The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2003 November

Happy Thanksgiving

November 27, 2003 | 6 Comments

An Atheist’s Thanksgiving, courtesy of the West Georgia Church of Christ. My comments in boldface:

Although I don’t believe in God, I’m thankful that I live in a “Christian” nation. I’m thankful that I, too, can enjoy all the freedoms and liberties that were inspired by those who established this republic in pursuit of religious freedom.

I’m sure the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the terrible, bloody British pogroms. Whatever the case, I will honor my freedom by slavishly adopting the theology of our Founders.

Although I, or those like me, forced many local court houses to remove the so called “10 Commandments” from their walls, I’m thankful that I can live in a society where many of the laws that protect me and my family are direct descendants of those very commandments.

It was those “like” me. I am a crank, but too lazy to litigate stuff like that.

Actually, the local courthouse itself voted to suspend the so-called “judge” for violating the law which protects me and my family from renegade crackpots like him.

Although I believe that the story of Jesus is nothing more than a fairy tale, I’m thankful to live where decency, morality, justice, and fair-play are commonplace, even though those ideals are commonplace primarily because Jesus taught them.

Jesus taught that people who thought he was a fairy tale burn in Hell, along with those who never heard of him. Morality, justice and fair-play?

Although I reject religion as a crutch for weak minded people, I’m thankful to live in a land where helping the needy, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, consoling those who suffer, and protecting the weak and innocent, are attributes primarily derived in and supported by the religious community.

Been reading Playboy, have you?

Most social welfare is financed by taxes. Does your church pay them?

Although I helped drive prayer from public schools, I’m thankful to live in a country where I’m free to hold my own beliefs, even at the expense of silencing the beliefs of others.

No -

Gaubage

November 26, 2003 | 3 Comments

Anecdotal evidence of “miracles” is frequently offered as proof of God’s existence. And so a concerned reader once tried to convert blogger Eliza of Fembat with an amazing tale of God’s intervention after she made a passing reference to her atheism in a post about marriage. He provided her with a book excerpt recounting the story of Ken Gaub, a burnt-out traveling missionary who, while on the road neary Dayton, Ohio one day in the 1970’s, prayed for a sign to give him strength to continue his work. Moments later, after dropping his family off at a randomly-selected pizza parlor, he strolled over to a Dairy Queen and heard a pay phone ringing at an adjacent service station. Answering it, he heard the long distance operator announce a person-to-person call to Ken Gaub.

The caller was a depressed woman who had seen him on television and knew he could help her if only she could talk to him. She prayed, and the numbers to the pay phone entered her head just as she was finishing a suicide note. So apparently God doesn’t always object to tests.

Gaub’s story appears, with minor variations, in numerous sites on the internet (Google “Ken Gaub” + “Dayton” for a representative listing). Most sites leave out the reference to the decade of the alleged miracle, apparently to preserve its freshness. Interestingly, however, there’s one site that leaves out the story altogether.

The website of Ken Gaub Ministries.

Gaub boasts there of many other honors he’s received: a 1990 Medal of Merit in 1990 from President George Bush; a 1991 J. Edgar Hoover Gold Medal award for distinguished public service; a 1992 Vice Presidential “Certificate of Commendation” from Vice President Dan Quayle; and a presidential award from former President Ronald Reagan. So modesty doesn’t seem to be a factor in the omission. Why leave out the most direct evidence of your Heavenly Connection — a phone call arranged by God?

Gaub does a hawk a book on the site — “God’s Got Your Number” — which presumably includes his encounter with divinity. But until you’ve shelled out your $10 to get it, you won’t know just how special he is. I’m assuming he’s concerned with first impressions: why scare off customers with a hint that you might be insane, or, more probably a big, fat, fucking liar?

Metaphysically Speaking

November 25, 2003 | 14 Comments

Evangelical agnostic George Dvorsky last month criticized the Brights movement for emulating religion by creating “a distinctive club with specific metaphysical convictions.” In response, I argued that

Of course atheism is “a distinctive club with specific metaphysical convictions.” Every ideology that is recognizable as anything is. But those convictions are not something that makes atheism a religion; rather, it is precisely those convictions that distinguishes it from religion.

Austin Cline challenged this analysis in his blog at the Agnosticism/Atheism pages of About.com:

He is 100%, absolutely wrong about that. Atheism contains no metaphysical convictions, it is just the absence of belief in any gods (something which may occur along with or because of a variety of possible metaphysical convictions). Atheism is not an ideology, it is just an absence of belief in any gods (something which may occur with or because of a variety of possible ideologies). Atheism is not properly distinguished from religion, it is only distinguished from theism (because both atheism and theism can occur both within the context of religion and outside the context of religion).

