bookmark_borderTheocratic Doin’s A-Transpirin’

The Houston Chronicle (7/31) has an interesting report by writer Joe Holley on Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming “Day of Prayer and Fasting,” officially called “The Response,” scheduled for August 6. Now I’m a bit skeptical about the “fasting” part of this. Take a look at any crowd of Texans, and you can tell that they are not really into the fasting thing. In Texas, “Caution: Wide Load” signs have to be worn by pedestrians. “A Day of Prayer and Bar-B-Q” will probably be more like it. But I’m sure there will be plenty of prayin’ an’ beseechin’ th’ Lord. The Governor says that America is in such an awful mess that government cannot help and only Jesus can save us now. An aide to the Governor says that the event will be so that people can humbly request divine help. Hmmmm. For some reason “Rick Perry” and “humble” just do not seem to go together.

Now the sponsors of the Perry Prayerpalooza are an interesting lot. The best known sponsor is The American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi. The AFA was founded in 1971 by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, a hysterical wingnut who started out campaigning against sex on TV (remember Sally Struthers’ shockingly short skirts on All in the Family?) but has since broadened his scope to encompass the whole religious right demonology (gay rights, feminism, and evil-lution). Other sponsors include IHOP, no, not your favorite pancake house, but the International House of Prayer (yes, the pancake chain is suing). IHOPrayer was founded by Mike Bickle, a self-trained evangelist (he don’t need no stinkin’ seminary degrees) who preaches that in these Last Days a Satan-inspired false religion has emerged, the religion of Harlot Babylon. And who is the prophet of this evil religion? Why, it is none other than Oprah Winfrey! (Seriously. I am not making this up. No one could.).

An affiliate of Bickle’s is Lou Engle, who travelled to Uganda last year to support pathological homophobes who want to impose the death penalty on gays. Holley also reports that:

Organizers of The Response also have enlisted the help of a loose association of ministers and activists calling themselves the New Apostolic Reformation…According to their writings, followers of the movement believe they are leading an army of God that will take over society and civilian government.

This confuses the issue for me. Is Perry going to run for president or ayatollah?

Woo. I’m scared enough to offer up a prayer of my own: “Jesus, protect me from your followers!”

Not to worry says Professor Barry Hankins, historian of religion at Baylor University. They don’t really mean it. Such hyperbolic language is just preaching in the apocalyptic tradition of The Book of Revelation, and should not be taken literally. Such talk is just cheerleading to fire up the troops, not a straightforward expression of actual aims or intents.

One often hears such apologiae for extremist language. It is a pretty clever argument. When someone takes offense at extremist language, this defense takes the burden off the speaker and places it on the allegedly obtuse literalism of the hearer. However, when people stand up in public and say with a straight face that they plan to take over the country, I do not think that I am guilty of hermeneutical naiveté when I interpret them as meaning that they plan to take over the country. Besides, such a defense is utterly hypocritical and amounts to little more than special pleading. Suppose that Christopher Hitchens, addressing a supportive crowd at the Center for Inquiry, called for taxing churches and removing the nonprofit status of all religious advocacy groups (like the AFA). Would Hankins reassure outraged evangelicals that Hitchens did not mean it and was just tossing some red meat to the humanist troops? After all, nonbelivers have their rather strident rhetorical traditions too (e.g., Paine, Ingersoll, O’Hair). If Hankins would take Hitchens literally, and he would, why shouldn’t we take the religious right’s spokesmen as meaning what they say?

Actually, I have a much simpler explanation than Professor Hankins’ as to why these people are saying these things. They are nuts. They are stark raving bay-at-the-moon mad. Has it actually come to the point in this country where a candidate for the presidency will openly and unapologetically consort with extremist lunatics? Yes. Yes it has.


I’m visiting Turkey right now, and two days of my stay will overlap with Ramadan, starting tomorrow.

It’s a country where it’s very hard to get away from religion in the best of times. (Plus everyone always assumes everyone else is Muslim.) Now, on the eve of Ramadan, it’s all Islam all the time. I’ve already had enough. At least I’m in a big city, so I expect I’ll still be able to get some food and drink during the daytime in areas tourists are likely to hang around in.

bookmark_borderA conservative Christian engaged in a Christian war

I need to confess that I have a somewhat loose connection to Anders Behring Breivik, who recently killed 76 people in Norway. You see, he lifted words for his manifesto from the manifesto of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. I never met Ted, but he and I were in the same research field of geometric function theory, and I published some joint papers with Kaczynski’s dissertation advisor.

