Saturday, December 29, 2007

I wonder if O Fortuna is in their hymnal

The Wittenburg Blog post about the broom duel at the Church of the Nativity notes two previous, similar incidents at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This one in 2004 began with someone leaving a door open, and, as one might expect, led to five injuries. This one back in 2002 was sparked by someone moving a chair, and led to eleven injuries. It would appear that there is a list specifying the ownership of every damn thing in the church. I guess the chair was moved by someone from the wrong group, an offense punishable by concussion.

I have an urge to visit one of these churches and request a sermon on the topic of brotherly love.

Because of course Christians aren't supposed to be fighting each other. The properly Christian form of warfare occurs on a spiritual plane. Pope Benedict knows this well:
The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism. Vatican chiefs are concerned at what they see as an increased interest in the occult. They have introduced courses for priests to combat what they call the most extreme form of "Godlessness." Each bishop is to be told to have in his diocese a number of priests trained to fight demonic possession.
The Vatican is particularly concerned that young people are being exposed to the influence of Satanic sects through rock music and the Internet.
Rock music? What is this, the 80s?

I especially like that picture accompanying the article, in which we see Pope B doing what he does best: look creepy. The caption says "Satanism on the rise", and I can't help but see him as looking up to salute it.

(Dawn thinks that Pope B wouldn't look nearly so creepy if it weren't for this scraggly teeth. I think she might have a point. We recommend that he get braces. Nothing looks less threatening than an old dude in braces.)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Church of the Nativity is Thunderdome

Two clerics enter. One cleric leaves.
Members of rival Christian orders have traded blows at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with four people reported wounded in the fray.

Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests were sweeping up at the church following the Christmas rites of the Western churches earlier in the week.

Reports say some Orthodox faithful encroached on the Armenian section, prompting pitched battles with brooms.

Intense rivalries at the jointly-run church can set off vicious feuds.

The basilica, built over the grotto in the West Bank town that is the reputed birthplace of Jesus Christ is shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian religious authorities.

One report says the dispute started when the Greek Orthodox contingent wanted to place a ladder over the Armenian portion.
Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On a dark Midwest highway

I ride a long, dark line, in a deep, dark time.

For Christmas is a dark time, and the Indiana toll road is a dark place. At a time like this, in a place like this, a man is given to forking over cash to a fast food chain for the first time in nearly four years, and drinking foul-tasting lightly-coloured water masquerading as coffee.

And a bad brew on a dark road in a dark time can turn a man's mind to dark thoughts....

Dark thoughts, like about how the Pope can get into the news for declaring that terrorism is bad.

Dark thoughts, like about how holy crap can be not only atrocious, but also very creepy (via).

Dark thoughts, like about how crafty Mike Huckabee is to play innocent about his sectarian political ad, spinning it into a little War on Christmas riff (via). Said he to the flock at Cornerstone Church (that being the church of that great fat cat for Christ, John Hagee): "I got in a little trouble this last week because I actually had the audacity to say 'Merry Christmas.'" That's right—and you could be next—unless of course there's someone like Huckabee around to stand up for you.

Don't worry: he may have been in a church, but he said it wasn't a political appearance. And if you can't trust Huckabee to tell the difference, who can you trust?

Not that he's the only one to walk that fine line this season.

For it's a fine line, the line between church and state. But it's a bright one.

Not like the Indiana toll road. No, that's a long, dark line, snaking between Nowhere... and Hell.

(I mean, not literally Hell—just Gary.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Christendom: just misunderstood (by the BBC, at least)

My main source for news is the BBC. With respect to the vast majority of current events, it's much more thorough and reliable than anything on this "side of the pond". But one thing BBC reporters really, really don't understand is American Christianity in general, and its intersection with American politics in particular. Maybe this ought to be an object lesson in how stupid people can be about other sorts of people.

I mentioned an example of this before, but here's a more egregious example.

In this article, Justin Webb discusses some trends in American Christendom, trends so drastic as to elicit a remark of "Golly, this is a big change." (That sounds more striking coming out of the mouth of a Brit.)

First, a note about the headline: "Bible bashing dying out in Kansas". Maybe that makes sense in Britainese, but around here you thump bibles. What gets bashed are gays. Bible-thumping, gay-bashing: that's what Kansas is known for.

Moving on:
Hiding in plain sight in this state is a revolution in American Christendom, a change of heart that could see American Protestant churches looking increasingly like their European equivalents.
Well, European churches look empty. Church attendance in America is down, but not exactly—and not in Kansas—down to the single-digit percentage rates you see in some European countries.

OK, so that's not quite his point, but what he's really getting at is no less crazy. The big hook for the article is Fred Phelps, about which he remarks:
The point is that Pastor Phelps and his followers are not much liked by anyone inside or outside Kansas. The "burning at the stake" wing of America's Christian churches - the wing that stresses vengeance over love - is in trouble.
The implication here is that, once upon a time, Phelps was beloved of all American Christians, or at least representative of the spirit of American Christendom; but now the wider part of Christendom has moved on, as is shown by Phelps' recent loss of popularity.

So, part of this is familiar enough. Phelps is the good old standby for those who want to caricature the abysmal state of American Christendom: Look at this bitter and hateful old man without a hint of love or caring in his whole withered soul—wow, aren't American Christians fucked up!

The only problem with this trope is that—as anyone who knows anything knows well—for all his notoriety, Phelps' "church" has always been limited to a few dozen members members of his (extended) family (and not even all of his family). Phelps' current lack of popular support is not evidence of any trend whatsoever. He has always been on the very fringe of the fringiest fringe of American Christendom. (Some would be tempted to place him on the fringe of the Christian Right in particular, but this ignores the fact that some of his stances—for example, that American soldiers deserve to die for the sins of their country—are utter anathema to American conservatives, and anyone else with any sense.)

So much for where Webb thinks American Christendom has been. How about where it's going?

Well, apparently,
Opinion polls suggest that younger evangelical Christians are falling out of love with the "big causes" their churches have championed in recent years, in particular with opposing abortion and supporting the Iraq war.
And Webb visits another church to illustrate how American Christians are increasingly turning their attention away from issues like abortion, and towards such concerns as "human rights and the environment".

About which, here are some instructive comments from Slacktivist a few months back:
The deciding factor for most evangelical voters -- including, based on their own words, the green evangelicals Caron talked to -- is still abortion politics. My guess is that while the folks Caron talked to might prefer a candidate who was both anti-abortion and anti-greenhouse gas, but when that option doesn't present itself, they'll settle for a candidate who is the former but not the latter.
So, sure, the political views of the evangelical "base" of the Republican party are changing somewhat. But not in the way Webb would have it.

The BBC article paints a picture of the average American Christian transforming from a soulless hate machine on the model of Phelps, to a polar bear loving member of Amnesty International. But both halves of this story are completely off.

Now, this is kind of an important topic. American Christendom, and the way in which it interacts with American politics, is a terribly important issue for American politics, which is in turn a pretty important issue for the rest of the world. And, what's more, it's not like Webb and his colleagues are trying to puzzle out the mindset of ancient Sumerians here: once you figure out the 'truck' / 'lorry', 'elevator' / 'lift' thing, and the etiquette for serving peas and beer, inter-cultural communication ought to go pretty smoothly. So this seems like one hell of a blindspot, and there's no excuse for having it. (Incidentally, Webb has in the past remarked upon bias and even anti-Americanism in the BBC's coverage of America, and religion in America—so he is really without excuse here.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Philosophy as childhood trauma

A nine year old writes about his trip to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (via):
2 days after Christmas I went to a philosophy confrence [sic]. It was horrible. There were 200 philosophers. They all did weird things. They couldn't make jokes, many had beards.

In the elevator it was worse. Once a philosopher got off on the wrong floor, so said, "wait for me." "We'll take you to the 27th," said another. Nobody laughed. "Get it there are only 10 floors," said some random old guy in a country accent. You get the point it was creepy.

