Friday, November 24, 2006

Christianity and its Social Responsibility

Again, Democracy Lover has given me much food for thought, but there are some specific issues I wish to address here. First, in his comment below, he says that those Christians who are not fundamentalists have "a duty" to uphold the separation of church and state, as well as to make clear to non-Christians that fundamentalism is "an aberration". It is to these I wish to respond here.

To take the second first, I would never say that fundamentalism is "an aberration" of Christian teaching. There are elements within fundamentalist teaching that could be understood as heretical by those who hold to the notion of heresy. There are teachings within fundamentalism that seem to run counter to much of the modern spirit, although I think that is a misreading of fundamentalism. Like all the various branches of the Christian faith, it holds a piece, or perhaps even several pieces, of the truth, while much else that it professes is erroneous. This is no less true for mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Churches. The disagreements concerning what is and is not true in Christian teaching is something between and among the various Christian churches, confessions, and denominations. We need answer no one outside for the veracity, or lack thereof, of the truth of Christian teaching, because that assumes there is some arbiter of Christian truth that exists outside of Christianity. What might that be?

As to the duty of mainline Christianity to uphold the constitutional separation of church and state, I concede that is always necessary. Yet, it is done in contless ways and countless times. All the mainline churches have legal and political divisions that are vigilant in defense of that principle. It is rarely discussed because it is much sexier for the press to cover violations. The denomination to which I belong, the United Methodist Church, has been an active participant in a multitude of legal cases, filing friend of the court briefs to ensure the continuation of the legal separation of church and state. What more need we do?

Simply because some Christians believe some things does not mean all those Christians are in error about everything. Simply because various Christian confessions and professions disagree on a multitude of issues does no mean we are beholden to anyone to disavow any of our Christian brothers and sisters because of the feelings and sensibilities of those who are disinclined to accept Christain teaching anyway. Secular society has as much to answer for in its destructive ideologies and pathological social practices as do various Christian groups. When was the last time they felt it necessary to even deign to respond?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Have a great day tomorrow with family, friends, turkey and dressing (especially dressing!). I offer this hymn as a prayer, by Jacob Neander, it is #139 in The United Methodist Hymnal (1988, Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House):
Praise to the Lord, the Almight, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to his temple draw near;
Join me in glad adoration!

Praise to the Lord, who o'er all things so wondrously reigning
Bears thee on eagle's wing, e'er in his keeping maintaining.
God's care enfolds all, who true good he upholds.
Hast thou not known his sustaining?


Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before him!
Let the amen sound from his people again;
Gladly forever adore him.

Dr. Keroack - Christian or Ideologue?

Think has this piece on the latest attempt by the Bush Administration to put into place a political nominee who holds beliefs directly contrary to the mission of the office to which that appointee is being sent. Like John Bolton being sent to a United Nations he despises, Eric Keroack, appointed to oversee family planning at HHS, is against birth control. Like the congressional Republicans putting a pedophile pradtor in charge of the committee to write laws to protect children from predators, this is the kind of nonsensical thing one reads and then shakes one's head at.

One point that is often brought up when Keroack's nomination is mentioned is that he has worked for Christian-based groups in efforts to bring down teen pregnancy rates. A noble venture indeed. At the same time, his oppposition to birth control is also mentioned as part and parcel of his Christian faith. Of course, we all recognize that most Christian conservatives are opposed to abortion, but the opposition to contraception is a little-known fun-fact of right-wing Christian sexual thinking. Now, before we start humming "Every sperm is sacred" from Montym Python's The Meaning of Life it is important to remind ourselves that the wide availability of contraception did not just bring about a certain freedom for women to compete in the social, cultural, and economic spheres with men, it also, to conservatives both Christian and secular, allowed them - and by extension, I guess, men as well - to have as much sex as they wanted. This is often discussed as "sex without consequences", the consequence being pregnancy. For many - not all, but many - Christian conservatives - the main role for women is to be a baby factory, a regular assembly line for future soldiers in God's Army. There is also an insidious, quasi-racist undertone to this view as well; we need to be out-producing the less worthy. Some groups even oppose vasectomies and tubal ligation for the same reasons; it is interference with the divine decree to go forth and multiply.

