Thursday, April 18, 2019

Your Get-Out-of-Hell Free Card

Here's an unremarkable, everyday example of what I mean when I insist that religion is a human invention and should be evaluated in that light.
A great, good, and holy man has passed. Friends know well, he would sign every note, “pray for me.” I ask the same - please pray for the repose of Fr. James Schall, S.J., the best of men, and a good and faithful servant.
I had never heard of James Schall before this morning, but this memorial to him turned up in my Twitter feed this morning.  I don't doubt that he was a great, good, and holy (whatever that means) man, though any Christian ought to remember that their Lord said that no one is good except God.  (On "the best of men," see my recent reflections on that kind of inflation of merit.)  What interests me are the assumptions underlying the request to pray for Schall's "repose."  One is that death is like sleep, and that the person somehow is still there.  Another is that the default of the after-death state is restlessness, whether it's conceived as a hungry ghost craving revenge on the living or torment in some placeless place. Yet another is that the living can help the dead find repose, either by appeasing the vengeful spirit or, as in this case, praying for them to receive an upgrade to first class, where they'll be able to rest.

It's common for infidels like me to explain such beliefs by claiming that those who hold them have been "brainwashed" (people keep using that word) by the Church, by wicked Priests, by fairy tales written by Bronze Age shepherds.  (Those shepherds are evidently immortal, and amazingly powerful.)  I don't think that explains anything.  Why did those wicked people invent the belief, and more important, why is it so durable?  Christian churches have been trying for two thousand years to brainwash believers to do or refrain from doing many things -- calling people good, for an easy example -- but without much success.  In many cases the offenders feel no guilt at all.  I think it's reasonable to suspect that when believers conform, it's less because they were brainwashed than because they are the kind of people who'd invent those beliefs in the first place.  Either they feel strong anxiety about their own lives, or are full of resentment toward others they'd like to see punished.

The belief in a painful afterlife is not only Christian, after all.  It may not be universal, but it's very ancient and widespread.  Even biblical Judaism, which supposedly has no doctrine of the afterlife, imagines the dead in a dark, shadowy place called Sheol; if you want to invoke Bronze Age shepherds, that seems to have been how they thought of it.  I've written before about Korean Buddhist beliefs and practices that were not very different in principle from Roman Catholicism.  I once read a scholar who claimed that in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which revels in fantasies of eternal post-mortem torture, Jesus didn't mean to describe the geography of the afterlife but simply borrowed imagery from Egyptian sources among others.  It's a false distinction anyway, but I would ask why Jesus preferred that imagery.  Why not imagine both Lazarus and Dives comfortable, reconciled, at an eternal and joyful banquet?  Why believe that anything happens to them after their deaths at all?

But not only that: along with belief in Hell (or whatever you want to call it) goes the belief that the living can help the damned to escape from it by what I can only call magical means, by prayer, by Masses for the dead, by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, and so on.  Christianity, like other religions of salvation, is at its core preventive magic to keep you from being sent to Hell in the first place.  I don't know how accurate the accounts I've read of ancient Egyptian religion are, but the idea that the hearts of the dead will be weighed to decide their posthumous faith can hardly be blamed on Christianity, and the basic principle is the same: to learn the password, the secret handshake, the necessary bribes to get past the gatekeeper to eternal safety.  But the default setting is torture; "punishment" may not be the right word, because the suffering is free-floating, apart from anything the sufferer may have done.

So: why all this?  Death is scary, whether it's our own or the death of other creatures.  Nobody knows why we die, nobody knows if there's any kind of existence after we die.  When I've raised this point with some believers, they often invoke a version of Pascal's Wager: well, we don't know, so we're playing it safe, it does no harm to pray for Father Schall, etc.  Like the original form of the Wager, there are problems, highlighted by the variety of beliefs and practices people have.  What good will it do to light lanterns so the dead can find their way to paradise more quickly, if they're going to Hell anyway because they weren't baptized in the name of Jesus, the only name in which we are saved?  If there is a real danger of posthumous suffering, we need accurate information about how to avoid it, and there is none.  (If we knew that this was the geography of the afterlife, it would be different, but we know nothing about it.)  Yet many (most?) people cling desperately to belief that the danger is real.  Some get very upset at the idea of giving up the belief, of admitting that no one knows and that there's no reason to believe that we go on existing after we die.  Certainly my skepticism about the call to pray for the dead will upset some people.

