Monday, September 25, 2006

Identity crisis

Dawn and I were waiting in line at the grocery store, and I was browsing the newspaper headlines. One of them caught my eye. Why can't Americans make a cup of tea? it asked.

Me: "Why can't Americans make a cup of tea? What? I can make- ...uh, hold on, I'm not an American."

Dawn: " had to think about it?"

I very nearly started crying.

I spent the next few minutes mentally spelling "colour", and thinking about toques and poutine.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sam Harris doesn't grok goats

Albert Mohler writes a brief review of Sam Harris' brief new book. I found it interesting mostly for the quotes. Naturally, Harris' new book has some things to say about "religious liberalism/moderation":
I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than the liberals and moderates generally admit. [...] If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself.
I guess he's talking about hell. I'm not sure why Harris has any interest whatsoever in what any theist thinks his fate in the afterlife will be. In any case, he wants to accuse "liberals" of faithlessness on the grounds that, for example, they think Christian salvation is more universal than the Bible really says it is.

Regarding what he takes the Bible to really say about salvation (and, by implication, where "liberals" get Christianity wrong), he writes:
If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41).
It's a curious choice of scripture to prove this particular point. I can only assume that Harris came up with it by typing "eternal fire" into the search function of some site like BibleGateway and picking the best looking verse on the search result page:
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Of course, before using this verse to prove his point, he might want to consider reading the context. In this case, the context is the parable of the sheep and the goats.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
Let's focus on what this parable doesn't talk about: namely, belief. In this parable there is nothing, not even a single word, about accepting Jesus as your saviour, or having any thoughts about Jesus at all, or having any thoughts about God at all. There is nothing here to support the idea that "unbelief" implies damnation. To the contrary, this parable ought to make one wonder whether professing a Christian faith, or being any kind of theist at all, is in any way essential for salvation.

Without presupposing any particular interpretation, it seems clear that you would be hard-pressed to read this passage and think that it makes the positive claim that salvation is the exclusive province of Christians. Either Harris didn't bother to read the rest of the parable, or he read it and decided to ignore the context and cite the verse anyways.

(It is also curious that Albert Mohler implicitly endorses Harris' use of Matthew 25:41, or, at least, doesn't think to comment on it. This might have something to do with his theology.)

(Hat tip to Jesus Politics)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fringe benefits

A couple of days ago I was on campus, and was randomly accosted by this smiling stranger who came up to me, said hello, told me his name, and then asked me for mine.

An ominous, aggressively friendly opening.

Sure enough, after exchanging names and a few pleasantries, he started proselytising, inviting me to his bible study, yadda yadda. I found myself confronted with the dilemma of either getting into what could turn out to be a drawn-out conversation that I didn't really feel like, or figuring out some way to extricate myself from the situation--and given how focused this guy seemed to be, it looked like that might involve either quick thinking or a touch of distinctly unCanadian rudeness.

Then it occurred to me that I now have access to a quick and easy response.

"I'm a Christian. I already have a church."
"Oh. OK."

This conversion thing is really paying off for me.

I've been reevaluating this way of responding to proselytisers. I think this guy might have been a Jehovah's Witness, and it's possible that a determined JW might respond to a profession of Christian faith by asking a bunch of follow-up questions about it. Usually this is not the desired outcome. Maybe in the future I could say I'm a born again Christian (technically true), which should be enough to convince all but the most foolhardy JW that the prospects of recruiting me are dim.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Witness to an unexciting coup

So I know this guy Paul. He's starting a new job training Burmese activists. (At the moment, Burma is not a happy place.) His work will be based in northern Thailand.

As such, on Monday he flew into Bangkok.

Then, on Tuesday, there was a coup.

I'm sure this was no coincidence. I was expecting him to trigger a coup in Burma, but perhaps he got confused.

He says the coup is pretty uninteresting in his neighbourhood, and might well stay that way, but I'll be watching his blog anyways.

Sam Harris: hard on terrorism

In his latest, Sam Harris (the End of Faith guy, and self-described liberal) declares:
On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are.
Here is his chief complaint against liberals (except for himself):
...despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.
I'm not sure what this abundant evidence is--Harris provides no hints. But let's focus on the connection between American militarism and Muslim terrorism; let's also focus on Bin Laden's followers, since that's the brand of terrorism which Harris is specifically addressing. How did Bin Laden attract his followers in the first place, pre-9/11? In 1998, he issued a fatwah declaring jihad against all Americans, in which he listed "three facts" which he took to provide an argument for the conclusion that America had already effectively declared war on Islam, necessitating jihad in response.

The three "facts", in brief: US military presence on the Arabian peninsula; US aggression against the Iraqi people; and US military support for Israel. Note the common theme.