Now, we can argue back and forth over whether or not this is or is not proper Christian teaching on sexual ethics. All I want to say is there are many wonderful ob-gyns who are Christians who hand out pills, condoms, daiphragms, do tubal ligations, and generally counsel women on proper contraceptive practices. Why? Because it is their job (a), and (b), they are not so blinded by silly ideas that they think they can trump science and professional practice with assertions having no merit whatsoever. A person who refuses to allow reality to interfere with his or her way of seeing and interacting with the world - at least to some extent - is not a religious nut of whatever variety (a Christofascist, a Zionist zealot, an Islamofascist terrorist, whatever the label du jour happens to be) but is an ideologue.

When ideas replace reality, that is kind of the definition of ideologue.

The Harm that Christians Do in Bolivia

After reading this article about a United Methodist Missionary in Bolivia, I can see what Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris mean about how harmful Christians are. Kay Twilley is plying her evil notions, building a dormitory at a school for boys in the jungles of Bolivia, and working at the Hasta Crecer (Center for Children) helping children to break the cycle of poverty. This must be stopped as soon as possible. Who knows how many people have been harmed by her irrational behavior?

The argument that her work could be done, and perhaps done better, without any reference to her religious faith, or any religious faith, misses the point - and it is so simple it is too often missed - that it is in fact being done precisely because of her faith. Where are the secular folks building schools in the jungles of Bolivia? Where are the non-believers leaving behind home and family and career and comfort and all that they know and understand to live for others? I do not doubt that non-believers could do what Ms. Twilley is doing. Yet, they are not, and she is. There are children in B olivia who right now are benefitting from the work she is doing. You can argue that she is misguided in her beliefs. You cannot claim that she is doing more harm than good because she is motivated by reasons some do not understsand.

I do not doubt that morality and ethical behavior exist outside any religious frame of reference; it would be ludicrous to argue otherwise (although I will grant some Christians do so argue). To insist that moral action motivated by faith is somehow fundamentally flawed, however, is intellectually dishonest, and dishonors the commitment Ms. Twilley, and thousands like her have made. We should celebrate her achievements and commitment to others, even if some do not see her faith as containing anything intrinsically valuable.

The Christian Faith, Society, and Reason: A Response to Democracy Lover

Commenter Democracy Lover has read and commented on my recent posts on science, religion, and the recent attacks upon religion by Sam Harris. In order to treat the issues he raises properly, I have decided to go into detail on several points, to make clear how the position I take fits into a larger picture of the Christian faith in society, and the recent comments attacking religion in favor of reason.

First, part of the problem with any view such as Harris' is the mistaken notion that "religion" is monolithic and univocal - that all Christians believe the same things at all times, and speak with one voice on all matters. Such a view is so wrong, it is difficult to imagine how someone who claims to be speaking about religion could hold such a view, especially someone who wishes to be taken seriously on the issue. As Democracy Lover notes, some Christians are adamant in their opposition to the teaching of evolution, and therefore pose a real risk to the teaching of science in the public schools. It is important to note two things concerning this. First, they are "some Christians" not Christians in general. There are multiple debates going on within and between various denominations over how to deal with those who take such a stand. The general rule, at least for the mainline churches in the UNited States, is not to interfere with the science curriculum in the public schools. Indeed, many of the mainline denominations have filed friend of the court briefs against teaching ID and creationism, partly because they recognize that "creationism" is a perversion of Christian teaching. Indeed, in the alte 1980's, theologian Langdon Gilkey was brought as an expert witness to testify against the New Orleans creationism law and made precisely that point. And he should know; his doctoral dissertation, later published as Createor of Heaven and Earth was on the doctrine of creation in Emil Brunner.

Second, while the battle over creationism, now a battle over ID, continues, it is one with which we shall have to live unless we wish to dictate how people are to think. On the fringes is where the issue of free speech versus the common good becomes most difficult. I do not wish creationism or ID taught in the schools. I also do not want those who believe such silly things to be silenced in the public square, or prevented from teaching their children such things. Scientists do themselves no favors when they take a stand such as the one taken by Harris, or Richard Dawkins, that some for of rationality, or reason, be imposed as a counterweight to religious teaching. To steal part of the title of Alisdair MacIntyre's book, which rationality? It is one thing to protest the nonsense spouted by those who hold views that include nonsense; it is another thing altogether to say that, because some people hold these views, therefore all who claim to be faithful Christians are as nonsensical, and therefore need to be silenced for the good of society. As an evolutionary biologist said at a recent conference on the issue:
There are six billion people in the world . . . . If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming - it is like believing in the fairy godmother.