A common reaction is to demand "respect" for the dead.  I am not sure what that means, but I have as much respect for Father Schall as it's possible to have for someone I've never met and know nothing about.  I don't think he should go to Hell; I don't think anyone should go to Hell.  Demanding "respect" is just flailing around.  My point is that we should be aware of and examine the assumptions that lie behind these beliefs and practices.  Getting rid of "religion" -- whatever that would mean, given that no one knows what religion is, where it ends and not-religion begins -- won't help.  In principle you could have religion without these strange and (I think) malign assumptions about death, but I think there would be powerful resistance to getting rid of them.  Many, probably most people, prefer to think of the universe as a giant booby-trap, laid for us by a Cosmic architect who loves us and wants to see us slip on the banana peels he put in our path, and you can't change that preference simply telling them they're stupid, brainwashed, and superstitious.

I think that resentment is a major factor in that resistance.  If Donald Trump or Ilhan Omar isn't going to be punished horribly, if the bully who took your lunch money in third grade or the stuck-up girl who didn't invite you to her birthday party is just going to get away with it, then what is the point?  Again, this resentment can't be wished away; I feel it myself.  The trouble is institutionalizing it in our moral systems, as all the systems that postulate punishment after death do.  Nor will you find it only among fundamentalists: think of the liberal Christians who fantasized violence against Paul Ryan for his views on poverty.  Think of this biblical scholar, showing his superiority to an antigay Christian who spoke against Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.  Such resentment is a cause of (certain aspects of) religion, not an effect.  It's easy for me to see why it's so tenacious.  Making the world better (by ending poverty, for example, which you recall Jesus had no interest in doing) is hard, perhaps impossible.  Making it worse, by throat-punching a bigot with the binding of your Scripture, or punching Paul Ryan in the face, or - better -- fantasizing about it, is so much easier. If you hang on to an unsupportable belief so doggedly, it's because you like it: you want to see the world that way.  A lifestyle choice, if you will.

To try (perhaps vainly) to make myself clear, I'm not saying that people who encourage us to pray for the dead are wicked.  I'm asking that we, and they themselves, pay attention to the assumptions that lead them to encourage it. They are not benign assumptions. They express some weirdly negative attitudes towards life and the living that I imagine these people would repudiate. But they hold them nonetheless.  Those of us who reject religion need to be aware of those attitudes, in the conventionally religious and in ourselves, if only to understand them in hopes of correcting them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nickname Stylists; or, Which of These Two Is Not Like the Other?

What a relief!  I was kicking myself for not having made screengrabs of these tweets, because I thought I'd been blocked.  But so far, no.  Anyway, here's the Progressive Mind at work:
The first tweet is okay, though he's really describing Obama, not Clinton: swift and self-serving political climb, meticulous public image, padded experience like a CEO resume.  (Unless he maybe meant Bill, not Hillary?)  And it's a fair complaint, except that it should have been fairly obvious from Buttigieg's first entrance into the national spotlight, and "dread" doesn't feel like the right word.  But whatever.

It's the second one that got me going.  "[A]nyone making fun of his name will be called a homophobe, like anyone calling attention to Clinton's atrocious record was called a sexist."  So, let's see what's on the slab. The first clause is exactly what one hears from bigots who've been called out for their expressed bigotry: Just because I called him 'Martin Luther Coon,' that doesn't make me a racist!  You're taking it out of context!  Your Politically Correct purity tests are destroying civil discourse!

In fact, you're not likely to be called a homophobe for mocking Buttigieg's name if you work from the similarity in sound to "Buddha."  Call him "Buddha-judge," say, and you will probably not be accused of homophobia.  Or you can do something with his first name, like this one, which I approve.  But if you work with "Butt," as so many do ... well, you may just be betraying the straight-boy panic/obsession with buttsex that is endemic in this kind of discourse, and symptomatic of homophobia.  It's been entertaining to see so many people protesting that straight people do anal sex too, so it's totally not homophobic to bring it into a discussion of a gay politician.

