Pelvic Morality and Saving Cash

So you’ve heard of the “Manhattan Declaration,” right?  It’s a right-wing propaganda bomb trying to stake a claim on “Christian” morals by enshrining certain values as essentially “Christian.”  These values–anti-abortion, no gay marriage–spawn debate across the country, with many sects going separate ways on these issues.

8 Yrs Together
8 Yrs Together*

But two things occur to me about the declaration.  First, I’m amused that the third tenet, the respect for religious liberty, hasn’t snapped back and poked out their eyes.  There’s no debate that the values they claim in tenets one and two spring from religious practice, but they demand public, secular adherence to those beliefs.  They believe gay marriage to be wrong, so they want their government to support it. But then they enshrine religious liberty as something they value.  All I can say is, WHAAA!?  By definition, religious liberty means the freedom to have different beliefs.  And if those beliefs differ, then the practices springing from them do not deserve instant respect, but must survive and succeed in the hostile battleground of ideas and ideals.

Second, I’ve always wondered why the religious right gets along so well with the party traditionally concerned with fiscal responsibility.  It’s always seemed to me that Christianity’s call for charity and good works gets in the way of American pecuniary tendencies.  But it’s also always mystified me, a bit, why many of these same people put so much energy into concerns with sexual morality instead of more pressing societal concerns.  Hugo Scwyzer explains:

Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmnetal degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation. (Hugo Scwyzer, via The Athiest Experience)

So that’s why fiscally conservative Americans get along with the morally conservative Americans — the latter bring voting power to the group without bringing new expenses (except, perhaps, the odd faith-based initative).

* Photo by Jere Keys, released under CC-Attr license.

Midnight Nation

Midnight Nation
Midnight Nation

by J. Michael Straczynski

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of the story, so I won’t bother here.  Straczynski crafts a religious tale about a man who battles demons over his soul.  Some thoughts:

  • The story is okay, but the art got in the way for me — I don’t understand why a good story needs to have scantily clad ladies with prominent breasts to be a good “comic.”  Admittedly, it’s not as bad as it could have been, but really, did the angel character need to have busty cleavage, a bare midriff, and high-cut underwear that sticks up from her low-rise jeans?
  • I feel like there’s a bit of religious meditation here, but the comic doesn’t really go deep enough into it to help me understand the final ramifications of the story.
  • I like the sub-text about people who get ignored by polite society.  I’ve read that one of the worst parts of homelessness is the loneliness, being ignored daily by person after person.  There’s a good section in which several of the forgotten gather around a fire to tell their stories to one another.  We come to see that they’re insulating one another against the harms of the outside world.  It’s tough to see what Straczynski thinks about the hero’s decision not to stay with the campfire people–is it bravery that they don’t have?  They seem trod upon, but also somewhat to blame.  The segment replicates the problematic question of how to help the homeless — how much personal blame/guilt/drive do they need to embrace themselves?
  • The demons were cool, with etched tattoos all over their bodies.  For all that, the big demon (Satan) was pretty well drawn, with a good set of complaints about God.  It might be interesting to compare this story to Garth Ennis’ Preacher cycle, both of which depict God pretty ruthlessly.

A Chosen Faith

A Chosen Faith
A Chosen Faith

An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism
by John A Buehrens and Forrest Church

My family has started attending the local Unitarian Universalist church in the last couple months and I’ve found it quite invigorating and interesting.  As part of the process, we took the “Introduction to UU” class and I bought a book about the religion.  Having finished it now, I’m happy to report that I’m even more interested in this community than I was previously.

A couple general thoughts:

  • UU started as a Christian sect that held views believed by other sects to be apostasy.  Its commitment to reason and science and human values intrigued me, and its renunciation of dogma was the clincher.  The value of being able to belong to a faith community that doesn’t demand allegiance to a specific view of the afterlife is intriguing.
  • I like the idea of showing concern for this life.  The one, as the authors of this book put it, that we know for sure we have.
  • The introduction starts with these two sentences: “All Theology is autobiography.  As are most sweeping generalizations, this one is false.”  It struck me that the second sentence there was a fractal spiral of meaning, a kind of mobius strip that could stand on its own, like “Cici n’est pas une pipe.”

