Thursday, April 27, 2006

Jangled Nerves

A friend sent me a Roger Rosenblatt essay the other day on the subject of religion in America. Rosenblatt’s drift was that we don’t make sense as a religious nation, that we get all upset about religion on the one hand, and cling so tenaciously to it on the other. It was a very muddled piece of thinking and I wonder what he’d have to say about the developments since he wrote the essay five years ago.

We pledge allegiance under God. In God we trust. We go to court, so help us God. We go to war with God on our side. When a President becomes a President, God is at hand.

“With all that,” he says, “the national nerves get jangled every time religion is spoken of publicly,” suggesting that somehow our inbuilt all-purpose religiosity is inconsistent with our reservations about public religiosity. He’s missing two very important and obvious facts about Americans and their religion. First off, saying we are conflicted simply means some of us think one way and others another. Hardly a world-shattering observation. Secondly, he’s missing the point that there is no inconsistency between “trusting” in God (for those who do) and not wanting religion to be used against us.

Separation of church and state was originally intended to protect religious expression, not the state. Those with the jangled nerves understand that hasn’t changed. Too much public religion, since religions disagree, sometimes violently, with one another, can only lead to squabbles and backlashes, and those who really want to hold on to their freedom to speak out and gather together and worship unhindered are trying to head off religious tyranny as well as the possibility of a “pox on all your houses” attitude among the non-religious.

“(T)he country is sort of a religion itself,” Roger Rosenblatt says. Now there’s a problem. Any country which is a religion unto itself (Saudi Arabia? Israel? Japan?) is playing not so much with religion as with nationalism. We forget that religion is a word with an enormous semantic range, and without clarity about what we are referring to when we speak of religion we risk stumbling over meaning, saying one thing and meaning another.

“Religion,” as we use the word in the Judeo-Christian world, has many faces. We can be referring to doctrine, to ritual ceremony or behavior (with or without doctrine), an emotional or mystical relationship with the unknown, myth, legend or other narrative, a code of ethics, legal and other social traditions, cultural attitudes, material creations of art, architecture, music and dance, institutions and hierarchies and power structures of authority.

In the current Culture Wars in America, religion is doubly deceptive as a concept, having evolved from traditional dichotomies such as Jewish vs. Christian, Protestant vs. Catholic into a much more complex division into groups who listen for the still small voice of God and those who storm about convinced they have listened long enough and it’s time to tell! We say “religion” and think Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Jewish, but we ought rather to be thinking of the split between open/ecumenical and closed/authoritarian.

In our current age of politicized religion, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which declares you only enter heaven through the good offices of the Roman Catholic pyramid, has more in common with the born-agains and their insistence you “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” or burn in hell, than either of these groups does with others within their organizations. Both are umbrella organizations which include not only the smugly righteous, but people for whom religion is more about being awed by the unknown, and about sharing the quest for good and the knowledge of things unseen. The authority-oriented, let’s call them, among both Catholics and Evangelicals agree on the “traditional, conservative” side of complex modern issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay liberation and change in general. These things are bad and must be stopped. Those more open to question and less bound to authority are more ecumenical and ready to embrace progressive approaches to modern questions. Rabbi Michael Lerner can get together with Cornel West and produce a dialogue on Jews and (Christian) Blacks, Protestants can teach in Catholic Universities and traditional theological seminaries can open their doors to Muslims. All of these look for and find common ground.

“Why do gays hate Christians so much?” an evangelical asked me recently. She was unfamiliar with Christian Exodus, a group that believes so strongly that separation of church and state is wicked that they want to take over South Carolina and secede from the Union. And she failed to see that when gays see Christians coming at them with affirmations that they “hate the sin but love the sinner” they see zombie-like eyeballs out of some horror movie. It often feels like a hopeless waste of time to explain that it’s not all Christians; it’s only the ones with the (real or imagined) pitchforks and Bibles-as-hammers that they’re afraid of.

