"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Rev. Dr. King, March 14, 1968

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

All credit to NTodd; but I had to highlight this paragraph in particular.

Advent Approaches: It Is About Time

Abba John the Little said:  We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.

--Desert Wisdom

Time, that anticipates eternities
And has an art to resurrect the rose;
Time, whose last siren song at evening blows
With sun-flushed cloud shoreward on toppling seas;
Time, arched by planets lonely in the vast
Sadness that darkens with the fall of day;
Time, unexplored elysium; and grey
Death-shadow'd pyramid that we have named the past--
   Magnanimous Time, patient with man's vain glory;
  Ambitious road; Lethe's awaited guest
  Time, hearkener to they stumbling passionate story
  Of human failure humanly confessed;
  Time, on whose stair we dream our hopes of heaven,
  Help us to judge ourselves, and so be shriven.

--Sigfried Sassoon

How sweet sour music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder'd string:
But, for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.

--William Shakespeare

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!

--Walker Percy

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

--Desert Wisdom

Monday, November 24, 2014

Advent Approaches

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

--Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 4

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.  In my end is my

--T.S. Eliot

Behold, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation:  the great season of Advent.  This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced to see.  This is the season that the church has always celebrated with special solemnity.  We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering peace and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery.

--Charles Borromeo

Advent is the time for rousing.  We are shaken to the very depths, so that we may walk up to the truth of ourselves.  The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender.  We must let go of all our mistaken dreams, our conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which we hope to deceive ourselves and others.  If we fail to do this, stark reality may take hold of us and rouse us so forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

--Alfred Delp

The reign of God, the eschatological liberation of the world, is already in process. is already being established.  It takes place in concrete modifications of actual life.

--Leonardo Boff

The day after Thanksgiving the New York Times told of a 33-year-old local cab driver whose shoulder-length hair was tied in a ponytail.  (Don't get distracted by the ponytail!)  About five years ago, this cabby "prayed to God for guidance on how to help the forgotten people of the streets who exist in life's shadows."  As he recalls it, God replied:  "Make eight pounds of spaghetti, throw it in a pot, give it out on 103rd Street and Broadway with no conditions, and people will come."  He did, they came, and now he goes from door to door giving people food to eat.

I am not asking you to stuff the Big Apple with spaghetti.  But a New York cabby can bring light into your Advent night.  He prayed to a God who was there; he listened; he gave the simple gift God asked of him; he gave "with no conditions"; and people responded.  Here is your Advent:  Make the Christ who has come a reality, a living light, in your life and in some other life.  Give of one dark soul...with no conditions.

--Walter J. Burghardt

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is this a fair argument, or not?

If he wore overalls instead of a sweater, would Cosby be more sympathetic?

I should go back to what I was doing....

Rudy Giuliani says this:

"But the fact is, I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We're talking about the exception here," Giuliani said on NBC's "Meet the Press" while discussing whether police forces reflect the demographics of the communities they serve.

Later in the argument Giuliani argued that while police officers are only present in certain communities because black people are committing crimes. "It is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community," he said. "White police officers won't be there if you weren't killing each other 70 percent of the time."
Which is, frankly, racist and disgusting.  Sixteen women, most (if not all) of them white, now say Bill Cosby sexually assaulted and/or raped them.

Which isn't racist, because.....well, I'm not sure why.  The idea that black men are slavering after white women goes so far back in American history it might as well be the original racist trope.  I remember seeing a KKK pamphlet showing a drawing of a google-eyed black man drooling at the thought of raping a fair young white woman, when I was much younger, and I'm still a lot younger than Harper Lee.

I'm not saying there's a racial animus against Bill Cosby; but I'm intrigued by the idea nobody seems to think there could be.  16 white women (or the majority are white, if not all) claim this black man raped them.  And tout le mond is as ready to believe them as the jury was ready to believe Mayella Ewell.

Why doesn't this sound like a case for Atticus Finch?  Is it because the generation so happy to despise Cosby for this, doesn't remember the racism that Harper Lee knew?

Really; I'm wondering.

Sunday morning very bright.....

Philosophers are finger puppets, or they are nothing at all.

