Crime as Punishment

Random scene captured by Google Maps Street View feature.

An important theological debate long ago erupted out of a single word in the Greek New Testament. The Pauline Epistles often refer to salvation as “justification” (δικαιοσυνη). That word might mean declaring someone to be righteous even if they’re not, on the basis of faith, or it might mean making someone righteous. Traditional Protestants have always preferred the first, while Roman Catholics (as well as Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, a Protestant) have opted for the second. The Protestant understanding is that God saves us by crediting (imputing) the righteousness of Christ to our (bankrupt) account, saving sinners by canceling their debt of sin. The Catholic view is that salvation is a process of gradual growth, nourished by the sacramental infusion of divine grace.

This is why the Protestant says he is saved “the hour he first believes.” It is why he is confident of going to heaven; he may occasionally slip up and backslide, but Christ’s grace does not change, so there is nothing to fear. The Catholic, on the other hand, says he hopes to be saved when he stands before the throne of God. Salvation is the culmination of the process; hence the Catholic would not think to claim he is already saved. It would be brazen presumption. The Protestant knows he has a long process of sanctification (actually becoming a righteous person) ahead of him, but being justified, being “rightwised,” has already conferred the status of “righteous” upon him through faith, so he feels he is saved already. It’s just got to work itself out from here on in. In the meantime, he rejoices that righteousness has been imputed to him, as a kind of legal fiction. He is already righteous de jure and looks forward to becoming more righteous de facto.

A related question concerns whether sin is imputed to someone who has not yet sinned. Of course, we’re talking about Original Sin. Sure, we all eventually go wrong and do things we know are wrong, things we are ashamed of. Maybe even crimes. But before we sully our consciences by our own acts, does God hold us responsible for the sins of our ancestors, all the way back to Adam and Eve? That is the doctrine of imputed sin, and not all Christians believe in it.

But what interests me here is a paradox worthy of Jacques Derrida: what if de facto wickedness, actual culpable behavior, is (not imputed but) imposed? What if it is, in effect, a punishment rendered to those who have done nothing wrong, a punishment consisting of being made wicked? That is of course counterintuitive, just the reverse of the usual order of things as we view them: someone does something bad, and punishment is inflicted. And that is usually what happens. But there is something else going on in the world.

AccattoneThis first occurred to me when I saw two very challenging, sobering films. The first was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 Accattone (which means “Scrounger”). The title character is a contemptible bastard, a pimp who betrays his wife and steals from his young son. The action takes place amid the awful conditions of post-World War 2 Italy. Eventually the scoundrel is persuaded to straighten up and fly right. He manages to secure honest work, spending all day at back-breaking manual labor for scant wages. It is crushing wage-slavery that he cannot endure. He  goes back to his life of moral squalor. But soon he dies a random, senseless death on the street. In his death scene, Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion begins to play. The ending seems to suggest that every human being, simply as a man, no matter how defiled and ignominious, is to be identified with the Son of Man. His dead-end degradation, his moral dereliction, is his crucifixion. Life itself is a sentence passed upon him.

His criminality is a punishment imposed upon him for no crime already committed. It is not that he is framed and actually innocent. No, that would be bad enough, but the “punishment” is to render the innocent a genuine sinner, a criminal, a low-life and a louse. He starts out innocent (a blank slate) and is then punished by being made immoral, not merely declared immoral whether or not he is. Fallenness is not the crime, but the punishment—for no crime committed.

The other depressing film was Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968). In it, a foreign invasion and/or a fascist takeover reduces a once prosperous and cultured society to near-barbarism. People start casting their previous morality aside in order to survive. Max von Sydow’s character no longer thinks to complain when his wife sleeps with the town commandant to get extra provisions of food and medicine. One learns to deprive one’s neighbors in order to meet one’s own needs. One comes to realize in retrospect that morality was a luxury made possible by affluence. It was like art, literature, and music: nice, even precious, things which must be set aside when the only game in town is sheer survival. If normalcy should return, one may regret what one had to do, but the real regret was having to face the reality that culture and civilization are luxuries, not necessities, when one finds one can no longer afford them.

The grim scarecrows managing to get along in the time of savagery did nothing to invite the great tribulation which forced sub-moral behavior upon them. Their circumstances were not a punishment for any evil they had done. On the contrary, it was imposed on them from out of the clear blue. They were innocent. Then they were punished. And the punishment was being forced into abandoning moral goodness.

I think that the disproportionate crime rates in the black ghetto constitute such a punishment. The habitat long ago became a jungle of desperation and predation. (How? I am no sociologist, but I found the explanation given by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, 1967, pretty persuasive.) But, as in all jungles, there is great danger from predators. It is nature red in tooth and claw. The predators have devolved, as the nice, white Swedes in Bergman’s Shame did, into a pre-moral, amoral state. Ghetto youths are making bad choices, but they are not exactly in a position conducive to considering their options with dispassionate detachment. The ability to do so is one of the luxuries their circumstances have deprived them of. Their crimes are their crucifixion, their dehumanization, their degradation, their paradoxical punishment for nothing they did.

But this does not let them off the hook. Society (especially their fellow ghetto-denizens) must be protected from the predators. What’s the alternative? Can you picture this scenario? “Look, buddy, I guess I ought to arrest you, but your whole life is one big set of mitigating circumstances, so that would be unfair.” But we can’t do that. Society must adopt the legal fiction that the criminal did have a choice, that he did make a culpable decision that he was free not to make, in short, that he was fully responsible for his crimes. We have to dispense “justice” on that basis. Just as actual immorality was imposed upon them, now moral responsibility must be imputed to them, contrary to fact, paralleling the Protestant view of justification: being declared responsible, not being made responsible.

Again, what is the alternative? If we treat malefactors as hapless victims of unchosen circumstances, if we recognize them as “beyond freedom and dignity” (B.F. Skinner), we have no reason not to forcibly recondition them as in Clockwork Orange. Is that better? a-clockwork-orangeBy holding criminals accountable, we may be ascribing greater dignity to them than they (or we!) deserve. For we, too, are surely the products of our conditioning, and the illusions of freedom and dignity serve us pretty well, too. It all means that the whole system of an enlightened and cultured (and fair) society is a game of play-acting. And it’s a game worth playing.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Crime, Racism, Religion | 5 Comments

Mob Violence with your Host, Bob Violence!

american flagg comicBack in the 1980s there was a fascinating comic book called American Flagg (written and drawn by Howard Chaykin). The hero was Reuben Flagg, a former movie star who lost his job when the studio copyrighted his image and could generate it by machine, so they didn’t need him to make new films starring “him.” A lot cheaper that way. You see, this was set in, I think, 2075, coming up on the Tricentennial. The rich had relocated to a terraformed Mars. While they were sitting pretty on the Red Planet, back on earth things were going to hell. Reuben Flagg got a job with the Plexus Rangers as a glorified mall cop. The Plex Malls were the weekly target of hordes of looters. And the ensuing mayhem was the subject of a weekly TV show called Mob Violence, hosted by a guy calling himself Bob Violence. I couldn’t help thinking of this last week as I watched, in disgust, the Ferguson riots. I looked at the calendar and was surprised to see it was only 2014, a good sixty years ahead of schedule.

But the entertainment value of the riots was not theringmaster al sharpton only thing that disturbed me about the fiasco. There are some important implications that I have not yet heard addressed. For one thing, there is the fortress mentality of the rioters and demonstrators—if there’s any difference in this case. I have no trouble recognizing the True Believer, whether religious or political. In fact, any difference is moot, since this “Don’t confuse me with the facts” attitude makes politics into religion. I believe that liberal Progressivism is essentially a religion. It presupposes an intentional obliviousness to the facts of experience, a faith that an improbable agenda and a Utopian vision that has failed many times before will prevail this time if we close our eyes and believe hard enough. That’s just like Pentecostal faith healing. That’s political snake-handling, though more people are likely to die. The evidence showed that the police officer had not murdered Michael Brown, but did the rioters care?

The evidence indicated strongly that the late Mr. Brown was a predatory thug. But the rioters/demonstrators canonized the “Gentle Giant” as a saint, one might say a Trayvon Martyr. At least one hopes they were making the Brown of history into the St. Michael of faith, because if they were, that means they understood that an acknowledged thug would make an implausible martyr. But it might be worse still. I suspect that the rioters knew full well that he was a thug and a thief—and meant to celebrate it! His robberies and his attempt to wrest the policeman’s gun from him were the miracles required for sainthood. Ethics matter not. Crime? No problem! He was black, and that was the only real virtue, and quite sufficient. Policeman Darren Wilson’s crime was simply to have killed a black man.