What's downright hilarious is Yusuf's equation of making fun of Buttigieg's name with criticizing Hillary Clinton's policies. Jon Schwarz has claimed that conservatives, as against liberals and progressives, can't do good analogies; I say that liberals and conservatives can't do them either, and Yusuf's tweet is evidence for my position.  I noticed, and disparaged, the Clintonite habit of accusing critics of Her policies of sexism, just as Obama cultists accused critics of his policies of racism, whether or not sexism and racism were actually evident.  But a name is not a policy.  If you have objections to Pete Buttigieg's policies -- and many people do -- then state them, and be prepared to defend them.  If you can't do so without referring to him as Buttchug, Buttface, etc., then you are not in control of your own discourse.  If homophobic epithets just naturally burst to the surface when you're talking about politics, then it's probably accurate to say that you have some unresolved issues about gay men.

Twitter is the home of quick, relatively thought-free writing.  Donald Trump's fondness for abusive schoolyard-style nicknames has often been deplored and mocked by his opponents.  It's okay when they do it, of course, because Trump Is Worse; letting him be the benchmark is the very emblem of liberal/progressive moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  If you're working in a longer-form medium and you can't edit out these little blorts of revelatory anxiety, then get someone to do it for you.  If nothing else, you're putting in a distraction that will allow your opponents to discredit you without answering your well-considered policy criticisms -- and you don't want to do that, do you?  (Or do you?)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Thousand Milliseconds of Peace

I'm actually kind of glad that Pete Buttigieg is running for President, because it gives me an answer to a question I didn't really expect to see answered.

A number of black friends have complained since 2008 that I just don't understand how much it means to them to have a black President, and that my lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama is at least partly because I'm white.  During the 2016 campaign, a number of women I knew had the same complaint: because I'm male, I just didn't understand how important Hillary's candidacy was to them.  In both cases they regarded the candidates' policies and record as minor distractions compared to the historic significance of a black or female president: they found it irritating, even upsetting, to be pressured to think about them. 

I still think they were wrong, and that I did understand very well what it meant.  I just thought that their candidates' policies were more important than his race or her sex, and that the boost to the self-esteem of their fans was, while not completely unimportant, much less important than the lives of the many people (including women and people of color) their policies would materially harm.

Just in the past few days, a woman argued angrily on Twitter that white male contenders (Sanders, Biden, O'Rourke, Buttigieg) were once again getting all the attention, and that it was time women of color had a chance to show what they could do.  I didn't think this was entirely unfair until I remembered that similar claims were made for Obama and Clinton.  Obama did not, as far as I can tell, govern differently than a white male of his class.  Clinton was not elected, but her record of warmongering and her glee over other people's deaths does not inspire confidence in me that she'd have brought woman-wisdom and Earth-based grandmother-compassion to the Oval Office.  (See her gloating over the death of Qadafy in the clip linked here, for example.)  That doesn't mean that we shouldn't elect another black man or a woman of any color to the presidency, only that sex and race are not qualifications for the office.  I think that the examples of Obama and Clinton confirm this.

Still, I admit to some qualms about my position.  If an openly gay person became a viable candidate, would I cut him or her more slack than I have to Obama or Clinton?  Would the world-historical significance of a homosexual presidential candidate, and what that would mean to young gay kids in America and around the world, sweep away my concerns about such a person's policies and record?  I couldn't deny that until it happened, I wouldn't know for sure, and I didn't really expect to see it happen in my lifetime.  So it's mildly gratifying, for selfish reasons, to find that my faculties remain intact in the face of Pete Buttigieg's campaign.  And what I saw during the Obama and Clinton campaigns is happening again: Buttigieg's fans don't care about his policies, they care about irrelevancies (often charming ones, but irrelevancies nonetheless) and their fantasies about him.

Jacob Bacharach wrote an entertaining essay on the gayness of Mayor Pete, and while it's not his best work, nor is it as good as Nathan J. Robinson's close reading of Buttigieg's autobiography, it's worth reading.  It reminds me of Sarah Schulman's discussion of American commodification of homosexuality in her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (Duke), which was brilliant then and feels prescient now.  I may return to that some other time, but for now I want to mention one other thing about Buttigieg that concerns me.

