The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2004 November

God Squad Review CX

November 29, 2004 | 17 Comments

A Squad reader is debating whether to end a friendship with an Arab who believes rumors that President Bush planned the Twin Tower attacks. Noting that Osama has admitted his guilt on tape and that “we are fighting World War III against a group of murdering maniacs who have perverted Islam and want to murder all the Hindus, Christians, Jews and Americans they can find,” the Squad advises:

As for your friend, we urge you to try to help him let go of his anger and illusions. If he is your friend, he might be ready now to see the truth of things. He might be willing to admit that even a great and peaceful religion such as Islam can be hijacked, twisted and used by people who are willing to kill children and behead innocent civilians in the name of some insane ideology of hate.

You probably will not be able to bring your friend back to a life of reason by berating him. Try to understand his fears, then try to calm them. Try to ease his suspicious nature and reassure him.

As the Squad conceded in a previous column, the Qu’ran compares non-Muslims to apes and monkeys and recommends that that they be destroyed. The problem isn’t that Allah’s plane has been hijacked

Interview with Sam Harris (Part 3)

November 24, 2004 | 9 Comments

Atheist bloggers Strange Doctrines and Brian Flemming continue the questioning of The End of Faith author Sam Harris on the merits of meditational mysticism. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.


STRANGE DOCTRINES: You state, “[T]he feeling we call ‘I’ is one of the most pervasive and salient features of human life: and its effects upon the world, as six billion ‘selves’ pursue diverse and often incompatible ends, rival those that can be ascribed to almost any other phenomenon in nature. Clearly, there is nothing optimal–or even necessarily viable–about our present form of subjectivity.” (214) This puts me in mind of W.H. Auden’s remark: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” I read Auden’s irony here as laying bare a central puzzle about the notion that the highest morality (or the most advanced state of being) consists in setting the self and its reflective interests aside: The meaning of my existence surely must include me, and so subjectivity (and whatever degree of egoism that entails) would seem necessary for any meaningful human life.

Is Auden (as I read him) wrong? If so, why? If not, what would the optimal” form of subjectivity look like?

HARRIS: Leaving aside the issue of what Auden may or may not have meant, I think your question goes to the link between ethics and spiritual experience. I discuss this a little in my book. To my mind, the contradiction between true selfishness and true selflessness is only apparent. (I’m by no means the first person to make this observation.) From the perspective of most spiritual traditions (once again, I use the word “spiritual” squeamishly and in a restricted sense), to be truly selfish is to seek the happiness that only comes with the total abandonment of self, and the abandonment of self opens the door to those states of mind that have been traditionally associated with saint-like selflessness. There’s a passage in my book (p. 186-187) that gets at this issue with respect to the emotion of love, ending with the following observation: “There is a circle here that links us to one another: we each want to be happy; the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others. We discover that we can be selfish together.”

The other point to make, perhaps, is that even on strict retreat, while attempting to meditate every waking moment, most of us will still spend much of our time lost in thought, feeling like separate selves, and motivated on the basis of this feeling. So the total loss of self is a very rare problem, if it is a problem at all.

Another thing to mention, perhaps, is that successful (selfless) meditation is by no means synonymous with the total suppression of thought. There are types of meditation that try to achieve this, of course. And in the beginning, discursive thinking really is an obstacle to concentration. But there comes a point of stability in meditation in which thoughts can arise and yet cease to be distracting, which is to say they cease to imply the existence of an inner thinker who is thinking them. There’s a beautiful image that the Tibetan Buddhists use, describing thoughts at this stage as being like “thieves entering an empty house.” So the “optimal” form of subjectivity is surely compatible with thinking.

BRIAN FLEMMING: Several years ago I edited an instructional video about zazen meditation for a California Zen center. It was my first exposure to that culture. While I found the focus on breathing to be similar to yoga or other forms of physical exercise, the trappings of a religion or cult designed to control people were clearly present: the students submitted to the authority of the guru, who would order them to think about confusing concepts, which would humble them and cause further submission; as a group they thought of themselves as different and better (more “enlightened”); and so they would proselytize (the purpose of the video, I discovered). Is it possible to explore consciousness under the instruction of an authority (“serious training is usually in order,” you say above) and have the experience *not* turn into religion?

HARRIS: This question of how healthy it may or may not be to idealize a spiritual teacher is an interesting one. First, we should note that this issue visits us throughout our culture. Just look at how we treat great athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Such enchantment is not entirely misplaced, of course, because certain people really are the best in the world at what they do The same is true in science, where people like Richard Feynman inevitably become the objects of a kind of hero-worship. Other scientists even succumb to these devotions, if for no other reason than that they are in a better position to appreciate a virtuoso performance when they see it. So the first point to make is that idealization is not always a sign of infantile projection. As long as we value certain talents, we will have a special fascination for those who are most talented. That said, there are surely dysfunctional forms of guru-infatuation and group-think.

The bottom line, however, is that spiritual practice is a domain of genuine expertise (or its lack), and so there will be both experts worth listening to and charlatans worth avoiding. All of this is complicated by the fact that devotion to a guru — that is, love and gratitude toward a spiritual mentor — is a legitimate (and even unavoidable) aspect of this line of inquiry. Of course, people often feel love and devotion toward teachers of all sorts, but in the area of spiritual practice, these emotional states are very closely related to the subject under study. So the answer to your question is a qualified “yes.” Yes, I think it should be possible to do all this without falling into egregious cultishness and irrationality. But it should not surprise us too much when some of that happens. I would wager that some of the people hanging around Feynman when he was at his prime were as annoying as anyone you met at the Zen center.

[Interview continued here]

Sold!

November 23, 2004 | 7 Comments

For $28,000. To an online casino. Get your Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese sandwich makers, T-shirts, thongs, mesh trucker hats, cleaner upper sponges, candles, photos-in-a-bottle, Christmas ornaments, silver pendants, coffee mugs, dollar bills, buttons, toilet paper, Hotmail addresses, wall clocks and oil paintings while they last. For skeptics, the sandwich comes in an agnostic version as well.

Perhaps someday someone will start a religion involving a Virgin Mary in non-grilled cheese form and try to sell merchandise related to that. Nah, it would never work — people aren’t that stupid.

Neo-Kaizen

November 23, 2004 | 21 Comments

Atheism is a negative philosophy, but a limited one: it deals only with disbelief in God. If you want to really broaden the horizons of your skepticism, join the Neo-Kaizen revolution. There, you can follow the Antiestablishment Philosophy of the Kiens, which has as its first principle the absence of belief in all non-existents.

