bookmark_borderThe Stillborn God

I recently finished Mark Lilla’s intellectual history of the separation of politics and political theology in Christendom, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. Interesting book, very illuminating in some respects. Still, I find myself ambivalent about it, overall.

I thought I might write a short review to express why, but it seems Zachary Karabell, curiously enough, has written a review which I largely see eye to eye with. So read it, if you’re interested…

bookmark_borderReeves, Louisiana ditches 666 prefix

After complaints from religious villagers for forty years, Reeves, Louisiana’s telephone prefix has been changed from 666 to 749. I added a smartass comment on the story that “In other news, Satan has announced that the Antichrist is now going by the number 749,” but a much better response comes from Daniel Rutter on the SKEPTIC list, who points out that the new prefix suffers from a very similar numerological difficulty, which you may see for yourself by multiplying 74 by 9. Doh!

Concerns about 666 as the “number of the beast” come from Revelation 13:18. In 2005, Oxford University researchers reported that the earliest known manuscript of that book of the Bible gives the number as 616 rather than 666, which is also the number given in another very early manuscript. One 11th Century manuscript gives the number as 665.

bookmark_borderPope forming exorcist squads to wage war on Satan

I thought for a moment I was reading The Onion, but this story is from what at least sometimes purports to be a real newspaper, the UK’s Daily Mail:

The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism.

Vatican chiefs are concerned at what they see as an increased interest in the occult.

They have introduced courses for priests to combat what they call the most extreme form of “Godlessness.”

Each bishop is to be told to have in his diocese a number of priests trained to fight demonic possession.

The initiative was revealed by 82-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican “exorcist-in-chief,” to the online Catholic news service Petrus.

“Thanks be to God, we have a Pope who has decided to fight the Devil head-on,” he said.

The Vatican is particularly concerned that young people are being exposed to the influence of Satanic sects through rock music and the Internet.

Looks like the Catholic Church is continuing its regression and perhaps trying to become more competitive with Pentecostalism.

UPDATE (December 31, 2007): A Catholic World News report quotes the Vatican’s press officer denying that the Pope has made such an order (thanks to commenter Jeff for the reference), but doesn’t deny that Amorth said what he did to Petrus, suggesting that Amorth was speaking out of turn. So either the Pope made such an order but finds it embarrassing to admit, or he didn’t make such an order and Amorth was confused or otherwise mistaken or confabulating, which would not be a new thing for him given his past record.

bookmark_border“It only strengthens my faith”

There is a slightly irritating genre of religious writing in which a faithful person takes a superficial look at some infidel literature and emerges loudly proclaiming that the experience strengthened their faith. Michael Coren’s “Their Disbelief Is My Strength,” for example. Indeed, a particularly smug and clueless example.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea. If you take a serious look at arguments opposed to your own convictions, work through them, and find out why they are unpersuasive, your original views should damn well end up being strengthened. But the popular religious “it only strengthens my faith” theme doesn’t seem to be about intellectual issues at all. My impression is that of pious people going into their task with the determination that the whole thing is going to be a faith-strengthening exercise. The stronger the challenge they face, in fact, the greater the tooth-gritting required to reaffirm the faith. And hence the greater virtue. The outcome (reinvigorated faith) is never in doubt; the object is just to give faith a good workout.

I’d be tempted so say that people are strange, but this sort of faith-based behavior seems to be normal. I have to keep reminding myself that doubt and nonbelief are the strange behaviors for humans.

bookmark_borderCelebrity atheists gallery

Australia’s Daily Telegraph ran a story “Christ-miss for atheist celebs” on Christmas eve which features a gallery of celebrities who are atheists (but not celebrities because of their atheism), such as Keanu Reaves, Angelina Jolie, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Bill Gates, Katherine Hepburn, Jodie Foster, Marlon Brando, Ricky Gervais, John Malkovich, and Bjork. Has anyone ever seen a story like that in a U.S. newspaper, that acknowledges that someone of prominence is an atheist without a note of disapproval?