Roger Rosenblatt speaks in warm and fuzzy terms about how religion is so much in the marrow of American bones that we literally embody religion, and fails to see it’s not religion in general that “jangles our nerves,” but what progressives refer to as “toxic religion.” We worry about laws that could break up homes and take adopted foster children away from their gay parents because the official Roman Catholic position is that gay parenting is “violence against children.” And we’re uncomfortable about the fact that America’s best-known and most influential Pentecostalist (one of the two or three biggest Protestant denominations and significant chunk of our president’s “base”) is Pat Robertson, who believes God placed Ariel Sharon is in a coma for withdrawing Israeli troops from Palestinian territories. Robertson preaches from his television pulpit the wisdom of supporting a full takeover of Palestinian lands because it is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Don’t give me no more fuzzy stuff, Roger. We’re talking bad news religion here! And if your nerves haven’t jangled since you wrote that piece, (hell, Robertson and Dobson and Falwell and LaHaye were all around when you did!) you haven’t been paying attention!

April 27, 2006

We Will Put Your Baby in Hell

I just came across an article that appeared a week ago in The Ottawa Citizen – a week before the bill giving gay couples to marry finally became law. The article details some Roman Catholic cardinal’s decision not to baptize the children of gay couples. It’s the kind of information that hits you like a knife in the gut, evidence of how people in powerful positions can be simultaneously stupid and real mean.

When I searched out the information, I saw that, as is often the case, things are a little less black-and-white. Cardinal I’ve-got-the-power-to-send-your-babies-to-hell isn’t totally without feelings. It turns out he will only not baptize your babies if you want to both sign the baptismal certificate as parents. You have the option of having only one of the pair sign the baptismal certificate.

You can, in other words, make sure your baby goes to heaven if you admit that even though the law of the land considers you equally responsible for the little tyke, you deny your parent role before God. What will it be, Mr. Catholic Parent – heaven for your kid, or renunciation of your love for your partner? We’re not keeping your kid out of heaven, you are. We down at Our Lady of Extortion are ready to take you back into the fold soon as you’re ready to submit.

Fair enough. If I were a catholic who loves the church despite its very misdirected and very limited clergy-bosses, this would only inspire me to work harder to make the church more spiritual and less narrow-minded. I’m not a catholic, though, and I wonder once again why good folk think they need to hang on to this rotten institution. Why would you not recognize that your child’s path to heaven does not depend on some twit who reflects the love of Christ about as much as a street-thug.

The anarchist in me is encouraged by such stupidity. It brings the rats out of the attic where we can spray them. It gets people talking. Good catholics have a chance now to do some fine-tuning, get the love of this much abused Jesus back into the church, and stop this power abuse. And Vernon and Gladys Ordinary? You too can learn by reading the questions on the blogs like “But how do gays have babies anyway?” It’s what we call a learning-moment for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I am aware that people like me are possibly throwing too much energy into fighting the religious on religious grounds. The right for citizens to marry is and should always be determined on constitutional and not religious grounds. What people do inside their churches is up to them, and in the end I don’t really care if the church sinks like a turd in the ocean from its own mean-spiritedness. This version of it, anyway.

The problem is I have always been close to real Christians, people who listen for the voice of God and are convinced their morality and their sense of purpose is rooted in their religion. I understand their need to belong somewhere. I wish for their sake that 100,000 priests had not left the sinking ship in the past twenty-five years. I wish that they had better leaders than Cardinal Law, that scuzzbag from Boston who shifted the molester-priests around to molest again and when forced to retire was bumped up to speak at John Paul II’s funeral. And better leaders than this Canadian Shit-for-Brains—Cardinal Ouellet, his name is—who thinks being a cardinal involves threatening families with hell for their newborns.

I mean, really.

story source:

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It’s Fundamental

I know this is going to come as a surprise, but I’ve decided it’s time to come out of the closet. I’m a fundamentalist. I’ve been a fundamentalist for years, ever since I first heard a student tell me that we had no right to judge the Nazis because we weren’t there. After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Do you really think you had to be there to argue there’s something wrong with gassing thousands of people on the grounds that they were born to Jewish parents?” “Yes,” she said to me. “You can’t judge a person until you understand his culture.”

Right then and there I became a fundamentalist. I put together a course in “Cultural Relativism,” specifically questioning the notion that moralitity could be relative, and that led ultimately to my seminar in ethics, which I offered some sixteen times, if I remember correctly.

Some students objected to the open-ended nature of the course. They wanted answers. A Christian fundamentalist friend of mine also questioned my methods. “I hope you’re teaching them some solid values,” she said to me. “No,” I answered. “That’s not my job.” I saw my job as laying before them all I could see of the world’s approaches to ethics, crossing time and space from Confucianism and all the religious ethical codes through rationalism to modern professional ethics, and raising discussions in order to give students the tools to think and talk about how to look at a situation ethically.

