A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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On public displays of pseudoscience

A few things I believe to be true:

  1. My family cares deeply about me.
  2. I am not wearing socks.
  3. 3 + 4 = 7
  4. I enjoy the book I’m currently reading.
  5. Cognito ergo sum.
  6. Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium.
  7. One does not simply walk into Mordor.
  8. Possession of a pound of cocaine is a felony.

None of these have been scientifically tested. Science isn’t the only source of legitimate knowledge. In the same sense that nails are one of the many tools we use to attach objects to eachother, science is one of tools we use to decide if something is true.

If I were attaching one piece of paper to another, I wouldn’t use a nail. Maybe a rubber cement would work better for the paper. Similarly, a needle and thread would do a better job with a split seam than a hammer and nail. It’s not that I don’t believe in nails—it’s just that different tasks call for different jobs.

Whether we’re talking about the dubious claims of the creation museum or dubious health claims made at Whole Foods, the important question is not whether a claim is scientifically proven as it is whether people are relying on it being scientifically proven. If I’m trusting my house to be held together with nails, it’s a big problem if it was actually constructed with rubber cement.

When I started writing this, I thought my conclusion would be so what. Maybe somebody wants to buy some food with claims about probiotics that have no scientific grounding. But … if somebody is paying extra for a food believing the advertising claims are tested and reliable? That’s sort of a problem. And if somebody is buying a homeopathic remedy in lieu of something that isn’t a placebo? That’s a problem.

Although … maybe peole aren’t shopping at whole foods because of dubious health claims. And maybe there’s something more to the creation museum than bad biology. Maybe organic food is a values-based decision. Maybe patronizing a Creation Museum is about staking a claim against a society that seems to take a cavalier and hostile view of what you hold most sacred. Maybe the patrons of the Creation Museum have no more plan to become evolutionary biologists than you or I have. Sure, it’s not science. But maybe it taps into something else. Maybe for some people that’s more important.

I suppose we could take a stand and say that, scientifically, this is all junk. But, scientifically at least, I’m having trouble trouble proving why it’s any of my business. I mean, I love telling other people what to believe—but that’s because I love meddling, not because I love science.

Please have no leniency on me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me.

Megan Rice, the 84-year-old nun and anti-nuclear activist, who was sentenced to 35 months in prison for her activities during a protest.

If, at any point in your life, you start to think, I’m sort of a bad ass, remember Sister Rice and Plowshares. They broke into a nuclear facility, splashed blood on it, and when confronted by a guard started singing and offered him food. They were convicted of sabotage. Not just trespass, criminal mischief, petty vandalism, or something it would be reasonable to be convicted when you’re an 84 year old hitting a massive cement facility with a hammer. Sabotage. The one with a potential prison term of up to twenty years that’s usually used against terrorists and Nazis. Except instead of being a Nazi, Sister Rice is an old nun who thinks this military industrial complex has gotten out of hand. Afterall:

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

The Bible and Capital Punishment

SDS asked a while ago whether I agreed the Bible laid a groundwork for capital punishment—in principle if not in practice. I do not.

Pretty much every example of capital punishment in the New Testament is negative. Jesus is crucified. John the Baptist is beheaded. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”1

Then there’s the Old Testament—where things are a bit more … violent. In most of the specific cases, capital punishment is still viewed in a negative light. Cain kills Abel but is not killed himself. The books of Daniel and Ester include threats of capital punishment—but the protagonists avoid it. (David’s killing of Uriah is more about murder than punishment, so I’m not sure that counts.) Capital punishment is described as the punishment for a variety of offenses—but it’s unclear whether this is proscriptive or descriptive. There’s also the “thou shalt not kill” thing.

It’s even less clear whether those verses would be applicable in the same manner today. Did the New Testament announce new rules? Or should we apply the same rules differently when we have things like a functioning prison system. If you’re quasi-nomadic, maybe sentencing somebody to 20 years in prison isn’t really a possibility.

Without going through things verse by verse, I think it’s safe to say the following:

  1. The totality of the New Testament should make us extremely uneasy with capital punishment.
  2. Although capital punishment is described in the Old Testament, we should be mindful that there are significant distinctions betweeen ancient Israel and the contemporary United States.
  3. One of the important distinctions is that the contemporary United States is not a theocracy and claims no divine mandate.
  4. When in doubt, it’s appropriate to err on the side of not killing people.

I don’t think the argument that the Bible categorically forbids capital punishment is water tight. But I think it’s far stronger than the inverse.

  1. Except, of course, this story may be interpolation

Forgive us our debts

The Bible has an awful lot to say about money, those who have it, and those who don’t. Consider, for example:1

  • For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 1 Timothy 6:10
  • Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24
  • At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. Deuteronomy 12:1
  • Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27
  • But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Luke 6:24

It’s baffling to me that the same people who are most zealous about forgive-no-debts capitalism fancy themselves Christians. There just isn’t any part of the Bible you can read and conclude that God’s probably okay with you ignoring extreme poverty. In the New Testament, if you ignore the poor you get called out by Jesus and you repent. In the Old Testament, if you ignore the poor you get conquered by Babylon and maybe your grandchildren survive long enough to repent.