A few days later there was a fire. Only one person was hurt, but everyone did weird things. Like people were standing in the roads, so nonphilosophers had to lead them out. Some people went back into the hotel. Firefighters had to lead them away. Still one guy stayed and had his bags blocking the door. Firefighters told him to move his bags, so he did, but when they left he put them back. I'll never go to a philosophy confrence [sic] again.
Poor kid.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More about those Baby Killers for Jesus

I mean, the ones from that Guardian article.

1. The article mentions Stepping Stones Nigeria, a UK charity. I couldn't find another organization dealing directly with the issue. So they seem to be the ones to talk to about it, if you're into that kind of thing.

2. Letters to the Editor in response to the original article. One is from the director of the aforementioned charity.

3. Another of the letter writers, J Evans, complains:
...I was alarmed at the general tone of the article, which blames 'American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries' for the spread of fanatical beliefs.

The author fails to grasp the syncretist nature of Christianity in parts of Nigeria. [...] Nowhere in the Bible is violence against children condoned.
The message here is: Christianity is just fine, it's just that it's gotten all mixed up with those backwards Nigerian superstitions.

Point the first: J Evans is forgetting Psalm 137:9:
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones / Against the rock.
Or this other bit (as mentioned in the original article) Exodus 22:18:
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
(Note how that doesn't specify how old the witch has to be.) Now, you have to be reading the bible pretty poorly to see these as commands for Christians to kill children. But Nigerians don't get the patent on reading the bible poorly. They didn't come up with that all by themselves.

Point the second: Nigerians don't get the patent on syncretism, either. Around here people have no problem professing Christianity while pursuing wealth, even pursuing wealth as if it were a Christian ideal.

Point the third: This whole gig where you get rich through the shameless exploitation of the poor and desperate under pretenses of Christianity, destroying lives so long as it makes you money and you can get away with it--these Nigerian "prophets" didn't make up that stuff, either.

A vote for Huckabee is a vote for Christmas

Oh no, Huckabee's campaign ad has a subliminal cross in it!

Oops, did I call it a "campaign ad"? I meant, "innocuous message of holiday cheer paid for with political campaign dollars and run in the three states with the earliest primaries".

But about that cross: who cares? Of course it was intentional. But, hey, how about the fact that the perfectly explicit, not at all subliminal, content of the ad is something like: God Jesus God Christmas Christ Jesus I'm a Christian (psst, not a Mormon) Jesus Jesus Jesus I like God Christ yay Christianity God P.S. vote for me.

(Paraphrasing roughly there.)

The "subliminal" cross is there to communicate a message, but it's not exactly a hidden message. A blind person could probably listen to that ad and figure out what's happening on screen. "Are they showing a Christmas tree? A cross? Is he wearing a sweater?"

Well, I, for one, applaud this ad: how it repudiates even the slightest pretense, even the thinnest veneer, of actually addressing a genuine political issue; how thoroughly it embraces pure, unadulterated sectarianism; how it expresses with such refreshing honesty the state of so much political discourse in America today. Kudos to Mr Huckabee.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

They will know us by our tattoos

I really couldn't tell the story better than this, so, quoting in full:
The only Christmas story New Yorkers are talking about this week begins with three Jews celebrating Hanukkah at a Manhattan bar, then boarding a Brooklyn-bound subway while carrying a menorah and dreidels. A group of eight men and two women—apparently Christians—then yelled “Merry Christmas!” at them, to which 21-year-old Angelica Krischanvich, a Hunter College student who is not Jewish, replied “Happy Chanukah.” This infuriated the Christian revelers, two of whom stood up to display their Jesus tattoos and to say, charmingly, “You have no savior!” An argument ensued, and Krischanvich said one of the guys spit in her face. Her reply: “Jesus turned the other cheek.” Fighting words apparently, because one of the Christians then pulled a knife and waved it near the face of Maria Parsheva, a 23-year-old Baruch College student. “You dirty Jews, you killed Jesus on Chanukah, you should all die,” was the next remark as a full-bore fight broke out. Walter Adler, the 23-year-old boyfriend of Parsheva, then pulled the emergency brake on the train, and was punched repeatedly for that particular act. While everyone was waiting for police to show up, a Good Samaritan waded in and tried to break up the fight, but mostly just tried to buy some time for Adler. Pushing the men away from the women, he was dogpiled and beaten up. He never even got in a punch, partly because he only stands 5-foot-7 and weighs just 140 pounds. When the police finally boarded the train at DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, they arrested 10 people for assault, menacing, and inciting riot, then asked the four injured people if they needed the hospital. Adler had a broken nose and needed four stitches in his lip, but the Good Samaritan didn’t go to the doctor because he was too busy working two waiter jobs and doesn’t have any health insurance. He’s 20-year-old Hassan Askari, a Muslim.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Suffer little children

American televangelists enrich themselves with junk theology, fraud, and exploitation of the poor.

But, hey, it could be worse.
Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt

Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities
See for yourself. (There are pictures.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hagee: God is an unreliable vending machine

After a substantial hiatus, I recently tuned in to TBN, and was richly rewarded with the spectacle of John Hagee laying out crazy TBN vending-machine theology in clear and unequivocal terms. This is stuff which one of our pastors called "pagan idolatry"—no offense meant to pagans, but it's considered poor form for Christians. (And, beyond that, this isn't just bad theology. It is socially-destructive, exploit-the-poor, rich-televangelists-get-richer theology.)

Principle the first: God will give you anything you ask for.

You might have thought that God has a will and judgment of his own. You might even have thought that God's judgment is a bit beyond ours. But a vending machine has no will of its own, can exercise no judgment of its own. And so it is with God.

If you want a promotion, or a good spouse, or money to pay your bills (for example), then just ask God. Stick your prayer in the prayer slot, and God will dispense whatever it is you want.

To prove this principle, Hagee used scripture such as:
Matthew 7:7-8 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Similarly Luke 11:9-10)
Curiously enough, he left out the punchline:
Matthew 7:11 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!"
Which, in Luke's gospel, gets even more specific:
Luke 11:13 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?"
Principle the second (I think this is verbatim): "As powerful as God is, He cannot act until you ask."

You might have thought that God, having a will of his own, can do whatever he bloody well feels like whenever he bloody well feels like doing it. So, for example, he might go and get incarnated and born to some insignificant Jewish couple, and then maybe let himself die some ignoble death in some Roman backwater, never mind that no one had ever imagined that the king of kings should do any such thing.

But, well, I don't know about you, but I have never encountered a vending machine that would give me a tasty soft drink until I put in my money and hit one of its big friendly buttons. So it is also with God.

To prove this principle, Hagee referred to James 4:2, "You do not have because you do not ask."

He oddly left out the previous bits of the verse, which tell us that this admonishment comes in response to bad desires: wanting other people's possessions and not being able to get them; lusting and, you know, "not having". He also left out the next verse: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures."

Principle the third: God can be slow on the uptake

Vending machines are prone to malfunction. Sometimes things get jammed. Sometimes the button is sticky, and you have to punch it a few times before it catches on. Or, sometimes your bag of chips gets lodged on the end of that screw doohickey, and you have to knock the vending machine around a bit before it'll drop what it owes you. God works in similar fashion.

In order to clarify this point, Hagee discussed (I shit you not) the case of telephone sales, and how it takes something like three or four calls before the average sale is made. This is what Hagee considers a good analogy for prayer.

To prove this principle, he... well, I don't recall how he went about it. To tell the truth, I think maybe he was making all this shit up.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sonnets to Craig

On our way home I retrieved a book from the side of the road, much worse the wear from snow and ice. The title was Sonnets to Craig, and it was by someone named George Sterling. The first sonnet I flipped open to began, "To search thy heart! to know thine every thought! / Craig, art thou yearning for me...." And so on.

As we walked, Dawn and I got to wondering what "George" was doing writing all these overwrought poems to "Craig"--especially since this was clearly a very old book. I noticed that many of the poems were noted as having been written in San Francisco, leading me to the hypothesis that this was actually a work of early gay poetry. This definitely enhanced our appreciation of the work, although we did think it would have been nice if "Craig" had had a more poetic name--pretty much anything other than "Craig" would have been preferable.

