Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

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“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

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In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

June 19, 2008

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

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The Bible: Read it as Being Correct OR Take Seriously What it Actually Says?

June 17, 2008

From James McGrath, who’s been following the strange and embarrassing saga of Obama-as-Anti-Christ rhetoric, comes what turns into quite an interesting reflection on the tension between wanting the Bible to be prophetically correct, and wanting to read what the text is really, literally trying to say.

As McGrath explains, that tension is particularly high in the Bible’s final chapter. Revelations, the fevered dream of a Christian-vindicating apocalypse, has always been one of the Bible’s most controversial inclusions. While there’s always the possibility that some other apocalypse would have taken its place (they were quite popular theological devices at the time), its hard to even imagine what Western History would have looked like without its long series of end of the world cults and the omnipresent fear the world was ever heading towards the greatest darkness imaginable.

But Biblical scholars have long known that the clearest, simplest meaning of the text is that it refers to and end of days that prominently features Roman Empire. And not just any future possible Roman Empire: the very one that is now non-existent. Given the specific continuities described in Revelatons, any attempt to fit any modern Anti-Christ du jour runs into some severe problems, per McGrath:

Once one realizes this, suddenly it becomes clear that fundamentalists are forced to believe that the temple will be rebuilt and a new Roman empire created, simply to make the world the way it was when the book was written, so that its imagery can still have a future reference. But it makes no sense to say that John refers to a series of 6 emperors, and then ignores all the others that followed until Obama became president of the United States, and suddenly he is the last one. There is nothing in the text and nothing in any form of intelligent reasoning that could make such a leap justified.

And so we’re left with a real dilemma for fundamentalist literalists (though few will likely acknowledge it): which is more important? That the Bible must be seen as correctly predicting future events, at all costs, no matter how elaborate the interpretive gymnastics required to keep it even potentially viable? Or that you should read and take seriously the plain text meaning of the words?


I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

June 15, 2008

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

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Possible McCain Veep Pick Struggled With Daemons: Literally

June 11, 2008

We’re talking here about Bobby Jindal, the young Republican governor of Louisiana… and apparently once an amateur exorcist and faith healer. He even, according to an essay he once wrote, may have cured cancer!

In any case, Talking Points Memo has the whole story, complete with Jindal’s bizarre narrative.

Whenever I concentrated long enough to begin prayer, I felt some type of physical force distracting me. It was as if something was pushing down on my chest, making it very hard for me to breathe. . . Though I could find no cause for my chest pains, I was very scared of what was happening to me and Susan. I began to think that the demon would only attack me if I tried to pray or fight back; thus, I resigned myself to leaving it alone in an attempt to find peace for myself.

Hmmm.. not exactly the sort of heroic character we might expect from a future Vice President: quietly hiding in a corner, hoping the demon would concentrate on consuming his friend instead of noticing him.

At least he managed to cure cancer while he was at it:

“When the operation occurred, the surgeons found no traces of cancerous cells. Susan claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer and can remember the sensation of being ‘purified.'”

Anyway, do read the whole thing (or, at least, all the excerpts that TPM supplies).

I very much hope for Jindal’s sake that there’s more, in the complete context of the essay, that moderates some of this extremely silly stuff, or that Jindal has a more adult and lighthearted take on things today. But this is a pretty powerful reminder of the fact that many people sincerely believe that human problems can be due to the influence of invisible spirits who are, for some reason, allergic to the Bible.

Now, you’d think that if anyone would be open to demonic possession and thus allergic to the Bible, it’d be us atheists. And yet, suspiciously, it only seems to be people brought up in vivid and violently obsessive religious traditions that are ever inclined to act out these sorts of exorcism events. Meanwhile, I can touch and read the Bible just fine without breaking out into sweats, hives, or obscenities. Maybe I’m just possessed by an exceptionally polite demon?

Or maybe we non-believers are just so gosh darn bad that demons don’t even waste the effort.


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:

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The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.


Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


More Advice on Sex From a Virgin

May 11, 2008

Pope Benedict is back in the news for one of those sparse AP religious news pieces. He’s been praising a 1968 encyclical called Human Vitae which, among other things, definitively reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception. (It also happily makes up for the rather glaring omission of rape from the Bible’s otherwise absurdly comprehensive list of things God hates except when he’s busy ordering them). It would be nice to have the full speech, but it’s yet to appear in the usual places. But the snippets quoted by the AP are bad enough for a little fisking:

“What was true yesterday remains true even today. The truth expressed in ‘Humane vitae’ doesn’t change; on the contrary, in the light of new scientific discoveries it is ever more up to date,” the pope added.