Of course, had the policeman been black, too, we’d have heard nothing about it. That’s why we hear so very little about black-on-black crime in the inner cities. For you see, even to suggest, as Daniel Moynihan once did, that there is a problem in the black community is considered racist. It’s not Whitey’s business, even as males are supposed to have no right to criticize or to oppose abortion. The ad hominem fallacy has become policy where Identity Politics holds sway.

And if black Americans dare speak out against black-on-black violence, they are considered “Uncle Toms.” They are, like any African American who dares to succeed in mainstream American schools or business, “acting White.” No, we are to understand, it is black to fail, or not to try to succeed, because the preferred dogma is that the System excludes blacks and that the System rewards blacks with success only if they will betray their own people by making it look like the System is not biased against blacks.

Don’t you see what is really at work in the Grand Jury aftermath? Rioters/demonstrators reject the Grand Jury finding that no reason exists to show Officer Wilson acted improperly. No, it had to have been a kangaroo court, because it did not yield the verdict the mob desired. Wilson had to be made a scapegoat for the Obama-Holder-Sharpton agenda. Look at the big picture: the direction this is taking is to render it impossible for any blacks ever to be convicted, since blacks will never accept any verdict as anything but a case of racism, of persecution of black Americans. The jury system becomes moot if it does not exonerate blacks (they can’t be guilty, since they possess the only real virtue: being black) or condemn whites (especially cops), no matter the circumstances, who kill blacks.

This radical ideology ignores the grief and anger of blacks whose sons and siblings are destroyed by black violence, whose businesses are burnt by black rioters. It is not all or even most black Americans who promote this race war agenda. No, it is the work of outsiders and professional agitators, opponents of the American system who are igniting and fanning the flames of every Ferguson. Some are black, true, but many are white Anarchists, Communists, Alinskyites, etc., who are scapegoating blacks, seeking to goad White America to blame their black fellow Americans and thus to create hatred where it had not existed for decades.

charles manson

What these America-hating vermin are doing is exactly like the strategy of Charles Manson. Al Sharpton, Charles Manson: 666 of one, half a dozen of the other. You’ll recall that Charlie did not send his disciples on murder sprees just for the hell of it, as in the movies The Devil’s Rejects and The Strangers. No, Manson, a white racist, was trying to pin the blame for the Tate-La Bianca murders on blacks, hoping to incite a devastating race war that would bring down the hated American system, leaving him in charge. Yes, it was a crazy scheme, but so is that of those race-baiters who set Ferguson on fire.

So says Zarathustra.




Posted in Crime, Politics, Racism | 5 Comments

I Slam lslam

the messageI have taught Religions of the World for over thirty years. I’m teaching it again right now. I once declined to join a secular humanist educational project because their approach toward the religions was shrill and snotty. I couldn’t take that approach and retain my scholarly integrity. The first principle of teaching World Religions is to try to represent the religion, each religion, from the inside, as (you imagine) it seems to its adherents. I always assign an essay requiring students to choose one of the religions we cover and imagine how their lives would change if they converted to it. This approach to teaching Comparative Religion tends to incline those who take it to embrace a personal belief that, even with all their differences, the various faiths are all “true” in some sense. Each seems to do its job for those who embrace it. One thus becomes a supporter of all religions, savoring their artistry (including the cognitive artistry of their theologies), their exoticism, and their idioms of spirituality. I have long affirmed this approach, even as an atheist and humanist. But I am learning to make exceptions.

I have always taken a dim view of the pothead Rastafarians. Not much of a fan of the murderous Thugee (though that’s safe to say since their sect is extinct). Satanism is not an issue here: the pulp fiction stereotype is, appropriately, a fiction. Real Satanists are just theatrical humanists, believing in neither god nor devil. Om Shinrikyo was a nasty bunch, dedicated to clearing the earth of human beings to prepare the way for the return of ancient gods (which also sounds like pulp fiction, but it’s not: these creeps pumped Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system).

Then there are sects that have undeserved bad reputations because of media vilification, like the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. (They receive the same treatment as the Tea Party.) These folks get slandered for the same reason groups like Om Shinrikyo get ignored or not taken seriously when the issues of religious pluralism and relativism come up. They are not “our” religions, not mainstream religions with large constituencies that we don’t want to offend. But I think these faiths must be factored into the equation.

Think of the parallel situation in party politics. Our Constitution has nothing to say about a two-party system, but it defines democracy as we practice it. There are all kinds of political parties out there, some of which manage to garner enough signatures to make it onto the ballot: Socialist, Progressive Labor, American, Communist, Natural Law, Libertarian, you name it. But they get no air time. Because they receive no coverage, we end up with a skewed view of the democratic system. A high school history teacher of mine (Mr. Faller at Bloomfield High, I think it was) once remarked on the irony of our criticizing the Soviet Union for being a one-party state. You could choose from a slate of candidates—all of them Communists. Okay, in the USA, you can choose between candidates representing a big two parties! Big difference. Libertarians make this point all the time, adding that Democrats and Republicans are pretty much one party anyhow.

So is our democracy really what we say it is? Maybe not. Likewise, is our respectable, liberal religious pluralism-relativism what we think it is? Does its apparent viability depend upon a convenient oversimplification? We have to deal the barbaric religions into the game and ask if we can give them all equal honor, as we do Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Because if we had to admit some of them are unacceptable, wouldn’t that render invalid the whole “super-ecumenical respect for everything” (as my Montclair State professor Steve Johnson called it)? I think it would. I think it does. And it is Islam that has forced me to face this question. For I am thinking more and more that Islam is more like Om Shinrikyo than it is like Christianity or Hinduism.

There. I said it. And I will say more.

I regard Islam as a religion of barbarism, a self-confessed death cult, a great step backward in the evolution of religion. It marks a return to the bloodthirsty fanaticism of Joshua and Samuel in Bronze Age Israel. One cannot separate a religion from the culture for which it forms the ideological glue. Islam arose amid scimitar-swinging, slave-trading Arab barbarism. I’m not saying it simply stopped there. When a religion spreads beyond its cultural cradle, it mutates. It moderates. It begins to shed some of the features that once fit best (or at all) in its original milieu.

This means its members, amid new surroundings, try to assimilate, downplaying (by reinterpreting) the newly offensive aspects of the religion that no one found scandalous back home. You see this, for instance, in Jewish documents from the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world. The Epistle of Aristaeus, for instance, written in Greek for Gentiles and assimilating Diaspora Jews, tries to make kosher laws look less silly to outsiders by interpreting them as customs aimed at shielding ancient Israelites from corrosive pagan influences in their environment.

(This was probably true, by the way, but to admit it is already an accommodation to intellectual secularism. This is the issue between Pauline and Jewish Christians in the New Testament: the former viewed Torah regulations as Jewish identity markers unnecessary for Gentiles converting to Christianity, while Jewish Christians deemed those “customs” as the non-negotiable Word of God binding upon all Christians, Jewish or Gentile.)

Other Hellenized Jews took it even further, allegorizing ceremonial laws (like the ban on eating mice!) as if they taught moral lessons in some way. Some even thought that, once you understood those lessons, you needn’t bother with literal observance. How convenient! Nothing standing in the way of going to that pig-picking in your Gentile neighbors’ back yard! “Sure we’re Jews! And, er, damn proud of it. Gimme another shrimp cocktail, will you?” The more you were a good Roman, the more you had to shave from your Judaism. That’s the logic of assimilation. And that’s why assimilation is such a contentious issue in religions today. Faced with it, some will double down on tradition, since they can see it slipping (or stampeding) away. This is what occasioned the Hasmonean revolt against Jewish cooperation with the Seleucids’ Hellenization program. And this accounts for the rise of militant Islam in the world today (in case you hadn’t noticed).

Once you understand this dynamic of evolution-via-assimilation prompting a recrudescence of the original tradition, you can see the fallacy in one of the major arguments of apologists on behalf of both liberal Christianity and moderate Islam. Marty E. Marty (the very poster-boy for namby-pamby, “standing for nothing, offending no one” liberal Protestantism) refers to what he calls “the Walter Kaufmann Fallacy.” Kaufmann (The Faith of a Heretic) ruthlessly criticized theologians and clergy, scripture and creeds. Marty felt Kaufmann was being unfair and trying to make it easy for himself by employing the Fallacy of Bifurcation: he sought to force his readers into eliminating any “third option” of moderate, reasonable religion, so they’d see the choice as between superstitious stupidity on the one hand and unbelieving rationalism on the other.

