt. We need God to keep us from being so awful. He even mentions André Glucksmann's "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan" where that French philosopher argues the same thing - nihilism is the problem and what happened in New York on that September morning in 2001 was the result of us living in this world where people pay lip service to God (for many "lip service" is what you attend on Sundays) but all values have been drained away. Everything is permissible - no one is serious about God and so on.

Zizek says that whole idea is just wrong, in fact, it couldn't be more wrong -
The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted - at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted, since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.
Ah! The logic here is that fundamentalists do what they identify as "good deeds" in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation. In contrast atheists do good deeds "simply because it is the right thing to do."

Zizek argues this is "our most elementary experience of morality." Specifically - "When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror." You know. You don't need God. And he cites David Hume - the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

It seems he talking about "taking personal responsibility" in an entirely different way than the Republican evangelical right does, and far differently than the American "economic conservatives" talk about it when they argue for eliminating most if not all social programs to force the disabled, unlucky, poor and uneducated to force them to "take personal responsibility."

Much of what he writes is, however, about matters in Europe - that business a few years ago about whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity. It does, but it's only a reference to the "religious inheritance" of Europe, and what makes modern Europe unique, Zizek notes, is that it is "the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post."

Yes, no one in America could get elected dogcatcher if he or she were an atheist. That's just the way it is. Only the godly need apply, or at least those who say they are.

Of course the irony Zizek plays with is that in Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office, this "creates a safe public space for believers." Build a cathedral, build a mosque. Your business. Just observe the rest of the laws and pay your taxes. The government has too much else to deal with. It's busy with the other stuff - monetary policy, roads and schools, pubic safety, national defense and all the rest. The leader may be a devout Mormon, or openly gay as are the mayors of Berlin and Paris. What does it matter? They have their public work, and they do it well or they don't. What they do off-hours is no one's business.

And this plays out, oddly, in the recent Cartoon Wars with the outraged Muslim crowd -
... The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.

The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to bolster his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: Either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as adults responsible for their beliefs.
Now, there's something to think about. Or this week you could go to Naples -
Naples, March 13 - Despite its fair share of social problems, Naples is one city with no shortage of good spirit thanks to the distinctive brio and humour of the local people .

This makes it the ideal venue for a four-day festival devoted to the serious study of 'L'arte della felicita' - the art of happiness. Philosophers, psychologists, doctors, authors and health, lifestyle and religious gurus from all over the world are coming to Naples between March 23 and 26 to discuss human contentment .

Thousands of Neapolitans flocked to the debut edition of the festival last year .

Organizers are expecting to have an even bigger hit on their hands this time .

Debates, lectures, workshops, film screenings, open-air meditation sessions and theatre performances are among the events in a packed programme .

The 2006 festival focuses on the subject of dealing with grief .

It will be kicked off with a lecture on "cynical aesthetics" by renowned French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose writings celebrate hedonism, reason and atheism.
Hedonism, reason and atheism in Naples? Sounds like fun.

That's almost as much fun as what ran in the Wall Street Journal on March 9th - Atheist Gives Churches A Chance To Win Him Over.

Here Suzanne Sataline reviews the details of the DePaul University graduate student, Hemant Mehta, an atheist, who offered his soul for sale on eBay. It went for five hundred and four dollars, which seem to be the going rate. Well, he wasn't really selling his soul. He just promised the winner that for each ten dollars of the final bid he would attend one hour of church services. He said he suspected he had been missing out on something. His pitch? "Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me 'the way' could do what no one else has done before - this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me."