When Kaczynski was caught, a slightly paranoid math colleague of mine became unnecessarily concerned that there might be an anti-mathematician backlash. It helped that nobody could think of other mathematicians who were guilty of anything more than eccentric behavior. History showed that violence was more likely to be committed against, rather than by, mathematicians. Hypatia of Alexandria had an illustrious math career until she was burned alive in 415 by a mob of Christian monks. And St. Augustine said, “The good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell.” (

While Kaczynski never made any connections between his mathematics and his violent acts, Breivik indicated in his manifesto that he was a conservative Christian engaged in a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination. His acts are consistent with both biblical Christian theology and Christian behavior. The Bible and other holy books have passages encouraging the murder of infidels. They also have passages about loving your neighbor. I think we can tell more about individuals by which parts of their contradictory holy books they emphasize than by which religion they have in common.

Here’s what I don’t accept: the claim that Breivik is not a “true” Christian because of what he did. Yes he is. You might not like the kind of Christian he is, but he is what he says he is. So is “God hates fags” Christian Pastor Fred Phelps. Similarly, Osama bin Laden was a true Muslim. The Crusaders were true Christians, as were those who murdered abortion doctors, as were most Nazis.

Despite Ted Kaczynski’s terrorist acts, he is a true mathematician. I wish my math publications were nearly as impressive. But math and morality don’t always go together, and neither do religion and morality. I leave for others to opine whether there are positive or negative correlations. I will say that compared to the general population, there are far smaller percentages of mathematicians than Christians in prison for violent crimes. Also, a much smaller percentage of atheists.

bookmark_borderCreeping conservatism?

I’ve been asking around, and many of my religiously liberal and secular Turkish friends are convinced that Turkish society has become more conservative.

Possibly. The common examples they give show that a more orthodox religiosity has become more of a default assumption in public. One obvious sign is not just that many more women are visible with headscarves, but that headscarves have become expected in many situations. Another example a friend gave had to do with the imminent arrival of Ramadan. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the company he worked in would have had employees sign up for alternative arrangements if they were going to be fasting. The default would have been to take lunch as usual. But today, the company takes the names of those who will not fast, and the special arrangement is to take lunch as usual.

I can see that these (and a lot more) may be signs of creeping religious conservatism. But maybe not. An alternative explanation is that the defaults have changed to better reflect the continuing social conservatism of the majority. After all, two thirds of Turkish women cover their heads in public. I very much doubt that this number was less twenty years ago. Most Turks are observant Muslims, and they fast during Ramadan. I doubt the proportion has changed much. It makes a kind of democratic sense for the defaults to reflect this majority.

What has changed is that in recent decades, religious conservatives have enjoyed much more political, economic, and cultural power. My friends are seeing this. It’s a lot more difficult to tell whether there is increasing conservatism as well.

bookmark_borderThe Myth of American Religious Freedom

I highly recommend David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom (Oxford UP, 2011).

It has long been evident that the secular liberal story told about the history of the First Amendment and how the US has historically granted individuals free religious expression is dubious. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s mixed in with a lot of bullshit. (Maybe not as bad as Religious Right conceptions of US history, but if that’s the competition…)

Sehat’s book is the best one that I’ve encountered that confronts these myths, showing how much of US legal history exhibits a Protestant “moral establishment” that has been coercive in character. (He also persuaded me that this was much more than an “informal establishment” as has sometimes been described, and that I have referred to in the past.) In the process, Sehat illuminates much of the present culture wars and makes it much clearer what exactly the Religious Right today is aiming to recover.

I’m not going to attempt a summary; as with much historical writing, it is the details and a carefully drawn context that makes the case. But I think many US secularists would benefit from reading the book. It may even help us reduce the bullshit we produce.

bookmark_borderGay marriage violates freedom of religion?

I was reading a collection of essays by religious intellectuals and theologians, and a couple of them described the recent trend toward allowing gay marriage as the state interfering with the freedom of religion.

On the face of it, this seems absurd. After all, if the state recognizes a certain status for gay couples, including accompanying legal rights, how does this impede the freedom of religion? No one is forcing any religious community to perform marriage ceremonies for gay people. No religion is required to modify their doctrines about sexual morality. Marriage as a legal status is something in between the state and individual citizens.

But then, maybe that’s precisely the issue. Some of the opposition to gay marriage takes place in the context of the long-standing conservative religious resistance to secular liberalism’s individualism. Liberals bypass “intermediate institutions” such as religious communities that interpose themselves between the individual and the state. Conservative theologians continue to object to religious communities beıng relegated to the status of private associations with only minimal, typically contract-based coercive powers over individuals.

