Friday, October 25, 2002

Break's over!

Arts & Letters Daily is back (yay!) and included an interesting review by Jared Diamond that recalled some points from my earlier post. (I said I would give Telford a break, and I have a feeling this will get him going again -- sorry, Telf.) It includes a wild tale from New Guinea that combines elements of the Fall of Man and the Tower of Babel, plus a man with giant testicles (no kidding!). But what it recalls from my own post was my remark that religion "fills a variety of different needs." Diamond asks: what are those needs?

I didn't spell it out at the time, but I figured the needs fell into three basic categories: a) explanation of the natural world; b) social order and community; and c) personal transcendence. Diamond has four categories: explanation, standardized organization, moral rules of good behavior toward in-groups, and rules of bad behavior toward out-groups. On the first one we obviously agree, while his next three I think of as belonging under my heading of "social order." He doesn't consider c) at all, which I think leads him to an erroneous conclusion:
Wilson's thought-provoking book will stimulate each reader to examine his or her personal view of religion's future, and I can't resist doing so either. Personally, I accept purely secular reasons to pay taxes and to refrain from murder and theft, so that societies can promote the happiness of their citizens. I deny a religious need to kill members of out-groups, and I accept a secular need to do so under extreme circumstances, where the alternative would be worse. I remain uneasy about relying on religion to justify morality: today, as in the past, it's too small a step from there to justifying the killing of adherents of other religions. I accept the possibility of scientific explanations for almost every mystery of the natural world—but not for the greatest mystery of all. I still have no scientific answer, and expect there never to be one, to that challenge which Paul Tillich posed to me and my skeptical classmates: "Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?" Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect on the mystery of the First Cause.

Diamond is correct that the needs of explanation and social order can be filled by things other than religion, but he seems to think that all that's left, then, is the First Cause question. But I don't think that's enough to keep religion alive. If First Cause is your only concern, your natural road is Deism; and perhaps some Deists out there will disagree, but I don't think that's different in practice from having no religion. And as the Atlantic Monthly pointed out in a fascinating article a few months back, intellectuals like Diamond keep thinking rationalist belief systems like Deism or Unitarianism or atheism will eventually take over as modernity progresses, and yet the opposite keeps happening.

I think the human desire for transcendence is a large part of that. But I had better explain what I mean by transcendence. I don't mean necessarily something wild and mystical and out-there, although it can certainly include that. (The extraordinary rise of Pentecostalism that the Atlantic mentions attests to the popularity of such things.) What I'm talking about is the idea of release. Religious traditions from around the world have conceived of humans as living in captivity -- to sin, to suffering, to desire, to self -- and have prescribed how to get free, generally by surrendering to some supernatural being or force. In Buddhism and Hinduism the problem is the illusion of the world itself, which can be escaped by overcoming your attachment to it and joining the oneness of everything. Taoism has a similar idea; by freeing yourself of desires, you can be in harmony with the universe. Christians perceive humans as living in a fallen state enslaved by sin, which can be escaped by accepting Christ. It is a different idea from the Eastern mystics', but release is still the central concept.

It's a strange, paradoxical thing, the idea of finding freedom through submission. The usual American idea of freedom is freedom to pursue your desires, not to lose them; to take control, not to give it up. It's also no doubt true that a lot of people don't experience religion as liberation -- far from it. But while I have not experienced it myself, I have become convinced that it exists. For people in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, pursuing desire and taking control leads to another kind of enslavement, which they escape through religious means. And you don't have to be a drug addict to feel enslaved by yourself. So long as people experience that, religion will always have a place.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Puritan sex - not an oxymoron

A New Republic review includes an excerpt from a Puritan-era marital guide: "...when the husband cometh into the wife's chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements to venery."

Oh yeah.
Killing your children, part 3

I still don't know what happened to Noah's archives, but today he linked to the Sept. 11 post he referred to in the letter.
Playing with numbers

President Bush has approved the biggest defense spending increase since 1982, says Reuters.

This reminds me of an article that was subject to much derision in the blogosphere (mostly deserved), by Woody Harrelson:
I read in a paper here about a woman who held out the part of her taxes that would go to the war effort. Something like 17%. I like that idea, though in the US it would have to be more like 50%. If you consider money as a form of energy, then we see half our taxes and half the US government's energy focused on war and weapons of mass destruction. Over the past 30 years, this amounts to more than ten trillion dollars. Imagine that money going to preserving rainforest or contributing to a sustainable economy (as opposed to the dinosaur tit we are currently in the process of sucking dry).