I was never relativistic about it. I always let people know, especially if they asked directly, how I felt about things, while at the same time I worked hard not to intimidate them and make them agree before they’d had a chance to reach the conclusions I reached through their own devices. On occasion, they differed markedly from me on ethical issues, and I always took pleasure in finding somebody who had strength in their convictions. In that sense, I was a relativist.

However they ended up, the young people I spent my days with almost invariably used relativism as a starting point. I think this was largely because they are new to many of their own convictions, and more than anything else, they want to be left alone to explore and follow their own hunches. Some, like the religious fundamentalists currently holding sway in this country, would like to have moral certainty packaged for them, but far more see certainties as anathema. They fear if they come down too strong on the morality of any issue, it won’t be long before somebody is poking around in their lives with rules they’d rather do without.

At first, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. “Do you believe we have the right to tell people in other countries what to do?” “Certainly not.” “Do you believe if they sell their daughters into prostitution we should call it a local custom and leave it alone?”

You’d be surprised how many people would say yes at first. You could then ask them why. And they’d say it was because “it’s their custom.” “The custom of the people selling? Or the custom of the people being sold?” How did you reach your conclusion about who “they” are? And off you’d go with a very lively discussion.

Issues which will bring a young relativist up short are not hard to find. There are folk somewhere in the world still throwing babies into fires to make it rain. Customs requiring a rape victim to marry her rapist for the honor of the family. Female circumcision. Sooner or later, if you pile these examples on, cracks will form in their resolve. “Well you and I may not like it, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to stop it.”

OK, I’d ask them. What if a 9-year-old girl living next door to you came knocking on your door at 3 in the morning crying and begging you to take her in. Her mother wants to send her back to Sudan to be circumcized and she has been in Japan long enough to see this as brutal and dangerous. What do you do? Send her back to her mother?

This kind of confrontation would sober up a bunch of jokesters in a hurry. Even the cool cats would start squirming, the ones who said with the greatest confidence that we all ought to mind our own business.

“Yes,” the right of a parent is greater than the right of a stranger to the family to impose his or her own values on a person.” These were powerful teaching moments, because you had the material you needed to launch into the question of a hierarchy of values, and that hierarchy helped you recognize the complexity almost always involved in reaching a conclusion.

Sometimes, probably not often enough, we would reach a consensus about what is “right” but not about how we might go about acting on it. “Yes, I know what the right thing is to do, but that doesn’t mean I have the right or the will to do it!” And that would open yet another door into the complexity of the ethics of an issue, whether you could hide behind the cost of being ethical.

The longer I did this, the more of a fundamentalist I became. And maybe I ought to tell you now what I mean by fundamentalist. I mean that in the end, in the conflict between those who would like to use their instincts, their “hearts,” to reach a conclusion about what’s right, and those who believe reason should always prevail – and in the conflict between those who reason one way and those who reason another, sooner or later you realize you’re at the point where you have to take your stand. The fundies do it by citing Scripture. “All I know is what the Bible says.” Some will then concede there are conflicting rules in the Bible; the most stone-headed of the bunch will walk away at this point with some kind of, “Well, if you approached it prayerfully, you’d know how to read the scripture.” At which point the rationalists usually wish it was OK to carry and use guns. On fundamentalists.

I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to human rights. I say that without blushing because I think you still have to reason and negotiate about just what those are and how best to further them in any given situation. But that’s not the same thing as saying anything goes, according to your “culture” or some other intellectually lazy excuse.

Let me give you an illustration. Friend Barbara sent me an article the other day about something that’s happening in Berlin. Large numbers of Turks and Kurds have settled in Germany, and in many cases they have formed a critical mass of folk in a given neighborhood which enables them to live more or less as they did before they left home. Many of these are rural uneducated people, the kind of people that have the most pressing reason for emigrating for work, and that maximizes the differences between them and their host culture in a modern Western nation.

The article tells of a court case in which three brothers were charged with the murder of their sister. She had been taken back to Turkey and forced to marry a cousin. Rebelling against this – she was, after all, by this time fully “German,” she ran away. The youngest of the brothers hunted her down and killed her. Result? A few years in jail. He’ll still be a young man when he gets out and will be received with honor in a society which credits him with being a man who carries on the best of community values. His older brothers, who made no secret of their enthusiastic approval of his actions, got off scot free. They couldn’t be held on accessory charges, so they provide the chief support group for younger brother and at the end of the day you’ve got a wonderful family unity, a very positive outcome of this murder.

