Sunday, July 31, 2011
Lisa Miller, writing in the Wash Post on 7/30/11, reported on the campaign by the likes of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Penny Nance of Concerned Women of America to redefine the word "feminism" to include women who oppose reproductive freedom of conscience/choice and who believe that women should "submit" to "hims and hymns". This is clearly a sad, sick joke.
One should ask, if by some almost infinitely improbable accident Michele Bachmann (who stated recently that the battles of Lexington and Concord occurred in New Hampshire) were to occupy the White House, would she be "submissive" to her goofy hubby, the guy whose "clinic" has accepted federal funding to "pray away gay"?
Real feminists support reproductuve freedom of conscience.
This time last year, we were just about to embark on the Terry Jones saga. You remember him: the pastor who found his 15 minutes of fame by threatening to burn the Koran, backing down when the United States government called him “un-American” for expressing politically incorrect ideas, then pulling off a sneak incineration a few months later when no one was looking. If you followed the story closely, you will also remember the people who were killed when Muslims rioted about the mere thought-crime of prospective scripture burning, and the somewhat more rational response of the Pakistani Muslim who retaliated by destroying a Christian Bible.
Now another Bible has been burned, or at least parts of one. In a man-bites-dog twist, this one was torched by a Christian minister, Rev. Geraint ap Iorwerth of St Peter ad Vincula Church in Pennal, Wales. It seems Rev. ap Iorwerth is a true expert on what God really said, and thus decided to burn “all the nasty bits” that misrepresented what he knows God is really like. Presumably, he’s referring to the parts of the Old Testament where God endorses genocide and slavery. Or maybe he burnt the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus insists that every “jot and tittle” of the Jewish law shall remain in force until the end of time, specifically including animal sacrifice at the Temple, while declaring it a sin for anyone to marry a divorced woman. I can’t tell you exactly what he burnt, because the article doesn’t say. Besides, he’s the one who can read God’s mind, not me.
I play a game with my dog of holding out both hands and making her guess which one holds the treat I just showed her. (At least I used to, until I got tired of the mournful looks when she guessed the wrong hand.) If the dog could read my mind, she’d know which hand to go for – but she’s not on my level. If Rev. ap Iorwerth knows which hand God is holding the treat in, and which parts of the Bible are phony, then he must be on (or above) God’s level.
But not, though, above the level of thousands of God experts who preceded him, who were all at least equally adept at picking and choosing which parts of holy texts were the real deal and which were the fakes. We can tell, for example, that the Old Testament itself was pasted together from older texts. That’s why it has two different creation stories, two different stories of the flood, two different stories of Hagar, two different stories of the calling of Moses – even two different versions of the Ten Commandments. So what happened to the parts of each text that weren’t used? They were probably burnt.
The same thing happened with the assembly of the New Testament. There were dozens of different gospels to choose from, but the decision was made 150 years after Jesus to include only four of them. Why four? Bishop Irenaeus, the principal selector, employed impeccable logic:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars.
We know that many of the non-chosen Gospels were then destroyed, presumably by burning, because they constituted heresy.
The same thing happened with the assembly of the Koran. Umar, one of the four “rightly guided” Caliphs who knew and followed Muhammad, is reported to have said: “Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Koran, for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost.” Aisha, one of Muhammad’s widows, complained that one chapter had been reduced from 200 verses to only 73 in the final edition. She also stated (I am not making this up) that some verses were lost when, during preparations for Muhammad’s funeral, a domestic animal got in the house and ate them.
Picking and choosing what God did and didn’t mean to say continued long after an “official” version of scripture became popular. When Martin Luther published the Bible in German, he decided that the Epistle of James wasn’t really God’s word because it didn’t fit with Luther’s theology. So, he left it out. James was only Jesus’ brother – what did he know?
Mormons have made a fine art of changing their God-given scriptures to their liking. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have identified nearly 4,000 changes in the Book of Mormon itself since its first publication. Most of them relate to God’s failures as a grammarian, e.g. “They did not fight against God no more.” More changes and cuts have been made to the other principal Mormon scripture, Doctrines and Covenants, whose original words were given directly by God to Joseph Smith. The 1835 version contained a flat prohibition against polygamy, which was reprinted in every edition published until 1876. By that point, the church had come out of the closet to be officially in favor of polygamy, so God’s mistake was snipped out.
The closest physical analogy to Rev. ap Iorwerth’s word surgery is the work of Thomas Jefferson, who produced his own version of the gospels. “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” He later expanded what became known as the Jefferson Bible, but did not allow it to be published. It did not surface until 70 years after his death.
The night-and-day difference between Jefferson and ap Iorwerth is that Jefferson did not profess that any part of the Bible was God’s word, nor did he believe that Jesus was God. He just thought that Jesus was an interesting guy who had some good ideas, as most humanists today would agree. But there are lots of people like that – Confucius, Tindal, Voltaire – and Jefferson read them avidly as well. In fact, the parts of the Bible that Jefferson cut out were the parts that made Jesus appear superhuman, like the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. He also felt free to disagree with Jesus on various matters: “It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it, etc, etc.”
By contrast, Rev. ap Iorwerth has spent a long career being paid to tell his congregation exactly what the Big Guy In The Sky commands them to do. Now he’s taken on the personal responsibility of fine-tuning those instructions, so that he can no longer pretend that he’s simply passing on the corporate line. Either Rev. ap Iorwerth is in direct communication with the spirit world, or he’s a colossal fraud. And if he had any sense of honor, he’d stop taking paychecks from a church organization whose manifesto and reason for being he has publicly condemned and burnt, and find himself an honest job instead.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Murdock Scandal
By Bill Creasy
Rupert Murdoch and his corporate empire News International is becoming engulfed in a scandal including hacking of cell phones to listen to private messages, and bribery of police. Currently, most of the problems are in Britain, but an investigation is beginning in the U. S. This scandal relates to an article I wrote in WASHline asking whether corporations encourage unhumanistic behavior. I wrote
A corporation is organized and run to accomplish a particular narrow goal. For-profit corporations are organized around a need to make money, but even nonprofits have a particular focus.
