28 September 2007

Thursday's Asshats on Friday: Tim Russert

Normally I'm proud when my alma mater gets mention in the news, as anyone should be. But right now, I'm just embarrassed that this happened at Dartmouth (though not terribly surprised). At the most recent Democratic presidential debate, moderator Tim Russert asked the candidates to name their favorite Bible verse. (Watch it at Crooks and Liars)

The question itself is bad enough--totally irrelevant, serving only to reinforce Christian dominionism. (Good thing for Russert there weren't any Hindus on the stage.) But even worse was that not a single candidate took Russert to task for asking it.

I didn't see my choice for the next president of the United States on that stage, anyway.

Thursday's Asshats on Friday: Archbishop Chimoio

Last night, I mentioned that I heard some news stories yesterday and just didn't want to deal with them. Well now I've had a fair night's sleep (despite more splitting headaches), and Sara and I got to lay some smackdown in Age of Empires II (the Huns were no match for my Aztec priests). So I'm ready to tackle some asshattery.

First on the agenda, Archbishop Chimoio of Mozambique is telling deadly lies about AIDS and condoms. Apparently it isn't enough anymore to lie and say condoms don't help prevent AIDS; now they're going so far as to say some European condoms cause AIDS.

This story has already made the rounds online. I'd just like to add that, if allegations like "I know that there are two countries in Europe, they are making condoms with the virus [HIV] on purpose" had any minutest shred of truth to them, then a sane, moral person would be trying to put an end to such a practice instead of leveraging it as a propaganda tactic. But the Catholic leadership aren't sane, moral people.

Yes, abstaining from sex is an effective way to avoid getting AIDS. But in any situation, particularly fighting a pandemic, your strategies need to be practical as well as effective. Condoms are practical and effective, abstinence is not.

I also found this little pair of statistics interesting:
The BBC's Jose Tembe in the capital, Maputo, says it is estimated that 16.2% of Mozambique's 19m inhabitants are HIV positive.
. . .
Some 17.5% of Mozambicans are Catholic.
I wonder if there's a significant overlap...

The whole thing is illusion, you see

A lot of religious idiocy has crossed my desk today, and I'm just not going to deal with it tonight. I'm already feeling a little grumpy after Sara and I got our asses handed to us in Age of Empires II, and I just plain don't feel like being negative before bed.

So instead, something awesome. Here's one of my favourite actors ever (and an atheist to boot!), Sir Ian McKellen, giving valuable insight into his craft:

"I was brought up a Christian, low church, and I like the community of churchgoing. That's rather been replaced for me by the community of people I work with. I like a sense of family, of people working together. But I'm an atheist. So God, if She exists, isn't really a part of my life."
--Sir Ian McKellen (celebatheists.com)

23 September 2007

Cults = Religions

From the New York Times the other day, 12 members of an underground Christian sect were executed in China on charges of murdering rival evangelists:
The leader of a Chinese Christian sect and at least 11 of his subordinates have been executed for ordering the murder of members of a rival religious group, as the authorities seek to suppress big underground churches that they deem cults.

. . .

Underground religious movements have become an enormously delicate issue for the Chinese leadership since the Falun Gong spiritual group organized a nationwide movement that Communist Party officials viewed as a threat to their hold on power in the late 1990s.

Since that time, the police have condemned some large underground churches, including many Christian churches, as cults. That makes it illegal for them to raise funds or recruit members, and it can mean arrest for anyone associated with them.
It's an ugly situation, both the interdenominational violence and China's silencing of political dissidents. But I have to admit, I like that China classifies Christianity as a "cult." Because that's what it is. That's what all religions are.

The Washington Post apparently has a weekly feature called On Faith. This week, they ask what the difference is between a religion and a cult. I distinctly remember facing this question in my 9th grade English class (and I was
planning to blog about it before the WaPo scooped me... damn them!). As I recall, the class never found a satisfactory answer. I certainly didn't have one at the time.

Willis Elliott, a Christian pastor, says many things with which I passionately disagree in his essay, but puts the answer to this specific question best when he says: "A religion is an old cult, and a cult is a new religion or an innovative deviation from an old religion."

Both believe wacky things. Both employ the same tactics to sustain and propagate those wacky beliefs.

