God/Jews for Jesus to Palin: Terrorism is God’s Judgement on Jews

September 3, 2008

I’m desperately trying to find non-Sarah Palin subjects to delve into, and given that this one only tangentially involves her, maybe this is my way out. Two weeks ago, David Brickner, founder of Jews for Jesus, was invited to speak to Palin’s congregation by her pastor, Larry Kroon. Or rather, according to Kroon, the message was so important that God arranged to have Brickner speak to everyone there, including Palin:

But above everything, I want you to understand—when God set that date, August 17th, 2008, David Brickner in Wasilla Bible Church—God wanted to say something to us at this time in our congregational life, to us corporately and to us individually. And God has brought you here to hear it. David?

What did God arrange for everyone to hear? That the violence and death in the Middle East is God’s judgement of unbelief against Jews and other non-believers in the region:

“But what we see in Israel, the conflict that is spilled out throughout the Middle East, really which is all about Jerusalem, is an ongoing reflection of the fact that there is judgment.

Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It’s very real. When Isaac [Brickner’s son] was in Jerusalem, he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can’t miss it.”

And here we are again. To non-believers, or even believers who don’t think that Christianity is the One True Ideology, these beliefs are about as morally repugnant as one can get. If violence and tragedy are a form of “judgment” upon humanity, then we’re talking about nothing less than spiritual terrorism. To many conservative Christians, on the other hand, these ideas are the quite logical implications of their beliefs.

So when this sort of rhetoric hits the mainstream, what happens? Fairly often, politicians seeking mainstream approval will seek to distance themselves from the full implications of such statements, without getting into the theological details (What do you deny about the Biblical basis of such statements? Where did they go wrong?). If this becomes an issue for Palin in particular, I have little doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more about theological uncertainty and humility.

But isn’t it time we started to confront these beliefs directly, instead of briefly shying away from them whenever they are cast in an uncomfortable spotlight? Countless Americans really do believe that it is God’s will that bulldozers crush people to death, that shrapnel would tear apart markets. And worse. Many, including all of Palin’s known spiritual advisors, believe it just and warranted that the majority of humanity will endure eternal suffering merely for having the wrong set of ideas in their heads at the moment of their death.

There isn’t a nice middle ground here. Either these sorts of conservative fundamentals are true, or these views are absolutely and unequivocally morally abhorrent. To worship and glory in such ideas is simply grotesque.

It might well be reasonable to say that we cannot know the mind and purposes of God, and so we should be unwilling to say whether this or that is righteous judgment. That position can warrant some respect. But people like Bricker aren’t saying that: they are going all in on the idea that death and destruction are worthy parts of God’s plan, with all blame falling upon the victims. Humble christians simply cannot toe the line of denying Bricker’s theology, but then failing to pass judgement on his open endorsement of atrocity. Either you’re with humanity, with more humane and loving ideas of God, or you’re with this image of a vengeful God. One can’t be for God, right or wrong, and still claim to have any principled moral code or feeling.


Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

Read the rest of this entry »


More on PZ Myers & the Kidnapped Communion Wafers

July 18, 2008

We’ve been debating the fallout from Florida student Webster Cook taking (and then returning) a communion wafer, atheist blogger PZ Myers’ aggressive reaction to the blacklash, and Andrew Sullivan’s lame defense of double standards when it comes to defending the infamous Muslim cartoons, but condemning Myers’ proposed symbolic wafercide. In the process, I had an exchange with Murder of Ravens on the subject that I think helped clarify my position on the whole mess, and was worth expanding on a bit. MoR wrote:

In the case of the Danish cartoonists, they were mocking specific actions of fundamentalist Muslims, namely, their proclivity towards blowing things up and killing innocent people in the name of Allah. Sure, the cartoonists’ approach was injudicious and heavy handed, but then, surely no more heavy handed than the actions of their subjects. And besides, political cartoons have never been known for their subtlety.

In this case, the cartoons were not intended to depict at ALL Muslims, simply an odious minority who engaged in violent and, one might daresay, sociopathic behavior. I think most people will agree that this sort of behavior is rightly condemned by all right thinking people.

On the other hand, taking communion is a benign expression of faith that is partaken of by almost all Catholics. Even if you don’t believe it has any benefits, I think you’ll agree that it harms no one. Unlike the Danish cartoonists, Myers is deliberately antagonizing an entire faith for participating in a harmless act of faith.

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Student “Kidnaps” Eucharist: Catholic Controversy Conundrum

July 9, 2008

As Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, tells it, he was attending a Catholic Mass with a friend, was given the communion wafer, and wanted to show it to the friend in order to help explain Catholicism. He was accosted as he attempted to walk back to his seat with the wafer uneaten, and in defiance decided to leave the service with it (he later gave it back). Church officials tell it differently: Cook was never physically restrained, and he basically absconded unprovoked with what they believe is the body of Christ, holding it hostage just to make point about the public funding of religion (the service was held at a publicly funded school).

Worldwide controversy ensues. Bill Donahue calls his act “beyond hate speech.” The local priest calls it “kidnapping.”