Because corporations have a narrow goal, they force their employees to work toward that goal. People as individuals have a range of needs and wants, but these are suppressed. People have a feeling of empathy for the suffering of others. But if their employer, a corporation, causes suffering, the individual is able to say "it isn't my fault" or "it isn't my problem."
Modern life depends on corporations. But there are certain kinds of corporations that produce bad results....
One kind of bad corporation is a dictatorial corporation. It can happen that the board of directors and shareholders to become completely passive and allow the CEO to do whatever he wants. If the CEO is successful, that's fine. But power corrupts, and the CEO may not be able to distinguish his or her personal good from that of the corporation. For example, the CEO may decide to spend corporate money to elect political candidates. This is perhaps the most undesirable effect of the Citizens United decision. At the same time, the CEO is still shielded from personal responsibility by the corporation....
The legal purpose of a corporation is to keep one person from being liable. But by doing so, it allows employees not to be responsible. If a government official is bribed and corrupted by a corporation that is only trying to accomplish its narrow goal, who is the person responsible for paying off this bad official? Are citizens losing political and economic control in society to unethical corporations run by irresponsible employees that have vast amounts of money and influence?
The scandal enveloping Rupert Murdoch, his associates including Rebekah Brooks, and his media empire, is turning into an example of this problem. Murdoch is a classic example of a dictatorial CEO. Apparently no one in his organization was capable of criticizing his actions. Carl Bernstein compared the scandal to Watergate and Murdoch to Nixon. Bernstein pointed out that there are indications that much more of the scandal will emerge (Newsweek, July 18, 2011, 4-6). He wrote that it is inconceivable that illegal activities occurred at Murdoch-owned newspapers without Murdoch's implicit agreement. Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the British Guardian newspaper that broke the story of the scandal, wrote that the story caused a “surge of revulsion” in Britain. Previously, “you needed Murdoch to get elected in Britain,” and “British public life had molded itself to accommodate the Murdochs.” Now, “that spell has been broken.” (Newsweek, July 29, 2011, 45-47.)
Many humanists may connect Murdoch to the Religious Right because of the right wing commentators on Fox News in the U. S. Fox News has without question supported conservative Christian political influence, including giving jobs as commentators to a number of potential Republican presidential candidates like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee.
But Murdoch doesn't appear to be a Christian true believer. He is more of an amoral opportunist. His only interest seems to be amassing a media empire and the political and economic power that comes with it. Often, his efforts to increase his audience comes by lowering journalistic standards to the lowest tabloids standards, manufacturing stories and controversies out of nothing, and enflaming emotional political debates to the point that neither side is willing to have a reasonable discussion that will lead to a compromise.
Some of the tactics that are used on Fox News to generate controversy are discussed in the documentary Outfoxed, directed and produced by Robert Greenwald. It is worth noting that conservative commentators on Fox News regularly rail against declining standards of TV entertainment. But Murdoch's Fox Channel pioneered the "gross out" low-brow entertainment shows with sitcoms like "Married With Children" that were responsible for lowering the standards. "The Simpsons," an animated show, was considered risque when it started 20 years ago, but is now a mainstream show about a nuclear family with a loving husband and wife.
With this history of decreasing standards, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Murdoch's British media companies like News of the World were using illegal methods to get news stories on a routine basis. The methods included hacking cell phones to listen to messages, and paying off policemen. These are simply expedient ways of getting information. It wouldn't be surprising if some U.S. companies are doing similar tactics. Hopefully, elite companies like The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Murdoch, are maintaining their standards.
If Murdoch knew about and approved of these methods, perhaps it is surprising that he thought he could get away with them as a long-term effort. Was he really such an absolute dictator in control of his company and British politicians that he expected no one would notice?
Being ethical means being concerned with the long-term consequences of actions. People in charge of corporations should be concerned with long-term survival, not just the simplest way to reach short-term goals. If Murdoch approved illegal methods to get news stories, he is an example of the worst kind of dictatorial corporate leadership. He and his close associates should be removed from control of the company, by any legal mechanism.
The U.S. Constitution forbids religious discrimination by government, it treats freedom of religion as freedom of conscience, yet our government has instituted multiple establishments of monotheism. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that the Constitution permits the government to disregard atheists. When Congress placed "In God We Trust" on all our coins and currency, when it inserted "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Supreme Court starts its sessions with "God save the United States and this honorable court," when every legislative session begins with a prayer to God, etc. - those who disbelieve in a supreme being are explicitly told that "they are outsiders, not full members of the political community," while theistic Americans are told "that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."
Is this a concern of humanists and freethinkers or not?
Government cannot eliminate invidious opinions, but it can--and, when the opinions are based on religious differences, it constitutionally must--stop fostering such beliefs. The fact is that we are not a second-class citizen who should be seen and not heard. The United States of America is just as much an atheistic entity as it is a theistic entity, just as much a polytheist entity as a monotheist entity, with zero being the measure of each. This is a civil rights campaign, as important and as serious as any in our history.
The accusation that groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, by focusing on, and pursuing, a non-establishment of religion agenda that seeks equal regard for atheists and polytheists with monotheists, are somehow interfering with dealing with the debt ceiling, unemployment, public education, reproductive choice, climate change, environmental degradation, GLBT rights, etc., is nonsense. There are groups and individuals that focus their time and effort on each of these issues at the expense of spending more time and effort on other issues. By having a limited focus these activist groups and individuals are not guilty of giving "listeners a very narrow and limited perspective on what humanism is all about" or "putting [pick one: reproductive choice, climate change, etc.] ahead of everything else". They are all making a contribution, and by specializing in seeking remedies for a particular category of problem they all contribute to the common good. Furthermore, they arguably contribute more effectively to the common good than they would if they did not narrow their focus and specialize.