A few details aren't immediately relevant here. It's not relevant how bad this "argument" for jihad is. It's not relevant that the "facts" are distortions (well, at least in parts). It's not even relevant that Bin Laden himself possibly didn't really give a damn about most of these issues. What is relevant is that some people received these "facts", and believed that they were true, and believed that they yielded an argument for the violent jihad of which 9/11 was a part.

Of course the situation has changed since 1998. The first "fact" no longer applies, but one imagines that the force of the second "fact" has been immensely strengthened in the eyes of Bin Laden's target audience.

In any case, it certainly looks as if American militarism (or, certain perceptions of it) was in fact a crucial part of Bin Laden's recruitment drive. I'm not sure what Harris would say in response. He ought to have something to say in response, though, if he is going to accuse liberals of ignoring, and even abetting, the One True Cause of terrorism: religious ideas, and the refusal to criticize them.
Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise.
This is Harris' constant theme. The greatest problem facing the world today is religion: a certain murderous form of it, in the first place; but also liberal ideals of religious tolerance which prevent the criticism of all religious ideas.

Including, apparently, those of Bin Laden and his ilk. Thus it becomes impossible, I guess, to criticize the idea that blowing up a bunch of people with a nuclear bomb will get you into paradise--which is why you'll never find any real criticism of that idea from a secular liberal pluralist, or a theist of any kind, and certainly not any Muslim.

Right. So much for the most substantive points in Harris' article. It mostly goes downhill from there.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Jesus Camp

I mentioned this Jesus Camp movie before, and I keep getting more and more excited about it. It's a great concept for a documentary, and I think we can be fairly confident that it's a fair portrayal, given that Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, has endorsed the documentary and helped promote it.

YouTube vids:
  • The trailer again.
  • Clip with Fischer explaining how Christian kids need to be taught to lay their lives down for the truth.
  • Clip with 10 year old Tory explaining her taste in Christian music, and how she needs to dance for God and not "for the flesh".
  • ABC News segment on the documentary, including clips of kids at the camp praying for an end to abortion, and "worshipping to a picture of President Bush".
Some articles via Jesus Politics:
Apparently this bible camp documentary thing is some kind of fad: here's another one about a camp for gay Christians (also via Jesus Politics).

Christian makers strike back

Judy Abolafya, who was the focus of part of a Salon article I made a post about a couple days ago, has made a response to Salon, which she's been copy-pasting to some of the blogs which picked up the story. (Apparently the article made a big splash on some of the internets.)

I'd figured that the article might have been written so as to focus on some aspects of the interview at the expense of others, but Abolafya's response suggests that it might have involved more serious misrepresentations. (At one point she complains about a quote attributed to her in the article. I'm not sure if she meant to say that she was misquoted there.)

Echidne of the Snakes writes a response to part of Abolafya's response. Not the part that claims that she was misrepresented (I'm inclined to think that she was), but Abolafya's attempt to defend her church from the charge of sexism. Apart from the portrayal of Abolafya's home life, one might wonder about this feature of her church (from the Salon article):
Following Driscoll's biblical reading of prescribed gender roles, women quit their jobs and try to have as many babies as possible.
I'm not sure where in the bible one gets that from.

Anyways, Abolafya responds:
To suggest that I am at the effect of a misogynist husband and church is hilarious when you consider the real sexism that I experienced in the music industry as a single woman. I toured with a band once whose tour manager used to make jokes that I should play “bunk roulette” with the guys on the bus. I got kicked off a tour for the simple fact that I was a woman because the drummer’s girlfriend thought he’d hit on me. And I couldn’t go to a venue without local security guards assuming I was a groupie or that one of the guys in the band was my boyfriend.
This statement reminded me of other defenses of the voluntary submission of women I have read on my tours of Christian Lady blogs. The basic idea is that women must make a bargain with the sexist world: either you will be molested and treated poorly by most men out there or you can choose one husband to obey and he will protect you. But in either case you submit, really. That there might be a third alternative for women doesn't enter the discussion at all.
Every woman needs a good strong man to protect her from the patriarchy.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Define means: "to give a definition of something"

I got a great treat in the mailbox today: the latest issue of Ability, the Magazine of the Church of Scientology of Illinois.

So it would seem that some former tenant of my apartment was a Scientologist.

I can't say I'm completely surprised--when I first moved in, I could intuitively feel that the place had a lower-than-average concentration of body thetans.

The magazine opens with an article excerpted from an old work of L. Ron himself, about "our biochemical society", in which we see Mr. Hubbard mimic the best analytic philosophy by beginning with the clarification of terms:
Chemical means "of or having to do with chemicals."

