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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 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.

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.

Future - Present - Past