Then Dawn went and looked it up. Spoilsport! I liked my story better.

Monday, December 03, 2007

How to celebrate Advent

According to the wiki entry:
In Normandy, farmers employed children under twelve to run through the fields and orchards armed with torches, setting fire to bundles of straw
Now that is a way to get the kids excited about a season. It would be hard to come up with a Christmas present that could top that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Trash a televangelist for Jesus

Here's a story about Ole Anthony and how the Trinity Foundation got started. It includes the tale of how they got a bug up their bum about televangelists.
Another time Ole counted the number of homeless people in America, then compared that to the number of churches, and announced one day, "We don't have a problem! If one homeless person slept in each church, the problem is solved." Especially since most American churches are only used one or two days a week. So Trinity sent speakers out to ask churches to adopt a single homeless person.
That didn't take too well. Most of the local churches just sent all the homeless people to Trinity.
And it was those very homeless who led Trinity to its biggest and most controversial work, the trashing of televangelism in America. The homeless would arrive at Trinity after being kicked out of some place, usually by their families, who were overwhelmed by their constant problems and inability to make money. But in several cases, the homeless person had spent his or her last dollar, not on food, not on drugs, not on gas for a car, but on a "faith pledge" to a televangelist. Many of these television preachers talk about the "hundredfold blessing" you get when you donate money to God, suggesting that God is a kind of spiritual casino who pays 100-to-1 odds when people need Him.


"It was literally widows and orphans," said Ole. "That's who supports the televangelists. The weakest, most vulnerable people in the world."
Unfathomable are the ways in which that shit ain't right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

About Hillary Clinton

I have no desire to see her get the Democratic nomination. But for crying out loud, can we all call her "Clinton" already? Is she not more important than her husband by now? Since when are we all on a first name basis with the possibly-soon-to-be-President of America? If you want to be derogatory, fair enough (see "Dubya"), but it seems clear that many are under the impression that this is a perfectly inoffensive way to refer to her (see "Clinton backs up Hillary campaign").

Sunday, November 25, 2007

It could happen here

Or so says Janet Folger, whoever she is. "It" being:
Nov. 20, 2010

To the Resistance:

I'm writing this letter from prison, where I've been since the beginning of 2010. Since Hillary was elected in '08, Christian persecution in America has gotten even worse than we predicted.

When the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" was signed into law, my radio program was yanked off the air along with all the others that dared discuss moral issues on Christian radio.

I feel obliged to offer some comment about what could possibly make this scenario seem plausible.

Dawn offers the suggestion (which she attributes to some source which may or may not be Slacktivist) that, in the strain of the Christian Right to which Folger clearly belongs, there is a tendency to assume that we liberals aspire to use the law to ban, imprison, or otherwise forcefully eliminate all those things which we oppose. And that of course includes the members of the Christian Right and everything they hold dear. Since we dislike radio shows that only ever go on about how awful abortion or homosexuality are, we must want to take them off the air; since we think books complaining about Christian persecution in America are stupid and politically harmful, we must want to ban them; if you so much as think those thoughts, we must want to throw you in prison.

That is, of course, their way of thinking, not ours. But being so intolerant themselves, they are incapable of believing that our talk of tolerance is at all earnest.

That helps make sense of Folger's paranoia, but there remains a significant gap of plausibility: it is one thing to think that this is what American liberals want, and another thing to think that the one thing needed to achieve that goal is to get Clinton (why her in particular?) elected, after which all else falls into place.

(via JP)

Friday, November 23, 2007

"Shots fired"

The other day I slow-played a pair of kings at poker. Another player commented that this was a "dangerous" move, and I suavely responded something about that being my very way of life. I was then informed by all around me that "dangerous" is in fact "the opposite" of how I live.

Oh yeah? Well, check out my neighbourhood. Or "the 'hood", as I am wont to call it. This evening it was host to a couple dozen police cars, coming from all directions, sirens wailing, to converge right outside our door.

The camera's batteries were out, so by the time I started taking pictures, the cops had already started to disperse. A couple of minutes beforehand, there were even more cop cars in the street, with a small army of officers winding their way between them.

Here we see some of the latecomers returning to their cars:

The action was down the street to the right in the second picture above. Dawn overheard one of the officers tell a passerby that they'd caught a gunman just down that street.

Myself, Dawn, and Beezus, all managed to make it through the evening unharmed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let the fraudsters hit the floor

With any luck, the finances of some of America's richest and worst televangelists will soon be hitting the floor like the bodies at a Benny Hinn spectacle. Well, maybe that's a little too optimistic. But one can hope.

The backstory here is that Ole Anthony and the rest of the Trinity Foundation (the nice folks behind the Wittenburg Door) have spent decades researching the financial practices of these televangelist snakes (and also their religious practices--which, for them, also reduce to financial practices). And the latest news is that Republican (!) Senator Chuck Grassley decided to put this sort of information down on official Senate letterhead and demand some answers to some tricky questions--all leading up to the very big question of whether these "ministries" deserve their tax-exempt status.

(As it is, these organizations are tax-exempt because they are registered as non-profit organizations. But they don't have to report on how they spend their money, because they are "churches". Whose bright idea was this?)

See here for a summary, as well as (in the comments) a first-hand account of what it's like to be victimized by these assholes:
I'm so mad still at [John] Hagee [alas, not one of those who received a letter from Grassley] who fleeced me for over 12 years while I was a single mom with three abused kids, barely getting by. When I think of the times my electricity got turned off because I tithed and gave instead of paying my bills, I could scream. I was told to NOT pay my bills, but to tithe first and believe God for the money for my bills....then when my electricity was turned off I was told I had no faith. I thought God hated me.
OK, so, that's somewhat beside the point. It's unlikely that this sort of practice in particular breaks any tax laws. But it sure does piss me off.

Anyway, other info, plus clips of TV news coverage, available at the Door's Televangelism Scorecard. See Creflo Dollar (his real name) explain how he has only one Rolls Royce, not two. See Kenneth Copeland get asked whether he ever sees any of the prayer requests included in the cash-stuffed envelopes he gets, and then start whining. See Senator Grassley suggest that maybe a non-profit shouldn't be buying marble toilets.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Happy Remembrance Day

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

- Wilfred Owen, 1918

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An accidentally discovered bit of blog gold

To be honest, I have never liked the idea of some guy smacking some female around for whatever reason but on the odd occasion there seems to be no other option as she refuses to stfu. Women must know that if they keep attacking the male, he just has to take some type of drastic action just to put an end to that verbal and psychological abuse.

I am of the belief that in most situations, women are just as responsible for the abuse as if they perpetrated it themselves.
Well, top marks for frankness, gotta give him that. Maybe we should find this refreshing--this sort of thing is assuredly much more commonly thought than said. (In case you're wondering: nope, no signs that this is satire whatsoever.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mother Teresa: less charitable than Bill Gates

Bill Gates has done some major good in the world. He's given away billions of dollars to various causes which are undoubtedly worthy. But I think it's safe to say that no one would accuse him of being a man of irreproachable virtue. Some thoughts from Peter Singer (h/t):
Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the Forbes list of the richest Americans, with $53 billion. His 66,000-square-foot high-tech lakeside estate near Seattle is reportedly worth more than $100 million. Property taxes are about $1 million. Among his possessions is the Leicester Codex, the only handwritten book by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands, for which he paid $30.8 million in 1994. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given?
Gates has proven to be an all right guy. Certainly he is much more of an all right guy than the average member of the superultramegarich. He is almost certainly much more charitable than most of the rest of us would be if we were in his place. But, as Singer points out, if the needy really were his top priority, he would be giving quite a bit more than he has. He does care about the poor to an extent, but his devotion here is quite far from perfect. No one would dream of calling him a "saint".

But, if we judge purely on how each of them used the financial resources at their disposal, I'm pretty sure Bill Gates is more devoted to helping the needy than Mother Teresa ever was. Again, Gates' devotion to the needy is far, far from perfect. But I think it's better than Mother Teresa's.