Due to space limitations their website doesn’t set forth disproofs for every non-entity, but if you’re not afraid of these chattering skulls, you can get a good feel for their mindset by reading about The 10 NK Perspectives and What is Neo-Kaizen

God Squad Review CIX (Thanksgiving Prayer)

November 22, 2004 | 23 Comments

The Squad offers a prayer of gratitude for things such as “bad thanksgiving food” and “the people who let us into traffic.” I guess they’re joking about those things, but they seem to be serious about this:

We thank you for the courage of our soldiers. When we watch and hear them, the thought must arise in every soul: “How did we come to deserve them?” They are obviously the best of us. Whatever our views about the wars they are ordered to fight, let us never stop admiring them. Help us to never stop telling them that we admire them.

I think at some point, one’s view of the war in question should interfere with one’s admiration of those fighting it. And rather than begging God to compel us to continue our admiration of the courage he has forcibly installed in the soldiers, we should ask him to install in us the correct view about the war. That way, if it turns out to be a bad war, we can pray for the cowardice of the soldiers.

Grinch

November 19, 2004 | 11 Comments

The school districts of South Orange and Maplewood, N.J. have banned their students from performing music related to any religious holiday. Dawn Eden, a Jew who grew up in the area, thinks “[i]t’s a terrible loss, for the town and the kids.” Sort of:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I missed the era of institutionalized celebration of Christianity in schools. Back when my Jewish father went to public school, it wasn’t unusual for the kids to have to sing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Even when I was growing up — under the modern rules that require religious music to be presented in a secular setting, as an expression of tradition rather than a devotional exercise — it wasn’t always easy being a Jewish kid in the chorus. The Christmas songs went on about Jesus, while the Hanukkah music usually got no deeper than “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.”

So what’s her problem with deinstitutionalizing Christianity? She liked the music:

Performing in front of the townspeople, I also learned something about the power of inspirational music to bring people together. I knew that the lyrics about the Messiah weren’t about my religion’s Messiah. Yet I couldn’t help but be moved at how Handel’s intensely beautiful music, sung by teenagers in intricate four-part harmony, had such an uplifting effect on the listeners, many also not Christian. It was an awesome thing to sing the opening notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and see the entire audience rise as one.

And she’s found an a godless lawyer to side with her:

Even First Amendment lawyer Ron Kuby, an avowed atheist, is on the side of the angels. “Unfortunately, it’s always easier to stifle the speech than to risk a lawsuit,” he says. “But this serves no one’s interest. It infuriates the religious community without any corresponding benefit to maintaining the separation between church and state.”

She almost has a good point here:

And so what was once one of New Jersey’s greatest music programs goes from Handel to scandal — all so that students barred from singing about a living God can instead sing about a living snowman.

I don’t deny the power of good music to provoke pleasurable emotions. But at least part of the power of “The Messiah” is how it taps into, and reinforces, people’s pre-existing religious beliefs; no doubt many people have the same reaction to “Onward Christian Soldiers” and I don’t see how Eden could draw a principled distinction between the two works. I doubt Handel’s masterpiece would have quite the same appeal if it were about a living snowman (unless he melted for our sins). Although she disagrees with some of the particulars regarding the Deity, Eden plainly wants to sing about a “living God” and share her religious fervor with the community.

This doesn’t mean that “The Messiah” can’t be taught in public school music classes. Any music with independent artistic merit can be. But what Eden wants is for that music to be used to celebrate a religious holiday. That is the function of a church, not a public school.

Non-Reading Comprehension

November 18, 2004 | 75 Comments

Steve Unfried was recently fired from his job as principal of an Alaska school. Without reading this story, try to answer the following questions:

1. Why was principal Unfreid fired?

A. Excessive absenteeism.
B. Drinking on the job.
C. Having a teacher voluntarily whip him in front of two students.
D. Embezzlement.

2. What motivated Mr. Unfreid to act as he did?

A. Greed.
B. Jesus.
C. Anger.
D. Alcoholism.

3. What trauma led up to Mr. Unfreid’s conduct?

A. Death of spouse.
B. Financial ruin.
C. Automobile accident.
D. Witnessing teenage boys kissing girls in the locker room.

4. Where did Mr. Unfreid’s unacceptable conduct occur?

A. Home.
B. School basement.
C. Principal’s office.
D. Bank.

5. What did Mr. Unfreid do the night before the offense?

A. Went to a bar.
B. Bought a gun.
C. Woke up at 3 a.m. and prayed for advice on what to do.
D. Slept.

6. In what similar conduct had Mr. Unfreid previously engaged?

A. Curing his son of chronic lying by telling his son to hit him with a wooden ladle instead of spanking the youngster.
B. Cocaine addiction.
C. Shoplifting.
D. Unauthorized sick leave.

7. What did Mr. Unfreid do immediately preceding the incident?

A. Picked lock on school safe.
B. Took off his belt, handed it to teacher Joe Brost, and instructed him to “discipline me like you would discipline your own son.”
C. Drove to liquor store.
D. Fell asleep.

8. How did the school authorities learn of Mr. Unfreid’s conduct?

A. Police.
B. School secretary.
C. Unfreid mentioned it to students in Bible class.
D. Parents.

9. What school policy did Mr. Unfreid violate?

A. Embezzlement policy.
B. Absenteeism rules.
C. Intoxication policy.
D. Failing to notify parents before going ahead with discipline, particularly with “anything that unusual.”

10. What was Mr. Unfreid’s reaction to his firing?

A. Shame.
B. Suicide.
C. Anger.
D. No regret.

Interview with Sam Harris (Part 2)(Updated with Comments)

November 17, 2004 | 17 Comments

Continuing the interrogation of author Sam Harris (“The End of Faith“) by atheist bloggers The Raving Atheist, Strange Doctrines, Brian Flemming and Under No Circumstances. Part 1 (including a introduction describing the scope of the interview) can be found here.


RAVING ATHEIST: You advocate a scientific, rational exploration of consciousness and assert that “[s]uch an enterprise becomes irrational only when people being making claims about the world that cannot be supported by empirical evidence” (p. 211). Yet you state that “no science that conflates consciousness with reportability will deliver an answer to the question [of the definition of consciousness] (p. 208), and conclude that “[t]he recognition of the nonduality of consciousness is not susceptible to a linguistically oriented analysis” (p. 228, fn19).” You also concede that “we simply do not know what happens after death.”

Your latter statements suggest to me that no scientific findings regarding consciousness can ever be observed or communicated, and that for all we know our minds are immaterial and eternal. If that’s the case, why should we reject out of hand the Muslim claim of an avenging Allah, now existing in some invisible realm but appearing after death? How is that theory unsupportable by empirical evidence, or linguistically incoherent, in a way that yours is not?