Moderates, Kaufmann argued, were just diluting their faith into a “safe” pretense. Liberal apologists like 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher tried to launder Christianity to make it acceptable to “the cultured despisers of religion.” Neo-Orthodox theologian and preacher Rudolf Bultmann insisted that the New Testament must be demythologized to make Christianity amenable to “modern man.” You see where this is headed. Conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis mocked this approach as “Christianity and water.” J. Gresham Machen measured the vast distance between historic Christian belief (what Clark H. Pinnock would call “classical Christianity”) and liberal Protestant Modernism, concluding that Modernism was Christian in name only (and that it was, in effect, a case of trademark violation). Ultra-liberal theologian Don Cupitt has admitted as much, proposing that “Christianity is our Old Testament.”

Postmodern apologists for liberal, moderating approaches to religion mount an argument similar to Marty’s. They reject what they call an “essentialist” approach. Who is to say what is “Christianity proper,” “true Buddhism,” or “essential Islam”? They bemoan books like Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (in the original German, bearing the same title as Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity). There is no “essence,” no “proper” or “true” version, of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, or anything else. To say that there is, is merely to claim the crown for one’s own favorite version.

Today, when Multiculturalist apologists (excuse-makers) for Islam hurl accusations of “Islamophobia” against anyone who dares to criticize Islam, they try to discount Islamic savagery as some kind of distortion of “true Islam” (as witness our theologian-in-chief: “ISIS is not Islamic.”). No, they say, “real” Muslims are gentle folk quietly running falafel stands on your local street corner. This is of course itself an essentialist argument. Consistent essentialists say there simply is no “true Islam,” but this is really saying the same thing: that you can’t condemn “Islam” since there is no such thing. Sure, there are mass-murdering rapists who carry a pocket edition of the Koran in their ammunition belt, but that’s pretty much a coincidence. You wouldn’t want to “profile” Muslims as terrorists—or terrorists as Muslims!

What gives the lie to this nonsense is the dynamic of assimilation-and-reaction. Religions moderate by virtue of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, jettisoning their original principles, no longer being true to themselves. That’s the whole point of it!

Moderate Muslims in America (like the innocuous, head scarf wearing teenager in the i-phone commercial, or smiling giant Shaquille O’Neill hawking Gold Bond, whatever the hell that is) are good Americans precisely insofar as they take Islam less seriously. Just read the damn Koran. Look at Islamic origins and history. When mealy-mouthed “moderate Muslims” tell us that jihad has nothing to do with killing infidels but refers only to the pious individual’s spiritual struggle, we are hearing either disingenuous spin (cynical PR worthy of Josh Ernest and Jay Carney) or hopelessly naïve ignorance.

Consider the claim that Islam is “the religion of peace.” The word “Islam” does mean “peace” but in the sense of “pacification, submission.” Submission to Allah, which of course means submission to his self-appointed representatives. It’s not abstract, but concrete. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to submit to these cavemen. Nor did the people whom the first, founding generation of Muslims conquered. Today’s Jihadis are merely returning to the roots of their religion, in contrast to “moderate” Muslims who have modernized, i.e., compromised, accommodated.

Look where all liberalizing religions inevitably and logically end up: approaching closer and closer to humanism. They increasingly slough off all that once gave them a distinctive character. They come ultimately to see their identity in terms of (sentimental) liberal politics, moral permissiveness, and watered-down beliefs. As far as I can see, from my forty years of study, all that is left to them is “faith” as permission to ignore the practical results of their favorite policies. (I call it “political snake-handling.”) Self-righteous “people of faith” endorse utopian courses of action, heedless of real-world consequences, since taking them into account would be “worldly.” Faith means they can be as innocent as doves, but no longer as wise as serpents.

I have come, very reluctantly, to award the title of “real Islam” to the savages, that bubbling lava pit of primitives howling for the blood of cartoonists, beheading passers-by, “honor-killing” rape-victims, mutilating female genitalia, suicide-bombing Israeli schools, machine-gunning people for getting Western haircuts, and so on. The great shame of the decadent West is our pathetic kowtowing to such virulent barbarism. “Thank you, effendi! May I have another!”

And here is another sense in which “Moderate Muslims” are well-assimilated Americans: they are just as cowardly. They have fled the field of the contest for the right to define Islam. They have surrendered the copyright to the savages and the primitives. Thus they just don’t count. They are like the Germans who, while not actually card-carrying Nazis, knew about the deportation of Jews but raised no note of protest. By their silence, they say, “It’s okay with me.” They have taken the mark of the Great Beast.

But even these cowards (and secret sympathizers) are not as bad as “useful idiots” like Ben Affleck, Karen Armstrong (who surely ought to know better!), and others who regard “Islamophobia” as a greater menace than Islamo-fascism (which, unlike the former, actually exists).

 A few years ago I was out in Dearborn, Michigan, where I strolled with great interest through a sprawling street fair run by the large local Islamic community. I was (and remain, despite all I have said here) fascinated with Islamic history and theology, and I rejoiced to see the shining pride of these people, showing off the tokens of their heritage. For a long time, the memory of this experience ameliorated my increasing antipathy for Islam. But then I started hearing that some Muslims at one of these fairs stoned a group of (admittedly obnoxious) Christian evangelists. Oh well…

So says Zarathustra.

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The Decline of the Best

This morning I saw on the news that a British politician bemoaned multiculturalism and its poisonous fruits as a result of Britain (and, by extension, America) having abandoned God. Usually this kind of statement exasperates me, but the more I listened, the more I saw his point. And, though I am not a theist, I suspect he is right in his diagnosis, though not in his implied prescription. You’re not going to like this.

I believe the politician was talking about what the great sociologist-theologian Peter L. Berger called “the Sacred Canopy.” Traditional societies were insular. The Sacred Canopy is the system, the hierarchy of values and beliefs of such a society. Each more, each law, each custom, each belief, each assumption is another brick in the vault ceiling. They all support one another; the practices are legitimatized by the values, which in turn are legitimatized by the beliefs. The ultimate punch line is that the gods gave the laws to Moses, Hammurabi, Muhammad, etc. Of course the laws were the invention of entirely human elders and ancestors, not of gods. Like the framers of our Constitution, the elders knew the laws were their own ad hoc invention. But they passed them on to the next generation who did not create them but merely received them. Invention magically becomes tradition. The human elders who bestow the laws upon the next generation are the real-life analogues to the mythic deities who are imagined to have issued the laws and to guarantee not only their validity but also the punishment of those who transgress (at least that’s the threat). It’s called priestcraft when you are the ones who set the system up in the name of the gods. But when that second generation inherits their elders’ position and authority, they do so with sincere belief in the gods and in their own god-given mandate.

When the pre-Socratic Sophists, having traveled outside of Athens, returned, they told people what they had learned, namely, that the way they do things in Athens isn’t necessarily the way they do things over in Sparta, much less in Egypt or Babylon. And what makes us think the Athenian way is “the” right one? Don’t they think the same in those other places? The erosion began.

Did you ever see the TV miniseries/DVD Pillars of the Earth? In it, much effort goes into the building of a medieval cathedral. Finally ready, the structure opens its doors to the public. Worshippers pour in, gazing up to the hemispherical ceiling. And then the bricks start descending, and everyone who is not beaned by the liberated stones makes a beeline for the exits. It was to prevent such collapses that architects used to insert the keystone at the very top of the dome. Pull that out, and gravity seizes the day. Look out below!

God is the keystone. Pull it out and everything else will collapse. That was the British politician’s point, I think. But is that collapse inevitable? Well, at least not immediately. We might adopt the stance of the Sophists. Perceived as subversives, they did not actually attack Athenian tradition, lock, stock, and barrel. They were pragmatic: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just because “our” system is not uniquely valid, no better than others, that doesn’t make it invalid. Sure, there is room for improvement, but why be so disillusioned with the old claims of divine sanctions that you throw out the baby with the bathwater? This chastened stance allows you to accept the ways of others if they don’t impinge upon yours.

But suppose societies begin to interpenetrate, e.g., via trade and immigration? Pluralism eventually morphs into fragmentation. It represents the taking into the very heart of one’s society the tolerance of the Other, so that everyone is the Other. No more social identity, no more coherent worldview. No transcendent sanction or reason for our ways. No more “our” ways. In our case, look at the polarization on matters like abortion, healthcare, euthanasia. There seems no longer to be a common ground from which to settle these issues.