Below the fold are a few passages I marked that I find particularly enlightening or interesting.

Continue reading A Chosen Faith

Dawkins in your ear

The God Delusion
The God Delusion

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins; narrated by Lalla Ward and the author

So in my quest to read a variety of books about spirituality, God, and more, I just finished listening to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Dawkins wields some strong rhetorical arguments about religious belief.  A few thoughts:

  • He’s at his most successful when he’s arguing about the social cost of religion as an institution and the challenges religious belief brings to the strict rationalist.
  • I think his assertion that we should teach children how to think about religious belief, rather than what particular belief to hold, is interesting and useful.
  • In a conversation with a friend, I pondered whether Dawkins and Hitchens have arisen as a particularly strident voice for athiesm because the fundamentalist muslim influence in the U.K. right now is pushing the entire culture away from the polite secularism it has enjoyed these last few decades.
  • The audio performance was interesting, with Dawkins and Lalla Ward alternating passages.  I couldn’t really detect a specific reason for some of the switches from voice to voice.  It was a little distracting, but not too much.

A thoughtful book, and worth reading to get the “new athiest” perspective.

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying
The Invention of Lying

We saw the Ricky Gervais/ Jennifer Garner movie The Invention of Lying this weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly.  The film tells the story of a world in which human beings never evolved the ability to lie.  We say what we believe to be the truth.  Until R.G.’s character suddenly can say something “that isn’t.”  (Truth, of course, not being a concept until untruth exists.)  The film is cute and interesting, with some very compelling acting and a surprising turn toward religion (surprising, that is, if you haven’t read reviews like this one–oops).  Some additional thoughts:

  • Gervais and Garner both rock this movie.  Its exceptional supporting cast works as well, with small parts or cameos from Louis C.K., Christopher Guest, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hodgman, and more.
  • The film makes you ponder what it means to lie: is it more than telling a deliberate untruth?  In the film, people seem unable to restrain themselves from saying what they think.  It’s what some people have called radical honesty.  For example, when Gervais picks up Garner for a date, she tells him that she’s not attracted, and later a waiter comments that she’s out of his league.  But the things we generally think of as common courtesy fall by the wayside in this world.  People are unable to follow the dictum “if you don’t have anything nice to say….” To not say anything would be a lie.
  • Advertising and storytelling in the film are very funny, as neither has any artifice of fiction.  Ads are prosaic, such as the Coke ad in which the CEO tells us “We would like you to keep buying Coke.  It’s popular.”   Stories can only be told about real events, though there’s no acting or dramatic interpretation, just a guy reading to the camera.  The literature scholar in me balked at the idea that a summarizing of historical events can be neutral; summarizing events is lying about them, but you have to let it go somewhere.
  • This bullet is a mild Spoiler: One of the bigger lies Gervais tells is the story of Heaven.  The film takes an interesting track in which it explores how the “lie” of religion shapes the world.  There are lots of funny jokes there, but also some really interesting bits of thinking about what it means to have religious faith and how it shapes our daily interactions with the world.

Overall, an interesting film that’s entertaining and cute.  It’s not uncomfortable in the way Gervais’ television shows tend to be.  A good literary accompaniment is James Morrow’s City of Truth, which plays out a similar thought experiment.

Faith in Method

An essay I wrote as part of this year’s “Critical Encounters” series here at Columbia, published today in the Columbia Chronicle. The theme this year is Fact and Faith.

How we believe what we believe
by Brendan Riley, Assistant Professor of English

When fact and faith come into conflict, how do we move forward? Alas, we usually don’t.