Since we don't really have solid numbers of Mother Teresa's finances, I'm speculating a bit here, but I feel pretty safe in saying that (considered in proportion to total funds controlled) Bill Gates has done much, much more than Mother Teresa ever did in terms of spending his money towards making people's lives tangibly better.

Gates has given about a third of his riches. If Hitchens was right, then there are at least $50 million in just one of the bank accounts of the Missionaries of Charity. Given how pathetic the MoC's facilities clearly are, how the MoC apparently hates to shell out what little cash it takes to buy new needles before the old ones go blunt, etc., I wonder how much of just that one bank account has gone to any decent use.

Even worse: The money that Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity got from donors was sent with the (at least partially justified) expectation that it would go to help the poor. And that money got accepted with full knowledge that that was the intention behind the giving. In my mind, this yields a pretty serious obligation to use that money for the poor. In contrast, Bill Gates' charity comes out of money he got from his business. There has never been any expectation that he would donate such a sizable amount to charity, and the source of his money, in and of itself, yields no obligation for him to use it for the good of humanity. Mother Teresa was supposed to be charitable, in a way that Gates isn't.

Of course, one thing that might seem to make Mother Teresa a better person than Gates is that she lived more or less in poverty (with some hypocritical exceptions, which I'll get to another time), while Gates lives a life of mind-boggling luxury. But living a life of poverty doesn't actually make you a better person. If you're living a life of poverty because, say, you've sold your possessions and given to the poor, then that might make you a better person. But if you're living a life of poverty because you've got millions of dollars sitting around, and have decided that it shouldn't be used at all - neither for yourself nor for others in need - then that doesn't make you a better person at all. I'm not sure what it makes you, but it doesn't make you a better person.

But maybe Mother Teresa had something else going for her. If so, I'd like to know what that is. (I'll get to at least one other possibility some other time.) Barring that, though, it looks like one should sooner admire Bill Gates than Mother Teresa. But then one shouldn't admire Bill Gates, or at least not very hard or for very long. So why admire Mother Teresa at all?

(P.S., that essay by Singer is worth reading in full.)

The aforementioned shirt

Dawn suggested I post a picture:

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mother Teresa and money

At some point I'm going to want to argue that Mother Teresa was a bad person. But I'm going to start more modestly. In this post, I'm just going to show how Mother Teresa's use of money invalidates the myth that she was some kinda paragon of moral virtue. I won't argue that this makes her an especially bad person. But I do think it makes her not-a-champion-of-the-sick-and-poor.

Fact: Mother Teresa controlled lots and lots of money.

How much? Well, it's hard to say for certain. Unless I've missed something, the finances of the Missionaries of Charity remain undisclosed and unaudited. But it was (and remains) a lot of money.

Says Susan Shields, former Missionary of Charity:
As a Missionary of Charity, I was assigned to record donations and write the thank-you letters. The money arrived at a frantic rate. The mail carrier often delivered the letters in sacks. We wrote receipts for checks of $50,000 and more on a regular basis. Sometimes a donor would call up and ask if we had received his check, expecting us to remember it readily because it was so large. How could we say that we could not recall it because we had received so many that were even larger?
Shields doesn't suggest how much that might add up to, but Hitchens has it that there were at least $50 million in the New York bank account of the Missionaries of Charity, and figures that, this being but a part of the organization's wealth, there must be several times more all told. So let's place the MoC's wealth in the 9-10 figure range.

Now, it would not be correct to say that all this money belonged to Teresa. I take it that she herself owned next to nothing. I'm just saying that she controlled this money. It didn't belong to her personally, but, if she'd really wanted, she could have used it, on behalf of her organization, to buy all sorts of medicines, pay all sorts of trained medical personnel, and maybe even keep her facilities stocked with clean new needles on a regular basis.

You may be able to guess what's coming up next.

Fact: Mother Teresa used only a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and the poor

Shields continues:
We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.


The donations rolled in and were deposited in the bank, but they had no effect on our ascetic lives and very little effect on the lives of the poor we were trying to help.
Well, who cares about the lives of the nuns: they got what they signed up for, right? That bit about the poor, though, that's a little worrisome.

Here are some examples of how the MoC failed to spend its money.

Shields gives one: in Haiti, "the sisters reused needles until they became blunt". Out of the MoC's bloated bank accounts, no money could be spared for new needles.

Likewise, in an article in the British Medical Journal (a review of Hitchens' book), Mary Loudon reports visiting the MoC's facilities and seeing "syringes run under cold water and reused, aspirin given to those with terminal cancer, and cold baths given to everyone". No money for oncological care beyond aspirin, no money for hot water, and, again, no money for new syringes, or even proper sterilization for old ones.

And in an article in the Lancet (9/17/94, Issue 8925), Robin Fox reports having visited the Home for the Dying in Kolkata, and describes the medical care there as "haphazard": no trained medical personnel are present unless some happen to drop by to volunteer their time, and the sisters themselves are not given any proper training in medical care. "How about simple algorithms that might help the sisters and volunteers distinguish the curable from the incurable? Again no." Out of the millions or billions, not enough for the salary of a single Kolkata doctor, or any other way of ensuring minimally consistent medical care.

That should do for now.

Ethical claim: If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will use more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor.

Or, equivalently:

Ethical claim: If you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, and you use no more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor, then you are not a champion of the sick and poor.

This post is already going to be too long, so I'm going to be dogmatic and just assume that that claim is right.

Conclusion: Mother Teresa was no champion of the sick and poor.

It's been a while since I studied logic, but I'm pretty sure that follows.

Now, again, this has not been an argument to the effect that Mother Teresa was evil. The world is full of people who have lots of money, and spend none of it, or next to none of it, improving the lives of the needy. I wouldn't say that means they're particularly evil, but it does mean that they're not particularly good. Similarly, I'm not (in this post) arguing that Mother Teresa was particularly evil, just that she wasn't particularly good, and that she certainly was not the epitome of moral virtue that her mythical image makes her out to be.

Now, in light of some common objections, I'd like to close with a few notes about that ethical claim above.

1. Note that the claim goes against more than self-indulgent greed. The claim is not "If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will refrain from spending it on luxuries for yourself." It's quite irrelevant that Mother Teresa lived a life of poverty herself. It sure helped her image that she did, but her personal poverty did nothing to improve the lot of other poor people. It's quite irrelevant to the poor that the MoC's millions or billions sat rotting away in bank accounts, rather than providing Mother Teresa and her nuns with habits embroidered with gold threads (or whatever it is that a greedy nun would do with lots of money). Either way, the lives of the needy are not much improved. But improving the lives of the needy is what a champion of the needy would do with lots and lots of money.

2. The problem this makes for Mother Teresa is not just that she could have made better use of the MoC's money. When faced with criticisms of her use of money, Teresa's defenders often respond with something along the lines of: "Well, fine, so she could have used her money better or more efficiently. No one is saying that she was perfect, and certainly not a perfect administrator!" This response misses the point, which is this: The problem with Mother Teresa's use of money isn't just that it imperfectly embodied the ideal of using financial resources to improve the lives of the needy; rather, the problem with Mother Teresa's use of money is that it didn't embody that ideal. Mother Teresa manifested indifference to that ideal. That ideal just wasn't one of Mother Teresa's ideals. (On occasion she said as much in fairly explicit terms. More on which later.)

3. Also note that I'm not saying that being a good person is just a matter of how you spend your money. All I'm saying is that being a good person is in part a matter of how you spend your money. Of course, it is not only that. For example, how you spend your time also matters.

4. On a related note, one might object that a person can be virtuous in one way, not so virtuous in another. So one of Teresa's defenders might grant that Mother Teresa did not use her money in ways that benefited the poor, but still maintain that, say, she did use her time in ways that were genuinely helpful. Indeed, the myth of Mother Teresa leans heavily on an image of how she devoted her time to the poor. Washing lepers by hand doesn't involve much money, but the image of her doing that sure does warm the heart. Well, here are three points about this line of thought. First, she could have spent some of her time figuring out what to do with all that money, or at least telling someone else to do so. At any given point in time, she could have said, "Sister so-and-so, I want you to figure out how to use the millions or billions to help the poor," with plenty of time left over for washing lepers. Second, I think it's bad ethics to give her a pass on how she spent her money, no matter how she spent her time--especially since her money could have helped the needy so much more than her time. If she'd cared for the poor as her mythical image says she did, she would have made better use of that money. Third, I hope to show how Mother Teresa didn't spend her time in a particularly good way, either--so neither her money nor her time was put to good use. But that will have to wait.