The same is true of those individuals or groups who have decided to focus on EC compliance problems facing atheists and polytheists. The accusation that their doing this somehow "weakens the positive thrust of humanism" is groundless. The accusation that EC violations that target atheists and polytheists are not a common concern of, and challenge for, all people of good will, including those who identify as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, etc. is mistaken. If this currently isn't their concern then it should be. Violations of constitutional principles that today targets only some minorities also weakens and undermines those constitutional principles generally, thereby increasing the future risk to those who are not currently targeted by the violations.
George Lakoff's book about framing issues, when referenced in this context as an excuse for singling out and not addressing one category of problem because the targets of the problem are unpopular, amounts to little more than a non-ethical argument for appeasement of majoritarian prejudices. If the majority objects to atheists standing up for their civil rights then I don't feel the slightest obligation to appease that prejudice by "framing" atheists and atheism into a closet. Nor should you or anyone else be intimidated into silence and invisibility by majority prejudices.
What works against the advancement of humanist values is this appeasement of the prevailing 'atheists must remain hidden' attitude. What works against the advancement of humanist values is this 'atheists are to be excluded from residing within the larger context of "core humanist concerns"' attitude. This double-standard nonsense that somehow the presence of atheists or atheism anywhere on the activist agenda is incompatible with "the advancement of humanist values" is itself inconsistent with humanist values.
There is no way that atheists will accept being told that they are not welcome as equal participants in all respects, including being part of the agenda of humanist concerns today for civic equality. If humanists are for civic equality today then they must be for non-establishment of theism today. To place non-establishment of theism off of the agenda is to fail to commit to civic equality. This is an either or choice, there is no third option. So is civic equality a core humanist concern or not?
Friday, July 29, 2011
Here are the headlines of two stories in the New York Times on July 29: "Judge Dismisses Atheists' Suit Against Texas Governor's Prayer Rally" (five columns); "Atheists Sue to Block Display of Cross-Shaped Trade Center Beam in 9/11 Museum" (five columns).
On July 28 the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM in Washington featured a one hour discussion on atheists and atheism with four assorted representatives of humanist and atheist groups. One local humanist who contacted me after the show said that the participants in the discussion, all atheists, came off sounding "defensive" and "poor-little-us-whiny".
My reaction to the show is that by concentrating on something that humanists and freethinkers do not include in their lifestance, the participants gave listeners a very narrow and limited perspective on what humanism is all about. The show did not get to issues that really grab people at this time, such as the ridiculous dispute over the debt ceiling, jobs, the slow economy, the massive new assaults on public education and reproductive choice in Congress and state legislatures, climate change, resource depletion, peace, environmental degradation, GLBT rights, etc.
Putting atheism ahead of everything else weakens the positive thrust of humanism, of naturalistic humanism is its various manifestations (humanist organizations, Ethical Societies, Unitarian Universalist and Humanistic Jewish congregations, etc). We humanists share many values and concerns with people who identify as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or simply shun labels. It is the common concerns and challenges that should be put forward.
Representatives of humanist organizations need to get over a whiny parochialism and put into practice the lessons of "framing" issues as George Lakoff does in his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" or that Alfred Korzybski taught decades ago in "Science and Sanity" and the General Semantics movement.
There is some merit in the lawsuits mentioned in the Times stories, but these issues are not central to core humanist concerns today and concentration on them to the exclusion of more pressing matters may at the end of the day work against the advancement of humanist values. I have spent over half a century fighting for church-state separation, and over that span of time have learned lessons about strategy and prioritizing that some of the new kids on the block need to pay attention to.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
by Gary Berg-Cross
Edd Doerr provided a perspective on size of the right-wing terrorist attack in Norway and its mix of large humanist culture and Lutheran tradition. One argument that is still unfolding is the role of Anders Behring Breivik’s faith in his actions. At the Washington Post’s On Faith blog Mathew N. Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, posited 3 possible categories to explain Breivik:
- Christian terrorist?
- Right-wing extremist?
While the question seems posed as alternatives he might be all 3 and maybe more. It is perhaps illustrative on how several factors play out and reinforce one another.
At first news reports first described Breivik as a “Christian terrorist.” These seem to have been based of things you could on his Facebook profile (now shut down). But people also tracked postings to Christian fundamentalist Web sites. On his Facebook page he described himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity according to an early report by Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen.
This was supported by quick browsing of Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto, “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”. Breivik e-mailed the document to thousands of people hours before he detonated a bomb outside Norway's government headquarters. It suggests that he saw himself as some form of Christian Knights Templar crusader. I’ve seen one report (not by Dan Brown) that he allegedly attended a 2002 meeting to revive the Templar order.
After a few days many media sites moved from the Christian terrorist explanation to more of a right wing extremist. He posted to right wing web sites too and wrote of being influenced by right wing extremists like Robert Spencer, author of 10 books, including "Islam Unveiled" and "The Truth About Muhammad.". The threat of Islam is a dominant motif of his posting on Pamela Geller's website Atlas Shrugged. of “Obama birth certificate is a fake” fame. “Muslim Guns Down Six Daughters To Cleanse Family’s “Honor”” is a typical blog post there
There are sites reporting on the blogging. Breivik apparently guest blogged for other right wing extemeist sites like Jihad Watch and Gates of Vienna. So there is lots of evidence for explanations 1 and 2. They are not mutually exclusive.
But the 2nd angle has allowed some commentators to develop a defense of the Christian connection and move to make it more of a political thing. They soften the religious factor by making an argument that is often missing when people are blaming Islam for terrorism. They argue that Breivik was just a “cultural” rather than “religious” Christian. Even more extreme is Bill O'Reilly's tautological statement that it was "impossible" that Breivik is a Christian. As he said:
"No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder…The man might have called himself a Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith...we can find no evidence, none, that this killer practiced Christianity in any way."
A reader of the manifesto countered this claim by going all the way to page 1403 of Breivik's manifesto, where it states flatel : “At the age of 15 I chose to be baptized and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church. I consider myself to be 100% Christian.” One can add to that that in later life Breivik seemed to champion the Catholic Church as purer than the one he was baptized into.