Another scientist at the meeting, Lawrence Krauss, said:
Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. . . We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.

These much more reasonable and rational approaches to the issue, spoken by those who hold little or no religious faith at all, appear much more fruitful than anything Dawkins or Harris has said or written.

Finally, as to the specific issue of fundie Baptists and MCC members working side by side, it helps prove my point because my point is that while discussion over theoretical issues in important, even necessary, it is only in actually doing something, in the living of our lives with all the muddle and confusion and real human interaction, that we can understand the dynamism and diversity of religious faith. It is not just that two very different branches of the Christian faith found common ground in working to restore those devastated by Katrina. In so doing, there were opportunities for both to meet one another, to talk to one another - about their faith, about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their fears - in a context where shared sacrifice and a commitment to working for others became a starting point for real dialogue. I am not suggesting that by so doing either side would be converted to what the other believed. Rather, my only point was that, by coming together, they could see that the labels with which they live are usually inadequate to describe the reality of real people living their lives. I do not believe dialogue will resolve differences. I do believe it is a place to begin, and it has to begin, not in conferences that include people who see no good coming from religious faith they neither understand nor consider worthy of serious consideration. It has to begin where people are living their lives. Real encounter is the beginning of the discovery that there is no "other", and that God's transcendent love may be greater than we can imagine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Rescusitating Public Debate

Our public discourse is dead. There is no attempt anymore to debate, to get into a good argument and see if minds can change. It has become about exercising power - about hailing one's own opinion, demonizing one's opponent, and not allowing dissent. Our opponents are our enemies. Those who disagree with us are evil, stupid, corrupt, irrational, and hate America and what it stands for. Our opinions are based on facts and reality; our opponents live in some fantasy land made up out of whole cloth.

This is not something only the left or right does. We all do it. I have done it. Those who have commented here on this blog have done it. It is a disorder that has infected our body politic to the point that we would rather ignore those with whom we disagree once we have achieved a certain amount of political power, than continue to engage in debate.

I am tired of it. Our country is tired of it. I do not wish to engage in that nonsense anymore. It achieves nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It proves nothing. We have forgotten that real debate and disagreement are possible while personal relationships can remain unaffected. I would rather engage in a heated exchange over something of vital importance then go somewhere and have dinner with my interlocutor than rhetorically beat that person to a pulp and bask in my glory.

It is partially to that end that I have included one right-wing blog on my link list, and visit there daily. I have posted there, and tried more and more to make sure my comments never strayed beyond the point at issue. The reason for public debate is to come to an agreement on certain means toward the end of making our society better - not more efficient, but more free; not more economically independent, but just more equal; not to protect those who pay our legislators the most, but to guarantee equality before the law - not to prove who is right. That is a game in which I no longer wish to participate.

Debate can be heated, because the stakes are so high. Part of my anger at the Bush Administration is their role in aiding and abetting the destruction of public discourse through manipulation, deceit, and a preference for symbolism and rhetoric over substance. I am not just angry that we were lied to about the war. I am angry that the Administration held the American people in such contempt that they continued to lie even after they were caught. They honestly believe power is its own end and reward, even though their actions have has such destructive consequences.

Let us be serious then. Let us never flag nor flinch. Let us also respect the fact that those who disagree with us are Americans who work, raise families, pay taxes, and are trying the best they can within the rules of public discourse as they are now set to express themselves. Let us make sure we accord to others the same honesty of purpose even if we can find fault with their political preference. I hope from now on that this blog becomes a model for a way to put forth serious ideas without ever sinking to insult or cant. The stakes are too high to fail.

Some General Comments on Science and Faith

Along with a degree in Political Science (B.A., Alfred University, 1987) and a Master of Theological Studies degree from Wesley Theological Seminary (1993), I spent two years in the graduate program at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, where my original plan was to study philosophy of science. I ended my academic career early because my wife and I decided to start a family. I try to keep up on the subject, although I have other interests equally pressing, not the least of them being helping to support my family, so it isn't like I have the latest publication from the various academic journals sitting on my night stand.