Therefore, religious thinkers who believe that defining marriage is something that belongs naturally to intermediate institutions would also think that state involvement in determining the legal status of gay couples is gross interference with the religious domain. And curiously, they show that they operate in the context of a liberal political environment in the very way they phrase their discomfort with gay marriage. They complain about violations of religious freedom. This freedom is not exactly individual freedom, since they conceive of freedom of religion in such a way as to privilege the interests of a community to propagate itself. But how that is supposed to work does not need to be spelled out. In a liberal context, the complaint about a violation of freedom itself will immediately have a rhetorical effect.

bookmark_borderImagine atheist politicians

As an atheist, I just about always vote for political candidates who say they believe in God. Not because I’m impressed by their professed god beliefs, but because I have no other choice—unless I cast a write-in vote. Of course, in reality atheist politicians have received hundreds of thousands of votes, though their constituents likely didn’t know they were voting for closet atheists. Currently, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal) is the only uncloseted atheist in Congress, but I’m hoping we will see many more such courageous and honest politicians in the years to come.

I generally vote for candidates whose views on important issues seem closest to mine. These candidates give sound, evidence-based reasons for their positions, without a need to invoke a deity. I am aware that these candidates belong to a religious denomination, because they view such membership as a requirement for public office. However, I draw the line at voting for a politician who claims a god told him or her to run for office or what position to take on an issue. I just won’t vote for someone who seems loony to me.

I wish everyone would judge candidates on their political positions, and not on their professed religious beliefs. But that might be a dream of mine more difficult to achieve than the dreams of Martin Luther King. Those who won’t under any circumstance vote for an “immoral” atheist, or whatever pejorative adjective precedes the A-word, are letting their blind faith and stereotyping get in the way of common sense.

America is the most religious Western democracy in the world, with the overwhelming majority believing in a personal God. By contrast, only 24% in Denmark and 16% in Sweden are believers. Americans pride themselves on our high quality of life. However, taking into account measures of income, health, freedom, unemployment, climate, political stability, life-satisfaction, and gender equality, countries like Denmark and Sweden (but not America) rank in the top 10. Moral imperatives of most religions include caring for the sick, elderly, poor and infirm; practicing mercy, charity and goodwill toward others; fostering generosity, honesty and communal concern. Statistics show that these are best put into practice in the most nonreligious nations in the world today.( Religious countries (and Bible Belt states) also have much higher rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy than more secular countries. I wonder what would happen if we elected more secular politicians.

I look forward to seeing Ricky Gervais’ new show, Afterlife, which features an atheist. I hope it will call attention to a much-underrated movie directed by and starring Ricky Gervais in 2010. The Invention of Lying is about a culture in which nobody can lie. There is not even a word for “lie” or for “truth.” Then one person develops the ability to lie. With the best of intentions, our liar-hero, Mark, tries to comfort his dying mother by telling her that she will be going to a wonderful afterlife. Naturally, she and others believe him. Soon everyone is begging for information about this afterlife. He then tells the world there is a Man in the Sky who is responsible for everything, and they will be happy up there with him after death. When asked if the Man in the Sky is also responsible for cancer, Mark has to grapple with theodicy, the question no monotheistic religion has been able to answer: Why is there evil in a world created by an all-powerful and benevolent god? The movie’s theme was that Man in the Sky religion is possible only in a world where it’s possible to lie.

To add to John Lennon’s “Imagine no religion,” imagine a world where politicians don’t lie. More realistically, I’d just as soon imagine an American electorate that doesn’t much care about the private religious views of elected officials, and politicians don’t make them part of their public campaigns.