Would it be juvenile to make a joke about "Hoover" and "sucking" here?

The Hoover Institute at Stanford is giving Rumsfeld a job. Naturally this is pissing people off. For example, the BBC article mentions this petition is for people who think that Rumsfeld's appointment conflicts with Stanford's ethical standards.

Alas, I think that petition might be wrong-headed. The ethical appeal is too easy to brush off. But why not make the appeal on other grounds--say, prudential ones? Because while there might be arguments about whether or not Rumsfeld is unethical, it is pretty much unquestionable that he is really really dumb. And surely it is against institutional self-interest to hire someone who's such a demonstrated nincompoop, whose nincompoopery is a matter of high-profile public record. "The Hoover Institute?" people will say, their voices tinged with suspicion and dread. "Isn't that the place that hires people whose claims and predictions are pretty much always wrong, with tragic consequences for all concerned?"

The Institute director responds to critics:
"I appointed him because he has three decades of experience, of incredible public service, especially in recent years as it relates to this question of ideology and terror,"
But doesn't that just make it even worse? Rumsfeld spent three decades trying to figure out how the world works, and failed spectacularly. Three decades ought to be more than enough time to learn how not to be such an utter nincompoop, but it hasn't seemed to help him at all. All this means is that his nincompoopery is probably beyond repair. Now, a normal person, you could maybe hope to educate, apply some on-the-job training. But Rumsfeld? Who knows if there's any way of getting him to say a true thing!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Three cheers for the tanking US economy!

Holy crap, one Canadian dollar gets you 99.8 cents American? I think the sub-prime mortgage racket just made me a few hundred dollars.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

No Impact Man

Saw it on BBC, and now I do believe I'm a fan of the blog. I can't honestly claim to aspire to duplicate all the details of his experiment. I fear the no toilet paper thing is far, far beyond my commitment to the environment. But I think I can manage a few baby-steps, like carrying a cloth around with me.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The myth of Mother Teresa

There are two aspects to the modern myth of Mother Teresa. (Wannabe philosophers learn never to pass up a good opportunity to throw the word "myth" around.) The first is that she was a paragon of moral virtue. The second is that she was a paragon of religious faith. (This much of the myth is generally accepted across religious lines, and accepted also by the non-religious. The religious generally also go on to connect the first bit to the second bit.)

The second bit of the myth was called into question with the recent news that her (formerly) private writings were full of expressions of a decades-long crisis of faith (e.g., from Time):
"[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ...
Mother Teresa's religious admirers have taken her sense of divine absence and transformed it into evidence of an even deeper presence. Mother Teresa's non-religious detractors have called this a bunch of hooey, and chalk it all up to Mother Teresa figuring out that God doesn't exist, and then living the rest of her life in denial.

Well, I'm not all that interested in the Mother's spiritual life, but here's another hypothesis. It's pure speculation on my part, but I think it's fun speculation, and it gets at the first aspect of the Teresa myth, which is the bit that I really care about.

Here it is. Maybe her sense of God's absence was real. Maybe God sent her some chilly vibes to try to wake her up from her hypocrisy.

I don't mean the hypocrisy she attributed to herself; I don't mean the hypocrisy of speaking as if she had a deep relationship with God while privately feeling she had nothing of the sort ("I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love.... If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"). I mean the hypocrisy of presenting herself to the world as a humble helper of the sick and the poor, when really she was anything but.

Well, OK, those are fighting words. I might be laying the rhetoric on a little thick here. But, see, I'm really bitter about this myth, and it's a real sore spot for me, because I used to be a completely unreflective subscriber to it.

And I'm frustrated that, in all the recent discussion of Teresa, I haven't noticed any discussion of the arguments (which I think are pretty clearly conclusive) against her reputation as the great humanitarian of Kolkata (Calcutta). Which, I guess, isn't too surprising. You might be suspicious of the myth if you're actually familiar with Kolkata. (It turns out there is absolutely no mention of her on the city's Wiki page. Is this absence evidence of her genuine irrelevance to the city, or evidence of an even deeper relevance?) Or maybe if you followed the work of Christopher Hitchens back before he lost his cool. Or if you happened across a couple of Teresa's other (more level-headed but much less publicized) critics. But, for the most part, the Teresa myth is bizarrely powerful.

Speaking of Hitchens, he's been the major western debunker of the Teresa myth. He's probably the major reason why I first started to question what grounds I really had for attributing such a superlative character to Mother Teresa (it was no genius on my part). But I could only find one article by him about the recent Teresa news, and it totally misses the juiciest bits of criticism he gave voice to back in the day. (Perhaps his recent status as iconic antitheist has caused him to lose sight of what someone who isn't crazily anti-religious might find genuinely offensive about the Teresa myth.)

OK, this post is getting long already, and I feel that a person who heaps verbal abuse on a nearly universally admired dead nun should probably justify himself carefully. So I'll do that in another post (or two or whatever).

In the meantime, I might as well throw up some links: one of Teresa's former nuns, a Kolkata-born critic, and some pre-nutjob Hitchens.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Warner Bros. are dead to me

I was watching Saturday morning cartoons today. Here is what I discovered: Loonatics Unleashed is awful.

It's some sort of spin-off of Looney Tunes, set in the future. Instead of comic cleverness, the main characters are armed with super powers. Instead of engaging in zany antics, they battle with bad guys.

None of them are very funny, but the quasi-Bugs speaks with a Brooklyn accent and uses some of the Bugs Bunny catch phrases, but then shoots lasers out of his eyes. He also has yellow ears.

Everyone is dressed in matching black spandex.

And this next bit, I'm going to have to use bold text for this next bit:

The quasi-Road Runner talks, and he and the quasi-Wile E. Coyote are friends.

Now that is one ugly pile of poo. A world in which road runners and coyotes are friends, and hunt down bad guys together? No rocket attacks or anvil drops or mile-long falls off of cliffs to the desert below? What's the point of that? What life lessons are kids supposed to get from this?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A rant, following a recent visit to the BBC News site

Why the hell is this Madeleine McCann shit in the news?

Please understand, I mean to use the word 'shit' in reference to the story, not the person. I bear no ill will against the kid herself, but I'm a bit peeved by the story.

I just want to know: how the hell is this news? News agencies around the world have been running stories about the McCanns since May. This is worth 5 months of news? Really? And not just news, but big news. BBC has a special "features and analysis" sidebar on Madeleine, like they do for, say, Zimbabwe or N. Korea. There are maps of where Madeleine disappeared, like the maps showing attacks around Baghdad.

The McCanns got to go to the Vatican. While there they stayed in an ambassadorial suite. They were invited there by the fricken Pope. So, OK, the McCanns are Catholic, but is the Pope meeting with every Catholic in the world who has a missing kid?

I used to get a flyer in the mail every week or two about some missing kid or another. It turns out there are a lot of them. None of those kids got 5 months worth of international news coverage. Of course, a lot of them were not very photogenic, probably came from fairly poor families, and were also frequently black or hispanic.

(Hm, would I not be so pissed off if Madeleine were a poor black kid? I dunno.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

New source of God news

Via SoMA, I found this site, which I think is either named "The Intiative on the Future of Journalism", "News21", or "Faces of Faith in America". Anyways, it's totally a site for news about religion and religiony topics.

I was originally turned off by the super slick interface, like that banner that telescopes all over the place when you roll over it with your mouse. But some of the stories are pretty cool. I learned new things, for example about the Holy Land Experience.