One of his selling points, one he stresses in public statements and that is echoed by many of his fans, is that people are tired of divisiveness, and that he can bring us together.  That's how Barack Obama marketed himself, and it's how many of his fans see him to this day.  And if that's what Pete Buttigieg wants to be, he should not be president, because while he wants to play nice, his Republican opponents do not.  Obama and his crew claimed to be, and maybe were, taken totally by surprise at how mean the Republicans were: You guyzzzzz!!!  This is so unfair!  Why won't you work with me instead of against me?  Obama threw staff they targeted to the wolves, rather than fight for them.  If the Republicans can't keep Pete Buttigieg out of office, they'll set out to block him from the get-go, as they did with Obama.  It'll be comforting to blame the Rethugs for the next Democratic President's failures, but it's a comfort we can't afford.  We need a president who can fight back, and it doesn't appear that Buttigieg has had to deal with that kind of total war yet, so there's no way to know how he'll cope if he's elected in 2020.  Of course, he'll also need good advisors and a Supreme Court and Democratic-controlled Congress that will work with him.  Playing board games, having a husband who's followed on Twitter by Lin-Manuel Miranda, liking Joyce's Ulysses, performing with Ben Folds -- all these are cute, but if we get a third Obama term, we are truly doomed.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Best!

Lately I saw a little surge of talk about meritocracy on Twitter -- a surge in my little neighborhood, anyway.  I've had a lot to say on that subject here before, but this morning, as I was riding my bicycle to the library, I had a thought I don't think I've had before.

I suspect that there's a connection between faith/belief (they're not quite the same thing) in meritocracy and overrating the things or people to which we assign merit.  If you believe, as Chris Hayes for example does, that meritocracy means hiring the best, putting the best in charge of things, then you will probably feel an impulse to overrate the merit of those you nominate.  It may not be a simple cause-and-effect tendency.  You may want to give the person the job, the slot at your elite school, your money for their CD, because you think they're the best, rather than the other way around.  But they may not be the best, and it doesn't entirely matter.

For example, some years ago I saw that Bob Dylan had been ranked high in a Playboy readers' poll as a harmonica player.  Now, I like Dylan -- his early work anyway, up to 1970 or so -- but I never thought he was the best harmonica player around, or the best guitarist, or pianist, or singer.  He was good enough for what he wanted to do, and he violated norms for "good" singers in a good way: you don't have to be trained or have a pretty voice to be an expressive singer, and for some purposes having an ugly voice may be preferable.  But that doesn't mean you're the best singer, nor does it matter.

Now compare what Chris Hayes wrote on this subject in The Twilight of the Elites:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
As I pointed out before, "best" is not the right word here.  Among seven billion people, there are going to be many thousands of operatic sopranos at such a level of excellence that it's really meaningless to call any of them the best.  The differences between them will be so tiny that most people can't detect them.  (This also applies to world-class athletes: the difference between the fastest runner and the tenth-fastest runner in the world is likely to be some tenths of a second, and some of that will be accidental, due to luck rather than "merit.")  To say that this "spells trouble for the fifth best soprano" is false; it doesn't spell trouble for the five hundredth best soprano.  As the example of Bob Dylan shows, you don't have to be the best singer or guitarist or harmonica player to make music that many people will want to buy -- more, most likely, than will buy the music of the best soprano.  Even in the domain Hayes elected to cite, his point is invalid, laughably so.  We often love things or people who are not the "best," and it would be ridiculous to claim that they are.  But they don't have to be.  We don't love them because they're the best.  We think they're the best because we love them.

This impulse emerges early in life, I think.  My mommy is the best mommy, the most beautiful mommy in the world.  I'm the best, handsomest, smartest little boy in the world.  These are conventions for expressing the intensity and sincerity of our love for someone.  But they're not literally true, and most of the time we know it.  It's believers in meritocracy who mistake metaphors for literal truth.

Is it even necessary to the concept of meritocracy that the best person should occupy a position?  Again, outside of a narrow range of fields, you cannot quantify qualifications for most jobs.  The fastest miler, for example, can be found.  (Next year, or the year after that, he won't be the fastest anymore, which is also important.)  The best CEO, the best accountant, the best IT manager, cannot. The best students for admission to elite colleges, or for that matter to community colleges.  One bit of evidence for what I'm suggesting here is the inflation of requirements for many positions: the applicant is expected to detail how and why denying insurance claims of the terminally ill is her passion, the goal on which she has focused, laser-like, since infancy.  Why he is very excited at the prospect of working the drive-through window at McDonald's.  (I've been allergic for decades now to the term "excited" in announcements; bullshit almost always follows that word.  But by now it too is a convention: if you didn't say you were excited to announce that this Friday will, once again, be Casual Friday, many people would feel that something important was missing.)  I've helped numerous friends fill out extremely long and detailed online applications, complete with a hundred personality-assay questions, to wash dishes in chain restaurants.  Something is wrong there, even leaving aside the invasion of privacy involved.