My relativist-inclined students aren’t here now and I miss them. I’d like to hear what they’d have to say about what Germany should do. Those who took my seminar repeatedly would probably be inclined to agree with me that this is a deplorable situation, that men should not be allowed to walk away from a so-called “honor killing,” but what can we do? It’s their “culture”!

No. Wrong. No. Not to this fundamentalist.

Let me tell you what Germany should do. As a fundamentalist, I’m free to tell other people what’s right and what’s wrong and to shake my finger until they do the right thing.

Here’s the right thing.

Cut the crap about relativism. I heard a comedian on television last night make some remark about Germans marching and offing their enemies in concentration camps. Why do people laugh at that, I wonder, sixty years after the end of World War II. It’s a terrible burden, this guilt of their fathers they carry, and it’s made them do some dumb things. Like open the floodgates to any and all and make themselves vulnerable to abuse.

I’m as happy as anybody to see a pacifist Germany, but I was also happy to see them at long last sending troops to stop the latest European genocide in the former Yugoslavia. They are slowly but surely finding their courage to act as a modern democratic state which needs to apologize to no one, and less as a state that has to make up for past sins.

Germany won the war as much as the Allied Powers won the war. 1945 was the defeat of the militarists, but it was also the start of a very effective modern democracy founded on the values expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I wish they’d act more like the winners they are, confident in their values, and unafraid to act on them inside German borders.

Germany today makes it illegal to advocate the things the Nazis advocated. They have laws we would find unconstitutional, laws we would call offensive to free speech. You can be a Nazi today in America – we just hope the silliness of it all will make you ineffective – but in Germany you don’t have the right. Fine. Given the living memory of fascism, I think they have a right to approach this differently.

But bending over backwards to allow space for other people once considered Untermenschen is just plain embarrassing. It comes across far less as generosity toward other people than as a lack of conviction that a woman has the right not to be owned by her father, brother, husband or any other man.

These are not notions to be debated in a classroom, not something to be negotiated each time a case comes up. These are part of a Grundgesetz – a (here’s the word) fundamental law of the land.

I know the story’s complex. I know the French have trouble making girls shower with other girls and come to school without headscarves. I know the Dutch have instruction for immigrants in which they inform them that they have to look at bare boobs on the beach and accept homosexual marriages as equal to heterosexual marriages because it is Dutch to do so. I know you look like an awful ass if you claim the right to do things the Dutch way in Holland but not the Kurdish way in Turkey or Iraq if that way includes killing women. But tough.

I know it is intellectually confusing to find yourself defending one code of ethics as superior to another simply because it’s your code of ethics. But it’s time we stopped thinking that a system in which people can live by a double standard (I’m a man, so I dictate to women; I’m white so I dictate to blacks; I’m Christian, so I dictate to Muslims) is as good as one in which people live by a universal standard (rules must be made collectively and democratically and they must apply to the lawmakers as well as the governed).

We need to admit we’re up against complexity here, that maybe we can negotiate the headscarves, but there will be no negotiation over honor killing.

Look, guys. You come to Germany, you kill your daughter, you are prosecuted to the full extent of the law as any other murderer.

It’s the law. (And if it isn’t, shame shame on me; I’ll fix that immediately!)

It’s fundamental.

P.S. There’s more – it’s an ongoing story. The woman’s name is Hatun Sürücü – you can see her picture, as long as they have it up, at . And when you’ve decided what Germany should do about this family, tell me what they should do about the kid. Turns out Hatun left an 8-year old boy. The authorities have taken him away from his family, but the family wants him back. Should they deport the family? All of them? On what grounds? On what grounds do they keep the kid in foster care?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Best Ruling Power

Friend Garren in Japan just sent me a news item from the Japan Times about the latest move by the ruling class to define patriotism. It goes like this: Patriotism is... “cultivating an attitude which respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them, while respecting other countries and contributing to international peace and development."

Garren made no mention of the disease the syntax of this sentence is suffering from (verbal dystrophy? nominal hypoplasia?), probably because he is preoccupied with a disease of his own, one manifested by a large amount of froth in his mouth.

So what’s wrong with patriotism, you ask?