Hat tip to Larry Moran at Sandwalk. And don’t forget to check out the Celebrity Atheist wiki.

bookmark_borderThe Economist on Mormons, the Bible vs. the Koran, and New Age

The year-end issue of The Economist has three articles of interest regarding religion. One article, “The battle of the books,” describes how Christianity and Islam are competing to distribute their holy books and convert followers, and how their respective demographics have changed dramatically since 1900. In 1900, Islam had about 200 million followers concentrated in the Arab world and southeast Asia, while today it has 1.5 billion followers around the globe. 80% of Christianity’s followers were in Europe and the United States in 1900, while today 60% of the 2 billion Christians are in developing countries and its membership has declined in Europe. It’s a fascinating article, which includes commentary on how Muslims work to memorize the Koran without understanding it, while Christians purchase Bible after Bible but most are almost entirely unfamiliar with its contents (the subject of a previous post on this blog).

The second article, “From polygamy to propriety,” discusses the history of the Mormon religion in the United States and the implications of Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency. The article discusses the origins of the Mormon religion and its current structure, as well as how it has changed in response to past political necessities and how Mormons interact politically with non-Mormons, including in Salt Lake City where Mormons are no longer the majority.

The third article, “Where ‘California’ bubbled up,” is about New Age spirituality in the United States, focusing on the Esalen Institute at Big Sur.

All three articles are well worth your time.

bookmark_borderThe Problem of Niggling Inconveniences

OK, so the Problem of Evil is one of the oldest and most prominent reasons to be skeptical about a benign God. I don’t emphasize it, since it says nothing about supernatural powers with an obnoxious streak, but I guess for people enculturated within a conventional monotheism it should raise a question or two.

But there’s another reason (among many) that I don’t like wading into issues about Evil. It’s an invitation to the pious to start on about the benefits of overcoming suffering. Evils spur heroic efforts. And if nothing less, a world with lots of nastiness acquires some of the grandeur of tragedy. (At least from the point of the view of a person pontificating about evil rather than bearing it.)

So, here’s my substitute: The Problem of Niggling Inconveniences. See, if the head God is supposed to be so omni-bleeding-perfect, you figure this God should get everything right. A small inconvenience is as much of a problem for His Omniness as a major catastrophe. So let’s not focus on genocides or city-destroying earthquakes, but on traffic jams and the common cold. Take the tragedy and the heroism out of the picture. Say you’re sick of theists talking about the ennobling aspects of a terminal disease. Then bring up not the cancers, but the ingrown toenails of existence.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. God is omni-everything;
  2. God’s creations are therefore also the best that are possible, morally speaking;
  3. Niggling Inconveniences are mere nuisances with no redeeming moral value;
  4. It’s possible to fix Niggling Inconveniences so they go away;
  5. Look, how difficult can fixing some minor nuisance be for an omnipotent God anyway?
  6. I can tell you for a fact that health care in the US is a thorough headache because of all the idiot insurance bureaucracy you have to put up with;
  7. If I were to design a universe I’d certainly leave out all the paperwork that serves no purpose but to infuriate people;
  8. Draw the obvious conclusion about God.

I now pompously dub this argument the Problem of Niggling Inconveniences, PoNI for short.

In a truly just world (one which works according to my standards of black humor) PoNI would be discussed and dissected by a small army of philosophers of religion, alongside the Problem of Evil (PoE), the Problem of Unbelief (PoU), and similar nuisances for the idea of God. In a minimally just world (MJW), PoNI should at least be worthy of a Ph.D. thesis or two.

This will not happen; in fact we all know it will be ignored. Hmph. Therefore the world is not even minimally just, and therefore God does not exist.

bookmark_borderCubes and Cathedrals

I just read The Cube and the Cathedral, by conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel. Silly book.

Normally I don’t care much for grandiose theological pontifications on history and civilizations etc., but since this book seems to have made a name for itself as an example of Islamophobia and American conservative-style Europe-bashing, I thought I’d take a look. It turned out that the Islamophobia was just incidental bigotry, nothing special, and that the Europe-is-going-to-hell rant is nothing I hadn’t seen before. The specifically conservative Catholic angle, was, however, interesting. As was the fact that Weigel’s main target is secularism and the “atheistic humanism” that apparently is sending Europe to hell. He argues (well, declares more than really argues) that Catholicism, much more than humanism, is the real guarantor of human rights, liberty etc. He supports his views by a tendentious and very selective reading of history and the current situation in Europe.

