Changing my tune

Oh neat! It’s time for one of my rare (but fun) retractions!

Last Monday, I put the boots to James Croft for a conversation we had over Twitter. To summarize, I thought that his advocacy for increasing the use of song as part of humanist gatherings was a) offputting, and b) dangerous. A, because there are a lot of people who identify as humanist after fleeing religion, and that adding secular hymns to humanist functions was going to make those people intensely uncomfortable and unwelcome. B, because the function of liturgical music is to make messaging more palatable by bypassing the rational parts of the brain, and that rationality is what makes humanism more than just “religion for atheists”.

James took his time in responding, but when he did, he kicked my ass: [Read more...]

Oh boy… I made a stupid

On Tuesday I talked up the results of a survey that showed that Canadians are far more apathetic about religion and doubtful about gods than our southern neighbours:

It still remains fascinating to see that religion in Canada seems to be expiring without the need for a lengthy, showy campaign forcing religious believers into the margins of society. Like the Grinch’s Christmas, the ‘war on religion’ came without boxes, it came without bags – we didn’t have to steal Christmas, we just had to wait until it got a little long in the tooth and we sent it to a farm upstate to run and play with other faiths.

Sometimes I feel like I should wash my hands after quoting myself.

Anyway, I feel a little silly at this point, because as a self-proclaimed skeptic and anti-racist, I still left a giant gaping hole in my analysis of this result. Luckily, Douglas Todd from The Vancouver Sun is on the case: [Read more...]

Do we care? Reflections on tone, intent, and my audience

People who know me, know that I am an intractable grouch. I am highly intolerant of other people’s opinions, and staunchly refuse to listen to people who have a different perspective on issues than I do.

People who know me well know that this isn’t even close to being true. I am perfectly happy to listen to dissenting opinions – it’s how I learn. All I ask is that you give me a reason to accept your dissenting opinion. I am not in the habit of simply granting opinions credence simply because someone put them to words. If you have some kind of justification, some evidence, some sophisticated bit of reasoning, to back up your position – by all means share it with me.

This is a propos of something, I swear. A few days ago, in a vain attempt to start an oh-so-much-fun flame war between myself and Daniel Fincke, I said the following: [Read more...]

It’s not her fault, but she’s still an idiot

Last week I dashed off a quick response to the tragedy in Arizona, in which I said this:

Perhaps most damning (or at least getting the lion’s share of the attention) is the “targets” used in a Sarah Palin ad to describe how Tea Party voters should target vulnerable districts in the midterm election. My nemesis has (predictably) chosen to lobby on behalf of the forces of stupid. Depressingly, so has CLS.

I usually give myself a great deal of time to mull over the news stories that I comment on here. I think we are all best served when we get a chance to consider all facets of an argument before we state on opinion. This is particularly true for me, as I tend to find my own ideas so fascinating that they simply must be true. There are some times, however, when my passion gets ahead of my reason, and I opine before I give a topic due consideration. In those cases, in addition to being perhaps not at my rhetorical best, I tend to get things wrong.

And so, I must post this retraction (a real one this time) with apologies to the above authors who I have unfairly slandered. Scary, who I still do not fully agree with, said this:

But what’s all this about it being Sarah Palin’s fault? That was predictable. Following that reasoning, then Robert De Niro, Martin Scorcese, and Paul Schrader are all culpable of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. What’s more, the rest of Hollywood can be branded as incendiary hate-mongerers.

Insofar as anyone assigns sole or even primary responsibility to Sarah Palin, that is indeed a mistake. Sarah Palin did not, on her own, direct the hatred and violence that was involved in this attempted assassination. She is not the author, nor is she the leader, of the firestorm of hatred and demonization of the political left. Of course the reason I disagree with Scary here is, as in most things, because he is grossly oversimplifying the argument. Nobody has made the claim that Sarah Palin is entirely responsible for the assassination attempt, and anyone who tries to make that claim probably shouldn’t be allowed too far from the house. However, since he has built the straw man himself and then knocked it down so succinctly, he is technically correct.