Some choice words from Karen Armstrong for a Sunday morning meditation:

The religiously articulated state would persecute heretics. They were usually protesting against the social order rather than arguing about theology, and they were seen as a danger to the social order that had to be eliminated. That’s been replaced. Now we persecute our ethnic minorities or fail to give them the same rights.
The middle sentence there encapsulates modern Biblical scholarship on the reason for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Dom Crossan does a brilliant job, in Excavating Jesus, of pointing out the deification of Caesar and how the preaching of the basilea tou theou, especially at the Passover, presented a threat to the Pax Romana that Pilate could not abide.

I’m glad you brought that up, because nationalism is hardly rational. But you know, we need mythology in our lives, because that’s what we are. I agree, we should be as rational as we possibly can, especially when we’re dealing with the fates of our own populations and the fates of other peoples. But we don’t, ever. There are always the stories, the myths we tell ourselves, that enable us to inject some kind of ultimate significance, however hard we try to be rational.

 Communism was said to be a more rational way to organize a society, and yet it was based on a complete myth that became psychotic. Similarly, the French revolutionaries were imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment and erected the goddess of reason on the altar of Notre Dame. But in that same year they started the Reign of Terror, where they publicly beheaded 17,000 men, women and children.

 We’re haunted by terrible fears and paranoias. We’re frightened beings. When people are afraid, fear takes over and brings out all kind of irrationality. So, yes, we’re constantly striving to be rational, but we’re not wholly rational beings. Purging isn’t an answer, I think. When you say “purging,” I have visions of some of the catastrophes of the 20th century in which we tried to purge people, and I don’t like that kind of language.
And yet the comments at Salon fail, even refuse, to recognize this simple truth.   You don't have to call what you believe a "mythology."  Ricouer treats them as narratives.  "Mythology," though, has acquired a pejorative cast; it is the favorite word of those who would disparage others, while leaving their myths wholly unexamined and even hidden under a cloth.

Yes. The suicide bomber has been analyzed by Robert Tate of the University of Chicago, who has made a study of every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. He has found that it’s always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power. People feel their space is invaded, and they resort to this kind of action because they can’t compete with the invaders. [Suicide bombing] was a ploy [first] used by the Tamil Tigers, who had no time for religion. Of the many Lebanese bombings [in the 1980s], only seven of them were committed by Muslims, three by Christians. The rest, some 17 or so, were committed by secularists and socialists coming in from Syria.

 I think a sense of hopelessness is particularly evident in the suicide bombings of Hamas, where these young people live in refugee camps in Gaza, with really very little hope or very little to look forward to. People who talk to survivors of these actions found that the desire to die a heroic death, to go out in a blaze of glory and at least have some meaning in their lives and be venerated and remembered after their death, was the driving factor.

Even the suicide bomber, in other words, doesn't embrace death.  Rather, they imagine a state in which they will be remembered, a state which they, somehow, will be able to enjoy.  How many of us have such a definite sense of death that we can imagine our own death, or own non-existence?  If we could, would we embrace death so readily, be it as a terrorist, or by self-inflicted suicide?  Is it any coincidence old people aren't as interested in being suicide bombers as young people are?

I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.

Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.

Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.
"Every fundamentalist rooted in a profound fear of annihilation."  As far as I'm concerned, that's the money quote of the interview.

And this a statement very interesting, in the light of 9/11:

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

One can see how much easier it is to imagine planes flying into buildings as weapons, when one considers how all encompassing "modernity" is, but only to those who have the "modern spirit."  If you stand outside modernity and see it's products as imposition, as weapons even when they are benign (airliners), it isn't hard to treat them as weapons, even as it amazes the "modern" that you would be so heretical as to do so.  Or, as Wendell Berry put it 13 years ago:

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superceded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to "rogue nations," dissident or fanatical groups and individuals--whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homeland and our lives.

Wendell Berry, In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA, 2001, pp. 1-3.

Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel's weltanschaaung suddenly seems even more pertinent to me.  Why?  This, in part:

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
The insistence, in other words, that what is normative for one society is normative for all, and what is normative for society overrides the interests, and the value, of the individual.  Romanticism, it turns out, still has something to teach us.