Not so long ago, the public schools of Tokyo erupted in controversy over whether teachers and kids should stand and sing the Kimigayo and salute the rising sun. OK, so we don’t have the rays in the sun anymore since we canned Tojo and started over. It’s not as if we’re fishing for kamikaze pilot material or anything.

But don’t buy stock in that idea just yet, either. It’s just that we’ve got to do something to get folks to rally round, now that China has gotten big and rich and strong and Korea has nuclear weapons. Imagine what shape we’d be in if Japanese thought of themselves as citizens of the world instead of bamboo spikes along the shores.

What’s wrong with patriotism is that it’s like religion and any other ideology. It’s a way the right wing has of making you their bitch.

As with most things Japanese, the problem is not on the surface. On the surface who seriously wants to complain that people are being asked to respect tradition and culture? Or to love the nation and homeland that fostered you? Or to respect other countries? Or (heaven forfend) international peace and development?

Let’s start with culture. Some words have more than one meaning. I used to teach a course in “argumentation” and I can’t begin to tell you what kind of resistance I had from students whose only notion of arguing was that it came with bad feelings that arise out of conflict. Totally unfamiliar with this quaintly British upper class notion that gentlemen could agree to disagree that the rest of us have made our own, these young Japanese used to tell me even after acquiring considerable skill in verbal or written debate they were still uncomfortable at the very idea of argumentation, so ingrained were the beliefs they must avoid disharmony at all costs. Culture is like argumentation in that you sometimes can’t see the denotations for the connotations.

Japan is one of those places where the standard truth is that language and culture and race and ethnicity and nation and people are isomorphic categories – they all share the same boundaries. This contrasts Japan with more conspicuously multicultural places where nobody is surprised to find their neighbor speaks a different language, has a taboo against eating oranges, and believes God is a turtle. It enables the Japanese Ministry of Culture to put out language textbooks with crap like, “In our country we fly kites? What do you do in your country?” After years of this “we eat rice, you eat bread” indoctrination, Japanese are ready for the ultimate self-serving relativism. “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine” works only if you are trained not to realize there are lots of people who don’t go to church. Training in simplistic relativism reduces the world into “us” and “them” categories. And I leave you alone not because it’s the right thing to do but so that you will allow me to bash about on my island without your interference. No criticism of our ways, please. We’re Japanese.

This cultivation of non-critical thinking makes Hiroshi a very dull boy. When it comes to patriotism, it makes him a potential firecracker. Culture is not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing. Culture has two distinct denotations – the sociological sense, the products of the “best and brightest,” a nation’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, on the one hand; and the anthropological sense, the attitudes, values, beliefs and practices from marrying first cousins to putting grannie on an ice flow when she becomes too old to carry her own weight in the igloo. Neither one of these “cultures” needs to be respected. In the first case, it is worthy of adoption. I’m not Austrian, but Mozart is mine, honey. I’m not Greek, but democracy is also mine.

And it’s not my damn fault that Americans put their old folks in old folks’ homes and forget about them. And I’d really like you French and Chinese and Peruvians to help us get rid of the wretched practice.

And then there’s “respect for tradition.” Conservatives (the good kind, not the kind we have blowing up the world these days) focus on retaining the good. Liberals focus on eliminating the bad. People of good will on both sides can recognize these differences are only over which is background, which is foreground. Reasonable people can be expected to take both conservative and progressive stances alternatively, as the spirit moves them. But to speak of respect for tradition without also speaking of the importance of developing critical thinking skills is to put 100% of the weight on the conservative side. And that gives the war revisionists more chips to play with than those who would like Japan to fess up and put a little sincerity into their war apologies.

So watch it when you suggest that I (or anybody else) should cultivate an attitude of respect for culture and tradition. It’s a landmine waiting to go off. In the Japanese context (in many others as well, of course) culture is synonymous with “nation” and that means hands off Hitler when he invades Poland, the U.S. when it invades Iraq, hands off everybody. Say nothing about another nation’s encounter with the world because – if you’ve been brought up proper – you will recognize “we all have our own culture” and it’s important to mind your own business.

What a disservice to the youth of your nation to saddle them with this poisoned pablum. And, by the way, I didn’t mention that this is all being done as groundwork for a new “Fundamental Law of Education.” [1]

The manipulation of the abused term “culture” is not the whole story. There’s more. The ruling coalition has been debating the language of the law. The Komeito wanted patriotism to be “a mind that treasures the nation,” but the ruling LDP preferred “love.” Curious coincidence that “a mind that loves the nation” (never mind the associations with mind control) was the language of the 1930s and 1940s under the militarists.