HARRIS: The point I was making about consciousness is not that first-person data (the contents of consciousness, or even the experience of “nonduality”) cannot be talked about, but that consciousness itself poses a unique problem for science. Here is the situation as I see it:

To say that an organism is conscious is not to say anything, in principle, about its behavior. It is perfectly coherent to say that an organism may be conscious, and yet we may have no way of knowing this from the outside. Of course, if the organism isn’t doing anything interesting, we are unlikely to suppose that it might be conscious in the first place. But behavior really beside the point when talking about what consciousness is as a phenomenon in nature. A person with “locked-in” syndrome may be as conscious as you and I are, and yet this may utterly escape detection. So, there are both first-person and third-person facts in this world, and the presence of absence of consciousness is a first-person fact. Whether it can be correlated reliably with some third-person facts (e.g. brain states) remains to be seen.

Given this situation, it seems to me that science can never really hope to jettison first-person data in the study of consciousness. As I point out in my book, even a state like anxiety — which has been very well characterized in third-person terms — relies upon first-person reports to be understood. If people stopped saying they felt anxious when their cortisol was high, then we would cease to think that cortisol was a good reporter of anxiety, and we would suddenly find ourselves confused about the biochemistry of this mental state. The fact that we have found a reliable correlation between a physiological measure and what people say about their experience is the key to our understanding a state like anxiety. So, first-person report still remains the gold standard for first person facts.

This does not suggest, however, that people can’t be wrong about the character of their experience. On the contrary, it suggests that we should bring considerable discipline to our search for first-person data. This is where “spirituality” or “mysticism” (both are, as I have said, terrible words, but there are no alternatives in English at the moment) creep into the picture. There are traditions of introspection which really do have something to offer us when it comes time to look “within.” Granted, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo to be sifted through on this front, but it is simply a fact that a tradition like Buddhism has developed far more sophisticated methods of introspection than we have in the West. Judging from the reaction of certain atheist-readers to my discussion of Buddhism, this fact is not well known to readers of your blog.

Contrary to what you suggest above, the results of first-person experiments can be readily communicated. The usual scientific qualms about “taking a subject’s word for it” need not trouble us here anymore than they do in the study of an ordinary mental state like anxiety. Yes, we ultimately have to take (certain) subjects’ reports seriously. This isn’t a problem. Or, rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

The root question of the relationship between consciousness and matter may not be answerable. Or it may not be answerable given our current concepts (mental v. physical; dualism v. monism; etc.) But this does not mean that everything is up for grabs. It doesn’t make the Muslim conception of Paradise, filled with virgins and silk brocade any more plausible. The only claim I have made in my book about consciousness is that it must be explored, systematically, from a first-person perspective, and that such exploration can yield reproducible discoveries: one of the most interesting being that the subject/object dichotomy (the ego) is a kind of cognitive illusion. The crucial point is that there is an experiment that a person can run on himself (e.g. meditation) that can be used to test this claim. The only experiment the Muslim proposes is death in defense of Islam.

STRANGE DOCTRINES: You state that the physicalist thesis–roughly, that the brain causes (or in your word, that it “produces”) consciousness–is an article of faith” among scientists, and that “the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death.” (208) Why isn’t it more accurate to say that the physicalist thesis is less an object of faith than it is a sound abduction based on our current evidence (and that, a fortiori, we do in fact know what happens after death)?

HARRIS: I think there is an important distinction to be made between consciousness (the fact that it is “like something” to be a physical system) and mind. We can well imagine most mental processes occurring without consciousness — in fact, most do. Your decoding of this sentence, for instance, is something that takes place outside the sphere of your conscious experience. While the process itself is complicated, there in no fundamental mystery as to how light can be transduced into patterns of neuronal firing and gene-expression, leading to neural circuits capable of processing written language. What is a mystery is that it should be like something, at any level, for a brain to do this — and this is the problem of consciousness.

The question of what happens after death is really a question about the relationship between consciousness itself and the physical world. If consciousness really is an emergent property of large collections of neurons, then when these neurons die (or become sufficiently disordered) the lights must really go out. The point I make in my book is that, while we know that mental functions (like the ability to read) can be fully explained in terms of information processing, we don’t know this about consciousness. For all we know, consciousness may be a more fundamental property of the universe than are neural circuits. Many people have tried to invoke some of the spookiness found in quantum mechanics in support of such an idea. I’ve
never been a fan of such efforts, however. Nevertheless, there is no result in neuroscience that rules out dualism, panpsychism, or any other theory that denies the reduction of consciousness to states of the brain. To my mind, neuroscience has demonstrated the supervenience of mind upon the brain, but the status of consciousness remains a mystery.

STRANGE DOCTRINES You say that the “self” is a function of a competence in the brain to represent itself to itself as part of the world, and that with meditative practice one can suppress or dissolve this sense of self by interrupting the process of auto-representation. (212-213.) Yet it seems to me that I commonly lose all sense of my self in a myriad of my routine activities–activities that don’t involve meditative practice.

Would you say that the loss of self I am referring to is qualitatively different from the loss of self you describe? Or is your point that meditative practice gives one the ability to revert to this state under a greater variety of conditions?

HARRIS: That’s a great question. In an important sense, there is a difference between these two types of selflessness, but the experiences you describe really do indicate that loss of self is an ordinary potential of the human mind–or, rather, that the self is something that is conceptually superimposed on the flow of experience. The difference between the selflessness that is the goal (and ultimately the means itself) of meditation and the experiences of selflessness that many people encounter in routine activities (like watching a movie or playing sports ) is that the latter form of selflessness tends to be noticed only in retrospect. Because it happens, more or less inadvertently, a person generally feels that he has come back to himself (so to speak), realizing that the previous interval of time was one in which he had disappeared into (or merged with) the flow of his experience. Genuine meditation requires the ability to do this disappearing act consciously, in the present moment, with the full presence of one’s faculties. It also requires that one become increasingly sensitive to the differences between a genuine, vivid break in the subject/object dichotomy and the many dull (though pleasant) states of mind that are its counterfeits. Once again, the one thing that is so impressive about the Buddhist literature (modulo the mumbo jumbo) is that phenomenology here has been described and debated in extraordinary detail.

Comments

Strange Doctrines’ second question crystallized for me the nature of Harris’ project. It is not merely to lose of the sense of the separate self. We already experience that, in an unfocused way, when our mind “wanders” (say, daydreaming); in a focused way when concentrating (say, watching a movie or writing); and in an completely unconscious way (when dreaming). But as Harris points out, we only realize we were “lost” after the fact, when it’s too late to analyze the experience. So the goal is a simultaneous awareness of our loss of self-consciousness.

Is that end, so defined, coherent? There seems to me to be an inherent contradiction in attempting to achieve an acute, real-time consciousness of not being self-conscious or, put another way, self-conscious of non-self-consciousness. I don’t know what else could be meant by doing the “disappearing act consciously.”