For those not in the know, the Holy Land Experience is a biblish theme park kinda thing. It's got all these exhibits about the bible and stuff, plus an actor in the role of Jesus who stars in musical numbers and gets mock-crucified on a motorized cross on a daily basis. (That's him on the homepage, next to the slogan that says, "Look into the eyes of the One who changed the course of history..." FYI, that's not actually him.)

The Holy Land Experience was recently bought out by everyone's favourite source of anti-Christian broadcasting, TBN. (TBN then started running promos for the theme park, which is how I first heard about the park.) And Faces of Faith, or whatever it's called, has the skinny on the takeover, first in this story which goes into a bit of detail about both TBN and HLE, and then this one about the resignation of the theme park's pre-TBN CEO. And in the comments section, it looks like some newly disgruntled HLE employees are weighing in with additional information. It looks like it's not all that fun having TBN as your boss, which is what you might expect from having a more or less thoroughly evil boss.

Friday, September 07, 2007


I recently broke the backrest off of my $25 Ikea office chair. I was all thinking I'd have to buy a new chair, but then I found a perfectly good replacement down by our dumpster. By the looks of it, I figure it'd cost at least $100 new. It's got a hole or two, and somehow half of it got covered in some sort of sticky substance. I'm not particularly keen to know what that is, or how it got on there. Anyways, a good find.

(As for my old chair, it got inherited by Dawn. Such is the order of things in our household.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Carleton Singing Knights

This is terribly cool: a group called the Carleton Singing Knights doing an a cappella version of Sufjan Stevens' "Chicago":

As one commenter on YouTube put it: I want to hug them.

The Knights have some studio recordings (some samples, some full songs) available on their MySpace page, with more info here. I dearly want them to do a studio recording of "Chicago", but in the meantime their cover of "Harder Better Faster" is pretty impressive.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Live and let live, say anti-gay protesters

A BBC article about an anti-gay sex rally in Uganda:
Spokesman Pastor Martin Sempa said that Uganda was under "great external pressure to relax its laws" ahead of November's Commonwealth summit.

In Uganda, homosexuality carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Pastor Sempa told the BBC's Focus on Africa that homosexuals were using the summit to try and "shame, force, coerce, intimidate Uganda into changing our laws".

"We are telling them that Africans find homosexuality reprehensible. Leave us alone."
Well, it certainly is easy enough to see why someone might object to being shamed, forced, coerced, or intimidated into changing their ways. It certainly is easy enough to see why someone might just want to be left alone, to handle their own affairs as they see fit. Shame on Ugandan homosexuals for not understanding this! I suggest they come to their senses, and agree with Pastor Sempa that all should be left alone to live their own lives, and that no one should use shame, force, coercion or intimidation to try to change that.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Jedi Duplantis

I used to be an avid watcher of TBN, but I've become bored with it over time. Sure, pretty much everything on there is outrageous, but it's pretty much always outrageous in pretty much the same way. It gets old.

One notable exception is Jesse Duplantis. Because, besides spouting the anti-Christian theology and ethics which is part and parcel of every TBN broadcast, Jesse Duplantis is also batshit insane.

As I recall, the first Jesse Duplantis sermon I watched involved a commentary on the multiracial character of his congregation. He mentioned that on occasion some of the black members of his church get approached and asked why they go to a church with a white preacher (which is indeed fairly rare). In the mind of Jesse Duplantis, this line of questioning is completely wrong-headed—because he isn't actually white.

That's right. Don't let that there picture fool you. His explanation, as best as I can recall, went like this:

"I ain't white. See, I touch black skin, I turn black. I touch money, I turn green! I ain't white."

On another occasion, he was expounding upon the principle that you can have anything you want if you truly believe that God will give it to you--where "anything you want" means not just salvation (why settle for just salvation?), but also a better job, a new car, or maybe even a private jet. This is a standard idea on TBN, but Jesse had his own special way of explaining it (quoting as best as I can from memory):

"You don't have it? That's cuz you don't believe it. Even Yoda knew that! Remember when Luke's trying to get that ship out of that swamp, and he can't do it? Why not? Yoda says, cuz he don't believe it."

Perhaps not realizing that George Lucas's imagination can't actually function as a rationale for a theological claim, he continued to discourse on the mechanics of the Force in Star Wars for several more minutes. Unfortunately I can't comment much on the rest of what he said, since Dawn and I were too busy laughing at the time. But I did catch the finale of the sermon: Jesse looking straight into the camera and uttering the benediction, "May the Force be with you."

That's entertainment.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Conversation with a man waiting on a stoop for an Asian person to walk by (abridged)

Can I ask you a question? Are you Japanese?

[...] Well... no, not exactly....

Well, you been to Japan?

[...] Yeah.

Well, I wanna ask you, how do they treat foreigners over there?


My daughter just flew over there for a couple of weeks, and....

Oh. Well, to be honest, there's still quite a bit of prejudice against black people....

What? But we're all people of color, right?

Well.... Uh....

What did we ever do to them?

Well, nothing, it's just that there are basically no black people over there, and ignorance can breed prejudice, and...

They know what we been through over here, right?

Uh, well, they have.... Well, basically.... But, look, really your daughter will be fine. She just might run into some stereotypes, that's all.

Shoot, why they gotta be prejudiced? My daughter's not gonna get kidnapped or nothing, is she?

Oh, no, no, nothing like that, it's like the safest place in the world. There's basically no crime there, by our standards. Everyone's really law-abiding, and they're all courteous and everything....

But the English is gonna be a barrier, right? Is she gonna find stuff to eat? Do they have western food?

Oh, yeah, there are plenty of restaurants with western food, and especially if she goes to a big city there'll be plenty of English around, enough for her to get around without too much trouble. It's really easy to get around, and it's a really safe country, so, really, you've got nothing to worry about.

Yeah, OK. It's just she's my only daughter, you know? Hey, thanks for being honest with me.

No problem. Have a good evening.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

News from a Christian perspective

Watchers of TBN get their news updates through Pat Robertson's CBN News, which claims to present the news from a "Christian perspective". How so? Well, there's a bit of a right-wing bias (though I think it actually tends to be less egregious than some of what you see on Fox), and maybe a bit more attention paid to terrorism and the "culture wars" (though not all that much more, since normal news broadcasts like that sort of stuff anyways). Alas, this does not have much to do with Christianity.

And every once in a while there'll be a segment talking about how so-and-so is Christian, or a spiel on what it means to be a Christian. Alas, this does not have much to do with news.

But what would it mean, after all, to present the news from a truly Christian perspective? My first instinct was to think that the very concept was incoherent, but then I reconsidered, and Dawn and I came up with a couple of features that would make for a truly Christian news broadcast: keep the news stories more or less the same, but end every story with a comment about how everyone involved in the story is a sinner, and then a shout out to the guy upstairs.

For example:
Mitt Romney on Sunday called his victory in the Republican Iowa straw poll a "big start" toward winning his party's presidential nomination and said the no-show by his main national rivals only enhanced the win. Romney, of course, is a sinner, as are all his rivals, and everyone who participated in the poll. Praise be to God!
Or, turning our attention to the other nomination race:
With a television crew and photographers in tow, Barack Obama spent Wednesday morning mopping floors, cleaning cobwebs and preparing breakfast for an 86-year-old wheelchair-bound amputee. Such acts of kindness are, of course, entirely insufficient to make Obama worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, for he is, fundamentally, a sinner. And that wheelchair-bound amputee is, without a doubt, also a sinner. Hallelujah!
And in international news:
Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, says unless the term of the UN tribunal on the genocide is extended it will be a failure. During the 1994 genocide, Rusesabagina sheltered some 1,200 refugees at a hotel in the capital, Kigali, where he was the manager. This act of heroism did not make him any less of a sinner. Also, everyone in the UN is a sinner. Of course the perpetrators of the genocide were all sinners. As for those who died in the genocide, some of them may now be with God, but if so, they get none of the credit, for they lived as sinners, and died as sinners. God is great, and hallowed be his name!
That would be a great news show.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Andrews' beef with Haneef

I just can't get over the recently imploded Australian case against Mohammed Haneef, who was alleged to have "recklessly supported" the failed car bomb attacks in the UK.