We're told lots of evangelists bid, to "save him." Atheists bid to keep him on their side. The winning bid came from Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, who had a third motive -
The 58-year-old Mr. Henderson has written a book for a Random House imprint and is currently a house painter. He runs, a Web site whose professed mission is "Helping Christians be normal." Mr. Henderson is part of a small but growing branch of the evangelical world that disagrees with the majority's conservative political agenda, and wants the religion to be more inclusive and help the disadvantaged.
Yep, he's one of those "out of the mainstream" types who doesn't understand Christianity has changed and become militant and vengeful, and he flew to Chicago, met the grad student in a bar, and told him what deal was going to be. Yeah, it was supposed to be fifty hours of church, and the church the winner named. Henderson said he'd rather this atheist went to services at an array of churches and write about what he saw and heard for Henderson's website. The five hundred dollars? This grad student heads something called the Secular Student Alliance, with fifty-five chapters around the world. The Secular Student Alliance could have the money if this atheist would do basic reporting for the website - "I'm not trying to convert you. You're going there almost like a critic. If you happen to get converted, that's off the clock."

Cool, and Hemant Mehta was told to score the priest or minister - from one, boring, to ten, "off the charts." The first Catholic priest got a three.

There's a ton of detail at the link, like this -
Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building "that God would ... open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted."

"Really?" Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. "That's what you're praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?"
Well, He (or She) might - you never know. And if you want to read the commentary it's at the off-the-wall site in its own section, The eBay Atheist.

Well, that's mildly interesting, but this is not Zizek's Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office.

Belief here has a political and public dimension, and it being discussed in terms of the 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election. The question for "the opposition" is much like what was asked in the last go-round. Should any Democrat running for office go all religious to strip votes away from the Republican who will, no doubt, claim to be a godly soul who was born again (something didn't take the first time?) and accepts the avenging Jesus who hates the poor in his heart. Maybe you can grab a few votes by being pious and angry.

But the left often makes fun of such God nonsense. They heap scorn on the "God is with me" evangelical Republicans. Some say that's not fair, or not right, or a bad strategy.

One of the most influential commentators on "the left" (whatever that is), says this -
I wonder who all the religious candidates we've unfairly scorned in the past would be? Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? (and no, having affairs does not mean you are not religious, just a sinner.) Al Gore? John Kerry? They all go to church and profess to be believers. Are they just not religious enough? ...

I recall scorning both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and neither one of them were particularly religious. Bobby Kennedy was a youthful hero and he was as Catholic as they come. In fact, I'm having a hard time coming up with any consistent views on either side toward religious politicians at all. It would seem to me that this entire argument is nothing but a political football used to shut down criticism and advance a particular agenda without having to debate the issues on their own merits.

... Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Many of us knee-jerk leftists are hostile to those who want to use the state to dictate the proper social attitudes of its citizens and interfere in their most personal, private decisions, that's true. I would scorn Pat Robertson and Sam Brownback's ideas no less if they were secular. It's the lack of respect for the division of influence between the private and public sphere's that is causing the problem.

And as for hostility, let's not forget that it was back in 1988 that a future president of the United States said this -

President George H. W. Bush: I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

Who scorns who again?

Perhaps some of these religious politicians could speak to the flock about giving some respect to the non-faithful. It's the Christian thing to do.
Give respect to the non-faithful? That's not going to happen. This is not Europe.

Duncan Black adds this (emphases added) -
I'm not hostile to religion. I don't much care about religion. I'm not much interested in it. This isn't strange. Most people aren't much interested in religion other than their own, if that.

I'm not sick of religious people. I think it's great that they're free to believe and practice their religion in any way they want. I'd like to keep it that way.

I am sick of people who keep claiming that the Democratic Party is hostile to religious people and controlled by secular liberals who are hostile to religion. If by "Democratic Party" you mean "some people who post anonymous comments on the internet" you may have a point. Otherwise, the idea is ludicrous.

Do the Democrats have a perception problem about religion? Sure. We have a political party which has been claiming to be God's Own Party for decades. We have a mainstream media which equates Christian with Religious Right most of the time, and news anchors who don't think liberals can be 'good Catholics.' We also have some left-leaning Christians who seem to think this perception problem is due to hostility to religion by secular liberals who have no public presence. I don't understand this. People who perpetuate right wing talking points about Democrats always piss me off especially when they have no basis.

