Saturday, May 25, 2013

Honest To God

I've been mulling whether to write something the past couple days.  See, I don't write posts about how people who follow astrology are delusional.  I don't waste time writing against phrenology.  I have no interest in making clear that racist biology is no more scientific than bleeding people to balance their humours.  These things should be obvious to even the most casual observer.  Sure, there are people who read their horoscopes daily, just as we recently had the Heritage Foundation release a "study" rooted in racist biology.  That doesn't mean I have either interest or need to call out such nonsense every time it occurs.

This past week, a lot of attention has been paid to a snippet of an interview Wold Blitzer did with a survivor of Oklahoma's massive tornado in which he asked the young woman to "thank God", and the woman admitted that she was an atheist.  Most of the attention has been to poke fun at Blitzer, and I have to admit it is well-deserved.  Blitzer either made the assumption the woman, living in Oklahoma, would respond in religious terms to her situation, or was trying to fill out a presumed narrative of disaster survivors rooted in that old chestnut about foxholes not having any atheists in them.  Whatever the case may be, he ended up looking foolish and the woman in question, in contrast, sounded sensible and even a bit courageous.

Writing at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Erik Loomis promoted the woman in question as "The Kind of Atheist Spokesperson We Need".  Considering the shine is off Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for the former's sexism and the latter's hypocrisy and racism, the so-called "Evangelical Atheists" or "New Atheists", or whatever they're calling themselves these days ("Brights" didn't go over so well), offering up a non-apologetic yet not confrontational individual as the model of how to present oneself as an atheist in a country sodden with religious rhetoric (although less and less of religious observance or practice) seems a plus.

I'm not interested in talking about how wrong the atheists are.  For all I know, they may well be right.  In fact, I have no interest in discussing "God" or "religion" with atheists at all.  If they're living their lives, are happy, healthy, productive members of society, and occasionally go on rants about the destructiveness of religious belief and the insipid nature of so much religious rhetoric and the vileness of other forms of religious rhetoric, well I'm inclined to leave them alone and even give encouragement to such rants.

What bothers me about posts like this is the way so many atheists simultaneously tout their superiority to we silly folks who profess adherence to religious belief and not only admit their ignorance of so much Christian history and theological discourse, but count it a plus.  Like creationists who display a proud ignorance of physics, biology, geology, genetics, and so much else, these folks insist they have no need to learn theology or the history of doctrine or the history of the church because, and to quote many a commenter, it is all nonsense.

It may well be.  Lord knows I've complained a time or two about my own straining after the relevance and integrity of much Christian theology.  It may well be the case that those who wrote and we who read Christian theology are practicing a kind of multi-millenial folie a deux.  Should one prefer not to familiarize oneself with the details of what one considers nonsense - in much the same way I wouldn't waste time "learning" about phlogiston - well, that makes a certain kind of sense.

If the atheists are upset with "religion", then why are the targets invariably only Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam?  I am straining to find a denunciation of Hinduism or Buddhism, say.  While I admire the courage and thoroughness of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, I have yet to read Why I Am Not A Sikh.  My point is simple: "atheism" is hardly a correct term to describe their position.  They are anti-Christian, or perhaps anti-Abrahamic or anti-Monotheistic.  There is a strong streak of assumed western primacy in the whole "atheist" and "skeptic" movements that I have yet to see addressed in any systematic way.

Of course, it may well be there are those who have spoken out against non-Western religions in a way similar to The God Delusion.  If so, I'd love to check them out for similarities to the western atheist movement.

I think the point is pretty clear: These oh-so-rational, oh-so-liberal, oh-so-modern folks who pride themselves on their disdain for superstition are kind of blind to their own biases and prejudices.  As a Christian, I would hardly claim that our claims exhaust the meaning of the word "religion" as a human phenomenon.  Since the goal of these New Atheists is the eradication of religion, do they honestly believe constructing arguments against Christianity will work against Shinto in Japan?  What about the small, local varieties of beliefs in different parts of the world?

