Love In the Name of Christ

Good thing I don’t live in Pennsylvania anymore — apparently, they have a law on the books against “desecration of a venerated object” that is so broad that it includes taking a picture in a suggestive pose with a statue. Apparently, we actually have blasphemy laws, at least in some states, and they are being enforced.

[Read more…]

Apparently, stated intent is magic

Sam Harris weighs in on the destruction going on in Gaza. He proceeds very, very carefully, explaining that the situation in Israel is complicated, they’re a largely secular state with a historical justification for their establishment, people with a history of oppression should have a safe haven, wars in any cause all cause casualties, yadda yadda yadda. And I agree emphatically with that. The people of Israel have a secular right to autonomous existence; they have a unique history of persecution (becoming increasingly less unique, unfortunately) and it is morally right to correct an injustice; every war is an evil that has unintended consequences, which is why we should be reluctant to enter them, and only engage when absolutely necessary (and I will also concede that the calculus for determining that is murky). But all that is just a prelude to his justification for Israel’s actions: it’s because their enemies are evil, and deserve it. Somehow, I’m not surprised at that.

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies.

Strangely, he never seems to question the necessity of fighting a war to keep a people oppressed, or considers the possibility that Palestinians see themselves as victims of the Israeli state, ghettoized and kept in a perpetual condition of essential serfdom…and that even that tiny bit of land that they do hold is constantly threatened by settlers and politicians eager to annex the place by one means or another. There is no consideration of alternatives, that maybe war is not the best solution to an extremely complicated (as he knows!) social problem. But to admit that they are committing war crimes, but that it is all the enemy’s fault, is simply disgraceful.

I must emphasize that this is NOT A DEFENSE OF HAMAS. As Harris points out, their goals are indefensible and despicable.

The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of the Palestinians.

That is an evil statement, and I condemn it whole-heartedly. But condemning one side does not mean I endorse the other — it is possible to see that there is a lot of indefensible and despicable activity on both sides. Also, I’m not saying “a pox upon both houses” — I don’t think the evil Jews deserve to die, any more than I think all those evil Palestinians deserve it. There needs to be a solution to a complicated hatred between both sides, and the simple solution of war until one side is broken does not resolve it. Short of genocide (do I need to argue against that?), it only exacerbates the issues. Does anyone really believe blowing up houses, killing terrorists (and incurring lots of collateral damage), building giant walls, and imposing more and more restrictions on the lives of Palestinians, will actually accommodate themselves to Israeli rule?

Elie Wiesel, in Legends of Our Time, wrote this:

Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate — healthy, virile hate — for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.

Should we use that to argue against the legitimacy of Israel? It’s an example of emphatic hatred directed at a whole people (even though he walks it back in a footnote — he’s decrying racism, not all Germans — and he also visited Germany and felt no desire to kill everyone he met.) Persecution tends to do that to people, to feed the fires of hatred. It’s not an excuse, but when you kill and torture and oppress, normal human beings tend not to reply with love and forgiveness.

Then Harris trots out the most stupid argument ever.

Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we—the Americans, or Western Europeans—have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done.

I’ve been hearing a lot of this sort of thing, and it’s nonsense. With American gun laws, I could buy an assault rifle, modify it to be fully automatic, get a couple of extra large clips, and march into the local Catholic church and gun down the entire congregation (NO, I would never do such a thing). We have that power. So if I get a rifle and shoot just one Catholic as they were walking down the street (also never going to do that), could I use the excuse that I was exercising commendable restraint? If I did kill 10 innocent people, could I then claim that I was being judged by a different standard, because I could have parked a truck full of fertilizer explosive outside the building and killed hundreds and destroyed the whole church, just like Tim McVeigh?

No. I judge by a consistent moral standard, rather than the relative one Harris is using. Killing people is not a good thing, whether it’s one or a thousand or six million, and the existence of one gigantic moral atrocity, like the Holocaust or the Indian genocide, does not suddenly diminish the significance of numerically smaller crimes. It’s horror all the way around.

There is also a kind of moral blindness at work here. He says the condemnation is out of proportion to what they’ve actually done…so what exactly have they done? Harris comes right out and tells us.

But there is no way to look at the images coming out Gaza—especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel—and think that this is anything other than a monstrous evil. Insofar as the Israelis are the agents of this evil, it seems impossible to support them. And there is no question that the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation. This is where most critics of Israel appear to be stuck. They see these images, and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies. They see the occupation, and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. I would argue that this is a kind of moral illusion, borne of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as of a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it.

