A Year of Progress
posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM
Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.
The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.
Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.
But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?
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.
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?
Religion and Government
posted on 10.10.2006 at 3:36 PM
Ayatollah 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?
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.
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.
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.
Labor Day Message
posted on 09.03.2006 at 9:27 PM
Herewith a selection from this book in progress, involving nineteenth-century British atheist leader Charles Bradlaugh. The point today is to note that atheism in Bradlaugh's day was a working-class movement:
In March 1859, Bradlaugh was scheduled to speak at the Guildhall in Doncaster, to the north of London. In response, a group calling itself "Friends of Religion" felt called upon to issue a "caution to the public" in which it advised the town's population to make sure Bradlaugh would gaze "on the unpeopled interior of the Guildhall." In fact, the interior of the Guildhall in Doncaster, when Bradlaugh mounted the stage, was "crowded to excess," according to the Doncaster Herald, which nevertheless dubbed Bradlaugh's talk a "frantic panegyric in honor of hell."
"There boldly, defiantly, recklessly," that newspaper sneered, "stood the Creator's work, toiling, sweating, laboring strenuously to heap slander upon his Creator." The Herald's correspondent expressed "disgust" and "horror" that a "young and accomplished man" could stand in front of a crowded hall "while the beauteous moon marches aloft in the vast and indefinable firmament" and dare state "that no God lives!"
Bradlaugh returned to Doncaster later that year. This time the "Friends of Religion" were better organized: He was denied use of any of the town's halls. So Bradlaugh spoke outdoors on a temporary platform erected under the roof of the corn market. "He is a person possessing great fluency of speech, of ready wit," another paper, the Doncaster Chronicle, conceded, "and the declamatory style of his oratory is well calculated to excite and carry away a popular audience." With no walls to restrict its size, the "popular audience" that evening was reported to include four thousand people. The city quickly forbade Bradlaugh from speaking in the market, so the next evening he spoke from a wagon in an open area near the market. The subject that night, a Bradlaugh standard, was the "History and Teaching of Jesus Christ." More than seven thousand people turned out to hear him question that history and that teaching.
One defender of Christianity that evening managed to hit Bradlaugh in the head with a stone as he made his way back to his lodgings. Nonetheless, some percentage of the people of Doncaster clearly had an interest in the subject of atheism. Some percentage of the people - working-class people - evinced a similar interest in cities all across Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Danger of Astrology
posted on 08.26.2006 at 10:52 AM
For most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs....I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle.
Could we add to this list various political paranoias and conspiracy theories? Shermer's explanation for belief in astrology and other "goofy things" might also apply to more mainstream beliefs, no?
They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.
"World War IV"
posted on 08.08.2006 at 9:56 AM
Now it's with Iran. And, of course, we're already losing:
Their war aims have never been secret. They have been shouting them out on the world stage to a billion listening Muslims, ever since they handed us the first of many humiliating defeats in 1979. These Persian mullahs and their followers aim to restore Islamic supremacy in the 21st century by leading all Muslims everywhere to victory in a great global jihad against America, Israel, and what is left of the free world.
Picking outlandish comments off the Web -- this is Barbara Lerner in the National Review Online -- is, of course, too easy. Do it enough and you can end up as paranoid as they are. And Ms. Lerner's solution to the Iran problem can indeed leave you spooked:
We should light up the skies with our own surprise: a massive aerial bombardment that wipes out most of Iran's nuclear facilities, and decimates the ranks of its mullahs as well as those of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij forces that keep them in power, defeating these monsters and decimating their fan base by shattering their image of invincibility.
Sure. But what might concern us here is the extent to which -- after Iraq, not to mention after the Enlightenment -- the blood-thirsty rhetoric of religious warfare -- against "monsters" -- continues to dominate some strains of American political discourse (and lurk behind others).
Pat Tillman -- Non-Christian
posted on 07.23.2006 at 9:31 PM
Pat Tillman was an American professional football player who, after September 11, gave up a million dollar contract to fight "for his country" in Afghanistan. He was killed by "friendly fire," though the US military managed to hide that embarrassing fact for almost five weeks. Tillman's family has been pressing for an investigation. Now there is a report that the selfless Tillman was an atheist, or at least a non-Christian, which has some in the Army upset.
Kauzlarich said he'd learned Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother and fellow Army Ranger who was a part of the battle the night Pat Tillman died, objected to the presence of a chaplain and the saying of prayers during a repatriation ceremony in Germany before his brother's body was returned to the United States.
Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.
Lt. Col. Kauzlarich's discomfort with atheism is interesting:
In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more -- that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."
Guess that's true. Guess atheists do find death "pretty tough."
Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know."
Here, in response, is Tillman's mother:
Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with ESPN.com. Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.
"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."
After a pause, her voice full with emotion, she added, "Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble.
...The Tillman family has continued to try to push through layers of Army bureaucracy for answers, about both the death of their son and the appearance that Pat Tillman's Army life, and death, might have been used for political purposes.
posted on 07.23.2006 at 3:41 PM
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the only country today founded specifically for people of one religion: Israel? We know the hugely compelling historical reason for this. Still, sometimes it is hard nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, (as my friend Dan Lazare argues) not to think that this sort of thing is a bad idea.
posted on 07.05.2006 at 9:32 AM
As you wander through Europe and South America large crosses often look down on you, and on nearby towns, from the tops of hills. Crosses occupy similar perches in parts of the United States, too. You'd hope -- since US governments are not supposed to "establish" religion -- publicly owned hilltops would be free of such crosses. But that is not the case in San Diego. The Supreme Court is to rule. Stay tuned.