The word "cult" (and Martin Marty of the University of Chicago adds "sect" as well) is primarily a perjorative, a quick and easy way to dismiss a religious group whose beliefs disagree with yours. It's an attempt to shore up the legitimacy of "religion" by disqualifying the "bad apples." The use of terms like "cult" and "sect" certainly doesn't belong in an unbiased academic setting (the same way academics wouldn't talk about certain cultures as "primitive"). And we need to start weeding them out of the public discourse as well; or, if we decide to keep both terms "cult" and "religion," we need to use them interchangeably.

Equating religions and cults can do only two things: increase respect for cults, or decrease reverence for religions. The latter is, of course, what we want. But I have to admit, I worry about the former. I stand by my opinion that the spirit of religious plurality is good for everybody but atheists. That's why I'm satisfied if the word "cult" keeps getting bandied about in common parlance. Let what's dismissed remain dismissed. Wacky beliefs are detrimental to society. We need to be rejecting them, not tolerating or embracing them.

(Interestingly, the New York Times has two separate news feeds for "Religion & Belief" and "Religious Cults." The news article on China above was listed in the latter.)

16 September 2007

An Unlikely Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green he leadeth me the silent waters by
With bright knives he releaseth my soul
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places
He converteth me to lamb cutlets
For lo, he hath great power, and great hunger
When cometh the day we lowly ones
Through quiet reflection and great dedication
Master the art of karate
Lo, we shall rise up
And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water

--Pink Floyd, "Sheep" (Animals)
It's always nice to discover something new in one of your favorite albums.

14 September 2007

SMBC Continues to Deliver

I know we've all felt this way at one point or another:

13 September 2007

Well how do you like that!

Apparently, Sal Cordova reads my blog. When I link to him, anyway. Of course, the son of a gun didn't link back to me. :-P

(By the way, folks, thanks for putting up with me and my politically-oriented posts lately. It's time to get back to a bit of pure, unadulterated godlessness!)

12 September 2007

Steps to Preventing the American Paramilitary

Last night, I wrote about Naomi Wolf's The End of America and the possible faces of an American paramilitary. As we saw, a number of resources are already in place. Given the proper trigger, the President could use the pretext of national security to instate martial law, with the role of paramilitary police force being filled by Blackwater mercenaries, the National Guard, citizen militias organized by the Religious Right, or any combination thereof.

It's imperative that we act to prevent an American paramilitary from taking root, rather than trying to undo the damage once it's done. Tonight, I'd like to take a look at some ideas for what we can do to that end.

Expose their Channels of Action
If I have one criticism of The End of America, it's that although Wolf does a smashing job describing the ways America is sliding toward fascism, she doesn't give a whole lot of suggestions as to how to fix things. However, her book itself fits one major strategy for staving off fascism: expose how those in power are operating. Hitler was able to control Germany so effectively because the Germans thought they were free. It seems like a simple enough thing, but the more people see through the administration's tactics, the harder it will be for those tactics to work. People are already naturally suspicious of the justifications Bush gives for his actions; we need to start vocalizing what's really going on.

Close the Legal Channels
As I mentioned in my last post, the paramilitary is powerful because it is legal. The Bush administration has been breaking down the legal restrictions in the way of an authoritarian executive, but there's still time to put those restrictions back in place before a paramilitary is unleashed. In the case of the National Guard, that means repealing the damage done by the 2007 Defense Authroization Act. I've been working on a letter to my representatives in Congress (still very rough, please feel free to use and/or make suggestions in the comments):
Dear (Senator/Congressman/Congresswoman),

The Founding Fathers knew all too well the danger of tyrrany inherent in one man's having unchecked control of an army. That is why they made sure state militias were accountable only to the people, and that the executive would never have unitary control of a miltary force.

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 has flown in the face of that safeguard, via amendment to the Insurrection Act of 1807 (Section 1076 of the former, amending Section 333 of the latter). The amendment gives the president the power to, at his or her sole discretion, use the armed forces, including the National Guard, as a police force on United States soil, whenever he or she deems appropriate and necessary. This kind of power is inappropriate in the hands of any current or future president.

I urge you to act immediately to repeal this affront to the separation of powers upon whoich our Constitution relies. Authority over the National Guard belongs to the people and their representatives, not to any one executive.


(Your name)
In the case of the Religious Right, we must reinforce separation of church and state. Through organizations such as the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, we can prevent Christian militia groups from gaining any kind of legal recognition from the executive. We can't let the next faith-based initiative be support of a volunteer evangelical security force. We also need to continue taking legal action against current offenses to the Establishment clause, such as evangelical influence in the military, and the Homeland Security program to employ clergy in maintaining order in the event of martial law.