If the notion is coherent, however, I wonder why it would not be equally coherent when applied the non-meditative, “ordinary” experiences noted above. With respect to daydreams, for example, one could certainly “catch” oneself in the middle of one and resolve to continue the fantasy while simultaneously observing it and perhaps exercising a greater degree of control over its course and outcome. Similarly, one could watch a movie while simultaneously trying to keep at the forefront of one’s mind the thought that “I am watching a movie” without completely “losing oneself” in the flow of the plot. Regular dreams, of course, present a greater problem, although I have had dreams in during which I aware that I was dreaming. I cannot control, however, in which dreams the awareness occurs, and in any event when I wake up discover that the awareness itself was part of the dream.

Nevertheless, I have experienced something which might be related to Harris’ object. In the context of public speaking (particularly, arguing before a court), I’ve noticed a form of disassociation wherein I become a distanced observer of the self that is doing the speaking, part of the “audience” to the extent that I wonder what he (I) is going to say next. So I am conscious of the “self” that is doing the talking, although that self is pretty much operating on auto-pilot and lost in the experience.

[Interview continued here]

Joking

November 16, 2004 | 17 Comments

EBay has no sense of humor:

eBay pulls ‘Virgin Mary sandwich’

MIAMI, Florida (AP) — The people at eBay were no believers in this cheesy miracle: half of a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich whose owner claimed it bore the image of the Virgin Mary.

Diana Duyser put the sandwich up for sale last week, drawing bids as high as $22,000 before eBay pulled the item Sunday night. The page was viewed nearly 100,000 times before being taken down.

An e-mail Duyser received from eBay said the sandwich broke its policy, which “does not allow listings that are intended as jokes.”

But, Duyser, a jewelry designer who has bought and sold items on eBay for two years, insisted this was not a laughing matter.

“How could eBay do this to me?” Duyser said Monday, hours before the online auction was supposed to have ended.

EBay spokesman Hani Durzy said he did not have enough information to comment specifically on the case.

Duyser thought eBay would be the best place to show off the sandwich, made on plain white bread with American cheese. It was cooked with no oil or butter.

Duyser, 52, said she took a bite after making it 10 years ago and saw a face staring back at her from the bread. She put the sandwich in a clear plastic box with cotton balls and kept it on her night stand.

At first, she was scared by the image, “but now that I realize how unique it is, I wanted to share it with the world,” Duyser said.

The sandwich, she added, has never sprouted a spore of mold.

Of course it’s a joke. As Mother Teresa told me just before she turned into a cinnamon bun, the Mother of God is a window stain.

No Sir

November 16, 2004 | 13 Comments

Realizing the routine had grown stale, I vowed to never do another post featuring obituary cartoons of famous people getting into heaven. Fortunately, Yasser Arafat’s death doesn’t fall into that category:

harville.jpg

Yes, not getting into heaven seems to be his specialty. But don’t Muslims go to Paradise anyway? Maybe he was relying on his wife Suha’s Christian credentials, but they don’t seem to be impressing St. Peter. No great loss, I’d say, given that this particular heaven lacks a pearly gate and greets its guests at a crappy second-hand “reception” desk. But it’s got to beat this welcome:

ariail.jpg

Isn’t that a Star of David over flying over the checkpoint booth? Either the Israelis got more territory in the Six Day War than I thought, or St. Peter’s a Jew for Jesus. If you can follow that logic, try your wits on this next cartoon:

cohen.jpg

I was smiling right along with Arafat, thinking he was about to get an award for helping all those people get into heaven. And then, BOOM! I guess there was some sort of “Survivor” competition and he was voted off the cloud. But where is he going?

schorr.jpg

Not everyone agrees, however:

englehart.jpg

I couldn’t figure it out either. And I’ll never figure out the meaning of this:

kelley.jpg

Teresa was a bit of a bitch, but a terrorist? Did she steal from her people to get her money? Or is the implication that Suha killed Yasser for his?

God Squad Review CVIIII (Jews and Hell)

November 15, 2004 | 12 Comments

Do Jews believe in Hell? Drawing on the Bible, the Talmud and the apocryphal Book of Enoch, the Squad paints a vivid picture:

Hell is huge and divided into seven different areas. In hell, a fiery river flows over the heads of sinners, and this fire is 60 times hotter than any earthly fire. There is a smell of sulfur in Gehenna.

An angel-prince is in charge of Gehenna – the devil, Satan. The basic belief is that sinners go directly to hell after death, while the righteous go directly to paradise – olam habah (“the world to come”).

They also believe it’s a lot of crap:

About all these scary legends, we have no comment or opinion. We’ve never liked the idea of doing good just to avoid hell or doing good just to get a ticket into heaven. Goodness is its own reward and wickedness its own punishment. Hell, to us, is living without hope, and the main purpose of faith – all faiths – is to save people from hell.

Billy Graham also dealt with the question on Saturday, giving a much more straightforward answer.

Logical Conclusions

November 14, 2004 | 7 Comments

Declaring that “[a]ll morality has its origins in religion of some kind,” that “a politics devoid of God will doom us,” and that “the Third Reich was secular liberalism carried to its logical conclusion,” former U.S. Army as a tank gunner Charley Reese takes aim at the godless with a spectacular bit of illogic:

I wouldn’t personally base a vote for president on the issue of gay marriage or abortion because both are activities in which one need not participate, whether they are legal or illegal.

Nevertheless, Christians and other religious people have a perfect right to advocate their moral positions in the public arena. The idea that one can have a purely secular morality disconnected from religious beliefs is nonsense.

* * *

One piece of sophistry employed by the secularists is the claim that “you have no right to impose your morality on other people.” That’s bull. Every law in every law book in the land is an imposition of morality on other people. The only question is whose morality is going to be imposed. What the secularists are really up to is imposing their morality on Christians and other people of faith.

Reese is apparently contending that the religious should win the “imposition of morality” contest even as to conduct that he personally finds perfectly harmless, simply because they’re religious. (I assume that he’s really concerned with harmlessness when he refers to activities in which “one need not participate,” since one obviously “need not participate” in murder or assault or theft or the like even though they’re harmful ). Although he finds the conduct so trivial that he wouldn’t even cast a vote against it, somehow society is doomed unless his indifference is overcome by the religious zeal of other. I disagree with Reese, of course, over whether abortion harms anyone, and agree with him that gay marriage is harmless — but since I my reasons are purely secular, well, I must be some kind of Nazi.

Election

November 11, 2004 | 56 Comments

Which presidential candidate did The Raving Atheist vote for, and why?

Atheists and Agnostics

November 11, 2004 | 27 Comments

In a post titled “The Heretical Atheist,” The Evangelical Outpost takes issue with the old godless chestnut that “[c]alling atheism a

Interview With Sam Harris (Part 1)

November 10, 2004 | 40 Comments

Sam Harris is no friend of religion. In The End of Faith, he openly mocks god-belief as primitive superstition and condemns it as a threat to human survival. Harris argues that the great modern religions belong on “the scrap heap of mythology,” and his zero-tolerance policy applies to religious fundamentalists and moderates alike.