PZ Myers has his usual blistering take of course, mostly agog at the seeming absurdity of the whole matter: it’s just a cracker!

I guess I have more sympathy for the outraged Catholics than he allows. Read the rest of this entry »


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

Read the rest of this entry »


Blog Shorts: Bush Smears Jefferson, Colson Smears Atheists, Cthulhu Smears Your Entrails Across Campaign Trail

July 5, 2008

The web is a wondrous place, isn’t it? From just the last week:

Ed Brayton and Timothy Sandefur catch George Bush “honoring” Thomas Jefferson by altering his actual words to avoid any hint of anti-religious opinions.

From the “Theists Are Far Ruder to Atheists than Atheists Could Be in Return” File comes Chuck Colson, the convicted felon who thinks he’s better than you. Hemant at the Friendly Atheist is having none of it. Hemant’s also not buying the idea that requiring students to actually act out Islamic prayers is a legitimate way to teach them about world religions, even if the teacher is a Christian.

Over at Catholic and Enjoying It, Mark Shea manages to be more far more outraged about a story in which Muslims are supposedly outraged by a puppy than anyone in the story is actually outraged. But he makes up for it by his hearty endorsement of Cthulhu’s 2008 run for the White House. No More Years!

And finally, Orac over at Respectful Insolence bemoans yet another loss to the forces of woo: apparently some states, with Vermont the most prominant amongst them, are starting to require insurance companies to pay for the “evidence-free medicine” of naturopathy. Lest you think that such errant nonsense couldn’t possibly hurt you, Orac points out that it’s a move that will kick you right in the pocketbook:

I don’t know about you, but if I were paying into an insurance plan, and the company administering that plan were wasting money paying for woo, I’d be mightily pissed. This can only serve to drive up the costs for everyone, as patients with non-self-limiting diseases pursue non-science-based modalities, think they feel better for a while, and then find that their disease is progressing, at which point they seek out science-based medical care–which their insurance companies will have to pay for, too.


Obama’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.


Is Gay Marriage Posed to “Obliterate” Religious Freedom? Uh, No.

June 17, 2008

As wedding bells ring out in California, opponents of gay marriage are left facing a government and culture that are increasingly failing to take their warnings of impending social disaster seriously.

According to Dale Carpenter over at Volokh, the reason is plain and simple: critics of gay marriage have failed demonstrate that it will cause any tangible harm:

They have tried many harm-based arguments but so far nothing has stuck. Not “evidence” of social decline from Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Not polygamy. Not population implosion.

With that failure in mind, the search is on for some suitably scary gaypocalyptic scenario with which to shock Americans. And the current favorite is the claim, recently advanced by Maggie Gallagher and Marc D. Stern, that gay marriage threatens to destroy religious rights.

Argues Gallagher (who spend the first half of her article aptly demonstrating that she’s either ignorant of or oblivious to swingers):

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Claims Stern:

If past rulings are any guide, it is religious rights that are likely to be “obliterated” by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships — and it seems unlikely that the California courts will intervene. That’s a shame.

But as Carpenter points out, these fears are dishonest on at least two counts.

First of all, what’s at stake in many of the “horror stories” these and other critics cite are the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people in situations where the groups are either using government money, or some public assistance, for the relevant function. That’s a rather different matter than religious expression and core worship services themselves being targeted for obliteration or discrimination lawsuits. It’s an issue of a much smaller scope. It’s lame enough when religious organizations generally claim that they should not be taxed, since “taxation is the power to destroy.” But what these critics are essentially arguing that religion is in danger of obliteration unless it receives special, no-strings attached, taxpayer support and legal treatment for their charitable programs.

Secondly, the actual issue in all of these cases isn’t even gay marriage in the first place. Again, nearly every “horror story” that’s cited involves anti-discrimination laws proper. Gay marriage is irrelevant. Carpenter again:

Neither the viability of the discrimination claim nor the viability of the religious objectors’ desired exemption turns on whether the gay couple is officially recognized. In most of the cited cases, in fact, the couples’ relationship was not recognized by the state, but adding such a status to the cases would change nothing about their legal significance. The most egregious abuse of these examples to undermine gay marriage is the Catholic Charities case, which involved the application of a 1989 antidiscrimination law. That dispute arose because the Catholic Church objected to complying with the law for the first time only after gay marriage was permitted in the state. It was a fortuitously timed conflict for gay-marriage opponents given that the state legislature was at that very moment considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In short, what Gallagher and Stern are really objecting to in these passages are anti-discrimination laws that have been around, in some cases, for decades. If they really oppose those laws, they are welcome to argue their case. In fact, they’re 100% right about some of them, in my opinion: I’m generally against all anti-discrimination laws that affect purely private businesses in any case (yes, even racial ones). But presenting these situations as if they are unique challenges that only now exist thanks to gay marriage is deeply misleading.

And if there really are any good reasons to see California’s latest newlyweds as portents of doom, they’ll have to be found elsewhere.


Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

Read the rest of this entry »


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

Read the rest of this entry »


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.