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Dawkins Religious?

posted on 10.31.2006 at 10:39 PM

Well, we know he's a six on the seven point disbelieve-in-God scale. But then Richard Dawkins writes this:

An American student asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' Well, if that's what you choose to mean by religion, fine, that makes me a religious man. But if your God is a being who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead, you are unlikely to be satisfied. As the distinguished American physicist Steven Weinberg said, "If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." But don't expect congregations to flock to your church.

Do those of us who rank high on the waxing-ecstatic scale (and myself I can get pretty exuberant about summer breezes and all sorts of landscapes) really meet some definition of religious?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM | Comments (7)

Religion and Science -- 6

posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM

Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:


The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.

The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:

Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:57 AM | Comments (2)

Relgion and Science -- 5

posted on 10.29.2006 at 11:31 PM

Michael Shermer, the man behind Skeptic magazine, proposes this "three-tiered model on the relationship of science and religion":

1. CONFLICTING-WORLDS MODEL. This "warfare" model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing, where one is right and the other is wrong. In this model, the findings of modern science are always a potential threat to one's faith and thus they must be carefully vetted against religious truths before acceptance; likewise, the tenets of religion are always a potential threat to science and thus they must be viewed skeptically.
2. SAME-WORLDS MODEL. More conciliatory in its nature, this position holds that science and religion are two ways of examining the same reality; as science progresses to a deeper understanding of the natural world it will reveal that many ancient religious tenets are true.
3. SEPARATE-WORLDS MODEL. On this tier science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement. Today it is the job of science to explain the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creation. Yet, religion thrives because it still serves a useful purpose as an institution for social cohesiveness and as a guide to finding personal meaning and spirituality.

Shermer, like Richard Dawkins, seems a natural partisan of the first and more aggressive model. However, he gives some credit to the third model. Too much?

The problem with attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism.
The Separate-Worlds Model is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:31 PM | Comments (2)

A Born-Again Government

posted on 10.28.2006 at 6:15 PM

Here's the always interesting Garry Wills:

The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government--until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.

Wills outlines the extent of the religious incursions into the current White House.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:15 PM | Comments (1)

Flaubert on Atheism

posted on 10.27.2006 at 2:27 PM

Found this in a review by James Wood in the New Republic, written a couple of years ago:

Flaubert is reported as telling the tale of a man taken fishing by an atheist friend. The atheist casts the net and draws up a stone on which is carved: "I do not exist. Signed: God." And the atheist exclaims: "What did I tell you!"

The opposite of this seems actually to happen: We see signs that so much, so wonderfully much, exists. But have difficulty with the fact that these signs are unsigned.

Or am I taking a clever line too seriously?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:27 PM | Comments (2)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 3: God and Other Minds

posted on 10.25.2006 at 11:19 PM

Here is the heart of Jim Holt's critique of Richard Dawkins' new (and have I mentioned "best-selling") book attacking belief in God:

As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

The argument about free will would seem to come down to whether this feeling we have that our decisions are freely made has any meaning given the fact that the biological mechanism we are is composed of particles whose behavior is, presumably, predictable. Many also feel that some grand puppeteer in the sky is manipulating our decisions and their consequences. However, to jump from free will to God's will would seem, at the very least, to be adding an additional level of mystification.

Objective values, without something in the heavens to attach them to, pretty clearly ain't; and "smart people" who have thought the matter through probably ought to realize that. The consequences of values not being objective are, of course, complex and leave plenty of room for such "smart people" to disagree -- as do the consequences of God's not being.

But Dawkins, in my view, really goes off the rails in his analogy (for a fellow intent on critiquing misleading analogies he uses quite a few of them himself) between belief in God and belief in other minds. The evidence for the existence of other minds, while it may not be "knock-down" to a committed skeptic, does tend to present itself with some regularity -- more or less every time we converse, read or hear a ring tone. The evidence for God's existence, on the other hand, has been a little thin -- at least over the past couple of millennia.