We were able to delay the shattering of the American Sacred Canopy by the clever expedient of creating a second, secular religion, the so-called Civil Religion that united us as Americans with a common heritage and value system. This was the model of the Social Compact or Social Contract. Again, purely pragmatic: maximize freedom for all, limiting freedom only when it would impinge upon another’s. No revelation claimed or needed. But now that, too, has broken down. Our society harbors fundamentally different values and interests, our populations making their American identity secondary to their ethnic identities, no longer willing to assimilate into the Melting Pot. Someone said the Melting Pot has become the Salad Bowl, but I think it has become the Compost Heap.

Why are Jihadists such a threat to the rest of us? Because they still have a Sacred Canopy, Sharia Law based (they think) upon divine revelation. We have none. We cannot agree even to defend our way of life and culture, since powerful interests within our country reject key aspects of it. Socialism, environmentalism, isolationism, multiculturalism, Political Correctness all make fundamental agreement on urgent matters nearly impossible.

Of course our enemy need not be Islamic (or Christian) theocracy. One can propound a totalitarian agenda without God. Political Correctness, with its speech codes, its constant ad hominem attacks on dissenters, its ludicrous charges of racism, the corruption of the press as the government’s propaganda bureau, the government’s mandated menus, the militant atheist jihad against public expressions of religion—or even of patriotism: all this is the intolerant Sharia of the Left.

Leftists protest that they are not anti-American, but anyone who advocates being a “citizen of the world,” “thinking globally and acting locally,” is admitting that he is opposed to putting his own country’s interests first. It is all right with him if other countries to put their people’s interests first. The same principle underlies the double standard of “diversity.” It is the blindness of the freshman anthropology student who, impressed with the variety of world cultures, concludes that all are valid—except ours. Multiculturalism is “World Citizenship” writ small: the replacement for patriotism. Everybody but us.

Of all the labels I might choose, I prefer “freethinker” to “atheist” or “humanist.” And I recognize that the very trends dissolving the American community are the result of individualism and free thinking. People are unwilling to be told they owe allegiance to anything anymore. The greatest axiom is “Question authority.” This is why church attendance is rapidly shrinking. Not that I mind. In fact, I have always urged people to think for themselves, to question authority, to be individuals. I love seeing a herd of cats, as they say. I take people as individuals, and so I can sympathize with liberals who want to show compassion for illegal immigrants, even imprisoned terrorists. They are people, individuals, no matter what category we place them in, and people per se deserve respect and compassion. But I am aware that this concentration on the trees obscures the forest. There is a Bigger Picture that we ignore at our peril.

I am afraid that the truth may not work. I think there is no God. It may well be that, for the sake of maintaining the Sacred Canopy, we do need a God, but that doesn’t mean there is one. But even if, for the sake of social, moral, and political consistency, you wanted all Americans to return to God, it’s way too late for that.

Secularists and Progressives do not see things this way. I have loved and lived by radical individualism ever since I watched Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner back in 1968. Let a hundred flowers bloom. In fact, let six billion flowers bloom. But what if we face an existential threat? Is it really an invasion of privacy to require AIDS or Ebola testing? To profile Arab airline passengers?

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some needs kick in only once the basic needs for health and safety are squared away. Joining an orchestra to play the violin is not the best idea if we need people to join an army to defend a society that appreciates orchestras. Otherwise, one is fiddling while Rome burns.

I think there is a natural cycle: the more enlightened and sensitive a people becomes, the greater its danger, the sooner it will fall before the assaults of barbarians. Sophistication breeds self-absorbed decadence. When a society becomes little more than a debating society, it becomes paralyzed. That’s us. When we are too good (or too preoccupied) to fight our enemies, we invite evil to prevail. And it is our very virtues that will have made us impotent.

When a civilization allows itself to become too civilized, taking advantage of its leisure to amuse itself with hyperbolic morality and theoretical, ivory tower ideological fantasies far removed from reality, it is living in a bubble that is asking to be popped. And soon the Klingons will arrive to pop it. It is an eternal pendulum swing, for the triumphant barbarians will eventually kick back and enjoy the opium dreams of over-sophistication—until some younger, more virulent group of savages shows up to dump them out of their padded wheelchairs.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Politics, Religion | 13 Comments

Tolerating Intolerance?

The other day I received a typically interesting e-mail for The Bible Geek podcast.  I  thought it would be good to address it here. Dan Mangum wrote:

You often point out that you are not concerned about the religious belief someone may hold. You are not alone, and this opinion is common.  On the surface it seems logical, reasonable, as well as pragmatic. 

I don’t agree. My concern is that a religious belief frequently carries with it quite a bit of baggage. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have said they don’t care about an individual’s personal belief but with the caveat that they just don’t want those beliefs forced upon them or others. Yet part of their belief system for many requires or demands that they try and convert others to their religion.  Belief systems can promote profound scientific ignorance from denial of evolution to denial of global warming. If we are in the End Times, as many evangelicals seem to believe, why would they worry or care about global warming?  Some beliefs, as you know, hold that the Bible is inerrant and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Some belief systems may fight vehemently against gay rights and birth control, some treat women as second class or worse, while others may consider it their duty to kill those of different beliefs or even those of the same beliefs, including honor killings. 

My point is perhaps we should no longer say that it is OK for someone to believe what they want (or are told) to believe, particularly when the consequences of those same beliefs can lead to some horrible actions and outcomes.

I invite Dan to correct me if I have misread him, but I think he is saying that we should not retreat into too-tolerant relativism, to say that all viewpoints are equally true or equally wholesome. I agree with him. In my remarks to which he refers, all I mean to say is that, in polite, civil society I say “Live and let live.” I do not consider it my duty to try to convert individuals I meet to my beliefs (or lack of beliefs). It is simply none of my business. This is quite different, as I see it, from exchanging ideas in print, when the point is to share opinions in theoretical terms. Even when I debate “opponents,” I do not consider them enemies. Usually I find I can become friends with them after the debate (or between debates). I am happy to call Greg Boyd, Gary Habermas, Bob Siegel, and others friends. I feel that theoretical disagreements should not get in the way.

But I draw my circle of friends and friendly acquaintances even wider, numbering among them a whole gallery of Catholic traditionalists, fundamentalists, Satanists, Communists, Moonies, New Agers, Ahmadis, you name it. It would not cross my mind to try to convert them to my views. I am all the more stimulated and enriched by their views the more different they are from mine. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

What about science denial? I think it is unfortunate for fundamentalists to deny evolutionary biology, but really what difference does it make? None until Creationist organizations try to get public schools to teach Creationism/Intelligent Design alongside evolution. And then what to do? Go to court! That is the proper venue, and so far it has worked pretty well. “Witnessing” to individuals that they should accept Charles Darwin as their personal savior is only going to make you into a jerk.

(By now, you probably are aware of my skepticism toward the Politically Correct doctrine of Global Warming. Go right ahead and try to shame me as a heretic for questioning Progressivist apocalypticism. I believe that is the custom. But I don’t want to derail the discussion by pursuing that here.)

The West has gotten itself into real big trouble in the last decades by tolerating intolerance. I once had a parishioner whose husband was undergoing treatment, including radical surgery, for throat cancer brought on by smoking. The guy was a smoking fanatic, and he kept puffing even after this. But there wasn’t very much “after.” He died from the cancer he had enthusiastically invited into his body. And that is what Europe has done by welcoming Muslims to come in and set up ethno-religious enclaves with no intention of assimilating to the host culture. More and more these immigrants demand special privileges up to and including their own Sharia laws and law courts. In Pauline terms, they demand that the state cater to the “weaker brethren” by making everyone else (the native French, Dutch, Swedes, Britons, etc.) observe their Islamic restrictions, e.g., skipping the Holocaust in history classes because it might offend Muslim kids who have been catechized to believe it never happened—but should again. (I know there have been false rumors about this, but also true reports). Or removing menu items from restaurants for fear of Muslims boycotting their establishments. And, of course, allowing the public propagation of Jihadi hate-speech. Newspapers shy away from criticizing Islamic violence for fear they may be its next objects. So much for free speech.

That man I mentioned should have stopped smoking once it became clear what the costs might be, and Europe should have reversed its tolerance of intolerance years ago now. These days, they are taking a second look, but, short of mass deportations, whatever they do will probably be too late. We in the United States are not as far gone yet, but the PC “useful idiots” would rather be martyred for the sake of self-surrendering “toleration” and Multiculturalism even if it means endangering the very Western ethic that prompts them.

(Deportations? Wouldn’t that be sweeping with too broad a broom? Wouldn’t you be exiling many innocents along with the dangerous few? No doubt you would. But ask yourself: doesn’t that argument allow terrorists, in effect, to hide behind human shields? We’re talking about emergency situations.)

