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February 29, 2008

Filed under: culture»religion»mormonism

The Jury's Still Out on Tracy Hickman

Wired's Geekdad blog has a podcast, if my RSS reader is to be believed. I didn't listen to it (I think the blog itself is annoying), but this description of Episode 13 caught my eye:

The GeekDads are joined by Howard Tayler, creator of the Schlock Mercenary web comic, to talk about green toys, Doctor Who, and why Mormons make such great sci-fi writers.
Maybe that's tongue in cheek. But assuming that it's not, and assuming that someone could statistically show that Mormonism is somehow conducive to good science fiction... well, it is a religion invented wholesale by a con man who claimed to have dug up and translated a set of carved tablets written in ancient Egyptian by migratory Israelites in Palmyra, New York, thanks to the powers of a magic rock in his hat.

No particular offense to the Mormons, because all religions are pretty crazy when you think about it, but that does sound like the product of a fertile imagination. Aliens and wizards might not be a real leap, growing up around that.

August 21, 2007

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

Paved Paradise

A scene from the Barnes & Noble parking lot:

Old woman: Excuse me? Sir?
Myself: Yes?
Old woman: Have you ever studied the bible?
Myself: I've read from it a time or two.
Old woman: Are you a Christian?
Myself: Not as such, no.
Old woman: (confused) Oh.
Young woman: (catching up to the party) Have you ever thought about Bible prophecy?
Myself: Not really.
Young woman: Well, I don't know if you know this, but many theologians--even the ones who aren't religious--admit that the Bible's prophecies have all come true.
Myself: All of them?
Young woman: Oh, yes.
Myself: That's impressive. Even the ones from John in Revelations, where he sees the seven-headed beast and all that? You'd think I'd remember a seven-headed beast.
Young woman: Well, see, when you learn to read with the eye of prophecy--
Myself: (interrupting) Here's what I don't get: why do I have to learn the eye of whatever? If God's omnipotent, why can't he just write what he means? Wouldn't it be a lot easier to get people to convert that way? Then everyone could go to heaven. That'd be nice.
Young woman: Ah, but God doesn't want everyone in heaven. He has a chosen few.
Myself: Your God's kind of a creep then, isn't he? I mean, if I acted that way, being all exclusive with my power, you'd think I was a jerk. Don't you think you deserve better?
Young woman: Who are we to question his almighty plan?
Myself: Decent human beings, I should hope.
Young woman: We're getting off the subject. About the bible--
Myself: Now I'm certainly not going to believe the bible on anything by itself.
Young woman: Why not?
Myself: Well, you believe it because it's the word of God. But if I don't believe it's the word of God, then it's got no authority.
Young woman: Yes, but in the Book of Isaiah--
Myself: Which is in the bible.
Young woman: Right.
Myself: You can't use something from inside the bible to testify for its own authenticity. That's a circular argument.
Young woman: So you don't want to talk about the bible at all?
Myself: Not unless you've got something else to back it up.
Young woman: Well then, I guess we'll be going.
It's funny: as long as you're on their own terms, they think your time is theirs to waste. But the moment you bring up a few issues of theodicy, they've got somewhere else to be.

I'll say this: I'm not a big fan of Mormonism, but at least those Elder kids in Centreville stuck around to talk about it. I think I've still got the book they gave me, too.

January 7, 2007

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

What We Can Learn From The Creationists

I read Ronald Numbers' history of anti-evolution fundamentalism so you don't have to!

  • The arguments for creationism (more accurately, "flood geology") are very old. They surface in 1905, and seem to be pretty much complete compared to the arguments of modern creationists by the 1930s. This includes the order of geological strata, the dating of the young Earth hypothesis, the appeal to the second law of thermodynamics, and a primitive version of the argument from design. It's no wonder scientists are a little testy about this--they've been answering these same points for the last hundred years.
  • The basic ideas of flood geology are rooted in Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen White. They were then adapted by a number of amateur geologists and random evangelicals, spreading across a number of fundamentalist protestant sects, including Mormonism. But it began with the Seventh Day Adventists, who were also an offshoot of the Millerites, one of this country's great apocalyptic cults. Quite a track record.
  • Although organizations meant to promote creationism are, like their arguments, not new at all, if I've read Numbers correctly it is only relatively recently that they began appealing to the general public. For the early history of creationism, the struggle was actually to spread its theories out into the other Protestant faiths. Only once this had been accomplished did leaders attempt to subvert public education and awareness.
  • Crackpots, all of them. Perhaps this is a consequence of the American dream, wherein mediocre people can achieve greatness, or perhaps it's common to many religious movements from the outside, but the history of the creationist movement comes across as terrifically dysfunctional. The men who wrote and promoted it were rarely trained scientists, and in some cases were guilty of entirely false credentials and fake doctorates. They saw a Ph.D. not as a sign of having learned something, but simply as a shortcut to credibility for their uneducated viewpoints. For a long time, this was a struggle for them. Now, of course, with the combination of increasing political support and an alternative Christian educational system, it is much easier to be an accredited creationist.