A weaker formulation is the idea that Breivik’s religious beliefs are just a cultural background that is set in the political context and dominated by political goals. A central goal was, yes, a more (or less) Christian Europe but one predicated on expelling the real evil - Muslims. In this formulation the real goal is to stop the “Islamization” tide in Europe. The tide was enabled by a Europe enfeebled by the women’s movement, “multiculturalism” and its fellow traveling secular ideas.
I think that the religious defense is getting away from the intricate and reinforcing relations between political and religious forces. Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor to Harpers and author and expert on right-wing movements in the United States, dispensed with all of these arguments by a close reading of the entire 1500 page document. You can see his a long interview on Democracy Now goo.gl/WVfoV. Like other scholar Sharlet rejects the suggestion that Anders Breivik was/is insane. Instead, Sharlet , like others sees him as the extension of a virulently xenophobic narrative that has deep roots in the US. What struck him most about Breivik’s manifesto is just how like the fused American relgio-political view it is in every way. Sharlet put it this way:
“I mean, a huge amount of it is from American sources. He’s a great admirer of America, because he says United States, unlike Europe, has maintained its 'Christian identity.'”
Among the people Breivik admired is Robert Spencer and his Jihad Watch site. Sharlet sees such Islamaphobes as walking up to the edge by stirring up people, telling them what to do and they say, Fox-like, you decide. Sharlet addressed whether or not the writers, like Spencer, that Breivik quotes bear some responsibility for his rampage.
“It’s silly to say that any writer is responsible for the actions of others — Breivik pulled the trigger, not Robert Spence — but it’s an oddly relativist argument to suggest that we don’t ponder the ingredients Breivik used to make his toxic stew. As the conservative saying goes, ‘ideas have consequences.’ ”
Breivik is not the only one to browse Web sites to see the Christian identity story and calls to action. On the sites he browsed you find plenty of storylines that merge Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia. Light Christian extremists, like Pat Bachmann, have been on our scene for a while and their descendents are more extreme. Bachmann, Palin and others continue the march to infuse religious views into politics with nary a rational-empirical thought. You can see the relative importance of the US Constitution versus the Bible to see how powerful religious culture and its beliefs can be.
Among other things you can see Breivik’s vision as a European version of the class of cultures issue framed in the US some time ago. These were developed in part by the U.S. Christian Right Free Congress Foundation, founded by Paul Weyrich, in the early 1990s. These warned of an erosion of “Judeo-Christian values.” They were embodied in Pat Buchanan’s who warned about dark-skinned immigrants who drain resources but also fill the culture with alien ideas and religious formulations. On Monday, Pat Buchanan updated his views. He wrote at The American Conservative site:
"As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world that is growing in numbers and advancing inexorably into Europe for the third time in 14 centuries, on this one, Breivik may be right,"
It’s all of a piece and has come home to bite.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Norway's July 22 terror attack was twice as lethal as the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in the US. Huh? Do the math. The 9/11 attack killed one out of 100,000 people in the US, while the Norway 7/22 attack killed one out of 50,000 Norwegians. Norway's population is smaller than that of either Maryland or the DC metro area.
The 9/11 attack was perpetrated by foreign terrorists, Norway's by a domestic fundamentalist loony, a guy who reportedly tried to start a Tea Party movement in Norway and who is similar in various ways to some of the loonies running loose in the US.
Norway is a fascinating country. In my travels in the country I have never seen the kind of poverty so visible in the US. I was surprised to learn how terrorist Breivik was able to obtain weapons.
While Norway has a "state church" (Lutheran) and a church tax, it also has the largest organized humanist movement in the world, the Norwegian Humanist-Ethical Union (Norsk Human-Etisk Forbund), which receives its due portion of the national church tax.
As Norway has a strong Lutheran identity historically, "confirmation" of 14-15 year olds has long been a universal. About 60 years ago the Norwegian humanists started the "civil confirmation" tradition, with several weeks of classes followed by the confirmation, usually is some civic building. While I was in Oslo about eight years ago for an International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) board meeting, my wife and I were privileged to attend the 50th anniversary humanist confirmation ceremony, held in the magnificent Oslo city hall (where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies are held), About 200 teenagers were "confirmed" in an impressive ceremony at which Levi Fragell, long time IHEU head, delivered an address. About 16% of Norway's 14-15 year olds opt for the humanist confirmation.
Norway is clearly one of the most humanist countries in the world, a good model for the US to emulate.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
I'm no puzzle master, but I had a stray thought that it might be fun to create one with secular humanist terms and topics in mind. You'll find it below with the clues below that. I note that Secular is a frequent crossword puzzle clue, but I haven't used it in this puzzle. The LA Times apparently keeps track of such things and notes that puzzle clues of the word secular include:
- Not of the cloth
- Not of the clergy
- Of the flock
- Not clerical
- Like some church matters
- Flock member
- Concerning the congregation
Recent usage in crossword puzzles:
- USA Today - March 31, 2011
- USA Today - March 11, 2011
- LA Times - March 2, 2011
- LA Times Sunday Calendar - Dec. 5, 2010
- New York Times - Nov. 8, 2010 etc.
4. American educator, philosopher, psychologist and author or Humanist Manifesto I
7. ? vs intelligent design
8. Formulated as “any rational person would bet on the existence of God by believing in him since there is no cost with a losing bet and an infinite reward with a winning bet.”