For many positions, what is needed is not the best, but someone who is simply good enough.  Often people grow into jobs; certainly we hope that students will grow into their educations.  All too often, despite the competition, the personality tests, the interviews, the trial-by-ordeal, the winning candidate isn't even good enough.  There are probably many things that need to be done to correct that, if it can be corrected; but one beginning might be to stop pressuring people to prove what can't in most cases be proven - that they're the best.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Buttigieg, Buttigieg, Buttigieg!

I didn't pay much attention to Pete Buttigieg until recently, but when I did I wondered how an openly gay man managed to be elected and re-elected mayor of a midwestern city.  I later learned that he didn't come out until he was already in office, but he still won re-election to a second term.  South Bend is a strongly Catholic city, but Buttigieg didn't take the Church-submissive line that he would abstain from sodomy; indeed, he got married to another man.  I still don't know how that happened without him being ejected from office, but it did, and that's one reason I was prepared to like him - until I learned more about his policies.

Then Nathan J. Robinson wrote a long critique of Buttigieg's memoir, explaining in careful detail why Buttigieg is not someone who should be in the White House, or in office at all probably.  He did an excellent job of it, and it has been interesting to see the responses he got from Buttigieg fans and other centrist Democrats.  There was the predictable passive-aggressive stuff, like why he was so divisive in a time when we must be united against Trump; the accusations of bias; the complaints that the piece was so long.  Several people declared that Robinson should have talked to Buttigieg's fans in South Bend, as though attending to and analyzing Buttigieg's own words was somehow unfair, as though Buttigieg's book was unrepresentative of him and of no interest.  There was a lot of proudly flaunted anti-intellectualism, which sometimes went hand in hand with a celebration of Mayor Pete's great intellectual gifts.

The complaints about divisiveness were amusing, and Robinson addressed them seriously in a follow-up article.  But they'd have come up no matter which candidate he criticized.  The strange thing to me is that there are a lot of Democrats with hats in the ring, and we have almost a year before the primaries begin.  What is any voter supposed to do in the meantime, just sit back and worship them all?  For that matter, what rational person imagines that the candidates won't criticize each other as they go for the gold?  I'm surely not the only voter old enough to remember Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's attacks on each other in 2008, or Clinton and her fans' attacks on Bernie Sanders in 2016.  These people are just parroting talking points.

After the frantic anti-Trump homophobia of liberal Democrats, I wasn't exactly surprised to see some of the same directed at Buttigieg, and not (apparently) by Republicans. Try this one, from a grad student with "a focus on Marxism and the Middle East, a self-styled "E girl communist" whatever that is.

I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to mean, but it's extremely stupid and bigoted.  It's the kind of rhetoric I'd expect from a Trump supporter rather than an E girl communist if I didn't know better.

Then there was this one, even more blatant, from another self-identified Marxist.

Ah yes, that's how you show solidarity with gay and transpeople: with ferociously homophobic rhetoric right out of a locker room.  There are plenty of good reasons to distrust and oppose Pete Buttigieg, and plenty of good ways to express distrust and opposition, even on Twitter; this sort of frothing isn't one of them.

These are all I've seen so far, but I think it's safe to say there'll be more.  I have not yet seen any homophobic diatribes against Buttigieg by the Right, though they must be out there.  Just because a few right-wing standard bearers like Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks approve of him, that doesn't mean that the real conservatives, the people of the land, aren't seething over a sodomite presiding over the city of Notre Dame. But it doesn't excuse self-proclaimed leftists or LBGTQ allies when they fall back on the same vicious rhetoric as those they profess to hate.  Already it's impossible to say which is which.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Faithful and True; or, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

While I was working -- well, procrastinating -- on another, still unfinished post, I happened on this tweet:
I’m so glad you at least waited the customary 10 days after a massacre in a mosque to compare Islam to cancer.
It referred to this image:

And referred back to a previous tweet featuring Dawkins' letter to the editor of the London Times, denouncing Cambridge University's rescinding of a fellowship offered to Jordan Peterson, a well-known crank philosopher with arguably racist and sexist views.