And this:

Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies” …
I could as validly say this against the fundamentalists who give Dawkins and Harris such dyspepsia.  The Holy Scriptures of Christians and Jews were never read as literal and ahistorical (i.e., detached from history and floating free in a bubble of the "now," however "now" is defined) until the fundamentalists decided the historical and literary critical readings of the German scholars was a heresy which required a response more than an edict would allow.  The power I find in modern scriptural exegesis is the web of tradition in which it enmeshes me.  Read Bultmann's The Gospel of John, where the footnotes sometimes take over the page.  It is as close to midrash as Christianity gets, and while it isn't for everyone, it shouldn't be tossed out with the baby and the bathwater, as fools like Mike Huckabee do.

Argument is what we do.  But withdrawing into isolation, where only true believers (atheists, or fundamentalists) are allowed to speak and gain credence, is a failure.  It isn't the great failure of the age (fundamentalists, be they religious or atheist, are in the end not that important).  But it is a failure, nonetheless.

Tötenfest 2014

In the German E & R church calendar, this prayer would probably come today, the Last Sunday of Pentecost, the day of the observance of the Tötenfest.  The oldest members of my last church remembered something about the service, involving lighting candles and reciting the names of those who had died in the past year.  If there was a proper service in the Evanglical book of worship that church had, I couldn't decipher it from the German. So I lit candles, read names, and we prayed:
Almighty and everlasting God, before whom stand the spirits of the living and the dead; Light of lights, Fountain of wisdom and goodness, who livest in all pure and humble and gracious souls.

For all who witnessed a good confession for thy glory and the welfare of the world; for patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; for the wise of every land and nation, and all teachers of mankind,


For the martyrs of our holy faith, the faithful witnesses of Christ of whome the world was not worthy, and for all who have resisted falsehood and wrong unto suffering or death,


For all who have labored and suffered for freedom, good government, just laws, and they sanctity of the home; and for all who have given their lives for their country,


For all who have sought to bless men by their service and life, and to lighten the dark places of the earth,


For those who have been tender and true and brave in all times and places, and for all who have been one with thee in the communion of Christ's spirit and in the strength of his love,


For the dear friends and kindred, ministering in the spiritual world, whose faces we see no more, but whose love is with us for ever,


For the teachers and companions of our childhood and youth, and for the members of our household of faith who worship thee in heaven,


For the grace which was given to all these, and for the trust and hope in which they lived and died,


And that we may hold them in continual remembrance, that the sanctity of their wisdom and goodness may rest upon our earthly days, and that we may prepare ourselves to follow them in their upward way,


That we may ever think of them as with thee, and be sure that where they are, there we may be also,


That we may have a hope beyond this world for all the children, even for wanderers who must be sought and brought home; that we may be comforted and sustained by the promise of a time when none shall be a stranger and an exile from thy kingdom and household;


In the communion of the Holy Spirit, with the faithful and the saints in heaven, with the redeemed in all ages, with our beloved who dwell in thy presence and peace, we, who still serve and suffer on earth, unite in ascribing:


Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,


For the ones we know:  your friends and families,  that we may have a hope beyond this world for all the children, even for wanderers who must be sought and brought home; that we may be comforted and sustained by the promise of a time when none shall be a stranger and an exile from God's kingdom and household.


Friday, November 21, 2014

The art (and necessity) of cross-examination

I was involved in a kangaroo court once.

Does my telling you that make it true?

I was involved as a lawyer, not as a party.

Even if I include enough details to make the story convincing, does that prove it happened?

I've told stories about conference ministers I've known in the UCC; the kangaroo court I'm speaking of is part of one of those stories.

Are those stories true?  I could tell you stories of very strange behavior, vicious animosity directed toward me, other pastors investigated for various allegations of sexual impropriety (it is the most volatile claim you can make against a pastor, to allege improper sexual relations.  One of the strongest memories of my ministry is how many times I was warned by concerned pastors to never be alone with a woman, a church member or a perfect stranger, and to never close my office door, even if I did so to preserve confidentiality with a church member.)

Is any of this true?  How do you know?  Because you trust me?

But what if I'm making all of this up?  How would you know?

I've actually had experience with people making up stories about me.  It happened to me in seminary, in a very minor way.   It happened when I was a pastor, with effect that was more important.  One story was so divergent from what actually happened, what I would actually ever do, it was like an evil opposite version of me, the kind of thing you get from bad TV shows.  I won't bother with the details, but trust me, it's true.

Then again, how would you know?

