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Archive for December 2011



The symbolism of the nonexistent

A few years ago I listened to Brad Stine, who happens to be a conservative Christian, make a joke to a sympathetic audience about how funny it was that some non-Christians were offended and objected to the image of a cross in a classroom. Stine’s assertion was to the effect that “It’s only a cross people! What’s so scary about that!” But my first thought was this: would Stine’s audience be laughing so hard if their children had to sit in a classroom with a Satanic pentagram? I doubt it.

Symbols are only innocuous when you find them innocuous. As a matter of fact atheists are not the only ones to object to crosses. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc., object to crosses in public places, or in locations which connote state sponsorship, because the symbol represents Christianity. For Christians the Satanic pentagram is a marker of the antithesis of their religion. Some Christians may even believe that the pentagram has a malevolent power! For Christians who hold to the position that Hinduism is a demonic cult standard statuary common to that religion has malevolent implications. Jews in particular have negative responses to the crucifix for reasons having to do with that religion’s history and relationship with Christianity.

I point this out because it is often amusing to laugh at the offense others take at what you find innocent or benevolent. But when the shoe is on the other foot you stop laughing. But I do have to admit that those of us who hold that all supernatural systems of belief are fictitious are in a peculiar position: we are taking offense at a symbol which is rooted in something which we think has no coherent basis in reality. This may not matter in a purely cognitive sense. To give an extreme example an atheist who was sexually abused by their priest may have a concrete viscerally negative reaction to symbolism associated with the Roman Catholic church without agreeing to the proposition that those symbols have any supernatural properties, or correspond to something with a supernatural basis.

But atheists are in a different position from those who adhere to religions which are not Christianity. For those people the supernatural domain may be real. And just as Christians may believe that non-Christian religions are fundamentally false, and non-Christians may be in thrall to false idols, so these individuals may have the inverse reaction to Christians and Christian symbols. A Jewish aversion to the cross may not be due to the fact that the cross is a symbol of a false religion, so much as that it is the symbol of a heresy debased with a idolatrous pagan ethos.

This somewhat pedantic exposition is to highlight that these issues aren’t so simple upon further reflection. One person’s offense is another person’s sacred. For atheists our very existence is objectionable, as can be made clear by some of the comments below. Therefore, how we position ourselves in the public debate does matter.



Atheists behaving churlishly

Of the various Christmas sightseeing destinations offered a child in 1960s Los Angeles, the Santa Monica crèches—a series of small stage sets erected on the bluffs above the Pacific Coast Highway–were particularly alluring.   The life-sized mannequins that populated the chicken-wire enclosures had an obvious ancient provenance in the nearby J.C. Penney’s, with their heavy mascara, California tans, and stiff smiles under their Bedouin robes, yet the magic of mimesis—of reproducing human life in artificial form—worked its usual magnetic appeal. 

This year, only three of the series’ fourteen Christmas scenes have appeared in Palisades Park after a local atheist complained about the monopoly on this prime piece of real estate enjoyed by religion.  Complainant Damon Vix and some fellow non-believers applied for space in the park to broadcast their own message; Santa Monica decided to allocate the territory by lottery and the non-believers won the vast majority of spaces.  Vix says that he never intended to dominate the area, but rather simply to receive an equal opportunity to make a pitch for reason.  Many of the atheists’ spaces have deliberately remained blank, so as not to antagonize viewers, Vix told the New York Times; a photo in the Times shows a now pathetically empty chicken wire cage hung with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike—founded upon fables and mythologies.” 

My first reaction to this controversy is: What a ridiculous battle to pick.  My second is: Does every public dissent from faith, my own included, inevitably come off as equally unpleasant?  (Quick answer to the latter question: No, see Christopher Hitchens.)  Vix has merely reinforced the view of millions of believers that non-believers are—for starters–killjoy blights on the polity who are only out to destroy joy and good cheer, and who would leave a vacuum in the human spirit as ugly as the atheists’ empty cages.  Equally distressing is the tone-deafness of another skeptic, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who tells the Times that the Santa Monica situation was “one of the cutest success stories of the season.”  The Wisconsin-based group erected its own manger this year in the Wisconsin State Capitol, featuring Einstein, Darwin, and—I cringe to write it–Emma Goldman.  Way to further associate religious skepticism with Godless communism, guys!  (And skeptics should avoid Seventh Day Adventist-type mimicry: If you’re going to be a vegetarian, don’t ape the meat eaters with mock salmon loaf.) 

I am not even sure that non-believers should be picking battles at all, as opposed to simply asking the questions that logically follow from religious belief—such as why anyone thinks that God cares about his prayers for relief from mortgage debt or arteriosclerosis when God tolerates the daily slaughter of innocents by natural disaster and every kind of disease under the sun. 