Some reviewers were surprised, therefore, to discover that Harris — who received a philosophy degree from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience — embraces Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. Particularly baffling to some was the declaration, on the concluding page of his book, that “[m]ysticism is a rational enterprise.” After a reader lamented this apparent contradiction in a comment at this blog, Harris offered to engage me in a written dialogue to clarify his stance on the scientific validity of studying spiritual experience.

I, in turn, invited three other atheist bloggers to join me in the grilling: (1) Strange Doctrines, a lawyer/musician who writes frequently about religion and politics; (2) Brian Flemming of Brian Flemming’s Weblog, a playwright and filmmaker and (3) Under No Circumstances, a graduate student in the Biomedical Sciences Department of George Washington University (tentatively planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience). Starting today and continuing on successive Wednesdays, this interview will be “simulcast” in installments on all five sites. Each installment will conclude with the question which will open the next week’s continuation of the interview; readers are invited to supply their own answers, or predict Harris’ response, in the comments section.


RAVING ATHEIST: Many hardcore atheists like myself are wary of meditation, viewing it as religious or spiritual practice akin to prayer. How is what you’re proposing different?

HARRIS: Well, the first thing to realize is that “meditation” is a word like “learning” — it can mean many things in different contexts. It is certainly possible to practice a kind of “meditation” that is indistinguishable from prayer, in that it rests on very dubious assumptions about divine agency, the supernatural, etc. Needless to say, this is not the sort of meditation I endorse in my book.

There are, however, many forms of meditation that merely require that a person pay extraordinarily close attention to the flow of his experience. There is nothing irrational about doing this. In fact, it constitutes the only rational basis upon which to make detailed claims about the nature of one’s own experience.

RAVING ATHEIST: When I’ve tried that sort of introspection I’ve found my mind gets stuck in a loop, obsessed with the thought that “here I am thinking about my thinking process” and not progressing anywhere beyond that. What am I doing wrong?

HARRIS: Meditation is definitely not a matter of thinking about experience in a new way; it is a matter of witnessing the flow of experience (including the flow of thought) from the perspective of consciousness itself. For most people, this is not easy to do. Serious training is usually in order.

A case in point: one of the easiest forms of meditation to learn entails nothing more than mere attention to the process of breathing. A person sits comfortably, closes his eyes, and simply attends to the sensations of the breath as it comes and goes at the tip of the nose. The moment a person attempts to do this, however, he begins to notice that he easily gets distracted by his thoughts. In the beginning, he will be a very poor judge of how distractible he is, in fact. While attempting to meditate on the breath, he will think thoughts like, “So I’m feeling the breath at the tip of the nose… so what? What’s the big deal about the breath?”, and he won’t notice that each of these thoughts diverts his attention from the breath itself. He will, in other words, spend most of his time thinking without knowing that he is thinking.

Of course, this is precisely how most of us spend every waking moment of our lives. If a person really wants to get to the bottom things, he might go on a silent retreat and engage a practice like this, to the exclusion of all else, for 12 to 18 hours a day. In the beginning of such a retreat, many people feel that they can pay attention to the breath for several minutes at a time, before getting distracted. They are inevitably wrong about this. The truth is, they are so distracted by torrents of thought that they can’t even begin to notice how distracted they are. After some days, or even weeks, they begin to report that they can only stay with the breath for a few seconds at a time before thoughts intervene. Eventually, however, there does come a point when a person gains extraordinary powers of concentration, and then he can actually see some things of real interest about the nature of his mind.

This is simply to say that the fact that you don’t see anything of immediate interest when you look inside should not be taken as a sign that there is nothing of interest to see. Before a person learns how to read a CT-scan, all he sees is a gray mess. After a little training, anatomical details begin to emerge. The details were there all along, of course, they were just difficult to see. This is by no means a perfect analogy, but it works up to a point.

RAVING ATHEIST: Christians are fond of telling me that if I pray hard enough, Jesus will come into my heart. Many of them swear that during prayer they experience some real communication or conversation with God, and that if I don’t, I’m either doing it wrong haven’t done it long enough. But I’d never sit in a church for 12 to 18 hours a day to test their hypothesis, any more than I’d try sleeping for two weeks straight on someone’s mere say-so. What empirical data do you have, different from theirs, that could induce me to go on that retreat? Stated another way, what exactly are these things of “real interest” about my mind that I’d discover, and what is the evidence that others have discovered them derived extraordinary benefit?

HARRIS: Needless to say, the difficulty of mastering a skill (or any domain of knowledge) doesn’t make it intellectually suspect. If you came to me and said, “I want to understand the brain in great detail from the perspective of neuroscience,” I would say, “okay, go get your Ph.D. in neuroscience.” This would take years. Likewise with anything else. There’s an old saw from psychology that expertise in any domain usually takes about 10,000 hours to acquire. This seems true enough, whether you are talking about chess, physics, or meditation.

Still, you have raised a reasonable concern. Some projects are bogus. There is, in fact, a big difference between the above invitation to prayer and the claim I am making about meditation. There is a difference in what one must assume about the world to get these two projects off the ground. And there is a difference in the theory by which one will subsequently interpret the data of experience. I have
no doubt that interesting experiences await the man or woman who prays to Jesus for 12 to 18 hours a day. In fact, I have no doubt that some of those experiences would be normative (that is, desirable and worth seeking out). I just dispute the logic by which such experiences are sought and interpreted. Whatever happens to you while you are praying to Jesus, it is unlikely to confirm the claim that he was born of a virgin, rose bodily after death, etc. If it makes you a more loving person, however, the effort was not totally wasted.

The only claim I making with respect to meditation is that there are methods of training our powers of attention, such that we can come to observe the flow of our experience with astonishing clarity. And this can result in a range of insights that, for millennia, people have found both intellectually credible and personally transforming (mostly in the East). The primary insight being that the feeling we call “I”– the sense that we are the thinker of our thoughts, the experiencer of our experiencer — really disappears when looked for in a rigorous way. This is as empirically confirmable at looking for one’s optic blind spot. Most people never notice their blind spot (caused by the optic nerve’s transit through the retina), but it can be pointed out with a little effort. Loss of the feeling of “self” can be pointed out and discussed in a very similar way. It’s just a little harder to get someone to notice it, because most people can’t stop thinking for more than instant.

RAVING ATHEIST: You’ve written that during this state of selflessness, the subject/object distinction vanishes but “consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience.” I have to say this sounds incoherent to me, in a way that the notion of a God secretly and simultaneously tapping into all our brains and knowing all our thoughts does not. It seems to me that someone has to be vividly aware, someone has to be sensing that the sense of individuality has disappeared – in the same way that Descartes’ “I” still remains after the evil demon has deceived it about all reality (if only to notice that it is perceiving the deception). Are you saying that the thoughts that exist during mediation are (1) nobody’s thoughts, (2) everybody’s thoughts flowing together (or at least all those who are then mediating) or (3) something else?