9. Free-Will versus ?
10. Church associated with Pastafarians
14. Claim of Sam Harris – Morality is?
17. You and maybe me?
19. A philosophical stance that offers a solution to the free will vs. determinism debate.
20. Mythical powerful being starring in ancient, popular, some say (Good) book
21. Jefferson for one
24. Inventor or memes and much more
25. Famous, mild agnostic American writer on slavery and tomfoolery in general.
26. Often opposed to reasonDown
1. Great American agnostic
2. Faith-based belief is opposed to what type of belief?
3. Latin American writer who said, “Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant."
5. Author of Breaking the Spell’
6. Should have evidence, which should have a repeatable basis
10. A Great English Atheist of the 19th century
11. Binary thinking flaw
12. AKA a mental virus
13. Susan Jacoby’s favorites
15. A person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in things, such as God
18. Colonial era term for atheists and Deists
22. Neo-Plationist philosopher, librarian and secular martyr trained in Athens tradition of inquiry.
Earlier this month, a national convention of the United Church of Christ voted to delete a reference to belief in the “Heavenly Father” from its constitutional definition of a local church. Instead of belief in a male God who produced offspring, local churches now need only express belief in a “triune God.”
This change in the direction of political correctness is less than it first appears. The concept of “triune God,” in every modern flavor of Christianity, involves a deity known as “God the Father,” generally pictured with a long white beard, who is said to have fathered out of wedlock “God the Son,” even though God the Son is said to have existed as long as God the Father has. It gets terribly confusing, and can only be ultimately sorted out by “It’s a mystery.” What’s clear is that if they’re keeping “triune God,” then they’re keeping a male God, or at least a God who is two parts out of three male – while at the same time, shamelessly making headlines about being more gender-neutral. This is not a mystery; it’s a shell game.
Pretending to be hip has not served the United Church of Christ well in recent decades. Its membership has declined by nearly 50% since the 1960s. One of its biggest recent defections was the Obama family, who jumped ship in 2008 when UCC pastor Jeremiah Wright went from being a political plus to a political minus.
A question more interesting than the future of this fading denomination is “How did we get a male God in the first place?” If some unseen force created and guides the universe, why does it have to be thought of as either male or female? In fact, how can it logically be characterized as male, unless there is a female deity to go along with it? There can be no “left” without a “right.”
Earlier ages solved this problem by having multiple Gods. Even the Jews gave Yahweh a Goddess wife, named Asherah. Inscriptions to “Yahweh and his Asherah” have been found at Israeli archeological sites, and the Jewish king Manasseh installed a statue of Asherah in the Jerusalem temple.
In fact, according to feminist historian Barbara Walker, in many Pagan societies the feminine Gods were more important than the masculine Gods. They were revered as the mother who infuses all creation with the vital blood of life. The Islamic name for God today bears a striking resemblance to that of the Arabian lunar Goddess, Al-Lat, who was worshipped at the Kaaba in Mecca, and whose crescent symbol appears today on Islamic flags. Pre-Christian forms of what the UCC now calls the “triune God” involved three female deities, in places as diverse as India, Ireland, Italy, and Mexico, where “three divine sisters” gave birth to the savior God Quetzalcoatl. In some earlier forms of the trinity among Arabian Christians, the Holy Ghost was Mary rather than a bird, thus neatly paralleling the Egyptian nuclear family divine trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.
That trinity variant never caught on, but throughout Christian history there has been a tension between God experts who sought to elevate Mary to near-divine status and those who sought to pull her back down again. The 8th century Patriarch of Constantinople taught that God obeys Mary “through and in all things, as his true mother.” This view was echoed by the 18th century theologian who wrote that “At the command of Mary all obey, even God.” A 14th century Franciscan taught that
When we have offended Christ, we should go first to the Queen of Heaven and offer her ... prayers, fasting, vigils, and alms; then she, like a mother, will come between thee and Christ, the father who wishes to beat us, and she will throw the cloak of mercy between the rod of punishment and us, and soften the king’s anger against us.
Pope Pius XII himself proclaimed in 1950 that Mary was the only person other than Jesus who was born without the stain of original sin, and was “assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory.” Yet his successor Pope John XXIII, who had the power to read Mary’s mind, warned that: “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son.” The Arabian Christians who put Mary in the trinity were persecuted as heretics, and the 13th century Pope Nicholas III ordered a friar to burn with his own hands a tract he had written that went too far in expressing devotion to Mary.
Mary’s doing pretty well today, though. There’s a major movement within the Catholic Church to elevate her to the status of “Co-redemptrix,” which would seem to put her right next to Jesus. I’m not sure what she did to deserve that other than to have a son, as billions of other non-Goddesses have done. Anyway, it’s now officially ok to refer to Mary as “Co-redemptrix,” and petitions and conferences of God experts are urging the Pope to go even further and make that status an official “dogma” of the Church, non-belief in which will result in excommunication and eternal hellfire.
The folks who are best positioned to capitalize on a feminist trend in godliness, though, are our friends the Mormons. Unlike the Catholics, who feel somewhat constrained in making sudden changes by the burden of appearing consistent with 2,000 years of precedent, the Mormons haven’t the slightest compunction about turning on a theological dime whenever it suits their political purposes. They did that on polygamy in 1890 (sort of), and again in 1978 on the in-born evil of black people (sort of). Better yet, they already have a Goddess – a “Heavenly Mother,” no less – backstage and ready to make her debut at the propitious moment.
Mormon theology teaches that there are millions of male Gods in the universe, each one associated with a particular star or planet, who have a physical body just like earthlings. A main function of each of them is to father new souls by having sex, in the normal physical manner. That requires, of course, the involvement of a female deity, at a minimum in “Lie back and think of England” mode. In fact, such a personage exists in Mormon theology – there’s even a hymn about her, written by one of Joseph Smith’s dozens of widows:
In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare.
Truth is reason: truth eternal
tells me I've a mother there.
The men who ran the Church, though, took as dim a view of Goddess worship as did the Catholics who shut Mary out of the Trinity. Early apostle George Q. Cannon, sometimes called “the Mormon Richelieu,” cautioned that “To worship her would diminish from the worship of heavenly father.” Gordon Hinckley, Mormon President from 1995 to 2008, added that Jesus himself commanded prayer to “Our Father,” not to “our Mother.” A professor at Brigham Young University who suggested praying to Heavenly Mother was fired for her efforts.
