Being a Buddhist is the Hardest Job in the World

July 2, 2008

If this is what I need to do to earn inner peace, then I just don’t know if I can cut it:

What do you think about when you meditate?

Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.

Only by resorting to Family Guy can I fully capture the horror of this image:

HT: The Agitator

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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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NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.


Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

June 24, 2008

Seriously, what’s up with this?  According to a new Pew study on religion, 21% of atheists believe in God: either a personal or impersonal force.  And 8% are absolutely certain that a God exists. 12% even believe in heaven, and 10% in hell!

Either we have here a very lousy study, a heck of a lot of joke answers, or a fair number of people who are remarkably confused about what “atheist” means.  I very much doubt that the bulk of these contradictory responses represent the sort of sophisticatedly confusing theologies of people like Paul Tillich.


Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…


“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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Rolling Stone Sloppily Slams John McCain’s Love of Evangelical Joel Osteen

June 18, 2008

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone journalist and special reporter on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” isn’t happy with John McCain. Not at all. And he’s got a long list of complaints, the most valid and snicker-worthy one being that John McCain may be one of the few Presidential candidates in history who now opposes not one, but “two different bills bearing his own name.”

Taibbi, however, is particularly peeved by McCain’s choice of inspiring evangelical authors:

McCain’s transformation is so complete that at a recent town-hall meeting in Nashville, when asked to name an author who inspired him, the candidate — who once described televangelists of the Jerry Falwell genus as “agents of intolerance” — put none other than Joel Osteen at the top of his list. “He’s inspirational,” McCain said.

Standing at the meeting, I didn’t write Osteen’s name down in my notebook — apparently because my brain refused on some level to accept that McCain had actually said it. Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us,” Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.

Taibbi, who’s famous for penning the poorly received “52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” while “coming out of a Vicodin haze,” has quite a talent for outraged posturing. But no matter how many fulminating expletives he tosses out, I just don’t buy it.

He’s got this thing exactly backwards.

God Chairs About Each and Every One of YouSee, the thing is: Osteen is actually one of the least offensive of televangelists I can think of. The primary complaint most people have about Osteen is that is not that he’s a fire-breathing hatemonger, but rather that he’s milquetoast. He preaches happiness and self-improvement, at times with only the barest hints of scripture or doctrine. Some conservative critics have even hinted (hyperbolically, certainly) that his ministry is “atheistic” in character, or even that it represents the last gasp before Christianity collapses into materialism and embrace of popular culture. When Larry King grilled him on his theological views, “I don’t know” was Osteen’s most common answer. And he took considerable heat for being unwilling to clearly state that Christ was the only way to heaven.

Osteen does toe the general conservative evangelical party line when called on it. But the point is that he rarely goes out of his way to emphasize traditional religious right stalking horses. He’s even famous for his “no politics from the pulpit” principle, which, if you know anything about politics, is nigh unthinkable in some quarters (Democratic politicians who regularly run whirlwind tours of African American churches, I’m looking at you).

Like most evangelicals, Osteen’s views on homosexuality are hardly laudable… but they’re also about as tame as one could possibly expect, given his chosen religion:

“We don’t think it is God’s best and we have personally seen many homosexuals changed through the power of God. But we aren’t going to judge or turn people away because they are gay. We all have sins in our lives and it is no worse than any other issue.”

Translation: ‘yeah, homosexuality bad, yadda yadda, let’s move on to another subject.’ And don’t think that this ambivalence has gone unnoticed by the more traditional neighborhood gaywatch patrol.

What’s especially silly about the sudden Osteen-hate is that Taibbi had just finished launching a salvo of preemptive accusations about McCain being an inevitable race-baiter (“watermelon-waving” is one particularly polite phrase he uses). But Osteen’s mega-church empire is characterized by a degree of racial integration that few progressive churches can match. I’m willing to get that there’s a far higher percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Osteen’s congregation and leadership than there are African American and Hispanic writers at Rolling Stone.

I’m also willing to bet that Osteen’s church has given far more money in charity, both percentage-wise, per parishioner, and of course in total, than Taibbi ever has, despite Taibbi’s whining about Osteen’s supposed obliviousness to Jesus/”hippie crap.”

In short, while there’s certainly plenty one can criticize about Osteen, he’s by far least threatening of any of the crowd-pleasing evangelical names McCain could have tossed out to his audience. I’m not exactly in tune with what Osteen believes, but then I’m not in tune with either Obama or McCain when it comes to religion, and I doubt I’d find Obama’s religious inspirations all that compelling either. That doesn’t mean I think they’re all vile: I just don’t agree with how they see the world.

Taibbi, on the other hand, clearly just hates Osteen’s guts. But at least for this atheist, I think that tells me more about Taibbi’s than it does about Osteen. Or McCain.


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.


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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