There is a way to verify allegations of criminal behavior:  it's cross examination in a court of law.  Most of the women named as "Jane Doe" in the lawsuit against Bill Cosby in 2006 have now come forward; probably the rest of them will.  Probably they are the witnesses in that suit (but how do we verify that?).  Assume they were.  Their stories go back to 1967 now.   Almost 50 years ago.  What evidence were they going to present in 2006, except their own testimony?  Are they credible? Do their stories hold up to scrutiny, to even casual inquiry? Can Mr. Cosby be placed with them, or in the same hotel, city, state, on the date of the event?  Is there anything to back their claims, other than their willingness to be interviewed now?

What do they gain from speaking now?  Satisfaction, probably.  Who knows? I had church members decide their goal in life was to destroy my career.  Why?  What did I do to deserve that?  Rape someone?  Argue with them?  Gossip about them?  Denounce them to the assembled congregation?  Spit on the ground every time their name was mentioned?

I did none of those things.  It didn't matter.  I'm not sure what did.  I've had to fall back on Bruce Springsteen:  "Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

I guess there is.

I no longer expect people to behave like the people I grew up with.  I've learned people can be strange, cruel, vicious, vindictive, and nasty; and none of it for any reason you'll ever understand.  I haven't learned why they act this way, not in all cases; but I have learned never to underestimate the desire to destroy someone, especially when the blood is in the water.  I'm told chickens will viciously attack a bird with a spot of blood on it; that the whole flock will attack until there is little left of the victim.

I've seen people act like chickens; more than once. I still can't explain why.

I was involved in a kangaroo court once.  The people running it were quite sure they were good people, and they were doing the right thing, and that all my legal training and desire for some semblance of order and even to be able to question witnesses on behalf of my client, were not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive to the purpose of getting at the truth.  Which truth they had pretty much settled on before the process began.

They didn't want me involved because they didn't want me to slow down the execution.  A professional, not a physical, execution; but all they wanted was a record to justify their decision.

So I've seen this movie.  I know how it comes out.  The only difference now is, it is aided and abetted by this brave new world we have created on-line.  Those people running that kangaroo court were as certain of their moral righteousness as all the commenters and writers are now.  Just as certain, and just as wrong, because they can't be bothered with justice; they already know what justice is.  Their moral righteousness tells them so.

That is not a good thing.  This is not the improvement in society we've been looking for.

On the President's Remarks Regarding Immigration

When an alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. He is to be treated as a native born among you. Love him as yourself, because you were aliens from Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33 (REB)

After you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you to occupy as your holding and settle in it, you are to take some of the firstfruits of all the produce of the soil, which you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and, having put them in a basket, go to the place which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. When you come to the priest, whoever he is at the time, say to him, "I acknowledge this day to the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest will receive the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: "My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful and large nation. The Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us; they imposed cruel slavery on us.  We cried out to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds and signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Now I have brought here the first fruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me."  You are then to set the basket before the Lord your God and bow in worship before him.  You are to rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, in all the good things which the Lord your God has bestowed on you and your household.

 Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (REB)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Public, Hating

I've spent more time than was good for me reading about the controversy now swirling around Bill Cosby, almost all at Salon.  The stories there reached their nadir with the revelation that in 1969 one of his albums included a story about looking for "Spanish Fly" in Spain, with Robert Culp.  The outrage was that he joked about putting drugs in women's drinks; the story was about how naive he and Culp were, looking for a mythical aphrodisiac.  But somehow it proved Cosby was a serial rapist.

My problem with the Salon stories was not that I believe Bill Cosby is incapable of the acts alleged against him; it is that the allegations go back to events allegedly occurring as much as 45 years ago, and there is no proof of them except the stories of a few women (the number, like almost everything else in this tempest in a teapot, is in dispute.).  It could be the stories are all similar because they reflect the pattern of a rapist; it could be the stories are all so similar because each story-teller is familiar with the other stories.

How can we tell?

This is the best timeline on the controversy I know of.  Most of the details are of the allegations by Andrea Constand, the only woman to have ever sued Cosby for alleged assault.  This suit is the source of the "14 women" number, women who have allegedly made similar charges.  13 are listed in court papers as Jane Doe witnesses.  One woman, Beth Ferrier, claims to be Jane Doe 5, and tells her story in a news interview.  Barbara Bowman is another witness; she also tells her story to the press.  I mention this because these are named witnesses, not anonymous ones.  Much has been made of the fact so many women tell the same story, but the stories of Green and Bowman are two attached to names, and with details behind them.  I haven't found anything about the other witnesses, but the commonly accepted "fact" is that they all tell the same story.  As far as I can tell, those women never told their stories at all.