And the Komeito General Secretary also noted happily that the suggestion that the current government be described as "the best ruling power" was rejected. Kept your ass out of the fan on that one, fellahs.

Bad enough we’ve got teachers losing their jobs for not standing up to salute the flag. Putting this into the basic law now, so close on the heels of that kerfuffle... you have to wonder why.

A whale of a place, Japan.

All covered with nasty nationalist barnacles.

April 15, 2006

[1] For the full story, see 

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Kiss Me Judas, I Love You Most of All

Don’t you love the scramble over this news story that yet another book (“gospel”) about the life of Jesus of Nazareth has been sitting around for a while waiting to be exposed. And that Judas, rather than being a rat, was Jesus’ closest friend and the man chosen by him personally to fulfill prophecy?

There goes the “Judas kiss” image. No more Mr. Bad Guy. No more Bad Jew.

Well, hell. All those years the Catholic Church beat up on the Jews? Turns out it wasn’t necessary. I could have told you that. Would have been no need to apologize a couple years ago. What next? No need to apologize for Galileo? For the Inquisition? The Crusades?

Ain’t history a gas? Just fasten your safety belt and sit tight. We all know Woody Allen was right in that it’s just a question of time before we come to learn chocolate is good for you. (Hold it. I’m already moving too slow – we did find out recently that chocolate, at least of the dark variety, is indeed good for you.) Just a question of time now before bacon becomes health food.

People are snarking that this Judas number is just a stunt to promote The DaVinci Code now that it’s finally coming out as a movie, since it has apparently been known since at least 1983. As least that’s what one catholic site said; I’m not sure I follow the connection, since I don’t understand why National Geographic would be working for Hollywood. (It was National Geographic which put The Gospel of Judas out, in case you missed that.) This claim it’s nothing more than PR is even more loudly articulated by U.S. News blogger John Leo, who hates Elaine Pagels for her view there was diversity in early Christianity. As they say in teenager, “Duh!”

Me, I like the argument that the gospels that got chosen by the politicos within that very political organization, Mother Church, were selected because they supported the perspective held at the time that all you need to know about Jesus is that he existed and that he told us what to do. The reason so many other stories were not selected for inclusion in the Bible is they gave a view that suggests there are other ways of experiencing God. Like all the gnostic views on God and Christ, this one suggests a mystical union with a divinity, and Mother Church had no choice but to take the machete to that possibility or lose its clout. They kept the wolves from the coffers for a while. Lost it ultimately, when their greed and corruption spawned the Protestant Reformation, but convincing people that they could only come to God through the church hierarchy worked as a concept for a while longer.

The church relies for its numbers on people looking for somebody to do their thinking for them anyway, so new “revelations” are not likely to challenge the status quo as much as revelations that priests sometimes diddle little boys and Vatican bankers are not above working with the Mafia.

What will be interesting will be what those poor nice people who think God wrote every word of the gospel himself are going to do with this. “If it is in the Bible, that means God wrote it. If it’s not in the Bible, that means he didn’t,” a born-again once proudly informed me. So much for the possibility that the gospel writer Mark, who paints Judas as Mr. Bad Jew might not have slanted his tale with God’s guidance.

Problem is where the scriptural evidence comes from that shows the politicos who made the selection about what went in and what didn’t were God’s boys. I suppose that’s where faith comes in. But then again, if you need evidence, you’re probably not one of the chosen.

It’s going to be fun seeing where this all goes, though. Adam Gopnik, in the latest New Yorker insists the discovery of the Judas Gospel “no more challenges the basis of the Church's faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.” Sounds cool. But he’s really wrong. Nobody’s claiming inerrant truth in accounts of the American colonies in the 18th Century. The Bible is loaded with contradictions, of course, but the twits most likely to claim Biblical inerrancy are those least likely to read critically and find such contradictions, so the secret has been safe.

Now, here in the headlines comes the suggestion we have a contradiction so whopping even the most solid dunderheads may have to take notice.

Don’t bet on it.