To disbelieve in other minds you have to assume that you are victim of some sort of vast delusion. To disbelieve in God all you have to do is assume that the world and universe function, more or less, the way they appear to function. Shouldn't "smart people" be able to notice the difference between these two varieties of disbelief?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:19 PM | Comments (8)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM

In his review of Richard Dawkins' attack on religion, Jim Holt raises an interesting question about complexity and simplicity. Holt says Dawkins relies on the premise that:

a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).

By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.

Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:

Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).

Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 PM | Comments (10)

The Ontological Argument: Holt vs. Dawkins

posted on 10.23.2006 at 7:12 PM

The ontological argument for the existence of God -- based only on the logic of "being," not on evidence -- dates back to Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. His "logic" (streamlined a bit) runs as follows: God is...

something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought....Something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind....Surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater....Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.

Hence: God.

A different version of the ontological argument was provided by Descartes, but it is hard to see that it is any stronger:

Certainly, the idea of God, or of a supremely perfect being, is one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number....Hence...I ought...to regard the existence of God as having at least the same level of certainty as I have hitherto attributed to the truths of mathematics.

In his new book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins dismisses such arguments as "infantile" and "dialectical prestidigitation." In a New York Times review, Jim Holt, a writer on science and philosophy I respect (though he is getting less funny), criticizes Dawkins for being too cavaliere here:

He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute.

The potential "sophisticated modern versions" of this argument that I am familiar with (thanks to Nicholas Everitt in his useful book, The Non-Existence of God) are by Plantinga, Malcolm and Hartshorne. Here are a few of the steps in Hartshorne's effort (as outlined by Everitt):

(i) Either it is necessarily true that a perfect being exists or it is necessarily true that such a being does not exist. (ii) It is not necessarily true that there is no perfect being. So: (iii) It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being.

Everitt collapses Hartshorne's argument into the following:

(i) If it is possible that God exists, then he exists. (ii) It is possible that God exists. So: (iii) God exists.

It is hard to see that Hartshorne has taken us beyond Anselm and Descartes -- in essence: God is too perfect not to exist. We could discuss exactly how such arguments fail (part of the problem, writes Everitt, "is the assumption that existence is a quality that things can be said to have or lack"). But it's hard not to agree with Dawkins' characterization of the ontological arguments. Holt's criticism of that characterization, unless I am missing some compelling new versions of those arguments, seems unfair. Here's Schopenhauer -- writing, to be sure, before all that modern "sophistication":

When considered generally and impartially, this famous ontological proof is really a most delightful farce.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:12 PM | Comments (5)

Dawkins' Belief Scale

posted on 10.22.2006 at 10:58 PM

Richard Dawkins comes up with an interesting scale of belief and disbelief in his new (and bestselling) book The God Delusion (here via a review in the New York Times):

On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

I'm curious where the readers of this blog would place themselves on this scale...and why.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:58 PM | Comments (20)

Consciousness: Descartes' Error

posted on 10.20.2006 at 2:33 PM

The philosopher John Searle wades, with some confidence, through the swamp of attempts to make sense out of the forum in which we attempt to make sense: consciousness. Some of the issues in question are technical: "perception" versus "sensation," for example. But one of his points echoes one of the more significant moments in the history of disbelief: Descartes cogito ergo sum -- "I think therefore I exist."

Here's Searle saying "my consciousness exists":

Consciousness is real and ineliminable. It cannot be dismissed as some kind of an illusion, or reduced to some other phenomenon. Why not? It cannot be shown to be an illusion because if I consciously have the illusion that I am conscious, I already am conscious.

Descartes reaches this moment at the end of a brave effort to confront skepticism at its most scathing. Is there anything we could know, could believe in, even if some evil god were purposely trying to deceive us? This is not Searle's issue, at least in this article. But it is a very important issue in this history. For skepticism of this intensity, as Descartes understood, certainly includes among its targets the belief in a just God.

The place where Descartes manages to take a stand against skepticism is, as Searle is acknowledging, a reasonable one, though some would fiddle with the tense or a couple of the words. The problem comes when Descartes tries to move on from there. Having proven that there is something that we -- or more properly he -- could know, he makes a move that seems as clumsy as his original point was brilliant (unless it was somehow, shockingly tongue-in-cheek). Descartes concludes that since something he thought was true -- his own existence -- proves to be true, the rest of what he thought to be true must be true. Here's what he writes:

Accordingly it seems to me that already I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly are true.