Protest and Raise Public Outcry...
Despite the events of the past seven years, America is still a fairly open society. It will be difficult to install a paramilitary force. Let's make it even more difficult. Let the President and his potential soldiers know that we won't just roll over and accept martial law. Be proud of our democracy.

... but Keep it Peaceful
Even more important than making it harder to justify martial law, is making sure we don't make it easier to justify. We aren't guerillas fighting an occupying force yet. Militancy on our part would only give the President the security issue he's looking for. We must be the embodiment of the ideals of peaceful democracy we seek to defend. That also means holding each other accountable, being on guard for agents provocateurs, and immediately denouncing unncecessary violence (no matter how cathartic it may be).

But what do I know? I've certainly never had to fight a rising paramilitary before. :-P I urge you to share any ideas you might have in the comments.

11 September 2007

Watching out for an American paramilitary

I finished reading Naomi Wolf's The End of America the other day. Wow, we're screwed.

As I mentioned in my original post on the subject, I'm particularly interested in the paramilitary aspect of a fascist state. The way I see it, the establishment of a paramilitary thug caste is now the most important and most difficult step to further closing American society. Secret prisons, surveillance, infiltration of citizen's groups, and targeting of key public figures are all well and good for scaring citizens into submission. But if there's one freedom that Americans hold above all others, it's freedom of speech. And since America is such a damn big place, the fear of immediate repercussion is still slim for the average American. We know that Washington can't tackle all of us.

Enter the paramilitary. Now your concern is not with far-off DC, but rather with the local MM office. Suddenly, there are real and immediate consequences to speaking out against the government. The paramilitary gets in among the population at a local level and prevents patriots from doing the single thing they need most of all to do on a national level: uniting. The paramilitary is the epitome of divide and conquer. All the more difficult, the paramilitary has the considerable advantage of legality; they need not operate in secret.

So what will an American paramilitary look like? Wolf points out three potential resources for such a force. First, there's Blackwater, a giant private "security firm" that collects some of the toughest thugs from around the world and trains them for professional combat. Blackwater mercenaries are already being employed by the Bush administration in Iraq, and they were used as peacekeepers in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Mercenary forces haven't walked American streets since the Hessians, but now President Bush has access to his own army-for-hire. Second, there's the National Guard. Under the John Warner Defense Authorization Bill of 2007, the president is authorized to use the National Guard as a police force on American soil whenever he sees fit. Third, young Republican men, like those who volunteered to pressure and bully people at polls and elsewhere in 2004.

But I think Wolf missed a big one: the Religious Right. They're self-organizing, loyal to the Decider, steadfast in their beliefs, and widespread. Even if only a minority of evangelical Christians would take up arms against their fellow citizens, they would still make up a force to be reckoned with.

We already know one role that Christianity will play in the American paramilitary. As was mentioned before, the government is preparing clergy members to use scripture to placate the public in the event of martial law. I don't have difficulty imagining taking that a step further to church-sponsored security patrols. There isn't much difference between saying: "It is God's will that you follow the mandates of the US government," and: "It is God's will that you enforce the mandates of the US government."

Furthermore, history shows that a huge advantage is conferred upon those who believe in what they're fighting for. That means hired muscle like Blackwater (or even the National Guard) might be able to set the stage for a paramilitary force, but they couldn't keep it up indefinitely against Americans passionate about their freedom. A long-term paramilitary force has to be a group that fanatically believes that they're doing what's right. (And frankly, end-times prophecies and a Middle East conflict don't help matters any.)

The Religious Right is already extremely militant in their rhetoric, and occasionally also in their actions (i.e. bombing abortion clinics). But this militancy is currently directed primarily toward moral and cultural issues. It will be interesting to see whether that militancy can be actualized and channeled in a sociopolitical direction. We godless will have to be especially vigilant... fear of an internal enemy will be paramount in mobilizing Christian fundamentalism, and they can only chase jihadist sleeper cells for so long before they start looking for a more tangible threat to their way of life. It's not as if they don't already hate secular humanists; all they need now is an excuse and permission to go for the throat.

I know this is a lot of speculation, but I don't think it's unfounded speculation. We need to be prepared for the worst; our only chance of staving off fascism is to recognize it and speak out against it before it closes our channels of action. So please, be vigilant. If we allow a paramilitary force to take root in America, things will only get worse for all of us, and fast.