Once again, just so that we don’t forget: atheism is the absence of belief in any gods. Nothing more, nothing less. Dvorsky quotes Don Hirsberg who said “Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color” and then points out that “too many atheists have lost sight of the meaning of Hirschberg’s insight.” The Raving Atheist seems to be one of them. He is trying to pretend that his baldness (absence of belief in gods) has a color (metaphysical convictions).

Metaphysics, according to my dictionary, is “a division of philosophy that is concerned with ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.” Plainly, then, atheism contains metaphysical convictions, having quite a bit to say about each of those subjects. It rejects the ontological proof of God; asserts that the cosmos wasn’t created by, and isn’t maintained by, a God; and declares that the word “God” is either a meaningless or self-contradictory sound which refers to nothing. Saying that atheism contains no metaphyical convictions is like saying that atheism is not a philosophical position. It certainly involves, as Cline says, the absence of belief in any gods, but that stand most certainly asserts a distinct metaphysical conviction. To deny the divinity of Jesus or the existence of Allah says as much about the universe at the affirmation of those propositions.

Cline’s argument only makes sense if we adopt an extraordinarily weak and virtually meaningless definition of atheism devoid of any analytical content. A person who is without a belief in God because merely because he has never encountered the concept may technically be an atheist, but only in the way that a cat or a baby or a sleeping person or a brick is an atheist. Plainly one’s lack of belief in God will not entail any metaphysical conclusions if the non-belief proceeds merely from failing to ever think about the subject — but it’s silly to attach the label “atheism” to such complete thoughtlessness. A person might never think about platypuses, either, but to attribute a formal zoological position to him as a consequence would be a trivial exercise. And in such a case there would be no way to distinguish that person’s atheism from his aplatypusism, any more than his atheism could be distinguished from anything else he’d never thought about. All cows are black in the dark.

I agree with Cline that atheism does not compel a monolithic moral or political ideology, but I was using the word “ideology” in a general philosophical sense to signify any collection of ideas or beliefs. Moreover, atheism does in many cases have clear implications for moral reasoning, insofar as any argument based upon the desire of a deity will be rejected as unsound — in the same way that decisions based upon coin-flipping would generally be disregarded. Atheism may not steer one directly onto the right path, but it will eliminate many of the wrong choices. Knowing that two plus two equals four may not tell one how to build a bridge, but denying it will certainly cause any bridge built to collapse.

So atheism is of particular value in cases where a practice which appears to cause substantial human suffering is preserved merely upon the authority of some alleged God-command. Cline’s blog

Easter Icon

November 24, 2003 | 7 Comments

Lileks recounting what his daughter is learning in preschool:

[S]he had a song for Thanksgiving; it involved a turkey who ran away because he feared he would be cooked. This fits with the Halloween song about a pumpkin who rolled away because he feared he would be made into a pie. All the songs they teach seem to involve seasonal icons unwilling to assume their traditional roles. I am curious to learn what they do with Easter.

Silly man. What could they possibly do with Easter? The Easter Bunny never gets killed — he just hops down the bunny trail with a basket of colored eggs.

Or am I missing something?

God Squad Review LXVII (Spiritually Acceptable Holidays)

November 24, 2003 | 7 Comments

Thanksgiving is “the only spiritually acceptable, universal American holiday,” the Squad declares this week. After condemning those who “actually sustain the spiritual arrogance to believe that God owes [them] more than [they] owe God,” the Squad evaluates the spiritual acceptability of the remaining days off. They all make the cut except New Years (“[w]ay too much drinking and way too many bad bowl games”) and Presidents Day (“[a]ll that’s left of this holiday is mattress sales”). Halloween is a close call, qualifying only because it’s a “magical day” for children.

I never knew that Halloween was a “holiday”; it no longer really has any religious signficance and nobody stays home unless it falls on a weekend. And the Squad’s take on Inauguration Day left me baffled as well. Is swearing in a new president really “the closest way politics can instantiate the theological truth that all people are made in the image of God”?

Thank YOU, Pieter Friedrich

November 21, 2003 | 10 Comments

Religious satire is hard to do well. Religion itself is so self-parodying that deliberate attempts at ridicule frequently seem redundant. The Landover Baptist Church does a good job, although its persistent tongue-in-cheekiness often gives it away.

But fellow atheist Pieter Friedrich has perfected the art. He’s the young genius behind Deux Ego, the brilliantly conceived faux-blog that perfectly mimics the self-absorbed, shallow angst of a rabidly homophobic teenaged Christian twit.

The satire is so subtlety and seamlessly executed that the casual (and even careful) reader is readily persuaded that he’s dealing with the genuine article. The effect is devastating: Friedrich so convincingly and repulsively personifies fundamentalist homophobia that the effect is to champion, through indirection, the very cause he purports to attack. It’s a testament to his skill that a blog that posts such screeds as Homosexuality: A Hate-Filled Lifestyle is actually the most gay-friendly site on the Web.