I don't think it's accurate to say that Dawkins "compare[d] Islam to cancer."  He was attempting, with his customary tin ear, to draw an analogy.  True, the analogy depended on Islam being bad, but it's not exactly news that Dawkins is hostile to Islam.  Presumably, and I'll return to this, he is equally hostile to all other religions.  The point he was trying to make was something along the lines of "Hate the sin, love the sinner," which is no more convincing from him than it is from Christians.

Let me attempt to disentangle some of the threads of Stupid in Dawkins's tweet. First, bigotry does not necessarily refer to hostility to persons as opposed to their belief systems.  One can be bigoted toward belief systems too, for example by assuming that they are uniform and unchanging, and that all adherents share exactly the same implementations of their system of choice.  I reject Islam, as I reject all belief systems which claim the authority of a god to support their teachings and practices.  But I also recognize that its teachings are internally inconsistent, subject to many (including sectarian) interpretations, and that its adherents vary widely in their observances.  For simplicity's sake, consider the hijab, one of the practices that particularly exercises Dawkins: not all Muslim women wear it, and those who do vary widely in how much they feel God wants them to cover up.  I don't know Dawkins's opinion on this particular issue, but as I've said before, I object to secularist societies which ban the hijab as strongly as I object to societies which require it.  (Should I condemn secularism as a cancer because of its history of intolerance and oppression of, inter alia, women and homosexuals?  By Dawkins's logic, I should.)  A better analogy, though not useful for Dawkins's purposes, might be to "cellular growths" rather than cancer: some are benign, others malignant, some constitute more of a threat to the host than others.

Second, religion is not an "affliction."  Even if it were, we don't blame people with illnesses for their condition.  It is something that happens to them.  The whole point of the medical model is that the patient is a patient, not an agent, with respect to his or her disease.  We don't jail cancer patients, nor do we bomb hospitals to drive the cancer out of them.  Religion is a lifestyle choice, and it's appropriate to criticize morally the choices believers make, though not before we've examined our own.

Sometimes we bomb hospitals for the sheer hell of it, though.  I don't know the basis for Dawkins's claim that Muslims are the principal sufferers from Islam, but Christians and Jews have been doing their best to win that competition for centuries.  As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get in on the act."  Perhaps Dawkins would acknowledge that Christians are the principal sufferers from Christianity, Jews the principal sufferers from Judaism, Hindus the principal sufferers from Hinduism, and so on, but such acknowledgement wouldn't play as well in a political context that demonizes Islam and Muslims while ignoring the religious component of Christian and Jewish and Hindu offenses.  Indeed, condemning the crimes of a Jewish state is a very serious thoughtcrime in Christian and secularist societies.

Third, and related: the first thing that occurred to me when I read Dawkins's remark about "homosexuals" was "Tell that to Alan Turing!"  Turing, you may recall, was forced by the State to take hormone "therapy" for the crime against Nature of having sex with other males.  Until the early twenty-first century, secularist science in the US was tolerant of secular attempts to "cure" homosexuals, decades after homosexuality was removed from the index of mental disorders and it was widely known that sexual orientation cannot be changed.  It's not clear to me why scientists changed their views on the status of male homosexuality; it doesn't seem to have been because of evidence, because whether a condition is an illness or not is not something that can be settled by evidence. And the whole edifice of psychiatry is of very dubious validity in general.  It reminds me of the way Bob Jones University, which insisted for decades on the Biblical doctrine of racial separation, suddenly awoke one day to discover that there was no such doctrine and they couldn't remember what it was supposed to be.

On women, the record of the "hard sciences" is comparable to that of "religion."  Not only were women regarded by (male, of course) scientists as a lesser breed than men, almost a separate species, but their health issues were largely dismissed.  I've pointed out before that militantly anti-religious scientists are terrible on issues like rape, which they seem incapable of understanding.  But male scientists, not only those of a certain age, still resist with great fierceness allowing women into the labs.  True, this guy is Not All Male Scientists, but he doesn't stand alone, and it's significant that a highly respected newspaper gave him a platform.  And as someone else pointed out, this scientist's claim that "it's not as if they ... build walls to keep women out," is false.  But maybe I should just conclude that scientists are the principal sufferers from science?  If that were so, I might have more sympathy for Dawkins, but it's not so.  Two words: eugenic sterilization.