Numbers' book is not something I would necessarily recommend to other people. It is organized oddly, by time period and region, lending it a slightly fragmented narrative--sometimes persons will appear, take up a few short paragraphs, and then completely vanish by the end of the next page. This seems to be a sign of exhaustive research (almost a third of the volume is citations and endnotes) without much thought to the idea of a strong narrative backbone. Numbers is also very sympathetic to his subjects, having been raised as an Adventist and losing his faith during college biology courses. For many readers, he may be too sympathetic--this book does not aim to discredit the views of the creationists at all, but simply summarizes them in a matter-of-fact way. It does make sense that Numbers has not tried to detail the flaws in each plan, and accounts for the warm reception this book has apparently recieved from both religious and scientific communities, but newcomers to this material should probably pair it with a good primer on evolutionary biology--The Blind Watchmaker, perhaps.

December 12, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

The Godyssey

Infamous, crazed comic artist Rob Liefeld writes The Godyssey, a story of Jesus and his mad gong-fu skills against the Greek pantheon.

Suddenly Atwood's Penelopiad looks a lot more respectable.

December 10, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

All in Order

The theory behind John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience is that neo-conservatism has its roots in the phenomenon of Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Working from the studies of Robert Altemeyer and a handful of other social scientists, Dean states these authoritarians have taken control of the Republican party, and use appeals to social dominance in order to maintain power.

As I think I've said before, Conservatives without Conscience doesn't do a very good job of selling the research into authoritarianism to someone who's unaware of the social science that backs it up. This is partially because the author does rely so heavily on Altemeyer--my guess is that the book was written quite quickly, and so Dean only occassionally ventures out into other sources, like Adorno and Duckitt. You can get a slightly wider viewpoint from futurist Sara Robinson in her "Cracks in the Wall" posts at Orcinus (parts one, two, and three). She's also written a series of articles on talking to authoritarian followers that she calls "Tunnels and Bridges."

But having spent a few months thinking and reading about the rise of fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity in American politics, especially as part of the rural-urban gap, Dean didn't have to do much to convince me. Even just in the past year, a number of bizarre (at least to city-bound liberals to myself) stories about fundamentalism have popped up, particularly as election pressures became more intense:

  • The Quiverfulls, an extreme pro-birth/pro-pregnancy movement within Christian fundamentalists
  • Mars Hill Church, part of a growing youth fundamentalism
  • Left Behind and similar artifacts of apocalyptic Rapture-mongering
  • An increase in "faith-based" initiatives for both domestic and international policy
  • The growing number of insular megachurch communities, complete with their own sports teams and Starbucks

A common thread of all these movements is their emphasis on submission: the children submit to the parents, the woman submits to the patriarch, the family submits to the church, and ultimately all submit to God. This "submissive" relationship is not just about power, although that is certainly a significant part of its appeal (I note, for example, that in youth evangelical movements the primary function seems to be giving privilege to men without forcing them to give up their... less responsible habits). These are basically movements that are intensely interested in heirarchy: both knowing your own place, and keeping others in theirs.

This explains, frankly, quite a lot.

Take one of the standard objections to evolution by fundamentalists: if Darwin is correct, they say, then we're no better than the animals. To many secular urbanites, this argument might sound genuinely puzzling. It doesn't take a vegan to recognize that yes, human beings have many things in common with animals. A person only has to look at a chimpanzee or a gorilla to see the many similarities. But to someone whose psychological makeup is geared toward negotiating a rigid power structure, the difference between humans and animals is not just an academic question. It's part of a defined relationship where one is dominant and the other is food. Muddling that heirarchy is not just a challenge to the supremacy of humans, but it unseats the fundamentalist's self-positioning. Who are we if we're not plainly better than apes? Although the youngest Karamazov's cries of "without God, all is permitted" are philosophically dubious, they still resonate, and it's not because they speak to atheism. It's because they speak to loneliness: without God to anchor a moral spectrum, all kinds of troubling grey areas begin to appear, and we basically have to solve them for ourselves.