The real problem here is that those who earn a living being God’s mouthpieces know that their paying customers subconsciously see them as God, to a small but significant extent. That’s certainly how the Catholics position their Pope, and how the Mormons position their President. Diluting the maleness of God distorts that picture. Secularism is going to have to expand a lot further than it already has before these guys get desperate enough to copy this particular page out of the Pagan playbook.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
John Loftus argues that "atheism therefore is not a belief ..." in a 7/22 post titled "Once Again, Atheism is Not a Belief Nor a Religion" on his blog Debunking Christianity. This is wrong. Atheism certainly can be, and often is, a belief. Also, implicit in this argument that atheism is not a belief, which is usually made by atheists on behalf of atheism, is a mistaken notion that having beliefs is bad. Belief is an essential means to an end and as such a belief can be wrong or right, justified or unjustified. However, belief as a phenomena has no intrinsic property of being bad or good.
Beliefs are the basis for our making our decisions. We plan for tomorrow because we believe that tomorrow will follow after today. Beliefs are a property of being human. Every educated adult has thousands of beliefs. We are arguably born with certain basic beliefs, a result of evolution giving us the means to navigate our world and survive to eventually become experienced, educated adults. We can't eliminate the phenomena of beliefs anymore than we can eliminate the phenomena of chemistry and physics.
Mr. Loftus appears to incorrectly equate beliefs with religion. I think it should be obvious that while religion is rooted in beliefs, many beliefs have nothing to do with religion. Mr. Loftus is correct when he says that atheism is not a religion. Indeed, modern atheism tends to have an anti-religion orientation. Serious followers of ancient philosophical Eastern religions that were initially atheistic have tended to add theistic beliefs to those traditions whereas today's atheists are probably going to be less likely to take such religious traditions seriously as having any special merit over more modern and competing philosophies that are better rooted in modern knowledge. But it doesn't follow that atheism is not a belief.
Atheists can, and do, believe that there are no gods. I don't think an insistence that everyone say we don't believe in gods and stop there is either realistic or proper, nor is doing that what atheism is all about. When the overall direction of evidence weighs in favor of a conclusion we shouldn't shy away from that conclusion just because by asserting a conclusion we are taking sides. There is nothing wrong with taking sides. Having a belief, as long as the belief is properly justified by the available evidence, is not a mistake, its not a problem. The mistake, in the context of holding beliefs, is not following the evidence, which is synonymous with having unjustified beliefs.
Having no belief where a belief is justified is thus also a mistake. The evidence always comes first, the belief is compelled from the evidence. We don't choose our properly justified beliefs. The evidence chooses our beliefs, all we can do is follow. If we find that the evidence is positively against X then it follows accordingly that we positively believe that X is false and we should say so. Refusing to take a position in the name of having no beliefs is not a way of upholding an ethical value. On the contrary, its the mirror image of the mistake of having a belief where no belief is warranted and is equally wrong.
People who don't take the disciplined approach of basing their beliefs in the overall evidence, people for whom adopting belief is a method of self-defining oneself, are going to be promiscuous in adopting beliefs. Anyone who embraces the notion that it is one of the highest virtues to rely on faith, and thus important to avoid being constrained by the evidence, is clearly taking a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs. Taking such a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs is a mistake simply because we have excellent reason to think beliefs not anchored in the evidence are most likely false. While it is true that we do define ourselves in part by our beliefs, it doesn't follow that we should adopt beliefs for the purpose of defining ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common, and big, mistake to adopt our true/false beliefs about how the world beyond ourselves functions for the self-centered, inward focused, purpose of self-definition.
We should be trying to hold our beliefs in proportion to the evidence, without bias, so that our belief is weaker where the evidence is ambiguous and our belief is stronger where the evidence is unequivocal. If we see no direction to the evidence with respect to answering a question then we should have no belief. Sometimes we need to make decisions, but the need to make decisions doesn't always correspond well with the availability of relevant evidence. So in those situations we may need to rely on intuition, on faith, and the like. Due to the misfortune of such necessity, we rely on intuition, as an inferior fall-back, to make decisions. As a practical matter, we are often operating with incomplete and/or ambiguous evidence. Also, the available evidence can be misleading. So some humility regarding what we know is called for. A common mis-perception is that atheism requires unwarranted certainty, when in fact atheism only requires that the overall weight and direction of the available evidence favor the conclusion that there are no gods.
It is common to refer to non-believing atheists as weak atheists and believing atheists as strong atheists. The terms weak and strong suggest a strength of conviction continuem, but this is more of an either one or also the other choice (believing atheists also don't believe there is a god, we just don't stop with that). I prefer the terms implicit atheist and explicit atheist. The non-believing atheist is an atheist implicitly while the believing atheist is an atheist explicitly. In practice, as demonstrated by Mr. Loftus's blog article, implicit and explicit atheists don't necessarily have any real disagreement about the overall direction of the evidence. Mr. Loftus actually states in his article that "the evidence is against that belief", he just isn't willing to acknowledge that when the evidence is actively against an assertion then we rationally believe the assertion is false, we don't normally or properly stop at merely refusing to believe the assertion, nor should we stop there.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Who will win the budget battle? It’s a war of words. Which side has conquering strategy and the troops to take control? Just now this is the type of warlike phrasing heard around the debate ceiling limit. It’s an argument without reasonable compromise, which in turn can have consequences.
It’s a PR ware but also bit of a conflict of wills and intentions and has its war-like tactics and strategies. Based on experience and leveraging their philosophies each side has developed approaches to “win” the argument. Metaphorically it can seem a bit like a sports contest (or even a war) and takes on some of their trappings. I worry about the consequences when pragmatic reasoning is pushed out of the conversation. We have to understand that there is a deep reality behind the current language since it isn’t just Shakespeare that speaks in metaphors. In Metaphors We Live linguist George Lakoff, and philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not late embellishments of thoughts that make them vivid and persuasive. They are essential mental tools that actively shape our perceptions, knowledge and understanding. So thinking of debate as a "war" for example, leads to one set of expectations as how the back and forth will proceed. It may also shape how we see the post-debate world.