I am hesitant to enter into a conversation on the relationship between science and faith, because my views are extremely nuanced. I do not believe much good is done in any conversation on the issue, at least as it is carried out under the current rules of the game, because there is such a lack of understanding, not just by lay persons (both scientific and religious) but even practicing scientists and people of faith. The amount of scientific illiteracy, not just among those with deep religious faith but the population in general is troubling; the amount of religious illiteracy among scientists, not least those who profess to be hostile of it because of their study of it (see the posts on Sam Harris below), is equally alarming. Too often people are saying things about religion that are simply factually inaccurate (again, see Sam Harris), yet insist they are to be taken seriously because they are scientists.

I consider myself as someone who straddles a divide, largely artificial, between two ways of viewing the world. As I said below in response to Richard Dawkins, I am a faithful Christian and someone who accepts what science says about any number of natural phenomenon. I see no conflict between them because I do not understand them to be speaking of the same things at all. To put it quite simply. The conflict between religion and science is not about religion or science, but about power. As someone who is opposed to the imposition by the powerful of any worldview that violates individual integrity, I am equally opposed to the efforts to impose any religious wordlview - Christian, Muslim, Santeria - upon others and the claims by some not only that religion is either outmoded or deficient but actively hostile to the ongoing human project, and therefore religion needs to be discarded for a trust in reason, rationality, and evidence.

Science is a method for describing physical phenomena. It is a tool for understanding how the world works. It is incredibly complex, using arcane mathematic concepts and tools to substitute for less precise qualitative descriptions of these pheonomena. One important thing about science is that it considers itself self-corrective; while it insists its views on a variety of pehonena are accurate, it is always a provisional accuracy, recognizing that tomorrow some phenomena, some theory, some experiment, some something will come along and bring the whole tapestry of scientific theory crashing down, to be rebuilt on the new theory, experimental result, etc. Science, then, is an ongoing project, never finished, and it recognizes its own contingency in the very day-to-day practices that are the heart of the scientific enterprise.

Religion is a complex social phenomenon, best described as a way human communities, sometimes locally, sometimes scattered across vast distances of space and time, come to understand themselves and their place in the world. Religions deal with questions of the conduct of human relationships, how best to live a life within the tenets of the religion in question, and how to live with those who live outside the religious community.

While I admit these are only my inderstandings of these two projects, they are based on years of study, reflection, thought, argument, and reflection. Both serve deep human needs, needs that cannot be wished away or argued away. Both see themselves as integral to a fuller understanding of human life and the place of human life in the much larger grand scheme of existence. Neither one contains an inherently superior epistemological framework - one isn't better at figuring everything out than the other - nor an inherently superior ontological status - one doesn't make more clear than the other all that is or can be or could be. In other words, I see them as operating in entirely different fields of inquiry, with entirely different methods of operation, with entirely different goals and presuppositions.

There is nothing inherently superior in the scinetific method. There are many, past and present, who think there is, because science has been remarkably successful using this method at figuring out all sorts of things. While the case has been made again and again for the inherent superiority of scientific ways of thinking - often labeled rational or reasonable without any clear understanding of what those words mean or how they relate to the scientific enterprise - it has always failed because the scientific method is not designed, nor was it ever intended, to deal with anything other than that for which it developed, over time. The scientific study of and engineering of society, inaugurated by Auguste Comte, has been a dismal failure, despite the prevelance of sociology departments in our universities and colleges. Psychology, too, has only blossomed as we moved away from Freudianism and behaviorism and toward a cognitive, neurologically based understanding of the human mind. It is still limited, however, in how far any of its general statements can go in covering a vast array of individuals.

In other words, I believe the conflict between science and religion is largely artificial, created by those who exist outside either sphere of understanding, using each one or the other as a tool for control. My own preference is for a humble faith and a humble science, each operating within its own sphere of expertise and within the limits of its own way of knowing. The reality, of course is far different, and while I fear my own views sound a bit like Rodney King's during the LA riots in 1994, I cannot help but think that we would all be better off if, rather than push one way of knowing as better than any other, we allowed ourselves the liberating thought that maybe, just maybe, both have something to contribute to the human experience of living.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What is Reasonable?