The authoritarian angle also ties into theories I have about why conservative humor isn't funny, but they're probably a bit insulting.

Gay marriage, feminism, progressive taxation (leading to a more mobile class system)--perhaps the arguments over these issues are not really about rights after all. Maybe they're really about eliminating ambiguity. For people like Dean, religious extremists may have hijacked the party, but it seems to me like such reticence is really a part of any ideology calling itself "conservative." Eventually, authoritarians had to take the leadership at their word.

December 5, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»satire

Xenu-mas

For my own future reference: David Byrne recommends A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, in which an ensemble cast of children between the ages of 8 and 12 tell the story of L. Ron Hubbard and his incoherent space religion.

October 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

An Unholy Trinity

With David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith, explaining how the Bush administration took advantage of religious conservatives for political gain (who could have thought they were capable?) and Mark Foley stretching the limits of tolerance in the Bible Values crowd, it's worth the effort to examine the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism. This trend, also known as dominionism, is something that I find myself increasingly worried about as I consider the American political scene. Perhaps living in Northern Virginia simply accentuates the trend--stay around Arlington, where I live, and it's as blue as can be, but travel 40 miles West and you'll find yourself in deeply Republican territory.

Having gone to high school out in that area, what degenerates like George Allen call "Real America," I figured I had a pretty good idea of the problem--and more seriously, the disconnect that (as far as I can tell) many Democratic leaders simply don't understand. These really are two Americas, although not in the simple economic sense that John Edwards means. They're two separate cultures, one grounded in Biblical fundamentalism, and the other in a kind of casual secularism. But to get a perspective on what this might mean in the long term if my theories are right, I've been doing some reading.

Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg

Goldberg subtitles her book "The Rise of Christian Nationalism," and it works best as a primer to the dominionist movement. It's organized by issues, with separate chapters for evolution, sex education, and homophobia in turn. It's not a terribly long book, and Goldberg is an unobtrusive writer, so it's a fairly quick read.

Kingdom Coming was apparently inspired after Goldberg had done a series of pieces for Salon about Christian and Far Right meetings. She apparently had a knack for getting into conferences and seminars, where she would deliver neutral-sounding but ultimately terrifyingly honest reports--the fanatical and apocalyptic language of extremists behind closed doors. After those articles, or perhaps because the Religious Right's rhetoric has become more open, Kingdom Coming is a little disappointing. It's a pretty high-level, wide-angle view of the movement.

Which is not to say that there aren't good insights here. Goldberg presents the dominionists as not just a movement, but a political machine, and links it together as a whole. Her solutions to this problem are sadly vague, perhaps because she herself has little hope for the future. "From what I've witnessed while researching this book, I'm convinced that Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life," Goldberg writes in her final chapter, titled "Exiles in Jesusland."

Righteous, by Lauren Sandler

If Kingdom Coming is the big picture, Righteous is a more personal view from the bottom of the movement up. Focused on a growing Evangelical youth culture, Sandler works more with interviews and events. Righteous also examines creationism and home-schooling, but not from the leaders of the movement, but from its footsoldiers. This gives it an entirely different feel--to me, it comes across as more urgent. It's easy to dismiss Kingdom Coming as cynical politics, but Righteous reminds us that there are real people behind the fundamentalist movement.

Sandler is also a Salon editor, although it could be argued that she's a more interesting writer than Goldberg. The book is filled with anecdotes that would be comical if they weren't a little chilling: Stephen Baldwin's rise as the face of hip youth Christianity, for example. A common theme throughout the events and communities Sandler visits is the "sneaky deep." That's the hook used to attract youth to Evangelical movements--hiding overt Jesus-freak appeals behind skateboarding videos, fake scientific language, and rock music. It's the idea that people come for the entertainment, but they stay for the Christianity.