So, I will leave the New Atheists to promote themselves as so much more rational than the rest of us poor benighted folks who live under the sway of our illusions.  Forgive me, however, if I take their self-professed seriousness and superiority with a grain or two of salt.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's Not The Cover-Up, It's Definitely The Crime

The attempt to create an air of controversy around the White House last week, which appears to be as successful as Mitt Romney's Presidential campaign, had some folks bleating, as if on cue: WATERGATE!

This would be funny if it weren't for the fact that "Watergate" became shorthand for the wrong idea that the crime in question was not nearly as bad as the years-long effort to prevent a full legal and public accounting not only for it but for all the crimes of the Nixon Administration.  In fact, the original crime was a dreadful piece of offal that, once removed from the damn, released not water but the lake of sewage that was the criminal enterprise some people called the Nixon Presidency.

The best account I've read isn't Woodstein's All The President's Men, which has the singular virtue of making the reporters look clueless.  Far better is the book written by a group of journalists working for a British newspaper (and, no, I can't find it because it is packed with the rest of my books and Google is being singularly unhelpful on this matter).  They don't begin with the break-in.  Instead, they begin with the Nixon campaign in 1968, then move through the creation of the plumbers unit after the Pentagon Papers leak; they include the burgling of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office; the plan to bomb the Brookings Institution; the near-miss when Jack Anderson nearly got targeted for murder because G. Gordon Liddy wasn't bright enough to understand Nixon didn't mean "kill" when he said he wanted to "get" Anderson for leaking classified sources in a story Anderson wrote about the Soviet Ambassador to the US; the failed first attempt to bug DNC headquarters; the money-laundering scheme set up to provide clean money for dirty work through the Committee to Re-Elect The President; the direct bribing, or at least attempted bribe, by ITT; planting an individual in the IRS to direct audits at a list of "enemies" that someone at the White House was stupid enough to commit to paper; the white-washing of the Kent State massacre to support a narrative that placed blame on the protestors; all this as context, of course, doesn't include the multiple crimes of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who left office for prison because he took bribes while governor of Maryland; lest we forget, Nixon was so desperate to hang on to office he managed to create an atmosphere where those most involved in the dirty business - aides H R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman - scurried after deals that would save their butts while making sure as many other people fried as possible.

So, (a) no, even if there was some kind of "scandal" here, none of them, even in some fantastical combination, come close to what the word "Watergate" represents; and (b) the cover-up is never as bad as the crime; after all, if they're covering it up, it must be pretty horrible.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Women Behaving Like People

Women behaving like people continues to shock and outrage society in general.
The past year has seen a rise in pushback against persistent sexism in a variety of groups, including the gaming community, the New Atheists, and the Skeptics.  Let met admit up-front that I am of two minds on this.  Most of me sides with the women and men calling out the misogyny and male privilege that has resulted in women being harassed, threatened, and silenced for so speaking out.  On the other hand, it's nice to see groups, especially the arrogant and ridiculous New Atheists get called on their arrogance and ridiculous pose as intellectual elite.  The expressions of anti-Islam attitudes are being called out, which is a good thing; yet there continues to be expressions of surprise that this kind of bigotry accompanies other bigotries as well, including cultural, pro-Western biases as well as misogyny and the expression of male privilege.

The latest example, thanks to a link from Lawyers, Guns, and Money, involves a post written by Rebecca Watson at Skepchick reacting to a speech given by Ron Lindsay at a conference called Women In Secularism 2.
In his talk, Lindsay didn’t give any examples of men who have been silenced, though he has promised to provide some. In the meanwhile, the audience is forced to examine the only example provided: Lindsay himself, a white male who is CEO of one of the largest skeptic organizations in the world and who delivered the 30-minute introductory lecture at a women’s conference. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of his voice being silenced, though of course I may not be aware of some behind-the-scenes campaign to drive him into obscurity.
Meanwhile, nowhere in Lindsay’s speech did he mention feminists like Jen McCreight, who has been so bullied and harassed that she did in fact quit attending conferences and she quit blogging and being active on social media in the hopes the anti-feminists would finally leave her alone. They didn’tThat is silencing. Nowhere did Lindsay mention that every day I and other feminists get slurs, rape jokes, and death threats from fellow skeptics and secularists. That is an attempt at silencing, though it is an attempt that will not work until the day one person follows through on the threat.
When faced with my criticism of his tone deafness, Lindsay didn’t hesitate to include me in the list of feminists trying to shut him up. He seems to be confused, assuming any discussion about how race, gender, and other attributes influence our outlook and our biases is a call for people of privilege to have no say. This is quite obviously absurd – I myself am incredibly privileged as a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle class educated American, but do I demand that I and anyone like me never engage in discussions of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or class? Of course not – I merely hope that we engage in these conversations with compassion and understanding, ultimately encouraging the people directly affected by those issues to have a voice and an audience.
The idea that talking about privilege as a social reality is somehow oppressive is no different than being told that calling out racism is the real racism, or that pointing out that defending legal discrimination might well be evidence of bigotry is not a personal attack; it's crap, in other words.  Guys like Lindsay, while certainly well-intentioned, tend to miss the point that when someone else notes they are speaking from a perspective of social and cultural privilege, it's just that.