I owe an apology free of snark to CLS though, who said this:

I also think it is pure rubbish to say that political language caused this event. No, insanity did. That the rather inane Sarah Palin wanted to “target” the district for a Republican win had nothing to do with the attack. I’ve seen similar language from people on the Left. It is a common phrase in the English language and only the truly insane take it seriously. If someone says, “I’ll kill if X happens,” it takes a deranged mind to assume the words are literally intended. And, I would hate to live in a society where acceptable language is determined by the most insane amongst us.

Once again, while I was disappointed by the statement that Sarah Palin’s ad had “nothing to do” with the attack – I think it’s an oversimplification to suggest that anyone is drawing a line between the shooting and the ad in question and saying “this thing is solely responsible”, and nobody is criticizing the idea of using the word “target”. The objection is to her repeated use of violent gun-based rhetoric in her political discourse, and her position as the center head of Conserberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of stupidity. However, I too find the repeated invocation of that particular ad to be a pretty severe strain on a credible argument, and in the context of the rest of the article I am happy to let this particular paragraph slide.

There is a constant refrain that is coming only from the right, which promotes the idea of violent overthrow of the government. When you tell people that a) the government is coming to steal your liberties, b) there is a shadowy cabal of leftist financiers who are plotting against you, and that c) you must arm yourself against the inevitable coming of the government thugs who are going to take over your life, it is entirely predictable that you’re going to see an increase in paranoid and violent intent toward government officials. While the words and symbols used in political discussion occur on both sides of the aisle (although more on the right than the left, as grassrute’s completely meaningless handful of semi-related links demonstrates – really, man? A plane crash is a call to violence against someone?), there is a consistent narrative of “you must protect yourself against the government, and the second amendment will help” that comes from the political right. It’s what’s winning them elections right now. But as Malcolm X so infamously said, you can’t cry when the chickens come home to roost.

And as far as dear Sarah is concerned, to go on an 8-minute whine about how you’re being targeted by the “lame stream media” again (which, by the way, you are a part of as a Fox News anchor you stupid stupid woman), and laying a giant egg of stupid by calling it “blood libel“, to say nothing of the fact that she states quite unabashedly that the responsibility of crime starts and ends with criminals (as though environmental factors play no role whatsoever – what a coincidence that the majority of criminals are poor people…) is right in line with her usual behaviour. I heard an interesting discussion on a talk show about the no-lose situation she’s built for herself, wherein if people cheer for her it means she’s right, and if they mock, boo, or in any way show their dissent from her opinion it means she’s right because her enemies disagree. While it’s a fun psychological trick, it does make her (and those like her) particularly insulated from any kind of self-critical appraisal.

I won’t be talking about this murder anymore, and I have already spent way more time discussing American politics than I really should. This is a Canadian blog about race, free speech and religion; not politics (except when they overlap with the aforementioned). For more commentary, I suggest you read the following articles that I found particularly interesting:

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Whoops, spoke too soon

Sometimes I overextend myself and make statements preemptively before I have all the facts. It can happen to any of us, and from time to time I have to walk back something I’ve said in a post here.

This is one of those times.

Yesterday, I made a statement in a post that could be interpreted as me saying that the Pope wasn’t evil:

Apparently the world is quite willing to hand an abundance of cookies over to the Pope for finally saying something that pretty much everyone else had figured out already.

But hey, at least he figured it out, right?

I’m sad to say that I have to walk back even this grudging attempt to paint the Pope in anything other than a completely negative light:

Pope Benedict XVI praised efforts of the Filipino bishops in blocking any attempts to promote contraception in the Philippines. The pontiff said the Philippine Catholic leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to confronting any attack on the sanctity of life.

“I commend the Church in the Philippines for seeking to play its part in support of human life from conception until natural death, and in defense of the integrity of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

Hmm, perhaps I should translate:

Pope Benedict XVI praised the corrupting influence in the Filipino bishops in ensuring that poor people are doomed to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy in the Philippines. The ancient decrepit virgin said that the religiotic busybodies in the Philippines have reaffirmed their commitment to preventing any attempt to improve the quality of life.

“I commend the assholes in the Philippines for seeking to dictate its beliefs to other people in defiance of human rights from conception until natural death, and in defense of bigoted and outdated definitions of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

So it is to my great chagrin that I must apologize for misleading you fine readers. The Pope is completely evil and has no redeeming qualities. He is happy to whine and cry about the “oppression” of religion in rich countries, and then cackle with Palpatine-like glee as his Church dooms entire countries to a cycle of abuse and unwanted pregnancy in the poor countries.