Perhaps the worst error in Dawkins's analogy between religion and disease is that it's based on the assumption that religion is an external entity, like a radioactive virus, an "affliction" from which human beings "suffer."  Religion is, as an atheist like Dawkins ought to know, a human invention.  If a religion upholds male supremacy, even if all religions uphold male supremacy, a rational thinker should ask why they do so -- especially since Science also does so.  The conviction of female inferiority and the consequent belief that they should live under male tutelage (aka patriarchy) is plastic -- societies, including Muslims ones, vary widely and within themselves on how far women are disadvantaged -- but it's remarkably tenacious.  If it's a precept of many religions, including Science, it must be because male human beings put it there.  This presumption generalizes.

Recently I acquired a copy of a book I've wanted for a long time, a photographic essay about the Naked Festivals in Japan.  It includes some quasi-ethnographic articles about the history and rationale of these festivals, which prompted me to wonder why people decided that the gods wanted young men to strip to loincloths (or less, sometimes) and mass together for a giant game of Keep Away involving various sacred objects.  The visual appeal of such a rite is obvious to a pervert like me, but to the gods...?  At around the same time I saw some discussion of Roman Catholic High Mass.  We know more about the history of this rite rendering service to Yahweh and his Only Begotten Son, but again, people simply invented it in all its complex spectacle or music, costume, scent, and so on.  If one is an atheist, one can hardly claim that it is an expressive of, or compliant, with God's will.  It should be obvious to an atheist (though surprisingly often it's not) that none of the many religious rites or doctrines are the will of any god.  They are the will of the people who perform them.  In many cases, as with the Naked Festival, they are not imposed from above, let alone from outside, but are welcomed by the participants and observers, who not only enjoy the sight of massed naked men in the streets but are deeply moved and edified by it.  Blaming any human practice or belief on "religion" is an act of extreme intellectual and often moral laziness.

One more point, which actually was my starting point for this post.  Someone else commented on this thread:
Dawkins converts more atheists to agnostics than he turns away from faith altogether. Arrogant, dickish, islamophobic. Who would want to co-sign that unless you were one or more of those to begin with?
This annoyed me. I replied:
Any atheist who changes their opinion on atheism because Dawkins is an asshole is a sheep. Certainly can't claim to be an independent thinker. I'm an atheist on the merits, not because of who else is an atheist. If that's your approach, I wouldn't want to co-sign with you either.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that the truth or falsehood of a claim about the world has anything to do with the personality of the person who makes the claim.  His or her personality may be relevant if he or she tries to make it so, but that can be a distraction, and certainly is here.  I've criticized philosophers before who complained that the New Atheists come across as unpleasant.  (Don't forget that Dawkins himself notoriously whined about the "inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley's assault" in her review of The Selfish Gene.  "I deplore bad manners as much as anyone...", he complained dishonestly, and also claimed falsely that Midgley hadn't read the the book before she reviewed it.  But all of this only influenced my opinion of Richard Dawkins, not of atheism.

And why, now that I think about it, would Dawkins's obnoxiousness make people abandon atheism for agnosticism?  Is there any actual evidence for the claim anyway?  Someone, I think, doesn't know what these terms mean.  But there's a lot of that going around.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Appointment in Jerusalem

Easter is fast approaching, which means we'll probably be seeing village-atheist memes like this one:

Which is almost entirely false.  There's a nice dissection of it here, but on rereading it today I noticed a curious problem in the discussion.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus returned to Jerusalem from his forty days in the desert just before Passover. In fact, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus was killed on the day before the first night of Passover, at the time when lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Passover feast (because Jesus was the Lamb of God, etc. – SYMBOLISM, Y’ALL). There are a few differing accounts of when Jesus actually died, but most Christian texts, philosophers and scholars agree that it was around the time of Passover. Easter is still celebrated the week after Passover, which is why it’s a different day each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus did not return to Jerusalem after his forty days in the desert, not "just before Passover" or at all, really.  That's telescoping his admittedly rather contentious career just a tad too much.  In none of the first three canonical gospels did Jesus travel to Jerusalem after his period of fasting and temptation in the desert: rather, he returned to Galilee, where his hometown of Nazareth was located.  The gospel of John, the fourth in the sequence, doesn't include the temptation narrative at all, and casts no light on this matter. 