HARRIS: When I say that “consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience” after the feeling of “self” vanishes, I simply mean that nothing necessarily changes at the level of perception. If the birds are chirping, you will still be able to hear them. The difference is that rather than feeling like “you” are hearing “them” (subject and object), there will simply be the pure experience of hearing (without hearer and thing heard).

Another way to think about this is that the feeling of being a separate self has a kind of qualitative feel to it. As such, it is an appearance in consciousness. It stands to reason, therefore, that consciousness might be able to recognize this feeling from a position that stands outside it. This is, in fact, the case. It is possible to recognize that just as consciousness is not itself itchy when cognizing an itch, it is not a self when feeling the feeling we call “I.” Granted, this can all sound a little spooky until you’ve had this experience, but it really does capture the flavor of it.

Neurologically speaking, this possibility should sound quite plausible to you. Whatever stream of processing is doing the job of representing the organism as standing apart from the world of its experience, it is not surprising that this processing could be inhibited, or cease to occur. It is not a logical requirement of sensory perception that a system represent itself in the world in order to represent the world. And there is certainly no requirement that it represent itself as a subject that is somehow interior to its own body (rather than merely existing as its body), which is more or less how we tend to define ourselves as conscious agents. After all, most of us feel that we are riding around inside our bodies, inside our heads especially, thinking thoughts. Meditation reveals that this feeling is itself a product of thought. More precisely, it is what if feels like to be identified with the process of thinking (that is, to not recognize consciousness itself as the prior context of every thought that arises).

As far as Descartes is concerned, he seems to have been entirely identified with his thoughts and, for that reason, mistook thinking for subjective bedrock. What the Demon really cannot deceive us about is not the sense of self, but the fact of consciousness. Even if this is all a dream, consciousness is no less a fact: because even if nothing is as it seems, the fact that anything seems any way at all is itself the fact of consciousness.

Comments

The first step in tackling the God-problem is arriving at a definition of the deity that is to be proven or debunked. Can this requirement be imposed where the thing that is at issue is the existence of a particular state of mind? As far as I can tell, what is involved here is something best defined as “selflessness,” which in turn appears to involve the dissolution of the individual consciousness. Assuming that the concept is coherent, I’m pretty sure that I’ve never achieved the state, or anything close to it, myself. So I feel that I am somewhat in the position of a blind person trying to imagine the experience of blue.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that blue experiences don’t exist. But the presumption here is that the sought-after state is something qualitatively different from blueness, something extraordinary, something “spiritual” or “mystical.” Others, I am told, have reached it through a process of extreme concentration and introspection.

Having toiled at an atheist blog for two years without achieving any particularly surprising state of consciousness, I am naturally skeptical that that 12-18 hours of thinking about virtually nothing would change my luck. That being said, I can see how the effort involved in sitting still for such a protracted period might alter one’s state of mind. Similarly, I can see how there might be something extraordinary about a person who could withstand such an ordeal. So I don’t discount entirely the notion that some heightened state of consciousness might result from such a practice. But I suspect this conclusion rests largely upon an appeal to authority, i.e., my estimation of Harris as being a man so sensible in every other respect that it seems unlikely he would be seduced by, or promote, something inherently worthless.

[Interview continued here]

Carnival Time

November 10, 2004 | Comments Off

The Carnival of the Vanities is up at Let’s Try Freedom. A fair selection of God-related talk, including a link to The Big Picture’s post on suggestions for governments that want to get religion out of the public square.

Gloves Off

November 9, 2004 | 1 Comment

Round 2 of the battle between conservative Jewish radio talk show host Dennis Prager and gloves-off secularist Sam Harris will air live tomorrow at 11 a.m. PST. Check here for where to tune in in your area. You can even call in with questions at 1-8-PRAGER-776 or 1-877-243-7776, providing you follow these rules.

In Round 1 back in August (transcript available here), Prager attempted to prove the superiority of Biblical morality over atheistic rationality. Specifically, the moral superiority of evangelical Christians over the Noah Chomsky wing of American academia. Sample dialogue:

DP: So, let me ask you this: I believe that if I took a thousand evangelical ministers

What’s Next?

November 9, 2004 | 11 Comments

Adherents of majority religions sometimes oppose faith-based initiatives because they’re afraid that minority superstitions will try to climb aboard the gravy train. They fear, for example, that some krazy kourt will rule that a witch’s coven is entitled to the same funding as a church that worships a real god. Obviously, the Constitution permits common-sense distinctions to be made between established, respectable religions and recently made-up stuff, but activist judges know no shame.

Hopefully, tradition will win out in a California tax court this week. The Church of Scientology — founded over 75 million years ago when an alien galactic deity named Xenu ruled the planet Teegeeack (now Earth) — deservedly enjoys tax-exempt status and its members are permitted to deduct spiritual counseling sessions pursuant to an agreement with the IRS. But now a couple belonging an upstart cult called “Orthodox Judaism” is demanding the same treatment, seeking a tuition exemption so that their children can be indoctrinated with fairy tales only a few millennia old. What’s next — tax breaks for the Shrine to the Virgin Birth?

What’s Next?

November 9, 2004 | Comments Off

Adherents of majority religions sometimes oppose faith-based initiatives because they’re afraid that minority superstitions will try to climb aboard the gravy train. They fear, for example, that some krazy kourt will rule that a witch’s coven is entitled to the same funding as a church that worships a real god. Obviously, the Constitution permits common-sense distinctions to be made between established, respectable religions and recently made-up stuff, but activist judges know no shame.

Hopefully, tradition will win out in a California tax court this week. The Church of Scientology — founded over 75 million years ago when an alien galactic deity named Xenu ruled the planet Teegeeack (now Earth) — deservedly enjoys tax-exempt status and its members are permitted to deduct spiritual counseling sessions pursuant to an agreement with the IRS. But now a couple belonging an upstart cult called “Orthodox Judaism” is demanding the same treatment, seeking a tuition exemption so that their children can be indoctrinated with fairy tales only a few millennia old. What’s next — tax breaks for the Shrine to the Virgin Birth?

God Squad CVIII (Ethics of Helping Anti-Semites)

November 8, 2004 | 6 Comments

A Jewish girlfriend is pissed when her Catholic boyfriend reveals that the 80 year-old, frail, sick and lonely neighborhood lady that he’s been helping out with chores is anti-Semitic. The old gal doesn’t run gas chambers, but she hasn’t said “hello” to the girlfriend in the two years they’ve known each other. The girlfriend asks the Squad how she should feel about her boyfriend’s charity, wondering whether she should put an end to it or just overlook the woman’s prejudice. After noting that helping people in need is always good but helping bigots is always bad, they opine:

To us, your boyfriend should not stop helping this woman just because it aggravates you. If he stops helping her, it must be because he’s come to that decision himself. Of course, you can and must speak to him about your discomfort and his insensitivity.