Remember, our American toleration and celebration of diversity is a function of our Social Compact system, which means we maximize, not absolutize, personal freedom. “Your freedom ends at my nose.” That’s pretty simple. We should not fear we are guilty of bigotry or intolerance when we say, “You’re welcome to believe in Islam as long as you behave yourselves.” And we’d better be ready to say it. Same goes for the (numerically tinier) Christian Identity lunatics. And the (slightly more numerous) Christian Reconstructionists and Dominionists who are armchair theocrats (thankfully repudiated even by most fundamentalists).

The Social Compact means the limitation of freedom just as much as it does the enjoyment of freedom, because, without the limits to define it, we lose freedom. Just like traffic laws, right? You can travel anywhere, but you gotta stay in the correct lane!

Back in New Jersey I was pleased to make friends with the local Imam and a member or two of his congregation. I even had him speak in my Sunday service. I still would. I have no problem with anyone’s beliefs, even if I think they are groundless. I only have a problem with bad behavior, behavior that inhibits the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Politics, Religion | 14 Comments

Nietzsche versus the Nanny State

neitzsche vs nanny state

Recently my wife Carol appeared on the radio program Equal Time for Freethought. The topic was the Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby, a “closely held” corporation (i.e., owned and run by a single family). The court agreed that the fundamentalist Green family did not have to violate their conscience by having to provide employees abortafacient methods of birth control (while happily providing 16 other methods that prevent conception rather than nipping it in the bud). I don’t want to get into that issue here, though I agree with the Court’s ruling. Instead, I want to focus on the reaction the other panelist had when Carol dared venture the opinion that advocates of the Nanny State are catering to a lack of moral fibre on the part of those dependant on it and thus reinforcing it. Instead, people ought to be taught to think critically, Carol said, to make good life decisions, and to learn self-reliance rather than being addicts co-dependant on a government only too happy to reattach them to the umbilical cord—rather like the human batteries in The Matrix, exploited by the Machines which keep them in a blissful coma.

Carol had uttered unspeakable blasphemy in the ears of today’s Liberals. It is impermissible to suggest that anyone is to blame for their disadvantages. Such a stance is understandable. Liberals rightly loathe the practice of “blaming the victim,” damning the poor for their poverty, as if they were simply lazy when in fact they are “lost and afraid in a world they never made.” An excellent dismantling of such cruel prejudice is available in the still-enlightening book Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. For fear of allowing this aspersion ever to be cast again, Liberals jeer at any suggestion that the victim has ever brought it on himself. And I think their alternative is insidious. Carol was right.

I believe the Liberal approach closely reflects that of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. This therapeutic ideology requires those who seek help to start by admitting their utter helplessness, their absolute powerlessness. Anything short of that would hold out false hope to the addict. One thus evades responsibility and the resultant guilt. Every Twelve Stepper takes refuge amid a plausibility structure of the like-minded. “If you won’t blame me for my failings, I won’t blame you for yours. Isn’t that great?” It would be dangerous for such a person and such a group to recognize any case of a person who simply (though not easily) broke with his addictions by sheer force of will. Such a case of moral heroism would tend to debunk their crucial tenet: an addict is helpless outside the womb of the group, and without dependence upon a “Higher Power,” which, a la Durkheim, is a mystification of the group. Its tangible avatar is your “sponsor.” In the case of the Nanny State, the Higher Power is of course the government itself, even the current President. But the government actually plays the role of the addicts’ enabler.

I cannot help seeing the whole business as a perfect manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Slave Morality. One seeks to escape responsibility by fleeing into the open arms of others who are happy to embrace an identity of mediocrity, victimhood, and mutual low expectation. Again, “If you don’t hold me accountable, I won’t hold you accountable.” We’re all “good” because no one is, or can be, good. And no one better expose the scheme! If anyone should recognize his own potential, presupposed in and presupposing his responsibility and guilt (Kant: “‘I ought’ implies I can.’”), and strike out on his own, recognizing himself as his Higher Power, the self-satisfied dwellers in the Platonic cavern will try to take him down, to persuade him that he is arrogant and that he is a doomed Icarus, sure to crash. Better to remain safe within the anthill of the happily mediocre. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra exhorted such potential Supermen not to suffer themselves to be stung to death by a cloud of biting gnats. Shoo them away and excel!

Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” was nothing sinister but only recognized the need for the Superman (why not you?) to cease acquiescing in the values of John Q. Public (what Heidegger called “das Mann”) and decide for himself. This marks a transition many people never make: the breaking with conventional moralism and the preachments of authority figures, the assuming of one’s own moral autonomy and responsibility.

To bring this back to the race issue, can there be a better example of the Slave Morality than the tendency of African-Americans to ostracize their members who manage to excel and to succeed in the larger society? Condoleezza Rice is an example, Colin Powell is another. Black school children are persuaded to think that to succeed represents a selling out to an oppressive White culture, and that anyone who does that is “acting White.” Race-baiters like Al Sharpton encourage such belief, implying that black failure is a badge of fidelity and authenticity. But it is instead the sickening spectacle of blacks internalizing the worst propaganda of the Ku Klux Klan: “Blacks must fail; just watch them fail. See?” But this is the Slave Morality, the huddling together of a frightened crowd under the umbrella of a creed of self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. “Don’t tell me I can succeed, because then I will have to feel guilty if I don’t try.”

African-Americans of this pathetic persuasion like to condemn successful black individuals as “Uncle Toms” or “house niggers.” But this is to transvalue values in the wrong direction, calling success failure so that if an African American acquiesces in failure and poverty he has “succeeded” and can praise himself to the strains of Gangsta Rap (though those rappers seem to have succeeded in Whitey’s world pretty well). If someone breaks out of this socio-mental ghetto and makes some money, he has failed! That’s just where the KKK wants them! I view someone like TV business guru Charles Payne as one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Payne was harassed and rebuked by neighborhood children for trying to do well in school. But he pressed on and succeeded. He is the Superman who shooed away the stinging gnats.

But it’s not just the KKK who wants American blacks to fester in defeat and failure. It’s the government, too. Obviously. They pretend to meet the needs of the helpless while enabling their dependence and, in classic Twelve-Step fashion, assuring their target group (ideally, everyone) that they are all helpless. It is like Bonhoeffer’s scathing remark that Christian evangelists in a post-religious age must circle like vultures, seizing on the feeble—and trying to convince everyone else that they, too, are feeble. Such Christians are like the peddlers of a medicine show elixir, trying to sell the audience the notion that they are sick with an ailment only their elixir can cure. And so is the government, as they actively seek to recruit more and more to the welfare rolls and to flood the country with the wretched of Central America. “We’re your friends! And you’re going to vote like your friends vote!” Why kill the governmental goose that lays the golden egg?

Who is the Superman? Are there only a few exceptional individuals? If they can be so characterized, then people like Charles Payne become exceptions that prove the rule. But that was the opposite of Nietzsche’s point. The Superman is anyone who resolves no longer to dwell among the indistinguishable, passive, unmotivated, and self-despising mass. Don’t get me wrong: certainly there are genuine cases, loads of them, of inescapable oppression and insurmountable odds. But I’d prefer to make that conclusion after I try to transcend my limitations, not before. And that’s when I take Camus’s Sisyphus as my model.

So says Zarathustra.

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The Sixties!

Robert M. Price 60th birthday essay

I really enjoyed the Sixties, that is, the 1960s, and I’m planning on enjoying my own imminently impending sixties, as I am about to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.

Get ready for possibly the weirdest, even stupidest, analogy you’ve heard in a long time. Half a century ago, I was standing in front of an octagonal orthodontist building, waiting for my mom to pick me up. I was reading a kid-version, heavily illustrated, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. It mentioned that Henry Jekyll was 60 years old. I remember that it struck me how being sixty was not really being “old.” You’d have to be, I guessed, 70 or 80 before that geriatric reproach would apply. I’ve always looked at it that way ever since. And that’s good, since I’m going to enter “the 60s” about three days from now!

Well, a day or two ago (when, exactly? My memory is fading—you know how that goes!), I had a Heideggerian moment of clarity: I was about to cross the border into the ripe old age of sixty, a milestone of—what? Decrepitude? Maturity? I don’t know, but that much closer to the grave at any rate. And, just as quickly, it popped into my gray head that this passage would also be a kind of new birth into a new stage of life. And that thought, in turn, brought me back to that day long ago when I was reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because it was at age sixty that Jekyll transformed into his evil alter ego. Yes, sixty was the age of rebirth all right! But into what?