The “Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation”. Stop right there. What do you mean, we critics are “stuck”? Isn’t that a terrible, awful fact of Middle East history that is being blithely glossed over? Of course it is. Sam Harris apparently does not think it’s that big a deal that the Palestinians are suffering under an occupation, and for someone who wants to claim we have to look at the big picture to see the causes of the conflict, he doesn’t seem to see how that could have led to the hatred expressed by Hamas. Again, not to excuse it…but if you want to address it, you can’t simply call the Palestinians evil bad guys and offer no solutions other than shooting them. Both sides have deep antecedents and a thousand justifications.

See the Elie Wiesel quote above. Many of the Palestinians hate the Israelis, no small wonder. You don’t fix it by shooting their cousin, or dropping a bomb on the local schoolhouse.

But all that matters to Harris is intent.

And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. And this is something I discussed in The End of Faith. To see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.

What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants. 

Whoa. So the reason we know that Israel would not commit genocide if they could do anything they wanted is because right now they have total power and can do anything they want, and they aren’t committing genocide. But that’s not true! Israel’s military power is strongly dependent on foreign support — maintaining good relations with the United States is a major constraint (well, maybe not that constraining, because so far it looks like Congress rolls over and does whatever Israel asks). Further, in his cautious prelude, Harris emphasized that Israel has a complex society with a very strong secular component — there are Jewish elements who resist the idea of wholesale murder, too. Right now, Israel has external and internal constraints, so it’s silly to argue that they don’t.

Israel has elected a government that is aggressively militant. If that government were released from all restraints, I suspect that they’d push for an even more thorough campaign of extermination. But that’s speculation about intent — I’m more interested in the actual evidence. I look at the casualties, and there sure seem to be a lot of dead Palestinians for an enemy that takes “great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants”. And then there’s the distribution of the deaths.

The United Nations estimates that more than 70% of the Palestinians killed were civilians, including 226 youths and 117 women. More than 150 were members of armed groups, the United Nations says.

UNICEF said Monday that about two-thirds of the children killed were 12 years old or younger.

We’re supposed to believe in reason and evidence. When I see a thousand dead bodies, many of them children, and city blocks reduced to rubble, I tend not to accept the claim that that was reasonable restraint. Likewise, when Hamas launches rockets into Jewish suburbs, I tend not to accept that they are acting under reasonable restraint.

We get another of those hypocritical arguments used by IDF apologists.

The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.

OK. So we should excuse the deaths of all the civilians caused by the Israeli military because they are a regrettable and unavoidable consequence of fighting in an urban area with a high civilian population density. But we have to blame the Palestinians for fighting in their homes in an urban area with a high civilian population density — they should have found some nice open fields somewhere and deployed an army that could be met by the Israeli army, I guess.

And please, please stop characterizing specific groups with specific issues and causes with global Islamism. I despise that religion myself, but that does not mean you can simply lump Palestinians under the thumb of Israel with Muslims in Iraq or unsourced claims that Muslims use their own children as shields, or complaining about ISIS when talking about the events in Gaza. Let’s start by recognizing that Palestinians have legitimate grievances, as Harris tacitly acknowledges, and not ignoring them under the umbrella of simply declaring them wicked and deserving of all that they get.

Here is an example of Israel’s measured response.

At least the title gets it right: the author is a “Know Nothing”

It’s weird. There’s this new Dawkins’ Flea, Nick Spencer, who has written a book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species, which I have not read nor am I interested in reading. But it also has this positive review by Michael Robbins in Slate, and I get so much mail about it — either people who declare “Checkmate, Atheists!” or “This is really stupid, you should rip into it”, in equal measure. I’m going to have to side with “it’s stupid.”

It’s unoriginal. It’s the same old nonsense parroted by anti-atheists for the past decade. In fact, all I had to do is skim the thing and see familiar tropes jump out at me, and until people started sending me link after link, I didn’t bother to read it carefully.

Let me tell you, reading it carefully did not make it any better.

Here are the key arguments that bored me:

New Atheists aren’t new. Oh, please. Anyone who tries to make this argument is an idiot and can be simply dismissed. WE KNOW. Every big-name New Atheist I know has grumbled about this stupid label. We didn’t come up with it. It was imposed on us from the outside, and every time it was brought up, we’d grumble, “But these ideas have been around for a long time…” and get ignored. And now we get accused of being ignorant of history, philosophy, and literature because we think we came up with this stuff for the very first time. We didn’t, and we sure don’t believe so. Fuck off.