bookmark_borderFirst Response to my Hell Article

Well, things happen fast in our hyper-connected world and there is already a review of my chapter “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine” in John Loftus’ new anthology, The End of Christianity. Someone called “jayman 777” (I’ll call him “Jayman”) reviews it at this site:
In my essay I argue that the traditional doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell is morally indefensible. Could a just God create an eternal, punitive hell? My answer is “no.” Though he declares himself a universalist, Jayman thinks that my argument fails. Here I’ll take a look at his critique.
Jayman’s first complaint is that in the section where I present the traditional doctrine of hell, I include many non-Biblical quotations. This is so. For instance, I quote Tertullian, one of the leading Latin Fathers of the Church; I quote Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the foremost theologian and philosopher of Colonial America; I quote historian Paul Johnson’s account indicating that the three most influential medieval teachers, Augustine, Aquinas, and Peter Lombard all taught the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell where sinners were punished physically as well as mentally and spiritually. I also quote Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity to show that the leading and most orthodox divines among Calvinists as well as Catholics taught the doctrine that one of the joys of heaven will be the contemplation of the torments of the damned.
Jayman argues that Christians are not required to take non-Biblical sources on hell seriously, since the most important question is the biblical doctrine of hell. My critique is aimed at the traditional doctrine of hell as expressed by the most orthodox, learned, and influential theologians, preachers, and teachers of mainstream Christian traditions, and this is why I cited the views of such persons. In short, my critique is aimed at the opinions of Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, et al. My critique was not aimed at Jayman’s interpretation of some biblical verses. Of course, Jayman has the perfect right to stake out the grounds he thinks are most defensible, but I have the right to have my essay judged on its terms, not Jayman’s.
Jayman says that I “appear” to defend a literal interpretation of the scriptures that I quote (Mark 9: 47-48, Revelation 20:15, and Luke 16: 22-24). He then argues, supposedly against me, that these passages are hyperbole, parables, or otherwise not intended literally. I never endorse a literal reading of these verses. I do say that scriptural accounts of postmortem punishment are “highly evocative,” and they are. I later say that some passages sound literal, and they do. In Revelation chapter 20 it sounds like the damned are thrown into a lake of fire, not that they are suffering the burning of a guilty conscience or something like that. At any rate, the important question is not how I or Jayman take these verses, but how they were taken by the theologians, preachers, and teachers who shaped the traditional doctrine of hell. Every indication is that they took them literally. But whether taken literally or figuratively, these verses are vicious, ugly, and vindictive in spirit, and it is the spirit rather than the letter that usually counts. Besides, if God does not endorse a view of hell as eternal and punitive, then, having foreseen with his omniscience the terrible consequences of such a doctrine (and they have been terrible), he should have expressed in scripture a forthright and unequivocal repudiation of that doctrine. Scripture contains no such repudiation.
Jayman next considers my claim that even the worst sinners do not deserve eternal punishment. He distinguishes between punishment that is infinite and punishment that is eternal and argues that a finite amount of punishment could be made to last for an eternity. How? Well, suppose that God justly decides that a sinner deserves 10 units of punishment. On his first day in hell, he receives 5 units of that punishment. On the second day he receives 2.5 units of that punishment. On day three he receives 1.25 units of that punishment. And so on. That way, a finite amount of punishment could be meted out over an eternity of time.
But this is a very odd suggestion. Such a scheme would make it mathematically impossible that the sinner would ever get the full punishment that God deems that he deserves. Even after googol days, the sinner will not have suffered the full ten units of punishment that justice requires (and we must assume that God’s justice is perfect, i.e., that the sinner deserves exactly ten units of punishment, no more, no less). Of course, we might say that such a series sums to ten “at infinity,” but our sinner never reaches an infinite number of days in hell. So, according to this scenario, God’s just judgment is eternally frustrated. Further, what kind of punishment would admit of the precise kind of measure that Jayman imagines? On Jayman’s scenario, on the tenth day of his incarceration in hell, the sinner will receive exactly .009765625 of a unit of punishment. Does this make any sense at all? Besides, as Jayman admits, in my essay I respond to a similar suggestion that the sinner’s punishment will be finite however long he is in hell. My retort is that we need merely rephrase the problem to ask how everlasting punishment can be just.
Jayman’s response is:
…the just punishment for a sin is based on the nature of the sin and not how long it took to commit the sin. A murder that took a minute to commit is deserving of more punishment than a th
eft that took one minute to commit. When looking at the issue of justice, however, we need to look at the amount of punishment and not the duration of punishment. The duration of punishment seems irrelevant to me.”

But doesn’t duration itself add to the total amount of punishment? Galileo spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest. If you were given a choice of ten years of house arrest (i.e., you cannot leave your yard) and one week in the Colorado “Supermax” prison where they keep the Unibomber, which would you choose? I’d take the week at the Supermax. Of course, at home I would have my family, cats, books, DVD’s, music, and telescopes, and the week at the Supermax would be really awful with mean guards, crappy food, and stuck in your small cell 23 hours a day. Still, ten years without being able to leave your yard would be extremely onerous whereas it would all be over after a week in Supermax. Clearly, a light punishment of great duration becomes a heavy punishment, and one of everlasting duration becomes an unlimited punishment. My question therefore stands: How does limited sin merit unlimited punishment?
Finally, Jayman concludes by mentioning my argument addressing the traditional view that unbelief is sufficient for condemnation in hell. He notes that not all Christians hold this view. My argument addresses the ones that do.
In sum, in responding to my essay, Jayman either changes the subject or makes extremely dubious claims. In writing a polemical essay, one aims to provoke a response. However, I do hope that any other responses will be of higher quality than Jayman’s.

bookmark_borderFine-Tuning Argument: Having and Eating the Cake

Richard Swinburne adopted the Fine Tuning Argument as the heart of his ‘Teleological Argument from Spatial Order’ (The Existence of God, 2nd ed., p.167-190). The key premise of this argument mentions tuning:

“…the universe…[is] tuned–that is, such as to allow and indeed make significantly probable the existence of human bodies.” (EOG, p.188)

Here is another statement of the key claim:

“…the laws and boundary conditions of the universe…[are] such as to make probable the evolution of human bodies.” (EOG, p.189)

Various objections have been raised to the Fine Tuning Argument, but one potential problem strikes me as particularly interesting: Swinburne’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too.