Part of Friedrich’s secret is that he never breaks from character. Consider the hilarity that ensued after he expressed mock surprise at finding his site blogrolled by a sodomite, Michael Demmons. Instead of revealing the joke after Demmons took it seriously, Friedrich demanded, through repeated comments, to have the gay stain removed by a de-linking. Similarly, after I teased Pieter my by placing him on my “Hate Watch” blogroll, he immediately “thanked” me for putting him in the company of Godidiots like Vox Day — noting, quick-wittedly, that “perhaps if the Raving Atheist had read I Cor. 1:18-31 he’d know that “Godidiot” is actually a compliment (“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise”).

It is with great reluctance that I “out” my godless friend like this, but it has pained me for some time to see his good work go unacknowledged. The cheer and wit of tireless advocates like Friedrich and others of his new generation are largely responsible for creating the new atmosphere in this country, an atmosphere which this week permitted the cause of gay marriage to trimuph over the hatred of those dogmatists whom he so effectively mocks. I hope that pulling away the curtain doesn’t dampen his style, but rather heightens the appreciation of his comedic technique.

Knowing Pieter, he’ll issue vehement denials to perpetuate his farce; and knowing how talented he is, he’ll likely succeed. Only one as good as he is can convince you that he’s as bad as he seems. So to insure his reputation in posterity, I’m taking him off the Hate Watch list and creating a separate “Gay and Gay Friendly” blogroll where he’ll forever be united with kindred spirits such as Jody from Naked Writing. And for good measure, I’ll link to his picture under “Erotica” so that my thousands of weekly guests may feast their eyes upon this strapping lad in the full bloom of his gay-friendly youth.

It Could Be Jew

November 20, 2003 | 1 Comment

The Jews for Jesus have been criticized for targeting their conversion efforts at the most “vulnerable” Jews — college students and the elderly. According to the counter-conversion group Jews for Judaism, however, the “threat” is much broader than that. Its website asserts that “[c]ontrary to popular perception, it is not only emotionally unstable Jews who fall prey to the missionaries’ efforts; in fact, all Jews are susceptible.” The reason? “While most Jews know that we do not accept Jesus as Messiah or G-d, few are able to explain why.”

This is a far cry from the argument that those who convert to Jews for Jesus are confused, weak-minded victims of “deception.” Rather, they’re simply people who haven’t yet formed a religious belief with any meaningful content. They don’t have any reason or explanation for their beliefs. Calling them “Jewish” (in the theological, rather than ethnic sense) is a misnomer. They’re really undecideds. And fair game. Judaism has no more intellectual right to their allegiance than any other sect.

As I’ve noted before, the practice of “conversion” has largely negative connotations in our society. It’s considered insulting to suggest that someone should change their deeply-held religious beliefs, or to imply that those beliefs aren’t the result of mature and careful consideration. But even were that the case, it’s not the argument that the Jews for Judaism are making. It’s really the opposite: they’re saying that Jews haven’t really thought things out at all. So the alleged victims are not really being “converted”; they’re making up their minds for the first time.

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is the difference in reaction when a conversion attempt is made by evangelical Christians rather than a groups like Jews for Jesus. Where the proselytizer is openly Christian, there’s no charge of “deception.” Instead, the attitude is merely “you’ve got your religion and we’ve got ours.” The rationale is not that the Jews are right and the Christians are wrong, but merely that “we’ve already made up our minds” and it’s rude to proselytize. The response is much as it would be if Hindus tried to convince the Jews to accept their animal-headed gods. There wouldn’t be a heated theological attack on the alternative zoo-universe, but simply an expression of disinterest and a request that the missionaries go away and mind their own business.

But the Jews for Jesus are accused of fraud and of “delegitimatizing” Judaism. And rather than simply asking them to go away, the Jews for Judaism declare that “[i]t is important that we understand the theological flaws in the ‘Hebrew Christian’ argument that accepting Jesus is a fulfillment of Judaism.” What their refutation amounts to, however, isn’t merely an observation that there’s a contradiction between being both Jewish and Christian at once. Instead, the argument is that any interpretation of the Old Testament which prophecies the coming of Jesus is false. The organization also devotes much space to establishing that Christian doctrines set forth solely in the New Testament, such as the resurrection, are self-contradictory and factually incorrect. It’s just as much an attempt “delegitimatize” a religion — Christianity — as any effort by the Jews for Jesus to delegitimatize Judaism.

Godidiot of The Week: Vox Day of Vox Popoli

November 19, 2003 | 21 Comments

This week’s godidiot, Christian Libertarian Vox Day of Vox Popoli, has a lot to say about the relationship between God and ethics for someone who knows so little about either:

Without God, there is only the left-hand path of the philosopher. It leads invariably to Hell, by way of the guillotine, the gulag and the gas chamber. The atheist is irrational because he has no other choice

Whatever It May Be

November 18, 2003 | 8 Comments

Grim’s Hall calls me one of his “least favorite bloggers,” an animosity apparently rooted more in a difficulty with reading comprehension than anything else. He certainly didn’t quite get my post on Forn Sidr, the Danish group which successfully petitioned to have its Norse mythology recognized by the state as a religion.

