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Thy will be done

A heavy snow is whipping the New York City region, blown relentlessly by winds expected to reach 60 mph later tonight.  Thousands in the area are still without electricity or heat in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and are living in shells of homes.  Who among us, with unfettered power to avert such repeated blows, would decline to do so?



Connecticut Governor: Go pray!

Connecticut Governor Dannel Molloy this morning advised his state’s residents to prepare for Hurricane Sandy and then go “pray.”  What exactly would those prayers look like? 

“Dear God: Even though you’ve sent this hurricane (because nothing happens on earth that is contrary to the Will of the Omnipotent One), do you think you could maybe mitigate its effects just a little bit?  (Such a last minute modification in the predestined unfurling of your simultaneous, omnipresent Will would be theologically problematic, but at this point, who’s counting?)  Just to remind you, human beings don’t like getting mowed down with natural disasters.  Of course, you were content to allow thousands to be wiped out in the big publicity items—the Japanese and Indonesian tsunamis, say—as well as in the unnoticed fires, tree branch fallings, electrocutions, slip and falls, and incurable diseases that take human beings down every day.  But those victims maybe weren’t as deserving as us, who knows, it’s a real puzzle, or maybe they didn’t get a chance to pray before they were killed.  We, however, are still very much alive, and here we are with a VERY big prayer and a VERY big claim on your attention, cuz’ we know WE’RE deserving as all get out. 

We also can’t help observing that it would have been a whole lot easier had you simply averted Hurricane Sandy in the first place, rather than allowing it to proceed, and THEN fiddling with its course—would’ve saved us a whole lot of trouble preparing and would not have disrupted commerce and millions of lives.  But maybe you were distracted with other things, and forgot how inconvenient a hurricane can be.  So we won’t hold it against you, but now that we’ve brought this problem to your attention, do you think that you could maybe call back the winds? 

Rest assured, however, that if you decide not to call the whole thing off and lives are lost, we will still troop to church and thank you for your Divine Mercy  and will pray for you to take care of the still living victims, even though dozens or hundreds of other human beings didn’t get your Mercy BEFORE they lost their lives.  (Though we’re sure that now that they’re dead, you are laying a whole lot of Mercy on them, and we thank you for that.)

In the meantime, however, thousands of selfless emergency workers are preparing to help their fellow humans survive this hurricane, putting their own well-being at risk.  And we are grateful for the millions of engineering geniuses whose labors on behalf of humanity mean that we will weather your storm a million times better than those less fortunate people who lived hundreds of years earlier.  But of course, in working to better their fellow humans, these emergency workers, scientists, entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and builders are merely reflecting YOUR Divine Love, and it is to you, ultimately, that we owe our greatest thanks.

P.S. Could you please make sure that [Obama] [Romney] wins the election?”





Richard Mourdock, the consistent Christian

“I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Ummm . . . what’s not theologically accurate about that statement?  Whether we construe Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s statement generously and limit it to his obvious intentions—that the life that results from a rape is a gift that God intends to happen—or construe it less favorably to what Mourdock meant to say but faithfully to Christian theology—that God intended the rape that impregnates the victim—either interpretation is required by the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent God.  Given the nonstop stream of prayers that believers send God’s way every second, seeking favorable dispositions of, inter alia, their home foreclosure, their bypass operation, the election, the aftermath of an earthquake and every other natural disaster (belatedly),  it’s clear that believers rightly reason that there is not a single aspect of life invisible to the all-powerful God and over which he fails to exercise utter control (even if he sometimes seems to get a little distracted).  I mean, if he can perform such Iron Age miracles as ventriloquizing through a burning bush , he can sure as heck prevent a rape if he chose to do so.  His will has no option but to be done. 


Non-believers are supposed to respect belief as something deeply thought-out.  But it turns out that Christians are actually closet Manicheans, unable to live with the unpalatable consequences of their theology:


“As a pro-life Catholic, I’m stunned and ashamed that Richard Mourdock believes God intended rape,” said Dan Parker, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party.

“Victims of rape are victims of an extremely violent act, and mine is not a violent God.”

So if there are aspects of life that God does not control, he is not omnipotent, but just one magical force among many. 

The Mourdock faux pas in airing the ineluctable implications of Christian belief will cost the Republican party.  That belief itself, of course, will escape unscathed.    




Doubt and belief

From the Wall Street Journal’s Houses of Worship column, by the author of When God Talks Back:

in more experientially oriented evangelical Christian communities . . . people expect to have a personal relationship with God. They go for walks with God, have coffee with God, ask God what shirt they should wear in the morning and even what shampoo they should buy. They expect God will talk back. . . . Looking at your closet and asking God whether he’d prefer the black shirt or the blue one is a way congregants [learn which of their thoughts] they should treat as God’s communication with them.

But wait:

evangelical Christians doubt, too. Doubt is part of the experience of faith . . .  People doubt that they understand God rightly; they doubt that the promise of joy they hear from the pulpit really applies to them. And in a world in which they know wise, good people who do not share their faith, they may doubt divinity itself.  [Emphasis added.]

Oh, well, that’s OK, then. 

Why does having doubts about an arguably absurd belief—that the same God who let five people die in this month’s Oklahoma tornado, say, or 16,000 in last year’s tsunami, nevertheless cares about your clothing choices or is worth praying to because you are the center of his multi-centered universe—why does doubt make that belief more respectable, or, in many formulations of the meme, even admirable and courageous?