In several ways, I feel I am just reaching my stride: creative abilities and literary prolificacy (or is that “prolixity”?) seemingly undiminished, with widening opportunities to communicate my message, whatever that is. I would like to be able to enter real retirement and return to the magical paradise of earlier years when I passed the time within a bubble of entertainment and the fantastic imagination. I still read a good bit of Lovecraft, science fiction, etc., as I once did, but there is less time for it even within the borders of the kingdom of what Lin Carter used to call “Happy Magic” I love writing fiction, editing horror anthologies and suchlike, but even these things are “business” after a fashion.

It is a burden, though a light one, to have contributions to make. But this sense of (happy) obligation only multiplies when it comes to my biblical-critical work: writing books, hosting podcasts, etc. I have things to contribute to the discussion. On the one hand, I feel I owe it to the future to add what I can to the body of scholarship. On the other, especially since I am getting older, I need to make whatever mark I can while I can, in lieu of any likely immortality. Maybe I’ll be able to “survive” a little bit longer as a collection of footnotes.

Not that it matters in the long run. I am living for today and much enjoying it. And one big reason for that is the nature of my life’s progress. That is, despite my talk of rebirth and life passages, I do not really perceive myself to have become a new creature as I have accumulated years. No ending to previous life-worlds as I began the next. There has not been a moment when I felt obliged to “put away childish things” as C.S. Lewis did the day he decided he had grown up and took the trouble to put his toys in a box and bury them in the ground. (If I did that, just try to imagine the size of the box, the crate, the cargo container it would take!) No, by contrast, I experience my growth (and dare I say “maturation”?) as a tree gaining new, concentric rings: not sloughing off earlier selves but augmenting them. I have not abandoned, not even lost interest in, comic books and superheroes, pulp fiction and monster movies. If anything, I love them more than ever since I can more deeply fathom their depths (when, as very often, they do have depths). I have never put aside my interest in religion, even though I regard my dropping of religious faith as a significant step of maturity. As you know, I continue to love the scriptures and theologies of all the religions.

I have, I think, left behind various quirks of emotional immaturity. I have sought to grow in character. I have savored new dimensions of family love, adding my devotion to Carol and my pride in Victoria and Veronica to my love for my wonderful parents, now gone, Mable and Noel Price. I have rejoiced at strengthening ties with my brother and my brothers-in law and my mother-in-law. You’ll never convince me, despite my rabid individualism (much of which I owe to Patrick McGoohan), that the family unit is not the bedrock of a healthy society (which I guess we don’t have anymore).

I recall how my brilliant, trying, and crotchety parishioner Bill Guenther didn’t give a damn what anybody thought of whatever he saw fit to say. I liked that about him. And I consider that attitude a valuable perk of getting older, becoming a “senior citizen” (though I’m guessing you’ll probably want to refer to me as a “sophomore” rather than a “senior”). I have a head start. For years I have been happy to say (and write) things that make people cringe. I tried my best in earlier years to conform to the “success” protocols, but I found that just wasn’t going to work for me. Instead, I learned the truth enunciated on the concluding episode of The Prisoner: “We thought you would be happier as yourself.” And I am. Much. And I plan on being that way, as ridiculous as it may seem to some, for a few decades more. How about you?

So says Zarathustra.

 Dr Jekyll and Dr. Price

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Giving Voice to the Image of the Beast

God's billboards

Today I drove past another of those black billboards with white typewriter letters forming cute little remarks like, “If you think it’s hot now, wait’ll you get to hell.” Or “Let’s meet at my place Sunday before the game,” signed “God.” The one I saw today said, “There’s no downside to a relationship with me.” Again, God. Not only do such billboards constitute yet more trivialization of the Christian religion by Christians; they also raise more serious questions, not to mention greater ironies.

Anyone familiar with the work of Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, Richard Bauckham, and Mike Licona knows how vociferously they resist the notion that early Christians would have coined sayings, then fathered them on Jesus to give them greater authority (anybody gets trumped by the Son of God). And the apologists have the same motivation: they want to convince you that you have to believe the statements ascribed to Jesus in the Bible. The early Christians knew nobody would believe and obey something they told you on their own authority, namely no authority. So they used the Jesus character as a ventriloquist dummy. And today’s apologists are doing the same thing. “Jesus” is the megaphone for the opinions of mere mortals. There’d be no reason to believe them, so they hide behind the curtain in the special effects booth, thundering their dictates as if they came from God, AKA the Great and Powerful Oz.

I find it hilariously ironic and very revealing that their own people are doing just what evangelical apologists maintain the New Testament Christians never did. These billboards are created by evangelicals who have no qualms about making up cute sayings of their own and slapping “God” under them.

“Oh, but they don’t really mean that somebody, in some prophetic trance, heard the Hestonian voice of God! They figure anyone who reads the signboards will realize it’s kind of a ‘what-if’ gag.” Really? Maybe so. But then how do we know the early Christians attributing sayings to Jesus meant it literally either?

The practice of evangelical Christians refutes the arguments of their own apologists. But it’s a lot bigger than that. Is there any reason to believe that any of the things human beings have ever said God said had a different origin from today’s billboard oracles? It’s not just a matter of religious fanatics fighting over which set of scriptural doctrines is the true one. Even to frame it that way is to mystify what’s going on. Really it boils down to two (or more) groups of loudmouths engaged in a shouting match. For them to declare “God says so!” is just to shout that much louder. “I said it! God believes it! That settles it!”

It’s propaganda pure and simple. And the appeal to “authoritative” revelation is designed to circumvent reason and logic. If “God” said it, well then, it must be right! “Even if it makes no sense to me, it must nonetheless be true. God is certainly smarter than me!” If there were one, yes, sure, he’d have to be. But what reason is there to think there is a deity who issues these commandments and doctrines? What possible reason is there to believe “his” “revelations” have not been cooked up by fellow mortals (and not necessarily very smart ones)?

As Durkheim suggested, any society christens as “divine sanctions” those man-made rules and values it deems most important. The rule-making elders understand that, if people knew these rules were the invention of mere mortals like themselves, they would say to themselves, “Well, that’s just the opinion of those mossbacks! Who says they’re right and I’m wrong?” And then, they fear, you’d be asking for chaos, as the Book of Judges puts it, “every man doing what is right in his own eyes.” So, the rule-makers think, it will be safer to intimidate the mob into believing the gods have handed down these rules and will kill us or damn us if we disobey. In this event, even if the rules and values are fine and good, the system becomes corrupted by the simple fact of deceit at the foundation of it. It is the sin of priestcraft, of pious fraud. Humans appoint themselves the Grand Inquisitor. They, like the Mullahs of Iran, are sure they know better than the rest of us and do not trust us with freedom of action and free thought.

The Book of Revelation, chapter 13, depicts a scene in which the False Prophet, the promoter and press secretary of the Beast, the end-time tyrant, wows the crowd by making a statue of his master seem to speak aloud. As I read it, the point is not that the False Prophet performs a genuine miracle, albeit Satanically inspired, but rather that he is conning the rubes by using a common stage illusion. Even in the ancient world tricksters and entertainers used ventriloquism and voice-throwing to make it look like a statue spoke. What the False Prophet did was cheap priestcraft.

And that’s what religion has always done when its spokesmen have elevated their own best (?) thoughts to the status of divine revelation. And no one stoops to this if they are convinced of the persuasive logic of their position.

I think that’s as plain as if it were plastered on a billboard.

So says Zarathustra.

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Theism and Thin Air

Supernatural god from Theism and Thin Air Essay - Robert M. Price

Is there such a thing as the “supernatural”? I don’t mean to ask whether there is a being called “God” or if there are miracles. Even if God, miracles, and answered prayer are real, are they “supernatural”? What do we mean by that term?

Some people believe that the striking events recorded in scripture did actually happen, but that they were misdescribed by the clueless ancients as if they were supernatural, things that could never happen without divine magic. Such “Rationalists” have sought to re-explain these events in scientific terms unavailable to the ancients. A modern example would be members of UFO sects who believe, e.g., that Jesus’ miraculous conception was an artificial insemination engineered by space aliens. There would have been nothing miraculous about it. Extraordinary, yes. But the aliens are envisioned as flesh-and-blood individuals in possession of advanced technology. The scenario would be much like that hilarious scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when the time-travelling Dr. McCoy rescued Chekov from the barbaric ministrations of late twentieth-century medicine. McCoy’s techniques were perfectly ordinary and mundane in his own eyes but seemed miraculous to patients in the hospital whom he helped along the way. That’s the way it is with Flying Saucer Jesus. Pretty amazing, but not beyond the limits of what is possible in nature. We might not understand the science yet, but in principle we could one day. But this is not quite what I have in mind.