Tim Minchin, play us out…

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Why I was wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)

It seems like only yesterday I was talking about how I would try my best to admit when something I’ve said is incorrect. Weeks ago, I attacked the idea that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, pointing out the number of ways the Charter diverges from both Jewish and Christian scripture. I gave credit to Enlightenment-era philosophers for the idea of separation between church and state – an idea which manifests itself in the statues enshrining freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

It appears that I was wrong.

While poking around the blogroll of another Vancouver blogger who posts comments here occasionally, and who I often find myself disagreeing with (though we do share some core ideas), I found a particularly brainless post by a Toronto-based theology professor named Chris Carter. Mr. Carter (I am purposefully withholding the honorific title of “Doctor” since his degree is in theology – Mr. Carter, you have a degree in baloney!) attempted to turn logic completely upside-down and claim that Christians are tolerant of the mean old gays, who are forcing good Christians to abandon their religious convictions and (gasp, horror) grant gay people equal rights under the law. I pointed out that not only was Mr. Carter’s assertion that Christianity is tolerant of gays completely factually inaccurate (we don’t have to look much further than ultra-Christian Malawi, Uganda or the United States to see that this isn’t the case), but that the tolerance gays have seen in more developed countries (ignoring the USA for a second) has been opposed by Christianity at every turn. I pointed out that religious involvement in the passage of laws stands opposed to the idea of separation of church and state, and that recognizing the prejudice of Christians stands opposed to the development of secular society.

All of this was true, but I mistakenly gave credit to the wrong people.

Mr. Carter correctly pointed out that the separation of Church and state seems to have its origin in the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms as proposed by Martin Luther (although he mistakenly gave credit to St. Augustine who had a similar idea but stated that the heavenly kingdom outranks the earthly kingdom). The doctrine basically posits that there are two authorities – one for civil “earthly” laws and one for supernatural “heavenly” laws. He stated in no uncertain terms that the two should be kept separate. Insofar as Luther used passages from the Bible (specifically the “render unto Caesar” bit) as justification for this doctrine, it is in fact an explicitly Christian idea to separate church from state. While this seems to stand at odds with CLS’s account of the evolution of religious tolerance in the West, I am willing to accede the point that freedom of religion is a Christian idea, the origin of which is explicitly rooted in a specific interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.

Luckily for me though, none of that matters.

Freedom of religion (and its corollary, freedom from religion) is a good idea even when you take Jesus and God out of the mix. The modern-day interpretation of the separation of church and state does not rely on the supremacy of the church in matters of the supernatural; rather, it is rooted in the idea that equal rights for all people is practical and good for the development of a just society. While the origin of the concept seems to be based on scripture, it doesn’t need scripture to work. Charity is another great example of this. Jesus had a great number of things to say about being charitable to the poor, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe in Jesus to be charitable. The idea is good because it works, not because YahwAlladdha smiles upon it. Take the supernatural justification out of the picture and the whole idea remains just as intact as it was when it was religiously-justified.

Other ideas – such as the “unnatural nature” of homosexuality, or the sacredness of a fertilized embryo, or the immorality of premarital sex – do not hold up under irreligious scrutiny. These ideas only work if both sides agree that there is a God, and that he hates humans so much that he will damn them (and only them) to eternal torture for having certain kinds of sex or getting certain surgical procedures. Once one side says “yeah, but how do you know God exists?”, then the whole idea is forced to stand on its merits in the observable world.

The separation of church and state does stand up to irreligious scrutiny. When we take God out of the picture, we see that a society that is founded on equal rights and justice is best served when the personal myths of one particular group are not allowed to trump the observable consequences to any person or group of people. The fact that a Christian developed the idea is an interesting fact, but does not somehow grant legitimacy to other Christian ideas, particularly those that are deleterious to society or individuals.

So to you, readers, and to Mr. Carter, I offer a retraction of the statement that the separation of church and state had its origin in the Enlightenment. As far as I can tell it was developed by a Christian philosopher, with explicitly Christian justification. A good idea is a good idea, and I’m happy to give credit where it’s due. Luckily for me, and for the world, this does not matter at all – it’s a good idea that stands on its own even when Jesus is completely removed from the picture.