A much-cited October 2006 TIME magazine poll showed that 64% of Americans would “hold on to what their religion teaches” even in the face of scientific evidence. In the 1980s, two Arizona State Physics faculty showed that students didn’t learn from physics labs that contradicted their day-to-day experience. “As a rule, students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs.” And we all have a friend who just knows the moon landings were faked.

One particularly troubling but common belief is that pharmaceutical companies and public health officials are hiding the fact that vaccines cause autism, a conspiracy theory many cling to, despite mountains of data showing no connection between the two (and no convincing evidence to the contrary).

But there are anecdotes. Lots of them. You don’t have to look very hard to find empathetic stories from grief-wrought parents claiming that the MMR vaccine—or mercury, or formaldehyde, take your pick—changed their child. Or, as Jenny McCarthy puts it, “the light left his eyes.” The fact that autism’s most visible signs occur in the same period when children receive the bulk of their life-saving vaccines becomes, for these parents, evidence of cause (rather than what scientists rightly call correlation).

This conspiracy theory survives the strongest kinds of repudiation. It turns out that Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who first published reports suggesting the link between autism and vaccines, faked data for his article, which he wrote on behalf of lawyers hoping to sue the vaccine manufacturers. When scientists removed the supposed cause of the epidemic, Thimerosal, autism rates continued rising; conspiracists shifted their claims—it must be something else in the vaccines. Even as preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough make a comeback and study after study fails to find any credible evidence of harm, anti-vaccination forces continue spreading the same misinformation.

I’m interested in the way these beliefs endure. Why do we cling to faith in the face of controverting facts? Perhaps it’s because we often perceive faith as fact. With the debate over vaccines, everyone has strong vested interests. Most of the anti-vaccine advocates innocently but wholeheartedly believe their arguments; we on the other side hold our views just as deeply. When humans strongly believe something, we no longer distinguish it from fact. We believe in God and ice cream both.

But the secret at the heart of the Enlightenment was a shift in that faith, away from faith in facts toward faith in method. To “believe” in science is not to believe that the Earth is round or that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or that we came from monkeys. It’s to believe in shared facts, verifiable evidence, and the most convincing explanation of these.

It’s strange to espouse a faith in a system that could shift world-views overnight, but I take comfort in it. We’re a species who looked into the heavens and, by the shifting of the stars above, came to understand better our place in the universe. Then we turned those telescopes inward to discover entire universes inside.

We have only been able to do that because we understand that we interpret what we see, hear, and experience; and that our interpretation can be wrong. We’re at our best when we put faith not in a specific view of the world, but in how we know which view to believe.

Thunderf00t vs. Ray Comfort

Oh, I know I exist
Oh, I know I exist

ThunderfOOt: You’re in denialism.  You can know nothing, you don’t even know that you’re here having this conversation.

Ray Comfort: Well, you can know the Truth.  It’s all in the scripture.

ThunderfOOt: Well, yeah, but you don’t even know whether you exist, let alone whether the scripture…

Ray Comfort: Oh, I know I exist.

Takes place at about 5:00

The Accidental Time Machine

The Accidental Time Machine
The Accidental Time Machine

By Joe Haldeman

I read The Forever War a while ago, and enjoyed it immensely. One way to articulate that book’s project, though, is as follows:

A man joins the army and, because of successively longer relativistic jumps, experiences the slow evolution of the human race and society over hundreds or thousands of years. Interesting developments of character and thought experiments about humankind follow.

Here’s a brief summary of The Accidental Time Machine:

A man accidentally invents a time machine and, because it only moves forward through time in successively longer jumps, experiences the slow evolution of the human race and society of hundreds or thousands of years. Interesting developments of character and thought experiments about humankind follow.