My point, in brief, was that American schools might soon be compelled to “respect” ridiculous gods such as Thor and Odin in the same way that they now respect the ridiculous Christian god

God Squad Review LXVI (Geriatricide)

November 17, 2003 | 6 Comments

The Squad gives some gentle advice to a family whose favorite uncle is 84, in a nursing home, and wants to die. The old man asked even asked everyone to pray that he would die, and to sign papers agreeing that he would not be force-fed if he refused to eat. They completed he paperwork out of respect for his wishes, albeit with a stipulation for water and pureed food. Presumably they haven’t honored his request for death-prayers, because they want him alive and are worried that what they’ve already done is helping to kill him. The Squad recommends a some tough love:

Have all your family members who love your uncle write him a letter telling him how much they care about him and why they want him to live. In those letters, you might remind him gently that God gave him his life, and only God can say when it’s time to take that life away. It is not his time yet.

Sounds very kind. But the Squad has explained before what happens a person who destroys God’s “property,” even when that property is his own body. He goes to Hell, unless he remembers to repent in that instant between the bullet entering and exiting his head. So Uncle Grumpy has a good reason to remember mama’s advice and finish all his pureed vegetables.

Corny Carney

November 15, 2003 | 11 Comments

As I’ve noted before, the death of an entertainer always invites a slew of editorial cartoons depicting the newly-deceased being greeted by a Catholic St. Peter in at pearly gates of the Judeo-Christian heaven (see here and here). The premise, unoriginal and unfunny, is annoying even when illustrated through the merciful brevity of a single-panel cartoon. But Jay Ambrose, my very first godidiot, has found a way to prolong the torment through clumsy and over-expository prose:

Art Carney has died at the age of 85, and if you can imagine a sign-in process at the gates of Heaven, you might also imagine him flexing his arms back and forth in ritualistic preparation for the writing of his name. St. Peter is finally brought to extreme frustration, barking at him to get on with it, and nearby angels roar with laughter.

Har har haa-aar dee har har! Yes, I might imagine all that. And did you see the look on Jesus’ face when . . . ?

Ambrose’s decision to covert the physical, visual art of slapstick into a script for a verbal stand-up comedy routine strikes me as pure anti-genius. If only he had only written the obituary for the Three Stooges:

The Three Stooges are dead, and if you can imagine a sign-in process at the gates of Heaven, you might also imagine Moe eye-poking Larry while Curly accidently bonks him with a two-by-four . . .

But I’m afraid Ambrose has spoiled things for Art. He’s stolen Carney’s thunder by describing the hilarity so graphically, and if those angels see his column before the actor arrives, they’re not going to roar so loudly. Of course, even Ambrose’s piece won’t make them laugh unless they’ve somehow missed the past fifty years of Honeymooners re-runs.

What I don’t understand is why St. Peter wouldn’t laugh. Presumably he’s at least as sophisticated as any of the angels, and would realize that Carney was just doing his Ed Norton schtick. Why has Ambrose cast the Saint in the grumpy Ralph Kramden role and made the angels into the laugh track? Is this one of the Lost Episodes?

Finally, Ambrose should seriously reconsider whether Carney gets into Heaven at all. As Ambrose once said, “without a holy absolute, there is no foundation for objective morality.” One of those absolutes, according to the God Squad, is that re-marrying without an annulment lands you in Hell. Carney married Jean Myers, divorced her to marry a production assistant, and then re-married Myers again. He’d have to have gotten two annulments to avoid damnation, and even if he did it’s possible that the re-marriage rendered the first annulment a fraud.

A Matter of Taste

November 14, 2003 | 11 Comments

Former (ah, how nice it sounds) Judge Roy Moore has lost his quest to force his state to officially “acknowledge God” through a monument to the Ten Commandments. He’s always surrounded by enthusiastic supporters but there’s no real national media clamor, or any grassroots support for his cause other than the Christian evangelicals. Despite the common notion that God’s law is superior to man’s, Moore’s violation of a federal court order was widely viewed as an inexcusable offense. Congress didn’t pass resolution after unanimous resolution condemning the court that ordered the removal of the sculpture, as it did following the Ninth Circuit’s decision forbidding the acknowledgment of God through the Pledge of Allegiance. And although legislators gathered en masse to recite the Pledge in unison in mock defiance of the Pledge ruling, they’ve been conspicuously silent on Moore’s offer to donate his monument for display in the Senate.