Thanks to Democracy Lover for the original link to this interview(.pdf) with Sam Harris. I was going to leave Harris alone, but I found an article by New Testament Scholar Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite that I want to use for a contrast with the repugnant ideas Harris expresses. By "repugnant", I am not refering to his atheism (something to which he refuses to own up in the interview, for reasons to which we shall return) which is neither here nor there to me. What I find repugnant is his totalitarian insistence that his way is the only way. I also find it odd that someone who is so insistent on "evidence" would be so consistently factually inaccurate. To name just one, to claim as he does that Christians believe God wrote the Bible is simply wrong. Even the most die-hard fundamentalist does not say such a thing, and to claim that as a part of "religious dogma" is wrong. To claim that Judaism is a "cultural identity" rather than a "religious identity" is not only wrong, it buys into the worst stereotypes about Jews spread by the most vile anti-Smites. Finally, as a third example of factual inaccuracy, he says that "it would not be a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first century world that has ben shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas." What is inaccurate about that statement is this - when was the world ever a unified moral community without religious ideas playing any part whatsoever? As someone so concerned with evidence, when in human history has there ever been a time when all human beings, at all times and all places, believed the same thing, therefore sharing the same "moral community" and has the same or perhaps no religious beliefs? In other words, this line of argument is based upon a lie. Or perhaps ignorance. Or perhaps even prejudice against religion so strong it blinds him to how erroneous his argument is. In any case, this is a sign of a dangerous ideologue, I do not care how virtuous he claims he is (think George Bush without the cross necklace).

In seeking to justify his attack on religion, Harris says that "the problem with religion is that it is the only type of us/them thinking in which we posit a transcendental difference between the in-group and the out-group." Again, that is wrong. From 1933 to 1945, Germany was ruled by a man, a Party, and an ideology that saw "racial" identity (and, here, along with the "normal" races, there were the "made-up" races of the Aryans and thew Jews) as a qualitative distinction between human beings, transcendent to the extent that one race, that fake one called the Aryans, was so vastly superior to the others, especially that other made-up one called the Jews (be careful now; I am not saying Jews are fake; I am saying that to call Jews a "race" is fake), that their elimination was necessary to make the world safe. Six million Jews, another three to four million Slavs, and two to three million others "racially inferior people" like the Roma were efficiently, one might say (with Richard Rubenstein) rationally put to death because of that transcendent distinction.

Finally, there is his outrageous statement that he would rather rid the world of religion than rape. This is a person to be taken seriously? This is a person whose beef with religion is the danger it poses? While he dismisses it as untrue (why would he accept it?), he is a fundamentalist ideologue, convinced of his own correctness and virtue, and refusing to see the very human dimension in a variety of religious experiences. A factually-challenged, hateful person who insists that his way is the only way for the world to escape destruction is hardly the person we should be discussing serious matters with.

As a counter to Harris (of whom I have said all I plan on saying) I would like to consider some of the words of Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. Of coure, Harris would discount anything she says as irrational; after all, not only is she a Christian, she has dedicated her professional life to a detailed study of the Bible, that holy book he finds so disgusting and violent, full of hate for other people. While noting that doctrinal differences between different branches of the Christian faith are real and not to be minimized, and that interreligious differences are very real, and also not to be minimized, she offers this:
[T]he best way to open the [inter-religious] conversation is thru doing good together and then looking each other in the eye and asking, "What in your faith motivates you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless?" That's when common ground stops being a metaphor and starts being a description of where people of faith can stand together to bring hope and healing to this world.

As false an argument as those I pointed out above? Professor Thistlethwaite points out that, in New Orleans after Katrina, fundamentalist Baptists and members of the Metropolitan Community Church worked side by side in relief efforts, and in doing so, learned from one another. A small example, I know, but one that offers hope - real hope - because it is an example of real people learning to live with differences that are real and substantive, yet not so much that they seek to destroy. Harris wants to rid the world of religion because he is afraid of difference. He sees difference as a source of conflict, something else which he fears so much that he refuses to publicly acknowledge that he is an atheist, not because he isn't, but because of the hostitlity such a claim engenders. If you believe something, or even claim it as a matter of fact rather than one of faith, at least have the courage to say so. I find such moral cowardice, coupled with intellectual dishonesty and more than a tendency towards totalitarinism far less attractive, and far more dangerous, than a person of faith offering the possibility - based in faith, but a faith steeped in the experiences of people of faith - of real human contact across all sorts of differences.

