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Archive for May 2011

May/11

30

The solipsism of faith

Human engineering prowess has long sought to protect people from the sorts of natural disasters that have struck the nation’s midsection over the last several weeks.  Some survivors of these recent storms, however, see God’s hand–rather than successful building design or random luck–in their exemption from the devastation that struck down their neighbors.  In Alabama, where almost 200 people were killed by tornadoes at the end of April, a Birmingham minister

spoke of the miracles of the disaster — the people who cheated death; the buildings, like his church, that somehow remained. He talked about trusting in God in times of trouble.

In Joplin, Missouri, hit by the deadliest twister of the season last week, some congregants at the Blendville Christian Church

spoke of their own miracles that kept them alive.
“How many of you have prayed this week?” asked Virgil Eubanks, 60, the pastor.
A chorus of hands shot up. “Oh yeah,” he continued. “If this didn’t catch you up on your prayer life there’s something wrong with you.”

One doesn’t want to deny survivors of cataclysm whatever emotional succor they can find during a period of undeserved loss.  Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves.  If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors?  (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.)  The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims.  Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness. 

When it does cast a faint shadow of cognitive discomfort, there are two main strategies for responding. (more…)

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May/11

30

Relic veneration in the modern world

The Vatican is warning against “miracle-performing sensationalism” and too enthusiastic a veneration of relics:

Even the veneration of relics, [writes Wall Street Journal columnist Francis Rocca, the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service,] mocked by the Protestant reformers and long downplayed by Catholic leaders, is becoming more popular—to the point that a Vatican theologian last year saw the need to warn against the “risk of crossing the boundary from popular devotion to superstition” and “substituting miracle-performing sensationalism for authentic faith.”

Unfortunately, Rocca does not disclose how the Vatican distinguishes “popular devotion” from “superstition” or “miracle-performing sensationalism” from “authentic faith.”   This official caveat strikes me as akin to admonishing someone to stay just a little bit pregnant.   Undoubtedly, the Vatican regards the Virgin Birth, Jesus walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, the Resurrection, the efficacy of saints, God’s amenability to petitionary prayer, and most other aspects of Christian lore as falling in the “authentic faith,” rather than in “miracle-performing sensationalism,” side of the ledger, though the parceling out of various miracles into one camp or the other would seem to have more to do with tradition than with any empirically-determined distinction among them.  How many saints do you get to pray to a day as a prophylactic against harm before you have become superstitious?

Nevertheless, this Vatican statement illustrates the ongoing corralling of religion by a secular, naturalistic understanding of the world.  That the Catholic hierarchy could be embarrassed by relic veneration, when nearly every Catholic Church in Europe proudly displays its lavish, silver and gold jewel-encrusted reliquaries allegedly housing this bit of Jesus’ femur or that bit of a saint’s bladder, shows how the religious practices that once filled out a world still untamed and unexplained by science grow ineluctably more remote.  Of course, I shouldn’t overstate the extent to which humanity is embracing an empirical posture towards reality.  I overhear too many conversations in the ladies locker room of my gym promoting this or that homeopathic remedy on the ground that the taker’s cold got better after she ingested the alleged cure to truly suppose that everyone waits for strong evidence before believing whatever claim is presented to him.  And of course, Rocca’s column itself testifies to (and celebrates) a resurgence in relic worship: 

Many Catholics, especially among the educated in wealthy countries, regard such practices as embarrassing vestiges of medieval piety, distractions from a more sophisticated spirituality. Yet a scene this month in St. Peter’s Square, broadcast on television around the world, sent another message. The sight of a nun displaying a silver reliquary with the blood of the newly beatified Pope John Paul II, to applause from a crowd of 1.5 million devotees, suggests that demand remains strong for a brand of faith that celebrates its difference.

(Amusingly, Rocca’s “yet” in the above passage purports to be signaling a contradiction, as if the sheer numbers of relic worshippers refutes the fact that such veneration is a “vestige of medieval piety.”)

Still, the march of thought at least in the West circumscribes the once totalizing impulses of religion and puts its once mandatory rituals and its explanations for reality into a box marked “religion—handle with care.”  Promoters of a more flamboyantly supernatural form of Christianity like Rocca and David Bentley Hart purport to be undaunted by the fact that such charismatic forms are flourishing most in the least educated places on earth, such as Africa and the Caribbean.  Do we really want to emulate the belief systems of Africans?  Rocca also applauds some Bishops’ call for a return to meatless Fridays.  I will know that religious Americans in particular are ready to walk the walk and not just talk the talk of religious obedience when Christian leaders start calling for shopping malls to shut down on Sundays in observance of the Fourth Commandment.  Until then, it looks to me that the needs of modern consumer capitalism take precedence over God’s sacred commandment.