Nietzsche! Nietzche, Nietzsche, Nietsche. This one is just annoying, but it’s a good, reliable marker for pseudo-erudite apologetics for religion. When they start talking about Nietzsche, you know exactly where they’re going: it’s not that he was an interesting, complicated, and unique philosopher, but all they want to tell you is that he was the last good atheist. Why? Because he was an anguished atheist who saw the loss of faith as a great tragedy for our culture, that was going to cause massive upheavals. You are allowed to be an atheist only if you feel deep regret and show the proper appreciation for the magnitude of religion’s contributions to humanity.

Many atheists do feel pain at leaving religion, especially if they were brought up deeply imbedded within it. Becoming an atheist means saying Mom & Dad & Grandma & Grandpa were completely wrong about something they thought was extremely important in their lives, and that’s sometimes very hard to do. But they still feel it’s clear enough and important enough to deny tradition, because that religion they were brought up with turns out to have been evil bullshit. I’d like to see these apologists make a similar argument against egalitarianism — the last good person to promote equal rights was the one who expressed deep remorse over his cherished lost racism, and who was unhappy that ending slavery would change the world.

And some of us atheists were brought up largely outside the fervent cults, and we look at religious culture and laugh. No brainwashing that we have to struggle to overcome, you know. And that’s a good thing.

Atheists are arrogant, Christians are humble. Yeah, Robbins actually pulls this old chestnut out of hat as the conclusion for his essay. Right. The people who claim to have a direct line to the Creator Of The Universe, Invisible Master of All Things, Who tells them that they have a special purpose and will live for Eternity, and who have a Divine Mission to make sure everyone else follows God’s marching orders, are humble. The ones who say we live in a thin skin of water and air on one small rock among uncountable trillions in the universe, who say existence is fragile and we need to work to maintain it, and that we’re nothing special, except to ourselves…those are the arrogant ones.

Here’s the big one: Religion is not an explanation for the facts of life. I have heard so many variants of this nonsense; of course Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson and David Bentley Hart are cited, those masters of effusively saying nothing at all. When you point out a contradiction or a fallacy in their holy doctrine, theologians are always quick to start waving their hands and shouting that the Holy Book is not a science text! You have to read it metaphorically! You have to interpret it in a proper historical and social context! OK, I can do that. Given that it gets so much humanly wrong, we must conclude that these documents are the expressions of human beings’ struggle to understand their place in nature, and lack any sign of special, privileged knowledge from a divine intelligence. They are no more magic than Shakespeare’s plays, which means they might be good and interesting historical literary works, but only contain truths that were accepted as common knowledge at the time.

What always annoys me is that they expend so much wind telling us that their faith is not a science project, and that it is so unfair to try and impose standards for truth and understanding on it, that they never bother to get around to telling us what it is. At best we get a thesaurus dump: a flurry of adjectives and adverbs attached to a set of nebulous terms — but something does not become more true in correlation with the floweriness of the language. And sometimes we get outright nonsense, like this:

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.

For those not up on the lingo, ontology refers to the nature of things, and their relationships. It’s actually an important topic in biology — systematists, obviously, but also in my molecular biology background it’s a major concern in understanding the genome. Figuring out the relationships between genes is genetic ontology, and it’s something lots of people are studying! I have two major objections to that statement, though.

  1. If religion is about ontology, it’s fantasy ontology. Trying to puzzle out the relationships of gods and humans in the absence of any evidence that gods even exist is a silly game. Let’s start talking more about the marriage of Zeus and Hera, or the bizarre father-son dynamic of Odin and Thor.

  2. You really shouldn’t talk about ontology without epistemology. The only mention of that big subject, though, is to accuse atheists of “epistemic arrogance”. It’s true, though, that atheists and scientists think it’s very important to know how we know something, and it’s absurd to pretend that theists don’t, even if they are just taking the stupid “goddidit” shortcut.

But all that is par for the course for apologists. Deny, deny, deny; name-drop some philosophers; fling around some airy deepities; express profound indignance that anyone would dare to question the authority of ancient cultural dogmas and traditions. My eyes glaze over. They have no substance. Goodbye.