The Constand case was filed in 2005, settled in 2006.  None of the Jane Doe witnesses testified; at least not in court.  I can't tell whether Green and Bowman were ever deposed, which would qualify as testimony.  All information about their stories comes from news accounts, not from deposition transcripts.

That ends it until 2014.  Joan Tarshis accuses Cosby of rape in November, a rape she says occurred in 1969.  Janice Dickinson accuses him of rape a few days later.  She says her rape occurred in 1982.

So four women have made accusations; one sued.  11 more allegedly made accusations, but we don't know the content of their stories, or what their names are.  It seems pretty ugly; it also seems pretty amorphous.  And today, like Bill O'Reilly screeching about "Merry Christmas!" v. "Happy Holidays," the pack of hounds got its prize:  Bill Cosby won't develop a new sitcom for NBC.

The Republic is saved.  Justice is done.  We can all sleep better tonight.  A major entertainment corporation, like major retailers last December, has proven to have knees of jelly.  They don't want to displease people with their choice of star for a sitcom, or displease Fox News viewers with the greeting they offer customers after Thanksgiving.

And then, of course, there is the controversy over the shirt.

I read a story once, long ago, by Steve Allen.  It was called "The Public Hating."  I think I still have half the paperback book it was reprinted in, the half with the story in it.  I found it tonight on-line, here.  It's an interesting story, and while Allen never imagined modern communications or the internet, he did imagine a world much like the one we seem determined to make on-line.

At least in some corner of it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

All others pay cash

The details of the argument aren't worth worrying about.  But since I saw it at Salon, and it prompts the need to respond, I'll respond here, but only to the titles, not to the idiotic content:

"1. Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic."

Unlike nationalism, politics, or the internet.  Do you really need examples?

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age.

Apparently all religion is Christianity or Judaism?  And what is this obsession with the "Iron Age"?  On-line atheists love that line, like it's the one irrefutable argument against "religion" (which, again, is apparently always Christianity and Judaism.  Although somehow these critiques are not anti-Semitic.  Criticizing Israel's foreign policy is anti-Semitic; declaring the foundational beliefs of Judaism a relic of the Iron Age is not.  Go figure.)

First, I want to hear these atheists decry the basic insights of Aristotle and Plato, not to mention the other foundational ideas of ancient Greece.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

One another note, one thing I learned in seminary is how similar life today is to the nomadic life of the time of Abraham.  The concerns of Moses are the concerns of anyone taking responsibility for a community today.  The tears of the prophets are my tears.  Despite huge cultural and technological differences, people across time and space remain much the same.  That is an insight of wisdom and history, not a dead weight keeping me trapped in the "Iron Age."

Well, no more than Western culture, which is still largely a footnote to Plato, is anyway.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

I assume by "faith" she means "Believing what you know ain't true."  If so:  hogwash.  Faith is not about believing despite your experience, but believing because of it.  As for "belief," it is only trust (i.e., faith) that makes me take seriously the claims of quantum mechanics, claims based more on mathematics than observation, more on ideas than experiences.  I can barely understand the terms of the theory of relativity, but I accept it as valid.  I cannot begin to prove true any of it's claims, and even the experiments I am told prove it true I have to accept as valid.  I have to trust the reports of them, in other words.  If I don't, does my computer stop working?  If I do, does my computer work any better than it does now?  I've been told quantum mechanics is involved in computer design.  Is this true?  How will I ever know, unless I trust the source of that information?

As Shakespeare understood in "Othello," everything we do is a matter of trust:  whether we trust each other (even Iago, whom we shouldn't), or trust the scientists.  I see some examples of their claims (my computer, for example), but they make far more claims than I can ever see the proof of.  Just as we just trust each other (and to erode that trust, as the story of Othello proves, is to destroy society entirely), we must trust some of what we are told.

Religion doesn't make a virtue of faith.  Faith is a virtue without which our societies cannot function.