What the heck was he thinking when he even mentioned to you that he was helping an anti-Semite? Didn’t he realize this would be hard for you to accept?

I don’t know if I’m reading their answer correctly, but the suggestion seems to be that the boyfriend’s only mistake was telling his girlfriend about the woman’s anti-Semitism. It wasn’t wrong for him to start helping her in the first place, or to continue after he found out she dislikes Jews. But if that’s the case, there’s no reason for him to change his decision

Moving to a new server

November 6, 2004 | 3 Comments

Unfortunately the ravingatheist.com has to be moved to a new host. Posting of comments and the forum are closed until the site has moved.

–Chris

If you see this message, then everything has moved smoothly.

Go North

November 5, 2004 | 24 Comments

Biblical Sharia-like laws to protect the sacred institution of marriage from defilement by homosexuals were adopted by popular acclaim in eleven states on Tuesday. If you’re a gay couple and live in one of those jurisidictions — Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon or Utah — one of your most precious rights has been sacrificed out of “respect” for the religious beliefs of your fellow citizens. You don’t have the right to call them homophobes, of course, because that would be intolerant, but you do have certain obligations. Under penalty of imprisonment, you must pay taxes at the higher single rate to finance approximately 1,400 state and federal benefits and exemptions that you, no matter how deep your love and commitment for each other, will never receive. You’ll be deprived of Social Security, Medicare, pension plan and annuity benefits; you’ll never enjoy adoption or foster care privileges; you’ll be stripped of the ability to supervise your partner’s medical care or even visit during hospitalization; you’ll be denied wrongful death, loss of consortium or crime victims’ recovery compensation. Yes, you will be forced contribute to the full cost of the courts, legislature and other state machinery necessary to regulate and distribute those gifts to God’s chosen fornicators — but when it comes time to collect your share, well, fuck you.

When a state treats a class of citizens like shit — and there’s really no other accurate way to describe it — it ordinarily finds itself in the throes of a violent, armed rebellion. Principles of compassionate secularism, however, require that aggrieved minorities follow a more democratic route. In particular, I recommend Route I-94 — to North Dakota. It’s ripe for a gay makeover.

ND ranks 48th in population and has only approximately 475,000 eligible voters, of which only 300,000 participated in this week’s election and just 220,000 voted for the same sex marriage ban. The state has no voter registration requirement and your residency will be vested in a mere 30 days. If just 150,000 of the nation’s estimated 6,000,000 gays pitched tents there for a month-long vacation, they could enact not just a gay marriage statute, but a straight marriage ban. It’s not that far-fetched; the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh once seized political control an Oregon town by moving a few thousand of his followers there.

Presumably the specter of this coup might trigger action on the proposed federal constitutional same sex ban, but no matter. There’s plenty that a gay majority (or even a small minority or an individual) could do simply by demanding strict enforcement of the just-enacted state ban, which provides that “[m]arriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman . . . [n]o other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage, or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect.” Taxpayers are entitled to know that their money isn’t be squandered on benefits for sham heterosexual marriages which violate the letter and spirit of the law — not to mention the sacred scriptures upon which it’s based. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Adultery Forfeiture

Immediate forfeiture of all past and future marriage benefits paid to any straight couple in the event that either partner attempts to unnaturally expand the scope of the union. It’s between “a man and woman” — pretty simple, no? Not “a man and a woman and a mistress” or “a man and a woman and a prostitute” or “a man and a woman and a phone sex partner.” This really isn’t a radical concept. Sham marriages to secure citizenship for foreigners are routinely annulled. Likewise, if a gay male couple and a lesbian twosome temporarily swapped partners at City Hall to form two pretend straight marriages, the state would void the arrangement. A loveless marriage maintained to secure tax benefits while one partner pursues a relationship with a third party is entitled to no greater recognition.

2. Divorce Forfeiture

Recoupment of all past benefits paid to any couple that decides to become part of the 50% divorce rate statistic. It’s “til death do us part” — pretty simple, no? Upon separation, custody of children immediately surrendered to social services for placement in properly constituted two-parent union.

3. Private Taxpayer Remedies

Statutory rewards paid to citizens who expose and report sham heterosexual marriages. Many states permit an individual to act as a “private attorney general” for the purpose of recovering public funds unlawfully spent or otherwise wasted. The United States also enforces the False Claims Act, providing for treble damages, in favor of private citizens who report fraudulent applications for payment from federal-funded contracts, mortgages and the like. Continuing to deposit Social Security checks issued to a dead spouse is a serious offense; there’s no reason that those who report similar payments made to “dead” or adultery-contaminated marriages shouldn’t be rewarded for their enterprise. Get out those digital cameras and camcorders and start taking pictures of those license plates down at the local Motel 6!

Direct civil suits against offending straight couples might also be effective. Head down to the nearly family court or divorce court and slap a complaint seeking recovery of your proportionate tax burden on everyone who walks out the door. It might be legally frivolous, or involve only a few cents even if it’s legit, but hey, that’s for the small claims court judge to decide. And while it’s cruel to embroil people in needless time-consuming litigation at what is probably the most miserable time of their lives, you can remind them that at least they were given the chance to have their fun while it lasted — but you weren’t.

4. Investigative Subpoenas

A great deal of the evidence regarding sham heterosexual marriages is concealed behind closed doors. An intrusively-worded subpoena, or even a friendly, inquisitive letter, can uncover mountains of incriminating information. State legislators with a history of divorce, particularly those who supported Tuesday’s referendum, should be priority targets. If the suspects themselves refuse to reply, their neighbors might be willing to share. Discarded phone records and credit card invoices are also helpful. If at the end of the discovery process you’re too tired to go forward with the lawsuit, just post the documents on the internet and let some other disenfranchised citizen pick up the slack.

5. Other Enforcement Measures

Ultimately the state itself should bear the greatest responsibility for keeping North Dakota heterosexual marriages sacred. Representatives to the ND Legislative Assembly can be contacted by e-mail, fax or phone (see here), as can members of the state senate (see here). Ask the ones you’re not suing to explain what they intend to do investigate sham heterosexual marriages, annul them, and recover your tax dollars in conformity with their new constitutional authority.

Different Faiths

November 4, 2004 | 3 Comments

From Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Op-Ed today, Two Nations Under God:

My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad. I respect that moral energy, but wish that Democrats could find a way to tap it for different ends.