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May/11

27

Yale’s feminists: Behaving hysterically

Sixteen Yale students and recent alumni are siccing the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights on Yale College, claiming that the college denies girls the “same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts,” in the words of civil rights complainant Hannah Zeavin.  The ground for their complaint?  A handful of juvenile frat hazing incidents deliberately designed to violate sacred feminist taboos.   I analyse the narcissism and astounding lack of perspective embodied by this ongoing action here:

Yale has one of the greatest library systems in the world; it showers on students top-notch instruction in almost every intellectual discipline; it lavishes students with healthy food, luxurious athletic facilities, and rich venues for artistic expression. All of these educational resources are available on a scrupulously equal basis to both sexes. But according to the Yale 16 and their supporters, female students simply cannot take full advantage of the peerless collection of early twentieth-century German periodicals at Sterling Library, say, or the DNA sequencing labs on Science Hill, because a few frat boys acted tastelessly. Thus the need to go crying to the feds to protect you from the big, bad Yale patriarchy. Time to bring on the smelling salts and the society doctors peddling cures for vapors and neurasthenia.

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May/11

22

Nerds and the supernatural

So the rapture didn’t happen. Not a big deal. Here’s one thing that I think warrants attention: Harold Camping is a nerd. He has a degree in civil engineering from Berkeley. As the British would say, “he can do the sums.” I have never really believed in the supernatural. As a small child I knew I was supposed to believe in the supernatural, but I honestly had a hard time taking any of it seriously. I have normal human instincts, like getting “spooked” in the cemetery…but my own personal experience with friends visiting cemeteries at night for fun and laughs as a younger man is that actually opening yourself to the possibility of the supernatural naturally changes how you view “creepy” background events (my friends who believed in ghosts were really easy to scare, it was quite fun!) Most of my friends might assent to the proposition that there probably weren’t ghosts in cemetery X, and that that ghosts may not even exist, but most of them did not dismiss out of hand the very possibility of the existence of ghosts. I did.

 

(more…)

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May/11

21

The Arab spring revisited

I was always one skeptical of the “Arab spring.” My skepticism is modulated and qualified. I think Tunisia has the prospects of becoming a normal nation-state to a far greater extent than Libya, for example. But I was of the opinion that these “revolutions” were mostly elite-driven, and, that they didn’t address the reality that there’s a major structural problem with any possible economic growth in these autarkic economies. Whenever I brought up the example of Iraq as an example of what mass democracy in a Middle Eastern nation can do to religious minorities I would have people (often Western liberals) complain that this was too pessimistic, jumping the gun, while Egyptian commenters would accuse me of being delusional and not representing the reality.

My most pessimistic concerns have no arisen, thank god (though I think Syria is probably the “best” candidate for a major social meltdown in the wake of revolution because of its pluralism). But it has not been calm after the storm. The New York Times reviews the situation and hints at the tensions in Tunisia and Egypt, what is crystallizing in Libya, and the fears of minorities in Syria.

Societies are complex, contingent, and organic things. Just as human nature is not a “blank slate,” so a culture can not be reconstructed on totally different foundations de novo after a revolution. Even the most extreme attempts, such as that of Mao and Pol Pot, have failed in the long term. It is one part of human nature to be optimistic, and long too the upside of things. But another part is to be caution, worry, and yell “stop!” I’m not going to cease playing my part.

May/11

21

Apocalypse Postponed

The Daily Telegraph’s Damian Thompson (a religious man, incidentally) weighs in here:

…I suppose if I had to boil it down to one observation, it would be that just because people say they “believe” that such-and-such a thing will happen in the End Times that doesn’t mean they invest heavily in those colourful beliefs. It’s a sort of spiritual hobby, even entertainment. St Augustine told doomsday enthusiasts to rest their busy fingers – ie, stop using them to calculate the exact date of Christ’s return (like old Harold Camping). Even in his day, people ran a huge risk of (a) making fools of themselves and (b) boring everyone else to death.