War IS like an argument in that you can win or lose. It is therefore easy to see a person on the other side of an argument as the enemy just as we do in a real war. And facts and arguments, like territory can be attacked and defended. We can say:
Your facts/claims are indefensible
If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and draw up a new line of attack. The we can say
She attacked the weak points in his argument.
In argument as in war we gain and lose some resource, capital or ground. To be effective we plan and use strategies as well as tactics. And we project the likelihood of success as in:
If you take that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
Many of the things we do in arguing are then partially structured by the concept of war. Once we are talking like this we push others into the metaphor and often away from some reality. The following are examples that further illustrate the metaphor of debate or argument as a form of war:
My criticisms were right on target.
This demolished his whole argument.
My father always won the family arguments.
She shot down all of my arguments.
It’s OK if these actually reflect some underlying reality, but often they do not. People who argue for a literal interpretation of the Bible for example, can use such triumphal language. Such phrasing of hot conflict is often amplified by opinion leaders and echo chambers that push ideological (or religious) positions. There are many sides to this debate but to a secular rationalist it has elements that mix war metaphors along with irrational ideological and religious infused moral arguments. Certainly there are different ideological positions about competing interests, the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest, the value of direct government help to the unemployed. And invoking religious teachers and traditions to build support for political positions is not unusual as some just simply ask, “what Jesus would do?” There are even many views on that. To be fair, the religious community is divided on which side to come down on in this debate. Nationwide, about 4,000 pastors signed a letter entitled “Listen to Your Pastors ” which expressed a degree of charity. The letter was circulated around the Capital by Sojourners, a D.C.-based Christian social justice organization. It advised politicians not to cut welfare and charity programs for the poor and cited some history:
“It wasn’t spending on the poor that caused this deficit. Half of it was financing two wars off the books without paying for them and tax cuts to the wealthiest,... Let’s get our house in order, but not on the backs of our poorest people.”
Good for them, because history and topics like the cost and value of war seem out of mind in this debate. A causal analysis of the history events and who did what leading to our deficit seems not to be part of the context for the negotiation going on. It certainly isn’t part of conservative talking points. It’s more like a walking case of selective amnesia that says:
“Let's forget for the moment who and what got us here. Yes, we didn’t pay for a war or two. We worked through the Clinton surplus and reduced taxes so our deficits rose by the trillions. Let forget all that and talk about Social Security. Yes, I know that it been running a surplus, but isn’t it evil since it is social?”
As alluded to before this reminds me a bit of the cognitive lapses in conversations with intelligent design (ID) and evolutionists. ID folks don’t want to talk about the enormous and ever expanding realm of what modern evolution theory explains. Forget all that. They want to frame the argument on terms favorable to ID/creation science’s terms. This includes a contrived model for evidence. ID assumes that every possible shred of evidence tending to discredit, or at least question, biological evolution is evidence that confirms intelligent design. This is at best a negative argument of evolution incompleteness but not proof of design. The debate tactic focuses on taking some favorable ground. This is the reality that science’s horizons involve controversy. On this ground creationists can seize the initiative with a few glib phrases. Such shallow arguments and tactics are abhorrent in biological discussions and political-economic ones as well. It’s as if the one infects the other.
Beyond such cognitive flaws the arguments of some conservatives take on a sanctimonious flavor of good versus evil. They seem inflamed by near-religious passions of moral conviction. Some use an Ayn Rand, Fountainhead-like language labeling (and libeling?) the liberal side as big, bad “Government religionists.” To a non-fact based, ideological position no mis-characterization seems too extreme. It is even better if language floats free of facts to ride on emotion and mythical stories. The strategy seems to be to seize the conversational ground with a catchy slogan – one that can play meme-like in the echo chambers of the media. The Grover Norquist oath of “no tax increases” is one of those artificial, binary black-white lines that can’t be crossed. That and "starve the beast" strikes what Jim Sleeper called mystic chords in his blog The Debt Crisis' Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the Rest of Us . Reason and historical perspective is thrown out as we are treated to balanced budget amendment that float dream like on an unchallengeable belief in a magic solutions.
Besides the ID-evolution and pro-government vs. anti-government arguments the current debate also reminds of atheist-religious debates. We’ve probably all seen, heard or participated in arguments between people from the religious community and the atheist/secular community. Both can be highly motivated. From a distance there are parallel motivations and views. Each sees the other side as having serious defects. Followers of traditional religions faiths see rationalism, secular humanism, atheism and the like as a life threatening illness that needs be cured and they have that cure as laid out in sacred texts interpreted by special people. They are motivated to go forth and evangelize and save the unbelieving. They also believe that religions offer wisdom based on very old thinking that makes it true today and well, for all time. Jim Sleeper called this pre-political view a Godhead one and used a 1980 quote from James Lucier, assistant to conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1980 represent the position.
"The liberal leadership groups that run the country -- not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives ... have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is ... highly rationalistic. That training excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches. The principles that we're espousing, have been around for thousands of years: The family ..., faith that ... there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right ... and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution ... . It's not the 'new right' - people are groping for a new term. It's pre-political."
There’s lots not to agree with in this belief. Non-believer “beliefs” are otherwise and arise from different sources, often more contextualized. They also have to pass a gauntlet of rational analysis and empirical inquiry. Based on resulting facts and reasoning they can obviously see religious people as having problems with rationality and the role of evidence. This is what they (we) see that needs “curing” or at least progressively improving. That’s one reason that atheist and agnostic arguments are often broad educational improvement efforts aimed at straightening others out. Unfortunately on the current budget debate we’re running out of time for education. Conservatives remain dug in with moral, religious and ideological positions. It’s more like a war where whatever happens will have impacts over a vast period of time and the impacts are usually bad. Even among people that are portrayed as centrists seeking a “compromise” there is a lack of realistic thinking. Economist Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, made this point recently when analyzing the “Gang of Six” proposal, which takes some aim at social security. Baker points out that about 1/3rd of retirees are almost completely dependent on Social Security. Meaning that any SSN cuts will seriously be felt by that group, and it will in turn affect the economy. They will have less ability to purchase what they need when we need to stimulate the economy. Yet the Gang of Six obviously proposes to cut Social Security and ignoring relevant evidence and economic reasoning. We have been pushed into politically practical compromises that are not economically pragmatic.