Two major errors in the case against Haneef are described here: first, it was claimed that a cell phone SIM card connected with Haneef had been found in the burning car sent into the airport in Glasgow, but in reality had been found in Liverpool; second, it was claimed that he had offered no explanation for why he'd purchased a one-way plane ticket to India, when in fact he had explained to police that he'd planned to fly out to see his wife and recently born child.

These are not, I think, plausibly attributed to innocent mistakes. Somewhere along the line from the police collecting the evidence to the lawyer prosecuting the case, someone lied, knowingly and willfully.

So, OK, this is nothing new. Police and prosecutors develop firm suspicions against someone, and maintain certainty of the person's guilt in spite of a lack of evidence, and go on to twist evidence to support their case--after all, if you're sure the suspect is guilty, you don't want minor points of evidence to get in the way. It happens. Distribute slaps on the wrist all around (that's all you can expect, because after all they just wanted to protect citizens from terrorists, and you can hardly blame them for being a little overenthusiastic about the job), and let's call it a day.

In addition to that, though, I'm mystified by the antics of Kevin Andrews, the immigration minister, who's generally making an ass of himself in various ways. Here's one example. After the charges were dropped, Haneef decided to go on and take off to India, which prompted this response:
Mr Andrews said on Sunday [the 29th] that he still harboured suspicions against the Indian doctor.

The fact that Dr Haneef decided to leave the country "actually heightens rather than lessens my suspicion", he said.
If we are to assume that Andrews was honestly speaking his mind here, then we must conclude that he was entertaining the following thought at the time: "Well, if this Haneef fellow is so innocent, then why in the world is he so committed to leaving the country to see his wife and recently born child? This is terribly suspicious."

But, what's more, in a press release from the 28th, the day before making the above statement, Andrews commented:
After taking advice, including from the Australian Federal Police, I have indicated that the Commonwealth has no objection to Dr Haneef departing Australia.

Indeed the effect of Dr Haneef's visa cancellation is that he should depart Australia.
Incidentally, that visa cancellation is something which Andrews personally stepped in to bring about. So, with this in mind, here's a fuller version of what Andrews was apparently thinking to himself when he made the statement on the 29th: "Well, if he's so innocent, then why in the world is he so committed to leaving the country--something which I personally made it legally necessary for him to do--in order to see his wife and recently born child? This is so terribly suspicious."

Now maybe this is in fact what he had in mind. It might just be the case that Australia has a psychotic immigration minister. Or maybe (keeping in mind that it's an election year) he's hoping that the racist asshole vote carries more weight in his constituency than the reasonable citizen vote. In any case, notwithstanding the fact that I know nothing else about the man, I'm going to go ahead and conclude that he's not a good person, and should lose his job as of yesterday.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Obligatory pet post

I received a request for pictures of our new pet. And, really, what in the world is the point of having a personal blog if you're not going to post pictures of your pet?

So, the other day we had Beezus on the bookshelf, which she enjoyed immensely, as is plain to see.

Here we see Beezus digging into some Simone Weil.

Beezus hides from the gay science, then reaches beyond good and evil.

Here we see Beezus in an action shot, turning away from the Nietzschean shadows to reconsider the divine light of Plato.

And, finally, Beezus investigating this weird device I keep waving at her.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"This is a serious issue"

The article's headline is "Devil in the details for cabbie No. 666", and it comes accompanied by the following picture:

So you pretty much have to read it.

(via SoMA)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Homeland has it all

So, the "Key Judgments" of the public domain version of the recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorist threats to the US, which takes up all of two pages, uses the word "Homeland" 11 times--4 times in the first 3 sentences--capitalized. Is it just me, or is this not just fucking creepy?

(Via some Wired link I'm too lazy to look up again right now.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Personal Update

Yesterday we bought a pet rat. We have decided to name her Beatrice, Beezus for short. So far, she has proven to be very shy, and very willing to poop at inconvenient times. But love is patient and so on and so forth.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kierkegaard on femininity

From The Sickness unto Death:
However much more tender and sensitive woman may be than man, she has neither the egotistical concept of the self nor, in a decisive sense, intellectuality. But the feminine nature is devotedness, givingness, and it is unfeminine if it is not that. Strange to say, no one can be as coy (and this is a word coined especially for women), so almost cruelly hard to please as a woman--and yet by nature she is devotedness, and (this is precisely the wonder of it) all this actually expresses that her nature is devotedness. For precisely because she carries in her being this total feminine devotedness, nature has affectionately equipped her with an instinct so sensitive that by comparison the most superior masculine reflection is nothing. ...blindfolded, she instinctively sees what she should admire, that to which she should give herself.
So, women lack a concept of the self, and are devoid of intellectual reflection, but are instead endowed with a blind instinct for devotion. It's always such a joy when philosophers talk about women.

But there's more:
In the relationship to God, where the distinction of man-woman vanishes, it holds for men as well as for women that devotion is the self and that in the giving of oneself the self is gained. This holds equally for man and woman, although it is probaby true that in most cases the woman actually relates to God only through the man.
This is a little crazy. Kierkegaard had a individualistic conception of religion which pretty much entirely ruled out the very idea of anyone relating to God "only through" some other person: the relationship with God is a direct relation between God and the single individual, and no other person can have anything to do with it.

But he needed to find some way for women to be weak even in relating to God. So he fudged a little.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Stewie Hitchens

This idea is sweet.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Personal Update

I've recently moved, and married.

So, uh, what's new with you?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Knowest that thou hast been rearended by the LORD thy God

The other day I saw a large vehicle (I think it was an SUV) parked by the grocery store, which was owned by someone who loves God so much, they stuck a big ole tetragrammaton in Hebrew script where the license plate is supposed to be.

Yes, the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God (though many Christians are certain they know how to pronounce it, and are happy to do so). I'm not much for the idea of intrinsically sacred words, but if there are such words, then the tetragrammaton is first among them. Jews have not utterred it in millennia, and avoid writing it down lest that copy be destroyed--as would happen if, say, it were plastered on the front of a car, and that car were to run into something--a rather frequent occurrence here in Chicago.

It was no Jew that owned this car. An SUV licensed stamped with the mark of YHWH? Only a Christian, and probably only in America.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rorty among the believers

Naturally, there have been many posts about Rorty's death on philosophy-related blogs, like here and here and here (which even links to little old me). But I'm impressed by how often the news has been mentioned on blogs which don't have all that much to do with philosophy. I knew on some level that Rorty was fairly popular outside of philosophical circles, but I've still been surprised. (Some philosophers would say that this is owing to the fact that Rorty's appeal was limited to the philosophically ignorant. Which, I suppose, I was when I first became a Rorty fan.)

In particular, I'm surprised by how often he's been mentioned, and treated with respect and even admiration, on religion-oriented blogs like SoMA, Jesus Politics (in a series of links), Levellers (link via Jesus Politics), and the conservative First Things (link via Levellers). Rorty was an outspoken atheist who clearly didn't see religion as any sort of personal option, thought that it was about time that modern culture grew up and got over the religious urge (and here he included secular imitations of religion--e.g., what he saw as a tendency to treat scientists as a replacement priesthood), and took a hard line against there being any role for religion in the public political sphere. Yet there are apparently quite a few theists who found him worth reading, and worth engaging on something more than a merely polemical level. (I have in the past detected some distinctly Rorty-flavoured vocabulary coming out of the local divinity school. Of course, I'm unconvinced that the divinity school is particularly religious, so that might not mean much.)

It might even be possible that he managed to convince some theists to reconsider the wish that God had more of a place in political discourse. Well, that's pure speculation on my part, but he presented a good case (the same case that you'll find in Rawls or Habermas--but with better rhetoric). I'm thinking that maybe the "new atheists" should take some notes, assuming they have any interest in going beyond mere polemics, and saying something potentially useful. From the Levellers post:
As a believer, I also appreciate having atheistic dialogue partners like Rorty, rather than the current wave of angry atheists (fundamentalists of unbelief!) like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
But I suppose an "angry atheist" might think that this just shows that Rorty was too soft on religion.