Other bloggers have already jumped on the bizarre "dinosaur tit" image, so I won't. But actually, a lot of people have a similar idea of how much of the federal budget goes to defense. When I was in journalism school, one of the professors was making a point about the importance of knowing the numbers, and did a quick survey of the class (there were about 15 of us) asking that very question. I actually already knew, because I'm a data geek, but everyone else had exorbitant figures: 50%, 70%, you name it.

Though the Reuters article has a lot of numbers, that's one thing it doesn't have. Since the total federal budget this year is around $2 trillion, and the new defense budget is $355.8 billion, the 17% figure actually applies to the U.S. too. Even at the height of the Reagan buildup in the early 1980s, it was maybe a quarter. Why are people's guesses so off?

Mostly, people overestimate how much money the government is spending on things they don't like. Polls generally show Americans think there's too much money going to foreign aid, but their idea of an appropriate level of foreign aid actually comes in higher than what the government really spends. Conservatives tend to overestimate how much money is going to welfare -- even before the reform, it was never that big a part of the budget.

Part of this, of course, is the good old American suspicion of government. But it also serves a political purpose. In his article, Harrelson revives the old Cold War tactic of pitting the defense budget against stuff he likes -- if only the military weren't taking so much money, we could spend all we want on schools, the environment, etc. It was always a ready answer to that general objection to any utopian idea: we can't afford it. During the 1990s that habit seemed to recede from liberal discourse, the preferred villain being corporate welfare (a more deserving target, really). But now we're at war, and the old standard may be making a comeback.

Also, the media doesn't always do a great job of explaining this stuff. It's easy to report numbers; it's a lot harder to show what they mean. Especially when you're throwing around these millions and billions -- what does that mean to the average person? Not a lot. If my j-school class was a decent sample of journalists, they really need to brush up.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Killing your children, part 2

Noah Millman sent me a nice email that included a comment on my Abraham and Isaac post:
I agree with you that it's a tough text to teach, and while I disagree with much traditional teaching on the text, I agree with tradition that it's an essential text, and that it does no good to say that Abraham in some sense failed his test, that he was "supposed" to object, though that's a tack that a number of contemporary Jewish and Christian commentators have taken. The text very clearly has G-d rewarding Abraham for his actions. In my own reading of the passage, I place enormous stress on Abraham's reply to Isaac during their ascent: G-d will provide the lamb. Abraham's faith is not revealed in the fact that he is willing to kill his son for G-d, but in the fact that, even as he ascends the mountain, even as he lays his son on the altar, he is certain that G-d will not take his son, but will provide - somehow - for his release. That is a faith that, it seems to me, is very easy to relate to, and very relevant for any parent who feels that the right thing to do in a given circumstance is to place his or her child in deadly danger. I wrote something on this theme the week after September 11th; I believe I blogged it on the anniversary.

Which I'd love to see, except...hmmm...where have the man's archives gone? All I'm getting is one week in February.
She drives me crazy

I'm a little alarmed at the paranoid tone in Telford's update header. I gotta give the poor guy a rest! Anyway, I've run out of juice for this discussion and we're not that far apart really, so I'll let him have the last word.

Speaking of creationism, Brink Lindsey points out that today is the world's 6,005th birthday. I don't know about Telf, but I think this means God wants the world to throw one big-ass party. Drinks are on the house, everyone!

Tuesday, October 22, 2002


I decided to brighten up the template a bit, and also created an email for myself, shown to the left. Feel free to send (polite) comments.
Some time ago I remarked to Telford Work that we could do a blog called "Shouting 'Cross the I-5" (after this blog and this blog). I was joking, but it seems like it's already coming to that. Apologies to his students. Anyway, I shall address his points in his order:

First of all, you say "geek" like it's a bad thing. I don't!

A. I think we basically agree here, but I would like to amplify part of my post, which I admit was pretty incoherent. If science resembles a religion, it's not really in the Judeo-Christian sense. The reason "religion" is such a weird category is that it fills a variety of different needs, which different faiths may emphasize or ignore. Contrary to what you say, it does not even inherently require worship--strict classical Buddhism doesn't involve worshipping anything, for instance. But one role that religion has taken is explaining the natural world--how it came to be, and how it works.