For me, the crèche episode raises troubling questions about how skepticism can best challenge or talk back to the ever-weakening domain of faith, without coming off as crude, thin-skinned, or anti-social.  I confess that most contemporary atheist crusades—such as Rationalist slogans on buses–strike me as lame at best.  (Is Secular Right any different?  I hope so, but I cannot be sure.)  And yet though I would not draw the line at the Santa Monica crèches, there are other public and government sponsored displays of religion that I, too, find deeply annoying and, if I controlled things, unacceptable, such as the prayer from Congress’s resident chaplain that opens every day’s legislative session, prayer in schools, Presidential prayer breakfasts, and Texas’s official gubernatorial prayers for rain (still inexplicably unanswered).  (Vix would undoubtedly say, with likely justice, that he is not proceeding out of any personal annoyance but rather to uphold a fundamental Constitutional principle.)  Every separation of Church and state that today we take for granted, such as the disestablishment of the official state churches in the early days of the Republic, undoubtedly struck many believers at the time as equally gratuitous and juvenile–not to mention deeply dangerous. 

The issue here is not just how to dissent from religion; any challenge to a widely-accepted practice will be perceived by the majority as the action of cranks who should just keep their mouths shut.  And while Christianity in the West today can play the victim of an intolerant elite culture, it was of course unapologetic about suppressing heterodoxy before the Enlightenment and the market began chipping away at its hegemony over the public sphere. 

I have no hard and fast rule for arriving at a socially acceptable etiquette for expressing disbelief.   Challenging Christian traditions, especially ones as innocuous and child-friendly as Christmas displays, is particularly fraught since Christianity has become so tame and is so thoroughly integrated into our culture.  (My heavily Jewish, Hollywood-dominated grammar school in West Los Angeles held an annual Christmas carol ceremony without anyone objecting.)   Perhaps the most that one can say is that anti-majoritarian principles should be applied with discretion—knowing that everyone will interpret that mandate differently.  Here, though, I would leave the crèches alone.



Merry Christmas One and All…

…on the occasion of this thoroughly enjoyable, marvelously syncretic celebration.

“For the people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snow-ball – better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest – laughing heartily if it went right, and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied, baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle-deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)



Glimpses of Future Disaster

Demographic projections always have to be treated with a great deal of care, but this (from a piece in the National Interest) still makes disturbing reading:

A recent report compiled by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics makes some projections looking out nearly fifty years, to 2059. The report separates out for the first time in any such official public reckoning the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, which has a significantly higher birth rate than other Israeli Jews. The ultra-Orthodox currently make up about ten percent of Israeli society but by 2059 are projected to constitute over thirty percent.

The disproportionate growth of the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also called, has severe implications for Israeli society and the Israeli economy. About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work for a living. They spend their time in religious study at yeshivas while they and their fast-growing families subsist on government stipends. This already constitutes a major burden on the remainder of Israelis and is a contributor to the economic discomfort that stimulated widespread demonstrations earlier this year. If the projected increase in the ultra-Orthodox proportion of the population involves a proportionate increase in those not contributing to the economy, it is hard to see how the even larger burden on everyone else could be sustained. The ultra-Orthodox also are not subject to the same military service requirements as other Israeli Jews, constituting another area where the burden is all the greater on the others. Then there is the effect on social mores and freedoms. The growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox has already raised issues regarding the status and liberties of Israeli women. A further expansion of that influence will make Israel an ever more illiberal place.

Clearly these trends present Israel with a very serious challenge to its vitality and even to its survival as a society recognizable and acceptable to most of its current citizens. A major question is whether the privileges and influence of the Haredim can be curbed before they become so large a proportion of the population that curbing is no longer politically thinkable. There has been some official recognition of the danger, as reflected in efforts to get more of the ultra-Orthodox into the work force, including the performance by some of auxiliary duties in support of the military. But privileges that go so far and are so firmly entrenched will naturally be stoutly defended. When an ultra-Orthodox rabbi suggested last year that full-time, government-financed religious study should be reserved only for exceptionally promising scholars who are groomed to be rabbis or religious judges and that other ultra-Orthodox men should “go out and earn a living,” he was so vehemently denounced by his own political party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, that he had to be assigned a bodyguard.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan




Another God, Dead

Via the Daily Telegraph:

When the Sun of Mankind was born, in a humble log cabin on his nation’s holiest mountain, a new bright star shone in the heavens, and a double rainbow appeared. The birds sang songs of praise in human voice. The Sun of Mankind’s father, though his mortal body is dead, rules in eternity, and his spirit is reincarnated in the Sun of Mankind. The Sun of Mankind is also known as the Great Man Who Descended From Heaven.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to atheist North Korea.

The Sun of Mankind, in case you’re wondering, was the late Kim Jong-il, who died over the weekend following a heart attack. His father, the eternal leader who was reincarnated in his son, was Kim il Sung, who died in 1994 at the age of 82 but is still the official president. Christopher Hitchens, who sadly did not live to see Kim’s death, thus described North Korea as the only “necrocracy” in the world.



Tanya Rosenblit

Via the New Zealand Herald:

She had no intention of emulating Rosa Parks when she set out to find a bus to Jerusalem on Friday but by yesterday Tanya Rosenblit had become a defiant symbol around whom a majority of Israel’s population was rallying, including Cabinet ministers. Rosenblit, who lives in the port city of Ashdod, boarded a bus that serves mainly the black-clad haredi, or ultra-orthodox, Jewish community, which constitutes about 8 per cent of Israel’s population.