09 September 2007

Bill Maher on Christian Missionaries

Maher's "New Rules" are always great (I love his take on Jerry Falwell). The last rule from this clip of Friday's show is especially fantastic:

05 September 2007

A Lion in the Christians' Den

As some of you might know, I'll be starting my master's program next week at Harvard Divinity School. And as with any new step in life, I'm feeling apprehensive, nervous, excited, nauseated, happy, hungry, and grumpy - and I don't think this is at all out of the ordinary. However, now that I have your attention, I want to take this opportunity to vent a little bit of preemptive frustration with the fact that my discipline, Religious Studies, essentially has gotten repeatedly shafted in the greater hierarchy of academic disciplines.

Very few people know it, but the Academic Study of Religion - or Religious Studies - is above all a social science: its goal is to understand the origin, development, and mechanics of the cultural phenomenon generally classified as "religion" (and, as the social sciences often do, it also spends a considerable amount of energy trying to determine exactly what behaviors ought to be called "religion" in the first place). The field primarily consists of the subdisciplines History of Religions, Religious Anthropology, Psychology of Religion, Sociology of Religion, and the like. (There are some who would say that the "Philosophy of Religion" also belongs in this category. I generally do not.)

Religious Studies, moreover, is often defined in terms of what it is not: i.e. Theology, or any other discipline that treats religion as a viable way of knowing about and living within the world, rather than a manifestation of human culture. In other words, whereas a theologian would ask"how can there be suffering in a world governed by a loving God?", the religionist would ask "why do cultures continually posit the existence of an omnipotent deity in the face of suffering?" Actually, in my experience, if a religionist even bothers to think about suffering at all, it tends only to be in terms like "I wonder what kinds of rituals or talismans these people used as prophylactics against suffering..."

What I hope should be clear from the above is that, whereas the discipline of Theology is built on the explicit presupposition of the existence of a deity (whichever deity the theologian himself believes in, of course), the discipline of religious studies, although it has traditionally never explicitly declared itself to be an atheistic discipline, requires at least the tacit assumption that the absolute truth value of religious propositions are inherently false (anyone who says differently doesn't want to jeopardize his tenure). The great, fundamental discovery that underlies all research in the field of religious studies is that people don't always believe things that are true, but the belief-systems they create for themselves nevertheless have a remarkable degree of internal cohesion and exert a formidable effect on the cultures of their adherents.

The trouble is, however, that this secular discipline of religious studies has only been around since the late Victorian era, when Europeans first started thinking systematically about the religions of others (and then only later turned the lens on themselves). Thus, whereas the Theologians have had a home in their various Divinity Schools (read: seminaries) for as long as there have been universities in the Christian West, the nascent discipline of religious studies has had to carve out a space for itself in a number of different faculties, particularly (and ironically) within Divinity schools themselves. Unfortunately, rather than eventually striking out on its own and defining itself as an independent discipline in its own right, faculties of religious studies have continued to grow under the organizational aegis of Divinity Schools, where they unfortunately continue to play second fiddle to theological pursuits.

Now, whoever thought it was a good idea to combine Theology and Religious Studies under the same administrative umbrella clearly has no idea what he was doing. Just because they both 'have to do with religion' doesn't mean that the disciplines are anything alike. Indeed, no two disciplines could be more diametrically opposed. It is as though one were asking the great (late) E.E.Evans-Pritchard to teach a course on witchcraft beliefs of the indigenous Sudanese at the Divinity School of Zandeland University (Home of the Fightin' Azande!) right down the hall from "Mangu and You," "How To Tell if your Neighbor is a Sorcerer" and "The Benge Oracle 101: Determining Truth or Falsehood by Poisoning Baby Chickens." Or, to put it in a way our regular readers can better relate to, it would be like sticking a faculty of quack New-Age healing practitioners in our top Medical Schools because they both "have to do with illness and the body." These both may seem a little more absurd than, say, offering a course on Biblical Archaeology down the hall from advanced seminars on Aquinas and Tillich - but as far as I'm concerned, the situations are exactly equivalent, because one discipline treats a system of false beliefs as an object to be studied while the other treats them as true.

So you can understand why I am more than a little bit apprehensive about starting up at HDS next week. True: HDS has a long tradition of being Unitarian - the most milquetoast of the liberal liberal Protestants - and it's not like I'm attending Liberty University or Baylor (or even Princeton). But that doesn't change the fact that, according to one poll I saw, only one student at HDS chose to be identified as non-religious. It's not just that most of my colleagues will be taking religion seriously (because, let's face it, that's the reality wherever you go). What really gets me is the fact that they will be spending $30k/yr in order to show how seriously they take religion, many of them with the intent of going on into the ministry after graduation. How, exactly, will I be able to take my peers seriously when they are not only casually committed to the idea of a deity, but are pursuing this intellectual folly on a graduate level? And, failing that, how will I prevent myself from coming across as an arrogant, unfriendly anti-theist, when all I really want to talk about is how interesting and compelling religion is when studied from a secular perspective?