Religion and the Quest for Certainty
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:30 AM
At the heart of the (alleged) religious revival is a hunger-- in a relativistic, postmodern age -- for hard truths. That hunger revealed itself (stripped of religious vocabulary) in a recent education law passed by the Florida Legislature, which proclaims:
"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."
Sure. The law is skillfully deconstructed by Mary Beth Norton in the New York Times.
Relgion and Politics: Barack Obama
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:15 AM
"It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.'"
Afraid I know quite a few people, all of whom have been children, who did indeed feel oppressed by it (but then again people do get a bit touchy when forced to mouth, every day, something they profoundly disbelieve). Why is the line between church and state -- inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the United States -- so difficult for so many politicians to honor? Okay, maybe we know the answer. But then it raises another also not-too-difficult question: What won't a politician do for some votes?
Thou Shalt Know Thy Commandments
posted on 06.20.2006 at 3:42 PM
The Congressman, Lynn Westmoreland, who sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in Congress, could only name, on the Colbert Report, three of them.
(thanks Ben Vershbow)
Are Atheists More Moral? -- VI
posted on 06.08.2006 at 10:30 PM
The Raving Atheist has come upon a losing candidate in the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Alabama, Larry Darby, who declared himself both an atheist and a holocaust denier.
Darby got 44 percent of the vote! Given how popular we know, or think we know, atheism to be in states like Alabama, that would seem to say spooky things about holocaust denial. Oh. Just learned Darby has spoken before a white supremacist group.
In other Alabama election news, Roy Moore, the former judge who had installed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, lost a primary for governor, getting one-third of the votes against the incumbent. Moore to supporters (from Newsday): "God's will has been done."
posted on 06.07.2006 at 9:38 PM
The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity--ethnic, racial, religious--rather than to appeals based on the rational forms-- economic above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: Why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victims?
Religion and Politics -- A Comment
posted on 05.10.2006 at 9:58 PM
This critique of Bush's injection of his religious beliefs into his policy decisions comes from a record from China, dated 662 BCE:
It is when a state is about to flourish that [its ruler] listens to his people; when it is about to persih then he listens to the spirits.
Religion and Foreign Policy -- 2
posted on 05.07.2006 at 10:16 AM
When I began this book I looked at President Bush as an anomaly. But in working on the book I found that all American Presidents in one way or another invoke God.... President Bush is a little different because he's so sure about what religion is telling him.
God Would be Great in 2008!
posted on 05.03.2006 at 1:56 PM
Why not cut out the middle man and just elect the Almighty president?
Positives: Known for being decisive leader. Has military experience. Projects sense of authority. Reputation for integrity. Many millennia of experience with media (primarily testaments and oral tradition, however). Unlikely to find new skeltons in closet (though possible Satan might make rounds of Sunday talk shows).
Negatives: Beard tests poorly with focus groups. Hazy citizenship. Has so far escaped openly taking sides in sectarian debates -- might be difficult to avoid in a debate. Unlikely to carry California. Possible tough questions about Katrina and holocaust. At least one well known extra-marital relationship. Jealous. Testy.
posted on 04.29.2006 at 4:46 PM
For a summary of the argument for teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the schools, see the new United States presidential press secretary, Tony Snow (via Matzke via Pharyngula). Snow asserts:
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.
Religion and Immigration
posted on 04.09.2006 at 11:39 PM
The religious battles in the United States lately have been between the orthodox -- of all stripes -- and the secular. (Ann Coulter's latest work of deep analysis even has a title similar to that of this blog.) But among the political alliances the current, increasingly heated debate over immigration has threatened is the recent evangelical-Catholic partnership to oppose abortion and support traditional religious values. This has certainly not been a happy partnership for those concerned about freedom from religion. Nevertheless, its potential breakup brings some eerie reminders of the way things were.
Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?
posted on 04.04.2006 at 9:54 PM
Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:
the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.
But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:
The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.
So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."
Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?
Are Atheists More Moral? -- V
posted on 03.30.2006 at 11:59 PM
The following statement, written when socialism was still (mostly) unborn, has long haunted me. It is from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov:
"Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today., the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on Earth."
Well okay, socialism is currently (mostly) dead. But what if you substitute "humanism" for it here? Trying to "set up Heaven on Earth" -- however naive, however Utopian -- seems a rather decent goal. Why wait for God to pitch in? Why content yourself with trying to reach an alleged heaven in the sky? But Dostoyevsky, having outgrown (in Siberia) his left-wing phase, is scoffing.
Maybe the great novelist is wrong and the point is that God paralyzes us, making all human efforts at amelioration seem futile, misguided, a diversion.
Or maybe Dostoyevsky is right and the point is that we dreamy, left-wing mortals waste our time trying to build imitation heavens.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)
posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM
From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:
He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.
Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?
Are Atheists More Moral? -- II
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:57 PM
Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
Religion and Politics: Hillary Clinton
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:30 PM
"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Hard not to support adoption of a Would Jesus Get Arrested standard for all future US legislation (though I must admit I have some difficulty locating this particular Jesus, The Illegal Alien, in my copies of the "Scriptures"). And it's always invigorating, of course, to see a politician standing up for some valued voting bloc's convictions.
However, I have to wonder whether the good senator, even with all her advanced polling, might not be missing the beginnings of a turn in American public opinion. Our finger in the wind (and this method does, upon occasion, work) is detecting the initial stirrings of a secular backlash against the orthodox backlash against secularism. Whoever Hillary assigns to adjust her convictions should be advised to turn to this page for the latest on this anti-religious revival.