I consult my horoscope each morning to find out how I should conduct myself or what I should expect from the day, but I occasionally doubt whether the person who authors it actually has done a close reading of the star charts, and, on my despairingly skeptical days, even whether there really are astral influences from some intangible celestial substance that determine human characteristics on a monthly basis and that govern our fate.  But then after wrestling with my doubt, I conquer it.  That’s success?  I realize that the presence of doubt is supposed to show that belief in a loving God is not simply reflexive but rather fully compatible with reason.  But it’s not as if the doubting believer has gone out and done some careful experiments. 

The mother of Trayvon Martin credited Jesus for the indictment of George Zimmerman.  Was she right, in the eyes of conservative believers? And if not, why not?  How can a believer avoid making such mistakes? 






Another non-Muslim shooting

The lethal gun rampage at Oikos University in Oakland, California, on Monday was a horrific tragedy, mind-numbing in its incomprehensibility for the seven victims’ families and for anyone connected to the school.  Secular Right sends its condolences to the community.

The Oikos shooting is just the latest in a series of school and workplace rampages over the last several years, none of which were committed by Muslims.  If a Muslim had in fact pulled the trigger, the country’s police departments would be on high alert, the aviation system hunkered down even further.  Why?  What is the difference?  Last December and January, a disgruntled young German almost brought Los Angeles to its knees with a set of arson attacks on cars in the Hollywood area.  It appears that it is not all that difficult to inflict group violence and collective fear in this country.  If the U.S. harbored even a handful of Muslim terrorists, presumably they would occasionally have taken advantage of that ease to wreak havoc themselves.  The vast expenditures of the Department of Homeland Security, doled out to law enforcement agencies across the country for anti-terror equipment and training, presume just such a national threat.  As the years go by without an Islamic terrorist incident on our soil, do we ever get to revise downward our assessment of the risk? 

An Oikos student who was not killed in the rampage told the New York Times that she was frightened during the shooting, but added:

“I’m a Christian, and I believe God protects me.”

Why then didn’t he protect the seven victims?  If solipsistic believers feel compelled to ask such questions—seeking the bare minimum of justice, which consists of treating likes alike and distinguishing unlikes, from their allegedly rational God–they don’t often let on.  Unless this Christian survivor believes that she is more worthy of God’s protection than the seven victims, the usual answer to the question of why God didn’t protect the seven victims is that he did protect them—in his way.  But surely that way was not what was meant by anyone who was praying for protection from the shooter. 

Here’s another typical answer to the question of selective protection from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

when a prayer goes unanswered, God’s refusal springs from love rather than indifference.

i.e., God did not answer the undoubted prayers of the victims for protection out of love, rather than indifference.  It is the fate of non-believers to look on such explanations as if across a vast and forever unbridgeable abyss. 






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.

Michelle Bachman recently suggested that the summer’s catastrophic weather reflects God’s displeasure with the course of American politics:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians . . . We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said: ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”

Predictably, she has now retracted her theological claims and says she was just joking. 

If the earthquake and hurricane did not represent God’s will, what did they represent in a world governed by an omnipotent, omniscient God?  Screw-ups?  Things that just slipped by his attention?  Any believer who dares articulate the unavoidable implications of religious practice these days, however,  will be forced into just such a recantation as Bachmann’s, for religious faith conflicts with what, for contemporary society, is the far more important secular ethic of tolerance and inclusion. 

This spring, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation declaring April 22 to April 24 as “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”   Now what is logically entailed by such a proclamation?  The same implications regarding divine will as were behind Bachmann’s unacceptable gloss:

1.  That God has omnipotent power over earthly events.
2.  That such power exists whether the power-holder decides to change or to maintain a status quo: both action and inaction represent deliberate Godly intentions towards reality. 
3.  That if God wants to end the Texan drought, he can.
4.  That God is aware of our prayers. 
5.  That God has the capacity to act upon our prayers.
Specifically to Perry’s proclamation (and to every other such “group day of prayer”):
6.  That God employs democratic pollsters who tabulate public opinion: the more people praying to him to take a particular course of action, the more likely it is he will rouse himself to that action (this corollary of all such calls to collective prayer conflicts of course with the equally prevalent meme that all it takes is one voice crying out for help to move God to action). (more…)

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America’s unique advantage: religious faith?

On a recent shuttle van ride from the Los Angeles International Airport, I directed the African driver to pause before turning left into a blind intersection.  Instead, he barreled across without looking.  Not to worry, he said, I’m a professional driver and besides I know that my God loves me and will protect me.

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).



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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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Divine ADD

Haitian-Americans in a Catholic parish in Queens, NY, have been ecstatically praying since an earthquake wiped out an estimated quarter-million of their island countrymen 10 months ago, following which Hurricane Tomas unleashed cholera in the survivors’ tent camps:

Certain women in [the] parish say so many Hail Mary’s on their own that [the pastor] no longer assigns them the prayers as penance for sins . . . In October, people packed into SS. Joachim and Anne, chanting and dancing and holding sick relatives’ pictures heavenward for healing.

Good luck with that. 

(The New York Times displays the usual nauseating agnosticism towards the religious delusions of the left’s favored victim groups:

On a Saturday night in the basement of [the] mostly Haitian church in Queens, in a bare white room vibrating with hymns and exclamations, a young woman may find herself channeling the Holy Spirit to reveal news from Haiti.

Oh, really?  Yet let a Tea Partyer question the efficacy of deficit spending, and the Times will be certain at the very least to offer a contrary view.)

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the human ingenuity that tries to foil such tragic Acts of God as the Haitian earthquake through heroic feats of engineering, and when such preventive efforts fail, that tries to save as many surviving victims through medical science.   I am grateful that human reason has conquered so much of the squalor and suffering that nature unleashes upon the world.  I hope that Haiti’s suffering comes to an end through tolerance, honesty, enterprise, and discipline.    

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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