Monthly Archives: January 2009

What would you do?

Imagine the following scenario:

You walk into your favorite neighborhood Chinese food establishment, salivating over the prospect of dining on one of their hot, authentic dishes.  While looking over the menu stuffed with choices, you become vaguely aware that the usual background music of soft Asian melodies has been replaced by something else.  With attention focused, you realize that the music is explicitly religious, and it’s offering praises to Allah!  As a non-Muslim, do you

  1. Say nothing and order your meal?
  2. Express your opinion about the music to the owner and stay/leave?
  3. Say nothing and leave?

Take a few to think about your answer.

Done?  Ok.  As you’ve probably surmised, I recently encountered this exact situation, with one minor difference.  It was not Allah the music praised, but Jesus.  And my response?  I said nothing and left.  What was yours?

My reasoning is thus.  When I walk into a restaurant, I’m not there to be prosyletized.  While I understand the owner’s intentions are benign, I feel it’s sneaky to introduce me to their religion in this way.  Come for the food, and be saved!  If I had ordered a meal, I’d essentially be condoning this tactic.  At the same time, I recognize that the restaurant is private property and grant its owner the right do with it as he pleases (with a few reasonable limitations, such as serving rotted food, or radishes).  If he believes he’ll derive some monetary – or heavenly – gain by serving Lo Mein with a side of Jesus, more power to him.  By taking my business elsewhere, I’m telling him that he’s possibly miscalculated.

What if the music, instead of extolling Jesus, praised non-belief?  (I know, like that’ll happen, but bear with me).  I would have believed that inappropriate, and said so to the owner if asked, but I’d have stayed.  Is that hypocritical?  Not really.  For one, no proselytizing is going on, from my point of view.  Secondly, I’m essentially telling the owner it’s no big deal to me, or that I actually enjoy it.  Now, he’d probably lose a large chunk of his believing clientele, but if he thinks he’ll make up for it with a surge in non-believer business, then it’s a risk he’s got the right to take.

I suppose this post has been more about libertarian ethics than about religion, but rarely do the two intersect, offering me a chance to write about both of my favorite topics.  One thing I’d certainly oppose is any regulation or law prohibiting the proprietar from playing any music he deems fit, which may be a point of contention among some readers.  Let our collective free choices decide.

Reasonable, indeed…

Perhaps it was merely a matter of time, but Christian evangelical apologist and author of Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig, is finally quoted on Fundies Say the Darndest Things!  And I have to say, the quote is fully justified for inclusion.  Here is Craig as part of long apologetic screed explaining why Yahweh’s command to commit genocide against the Canaanites wasn’t such a bad thing after all, except for the Israeli soldiers!

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

You can almost just hear Craig crying, “Won’t someone please think of the Israeli soldiers?!”

What’s confounds me is the idea that Yahweh could have extinguished the Canaanite’s existence himself–and thus saved the soldiers from their “brutalizing” ordeal–completely escapes the intelligent Dr. Craig.  What is Yahweh’s purpose in making the soldiers “suffer” so?  Craig does not say.

 As perverse as Craig’s logic sounds to non-believers–and perhaps to a few Christians as well–it seems fully supported by Christian theology, which devalues earthly life and exalts an alleged heavenly existence above all things.  Craig’s rationalization of child murder is especially revealing–and troubling.  It suggests that Christian opposition to things like abortion is not born so much out of sorrow over the loss of (potential) life, but only that death is occuring absent divine sanction.  After all, the children are inheriting eternal life no matter who kills them.  So what are Christians objecting to abortion for if not that it’s we–and not God–who’s doing the killing?  This is what makes theists like Christians so frightening at times.  If they’re convinced they’ve got a licence to kill from their god, there’s no restraint to stop them.  And when they do kill for this very reason, how can another Christian object?  Ironically, it’s only by humanist values that Christians are able to thrive in a society, not by their own.