The type of religion that most reflects this isn't Christianity but paganism. Most pagan religions that I know about are concerned heavily with the physical world, conceiving of gods who make the rain fall and the winds blow, evil spirits that make people sick, and that sort of thing. There is not the strict division between the natural and supernatural that we moderns are used to. So much of pagan practice (though not all of it) is aimed at worldly ends--making the crops grow, healing illness, hexing enemies and so on. These functions today have largely been taken over by science and technology.

Now some would say that's not really religion--it's magic, superstition, whatever. But I think the reason fundamentalists fight with science is that they read Genesis 1-3 like pagans. And it's not hard to see why; with its talking snake, magic trees and God walking around in the cool of the day, it's probably the most paganish story in the Bible. In fact, despite the long discussion we had about it, I'm not entirely convinced it isn't a pagan story. But whatever its origin, if you see Christianity as primarily a matter of human morality and salvation--as you do--you will read it as a morality tale. The old god-as-commander-of-nature concept is still there, however.

I should also add the observation that others have made, that most people don't completely understand science and technology, so it might as well be mystery and magic. I have not had the time, opportunity or inclination to examine firsthand all the evidence for Darwinism, so to a certain extent I do take in on faith. I wouldn't say this is the same order of faith that you have in Jesus, though.

B. Yes, I was not endorsing that view, but I have certainly encountered it. I think it is pretty common among secular liberals, however they feel about Jews, to have a pretty low opinion of Judaism. I mean, many have a low opinion of Christianity too, but they tend to associate the Old Testament with the most illiberal parts--rigid laws (with draconian punishments), a jealous god who wastes whole cities, and the concept of an ethnic group being "the chosen people."

That's a very reductionist view of the OT, of course. But what's stranger and even more alarming is that several people I've known see Israel's current behavior, and even the existence of Israel itself, as entirely a product of Jewish religious fanaticism. One person I know claimed the Isrealis just marched in and claimed the land "based on a 2,000-year-old book." I don't want to delve into the whole Israel/Palestine thing here, but gawd, the ignorance! He's not the only one, though, who sees a straight line between Jewish monotheism and "chosenness" and human-rights abuses in the West Bank. Never mind geopolitics, or more recent history...but anyway, it's not hard to see how such views could slide into anti-Semitism.

C. Thanks for the elucidation. You're right, I blew the thing off too casually. (And was awfully casual with the writing too--"faithwise it doesn't prove much of anything"? Yeesh.) By the way, a small correction: they didn't actually find James' bones, just the box. There's no indication if it was ever used for its intended purpose.
Noah Millman has a smart post about Intelligent Design theory, which the Ohio school system seems to be edging toward teaching.

This reminds me of the endless debate that goes on about whether science is a religion. Creationists often charge that; the Assemblies of God, for instance, defends its six-day creationism by saying that "...such a literal view of God’s creation process requires no more faith than theories of science–that our world evolved to its current state by the accidental collision of molecules."

This remark shows a rather poor understanding of science, but it's certainly true that scientists have a strong belief in what they do. The National Review article Noah linked to quotes one: "Science is not a viewpoint...There's an objective reality about science."

Science is a belief system, but creationists often misunderstand what it believes in. It is not about being immovably attached to any theory, even evolution. It's a belief in how you learn about the reality of the physical world: through physical observation, experiment, and deductive reasoning. It sounds obvious, but the belief that you can learn about the physical world by physically observing it hasn't always prevailed. Some cultures haven't seen the physical world as important enough to be worth observing closely.

Ideally, science doesn't concern itself with spiritual matters because it's interested only in the material world. But because of science's focus, it's perhaps inevitable that scientists will often be materialists. Materialism (the belief that the physical world is all there is) does not require science--the Charvaka school of Indian philosophy predated modern science by thousands of years, for instance. But science can certainly be made to serve the interests of materialism, and often has been. As Michael Ruse pointed out in the Washington Post recently, "An important part of the propaganda of science was the way in which it was (supposedly) going beyond the superstitions – the witchdoctery – of the past." The myth that the Catholic Church opposed Columbus' voyage because it believed the world was flat (actually, it knew very well that it was round) is one such example of propaganda that's still with us.