Still, remember the following should 200 million true believers fail to shoot skywards tomorrow. In the first century, most Christians believed the world would end in their lifetimes. Why? Because Jesus gave them good reason to think so:

Matthew 16:27-28: For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 24:34: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

That sounds like a a pretty explicit doomsday prophecy to me. No wonder St Paul had to deal with Christians who kept asking: why is everyone dying naturally when Jesus said he’d already be back by now?

Meanwhile, as I mention over on the Corner, do check out The Rapture, a fascinating early 1990s take on the End Times.

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May/11

21

Oh Well…

On to 2012, I suppose…

Via the Daily Telegraph:

Inhabitants of New Zealand, scheduled to be among the first to meet the apocalypse according to a US fundamentalist preacher, this morning confirmed they were still in existence as the appointed time was reached in their time zone. There were also unconfirmed reports that Tonga has, thus far, failed to boil into the Pacific.

Eighty-nine-year-old tele-evangelist Harold Camping had prophesied that the “Rapture” would begin with powerful earthquakes at 6pm in each of the world’s regions, after which the good would be beamed up to heaven.

This morning, Kiwis confirmed there were no signs of the dead rising from the grave, nor of the living ascending into the clouds to meet Jesus Christ.

Twitter users were disappointed by the absence of Armaggedon.

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May/11

20

Karl Popper and the Rapture

It’s odd to observe conventional believers—such as Rush Limbaugh on his radio show today—mock the Rapture proponents.  The evidentiary basis for more mainstream propositions about the afterlife and the nature of God is identical to those predicting a Doomsday within our lifetimes: a set of allegedly Holy writings coupled with textual exegesis.  Christians or Muslims who confidently describe Heaven and Hell, the parceling out (by a set of ex post facto rules nowhere published in sufficient detail for a person to know what gets you into heaven and what doesn’t: for example, what if someone was a lousy tipper, or didn’t report income, or ignored pooper scooper laws?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?) of the living and dead, and the various attributes and activities of God have no more empirical grounding for those claims than Harold Camping has for his.  The only mistake of Millenarians is to offer a hypothesis that is actually falsifiable.

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May/11

20

The media joke of objectivity

This story is not written with serious intent, though its tone is serious. Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending:

The Haddad children of Middletown, Md., have a lot on their minds: school projects, SATs, weekend parties. And parents who believe the earth will begin to self-destruct on Saturday.

The three teenagers have been struggling to make sense of their shifting world, which started changing nearly two years ago when their mother, Abby Haddad Carson, left her job as a nurse to “sound the trumpet” on mission trips with her husband, Robert, handing out tracts. They stopped working on their house and saving for college.

Last weekend, the family traveled to New York, the parents dragging their reluctant children through a Manhattan street fair in a final effort to spread the word.

“My mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven,” Grace Haddad, 16, said. “At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”

Thousands of people around the country have spent the last few days taking to the streets and saying final goodbyes before Saturday, Judgment Day, when they expect to be absorbed into heaven in a process known as the rapture. Nonbelievers, they hold, will be left behind to perish along with the world over the next five months.

With their doomsday T-shirts, placards and leaflets, followers — often clutching Bibles — are typically viewed as harmless proselytizers from outside mainstream religion. But their convictions have frequently created the most tension within their own families, particularly with relatives whose main concern about the weekend is whether it will rain.

Kino Douglas, 31, a self-described agnostic, said it was hard to be with his sister Stacey, 33, who “doesn’t want to talk about anything else.”

“I’ll say, ‘Oh, what are we going to do this summer?’ She’s going to say, ‘The world is going to end on May 21, so I don’t know why you’re planning for summer,’ and then everyone goes, ‘Oh, boy,’ ” he said.

The reporter “tells it straight,” as if these idiocrats aren’t just making fools of themselves. As it is, people will read the article, look up their address or phone number, and call these morons to laugh at them Monday morning. This should be in a tabloid.

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May/11

16

The media joke

Donald Trump says he won’t run in 2012:

The publicity-loving New York developer and reality-TV star pulled the plug on his would-be 2012 presidential run Monday afternoon, saying he still believes he’d be best for the job but that he’s not ready to give up on making money in the private sector.

The move came after NBC officials, whose network his “Celebrity Apprentice” airs on, said they would have an answer within 24 hours as to whether or not The Donald would be back for another season next fall.

Always a joke.

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