But the cases really aren’t so different. As noted above, both involve state-sponsored endorsements of God. Both concluded with federal appellate orders removing God from the public square. And in some ways it’s surprising that the public has rallied behind the Pledge rather than behind Moore. The monument case involves a passive display in a single courthouse, directed to a limited adult audience which can simply avert its eyes. The Pledge case, on the other hand, requires the active, coerced participation of children, nationwide and every day, in a verbal vow to God.

Presumably one distinction that makes the commandments case less palatable is the clear Judeo-Christian, sectarian bias of the decalogue. But the vast majority of Americans worship that god, and I don’t think that Moore’s lack of multiculturalism counts very heavily against him. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling was also expressly based on a finding of sectarian, monotheistic bias, a bias held by the Catholics who inserted the word “God” into the oath, and a bias which excludes not only atheists, but also polytheists and certain Christians who consider interfaith prayer to be syncretism.

It may be that this last, prissy ACLUistic distinction was lost on the public. But it’s besides the point anyway, because the widespread support for the Pledge isn’t really based on the perception that it’s an innocuous, non-sectarian tribute to a faceless, ceremonially deistic abstraction. People are offended that God, a real God, the one and only God, the Judeo-Christian deity upon which this Country was founded, is being taken out of the schools. And that being the case, they should be equally if not more offended that His laws are being taken out of the courts.

Perhaps, though, they also realize the ruse becomes a bit too transparent once a particular set of scriptures is introduced. They’d back Moore if the courts tried to remove the words “In God We Trust” from his courtroom wall, but letting him putting the Bible in the lobby might open the door for Allah and all sorts of gods with tails. So they settle, instead, for a God that’s very hot but completely tasteless.

Update?

November 13, 2003 | Comments Off

He drew this atrocity to protest the court-ordered removal of Roy Moore’s Ten Commandment monument. But I wonder if Bob Gorrell will be brave enough to follow up with this:

moorebill.gif

Toast

November 13, 2003 | 9 Comments

Toast.

Finally, an order he can’t disregard.

Atheists For Moses

November 13, 2003 | 20 Comments

Austin Cline has taken a astounding position for an atheist — he claims that one, and only one, religion is a fraud! Apparently the Jews for Jesus stand alone in promoting a false theology. According to Cline, they’re “pretending to be Jewish when nothing could be further from the truth,” using “old tricks” in order to “dupe” Jews into converting to Christianity. Cline sides with various Jewish organizations which are opposing the JFJ’s “deceptive campaign” of proselytizing to the Jewish community in Palm Beach, where, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council, they are “targeting our most vulnerable members, including the frail elderly and college students.” Cline quotes with approval a regional director of the American Jewish Committee who condemned JFJ for having “the audacity to call their leaders rabbis and cantors” and who declared that “[a]ny ceremony performed by such people is therefore on its face invalid, a ruse, a lie, a fraud.” Cline concludes:

Many evangelical Christian leaders, to their everlasting shame, see no problem with the tactics or the goals of “Jews for Jesus.” They think it’s just dandy that someone is converting all of those poor Jews, and if that means pretending to be Jewish when nothing could be further from the truth, well that seems to be fine as well. It’s not as though Judaism were a “real” religion such that anyone is “really” harmed, right?

And in an earlier column, Cline praised a group called Jews for Judaism for working to “counter the [JFJ’s] distortions and misinformation about both Judaism and Jesus,” adding that “[i]t’s good to see Jews stand up for their heritage and religion.”

Cline has basically adopted the ADL’s disingenuous argument that it’s “deception” to assert that accepting Jesus as the Messiah is compatible with Jewish theology. But how does Cline know what the “real” Judaism is? Did God tell him? If so, did God also say which of the varied beliefs of the Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jews are compatible with Jewish theology? They can’t all be right about God’s law.

There’s no inherent logical conflict in a Jew accepting Christ as Messiah, and certainly no contradiction nearly as serious as those involved the concept of God generally. Jesus was a Jew, and presumably the ultimate Jew for Himself. Later admirers may have labeled themselves “Christians,” stopped eating Kosher and calling their holy men “Rabbis,” but Cline hasn’t supplied any criteria by which to judge that they were right and the JFJs are wrong. Are the Lubovitchers no longer Jews because they thought Rebbe Menachem Schneerson was the Messiah? Are Muslims actually Christians because the Koran refers to Jesus as the Messiah? By the same token, should Protestants object to Catholics calling themselves “Christians” just because they venerate the Pope rather than focusing all their attention on Christ?

Certainly, at least as good a case can be made that Jews who reject the possibility of any Messiah are not “really” Jewish. The Old Testament foretells of the Coming of the Anointed One. It’s one thing to deny the divinity of a particular alleged Messiah, but to assert that those who accept him are in violation of Jewish theology is ridiculous. It’s those who define their Judaism in terms of the impossibility of any Messiah who are the heretics.