I don’t think we should ask the Bible to dictate policy. Afterall, policies for a culture two thousand years ago on the other side of the world might not be great policies for us. With that said, it has a lot of useful things to say about priorities.

  1. Please, please don’t take my selection of disparate verses from across the Bible uncritically. It’s relatively easy to come up with a collection of three our four verses, cram them together, and call it a teaching. A serious inquiry really requires looking at the text in the context of a larger passage—and then considering the passage in light of the remainder of scripture. But I haven’t figured out how to do that sort of inquiry in a blog post. So I’m just pulling some verses and asking folks to pay attention to keep an eye out for this particular theme across scripture. (It’s kind of hard to miss.) 

"The archenemy of Christianity"

I’m tickled by this gem of a quote from Salon in an article about islamophobia in New Atheism.

As a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has traditionally been the archenemy of Christianity, though Jews and Judaism have also slipped into the mix.

"Archenemy" is a bit dramatic, isn’t it? I mean, there have been a lot of Christians who have proclaimed a lot of archenemies—from the diabolical to the schismatic.1 Sure, “I don’t believe” is tautologically inconsistent with belief. But not liking something I like or not believing something I believe isn’t enough to make you an archenemy. That would be like saying that people who don’t care about baseball are the archenemy of the sport.

Some people believe one thing. Others believe something different. And sometimes, for a variety of reasons, it’s really important for people that others believe what they do. And sometimes people decide that being a complete jerk about something like that will maybe help them feel better about being unpersuasive. Without minimizing the significance of people’s beliefs or the tensions that differing beliefs can cause, we can certainly acknowledge that this alone isn’t enough to get us to “enemy” status, let alone “archenemy.” It’s more of a “friend we sometimes disagree (who is maybe sometimes a jerk).”

If we can look past the intrinsic comedy in words like “archenemy” or “archnemesis”,2 we could ask why Christians would find threatening about atheists, new or old. About three quarters of Americans identify as some variety of Christian. Something like 4-7% identify as atheists. How shaky do you need to be in your own beliefs that the knowledge that a small minority of people disagree with you is threatening? And how oblivious would you need to be to other, bigger movements that really can be harmful to Christianity?

If I were making a hierarchical list of enemies for Christianity, I would put Christians in spot #1. (Not all Christians, just the kind that see Christianity as a cultural litmus test to determine who it’s okay to do horrible things to.) I think spot #2 goes to Christians—but just the kind that see Christianity as a civic religion that establishes a national and political identity but doesn’t ask anything of its adherents. Spots #3 and #4 go to the Christians who believe that the first priority of faith is personal perfection and that we’re excused from living out that faith until we’ve solved all of our own problems and to the Christians who think that good actions and supporting good policies can take the place of personal transformation. If the list went on, I’d get to materialism, inequality, and pride. Atheists would eventually clock in somewhere between credit card debt and people who don’t vaccinate their children.

For those of you who are New Atheists and feel that it’s your job to be Christianity’s #1 enemy, I’m not saying that you’re bad at what you do. I’m just saying that being a decent person and being passionate about what you believe in does not put you high on my list of problems in the world.

  1. Somebody might reasonably point out that at various points in history Christians have done a terrible job relating to people with different cultures or beliefs. This is true. It’s also true that many people proclaiming themselves Christians have committed some atrocities in the name of Christianity. There are also still a lot of Christians who are saying and doing some pretty reprehensible stuff that’s really hurting people. While I don’t think that this bears directly on the questions of Christianity and New Atheism, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge. 

  2. The Archenemy has all the malevolence of a regular enemy—but now comes with a patented arch support for extra diabolical effectiveness. 

Christianity and Politics

The Christian Right has done a remarkable job of turning churches into a political force. A whole strain of Christianity has dedicated itself to ensuring that Republicans get elected.

As a Christian who won’t be voting for any Republicans this fall, I feel a bit ambivalent about this. On one hand, I’m a bit bummed that my side of the aisle doesn’t have the same religious-political force thing going. The Christian Right doesn’t speak for all Christians—or even most Christians. Still, it does seem to be where the media turns when looking for a “Christian” to talk.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that becoming inextricably linked to a political party is a really bad thing for a church to do. While I think faith has an important role in politics on both an individual and corporate level, I think the political whims of the Republican Party have done lasting theological damage to the Christian right.

Crying peace, peace, when there is no peace.

Some of the responses to Trayvon Martin’s death have reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah speaking against those who falsely claimed that there was no problem.

From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

At the time, there were a whole lot of people insisting that the status quo was just fine when, in reality, Jerusalem was about to be sacked. They were pretty upset with Jeremiah for pointing this out—as if this was his fault. For those who would prefer a more secular comparison, I’m reminded of Grima Wormtongue blaming “Gandalf Stormcrow” for bringing tidings that Rohan was about to be sacked as if the person bringing bad news is the cause of that bad news. Do not be false prophets, Wormtongues, or Newttongues.