What is not at all pretty, however, is the barely-repressed rage one reads in comments at the Skepchick article.  That a woman had the audacity to call out a man seems to stir something horrible in some people.  The discussion at LGM is far more restrained, and by and large favorable to Rebecca Watson (which is one reason I visit there a lot; even their trolls are fun).  At the heart of the discussion, however, is the largely unexamined idea that, being privileged in one way - feeling superior because they are skeptics rather than gullible goofs like us religious types - won't somehow extend to the rest of their lives.  Skeptics and atheists will just naturally be better at all these things (remember how the Soviet Union decried the sexism and racism in the United States, all the while being pretty horrible on these matters?  I thought not) including how men relate to women.  And since it's men telling everyone how much better they are, it must be true.

It is odd that the sexism in these groups comes as some kind of shock.  At least some of us in the religious communities, recognize the reality of sexism and struggle with it openly; for some reason, a woman pointing out that the skeptical/atheist community has similar issues is just wrong, as many men are quite willing to explain, with force if necessary.

The fact is these prejudices are inherent, particularly in groups whose membership is preponderantly male.  I'd be more surprised if there wasn't widespread misogyny in such groups.  The least that can be done, I suppose, is allow women to behave like people without it becoming somehow oppressive to the powers-that-be.  It is working out pretty well in some churches; shouldn't these folks strive to do at least as well?

United Methodists And Chicago

Unless you were paying close attention, you probably didn't know that yesterday was "United Methodist Day" in the city of Chicago.  It was official; Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the declaration.  The reason for the declaration was the convening of an Urban Strategy Summit on the South Side, bringing together community leaders and activists and organizers, clergy, church members, and city officials to begin a discussion about ways to combat the horrific violence that has been bleeding parts of the city for over a year.

In the center of this photo is Mayor Emanuel.  To his left (our right) is our bishop, Sally Dyck.  One thing about this photo surprises me; I had no idea Emanuel is so short.  He's not much taller than Bishop Dyck, and she's tiny.  Also, as an aside, I think overhearing a private meeting between the two would be interesting, considering Emanuel's nickname from his days working in the Obama White House was Rahm Fucking Emanuel because of his colorful vocabulary.

This, however, is trivia.  What's far more important is we have church leaders in our denomination who are willing to stand up and speak out on the violence and death that goes on with no purpose and no end.  Our churches in Chicago are trying to do some things in their communities; Bishop Dyck used to summit to highlight examples of work being done as well as call for a more systematic, integrated, and connectional approach.  One of the advantages of being a United Methodist is the connections among congregations; we have the ability to share resources, ideas, programs, and sharing extends beyond clusters of churches to whole areas, large cities, even the denomination.  Bringing the weight of the office of Bishop to this task is welcome.  Bringing it to bear on this matter demonstrates the church still has a beating heart, and is willing to take risks to be the church in those places where people need it.

Now, I don't know how effective a single meeting can be.  I do know, however, that if there is follow-through - something that doesn't always happen or happen very well - and follow-up and most of all structural support, a meeting such as this can accomplish good things.  Maybe even great things.  So, like most folks of good will, I hope and pray for success to flow from a meeting such as this.  If it accomplished nothing else, it demonstrated to Chicago that the answer to Charles Wesley's hymned-question, "And Are We Yet Alive?" is a resounding "Yes!"

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