The accusation of “deception” by the JFJ’s is also absurd. They call themselves — read carefully now &#150 — J-E-W-S F-O-R J-E-S-U-S. That’s false advertising? What on Earth would anyone suspect walking into an organization with a name like that? If the theological impossibility of Jewish Jesus-worship is so obvious, don’t you’d think they’d pick a something just a little more subtle to lure in unsuspecting victims? Like maybe Jews for Allah? (Note: Do NOT click on that last link and look at the “before and after” photos

Judge — Not!

November 12, 2003 | 6 Comments

A nine member judicial panel is deliberating the fate of monument-building renegade theist Justice Roy Moore and will announce his fate tomorrow at 11 a.m. Central Standard Time. I assume he’s toast, just like Robert Durst and Scott Peterson. Okay, just like Scott Peterson. Okay, maybe he’s not toast then.

In closing, the unrepentant judge’s lawyer cautioned the panel to “[r]emember, as you judge Roy Moore today, that tomorrow you may be judged.” Whether he was referring to judgment by Jesus or the electorate I don’t know, assuming there’s a difference between the two in Alabama.

On the off chance that secular justice prevails, Father Dan suggests a new crusade for Moore in New York City.

Theozoology

November 11, 2003 | 37 Comments

People who believe that animal-headed deities run the universe are silly. It’s a completely trivial belief. I can’t think of anything crazier than combining theology with zoology, although I guess throwing botany into the mix might do the trick. So I’d say both sides to this dispute — over a book which discusses the elephant god Ganesha in overtly sexual terms and depicts him naked on the cover — are pretty childish:

Emory University’s Paul B. Courtright, a professor of religious studies, has been an outspoken critic of anti-Hindu attitudes in the United States. But his book, Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings has recently been called a “pornographic affront to a key Hindu god”. Some 4,500 Hindus in India and the United States signed an on-line petition demanding that Courtright apologize for his affront to the Hindu elephant god and revise passages in his book. Some of them added death threats to their signatures. Initiated by T. R. Rao, a professor at Louisiana University at LaFayette, the petition was addressed to President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Georgia’s Governor Sonny Purdue, and members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Ralph Luker (linked above) contemptuously labels the demonstrators as “true believers.” Eugene Volokh also sneeringly dismisses the dispute a “blasphemy controversy,” implying, like Luker, that the protesters are fundamentalist ideologues. So they are; but Professor Courtright is little better than his detractors. Unless he’s an atheist posing as a Hindu to mock the religion, he’s promoting a theology just as rigid, and false, as his critics. The only difference is that his version is smuttier, and that he wields the power of a university chair to legitimatize his idiocy.

Neither Luker nor Volokh state their views on the theological issue involved, i.e., whether Ganesha was a dirty old pachyderm. Instead, the debate is framed solely in terms of free speech, with Courtright posed as the victim of illiberalism. But that’s an insignificant question given the stakes ostensibly involved: if Ganesha has been offended by Courtright’s words, we’re all in mortal danger of being stampeded, sprayed with muddy water or poked by pointy tusks. On the other hand, if Courtright’s correct, the elephant-god might just cum all over us. Presumably Luker and Volokh reject either possibility, but if so, they’d have done well to say so. Portraying the case merely as one of an angry mob against a lone voice of reason is highly misleading.

The free speech issue also carries little weight with me because both sides are promoting similar forms of mental slavery. Certainly Hinduism itself doesn’t give as rat’s ass about the First Amendment. Yes, Professor Courtright and the Hindu protesters have a right to spout off about whatever nonsense they’ve been brainwashed into believing, but whoever wins is simply going inflict their strain of the mind-shrinking virus upon the next generation of helpless children.

The notion of “academic freedom” in this case is also a red herring. I agree with Richard Dawkins that universities shouldn’t even have departments of religion in the first place. As Dawkins has noted, “[t]he achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”

UPDATE: Commentor Kafkaesqui has expressed an interest in seeing the cover of Courtright’s book. You can find it at the bottom of the Professor’s university webpage, here. But insofar as the picture is small, and Kafkaesqui’s thinly-veiled, bestial motive was to see an elephant’s penis, feast your eyes:

elepeni.jpg

God Squad Review LXV (Angels)

November 10, 2003 | 1 Comment

Did Grandpa become an angel when he died? a Squad reader wants to know. Modestly, the Squad admits that “[w]e know some things, but we don’t know for sure what life after death looks like.” Indeed, in a previous column they declared that “all speculation about what happens after death is pointless, foolish, premature or silly.” But that doesn’t stop them from rushing in where angels dare not tread anyway:

First of all, people cannot become angels, because angels are made of different stuff than we are. They have no bodily needs, so they have no bodily faults. They don’t eat or smell or die or sleep or burp. Some angels are close to God and hardly ever come to Earth. These are the ministering angels such as Gabriel and Michael. Then there are guardian angels who watch over us here on Earth all the time.