That nit picked, the book entertains and holds up well, and its more recent provenence means its issues (such as the rise of conservative religious power-mongers) are more relavent for today’s readers than are Forever War‘s. A few additional thoughts:

  • I like the politics of scientific discovery and its place in the novel. The continuing question of whether the main character gets credit for his discovery amuses me to no end.
  • The most well-thought out section is the 200-some year jump in which Matthew finds himself in a post-war regression period of religious fervor. Haldeman damns the tendencies of conservative politics and/or religion to hide information that disagrees with their point of view. He also makes plenty of room for those raised under such umbrellas and the lack of perspective such experiences engender.
  • He also develops a damning perspective of the far future of eBay culture, a kind of counterpoint to Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In Haldeman’s consumerist future, people have lost initiative or incentive to do anything because no secondary economy (beyond ownership) has developed. By contrast, Doctorow’s book suggests that once the problems of food and population are solved, the gift/reputation economy will emerge and provide different incentives for people to create and thrive. At the same time, one could imagine thoughtless lumps like Haldeman’s characters living in Docotorow’s world too.
  • There are A.I.s in Haldeman’s world, but they don’t get much attention, other than being bored with the short-sightedness of human biengs.

Overall, it’s an intriguing read and a solid story. Worth looking at, for sure.

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically
The Year of Living Biblically

One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
By A. J. Jacobs

I read Jacobs’ previous book, The Know-It-All, with great delight, and was very excited when I heard about this book. Then, in the yearly “let’s give each other books” swap I do with a couple friends at Christmastime, I got it. Yay! (Thanks, Mike!)

Jacobs embarks on his journey because he is a lifelong secularist and agnostic. He recognizes that the bulk of human kind finds solace and inspiration in worship, and decides to explore the experience of religion not through faith, but through acts. One of his questions is whether acting a certain way will affect one’s perspective and beliefs. 10 thoughts, in honor of the commandments:

  • Jacobs’ wife, Julie, deserves sainthood. While he was doing this experiment, she had to put up with a number of things, including a Bible command that women who are menstruating are “unclean” and may not be touched. One of the more obscure rules involving this “uncleanliness” is that a man cannot sit somewhere that an unclean woman has sat that day. One day he comes home and prepares to watch some T.V. when his wife warns him off the couch. And the chair. And every other sitting space in the house. Point, Julie.
  • Jacobs takes a really balanced approach to the question, diving into the task with sincerity and honesty, and simultaneously keeping his skeptic’s perspective as well.
  • I like the sections in which he discusses getting strange treatment because of his beard and garments.
  • At one point, he tries to enact the part of the Bible that commands people to leave parts of their field unharvested so the poor can have the scraps. He decides that ATM machines are the closest thing to harvesting he does, so he tries just leaving some money in the ATM.
  • He suggests that the commandment not to lie is very difficult and spends the most time wrestling with that one. In particular, he lies a bunch when he goes to visit Liberty University — mostly to keep from hurting their feelings or getting kicked out.
  • I found lots of connections with Jacobs. My favorite is when he says he spent several minutes watching his two-year-old, Jasper, sleeping on his stomach, with his legs pulled up under him and his butt in the air. Avery sleeps that way and it’s both adorable and hilarious.
  • I like the idea of some of the Bible’s commandments as serving a mind-calming purpose. Jacobs talks of being transformed by the strictures against swearing, thinking mean thoughts, and the call to “give thanks.” I can totally see this working.
  • There are a couple times where Jacobs works with a specialist in New York who helps Orthodox Jews make sure they’re following all the rules. Like the ones not to mix fibers of cotton and wool in your clothes, or the one saying you have to take an egg from a bird’s nest. The man explains to Jacobs that keeping the less-rational commandments is actually more faithful than the obviously good ones. Doing something purely for faith rather than for reason.
  • At one point, he has to build a shelter for himself. He isn’t allowed to do so on his roof, so he does it in his living room.
  • In the end, Jacobs suggests that everyone compromises on the Bible. He writes,

    There’s a phrase called “Cafeteria Christianity.” It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe modern Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop…. Their point is, the religious moderates are inconsistent. They’re just making the Bible conform to their own values.