Secularism has essentially no representation in our media or politics. I'm sure there are secular politicians and media types, but few discuss it. No one gets on TV or writes newspaper columns or in any way participates in our contemporary mainstream political discourse and praises secularism or atheism or anything similar, and certainly not in a way which denigrates religious beliefs generally. Advocates for the separation of church and state are not advocating secularism, aside from government secularism, they're simply trying to defend freedom of religion.

Can Democrats appeal to evangelical voters by doing X? Sure, and they can appeal to [insert voting bloc here] by doing Y. The question is can they do so without alienating lots of other people or compromising their principles. Maybe they can. I have no idea. But that's politics. I'm happy to hear about ways to reach out to religious voters, though not being a politician it isn't actually my job to do so. If people vote Republican because they perceive some guy on the internet with no actual official relation to the Democratic party in any way is insufficiently deferential to their religious beliefs then I'm really not sure what I can do about that. I don't really require people to be deferential to my beliefs.

Moderate/swing/independent voters respond to personal charisma and the perception that somebody "knows what they stand for." You know, spine, backbone, etc. I'm sure some genuinely religious politicians can use their faith to help send this message. There are lots of other politicians who can find other ways to do so.

From a policy perspective I'm personally not really interested in compromising on sex or reproductive rights in order to get votes. As with every other issue of course messaging can be improved, though I'd rather focus on getting the "pro-choice for me but not for thee" crowd to understand that they are, in fact, pro-choice whether they know it or not rather than talking about how icky abortion is. I don't know why the public face of religion in this country is concerned with almost nothing but sex, but I'm not really sure those people can be reached.

As with Democrats who constantly fret that they aren't seen as "tough" enough, people who fret that Democrats are not "religious" enough simply reinforce the perception without improving it.
Man, it is hard to deal with what some of us think is a private matter, but we do live in the last great western theocracy.

Atheism may or may not be a legacy worth fighting for, but the question is why anyone cares what this or that politician believes. Is the person in office getting things done that need done? Whether he or she believes in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jesus, The Great Pumpkin, or The Holy Manhole Cover - as interesting as that might be it matters little.

But then, here it matters. This is not Slavoj Zizek's Europe. This is America, the mirror of the caliphate the other side says is coming.

Those of us without deep faith, on either side, should pour a scotch and read all about this Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences). We don't matter.

Posted by Alan at 22:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 22:08 PST home

Monday, 12 December 2005

Topic: God and US

The Culture Wars: The Jewish Problem

As mentioned in these pages in late November, in Mondays With Murrow, we are divided. Bill O'Reilly and the whole Fox News network have mounted a campaign to end the oppression of beleaguered and minority Christians in this country and save Christmas itself from the secular bullies who now run this country.

See Media Matters here for a review of what Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable news commentator in America, had been saying up to that point, or check out the new book by another Fox News anchor - John Gibson's The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel, October 2005).

Bill says we need to get back to what the Founding Fathers intended (but ignores that they worked on Christmas Day 1779 and Christmas wasn't a national holiday before 1870 - the Puritans banned the holiday and 25 December is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament).

So what is the war about? John Gibson argues this war must be fought every time someone uses the greeting Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. And who does that? Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Sears have "Happy Holidays" in their promotional material - not "Merry Christmas." So we need to fight them. If we don't fight them? That would be a victory for the secular left and a defeat for all Christians.

It's hard to avoid this issue. It's all over the press, and some on the Christian right have even turned on the president, when a few of the more easy-going and sardonic of those who follow such things pointed out to them that the more than a million cards sent out by the White House this December wished recipients "Happy Holidays." The First Lady's press secretary, Susan Whitson, had to scramble - "Certainly President and Mrs. Bush celebrate Christmas." It's just that their "friends" include "people of all faiths."