Science's belief in physical observation and rational thought gets stretched to the limit when it's studying that most unphysical and irrational of things, the human mind. I was a psych major in college, and I remember how designing experiments always ran into these problems--how do you measure someone's emotion? How do you know if they're telling you the truth? I do think psychology has value, but turning the brain on itself has its hazards. Another recent article says that humanity forms gods because our brains can't cope with randomness--we want to see patterns and purposes in things. But the author of that article has the same sort of brain as the rest of us; what makes him more reliable?

Whether all that makes science a religion depends on your definition of the word. The word "religion" itself is pretty tricky to define: something that embraces Christianity, Buddhism, animism, Confucianism and Scientology is certainly broad. But one thing that's unusual about science is that it's a perpetually unfinished project. The physical world is so vast we could very well spend the rest of human existence exploring it and still not learn everything. That's part of the joy of it, but also the caution: whatever you learn today, you might unlearn tomorrow.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Andrew Sullivan's latest article looks at creeping anti-Semitism on the left. He chalks it up to a general resentment of success, which I think has long been a feature of anti-Semitism, but I would elaborate in a couple ways.

There's been a particular association, going back to the Middle Ages of Jews with money, business and the evils thereof. It's not just the Jews who've suffered from this; other displaced peoples who became successful in business, such as the Armenians in the Middle East, the Chinese in southeast Asia, and the Dioula of west Africa, have suffered similar stereotypes and persecutions. Since the left has long regarded greed as the deadliest of sins, the temptation to identify Jews with evil capitalists is always there.

Another factor, strange as it may sound, is the association of the Jews with the Old Testament, which many secular leftists regard as the "bad" part of the Bible. I've actually heard this from a few different people. I don't have the quote on hand, but a short time ago I read Isaac Asimov saying he felt a certain racial burden being Jewish, because they were responsible for that dangerous one-god idea.

As it is, I think anti-Semitism is still only on the fringes of the left. But the way current events are bringing it out is worrisome.
An archaeologist has turned up what may be the burial box of Jesus' brother. It's interesting, though faithwise it doesn't prove much of anything--that Jesus existed certainly seems likely to me, but whether he was divine is another question. However, the article does mention one scholar who doubts Jesus' historicity, who makes an odd criticism: "It's just too perfect."

So if it were imperfect would it be more believable? Hmm...
Eugene Volokh reports that California lost its poet laureate after he admitted to lying on his resume. Volokh adds, "Between this and the Amiri Baraka incident, it's been a bad few months for poets. Maybe all the parents who warned their daughters not to date poets were right . . . ."

You know, somehow I missed this piece of parental advice. Do a lot of parents say that? Do they tell their sons not to date poetesses? This could be a problem for me...

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Now that Telford Work has been kind enough to link to my blog, some people may actually be reading it, so I'd better get on the ball. Actually, right now I want to blog about Telford himself, since I had the pleasure of meeting him today. I wrote to him a few months ago and we've been steadily corresponding ever since, but we hadn't come face to face until now.

Actually, the trip had two purposes: to meet Telford, and to check out his church, the Christian Assembly. I wasn't raised in any church, but over the years I've attended a few different ones for various reasons. I hadn't been to a Pentecostal one, though. There wasn't any hardcore charismatic stuff going on--no speaking in tongues, no slaying in the spirit or anything--but it was definitely different. Everyone was in casual dress, including the preacher, and about half the service was a singalong musical set by a rock band. Normally when I'm in a church I can fade into the woodwork by just sitting there, but just sitting there this time I felt like a real wet blanket. Everyone else was standing, clapping, raising their hands, and generally whooping it up.

I was aware, when I was corresponding with Telford, that I might form a false image of him that would be let down by reality, so I was trying not to form anything in my mind. But I do think I expected him to be more of a geek. I mean, doesn't his blog sound like the work of a mad professor? Anyway, I wasn't let down, and in fact I think I like him even more now than I did before. But I expect that for a while I'm going to have two Telford Works in my brain: the print one and the 3-D one. I'm sure they'll synthesize eventually.

So church was followed by a very long, very metaphysical lunch, which covered enough topics for several days' worth of blog postings. I think I still have to mentally sort through it to get to where I can blog about it. But there was one thing he said that I didn't pursue, which was nonetheless intriguing. He said he thought the Resurrection is defensible as historical fact, as well as a matter of faith. I have been wondering what his reasons are. If anyone else in the blogosphere has views on this, they would be most appreciated.