And which scientific discoveries are those? That there is, after all, no “moment” of conception when a magical homunculus pops into being? That even a non-fertilized egg, or potentially any cell in the human body, can be induced to grow into a new human being? That the creation of a human person is a long complex process resulting, eventually, not instantaneously, in specific functional capacities?

The mark of the human search for truth, you see, is that it does change: it updates itself in light of new evidence, apologizes for error. This is doubly true in the case of moral understanding: better knowledge helps us make better decisions, alerts us to moral consequences we may have missed.

Now, I understand that Popes claim to be relying on insights supposedly proscribed by a higher power, and I suppose this is where we must differ. I don’t see any evidence of such insight. In fact, the contrary. What I see are doctrines formed in (perfectly understandable!) ignorance of human biology and social experience, now (less understandably) grasping at straws and cherry picking in an attempt to remain relevant, all the while resisting any re-examination.

And while Popes couch their declarations as sincere defenses of moral sense and human dignity, it’s hard to take them as seriously as they intend it. Perhaps mainly due to the nature of the institution they find themselves wedded to, there is very little room in which to confront the possibility of error. And when it comes down to admitting doctrinal error or real human dignity, which does history tell us is likely to bend to which?

“No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery,” Benedict said in his speech.

I quite agree that sex, as with all human experience, can be part of a greater mystery. But the Pope is sorely abusing the word here: appealing to positive connotations he has earned no right to. Indeed, his entire purpose is to routinize that mystery into the very specific form he believes the universe favors, all in service of a doctrine that is itself no mystery (except in the sense that it’s often philosophically unintelligible).

Benedict expressed concern that human life risks losing its value in today’s culture, and worried that sex could “transform itself into a drug” that one partner had to have even against the will of the other.

“What must be defended is not only the true concept of life, but above all the dignity of the very person,” the pope added.

You know what makes human life lose value and dignity? Cloudy, impenetrably confused moral thinking.

Like the sort that compares a experiencing, feeling human being to a nerveless embryo, and thus mangles any sense whatsoever of what makes human life, in particular, morally important.

Or the sort that stands in opposition to the distribution or even the education of poor people about contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of deadly disease. The one that treats knowledge as a temptation, and ignorance a blessing… if by blessing, you mean infecting your wife with AIDS because your priest declares that condoms are not permitted even within a marriage, even for that grave purpose.

Of course, voice these sorts of criticism within earshot of excitable apologists, and you’re bound to hear one or two responses.

The first is to loudly bemoan the supposed scientism-sans-conscience of Catholicism’s critics. This response is mere subterfuge. Us “moderns,” secular or no, are not nihilists: what we have are different values than the ones promoted by pontiffs, different ideas about where to draw the line on, for instance, stem cells. What we’re due in response is debate, not glib dismissals about our supposed moral blindness or vacuity.

The second response is that critics of Catholic doctrine are ultimately just narcissists: heedless pleasure seekers. Oh how they love this endlessly self-aggrandizing accusation! But the character of this sort of argument is both slanderous and baseless. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense, as when critics like myself are largely arguing on behalf of the liberty of others (such as homosexual rights that I myself have no need of).

The other half of the time, it’s just a backhanded way to justify injustices or restrictions that stand accused of causing harm themselves. It’s easy to frame any argument for progress as “selfishly” promoting pleasure and reducing suffering (how dare we desire to treat malaria, hedonists we!). Easy, but rarely helpful or sensible as a criticism of those ideas or improvements.

And worse, these declarations against demands for human happiness are insincere. For apologists often appeal to the idea that they know, better than everyone else, what best leads to happiest: they merely insist that they have a bead on the deepest sorts of human happiness. That anything other than their path leads to misery and ruin, not merely in an imagined afterlife, but here on earth. Very well: but others make the same claims about their own contrary paths and philosophies. Thus there is room for legitimate debate.

But, I suppose, such fair debates risk the unacceptable possibility of rational defeat. Simply accusing your critics of hedonistic animality is all the simpler and less dangerous.


First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

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