This may not mollify some. Bush has, for the last four years, tried to make up for initially calling our current effort in Iraq a "crusade." Some trembling staffer had to explain to him that might be a word that would upset more than a few of our allies in the Middle East. The president's life-long contempt for history and detail had him at a temporary disadvantage here. To many in the Middle East, the historic Crusades, by Christians to win back the Holy Land from the Muslims, are just something everyone knows happened, and they'd rather not they happen again. So the president would, now and then, here and there, assure those in that part of the world that this wasn't a Christian holy war on Islam. He had used the "crusade" word in a general sense, of course, and then stopped using at all. And how many times did he say, "Islam is a religion of peace?" Quite a few times - attempting to diffuse all this. Of course, worse yet, if you're a proud Christian, last week you might have seen the president lighting a Menorah at the White House.

The mainstream, or near mainstream like Fox News, gives him a pass on all this. But the Christian right is wary. How they see that secular bullies are running the country is difficult to understand, given that the party they support, and depends on them to stay in power, controls the White House, both houses of congress and most of the courts. But the wariness is there. Someone is out to get them.

Note this, a bit of an editorial by Chris Satullo in the Philadelphia Inquirer -
"Happy holidays" and "Seasons greetings" are neither new nor hostile to Christmas. They are fine, old inventions that exemplify civility and recognize that one of the nation's glories is its diversity. In much of America, you never know whether the stranger with whom you exchange pleasantries in the line at Starbucks might be Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic, Muslim or Hindu. The "War on Christmas" riff smacks of a panicky grievance against an America of many hues.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart appeal to the broadest, most diverse market. That's why "Happy holidays" or "Season's greetings" makes perfect sense for them. It's not an insult to Christians. It's marketing to those who are not. (Don't conservatives believe in capitalism?)

Now, if a store wants to shout "Merry Christmas" to the world, the First Amendment is certainly OK with that. Retailers may do it, churches may, individuals, as well. A newspaper may, without apology, publish an annual Christmas story. (Hint: See this space next Sunday.)

The First Amendment limits only what government, with its myriad powers, may do. Government must not grant adherents of one faith greater (or lesser) rights and benefits.

That's why creches at City Hall and pious carols on the school stage are always problematic (though not always wrong). People who don't get the First Amendment, who yearn for their faith to be top dog, can't see that. Instead, they seek to poison a national holiday of good will with trumped-up grievances.
Well, you can be sure these folks are not out to "poison a national holiday of good will." But there is some panic here.

And everyone agrees civility is fine. It's a good thing. But here one assumes civility is something that, while nice, is something that one cannot afford when one is "at war." In fact, the argument might be roughly parallel to the idea that we cannot afford to forego state-sponsored torture - we wouldn't normally codify and do that, but September 11 changed everything and we're in a new kind of war. Civility is something we can no longer afford? Well, when the very core of your being, your faith, is under attack, you might argue that.

So the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, proclaims the "Holiday Tree" on the lawn there is now a "Christmas Tree" - and the same happens in Boston and all over, in a show of solidarity, even if the relation of such trees to the birth of Jesus is well beyond tenuous. The dead tree made pretty in December is a winter solstice thing, isn't it? Is it pagan? There's no such thing in the New Testament, but then there was no parade a balloons in the shape of cartoon characters in Jerusalem that night more than two thousand years ago.

Whatever. It's a show of defiance - standing up to the bullies. And there are a few votes there too, of course.

Now as a goy, and a life-long atheist, the dark side of this should not bother me. But there is a dark side. Bill O'Reilly is all over George Soros, as here he warns America about the vast conspiracy to get rid of Christmas -
There's a very secret plan. And it's a plan that nobody's going to tell you, "Well, we want to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A. because we want X, Y, and Z." They'll never ever say that. But I'm kind of surprised they went after Christmas because it's such an emotional issue.
It's the ACLU and the secular Jews like George Soros, of course. Damn those Jews! They hate Christmas.

And lately O'Reilly has been all over the satirist Jon Stewart for kidding around about this on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Stewart's mocking relies in part on Stewart noting he himself is Jewish.