I am thinking of two ancient philosophers. I fear we have not caught up with them. Thales of ancient Ionia probably qualifies as both the first scientist and the first philosopher. He invented science when he asked how the rain comes to fall. Religion (or myth) says rain is what happens when Zeus says, “Forsooth, let’s have some rain here! Chop-chop!” Science, by contrast, tells us (or hopes to tell us) how it rains. Even if we still want to say it is the work of Father Zeus, there must be some way, some method, by which he does it, right?  If his spoken word does the trick, how? Mustn’t we picture some chain of cause and effect? If we picture Circe casting a spell, mustn’t there be some way in which the spoken formula brings about the desired outcome? Doesn’t there have to be, say, some kind of property in the “magic words”? The syllables have to set loose some vibrations that have an impact on the recipient of the curse, right? Like the radio: the sounds reach your speakers through the medium of radio waves. They don’t just get there because somebody says they should.

If you are just thinking that God says it and it happens, you are talking cartoons. The Koran says, “He saith unto a thing, ‘Be!’ and it is.” But this presupposes that what is about to be created already exists to hear the divine command it must now obey. That paradox, I realize, is offered to us, not hidden from us readers. It is clever and happily displayed, but it still does not make any sense. And that’s fatal. That’s my point: it just doesn’t make any sense, even any theological sense.

A funny instance of this sort of cartoon supernaturalism is the gospel miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fish. As David Friedrich Strauss pointed out in his classic book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, the story loses any possible plausibility as soon as we take a close look at it: what the heck are we supposed to envision Jesus doing? Does he take hold of both ends of a fish or a barley roll and then stretch it out like a sponge till it breaks, each half somehow the same size as the original? It is a cartoon, not a possible case of someone using a technique amenable to rational understanding if we only knew more about it.

By contrast, think of the (desperate) arguments offered by defenders of the (fake) Turin Shroud. At least they have one point in their favor: when they contend that the photo-negative image on the sheet was the result of some kind of radiation flash caused by the power of God resurrecting Jesus, they realize there would have to be some way God did it. Even if it was a miracle. right? These “sindonologists” are not trying to show what happened in lieu of a miracle, as Joe Nickel does when he demonstrates how some medieval painter could have faked the Shroud. No, they rightly understand that, if God reached down and miraculously resurrected Jesus, he must have used some means.

If there is a method, a way things happen, even in the unseen realm of the gods, then you are envisioning nature, albeit a larger frame of reference.

Epicurus (himself esteemed something of a god by the movement he started) taught that the gods in heaven possess material substance. They occupy space, have volume. Their bodies are made of stuff more rarified than ours. If you look at it this way, at least you know what you are talking about when you say the word “spirit.” Remember, both the Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, the biblical words translated “spirit,” mean “wind” or “breath,” implying a rarified material character—like air. And if that’s the case, we are again putting the gods on the side of nature.

In the same vein, some people like to say that “spirit” is another word for “energy.” Fine, but then it becomes perfectly clear that “spirit” in natural, not supernatural. You’re making it tantamount to electricity or nuclear power.

So what’s left on the other side? An abstraction that is timeless, located nowhere in particular, above acting, beyond linear thought, since “he” is perfect with nothing only potentially done and left to do, already knowing everything and not needing to pursue a sequence of thoughts. Pure abstraction. What’s the difference between that and nothing?

If god created adam out of thin air why did he need one of adam's ribs to create eve?If the personal God of scripture exists as more than a literary cipher, he is to be conceived as a being, not as Being-itself. If he does things, he employs means. (That’s just part of what it means to do things!) He is not omniscient, though (presumably) he is wise. He does not know the future because it is not there to be known. Instead, it is just that he is so clever and so powerful that, once he determines that something shall happen, he needn’t worry that anyone will be able to gainsay him. Thus he does not foreknow the future; he just builds it.

Such a god is not much different from a space alien, is he? A superior being indeed, maybe even the supreme being, but that’s like saying that Superman is the greatest of the superheroes. The top dog. The top god. But that wouldn’t mean we ought to worship him as “God.” Even with Superman’s amazing powers, even with his tireless compassion toward us lesser mortals, it would be idolatry to worship him because, as Francis Schaeffer used to say of the Greek gods, Superman is not “big enough.” And neither is Jehovah. The biblical deity is more like Jack Kirby’s Galactus. (And that was intentional. Kirby said he meant for the Devourer of Worlds to be his analogue to God.)

Paul Tillich recognized that the God of the Bible was not adequate, so he formulated a more abstract God concept and wrote of the “God above God.” Tillich stood in a long tradition of philosophical theology, stretching back to the Stoics who redefined the embarrassingly anthropomorphic and anthropopathic Zeus of Homer and Hesiod as the all-permeating, impersonal Logos. And that is a jump from the concrete “living God” to a pure abstraction. You have to decide whether you can make any sense of Idealist metaphysics: does it make sense to regard abstractions like “Truth” or “Eternal Forms” as being as real or even more real than discrete objects? I cannot see how. (What, am I pretending to know better than Plato? Of course not! Compared to him, I’m an orangutan. But if Aristotle could disagree with him, I guess I can, too.)

To make this jump is indeed to jump outside of the natural. But is it to jump from the natural to the supernatural? No, because, whether you are talking about Zeus or Jehovah, you are talking, necessarily, about a discrete entity who pulls the strings, acts in our world (or is supposed to!). Nothing, I am suggesting, removes that being qualitatively from the same category we occupy: the “natural.” He would differ from us merely quantitatively, like Superman or Cthulhu or Erich von Dӓniken’s ancient astronauts. This would be true even if this god were your creator. You might fear this kind of a god, but it would be obsequiousness to worship him, merely degrading toadying.

I don’t see any reason to believe in such a “natural” god. And, as far as I can see, there’s no other kind. To deny that a “supernatural” God exists is a different kind of denial: it is not the fact that is missing, but the sense of it.

So says Zarathustra.

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Thought Police Lineup


The other day the head muckety-mucks of Saudi Arabia, a clique of oil-rich Bedouin barbarians (think bloodthirsty Beverly Hillbillies) have decided it’s not enough to stone women who do not obediently hide their charms (and everything else) inside black garbage bags. No, that doesn’t take them far enough back into the Bronze Age. So they have decreed that all atheists are henceforth to be considered and treated as terrorists.

Of course, in one sense, the sheiks are right. The minute someone casts off the mental straightjacket of Islamic medievalism, he or she does in fact pose a dangerous threat to the regime of pious barbarism. The infection might prove contagious. And then, before long, you might have the kingdom enter the twenty-first century. Or at least the twentieth. Even the eighteenth would be a big improvement.

(And don’t start giving me PC flack for making bigoted remarks about Arabs. Surely you can see I’m sticking up for a group of Arabs, the atheists upon whom open season has just been declared.)

So far I seem to be presupposing a big gap between our enlightened Western civilization and the backwards culture of Saudi Arabia. But not quite. I see shaping up a scenario in which the hyper-sensitivities of a decadent culture (the West) are aligning with the primitive half-civilization of the Middle East. It is a strange yet almost predictable convergence of opposites. Western decadence invites the destruction of its own free society by tolerating (even embracing) intolerance and giving it an equal seat at the big table, somehow failing to see that the intolerant will wind up the only ones at the table—or at least setting the menu and the manners for everybody else.

As you have anticipated, I have in mind the inexplicable equation of opposing Islamo-fascism with “Islamophobia.” But that is not my main point. Some Western countries have made it a crime to criticize Islam. In decadent America no such law is yet on the books, but there is strong social pressure against criticizing Islam, as I have just mentioned. What I mean to point out is the trend of PC politeness-censorship in the eventual direction of anti-blasphemy laws and the criminalizing of critics of religion. As religious believers portray themselves as victims and demand “protection” from criticism, we critics of faith may find ourselves empathizing with the endangered species of Saudi atheists. Atheists in America are already vilified as immoral or morally nihilistic because we do not claim a basis for morality in the divine will. For this reason, some religious people already regard us as threats to the social and moral order. And that is, as I say, not that far from the reasoning of the Saudi authorities.

All this makes me think of an old sermonic conscience-prod: “If it became illegal to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In the same way, if being a critic of religion makes one a villain, it might be good to rethink just what we have in mind when we call ourselves “atheists” or other labels usually thought to be synonymous (though they may not be…).