Six degrees of zombification

My friend Tucker recently demanded that I get addicted to his new blog:
Not the old dumb blog, but a new dumb blog.

It's not very good and it has nothing to do with Jesus... but... It's Got Videos!
Nothing to do with Jesus, eh? Well, what does it have something to do with? Could it be, oh, I don't know... SATAN??

Anyway, I dunno if I'd say I'm addicted, but I kinda liked this post about the edifying nature of horror:
I find that realistic outlook on the world common to many horror films to be exemplified in the thought that, the world was not built for us to live in (and, for matter of that, the world for which we are adapted might be other than the one in which we dwell). Thus, to my eye, horror films come as an antidote to a certain form of anthropocentrism, which I believe to be not only common to our outlook but perhaps even intrinsic to it. That form of anthropocentrism takes for granted that our way of living is well suited to the world and will continue to be so. Horror films like Night of the Living Dead deprive us of this assumption, insofar as we find, quite suddenly, that our world is not what it used to be, or what we thought it was. In the process of showing the attempt to adapt to the new situation, the flaws in our current ways of living come to light.
I can go along with that.

I wonder if Freud ever got a chance to see a horror flick. The concept of horror, as conceived above, seems more or less identical to the the concept of anxiety as Freud understood it. Anxiety is the feeling you get when you have to respond to an experience that violates your most fundamental preconceptions. These are the preconceptions that you bring into every experience, according to which you give that experience a meaningful place in your life: your own personal "paradigm" (to use a word that doesn't really mean much any more, but sounds pretty good). What causes anxiety is an experience that breaks your preconceived notions so utterly and terribly that you find yourself incapable of making any sense of the experience at all, incapable of giving it any meaningful place in your life at all. So, to make sense of the experience, you have to create some new ways of understanding your relation to the world--ex nihilo, on the spot--and that takes a lot of work. (Sometimes too much work. Freud thought that, for many people, a central organizing principle of psychological development is: to avoid dealing with anxiety. This is problematic. An honest confrontation with reality necessarily produces anxiety from time to time, so to avoid dealing with anxiety is to turn away from reality. What Tucker calls "anthropocentrism" in his post is a form of this.)

The connection between horror and anxiety is hinted at in the translation of one of Kierkegaard's books. The title of this book is sometimes translated The Concept of Anxiety, and sometimes The Concept of Dread. (The original word in the title is "Angest", which is the Danish cognate of the German word "Angst", which is what appears in the original title of Freud's Problem of Anxiety. Neither of these words have very much to do with the English word "angst", which has a rather different meaning: it denotes an attitude characterized by routine, habitual expressions of emotional frustration, which functions as a rather clever way to avoid dealing with "Angst" proper.)

Anyway, back to this idea that the blog has nothing to do with Jesus. Tucker, you fool! Everything has something to do with Jesus. As established above, horror is basically the same as anxiety. But anxiety is connected with original sin, and original sin is why Jesus is so important. Now, I would go over the connection between anxiety and original sin, but this post is already too long. Also, I'm making that claim on the basis of the blurb on the back cover of my copy of The Concept of Anxiety, which I haven't read yet, so I basically have no idea what I'm talking about. But zombies totally have something to do with Jesus (and not just because he got up and walked around after being dead for three days).

Friday, September 15, 2006

On the art of making Christians

Via Jesus Politics, a Salon article about an evangelical church in Seattle. As one might expect, the article could maybe be more sympathetic to the evangelicals, but, even allowing for that, it's still an interesting read. The Jesus Politics post focuses on one of the more interesting stories, which concerns the life of Judy Abolafya before and after converting.

...Abolafya toured all over the world with bands like Bush and Candlebox, staying at four-star hotels, living life on her own terms. She made a great income heading up merchandising on tours, managed it well, enjoyed her freedom, and was confident and outspoken.
And after:
She shudders as her daughter wails, shaking her auburn ponytail. "Listening to her like that just grates on me." She grimaces. In a high chair at the table, her toddler, Asher, glumly pokes at blocks of cheese with grubby fingers, periodically mashing them into a paste he rubs into his black Metallica T-shirt. "Let's face it. Asher is whiny and clingy and talks back. It's dull and tedious here -- there are myriad things I don't enjoy about being at home, but it's a responsibility."

..."We had originally planned not to have kids, but now we have to do our best to repopulate our city with Christians."
Granted, I myself would be inclined to go to great lengths to get away from the music of Bush and Candlebox, but this seems like a bit of an overreaction.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with abandoning an exciting, successful job to become a stay at home mom. But something seems off about this particular case.