There also are fallen angels who were so jealous of God’s decision to make people that they spend their time trying to trip us up. Satan is one of the bad angels.

From the Squad’s description I’m assuming that angels don’t have bodies at all. Certainly not mouths or stomachs or esophagi or intestines or sweat glands, since they don’t eat or smell or burp. And they wouldn’t need the rest of the organs either, all of which are devoted to regulating bodily needs. I guess they’re just minds, although not made of cells or matter or anything else than needs to be maintained physically.

That being the case, I don’t see how angels can be “close” or “far” from God. Without bodies they can’t have any physical location, unless they’re “everywhere” like God. In which case they’re all with him, and with each other, all over the universe. I also don’t understand how a being which has no bodily desires or faults could become jealous or evil. If I had a flawless non-body, I’d just spend my day admiring it at a non-gym.

Finally, Grandpa’s possession of a now-rotting body shouldn’t disqualify him from becoming an angel. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Squad said that people can give away all of their organs before they die, explicitly repudiating “the old theological concerns that when Jesus returns and resurrects the dead, they should have all their parts on hand.”

Evolution

November 8, 2003 | 28 Comments

The Secularist Critique returned recently after a five month hiatus. As the changing subtitles of his blog demonstrate, he’s undergone an interesting form of evolution

Forn Sidr

November 7, 2003 | 28 Comments

Denmark yesterday recognized the worship of Viking gods such as Odin and Thor as a religion. Although the request — by a group called Forn Sidr — was originally turned down in 1999, worshippers of the Norse deities will now be allowed to celebrate legal marriages, receive donations and get tax breaks.

American public schools still teach that the Norse, Greek and Roman gods are “myths.” They are the one form of theology that can safely be declared false. Hindu, Wiccan and Christian mythology do not receive the same deserved disrespect. There’d be bloodshed in the classroom if they did.

So it would be interesting to see what would happen if the Forn Sidrites made their presence known in this country. Faced with a First Amendment challenge, the schools would have three choices: (1) stop teaching mythology (2) include Christianity, Judaism, etc. in the mythology curriculum, or (3) create a comparative religion curriculum which included the Norse “theology.” I think the first alternative would be the most likely. The second would probably be ruled unconstitutional because the government isn’t supposed to take a position on the truth of any religion. The third would simply be unpalatable — no good Christian would tolerate having their faith compared, even indirectly, to a religion which “everyone knows” is really just a myth.

This being the case, I can see a day when the schools are also compelled to ban any children’s fiction containing a supernatural element. Cults may one day form around Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz and declare themselves to be religions. And they’ll have the same constitutional right against disparagement as every other disparagable belief.

UPDATE: Commentor Eva suggests that devotees of Star Trek have established some sort of religion. However, fans of outer space science fiction would never do that. Nobody’s that stupid.

Goddamn Greedy Money-Grubbing Jews

November 6, 2003 | 16 Comments

Criticizing the excessive violence of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Kill Bill, Gregg Easterbrook got into trouble a couple of weeks ago for saying this:

Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice.

In his later apology, he elaborated:

I wondered about the consciences of those running Disney and Miramax. Were they Christian? How could a Christian rationalize seeking profits from a movie that glorifies killing as a sport, even as a form of pleasure? I think it’s fair to raise faith in this context: In fact I did exactly that one week earlier, when I wrote a column about the movie The Passion asking how we could take Mel Gibson seriously as a professed Christian, when he has participated in numerous movies that glorify violence.

But those running Disney and Miramax are not Christian, they’re Jewish. Learning this did in no way still my sense of outrage regarding Kill Bill. How, I wondered, could anyone Jewish–members of a group who suffered the worst act of violence in all history, and who suffer today, in Israel, intolerable violence–seek profit from a movie that glamorizes violence as cool fun?

* * *

Where I failed most is in the two sentences about adoration of money. I noted that many Christian executives adore money above all else, and in the 20-minute reality of blog composition, that seemed to me, writing it, fairness and fair spreading of blame. But accusing a Christian of adoring money above all else does not engage any history of ugly stereotypes. Accuse a Jewish person of this and you invoke a thousand years of stereotypes about that which Jews have specific historical reasons to fear.

The Anti-Defamation League has rejected Easterbrook’s apology:

Gregg Easterbrook’s mea culpa is insufficient. It’s a rationalization. There is no excuse for bringing religion into a discussion about greed and the film industry. Greed is a human frailty. Money is not only colorless, it is faithless.

By injecting religion into his criticism about the film industry — in his identifying Harvey Weinstein of Miramax and Michael Eisner of Disney as Jewish

No Wooden Legs?

November 5, 2003 | 44 Comments

The biggest ever scientific study on prayer-assisted medical healing has concluded that it just doesn’t work. A Duke Medical Center study involving 750 angioplasty patients in nine hospitals and 12 prayer groups around the world concluded that those prayed for by groups of strangers recovered from surgery at the same rate as those who were not.