Among those things that are, therefore, true, according to this odd reasoning, is, of course, God -- the precise Christian God that Descartes apparently perceived "clearly" and "distinctly."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:33 PM | Comments (5)

One to One in the Eighth...

posted on 10.19.2006 at 11:01 PM

...of the seventh and last game of the series, with your team at bat, and so much in the hands of fate, it is necessary even for a disbeliever to remind himself of the futility of supernatural efforts to influence fate.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:01 PM | Comments (1)

Pleasure v. Religion

posted on 10.18.2006 at 6:59 PM

Don't want to leave that noxious statement by Hitler at the top of the blogpile too long, so I'll elevate a discussion of the anacreontic attitude -- "sha, la, la, la, la, la live for today" -- from the comments. It is my thesis that in this attitude, which can be traced back to an Egyptian song more than 4,000 years ago, is a piece of the positive idea of atheism for which I am searching. For it puts the emphasis on earthly (and earthy) life and its wonders not on some putative, presumably perfect post-life.

JM reminds that we "post-ancients" are still sha-la-la-la-la-ing today. I certainly agree that this impulse to Have Pleasure Now ("and don't worry 'bout tomorrow") survives -- as obstacle, nightmare, tug or goal. Probably louder in (certain parts of) the culture now than it has been since the days of the Carvaka, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and Anacreon himself (all of whom will get to sing their "alluring" songs in my book).

There is much that is alluring in this attitude, though I guess it is hard to build a life upon (even for members of the Allman Brothers Band). Efforts certainly are made to channel, contain, repress the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but that doesn't mean this attitude would otherwise be so wild and free that it might avoid being encrusted with contradictions -- some having to do with the likely arrival of "tomorrow," some having to do with the fact that other people, with their own wants and desires, are required for the achievement of certain much-prized pleasures. Schisms have developed among anacreontics on the relative merits of physical pleasures, mental pleasures and the mere absence of distress.

Still, having a bit of fun -- now -- does seem an important component in a life strategy. And it does seem a mostly irreligious component.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:59 PM | Comments (3)

Jesuses -- 4

posted on 10.18.2006 at 8:23 AM

This version of Christ, one in our ongoing series, is from Adolph Hitler:

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. [from a speech in Munich on April 12, 1922]

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:23 AM | Comments (10)

Hitler and Religion

posted on 10.16.2006 at 9:24 PM

This risks descending into guilt by association, but the religious sometimes like to throw in the Nazi horrors as among the consequences of 20th century secularism. (Finding quotes on the Web in support of stuff like this is another low and too-easy game, as is finding such quotes credited to Ann Coulter.) Still, it seems worth pointing out (thanks Pharyngula) that Adolph Hitler did indeed see himself as a believer -- a Christian, a Catholic:

I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work. [Adolph Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936]
I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so. [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]
Any violence which does not spring from a spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook. [Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, p. 171]

No, I don't think this means that Catholics are Fascists. And I know that atheists have some skeletons in the closet too. But still. (Many more quotes in this vein from this person are available.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:24 PM | Comments (2)

The Aesthetics of Science

posted on 10.15.2006 at 11:49 PM

Physicists, writes K.C. Cole in the Los Angeles Times, rely on "beauty" to judge their theories:

In physics, truth and beauty often walk hand in hand. Physicists describe theories as "ugly" or "beautiful," talk about ideas that "smell" or "feel" right. Often, aesthetic judgments lead to discoveries: as in Einstein's theory of gravity and Paul A.M. Dirac's discovery of antimatter. Aesthetics, French physicist Henri Poincaré said, is a "delicate sieve" that sorts the true from the misleading. Or as Dirac famously put it: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiments."

Is this just a shorthand -- a way of getting to the heart of things more quickly? Or is it a sign of the extent to which metaphysical notions -- wishes, prejudices, mysticism -- have infiltrated even science? Is there an "ugly" physics out there just waiting for some aesthetically uninclined scientist to discover?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (7)

State Helps Churches

posted on 10.13.2006 at 3:30 PM

A powerful new investigative series has been running in the New York Times, exposing increasing number of ways American laws are favoring religious institutions. It is worth quoting:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."