One might wonder, for example, how she came to the conclusion that it was her Christian duty to stay at home and spend all her time making new Christians. The story here is a little sketchy, but this seems to be a central moment:
In the Bible, Abolafya found story after story about women being willfully deceived, following their own desires, wreaking travesty in their relationships and homes. In these stories she saw signs of her own past, her mother's behavior, her friends' actions. She began to submit to [her husband] Ari about purchases and plans she wanted to make.
In contrast, men never exhibit such character flaws, either in the Bible or in contemporary society. This is why they get to do things like pursue whatever career they like, and decide how their wives should spend money.

A final, sad note from the article:
Abolafya no longer reads secular books or speaks to her old friends.... Abolafya says she doesn't have time for many relationships anyway.... "It's not what I ever imagined," she tells me, "or even what I ever wanted, but it's my duty now, and I have to learn to live with that."

It seems that "duty" and "responsibility" are the most positive terms she can come up with when discussing her life as a Christian, and this is cause for possible concern.

And (as was pointed out to me) not just concern for her own religious life.

Abolafya intends to help "repopulate our city with Christians", which is a terribly problematic intention, given that (even if she gets her husband's permission first) she doesn't have the final say on whether her kids turn out to be Christians, or theists of any sort at all. She does not get to decide. For each child, the question of faith--if and when it is raised at all, and if (this is a big if) it is raised properly--will be raised between that child and God. And, try as hard as she might, mom won't be able to intervene.

On the other hand, she could have a great deal to do with shaping how her kids understand the religion that they will eventually either follow or abandon. One wonders about the prospects of someone earnestly embracing a religion, if that religion is associated with joylessness, and characterized by "duty" and "responsibility", while lacking in any understanding as to why those duties and responsibilities might be worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

Jesus Politics

I have acquired a mild addiction to a new blog: Jesus Politics. It mostly consists of just links to other articles (sometimes with quotes), but it's all so fascinating.

This post links to some info about Jesus Camp, a documentary I really hope they show on campus, since I never get out to normal theatres any more. (See the trailer.)

This post links to a conservative Christian's attack on Joel Osteen. (Joel Osteen is pastor of the largest Christian congregation in the USA. He has a nice smile, and no opinions. His smile is so very large, there is no room left in his mouth for opinions.)

And whatnot.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

To hell with "moderation"

A humble request: everyone stop using the term "religious moderate".

The term "religious moderate", whatever that means, is opposed to the term "religious extremist". And a religious extremist, whatever that is, is clearly someone who is extremely religious; meanwhile a religious moderate is someone who is merely moderately religious. Now, to be merely moderately religious is to be merely moderately committed to God--but in this area of life, a moderate commitment is no commitment at all.

The moral of the story is: religious moderates don't really believe in God.

Which is just how the anti-religious author Sam Harris puts it (see here):
People are really being motivated by the content of religious beliefs.... Religious moderates and secularists don’t understand that because they don’t really know what it’s like to believe in God.
For some reason, this strikes me as problematic.

Suppose that it makes sense to classify the varieties of religious faith on a continuum with the religious extremists on one end and the moderates on the other. On such a continuum, people like Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps, and, yes, Osama bin Laden, are obviously placed towards the extremist side of things. So what of people like me? I just want everyone to get along. According to this classification system, I could only be stuck in the moderate end of the spectrum. From which we can conclude that, despite my claim to be a Christian, I don't actually believe in God.

So this is how it is: anyone who, like Harris, conceptualizes religious people in terms of extremists and moderates is in effect accusing me (and countless others) of being religious in name only. We are faithless, we are hypocrites, we are apostates.

Harris, for his part, is entirely happy to think of theists like me just like that. I think he would be happy to do so simply on the basis of the information that I'm a liberal leftist--he would think that information to be entirely sufficient to warrant the conclusion that I am in reality a faithless hypocrite.

Well, I'll be damned if that's the case.

No, really: I'll be damned.

I think Sam Harris doesn't know anything about the people he calls "religious moderates". Here's some insight from Real Live Preacher:
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
RLP originally intended this to address a certain variety of Christian, but his words might as well be aimed at Harris and the following that he has collected.

Of course, many of the people Harris calls "moderates" really are religious in name only--97% of Italy is "Catholic", because they have been baptized, which says nothing about their relationship with God; throughout the West there are what you might call "cultural Christians", people who are "Christian" in a similarly superficial sense. And, yes, many "extremists" are indeed very serious about their faith.

But then there are people like RLP describes, who would also be called "moderates", and yet are as serious about their faith as anyone. And there are also people who would be called "extremists" who seem to be more interested in a hollow legalism than any sort of genuine faith--they are extremely something, but not particularly committed to God.

Long story short: the distinction between "religious moderates" and "religious extremists" is insulting and empty. Please don't use it.