No, Mr. Friedman, it is the fact that you’re of a “different faith.” You’re either (1) a religious person who believes that the real God issues commands different from the fake God worshipped by the Christian fundamentalists, or (2) an atheist who rejects “faith” in favor of reason and believes that the Christian Fundamentalists are acting upon factually false, superstitious premises that you don’t respect at all. If you’re number 1, you should shut up because all Gods are imaginary and you’ll never be able to prove that yours is real but theirs is fake — in fact, you’ll lose the argument because the notion of a God that hates and punishes practices A, B and C but believes that people should tolerate those who engage in them is incoherent. If you’re number 2, state it plainly, challenge their superstitions and explain why, in a godless universe, your policies are better for humans living their finite lives.

But don’t feed us this squishy crap about “energy.” Do you respect the spiritual, religious and moral “energy” of Islamist fundamentalists and serial killers, too? Think it’s exactly the same as yours, but just needs to be “tapped” to plant flower gardens rather than murder? The “way” the energy is directed isn’t a coincidence but a direct consequence of their “different faith” — both that it’s different, and that it’s faith.

Post-Election Open Thread

November 3, 2004 | 122 Comments

Share you feelings on the result. How many points do you think religion gave or cost each candidate? What does it bode for the future of religion in America? How will this impact the associated social issues?

Retarded

November 2, 2004 | 9 Comments

The National Jewish Democratic Council purports to expose a couple of shocking violations of the separation of church and state — a concept the NJDC clearly does not understand:

It’s being reported today that a “key Bush campaign adviser” calls America a “Christian nation.” According to him, the separation of church and state is “a myth.” And he’s spread his message during more than 300 events over the past year — events paid for by the Republican Party.

We’ve also learned that George W. Bush this summer re-appointed to a presidential committee a pastor who is a national leader of “Jews for Jesus.” This person has played a leadership role in national campaigns to proselytize Jews, including one last August and September — timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holidays.

What do these two news items have in common? A religiously-exclusive worldview, and a contempt for the civil and religious liberties we hold dear.

* * *

According to the White House web site, George W. Bush this summer reappointed Lon Solomon, a top leader of “Jews for Jesus,” to a presidential committee. Mr. Solomon, the senior pastor of the McLean Bible Church in Virginia, has also “been on the Board of Jews for Jesus since 1987, where he now serves as chairman of the Board’s executive committee,” according to Mr. Solomon’s own bio on his church’s Web site.

Mr. Solomon takes his work proselytizing American Jews very seriously. In August, the Washington Times reported on an extremely well-organized effort to convert Jews in the Washington, DC area — and Mr. Solomon’s church was “the hub of the evangelistic effort.” The Times called it the “largest evangelistic effort in Washington in the 31-year history” of Jews for Jesus. To add insult to injury, the campaign was timed to coincide with the High Holidays.

For argument’s sake, I’ll grant that the NJDC has a colorable point about the activities of the unidentified “key Bush campaign adviser.” But its criticisms of Mr. Solomon are wildly off-base. Every religion, with the possible exception of the Unitarians, has a “religiously-exclusive worldview.” Membership in any denomination would bar an otherwise qualified person from public service — imposing precisely the “religious test” that the First Amendment forbids. No Christian, Jew or Muslim who actually believed in the literal truth of his religion could hold office, not even a National Democratic Jew.

In fact, what the NJDC objects to isn’t Solomon’s religion (he’s a born-again Christian), but his affiliation with and support for the Jews for Jesus. In particular, the NJDC objects to the evangelism of the JFJs. The NJDC believes that a person should retain whatever religiously-exclusive worldview was inculcated during early childhood. Even though the government isn’t involved, the NJDC thinks that a private organization which uses free speech to try to change the minds of adults from one crazy set of dogmas to another is engaged in an attack upon “the civil and religious liberties we hold dear.”

Understandably, the NJDC doesn’t reveal which presidential committee Solomon was re-appointed to. As it turns out, it’s The President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (formerly The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation). Solomon has a severely retarded daughter with multiple physical disabilities and his church is currently building an $18.5 million respite center for disabled children. So it’s not exactly like he’s running the Committee for a National Theocracy.

Belief-O-Matic Quiz Answers

November 1, 2004 | 16 Comments

From Friday’s contest:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (77%)
13. Mahayana Buddhism (43%)
22. Scientology (23%)
27. Roman Catholic (17%)

The full list generated by the correct answers was this:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (99%)
3. Liberal Quakers (88%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (83%)
5. Nontheist (82%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (77%)
7. Neo-Pagan (61%)
8. Bah

God Squad Review CVII (Healing Election Anger)

November 1, 2004 | 2 Comments

A Squad reader who thinks the presidential election has torn this country and its families apart wants to know how to “real the rift.” Having earlier advised us that it doesn’t matter who we vote for as long as we vote, the Squad comes through with these puzzling recommendations:

To supporters of Kerry we say, it’s time to pray for Bush and for the anger in your souls that kept you from appreciating his virtues and cutting him some slack for his limitations. If you’ve judged him harshly because he’s a believing Christian, we hope you can find a more generous part of your soul with which to judge people of faith who lead this country. Being a person of faith ought not be limited to a private set of convictions but must also be a mandate for social justice and the protection of all life. Bush’s faith is a wellspring of his values.

This is not shameful but a glorious thing. Abraham Lincoln, in issuing the proclamation for Thanksgiving, reminded Americans that we have not prospered because we have better machinery. We’ve prospered because we have a better idea, and that idea is that God is the source of our freedom, not the state.

It’s time to let go of the foolish, despicable insults against this good man and join him in making our country one nation under God once again.

So if you hate Bush for being religious — presumably because you yourself hate religion — you should pray for him and join him in making the country a theocracy? Their advice to the Republicans follows a similar theme:

To Bush supporters we say, it’s time to pray for Kerry and for the anger in your souls that kept you from appreciating his virtues and cutting him some slack for his limitations. If you’ve judged him harshly because he passionately opposed the Vietnam War, we hope you can find a more generous part of your soul with which to judge the many people who shared his despair but have since found a way to view the Vietnam era in a way that its furies might abate.

Kerry is obviously a man of great courage. His heroic participation in a war he could have easily avoided, and his commitment to a life of public service and social justice, must not be diminished. We pray that all who are blinded by partisan hatred of him can come to understand that one of the most noble manifestations of courage is the ability to change one’s views and come to new and hopefully truer understandings of the nature of our world and its dangers.

It’s time to let go of the foolish, despicable insults against this good man and join him in making our country one nation under God once again.

Most Kerry-haters consider the Senator’s Vietnam service to be short and exaggerated, and his anti-war conduct to be perjurious and traitorous. They don’t think he’s changed much since then, or that he has a true understanding of the world’s dangers. And least of all do they believe that he believes in God. Their “partisan hatred of him” flows from a disagreement with the Squad equally partisan assessment of his record. I doubt they’re going to now embrace him because of his “ability to change [his] views” — that alleged proclivity is yet another source of the partisan conflict.

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