A mundane story

This documentary about a cult, Christian Assemblies International, and its founder, Scott Williams, is notable for the cult’s ordinariness. It was the same old formula: a leader who claims to have direct insight into the mind of god, demands for obedience to the leader, sermons that raged at the evil heathens outside the church, extorting money to support the good works of the tribe (often involving pampering the leader)…all common stuff that is going on in churches all around Morris right now. Of course, Williams carried it further, and starting demanding that the young men in the group have sex with him, and he was scamming huge amounts of money from his congregation.

But what struck me is that in all the pictures and video clips of Williams, he comes off as incredibly boring and uncharismatic. He’s a pudgy schlub; his speeches are droning and awkward. He could be me! There’s just something wrong with people’s brains. We’re too susceptible to the formulaic nonsense behind religion — it’s like it’s designed to trip the gullibility circuits we all have, so that all a walking potato like Scott Williams has to do is recite a familiar pattern with confidence, and some small percentage of people will accept it.

Also, that it doesn’t take much to get rich: he went recruiting in Europe, and built up a congregation of “hundreds”. Hundreds! From countries with tens of millions of people! And that was enough that he could go on a spree, buying up valuable properties, and skipping from country to country, ahead of the authorities as they got wise to him.

That makes sense, too. We’re not talking about someone asking for small donations, ten bucks here, pocket change there, but an organized campaign to get those few hundred people to each cough up 10% of their income, hand over any inheritances, and make extra, large donations. It all adds up.

So there you go. If you’re sufficiently unscrupulous, and willing to embrace the proven con of religious bullshit, any of you can go off and get rich right now. Practice being really sincere and devout — that’s all it takes.

Leveraging religion into money and death

The Korean ferry Sewol that abruptly capsized and sank last spring sank because of an act of god … that is, the depredations of a scummy Christian cult. A story in the NY Times today summarizes the causes. The company that ran the ferry was a front for a religious cult run by Yoo Byung-eun, called the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea. He had a whole network of enterprises, all funneling millions of dollars into the pockets of Yoo and his family. One of the ways they profited was by cutting corners on everything, including safety.

Scores of cabins and even an art gallery laden with marble were added to the ferry’s upper decks, making the ship top-heavy. So much extra cargo was crammed on board that there was sometimes no space to secure it properly with chains and lashings. And, prosecutors say, the ferry’s crucial ballast water, needed to balance all the additional weight, was deliberately drained so that the vessel would not sit too low — a telltale sign to inspectors that the ferry was dangerously overloaded to bring in more money.

“It was a miracle that the ship actually sailed as far as it did; it could have tipped over any time,” said Kim Woo-sook, dean of the graduate school at Mokpo National Maritime University. “For them, cargo was cash.”

The art gallery was there to feed Yoo’s monstrous ego — he fancied himself an artist, and with so much cash flowing through his hands, he spent millions to get his photographs displayed at the Louvre. He claimed to be just about everything.

Mr. Yoo, who in his guise as Ahae cultivated an air of mystery by only allowing himself to be photographed from behind or the side, is described by the website of Ahae Press as a sort of renaissance man: “an inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmental activist, martial artist, painter, sculptor, poet, and photographer.”

Con artist. Murderer. Ruthless exploiter. Christian. Or at least, someone who saw Christianity as another easy gimmick to prey on the rubes.

But hey, they spent some money on safety.

In one of their more damning findings, prosecutors say that so much money was being siphoned away from the ferry company to Mr. Yoo and his relatives that it was starved of funds and spent just $2 last year on safety training for the Sewol’s crew members. The money went to buy a paper copy of a certificate.

There is no justice, though. The elder Yoo’s rotting corpse was found in his garden, cause of death unknown. Most of his family (apparently one son is still on the run), who all profited from his schemes, have been arrested so at least there’s that.

If only Christians weren’t so damned ahistorical

Here’s yet another of those pious Christian groups protesting same sex marriage, using a bogus argument. It’s infuriating: they know so little of human history that they think their local, recent mores are the universal and eternal dictates of their god, when Christian perspectives on marriage and politics and every damn thing have been evolving in all sorts of directions for two thousand years.

We get the same thing from creationists. They pretend their interpretation of the Bible is exactly as Jesus intended it, when really, modern creationism would have been regarded as heretical madness by Christians at any time before about 1960.

At least this bunch provides some comedy relief. Their strategy for dealing with same sex marriage is to fast for 40 days. Only not.

A Christian group that is planning a ‘fast’ in opposition to same-sex marriage has claimed that members don’t actually have to stop eating food to take part.

Like the rest of their platform, none of this makes any sense.