The haredim had attempted to impose gender separation on buses connecting their communities in different cities. The Supreme Court termed this illegal but the authorities agreed to let the practice continue as long as it was on a voluntary basis and was confined to selected routes serving an almost exclusively haredi population. The bus driver Rosenblit hailed explained that secular women don’t usually travel on this line. The 28-year-old journalist nevertheless mounted the bus and sat behind the driver.
Haredi men looked at her askance but made no protest. On the second stop a haredi man boarding stopped inside the door and asked if she would move to the back. “No, I won’t,” she said.

After a brief exchange, she put on earphones and listened to music. At one point, when the man shouted at her, she took off the earphones and stated her case.

“There’s no cause for behaving this way to anyone, certainly not women. I made no provocation. I bought a ticket like you did. You won’t tell me where to sit only because I’m a woman. I’ll sit where I please.”

She held her ground despite an angry crowd of haredi men that had formed outside. The man continued to block the door and said he would do so until the woman moved. After half an hour, the driver called the police. The policeman attempted first to persuade the man to desist, then asked Rosenblit if she would mind, out of respect for their ways, moving to the back. She refused.

Good for her.

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Will Ron Paul kill the caucuses?:

The most troubling eventuality that Iowa Republicans are bracing for is that Paul wins the caucuses only to lose the nomination and run as a third-party candidate in November — all but ensuring President Obama is re-elected.

The Paul family doth protest their Christianity, so they must know that their deity states that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me….” If Ron Paul “pulls a Nader” then Rand Paul’s political career is poisoned. Would a father do such a thing to a son? Perhaps. But I’d bet against it. There most certainly is a family “brand,” and I am curious as to why the elder Paul would expend his son’s capital in such a quixotic quest. True, it can be argued that Ron Paul’s run for president in the Republican primaries is quixotic, but he most certainly has affected the tenor of the debate and changed the terms of discussion on many issues. Running as a third party would do no such thing, in fact alienate hard won efforts at outreach to the broader American Right.



Newt Gingrich & David Barton

OK, the source is Right Wing Watch, but here is Gingrich speaking with Rick Green, one of David Barton’s colleagues at Wallbuilders, but, clearly, ‘at’ Barton.

Gingrich: All I can tell you is that sometime in February or March, Calista and I and our family will be making this decision. As you know, I’m a great admirer of your work and of all you’ve done to teach Americans about their history and the roots of American freedom. And I can assure you that if we do decide to run next year, we’re promptly going to call you and say “we need your help, and we need your advice, and we need your counsel.” It’s more than a voting matter. If we decide to run, David, we’re going to need you.


Now with added links…

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Newt Gingrich, Historian

Via the Economist:

Believers in the idea that America was established as a Christian state scored a hit last year when the Texas school board, a politicised body in which evangelicals control crucial votes, ordered up textbooks laying out this view. Given the size of the Texan market, school-book publishers across the country often follow its lead.

The best-known advocate of the “Christian nation” theory is a Texan, an author and evangelist called David Barton, who has been writing on the subject since the 1980s. Among his recent claims are that the founding fathers rejected Darwinism (although they pre-dated Charles Darwin), and that they broke away from Britain in order to abolish slavery. In fact the southern states only joined the Revolution on the understanding that slavery would not be questioned.

Strange as his views may sound to most scholars, Mr Barton’s philosophy is taken seriously in Republican circles. When Rick Perry, the Texas governor and presidential candidate, held a day of prayer for the nation in August, Mr Barton was an acknowledged endorser. One of Mr Barton’s admirers is Newt Gingrich…

Count me unsurprised by that…





Via The Tablet, an interesting story from Israel:

According to the Israeli government, there are roughly 5,800,000 religious Jews in Israel, 1,320,000 Muslims, 150,000 Christians, 130,000 Druze, and exactly one secular Jew. His name is Yoram Kaniuk—and if a new movement that he has inspired continues to grow, he won’t be alone for long.

In Israel, every citizen has a religious classification and an ethnic classification. For the majority of Israeli citizens, “Jewish” is listed as both. It’s not a simple formality: One’s religious classification has profound effects, determining whom and how one can marry, the process of divorce, whether one can get buried in a Jewish cemetery, and whether one must serve in the army. The “state” in this case is embodied in the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a quirk of the Israeli democratic system that stretches back to the country’s founding in 1948. At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave representatives of the Orthodox religious community, numbering only in the hundreds, a host of powers dramatically out of proportion to their size on the assumption that these Jews would soon turn away from the religion of the shtetl.

Ben-Gurion, needless to say, got it wrong. The ranks of the Orthodox have swelled to well over a million, yet the rabbinate still retains the sole power over deciding who is a Jew. Because of the strength of their voting bloc and the keystone role that Orthodox parties hold in Israeli coalition governments, there has never been a successful bid to challenge the rabbinate’s control.

But Kaniuk, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, may have accidentally found a loophole. And if it gets widened by the Supreme Court in an important case now pending, it could grow big enough for a large section of the country to step through.

Read the whole thing.

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