Prayer-apologists, of course, are always ready with reasons why talking to the sky is not as futile as the evidence suggests. Inevitably, their criticisms raise questions which are more devastating to their cause than any study could be.

Consider, for example, the three methodological and theological objections to the study proffered by Tim Berglund. First, he attacks the “pluralism” of the experiment, noting that “[i]f the twelve prayer groups of the study represent twelve mutually exclusive religions, then at least 92% of the prayers were almost certainly ineffective.” Berglund asserts that the study should have controlled for the faith of those praying to determine which religion’s entreaties were actually having an effect.

This objection is indeed a valid one, but more than anything else it points up the consequences of introducing any variables unconnected with the direct physical treatment of the patient. Ordinary considerations of causality fly out the window, and anything and everything goes. Not only must one control for each religion, but for variations in rituals within each faith. Should the prayers be silent, spoken or sung, and in which language? Should the supplicants be standing, sitting or kneeling? Clapping their hands or doing jumping jacks? How to account for the possibility that the prayers of a particular faith are nullified by, say, a ten percent increase of the number of hamburgers sold at McDonald’s? Or The Raving Atheist’s anti-prayer, which demands that all those prayed for die instead?

It’s no objection to insist that a standard of reasonability be applied, particularly in the in the context of a study that already invokes everything from between the zero gods of Buddhism to the 31 million gods of Hinduism. Berglund, a Christian, eventually insists that the prayer be “biblical”; but nowhere in his analysis, so critical of the illogical and unscientific nature of the study, does he attempt to prove the truth of Christianity or establish that his own scriptural requirement is better than any other picked out of a hat.

More importantly, a proper study would also factor out medical considerations such as the skill of the treating physician and the condition of each patient. Had Berglund the courage of his convictions, he would have insisted on a pure faith healing study that eliminated medical treatment altogether and relied, as do the Christian Scientists, solely on the power of prayer. Moreover, he would demand that the study focus on the regrowth of severed limbs rather than something as manipulable as angioplasty recovery rates. Emile Zola once noted that he saw many crutches discarded at Lourdes, but no wooden legs; certainly to an omnipotent being there is no difference between curing multiple sclerosis and regenerating a leg.

Berglund’s second objection effectively concedes the futility of prayer. Quoting the Bishop of Durham, he asserts that “[p]rayer is not a penny-in-the-slot machine. You can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate.” To measure its effectiveness would be to violate holy law by “put[ting] God to the test . . . [i]t’s a fair bet that if he is God, he will not generally answer prayers that are prima facie sinful.”

Which means simply that prayers don’t work, since every prayer puts God to the test of doing that which is requested. The whole point of science, including medicine, is to achieve “penny-in-the-slot machine” results; what Berglund is proposing is that any results that could be measured scientifically would be invalid. We are fortunate that doctors, unlike Berglund’s God, do not measure their success by high and completely unpredictable death rates (or, as he suggested in his first objection, ignore the begging of all patients except the Christian ones).

Berglund’s final suggestion simply turns the concept of prayer on its head. Seeking to to reconcile God’s foreknowledge of how He will answer prayer with its utility, Berglund asserts that “God works out his will through the prayers of his people.” How can the prayer possibly be free under those circumstances? The answer is double-talk: “When the faithful pray, they are freely choosing to offer prayers to God according to their desire to do so, thus participating as human persons communing with the personal God in the process of accomplishing what God has determined to accomplish.” So we’re “freely” helping God do what he’s “determined” already to do.

Far worse than any of Berglund’s objections is his open contempt for science that permeates his analysis. At one point he claims that prayers from distant strangers do not work because “the New Testament exposes a pattern of laying on of hands during prayer, which is inherently more relational than receiving a computer-generated prayer email from software configured by a group of researchers.” So God is a technophobic luddite who hates machines. Presumably he objects to MRI’s as well, which produce computer-generated images from software operated by a group of laboratory technicians.

God Squad Review LXIV

November 3, 2003 | 15 Comments

With Ramadan upon us, a Squad reader is having troubling not judging Islam and Muslim negatively. The Squad offers essentially the same lame defense it did last year:

Each religion has certain texts that are difficult or sound embarrassing to the modern ear. The important point is not what every passage says in the Quran, or the Christian or Hebrew Scriptures, but which texts contemporary religious leaders choose to quote.

If they want to live in harmony with other faiths and cultures, there are texts underlining that goal.

If they want to preach a hostile or even violent approach, there are texts that, sadly, can be twisted to support that view.

As I noted last year, it doesn’t take much twisting to make texts which speak about killing infidels and compare non-Muslims to apes and monkeys sound bad. The scriptures say what they say. And they purport to be the word of God. If we’re in a position to distinguish the good parts from the bad, and to thereby forge a morality which is superior to that in the books, we don’t need the books at all. Or God.

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