(Incidentally, as I've said before, I don't think Dennett belongs on that list. The basic idea of the book--that the phenomenon of religion should be subject to empirical examination, and that the religious shouldn't shy away from that--sounds fine to me, as far as it goes. Though I suppose I should probably actually read the thing before I really pass judgment on it. Dennett was another big philosophical influence on me, back in the day, so I'm not entirely unbiased here.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Blasphemy and faith?

A post on some blog hosted by TIME, entitled God and the GOP? (via), begins:
When you embark on any dialogue concerning God and politics, you can be certain of raising the ire of the most religious.
With the ire-raising presumably accomplished by statements like the following:
However, it is my personal belief that God is not a fan of partisan politics. Partisan politics are about man’s will, while God is about his will. He is neither Republican nor Democrat. It is my strong belief that God cares about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the individual’s heart, Republican or Democrat.
Which would piss off the "most religious" under the assumption that those believers who go around politicizing religion and Goddifying politics are the "most religious".

The post continues:
Blasphemy is the act of using God to promote a personal goal—financial or political
So it turns out that blasphemy makes you more religious.

Which seems an odd way to think about religion.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

I just read the sad news on Leiter Reports, where Leiter also recounts an anecdote about Rorty which nicely sums up some of the essential features of Rortiness, and how he was received by many of his fellow philosophers.

Rorty takes most of the credit for my decision to go into philosophy. I was studying cognitive science at the time, and that program had some philosophy requirements, which I decided to take care of all at once. So I took a course on philosophy of science, and another on philosophy of language (plus one on modal logic, for no particular reason). Between those two courses, I encountered W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, and Arthur Fine, all of whom struck me as pretty interesting. But in the end they mainly just helped prepare me for what really got me hooked: reading Rorty's "Solidarity or objectivity?" and "Science as solidarity" in the philosophy of science class. A couple of weeks after that I decided to switch majors (...again). I became a convinced follower of Rorty, and spent a number of years basically agreeing with him about absolutely everything.

I've since found points of serious disagreement, but my image of Rorty still forms a substantial portion of my philosophical ego-ideal. For example (from the introduction to his Truth and progress):
I have sometimes been mistakenly commended for originality, simply because I often put apparent dissimilar figures - for example, Nietzsche and James, Davidson and Derrida - in the same box. But there is a difference between being original and being eclectic.


Back in the sixties, when I was a thrusting young analytic philosopher, I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a star-studded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic.... "No trick at all," Hampshire explained, "for an old syncretist hack like me." At that moment I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up.
That's pretty much what I want to be when I grow up, too.

Rorty himself would probably have been somewhat ambivalent about having influenced me to pursue this career path. Here are some of his final words on philosophy (from "Grandeur, profundity, and finitude", in Philosophy as cultural politics, the most recent - and I suppose now final - volume of his collected philosophical papers):
Perhaps the best way to describe the diminishing interest in philosophy among the intellectuals is to say that the infinite is losing its charm. We are becoming commonsensical finitists - people who believe that when we die we rot, that each generation will solve old problems only by creating new ones, that our descendants will look back on much that we have done with incredulous contempt, and that progress toward greater justice and freedom is neither inevitable nor impossible. We are becoming content to see ourselves as a species of animal that makes itself up as it goes along. The secularization of high culture that thinkers like Spinoza and Kant helped bring about has put us in the habit of thinking horizontally rather than vertically - figuring out how we might arrange for a slightly better future rather than looking up to an outermost framework or down into ineffable depths. Philosophers who think all this is just as it should be can take a certain rueful satisfaction in their own steadily increasing irrelevance.
I beg to differ, Professor Rorty, but you'll never be irrelevant to me. RIP.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

One Point Twenty-One Gigawatts!

My apartment building got hit by lightning today. Lightning is really loud when it's that up close. But, apart from that, it was a lot less exciting than I would have hoped. I haven't developed any mutant electro-powers or anything, for example.

The only bit of real drama involved my computer fritzing out. Very thankfully, it has since recovered.

In other lightning related news (via), a giant Jesus statue got zapped into pieces a few days ago. Naturally, this is passed off as just random chance. Uh huh. Just like it didn't mean anything when the set of The Passion of the Christ got struck by lightning twice (hitting the Assistant Director twice, and the faux-Jesus once).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Harris explained

Sam Harris (among others) likes to portray religious "moderates" and non-"literalist" interpreters of scripture as somehow deviant or deficient qua religious persons. For example, in his opening salvo in his blog-debate against Andrew Sullivan earlier this year, he says:
Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception....
Harris thinks that all religion is bad, but in the case of "moderates" he not only faults them for being religious, he also faults them for failing to be really religious. He sees "moderates" as guilty of having committed themselves to a bad game, and then guilty again of playing that game really poorly.

In the eyes of many people (both believers and non) who have more sensible views of religion, this attitude can be a bit mystifying.

A common diagnosis is that these are prejudices which get adopted just out of convenience. It is convenient (so the story goes) to cast "literalists" as the paradigm religious believers because "moderates" and non-"literalists" are harder targets for anti-religious manifestos. Now, there might be some truth to this, but I doubt it's the whole story. Besides, it's not at all clear to me that, in general, "moderates" make for tougher game. For example, Sullivan is a "moderate" if anyone is, and is a generally articulate writer to boot, but that doesn't seem to slow down Harris' rhetoric much at all. (I didn't follow the whole debate, but from what I did read, I'm inclined to give Harris the win.)

Another diagnosis, made by Slacktivist, seems to suggest that Harris et al. are, like "literalist" believers (whom he dubs "illiteralists"), suffering from a lack of literacy skills--leading them to be incapable of figuring out how there might be truth in a text without it having to be read literally. But this seems pretty implausible to me. As best as I can tell, Harris functions at a high level of literacy, and is perfectly capable of understanding that, in principle, there is a difference between reading scripture non-literally, and falsifying it. (And actually, I'm not sure this is really the right way to describe what is motivating "literalist" theists, either, but I won't get into that now.)

Anyway, I thought I'd say something about what I think is going on behind Harris' anti-"moderate" and pro-"literalist" attitudes. I can't recall anywhere where he spells this rationale out explicitly, but I think it makes sense of some of the things he says.

It's all based on this starting point (from the same post as above):
Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence....
In the philosophy biz, we appreciate this sort of terminological clarification. That said, Harris' explanation of what he means by "faith" could be fleshed out quite a bit more.

First, I think that, at some level, Harris understands, as he ought to, that "faith" is the name of an aspiration. To declare oneself as a follower of a certain faith is to make a substantial commitment, one which makes demands on a person. The religious person can live up to this religious commitment to a greater or lesser extent--it is possible to be more or less faithful in one's religious commitment.

Now, if we assume that faith just is "belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence", we seem to have a pretty straightforward way of measuring a person's faithfulness: tally up the number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence" which the believer believes, and that will tell you how faithful he or she is.

Now, for this to be at all a plausible picture, we're going to have to clarify it by specifying that, when dealing with a follower of religion X, we need to focus on those "religious propositions" which are associated specifically with religion X. (So, for example, the proposition that Joseph Smith read divine revelation off of golden tablets is a proposition specific to Mormonism, and it would be silly to see it as somehow relevant to measuring the faithfulness of a Muslim.)

But now consider two Christians, both of whom believe in the Bible in some sense--but one of them is a "literalist", and one of them is not. The non-"literalist" is probably going to read the Bible as expressing some "religious propositions without sufficient evidence", but it's pretty certain that the "literalist" is going to read the Bible as expressing a considerably greater number of "religious propositions without sufficient evidence". In both cases, there is some sort of Christian faith, as Harris understands it. But, compared to the non-"literalist", the "literalist" is going to end up believing a greater number of "religious propositions" associated with Christianity. And so, given Harris' method of measuring faithfulness, the "literalist" is clearly the more faithful of the two, with the non-"literalist" being a comparative failure as a person of faith.

So there you go. Doesn't that all make sense?