Anyway, one overall effect of the book was to make me think “you can never ever trust these bastards” about the Catholic hierarchy. But more than that, it also reinforced my suspicion that there is a fairly deep-seated difference of mentality between certain religious and secular intellectuals. Weigel and his kindred spirits among religiously based social thinkers feel comfortable drawing sweeping social and civilizations conclusions from supposed basic ideas such as theologies, they give a lot of weight to social consequences in judging the truth of ideas, and they see everything through the lens of deep (and invariably conservative) moral convictions. But to me, Weigel’s approach seems implausible from the get go. It’s not just the specific mistakes and lack of proper argument in the book that turns me off, and it’s not just the mismatch in our moral outlooks that prompts my distrust. It’s that hand-wringing about religion being the root of cultural self-confidence does not strike me as being relevant in the first place. (Weigel would naturally consider my attitude here to be yet another facet of the intellectual calamity that is atheistic humanism.)

A prime reason this type of moral theology fails to connect with me is, I think, its blatant anthromorphism—its way of tying very human social and moral concerns to cosmic truth claims. In a more secular intellectual milieu, especially among science-minded nonbelievers, such anthropomorphism ends up as very implausible. It still may be possible that human societies must rely on a theological element in their social moralities. Maybe secular Europe really is doomed without a Catholic revival. But if this is so, we could be convinced only through a very secular form of argument to that effect. An explicitly theological approach such as Weigel’s will not be very persuasive. But then, from Weigel’s point of view, that would itself be part of the problem.

So, in the end, I guess what I most get out of books like this is a sinking feeling that where certain matters are concerned, the usual sort of intellectual argument is of very limited use. In practice, the gulf that separates me and Weigel is just too far.

bookmark_borderScience and Nonbelief paperback available!

The paperback edition of Science and Nonbelief is out! I don’t expect it will be overflowing the shelves of small bookstores, but it’s there (and very cheap) on amazon.com at least.

$12.89 makes Science and Nonbelief my most introductory, most accessible, and most affordable book on science and religion. Click and get one, or give it as a holiday gift. Hell, it’s about the price of a movie in California these days…

bookmark_borderPolitical Responses to Islam

I just read avery good article by Andrew F. March, “Reading Tariq Ramadan: Political Liberalism, Islam, and ‘Overlapping Consensus'”. It’s the best short piece I’ve run into that addresses what political demands can be made of conservative Islam if it is to be accommodated in an Anglo-American style liberal multicultural system. Here are March’s basic demands that he thinks we can ask of Muslims living in the West:

  • that Islamic conceptions of morality can only be cultivated and encouraged within Muslim families and communities through noncoercive means;
  • that the public sphere in non-Muslim liberal democracies cannot be expected to accommodate all Islamic religious sensibilities by limiting freedom of expression;
  • that grievances with public authorities be redressed politically and with a long-term commitment to democratic political institutions;
  • that non-Muslim fellow citizens are recognized as eligible for bonds of political and social solidarity and that relations with them are regarded as relationships of justice (rather than contingent accommodation)
  • that Muslims can recognize the diversity and ethical pluralism of liberal societies as a permanent feature and not something to be ultimately overcome by a future Muslim majority;
  • that, whatever legitimate solidarity Muslims feel for the global community of Muslims, non-Muslim states of citizenship enjoy immunity from violence.

Now, this is not the only political possibility. I have my doubts about the Anglo-American liberal tradition, partly due to the incoherence of multiculturalism and partly due to an opposite universalist tendency in Anglo-American liberalism, which I also can’t fully agree with. In many ways I am more partial to the French secular republican tradition. (See Pascal Bruckner’s “Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?” for a somewhat overheated defense.) That too has some problems with naive moral universalism, but I tend to prefer its active, affirmative defense of secularity.

Still, French-style laicite is not a live option in Anglo-American societies, including the US. Given our political tradition, March’s views might be the best we can expect in the way of a vigorous position against illiberal aspects of conservative Islam.

(Thanks to Stuart Elliott for pointing out March’s article.)