Who, then, is more reasonable?

Clarifications, Policies, and some Thoughts on the Future

Before we march much further into the future, and with a post even now brewing in my brain, I wanted to clarify what this blog is about, how I decide what to write about, and to insist that there are some thing about which I will never write.

First, this is not a "Democrats versus Republicans" blog. I will not evade the truth by saying "I am not partisan" or "I have a lot of friends who are Republicans" (I do, but that is another matter). This blog is a place for me to express my opinions on issues surrounding the intersection of politics, culture, society, and the Christian faith. I am not "partisan", nor will I endorse any candidate (despite my own preference for some over others) of any party. My views on the actions of the leadership - and please understand it is the leadership (the PResident and his cabinet, the public faces of the Republican Party in the national media, and their unpaid shills in the mainstream media) of the party who I find abhorrent - are based not on crass partisanship. This is not about "us vs. them". My disdain for and rage with our current "leaders" stems from the utter contempt they have shown for Constitutional government; their brazen and unapologetic lying (they continue to lie even after they are caught at it); their utter contempt for any and all who may disagree with them; and the lack of respect they show the American people by governing so poorly. More than anything else, however, I am enraged at what has become of the United States in the past six years. Our once great land now sits, our military on the point of being broken, our diplomatic status non-existent, our influence gone. Our economy is a wreck. Our public dialogue is a farce. I place responsibility for all this at the feet of the Bush Adminsitration, their lackeys in Congress, and their mindless enablers in the press. If it were a Democratic government who had done this, enlisting the help of the press, I would be no less contemptuous.

There are some other things, besides candidate endorsement, that I shall never write about. I won't cover politics for its own sake - the horse race nonsense - or repeat nonsense (or at least try not to). I will not deal with garbage, such as (I hate even typing the letters!) the whole OJ thing over at Fox. Finally, while I have strayed from this particular "never" in more than one egregious case, let us just say that I will attempt, in the suture, to never, ever personally call into question the personality or integrity of those with whom I disagree. We are all Americans. We have to relearn how to disagree with each other without trying to destroy one another. The extremes have ruled our dialogue for too long; it is time for healthy debate with the opportunity to go to the pub afterward and pop the tops on some cold ones together (as Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan famously did).

I write all this because, when I started blogging last spring, I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about, and it showed. As it has developed, I have started to find a voice, but I wanted to make sure I didn't "flail", just write about anything and everything, but consider thoughtfully what I was posting, why, and what doing so said about me and my intentions for doing this whole blog thing in the first place. I have been tempted to write things that went far afield, because they interest me personally, or because others have written about them. I decided, however, that it would be better if I set out, publicly, what it is I am doing here, and why. As it is still relatively early in my blogging career, and these things are still developing, I think this is as good a place to start as any.

Finally, to correct the error I made, personally attacking someone with whom I disagreed, I would like to publicly apologize to my turtle-loving neighbors to the north for calling them "unhinged". I will let the post stand, but only to remind me that, as hard as I try, I will make mistakes. I hope our future debates are lively, but never sink to the level of name-calling.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Taking on Atheists, Part II

I am able to complete this little two-fer after all. Not having slept in 28-and-one-half hours, I just hope it's coherent.

Sam Harris is a vocal atheist who insists, among other things, that there are no such things as religious moderates. He claims that religious beliefs, and claims about religious beliefs, should receive the same treatment as claims concerning UFOs and Atlantis, and that they are an impediment to truly human living. He sees the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as psychopathic, and Islam as an inherently intolerant religion. BeliefNet was willing to interview him, and while there is a greater sweep and consistency to his professions concering the dangers to our corporate huamn existence posed by religious belief than Richard Dawkins, and while he is willing to grant to people of faith the willingness to act on behalf of others, often at great sacrifice to themselves, he counts it of less worth than other types of selflessness. His remarkably shallow insistence that only a literal reading of scripture is acceptable - as if we ever read anything literally - as well as his claims that any views other than his are intellectually dishonest is a wonderful device to shield himself from critics. The wholism of his worldly disdain for those whose view of the world and human existence is breathtaking. It is also, alas, as mistaken as many of the beliefs he purports to describe. The fact that much of what he says is inaccurate on its face should lead many who would turn to him to question his intellectual integrity.