    The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello (“the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak….” 1 Corinthians 14:34) and book out men for talking about the “Tennessee Titans” (“make no mention of the names of other gods…” Exodus 23:13).

    But the more important lesson was this: There’s nothing wrong with choosing.

The Year of Living Biblically is an enjoyable look at the place of faith in the modern world, and the multitude of ways reading the Bible can be done. The book speaks to a lot of the questions I have about religion myself, and it does so in a forthright, honest way.

In a rare burst of sycophantery, I emailed Jacobs to tell him how much I liked the books.  I wrote:

I just wanted to write to say thanks for the two enormously entertaining books.  I just finished reading The Year of Living Biblically and enjoyed it a lot.  As an agnostic also wondering/wrestling with the question of religion and its use to me, a lot of your book resonated for me.

Anyhow, I’ve blogged about both your books:

Keep up the good work.

And despite his busy awesomeness as bestselling author and bigwig at Esquire, he (or a remarkably able email screener) wrote back:

Thanks Brendan! I loved the posts. They made me commit the sin of pride. And glad to hear you also annoy people with random knowledge. They should be flattered, right?! Also you’re right — my wife is a saint.


Woot.  Nerd glee.

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vowell does a nice job of contextualizing the sometimes strange, sometimes familiar events of the early Calvinist settlers who arrived and settled Boston in the 1630s. As usual, she peppers the casual and entertaining discussion of history with witty, biting remarks. As usual, it’s comedy gold.

She also does a lovely job of connecting the worldview and attitude about their country to the contemporary American perspective. I particularly like the connection she draws between the “city on the hill” metaphor often used by contemporary politicians and the way it was used by John Winthrop in his speech to the Puritans before they sailed for the New World in 1630. She writes:

The thing that appeals to me about Winthrop’s “Christian Charity” and Cotton’s “God’s Promise to His Plantation” from this end of history is that at least the arrogant ballyhoo that New England is special and chosen by God is tempered by the self-loathing Puritans’ sense of reckoning. The same wakefulness the individual Calvinist was to use to keep watch over his own sins Winthrop and Cotton called for also in the group at large. This humility, this fear, was what kept their delusions of grandeur in check. That’s what subsequent generations lost. From New England’s Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution. (71-72)

Vowell draws stinging criticism of our own imperial moves that are grounded in this “we are the chosen ones” attitude. The section on Anne Hutchinson also sings with sadness and dark humor.

Another piece of the Puritan story that I particularly liked was the story of John Williams, the upstart soon-to-be-outcast who believed that the magistrates should not be enforcing the edicts of religion. He was the first separator of church and state. Williams argued that having the state sponsor a religion poisoned it, and made it more likely that the enforcers of that religion would abuse that power. Vane, a governor of Massachusetts, commented “…Christianity is inherently divisive, and when it is the statereligion, the Christians in power tend to persecute other kinds of Christians with whom they disagree. (218)”

In all, the book is darker and a bit sadder than her previous books have been (even the inevitably grim Assassination Vacation). In part, this is because Vowell has more direct connection with the tragedies she’s writing about. Her empathy for the Native American victims of the pilgrim aggression and the abusive treatment of Anne Hutchinson gives the last half of the book more heart than her previous writing has usually had, but it means the humor doesn’t work as well either.

I just realized…

The projected due date for the new Riley is August 8th, which would make his birthday 8/8/08. Check this out:

In the Greek mysteries, the number 888 represented the “Higher Mind.” The Greek variation of “Jesus,” “Iesous,” equals 888. (link)

The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. (link)

On one hand, I love the idea of the higher mind being embedded in my child’s birthday. On the other hand, it makes me think we’d be in danger if a bunch of Religious folks intent on fighting the coming antichrist get wind of this. Perhaps we’ll induce on the 7th.