As Swinburne wraps up this argument for God, he hedges his bet with the following footnote:

If however the evolution of human bodies was very improbable given the actual laws and initial conditions, but nevertheless occurred, then there would be an argument of a different kind to the existence of God. This would…be an argument from the fact that the laws and initial conditions [of the universe] are one of a small range of such that do not rule out the evolution of human bodies, and from the fact that nevertheless that evolution occurred even though it was very improbable. The conjunction of these two phenomena would be much more to be expected if there is a God than if there is no God.
(EOG, footnote #32 on page 189).

So, if the laws and initial conditions of the universe were such that they made the evolution of human bodies probable, that is evidence for the existence of God, but if the laws and initial conditions of the universe were such that they made the evolution of human bodies very improbable, then that too would be evidence for the existence of God. Heads, he wins; tails, we loose. It looks like the evolution of human bodies is evidence for God whether the laws and initial conditions of the universe made this event probable or very improbable.

Does this make sense? Can Swinburne have his cake and eat it too?

What if the laws and initial conditions of the universe made it only somewhat improbable that human bodies would evolve? Would this count as evidence against God?

Perhaps not, because Swinburne could claim that God, in order to give humans the freedom to reject belief in God, did not want to make the evidence for his existence too clear and obvious, so God designed a universe such that the evolution of human bodies was only somewhat improbable, and then God intervened to guide evolution in the right direction, leaving only modest and somewhat ambiguous evidence of his fingerprints on the world.

It looks to me like no matter what the situation turns out to be in terms of the probability of the evolution of human bodies, one can use that “fact” to support the existence of God. But if no possible cofiguration of the evidence counts against God, and all possible configurations of evidence count for God, then it would seem that the evidence is not really functioning to distinguish between different possibilities (i.e the possibility that there is no God, and the possibility that God exists).

bookmark_borderCreeping theocracy

Here in my home state of South Carolina, a common expression when things look particularly gloomy is, “Thank God for Mississippi.” Even atheists have been known to utter this cliché. But after hearing about the August 6 public prayer event designed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, some of us in South Carolina are now saying, “Thank God for Texas.”

Jim Demint, my South Carolina U.S. Senator and a Tea Party favorite, just published a book that describes why he came close to quitting after one term. However, he and his wife prayed about it, and of course, God wanted him to run again. Demint added, “We had no idea He would answer our prayer in such a clear and wonderful way.”

Interestingly, Demint also reveals in his book that he advised his friend, our South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, to resign in 2009 after Sanford was caught in an adulterous relationship with his “soul mate” in Argentina, which he mistook for the Appalachian Trail. What did our governor do? He prayed, and sought God’s advice. Since Sanford ignored Demint’s request to resign, perhaps God told him to finish his term. Funny how gods always seem to tell politicians what they want to hear.

Back to Gov. Rick Perry’s conservative Christian prayer event. Gov. Perry has invited all U.S. governors, as well as many other national Christian and political leaders, to participate in this day of prayer and fasting. As an atheist, I’m used to being denigrated or dismissed from public discourse by pandering politicians. Perry has ratcheted up his dismissal to all who don’t subscribe to his particular brand of conservative Christianity. I feel oddly included in the much larger group of those excluded. Perry’s Christian prayer ally, Rev. John Hagee, doesn’t much like atheists. But at least he doesn’t refer to us as the “whore of Babylon,” as he does the Catholic Church. I guess this is a step up.

Now that Gov. Perry has national ambitions, he is trying to do with his prayer event for the nation what he tried and failed to do for Texas. He had officially declared three “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” When the drought continued, I didn’t hear his answer to the obvious question, “How’s that working out for you?” Instead, he is now asking the entire country, founded as a secular nation, to come to Jesus.

Here’s my latest “theory.” Governor Rick Perry is a strong advocate for church and state separation.He wants to show the country how counterproductive it can be when a politician tries to divide the nation along religious lines, turns large numbers of people into second-class citizens, and chips away at religious liberty. What a clever approach to teach us all a valuable lesson about the dangers of becoming a theocracy! Nah. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Herb Silverman