There is something impressive, no doubt, about a person so convinced of his own moral and intellectual superiority that he is willing to consign the vast bulk of humanity to the outer darkness of ignorance and irrationality because they think differently than oneself. It kind of reminds me of, well, of Pat Robertson, profiled in a Short Take yesterday saying that believers in other faiths actually worshipped demons! People who disagree with me are damned, whetehr because they worship demons, or because they include the act of worship, and all the intellectual, moral, and existential baggage it entails, in their life.

The totalitarian nature of Harris' ideology is plain in his response to the very first question posed to him. He says:
[T]his whole style of believing and talking about beliefs leaves us powerless to overcome our differences from one another.

It would be better if all of us see the truth of Sam Harris, a truth of reason, a truth of rationality - a truth that transcends any and all questioning. We are not to question; we are not to be different; we are certainly not to celebrate our differences, even those of creed and faith. We are not to learn how to live together with all our differences - not just of religion, but of nationality, of history, of ethnicity, of class - but are to become one with a reasonable approach to the world. That Harris is unable to see the horror emebedded within this statement should be very telling for those willing to understand the implications of such a wholistic, totalitarian ideology. What else does totalitarianism mean but that it encompasses all aspects of life - most importantly how we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people and the world aorund us. No doubt Harris would argue strenuously that is not at all what he meant, how dare such a peon, such a religious peon at that, dare impugn his integrity, his morality, or his intention by claiming he has a secret desire for us all to become . . . Harrisists!

Actually, what I am saying is that there are totalitarian implications in his words, and the idology he insists is better for all humanity than the myriad ways human beings go about ordering their lives. Rather than celebrate our differences, and learn to live with them, and sometimes even through them - not surrendering to conflict, but making conflict creative and even productive - Harris sees differences as fundamental to personal and social identity as religious differences as a hinderance to the furtherance of some moral goal that, alas, is never stated, explicitly or implicitly in this interview.

Part of the beauty and majesty of totalitarian ideas are, well, their totalitarianism. They cover any and all contingency. By placing any and all claims of religious belief outside the pale of acceptable discourse, and all those who use such claims as equally untouchable, he is insulated from the criticisms of people of faith. Even thought I have not one in this entire article made a claim concerning the correctness or incorrectness of any religious belief, because I am aperson of faith, I am ipso facto irrational and therefore there is no need for him to ever even consider what I have written here.

We just ended, less than a decade ago, a century which introduced totalitarianisms into human existence. All of them were horrid, none of them were Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Zoroastrian), and at least one of them wore the mantle of "scientific socialism" as a badge of honor. To somehow turn around, now, and use such totalizing ideology as a bludgeon to beat people of faith - again, and not just those of one but of any faith; the act of faith, it would seem, is to Harris a crime against humanity - is to resurrect horrors which we had all hoped were now buried. We must never forget that those who would insist that theirs is the only true way for a truly human existence have written large chunks of the population out of the human race and are, and have been, quite willing to dispose of them because they are a nuisance of one sort or another. That Harris would insist he wishes no such thing is really beside the point. After all, since there are no such things as religious moderates anyway, why should I believe there is such a thing as a moderate totalitarian?

Taking on Atheists, Part I

Note: This is the first of two pieces I shall be writing referencing BeliefNet, a resource I think I shall come to use quite often. Because of a crazy, hectic day, I doubt I shall get to part ii until tomorrow.

Over at BeliefNet (a new link, by the by), there is this article by Richard Dawkins, writing in opposition to "religion" because of the danger it poses, in his view, to science. He cites the current head of research at some creationist institution in Dayton, TN (where the Scopes "Monkey Trial" took place) as a "casualty" of the conflict between faith and science, a promising young geologist who surrendered his scientific integrity for a fundamentalist Christian faith. Dawkins dismisses the idea that he is a fundamentalist because, of course, he is a scientist and all he believes is based upon evidence and a willingness to change his mind about what he believes. As a fer-instance, he cites a scientist who taught his students certain "facts" concerning a cellular organ, even as the scientific community was coming to understand the function of this organ, and, after years of struggle, accepted the change.