The ability to weave pop culture into conservative Christian faith is not only attractive for new members, who don't have to give up "fun" when they join, but Sandler also points out that it tends to reinforce their most regressive tendencies. At the Mars Hill church community (read an excerpt at Salon), members may have a hip priest who quotes rappers and preaches to a background of rock music, but women are relegated to the roles of mobile womb and housewife only. The communities are fiercely anti-intellectual, and their "pop culture" is restricted to Christian facsimiles as soon as a religious version can be crafted.

Although it's been mentioned before, especially when that excerpt was published, it deserves to be noted again: these movements are not only a draw because they offer security in a changing world, but also because for the young men that invariably drive and lead them, they are not actually giving up very much for the Lord. Sandler's profiles are of Christians who can find Jesus and keep their music, their tattoos, and their skateboards. Women who join the movements, however, either because they're in a relationship with a convert or through evangelism, give up much more. They lose their freedom, their independence, and (to some extent) their futures. Female graduates of Patrick Henry College work for four years building contacts and learning deep political savvy, only to reject those abilities completely once they get their degree. Despite the surface appearance of modernity, the youth Christian culture is one that's deeply regressive, and blatantly aimed at preserving the power of white males.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

After those two books, it's nice to kick back with Dawkins' unrelenting atheism. Anyone who's read his other books, such as The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene will be unsurprised by the clear prose and sly sense of humor in The God Delusion. In fact, it's a generally unsurprising book, which is not entirely a bad thing.

While Sagan's Demon-Haunted World and other pro-science writing have made a soft case for atheism, Dawkin's book is a lot more assertive. In fact, the closest comparison might be Sam Harris's End of Faith, which was refreshingly blunt but also disturbingly sidetracked into defenses of torture and ravings against the Islamic threat, as well as a bizarre defense of Buddhism and mysticism. Dawkins is more restrained: The God Delusion walks through the myth of a Christian America, disproves the belief of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, and explains why religious claims shouldn't be protected from scientific criticism.

In the end, it's not really something that you couldn't read on a well-written atheist blog. But maybe I'm just thrilled to have a book explicitly written in support of atheism without resorting to the crazy extremes of The End of Faith. The God Delusion is a solid effort. On the other hand, current atheists might not have problems waiting for the paperback edition.

September 29, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

Good Book

Fred Clark, AKA the Slacktivist, tells a story:

We were studying evangelism and the teacher was going over something called the "Romans Road" -- a series of passages from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans that described humanity's sinfulness and need for salvation. Evangelism, by definition, involves talking with people who do not already share our faith. Such people, I had noticed, also tended not to regard our Bible as their Bible, so I asked the teacher what we should say to someone who tells us they don't believe in the Bible.

"You show them II Timothy 3:16," the teacher said. And then she quoted it, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

When I suggested that someone who didn't believe in the Bible wasn't likely to believe in II Timothy any more than they believed in Romans, she responded by quoting another passage, II Peter 1:21, and then another from the 119th Psalm.

It went on like that for a bit, like something from Abbot and Costello, with both of us getting more frustrated as she quoted Bible verse after Bible verse about the authority of the Bible and me not doing a very good job of expressing that someone who doesn't believe in Bible verses won't be convinced by a Bible verse that tells them to believe in Bible verses. Until finally she said this:

"Well if they still don't believe in the Bible after you've showed them all those verses, then I guess they just can't read."

In addition to his highly-entertaining and interesting Left Behind Fridays, the Slacktivist is always a good read because he has thought carefully about his evangelism, and clearly decided that the communication it implies cannot be one-way. So instead of making preaching the gospel his only contact with the secular world, he basically invites readers in to understand the culture surrounding the religion.

It is heartening to know that this communication takes place somewhere. I don't much worry about a disconnect between political parties. I am more concerned that the split between Left and Right in America reflects a basic misunderstanding between two subcultures--one of which is a paranoid rural mindset that shares a language and vision deeply rooted in the Bible, while the other is a more fragmented urban population that does not share in the heavily coded (and therefore incomprehensible) language of scripture and dominionism. Most of the people I know in cities, even those who are quite conservative, aren't really able to grasp the reality of the former. They are operating on a thought-experiment of what the rubes want, and catching a glimpse of the actual rural agenda is a rude surprise.

This works the other way, of course, as the story above shows. But frankly, the dominionists are better organized than we seem to be, and we are increasingly in their power. At the very least, we'd better be able to figure out what they're going to do with us.