My underline at the bottom. Is Prof. Witte right?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:30 PM | Comments (3)

Reason and Religion: II

posted on 10.12.2006 at 12:54 PM

This -- by Tertullian, the first major theologian to write in Latin -- is a bold statement of Christianity's attempts to rise above reason:

The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.

Does not something of this "logic" lie at the heart of all religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:54 PM | Comments (14)

Europe and Religion

posted on 10.11.2006 at 10:39 PM

A few points inspired by a New York Times article on growing frustration with Muslim immigrants in Europe:

** In Europe it is the right that is least tolerant of this new religious orthodoxy, at least this new Islamic religious orthodoxy, as became clear during the dispute over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, as has become clear with the recent comment of the pope. (This is all rather perplexing to American secularists who have much less difficulty locating the enemy on the political spectrum.)

** The great paradox here, of course, is that it is precisely the secular values of pluralism and tolerance in Europe that are allowing for the growth of intolerant, even violently intolerant, religious orthodoxies. This is a problem that seems, for the moment, not to have a comfortable solution. Some, like Salman Rushdie, argue against tolerating intolerance. Lurking here is the potentially uncomfortable solution of actually taking on these religions and their potentially murderous absurdities (a task perhaps better executed by a Rushdie than by someone named Benedict XVI).

** In the midst of a dispiriting article it is cheering to read the Times characterizing Europe as "a continent that has largely abandoned" religion.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM | Comments (2)

Religion and Government

posted on 10.10.2006 at 3:36 PM

Ayatollah Boroujerdi.jpgAyatollah Mohammad Kazemeni Boroujerdi seems to be on the side of good. He has apparently been arrested in Iran for having the temerity to suggest that the country's other ayatollahs should stay out of politics. They currently, of course, have the last word on the decisions of the Iranian government.

However, I must say I have difficulty understanding how if you really believed in the truth of one of these God-rules-everything-in-the-universe religions you wouldn't want God's ostensible representatives on earth -- popes, ayatollahs, whatever -- making the important decisions. If they are indeed infallible, why trust the fallible?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:36 PM | Comments (15)

The Book So Far

posted on 10.09.2006 at 1:33 PM

Article on journalism complete. Back to the book on disbelief.

What I've drafted to date:

1. Prologue built around tales of Charles Bradlaugh and Shelley in 19th-century England.

2. Consideration of disbelief among pre-literate societies. Why religion? My sense that while there wasn't as much irreligion as 19th-century Christian anthropologists found, there was more than 20th-century secular anthropologists have found. Tales of headhunters and fake witches.

3. Disbelief in Egypt, India, Greece and among the Hebrews -- of which there was lots. Sisyphus has become a character.

4. Skepticism as a strain (two strains actually) of disbelief. More Greeks and Hebrews, plus Romans and the first Christians. Making fun of Zeus.

5. And I'm currently trying to work out how disbelief was shut down in the Christian West and maybe not shut down further to the east and south.

The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, that remarkable combination of disbelief and abolitionist, feminist, working-class politics in 19th-century England and America, plus the whole, wild 20th century, still in front of me!

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (4)

Distracted by Journalism

posted on 10.05.2006 at 8:40 PM

This book writer has not been book writing much these past two weeks. I am completing an article for the Columbia Journalism Review -- arguing that newspapers and newscasts need to surrender their attachment to the distribution of news to survive in a world where news comes so fast and so cheap. Analysis, point of view, are the solution, I argue, as they were for weeklies when dailies took over the business of providing fast news.

So the story of disbelief remains suspended at a particularly bad moment in its history: with Hypatia, one of the last of the pagan philosophers, having been torn to pieces; with debates on the good and how to live one's life shrinking into debates on whether the Father and the Son were One or just almost One; with the philosophy schools in Athens about to be shut down.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:40 PM | Comments (3)

Christianity and Slavery

posted on 10.04.2006 at 11:54 AM

I may have been too quick (as suggested in a few wise comments) to accept the assertion of my dinner companions that Christianity was responsible for the elimination of slavery in the Roman Empire . A few points (from Charles Freeman's excellent The Closing of the Western Mind):

1. The notion, which was indeed found among Christians, that slaves should be regarded as fellow human beings was not original to Christianity. It dates back to the Greek Stoics.