One hesitates to begin, because there are so many points of entry. First, I do want to agree with something Dawkins says, to whit, that a little philosophical understanding is a dangerous thing. He is tired, he says, of discussing philosophical issues - such as the epistemological status of the underpinnings of scientific knowledge, the validity of the truth claims of science, and the ontological status of religious claims over and against those of science - because, of course, he is much more knowledgeable about these things than his interlocutors (especially those he dismisses as relativists). I must say, I am glad I never encountered him when I was a student. With a mind as closed as his, so utterly convinced of his own correctness and the imbecility of those who might question him, his views, his assumptions, or even his choice of tie, how can any learning take place? From his mouth to his students' ears, with grateful acknowledgement to be in the presence of so brilliant a man.
(I would apologize for the sarcasm, but there in reading the article, this is the conclusion that is inescapable)

I guess I shall just go right to the heart of the matter, since I don't want a ten-thousand word post here. "Religion" is a human phenomenon of incredible diversity and wonderous power. There are Jains in India who weep over the bee that stung them because, in so doing, it has killed itself. There are Buddhist monks from Nepal who, after years of training and devotion, can actually vocalize multiple pitches simultaneously, creating chords with a single human voice. Serious Jewish scholars of Torah can place a pin through the cover of their book and recite the words on each page the pin has passed through. Christians refusing to surrender their faith to the prevailing political powers in China are harassed, lose their jobs, blacklisted, imprisoned, and killed. Muslims in the United States offer wonderful counterpoint to the hollow, "bourgois-fied", middle-calss "Christianity" professed by many of their fellow citizens, in their devotion to God, the tenets of their faith, and the seriousness of their commitment to a land that, in recent years, has become hostile to them. To somehow say that "religion" is a problem for science, for the growth of scientific knowledge, and for the sustaining of scientific imagination and curiosity is not just intellectually dishonest, it is just plain ignorant.

If one wants to argue, however, that a certain type of Christianity, imbued with a rationalistic devotion to Christian "truth" as they understand it, and convinced that one can, using the tools of the human intellect, provide conclusions to religous syllogisms, provided one accept certain statements as axiomatic, is hostile to another way human beings happen to come to understand the world they live in, and insist that, since they are competitors in the whole "figuring out the world" business, and that as such they are adamant that, based upon their axioms as to how the world is structured, what is true and not true about that world, they can show that they are correct and this other way of knowing (for lack of a better word) is not - this rather long, probably run-on sentence is a much more accurate description of what Dawkins is trying to describe. Dawkins plea for "rationality" shows that he has not, in fact, studied either the history or methods of fundamentalism, as one would be hard-pressed to find a more rationalistic, ideational way of coming to the faith. To claim that science is "rational" and, by default, faith is not is to misunderstand what rationality is and how it functions. Rationality is simply a way human beings have of thinking. It can be applied just about anywhere - religion, game playing, horseback riding, sex, you name it, there is a rational way to do it and discuss it.

These arguments are neither new, nor particularly interesting. They are, in fact, the kinds of arguments one would expect from a (ahem) sophpomore college student, suddenly emboldened by the left-Hegelians, Bertrand Russell, or perhaps (closer to home) Richard Rorty. The argument Dawkins makes is as old as the Enlightenment, and about as easy to refute, provided one understands the game. And it is a game, please make no mistake about it. No matter how serious the stakes, no matter how important the subject matter, in the end, such intellectual mumbo-jumbo as Dawkins provides, and I provide in response, is just a game that ignores the much more complex, interesting, confounding, enraging, and satisfying task of living one's life, and figuring out how to navigate between so many claims that insist they are total, but all end up being smoke and mirrors, passing from truth to falsehood in the blink of an eye.

I am a devout Christian. I not only believe, but profess the reality of God, the salvation of sin through the intercession of the crucified and risen Jesus, the Messiah. I anticipate the final resurrection of the dead. I would no more surrender that confession to an intellectual bully like Dawkins than I would surrender the testimony that our planet, formed not quite five billion years ago, has developed life over a long and torturous process called evolution, the exact mechanics of which are still difficult to figure out, if not to dismiss in a broad outline. As a scientist, would Dawkins admit that one refuting instance, one case where his entire understanding of what is and is not acceptable, rationally, brings his entire theory crashing down? I don't want to turn blue, pass out, and die, so I won't be holding my breath.

I will be praying for him, though.

Virtual Tin Cup

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