I hope against hope that I'm proven wrong, but withal I am bracing myself for two years of intellectual isolation (from my peers, that is, not my professors - whom I already know to be respected and intelligent secular religionists) until I can blow this pop stand and apply for a PhD program through a non-divinity-affiliated Committee for the Academic Study of Religion.

04 September 2007

Now in paperback, The End of America

Naomi Wolf's The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot was released in paperback today. I just went out and got my copy.

Like Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, The End of America sets a list of requirements for the closing of a free and open society, and explains how those requirements are being met in present-day America. Wolf lists ten steps to fascism, giving each a chapter in her book:
  1. Invoke an External and Internal Threat
  2. Establish Secret Prisons
  3. Develop a Paramilitary Force
  4. Surveil Ordinary Citizens
  5. Infiltrate Citizens' Groups
  6. Arbitrarily Detain and Release Citizens
  7. Target Key Individuals
  8. Restrict the Press
  9. Cast Criticism as "Espionage" and Dissent as "Treason"
  10. Subvert the Rule of Law
Most of us can probably think of a couple examples that fit a handful of those items. For a few more examples, Wolf gives a brief summary of her thesis in this Guardian article.

Personally, I'm most interested to see her take on the paramilitary. She mentions young Republican men and private security firms in the Guardian, but I'm sure fundamentalist religion will have a role to play somewhere along the line as well. I hope she addresses it.

I'll have more details when I've finished reading the book, which shouldn't take long. Hopefully the rest of the book will also include some tips as to how to fix what's going wrong with our country.

Speaking of fascism and fundies, something a bit more lighthearted: You've most likely seen the trailer for Jesus Camp already. Well, I just stumbled across the same trailer set to one of the best songs to come out of WWII. They sync up pretty spectacularly at times.

So Much Stupid, So Little Time

According to the London Times, a new stained glass window in the Cathedral of Cologne (Germany - not the newest fragrance from the Papal Collection) has gotten a certain Cardinal Meisner in quite a snit based on the alleged similarity it bears to motifs common in Islamic art. The object of the Cardinal's wrath is a modern 1,200-square-foot window designed by Gerhard Richter (the "Picasso of the 21st Century"), one that eschews the long-established tradition of depicting pious dead people in favor of something more...abstract.

Not wanting to come right out and say that he thinks abstract art is shit, the Cardinal opted to say something in even worse taste, by instead using his disgust as an excuse to harp on another of his pet peeves: namely, the goddamn Muslims gettin' all up in his face by trying to build a goddamn mosque that - horror of horrors - might "visually challenge the towers of the cathedral" with its minarets. ("Oh noes! We're in ur Germany, bildin r mosks!") And the lesson in this, boys and girls? According to Cardinal Meisner, if a piece of modern art offends your Gothic tastes, just use it as an excuse to piss off a billion people.

Of course, for me, the best part of this whole debacle is the reason the artist gave for his choice of pattern in the first place. According to Roger Boyes of the Times:
[The artist,] Mr Richter, who lives in Cologne, selected the order of the 11,200 individual panes of glass by random computer generation. The intention was to show that what appears to be coincidence is part of a divine design (emphases mine).
I'll give you a moment for the full irony of this statement to set in.

Got it yet?

I think Aaron put it best just now when he said: "I think Richter got it backwards: he's actually demonstrating that what appears to be part of a divine design is actually coincidence." Oh Richter...you clever bastard, trying to sneak in a subtle jab at the IDiots by letting a computer do your work for you and selling it to the Church! Well done! Except...no...he probably did mean just what he said.

Therefore, in place of the rather lame "Cathedral Window Shatters Peace," I suggest that the Times should re-title its article: "Catholic Bishop, In Zeal to Bash Islam, Inadvertently Sabotages Argument from Design." But we can't really be too hard on him. After all, there are so many different ways to be stupid nowadays, and a man really has to prioritize.

Finally, might I also add that if the good Cardinal is of the opinion that Islamic art is nothing more than a randomly-generated array of shapes and colors, then not only is he an insufferable prick, but he could stand to take an art history course or two.