2. Christians -- always with an eye to another, better life beyond -- exhorted slaves to accept their fate. This is from a Christian text written in the year 90:

Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in the world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty as you are obedient to Christ....Work hard and willing...but do it for the sake of the Lord.

3. Christians, despite Jesus' apparent affection for the "meek" and suspicion of the "rich man," could fall into the karma-like notion that our lots here are our just rewards. Here's the sainted and, of course, hugely influential Augustine, writing when the western half of the Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart:

The primary cause of slavery...is sin...and this can only be by a judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to assign divers punishments according to the deserts of the sinners.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (11)

Religion and Mark Foley

posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:33 PM

An addition to our ongoing discussion of religion (or its absence) and morality (or its absence):

This Republican congressman, who seems to have exchanged some "predatory" emails with teenaged male House pages, supported the interests of the Christian Coalition 84 percent of the time in 2004 (the last year I could find). He is a Roman Catholic and may have some connection to Scientology (thanks Operation Clambake). According to the Herald-Tribune in Florida, Rep. Foley supported the Defense of Marriage Act, "a measure intended to ensure that only heterosexual couples may wed."

Rep. Foley's other hypocrisies -- attacks on former President Clinton for his affair with an intern, support for tough laws against child porn and seduction of children on the Internet -- have, of course, been well reported.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (21)

George W. Bush -- II

posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:09 PM

The basic text on the religiousity of the current president of the United States and its influence on his policy remains Ron Suskind's article two years ago. Here he tried to explain Mr. Bush's remarkable confidence in his "gut" and his "instinct":

All of this [as well as] the certainty and religiosity -connects to a single word, ''faith".... That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness.

It is, of course, deeply upsetting to contemplate the wrongness of all the decisions Mr. Bush has thusly made.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:09 PM | Comments (1)

Yom Kippur

posted on 10.02.2006 at 1:37 PM

I remain fascinated by this scene:

On only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the Jews' chief priest entered the Holy of Holies at the very heart of the Jewish temple. What he saw was an empty room.

Perhaps the priest filled it with his reverence and devotion to Yahweh. Perhaps he gloried in the absence of cheap, too-tangible statues or idols.

But might this priest also have noted the absence of the Ark of the Covenant, which was supposed to be kept in this room but had "somehow," as always ends up being the case, disappeared? Might he have felt the Wizard-of-Oz-like smallness of Yahweh's wispy presence? Might he have experienced in that room a nagging absence of meaning or purpose? Might he have seen the Holy of Holies as filled with hebel -- vapor -- as in Ecclesiastes? Might some sense of the absence of God have contributed to that emptiness?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:37 PM | Comments (3)

George W. Bush

posted on 10.01.2006 at 11:57 AM

There has been some dispute lately about just where the current US president stands among the supernaturals. We have, of course, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' suggestion that Mr. Bush is "El Diablo." But other observers see the self-described "Decider" as fitting more gently into a religious context. Here is Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

In Bob Woodward's highly anticipated new book, "State of Denial," President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.

I'm not sure the "almost" is necessary in the phrase I italicized above, as has been noted here before. Certainly, one of the great gifts of religion has been certainty. Here is the first major Christian theologian to write in Latin, Tertullian, having a go at those wishy-washy Greek philosophers (whom the Christians would, soon enough, put out of business):

Wretched Aristotle...taught them dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing...self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them....

Mr. Bush settles questions. (The Republicans even pass laws to make sure everyone knows they are settled.) And I'm naive enough to remain shocked that questions could be so badly settled with so little reliance upon wisdom and reason, with such terrible consequences for this country -- and the world -- at this time.

The devil often appears as "the opponent" of religion. But, as history has taught, it is the partisans of religion -- with their obstinate, at some point unreflective certainty -- who so often muck things up.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:57 AM | Comments (2)