July 12, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»satire

In Loving Memory

Sweet mother of mercy.

October 12, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books

Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

If I didn't know any better, I'd say The End of Faith was a bad joke. This is the bestselling advocacy for atheism and screed against the evils of religion? The world's freethinkers deserve better than Harris. His basic thesis is that we can no longer accept fanaticism--and Harris defines all religion as fanaticism or enabling to fanaticism--because of the destructive potential technology has given us. That's all well and good. I think we can all agree that we're not terribly keen on nuclear annhilation or biological warfare, and there's an argument to be made about the conflict between science and those who would scorn it while they harness its destructive potential. Harris, however, is not the person to make that argument.

First of all, The End of Faith is riddled with logical errors and inconsistencies. For example, the author seems to think that it's very important to open with a commentary on beliefs, and how they define a world around us that is subjective. "No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all" he writes, and implicitly endorses the "brain in a jar" thinking that every basic philosophy freshman briefly entertains. He also includes the dubious notation that there "seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena," even though in later chapters he relies heavily on the progress of science, objectivity, and Enlightenment thought. It's just very strange, and it makes his argument seem nonsensical at best. Similar logical faults, the kind that should have been caught by even the clumsiest editor (or indeed, the aforementioned freshman in philosophy), are entirely too common.

Second, Harris seems to take leave of his senses entirely halfway through The End of Faith and launches into a rabid, neoconservative anti-Islam crusade. Perhaps understandably, he seems to have taken September 11th as an example of religious extremism gone horribly awry. However, the hyperbole here comes off as hysterical, in a chapter titled "The Problem with Islam." "We are at war with Islam," he states, shortly after castigating the War on Terror as being a meaningless conflict against a large idea (another one of those pesky logical inconsistencies). He spends several pages pulling out violent and deadly quotes from the Koran, which is tedious and mean-spirited. It's also not a terribly convincing argument. Anyone can cherrypick scripture to suit their needs. Only because Harris explicitly defines religious moderates as enablers of fundamentalism can he even make the argument.

Look, I'm no fan of militant Islam--or militant anything, really (although in a bizarre detour, Harris also tries to prove the supreme immorality of pacifism). And religious moderates who make excuses for fundamentalists also bother me. But the insistence that they must all be converted to atheism or militarily destroyed just doesn't sit well with me as a rational option. For example, note Harris's strange justification of terror: having redefined all ethics as the awareness of the pain of others, he imagines a "torture pill" that would inflict pain while simultaneously blocking the external reaction of the subject. Even as a thought exercise and a loophole, it doesn't make any sense. Obviously, wouldn't the person applying the pill have to be conscious that it would cause discomfort? Unless it kills the subject (thus rendering it useless), wouldn't their subsequent confession break the ethical barrier? Harris doesn't even touch on the accuracy of the information from this torture. And he's the rational one?

Add in the elevation of Eastern mysticism, and what you have is a severely schizophrenic work. Harris wholeheartedly endorses Eastern philosophies as gentler, less violent, and more self-aware than those bad ol' Western religions. Nowhere in Taoism or Buddhism, he states, could we find anything as horrific as the Koran or the Bible. Allow me to say this as someone who has studied Chinese history, religion, and literature: balderdash. The argument is just pure orientalism, on par with The Last Samurai and businessmen praising The Art of War. Just as with his treatment of the Koran, Harris is cherry-picking in order to make a point. I personally doubt that those who died to build the Great Wall, who were killed in Qin Shi Huang's wars of conquest, who had their feet bound to fit a feminine ideal, or who joined in the codes of Kamikaze and Bushido, would agree with Harris's idolatry of the East.

Perhaps he has answers for these criticisms. But since the book is only 200-odd pages of actual text, followed by another couple hundred pages of endnotes, I can't honestly be bothered to read through his research material after such a nonsensical slog. It feels like padding for a weak argument. It feels juvenile.

The picture is simply more complex than The End of Faith is willing to admit. It pains me to see such a disjointed text representing atheism, and it pains me even more because the subject matter showed such promise. I'm always interested in advancing rationalism and fighting religious extremism--but I don't want Sam Harris on my side. If he's looking for fanatics, all he needs to do is glance into the closest reflective surface.

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