Things are not okay. The conservative line is that the only problem we have with racial inequality is the people who keep pointing out how we have a problem with racial inequality. It would be a joke if so many people didn’t believe it.

Look at numbers. Look at trends. Look at data. Willful ignorance does not solve the problem. If you claim that a problem as glaring and obvious as our racial inequality problem doesn’t exist, I can only assume that you just don’t think inequality is a problem. And when you go a step further and criticize those who are trying to solve the problem, I can only assume that you’re trying to preserve racial inequality for some reason.

This is not new. Nothing I’m writing here is particularly insightful or original. It’s been better said a thousand times. But it’s on my mind. We have a problem. And when you refuse to acknowledge what’s plain as day in order to prevent others from trying to solve the problem, you perpetuate and continue our ugly history of racial inequality.

[The left wants] to impose [that] on everybody else while they insist and complain that somehow or another people of Judeo Christian faith are intolerant of their new moral code.

Rick Santorum.

Santorum, stick a sock in it. This schtick is disgusting. Rick, let’s be blunt. You’re a Republican Catholic. That’s a lot like a Roman Catholic—except that the political needs of the Republican Party call the ultimate shots instead of Rome. You do not represent “people of Judeo Christian faith.”

Twelve of my better posts from 2011

Many of my best posts in 2011 went largely unread, probably because they were massively long text posts that went up somewhere around 1:00 am when everybody was asleep. I routinely break my own rules for writing a blog people might read. Here’s a list of twelve of my favorite posts (one from each month) that went mostly under the radar. They’re a bit longer and a bit more thougtful than the usual fare. Some months were awfully difficult to narrow down to a single post. (For other months, it was tricky to find a single post worth rereading.)

Understanding Poverty

If the problem were simply that the poor don’t have much money, we could just do a straight-forward wealth transfer and end the problem. Unfortunately, we can’t solve poverty by anything as simple as writing a few checks. Poverty is also about lack of opportunity, lack of security, lack of power, and (too frequently) a learned lack of expectations.

A question of faith

Striving to be a passion—to seamlessly embody a plan that isn’t my own—does not mesh neatly with our individualistic society. You are entirely welcome to think I am strange. You’re even welcome to tell me that. I can handle it.

Bombs for human rights

War is never good. It may be necessary. I may be a lesser evil. But good? Don’t believe it. Ari writes an elegant defense of bombing Libya for human rights. He may be right. I might even agree with him. But the bullshit-to-candor ratio is way off—so I thought I would offer Ari’s post interspersed with some thoughts of my own.

There is (still) no secular case against gay marriage

In which enlist my dog’s assistance in arguing against some conservative intellectuals with a remarkably impressive pedigreee.

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Justice and Income Inequality

A Wide Place has responded to my earlier post discussiong Occupy Wall Street, income inequality, and a range of other things. Because our fundamental disagreement has to do with concepts of justice, I’m going to do something a bit different here. Take this snippet from A Wide Place’s About page

[T]his blog will explore religion and politics under the twin convictions that the gospel of Jesus gives unparalleled spiritual, emotional, and psychological freedom, and principles of limited government and free markets provide unequaled bodily freedom, prosperity, and order.

It turns out we’ve got something in common. We’re both professing Christians. I, of course, don’t share that second pillar—as I believe the gospel of Jesus has enough to say about government, society, and how we conduct ourselves in relation to one another without elevating some additional creed to the level of gospel. (As you might have guessed, this post is about to take a sharp turn into the theological. If that’s not your thing, here are some pictures of baby seals. Seriously—I’m aware that Locke and Rawles and a whole lot of other people have a lot of very important things to say about justice—but for now Mr. Place and I are talkin’ Jesus.)

Acting justly toward the poor is a theme that runs, consistently, through the Bible. Those who decieve the poor, horde ill-gotten treasures tend to get in trouble. “Forgetting the Lord” is frequently synonymous with ignoring the plight of the poor. For example:

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

The theme carries through into the gospels where we see the rich directed to sell possesions, the moneychangers thrown from the temple, and a particular attention paid to the most vulnerable in society. The rest of the New Testament continues challenging barriers as the church spreads most strongly in the least powerful parts of society. Society’s obligation to help the poor (or at least stop exploiting them) is one of the central themes in the Bible. I don’t think any of this is even controverial, is it?

So when Mr. Place asks, “whose basic principles of justice,” let me answer: The basic principles that, theoretically, we both share. The principles that say that entrenched, unnecessary, and systemic inequality are a problem that a just society may not ignore. We can’t simply distil a few principles (say, “voluntary exchange within a system”) and insist that everything is okay, so long as this rule is followed. Afterall, it’s not difficult to imagine a society that follows every rule offered by Mr. Place that is, nevertheless, a manifestly unjust society.

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