It's all silliness. But there is this dark side, as many have seen but M. J. Rosenberg points out here in Israel Policy Forum -
The fact that the Christmas warriors are talking in code should not fool anybody. When a political candidate denounces his opponent for receiving campaign contributions from New York and Beverly Hills, we all know who he is talking about. Similarly, denunciations of secular liberals, especially when coupled with references to, say, George Soros and John Stewart, are pretty unambiguous.
Yeah, it seems anti-Semitic, doesn't it?

Yes, and both CNN and MSNBC have reported on the "controversy." And Fox News, which invented the whole thing, from November 28th to December 2nd devoted fifty-eight segments to the subject, and, last Wednesday, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a symposium on "the liberal plot" to ban Christmas.

Rosenberg is not pleased -
Of course, the "war on Christmas" it is totally manufactured. There is no Jewish, or other non-Christian group, that campaigns to ban the term "Merry Christmas."

I suppose there are individual Jews (or Muslims, or others) who prefer to be wished "happy holidays," but that is simply neither here nor there. As for the secular liberal groups making war on the term, they don't exist either. The whole issue was invented by the far right to divide Americans from one another, at Christmastime no less. As the Christmas warriors probably know, the reason businesses have adopted the term "the holidays" in place of Christmas is that Christmas is one day, December 25th. "The holidays" suggests a period that runs from Thanksgiving through New Year's, more time for shopping and exchanging. Anti-Christmas animus is a myth.

But that does not mean that the "war on Christmas" brouhaha is not threatening to Jews.
Why would that be? Because Bill O'Reilly in response to a Jewish caller last December who said that he found O'Reilly's views on Christmas objectionable told the fellow to "move to Israel?"

Would it be because O'Reilly said this?
Now the reason this is happening is because of the ACLU and George Soros, Peter Lewis. Just a reminder: George Soros and Peter Lewis are the far-left, secular progressive billionaires who have funded - they pour money into the ACLU, they pour money into the smear websites, you know, they buy up a lot of the media time. And they basically want to change the country from a Christian-based philosophical country to a secular progressive country like they have in Western Europe.
Rosenberg notes Soros is a Holocaust survivor and a billionaire who backs liberal causes, and Lewis is also a billionaire and a major donor to progressive and Jewish causes.

Would it be because O'Reilly said this when The Daily Show made fun of him and his war on those who say Happy Holidays and use those words in store promotions?
There you go, Jon Stewart. We know what he's doing over there [on Comedy Central]. And it's not just Stewart. You know, ninety percent of quote unquote entertainers are secular progressives. And a Merry Christmas to you, John Stewart. As I said in my newspaper column this week, three wise men showed up to honor the baby Jesus way back when. And if corporate executives are not wise enough to emulate that, well, those of us who respect Christmas might look elsewhere.
Ah, that's how you handle uppity Jews - get in their face, poke them in the chest and sneer, "Merry Christmas." The message is there are more of us than are of you people, so shut up, if you know what's good for you.

Jews have seen this before. What more is there to say?

Eric Alterman here points out another detail, but a small victory -
Rosenberg reserves special scorn for O'Reilly's new ally, comedian Jackie Mason, who has gone on Fox to take O'Reilly's side against those liberal Jews who are out there assaulting Santa Claus. He calls Mason "the Stepin Fetchit of Jewish comedians." The O'Reilly-Mason alliance is no big surprise. Mason, who famously called Mayor Dinkins "a fancy schwartze with a moustache" has always trafficked in racial stereotypes. In his dotage, he has now turned on the Jews. Bye bye, Jackie. It says something when the crazy right has Jackie Mason and we have Jon Stewart. This is a cultural war we have won!
Maybe so, but why is it being fought at all?

And what's with O'Reilly? Some had him pegged as this generation's Joe McCarthy, with all this talk about secret plots, and with his blacklist of enemies of American (and of him) he is going to expose and drive into oblivion. It seemed a retro fifties thing. Now it seems like a late-thirties-in-Germany thing.

That O'Reilly has the largest number of viewers - of those who watch opinion shows on television - just as Rush Limbaugh has the same on radio - is interesting. These are odd times. Schoenberg and Thomas Mann and all the rest bailed out of Germany and Austria in the middle thirties and ended up here in Hollywood. Will things reverse? Steven Spielberg to Munich? You never know.