Are you an atheist? What is an atheist? Someone who does not believe in God (gods)? Not good enough. Agnostics don’t believe in God either. We’ll get to them in a minute. Now, does the atheist believe there is no deity? That would seem to imply that theists are correct when they characterize atheism as a rival faith position. But it is my impression that most self-styled atheists would not describe their position this way. It would be more accurate to say that atheists just do not see sufficient reason to take the God option seriously, any more than they feel compelled to hold open the possibility that leprechauns exist. Sure, theoretically, the little guys might be real, but what are the chances?

This is where agnosticism comes in. As Thomas Henry Huxley, who coined the term, viewed the matter, the agnostic does not now see any way to prove a deity exists but thinks it is entirely possible. It is an open question, or, as William James put it, a live option. William James figured that as long as the odds are even and it was one of those cases where “not to decide is to decide” (what James called a forced option), it is legitimate to exercise “the will to believe” to tip the balance, since you will have to fall off the fence one way or the other anyway. Pascal must have had the same idea when he said one ought to “wager” that the Christian faith is true, even while admitting that it might not be. You’re either going to live life as a religious person or as a nonreligious one. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. In this framework, I guess William James would have said Huxley had actually opted for irreligion, and I guess that would be correct. Agnostics are irreligious. They have effectively chosen a side.

But you could choose the other side. And many have. Evangelical theologian Clark H. Pinnock was probably not atypical when he readily admitted that “know” and “believe” do not mean the same thing. He realized that no mortal can possibly know whether God exists. But he thought there was a pretty good case to be made for God and Christianity, and Pinnock figured that a step of faith (no leap being necessary) was justified—as a working hypothesis. This was a man with the courage to change his mind, which he had done more than once on various issues, and at some cost. So I think he meant it. Pinnock was technically an agnostic even while being a devout Christian. Many are.

Back to Huxley. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t saying one could never know there was no way to know if a God exists. That would presuppose just the sort of superhuman knowledge Huxley admitted he lacked. Maybe someone someday will come up with a definitive proof of God. Huxley’s agnosticism grants that possibility. But most people who use the term today seem to mean that they believe you cannot know, you can never know, whether there is a God. Or do they? I suspect they really mean something akin to what I said about atheists: they just don’t see any likelihood that it will ever prove possible to know about God.

How about rationalists? Central here is epistemology: how can we know, whether about God or about anything else? By reason, processing the evidence of the senses. Intuition, feeling, sentiment: these things may rightly prompt certain of our actions, very important ones. But they do not yield true knowledge of factual matters. Religious belief pretends to offer such knowledge, but it does not, as long as we define “knowledge” as “justified true belief.” If the decision to embrace religious doctrines is based in any measure on an act of faith, it cannot claim to be rationally justified. Many advocates of religion are happy to admit that. To them, faith is the missing link. But rationalists call that a bridge to nowhere. It’s using counterfeit money to make up the shortfall.

Logical Positivists used to claim that any belief incapable of scientific verification was merely gibberish. Wittgenstein thought this at first but then decided that scientific verification was not the only game in town, not the only “language game” available. There are other uses of language that do not posit and postulate. Religious language follows a different trajectory and serves a different purpose. It is not cognitive in nature, but neither is it meaningless. It is emotional and expressive in nature. As Tillich taught, religious myths and symbols express and articulate a deeper level of meaning, much in the fashion of poetry. Religion has no business poaching on the preserves of science (“The earth was created in one week.”) or history (“Moses parted the Red Sea.”). Of course, most religious folks do not draw those distinctions and insist on making fact claims they cannot support through evidence and thus are tempted to pretend they can, deceiving themselves and their audiences (e.g., “Scientific Creationists,” William Lane Craig, etc.).

Humanists espouse the philosophy summed up by the singing group Up with People: “We’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.” Humanists (at least the ones we’re talking about) are usually atheists and agnostics, but they prefer the “humanist” label because they would rather fly the flag of what they do stand for than what they don’t.

Let me take a moment to draw a distinction. Though humanists have many concerns and causes, there is one that I think disqualifies a non-theist as a humanist: radical environmentalism. If you believe that human beings are a pestilence, the worst thing ever to happen to the earth, you are no kind of humanist. If you think the interests of snail darters take precedence over the well-being of humans, you do not espouse humanism. If jobs for people and energy independence mean nothing to you, but “Gaia” does, you probably don’t want to call yourself a humanist, and I wish you wouldn’t.

Similarly, on another issue, if you think a fetus is no more valuable than a tumor, I think you’re confused if you think you’re a humanist.

In my lexicon, a secularist is fundamentally an advocate of the separation of religion and state. But these days that has come to mean advocating the elimination of any and all expressions of religion on public property, which seems pretty scorched-earth to me. That crusade seems to me to pass beyond secularization (dethronement of any official or state religion) to secularism, the attempt to make the rejection of religion into the ruling ideology.

Then there are skeptics. To be “skeptical” means “to scrutinize.” We generally use the term for those like Joe Nickel and James Randi who investigate extraordinary, paranormal claims. Believers in things like telepathy and ghosts dismiss skeptics as “paradigm police,” defenders of an orthodoxy of “normative science” (Thomas Kuhn’s term). This implies skeptics go in with minds made up, determined to debunk. But that’s not really a problem, is it? Isn’t the procedure of scientists to try their best to debunk their own hypotheses? That’s the only way to see if your theory passes the test.

It is not uncommon to find selective skepticism in play. Local skeptic groups often have to tread lightly because they have welcomed fundamentalist Christians as members. These believers would not think of applying skeptical scrutiny to their own beliefs, but flying saucers and ghosts are fair game: they have no place in the fundamentalist (“biblical”) worldview, so fundamentalists are eager to shoot them down. Personally, I sometimes find myself baffled at atheistic skeptics vis a vis the paranormal who seem however to swallow uncritically certain political dogmas – and I am fully aware they look at me the same way!

Tillich spoke of people who cannot seem to believe in anything, who are automatically skeptical of everything. But they are not to be written off as nothing more than jaded smart-asses. Tillich suggested that they do believe in Truth, so fervently that they will not easily accept any claim as the Truth. They’re willing to wait as long as it takes, even if the Truth never comes along. One might say they are employing the concept of the Truth as a sailor employs the North Star: he navigates by it but does not expect to reach it.

I think Nietzsche was saying the same thing when he warned that when we come to realize there is no Truth, we are tempted to regard our favorite fictions as the Truth. To avoid such a convenient self-deception, Nietzsche said we should not reject the category labeled “Truth” but should keep it as an empty drawer, just to remind ourselves that our fictions belong in the “Fiction” drawer, not in the ever-empty “Truth” drawer. We need the empty, purely formal and not material notion of Truth to guard ourselves from imagining that some favorite fiction is not more than a fiction.

Any and all of the above may add “freethinker” to their resume. But I will defend the right of religious folks to claim the title, too. I will admit that my experience and that of others I have observed lead me to expect that a conservative Christian who dares to rethink his theology in an honest and searching way is very likely to end up in one of the camps I have discussed here. His initial stance is one of accepting a package, a platform, a slate of beliefs learned from his inherited church or whichever church got him to convert from unbelief. These beliefs may gain their integrity from a systematic logic. If they do, then, when one discards one feature of the system, the whole thing may collapse.

But even more basically, questioning any feature of a creed accepted on faith erodes the whole warrant of faith. If any single tenet of your creed is no longer safe from critical evaluation, where does it stop? How can you keep the iron curtain of cognitive invulnerability safely around the rest of the tenets? I don’t think you can, without heavy-duty compartmentalizing, and you can keep up that effort for only so long. And once you realize that “faith epistemology” (fideism) amounts to arbitrary stubbornness, stonewalling, you will probably try your best to find or create rational justification for your beliefs. But that is indulging in after-the-fact rationalizing. Just like Creationists and resurrection apologists. I am not optimistic about the prospects for a religious freethinker. But it’s possible; remember Clark Pinnock.

Neither do I have any right to tell anyone not to bother continuing his quest because I can tell him in advance what he will find (namely, my oh-so-wise opinions!). That would make me into the very sort of dogmatist I despise! And even if I am right, for me to tell somebody to save himself the trouble and just agree with me, would be cheating him. Again, even if my conclusions are correct, someone else must come to these conclusions on his own, or they will be worthless because they will be based, once again (and ironically) on faith—faith in me! Nope, you have to reach your own conclusions, even if they do wind up jiving with mine. And I have to remain agnostic as to whether you will.

So says Zarathustra.

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