He did travel to Jerusalem later in his career, and that was (according to the gospels, with no real evidence to the contrary) "around the time of Passover."  John has him going to Jerusalem for Passover three times, which complicates the chronology because he drove the money changers out of the Temple on the first trip, two years before his arrest and crucifixion, instead of during his final climactic visit.  That's odd, because the cleansing of the Temple makes sense as a provocation that brought about his arrest; but in John he gallivanted around fairly freely afterwards for a long time.  Discrepancies between the first three gospels (known to students as Synoptic, because they have the same basic timeline) and John give scholars headaches as well as exciting dissertation topics.

The canonical gospels all agree that Jesus was executed around Passover.  Where they differ is that the Synoptics have him arrested and tried on Passover night, then executed before the next sunset -- remember that in Judaism days are reckoned from sunset to sunset -- which also is difficult to make sense.  For one thing, in the Synoptics, Jesus is tried before a Jewish court on Passover night, when it's forbidden to leave one's house.  Of course his judges might well have violated commandments and gone out anyway, but nothing in the accounts acknowledges the difficulty.  John addresses it, in effect, by having Jesus arrested the day before Passover, and executed as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (as the blogger says, "SYMBOLISM, Y'ALL"), but this also means that the Last Supper is not a Passover meal as the Synoptics have it.

Luckily, I don't need to resolve this.  The point is that the blogger, while aware of some of the issues, gets some basic things wrong, just like the people she's criticizing.  Jesus didn't go to Jerusalem directly after his desert sojourn in any of the gospels.  Most of her discussion seems sound enough, but the biblical material is a lot less arcane, requiring less historical research.  All I had to do was look quickly at the relevant parts of the gospels, which took about five minutes.

Here's something else I thought was dubious at best:
Scratch the surface of just about any Christian holiday, and you’ll find pagan elements, if not a downright pagan theme, underneath.

Know what else? Most Christians know this. Or, at least, most of the Christians that I’m friends with (which is, admittedly, a fairly small sampling). They know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and they know that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, and they know that rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols. But they don’t care, because they realize that religions evolve and change and that that’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that many Christian saints are just re-imagined pagan gods and goddesses doesn’t alter their faith one iota; because faith isn’t about reason or sense, it’s about belief.
Most of the Christians I know and have communicated with (not a representative sample, admittedly, but better than hers) do not know this.  If they know that Jesus probably wasn't born on December 25th, they probably got that datum from sources like the meme above.  They don't know about the history of Christmas and Easter and their symbolism.  And they don't know that "religions evolve and change and that that's actually a good thing".  They are much more likely to believe, as a surprising number of atheists I've encountered also believe, that Christianity has devolved, that Jesus was a good man who taught Truth and Peace and Love, but bad humans distorted his teachings, added miracle stories and other distractions, and we need to get back to the original gospel.  They are usually confident that they know what that original gospel was, but they can't explain how they know it if the distortion begins with the scoundrel Paul and the evangelists.  They just know it in their hearts, I suppose.  But they are generally biblically and historically illiterate.  So are most of their atheist critics, though, so neither faction is in a position to cast the first stone at the other.  Which doesn't stop them, of course.

Oh, and that circular bit about "faith isn't about reason or sense, it's about belief."  I think that most people who will try to excuse their ignorance by talking about leaps of faith and the like only do it when they get caught in misstatements.  Think of the people Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote about in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, who insisted on the cemetery arrangements they were used to, or at any rate wanted.  They were sure that their customs went back to the Bible, without significant change.  You can call this faith, you can call it belief, but you could just as well call it stubbornness born of ignorance, or of knowing so much that isn't so.  That's faith: believing in what you know isn't so, and doubling down on it when you encounter opposition or disagreement.  In many cases it's all we have, but how many of us know our ignorance for what it is?  I'm not casting the first stone either; I know some of the expanse of my ignorance, but not all of it.  If I did, I'd be less ignorant.