But there is an explanation for all this, from the mysterious Umberto Eco - God Isn't Big Enough For Some People.

Eco digs deeper -
We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution.

Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.

They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.

And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us will die.
That's curious. What makes O'Reilly and John Gibson so defensive, what makes them go on attack, is their sense that someone, somehow, is taking away their justification for simply being, and their hope. The first depends on their Christianity, and the second depends on the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Eco here simply points out that the role of religion to provide that justification - religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which "reconcile us to death." Thus O'Reilly and Gibson and the rest see the abyss, know they will die, as we all do, and attack the Jews and other who question their justification for being. As Eco says, we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death. Of course, the attacks help in the ratings too.

Eco, of course is making a far different point. He's writing, in amazement, at the growth of belief in some mighty odd things - "from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code." -
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency.

The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency.
Well, there's a lot of that specific kind of depression going around these days. And he notes Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were "devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies." And in bookstores he sees all these books explaining "Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Yes, there's something in the air. It smells like middle Europe in the late thirties, like dank metallic streets and fear, not like fresh-cut pine and cookies baking in the kitchen.

O'Reilly and Gibson and their legions, of course, aren't into the infantile occult - unless your count their defense of the Jesus Tree with blinking lights and tinsel.

And Christmas will be over soon. And these guys will forget the Jewish Problem until next year.



These are available for your Jesus Tree -

Posted by Alan at 20:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005 20:41 PST home

Monday, 28 November 2005

Topic: God and US

Religion: The Devil in the Details

Last weekend in the pages, in part of a review of the kind of stories that appear in the Sunday papers (see The Sunday Funnies Featuring Curveball) there was something mentioned in passing, really a minor thing. That's a curious lawsuit out here - a group of students from Christian academies are suing UCLA, actually the whole University of California system. The problem is bias, in particular anti-Christian bias. It's a problem with admissions criteria. The University of California schools won't give them credit for high school science courses that say science is wrong - God did it all - so they cannot get in. And they haven't read "ungodly" books so they seem to be a bit short in history and literature. One assumes they're fine in mathematics.

I mentioned this in conversation with my friend, the high-powered Wall Street attorney who studied constitutional law under the man who chaired the committee on the potential impeachment of Richard Nixon. (Nixon resigned before that could happen.) I told him the argument being offered seemed to be that these are pubic universities, and that such public institutions cannot use a religious test to bar applicants for admission - it's a violation of the first amendment regarding the state not taking sides in religious matters. These kids, so the claim goes, were facing discrimination because of their religion.

My Wall Street attorney friend said this suit would never fly, that universities have some sort of "academic freedom" to set standards as they see fit. The university system has the right to set its own standards? Maybe so, but we shall see on December 12th when the Federal District Court in Los Angeles will hear this lawsuit. Can you deny admission to a taxpayer-funded public institution based on religious belief, or are these students truly unprepared for college work? They claim they are not unprepared at all, just devout and godly - and being persecuted for being so.

By the way, there is a matching lawsuit - Evolution Fight Flares at UC-Berkeley (UPI - Monday, November 28, 2005) - "A civil lawsuit has been filed against operators of a University of California-Berkeley website that's designed to help instructors teach evolution."

The argument there is that the Darwinian set of ideas about evolution is, in essence, a form of religion and the state has no business at all spending citizens' tax dollars to support one religion over another - it says so right in the constitution and all that. So shut down that website - don't provide religious training to teachers for them to teach a specific religion in public schools. That one is on shakier grounds, of course.

As for the first lawsuit - brought by the Association of Christian Schools International, representing more than eight hundred of such schools in California, and specifically the Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrieta (out in Riverside County between Lake Elsinore and Temecula) - there is more detail from Thomas Vinciguerra in the New York Times, Sunday, November 27th in Here's the Problem With Emily Dickinson.