Of course, to quote her at length just this once, this is just generalized bullsgeschicte (as we used to say in seminary):

Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. So sing children in Sunday schools across America. The Lord works in mysterious ways, pastors tell believers who have been shaken by horrors like brain cancer or a tsunami. Faith is a virtue. As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing.
So now the normal functioning of democracy has gone awry because of something that existed at the time of the American revolution, and was in fact a reason for the founding of some of the colonies?

Good to know.

 4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

I don't know where to start with this one.  Apparently churches suck up money that would better go to the United Way or the Red Cross or some charity that doesn't "work... tax free [and] gobble up financial and human capital."  At this point she's just ranting, really.

5. Religion teaches helplessness.

Or, as Jacques Derrida observed:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  At this point I'm tired of even arguing with the titles.  Res ipsa loquitor; the thing speaks for itself.

6. Religions seek power.

Again, unlike nations, or groups on the internet, or people interested in or involved in politics.   This assertion, in fact, is downright laughable:

In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When people feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens.
The usual critique of the church is that it is too wed to the society of which it is a part.  Now we find it is actually parasitic, and destructive of that society!  Damned if you do, or if you don't!  And it explains why Jews are successful in the world!  Because they aren't religious!

Or something.  Yes, I know that kind of joke borders on libel and racist, but Tarico's observation falls over the edge of the absurd.  The charges she makes against "religion" (by which she seems to mean Christianity and/or Islam, in this context) are the arguments used against Jews in Europe for centuries:  their very survival rests on destroying society as we know it.  I don't want to invoke Godwin's Law, but still....

The observation of a sociologist and a researched does not a firm conclusion make; unless, of course, you take their assertions on faith.  As for that last line, it's quite true:  unless you're talking about promoters of the "gospel of wealth" like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren; or the many Pentecostal variants in Central and South America, which are proving more popular than the Roman church at the moment.*

Of course, just what Zuckerman means by "popular religiosity" might also need to come under some scrutiny.  My guess is, it isn't what Ms. Tarico thinks it means.

But "religion" is only in America, isn't it?  And it only refers to Christianity in America; and then only to the caricature that Valerie Tarico is able to imagine, and regard as "real."

*This is the article Ms. Tarico is quoting.   It has found its conclusion, and races to find material to support it (rather than consider alternatives).  Mostly it documents a decline in religious affiliation, which is undeniable, and connects that decline to a rise in atheism (because everything is either/or.  Right?)   It's not a very well-grounded argument and it isn't interested in nuance, only in acceptable conclusions.  It uses the term "popular religiosity" without definition or explanation, except as a club to batter its point across.  And the fact the article is not published in an academic journal tells me a great deal about how carefully the subject is handled.  It is, in other words, worth the paper it is printed on.

Friday, November 14, 2014

We are smart! The internet told us so!

The internet is killing religion with nollij!  It's true!  I read it on the Internet!

In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the ’90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it–dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education–increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.

That quote skips my favorite line from the piece:  "Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand."

Because nothing says "nollij" like that steaming pile of crap!  Unless it's that quote, which literally makes a leap of faith, or certainly of logic, from "cautioning that correlation does not mean causation" to "conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions."  Because why let matters of causal analysis stand in the way of a good conclusion?  Amirite?

The irony here is that, in the name of information and "varied thought" and "debate," this article presents none of those things.  The information is woefully wrong and baseless; the thought is the same Johnny One-Note that religious people don't think and atheists alone have the power of ratiocination; and that comments and posts on the internet constitute "debate."  Consider this comment, from the article:

I know! In 1718, Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals to handle missionary work (and we all know how important missionary work is to the church of the LAtter Day Saints, do we not?). It was called a "congregation for propagating the faith", or in the original Latin, Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, later shortened to the third word. Just a single word one can use in place of over a dozen!

What? You don't like it? But it's perfect! Why should such a catchy word not be used?

Which prompted this enlightened (and, as far as I can tell, thoroughly un-ironic) response:

Thanks for the history lesson!! I never knew that's where "Propaganda" came from!

We are smart!  We make  things go!

Adding:  for those interested, this article links to the study mentioned in the quote above, and also gives good reason not to put nearly as much stock in it as Marcotte does.  But, again, even in the "reality-based community," reasoning is hard; ranting is easy.