Another parallel. It starts with metaphoric language but fooling ourselves, deceiving others, hiding the truth and making workable compromise too difficult a mountain to climb all had its consequences.
The International Labor Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund, and UNESCO hold regular discussions at various levels and organize international conventions. The UN has adopted a world declaration for the protection of children, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD
The human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realizing these rights for all children are most concisely and fully articulated in one international human-rights treaty: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention is the most universally accepted human-rights instrument in history. It has been ratified by every country in the world except two: the United States and Somalia. It places children at center stage in the quest for the universal application of human rights. By ratifying this instrument, national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community.
While it is unfortunate that a powerful country such as the United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN's efforts are salutary and place much-needed emphasis on improving the lives of children globally.
THE INFLUENCE OF RELIGION
However, despite all the effort and rhetoric about protecting children and their rights, there is a severe shortcoming in the global campaign to protect children: the influence of religion and its continuing contribution to many forms of child abuse all around the world.
Such abuse begins with the involuntary involvement of children in religious practices from the time they are born. All religions, through ritual, preaching, and religious texts, seek to bring children into day-to-day religious practice. This gives holy books and scriptures, as well as those who teach them, an early grip on the developing minds of young people, leaving an indelible impression on them. In many cases, most notably in the Catholic Church, this forced and prolonged exposure of children to religious institutions has also been a key factor in the physical, mental, and sexual abuse of children by religious leaders.
This early grip is so strong that very few people, once grown, ever get an opportunity to change their minds, despite being exposed to science and rational thinking, or even other religious systems. Religious beliefs thrive by imposing themselves upon impressionable minds and gaining their blind adherence to certain dogmatic practices. In some ways, this lays the groundwork for sustained psychological abuse of young children by allowing adults the use of religion as a pretext for various other forms of abuse such as forcing them to fight in wars in the name of religion and ethnicity. During 2004, about 300,000 children served as soldiers in national armies, worldwide.
When it comes to the forced inculcation of religion and the resulting abuses of children in the name of religion, the UN, all of its affiliated organizations, and almost all national governments remain steadfastly silent.
THE UN'S RELUCTANCE
In one form or another, all religions violate the rights of children. Yet a body like the UN, which allows the Vatican to be represented among its member countries, is unaware of—or more likely—unable and unwilling to stand up to the Vatican regarding the religious abuse of children. There is significant pressure from the Vatican to pull back on or dilute any resolutions that point to religion as a cause of abuse or strife. Add to this the unwillingness of the UN to confront its member countries, especially those in the Muslim world, which can also exert a lot of pressure when it comes to issues related to the abuse of children by their religious schools (madrassas) where, for example, very young children are forced to memorize six thousand verses of the Qur'an, a process that involves both mental and physical abuse.
As a result, the UN and its affiliated agencies tend to focus on addressing just the symptoms rather than the root causes of some of the most insidious forms of child abuse. For example, while everyone speaks out against genital mutilation, UNICEF is unwilling to acknowledge and condemn it as a religious practice. Instead, it talks about educating communities and spends millions of dollars on medical kits to treat those children who have already been mutilated. By not forcefully pointing the finger at the real culprits—religious practices—the UN is not only missing a good opportunity to fix the problem at its source but also putting too small a bandage on a very deep wound.
Another area in which religions contribute to child abuse is through explicit and implicit gender discrimination that leads to unequal rights and opportunities between boys and girls and contributes to further abuses. While economic factors are also to blame, the roots of this inequity lie in religious and social mores. How can the UN hope to tackle the problem of child labor or a lack of educational opportunity among the children in 130 developing countries who are not in primary school, the majority of them being girls? In the Islamic world, some female students are allowed to attend certain madrassas. However, they are forced to learn in classrooms, or even buildings, separate from their male peers.
There is a global unwillingness to acknowledge that all religions use their educational institutions and programs, be they Sunday schools, madrassas, or Jewish or Hindu temples to indoctrinate children. Sometimes, this is in the guise of conveying good moral values, but, while it may be much more rigid and overt in, say, a madrassa, it is no less influential on young minds in a Christian Sunday school.
Ultimately, all such programs try to instill a belief in the superiority of one religion and inculcate an unquestioning faith in that system.
THE DEBATE MUST BEGIN!
Just as we all stand up against child marriage, because marriage is an institution meant for adults, and just as we do not let children participate in certain civic duties, such as voting, until they reach a certain age, the time has come to debate the participation of children in religious institutions. While some might see it as a matter better left to parents, the negative influence of religion and its subsequent contribution to child abuse from religious beliefs and practices requires us to ask whether organized religion is an institution that needs limits set on how early it should have access to children.
There is no doubt that this will be a controversial position. However, there is nothing to prevent the UN from organizing a world convention on the issue of the religious abuse of children, a forum where the pros and cons of childhood exposure to religion and its influence on children can be openly debated. The world body cannot remain silent on this vital issue just because it is a sensitive and difficult subject, even given its member nations and their religious interests. A convention like this would also be an opportunity for those who might want to argue for the benefits of the influence of religion on children, so the UN should not shy away from debate of the issue.
If such a convention clearly shows that religion contributes to child abuse globally, the UN must then take a clear stand on the issue of the forced involvement of children in religious practices; it must speak up for the rights of children and not the automatic right of parents and societies to pass on religious beliefs, and it must reexamine whether an organization like the Vatican should belong to the UN.
Until this happens, millions of children worldwide will continue to be abused in the name of religion, and the efforts made by the UN will continue to address the symptoms but not the disease.