Vinciguerra notes some of the courses in question, those for which the University of California will not allow credit, do not concern Darwin at all, as in "Christianity's Influence in American History" and "Christianity and American Literature." And most of the courses draw on textbooks published by Bob Jones University, down in Greenville, South Carolina. You know, the school that says it has stood for "the absolute authority of the Bible since 1927." Ashcroft has spoken there, so has Bush, so has McCain. No music, no dancing, and until some recent lawsuits, no mixing of "others" with the white race. (Previous comments in these pages here and here.) No one watches SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons there.

What Vinciguerra found in the source texts is interesting.

Thomas Jefferson is kind of the antichrist, according to United States History for Christian Schools - Timothy Keesee and Mark Sidwell (Bob Jones University, 2001) -
American believers can appreciate Jefferson's rich contribution to the development of their nation, but they must beware of his view of Christ as a good teacher but not the incarnate son of God. As the Apostle John said, "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son" (I John 2:22).
And slavery had nothing to do with economics and wasn't really a political question. The problem was sin.
The sin in this case was greed - greed on the part of African tribal leaders, on the part of slave traders and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering-most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well. ... The Lord has never exaggerated in warning us of sin's devastating consequences - for us and for our descendants (Exodus 34:7).
As for Teddy Roosevelt and all the progressives through FDR, their problem was they thought folks could be better people -
On the whole, they believed that man is basically good and that human nature might be improved. ... Such a belief, of course, ignored the biblical teaching that man is sinful by nature (Ephesians 2:1-3). Progressives therefore also ignored the fact that the fallible men who built the corrupt institutions that they attacked were the same in nature as those who filled the political offices and staffed the regulatory agencies that were supposed to control the corruption.
Ah yes. Some things cannot be fixed.

As for literature, there's that bad guy Mark Twain - as seen in Elements of Literature for Christian Schools - Ronald Horton, Donalynn Hess and Steven Skeggs (Bob Jones University, 2001) - as Twain called God "an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master." -
Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God's love. Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.
Oh yeah, and Emily Dickinson, although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, "she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life." Christina Rossetti, gets a pass.

As for science courses, see Physics for Christian Schools - R. Terrance Egolf and Linda Shumate (Bob Jones University, 2004), and the section "What is Christian about physics?" -
Some people have developed the idea that higher mathematics and science have little to do with the Bible or Christian life. They think that because physics deals with scientific facts, or because it is not pervaded with evolutionary ideas, there is no need to study it from a Christian perspective. This kind of thinking ignores a number of important facts to the Christian: First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. ... Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today. Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God's Word.
Studying the motion of objects, using math and stuff like that, will weaken your faith?

There's more in the Times item. This should be an interesting case.

And God may be sending signs.

Piece of Supreme Court building falls
Chunk of marble falls onto where tourists normally enter; no one hurt
Associated Press - 10:51 am ET Monday, November 28, 2005
A basketball-sized piece of marble moulding fell from the facade over the entrance to the Supreme Court, landing on the steps near visitors waiting to enter the building.

No one was injured when the stone fell.

The marble was part of the dentil moulding that serves as a frame for the frieze of statues atop the court's main entrance.

A group of visitors had just entered the building and had passed under the frieze when the stone fell at 9:30 a.m.

Jonathan Fink, a government attorney waiting in line to attend arguments, said, "All of a sudden, these blocks started falling. It was like a thud, thud."
The sound of God's displeasure? The AP item quotes a local saying folks were picking up pieces of the stone and to expect them for sale on eBay tomorrow.

And as mentioned here in Lining Up the Week: What's Hot News, What's Not, Seymour Hersh has a new article in the New Yorker on Bush, and it touches on religion. It just became available online - UP IN THE AIR - Where is the Iraq war headed next? - and it contains this passage:
"The President is more determined than ever to stay the course," the former defense official said. "He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.'" He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. "They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway," the former defense official said. Bush's public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. "Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House," the former official said, "but Bush has no idea."
And so it goes.

Posted by Alan at 11:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005 19:13 PST home

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