April 13, 2006

Monday, April 3, 2006

Harris, Phillips, Dennett: A review

I put down Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, just in time to go hear Kevin Phillips talk last night. Both Harris and Phillips have books out on religion and politics in America and experiencing the two back to back is like being hit by a one-two punch. No doubt more will come. People are taking the gloves off. High time.

Phillips is on a tour pushing his latest book, American Theocracy, but I’ve been impressed by his authoritative voice since I first read Postconservative America when it first came out in 1983. I also like that he is (well, was) a Connecticut Republican and lives not far from where I grew up, in Litchfield. There is a small (very small) conservative side of me that yearns for the days when Connecticut was my home, Republicans were people you could look up to, and a faith in government seemed justified. My best friend in high school went to work for Lowell Weickert. Republican Weickert lost a Senate race to Democrat Joseph Lieberman in 1988, and I’ve often wondered if I had never migrated to California how closely my political ideas might still resemble Tommy’s. Would I have worked for Weickert over Lieberman in 1988?

Considering I would certainly vote for Weickert over Lieberman if I had to choose between them today, it’s not a wild question.

The absence of admirable Republicans is not a cause for celebration. It strikes me much more as a national tragedy. The takeover by Bush and the neocons has got to hurt Republicans of conscience as much as any democrat I know, more if they have a sense of loyalty to the party. And given the readiness by democrats to lie down in the road and let them march over them, blaming the conservative republicans for the disaster doesn’t hold a lot of water for me. We’re both in the same mess and we both let it happen.

Which brings me to Kevin Phillips. Editor and publisher, historian and political analyst, he is a man of amazing accomplishments. In the 70s and early 80s he gave his all to Republican interests and became a voice to listen to in the Reagan administration. Somewhere in the 80s, however, he began to disassociate from the republican world view and focus on the gap between the American rich and the American poor. He left the party officially, is now registered as an independent, and articulates my view that the system is broken. With the takeover by the neocons, he is now convinced we have the first ever American religious party. And that means we are in big trouble.

Phillips’ argument is that we are in the throes of a deadly combination of incompetence and religious zealotry. We have overreached our grasp in the world, have lost all credibility as a moral force because of our need for oil, and have fallen prey to one deception after another. One of the worst features of the current government is the gap between what Bush says about big government (that we need to cut back) and what he does with big government (takes us into the biggest debt in history). Our problems cannot be addressed because so many of the power base can excuse hints of an apocalyptic outcome as nothing unexpected.

Harris provides some of the details of the problem:

· Only 28% of Americans believe in evolution; 72% believe in angels
· 120 million Americans believe the big bang took place 2500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.
· Nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.

While most of us laugh at the endless listing of examples of human folly, it’s time, Harris and Phillips both argue, to break the taboo against questioning people’s right to hide behind the safe screen of religious tolerance to dictate U.S. policy in the world. Thousands die in Africa because we cater to religious forces in withholding condoms and insisting they “just say no.” Roe v. Wade is collapsing before our eyes because officials forget they put their hand on the bible and swore to uphold the Constitution and not the other way around. Religion has become toxic in America and, (Harris quoting Yeats), “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Harris takes religion by the horns. Religions – all religions – are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, he says, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests restrain “the most lethal improprieties of faith.” Islam is the worst offender (something we’ve got to learn to stop being too timid to say), because it never underwent exposure to an Enlightenment, or something similar, where large numbers of the populace were exposed to the idea that an environment of open inquiry leads to greater possibilities for human growth and freedom than blind obedience.

Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained also has a new book out on the same issue, Breaking the Spell, aimed at convincing his readers of the danger in adherence to any system which insists there are whole areas of human experience which must remain immune to scientific inquiry. Rather than being a stabilizing influence, as is the common wisdom, religion, he says, is more like the common cold.

What the three have in common is a conviction that we have been hijacked by religion, whether just the wrong kind of toxic religion (Phillips) or religion tout court (Harris, Dennett). “To presume knowledge where one has only pious hope,” Harris says, is a species of evil. To allow ourselves to be governed by scripture, they all agree, is possibly the worst mistake we have ever made.

“So what can we do,” comes the question from the audience. “Will the democrats win back the House and Senate?”

“I don’t know,” says Phillips. “Probably they will win enough to stall government, but not enough to turn things around, and we will have a government dead in the water until the next election and beyond.” Meanwhile, Bush will continue to appoint judges that will take us back to the 19th Century, aided by forces which would be quite at home in the 16th.

April 3, 2006