Fascinating new research on Jesus studies

Well, besides this 🙂

Anyone interested in the latest scholarly research on Jesus should run – don’t walk! – over to Richard Carrier’s blog and read his take on the recently concluded Amherst conference which the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) conducted in order to evaluate the evidence for a historical Jesus.  Scholars are making some extremely interesting advances which may upend traditional theories that have dominated the field of Jesus studies up to now.  Like the Jesus Project before it, what the attendees had to say will not sit will with Christians, but even more so.  For example, Gerd Lüdemann, professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, concludes that Paul’s epistles evince no knowledge of a historical Jesus – a conclusion that to him was unexpected.

Of main interest I think to professional and lay students of religion is the fading of the Q hypothesis.  If you recall, the hypothesis has been popular in explaining the Synoptic Problem, positing the existence of a lost and unknown source document which the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used in conjuction with the Gospel of Mark to write their works.  Instead, another document, the Dominical Logia, may have been the source of all three gospels.  Such is the view of Dennis McDonald, professor at Claremont School of Theology and author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Carrier relates the observation that the more scholars study Jesus, the less certainty there is surrounding him.  Both historicists and mythicists will find this discomforting, but it should sit well with those who take an agnostic view on the question of a historical Jesus.  Christianity, again, is a major loser here, for controversy over the words and deeds of its founder can only split the faith further, as well as undermine its claim as the true religion of a creator-deity.  Expect attacks on the work of the CSER from the usual conservative Christian suspects, but liberal Christians will find their faith just a bit more untenable.

Dinesh D’Souza responds to my article on atheism and 20th century atrocities

In my article debunking the link between atheism and the 20th century’s atrocites, I start by quoting one of Christianity’s increasingly visible media spokesmen, Dinesh D’Souza.  D’Souza acknowleges Christianity’s lurid and bloody past, but claims that atheism has produced worse horrors.  Despite the sheer oddity of the argument (presumably, Christianity is to be preferred because it’s not as bad as the alternatives), it’s nevertheless popular among Christian apologists who struggle to square their religion’s sometimes barbaric past with it’s putative message of love and forgiveness.

Since I quote D’Souza directly, and since he makes the argument frequently, I believed it only fair I point my article out to him and offer a chance to respond.  It took a few weeks, but he’s made due.  Below is his response, in full:

It seems to me that you make no real refutation of my statements that “atheistic tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.”

You simply strain to show that although Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. were atheists, somehow atheism wasn’t central to their thought and didn’t motivate their murders.

But you can’t deny that it was one of the central goals of Nazism and Communism to create secular utopias free of traditional religion and traditional morality.

You can’t deny that Marx viewed religion as an opiate of the people.

You can’t deny that all these communist regimes actively persecuted religion.  So did Hitler’s regime, as documented by Richard Evans in his multi-volume history of the Third Reich.

So you’re reduced to a kind of sorry special pleading for atheism.  If Christians must bear some responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by Christian regimes, can’t atheism be held accountable to the same standard?

I believe D’Souza demonstrates once more how little he understands Nazism and Communism, and the tyrants who attempted to build regimes based on those ideologies.  I do in fact show that atheism wasn’t central to their thought (Hitler spoke out against atheism) and didn’t motivate their murders, as proved chiefly by the indiscriminate use of violence against virtually everyone, without regard to nationality, class, ideology or belief.  At the beginning of my article, I made the strong point that no expert–even fellow conservative scholars–supports his view and D’Souza still does not provide one.  For someone who makes his living amidst the world of academic institutions, this fact alone should give pause, but it’s clear D’Souza is not concerned so much with scholarly rigor as revisionist apologetics.

D’Souza is simply disingenuous in his claims–claims he says I “can’t deny”.   Isn’t it the central feature of most revolutionary movements, even religious ones, to re-build society free of “traditional religion and traditional morality” (whatever it happens to be)?  What again does that have to do with atheism?  Yes, some communist governments attempted to stamp out religion’s influence, but calling it a “central goal” belies how haphazard and inconsistent the efforts were, as I more than demonstrate in my article.

D’Souza’s comment on Marx’s view of religion as the opiate of the people more than amply reveals his ignorance on the topic.  Any amateur scholar of communism knows what Marx meant by the observation, which is reflected in what I wrote in the article,

For Marx, religion is the result of man’s conditions, not their source

In other words, religion is man’s attempt to relieve his painful existence, thus the “opiate” metaphor.  It is a negative by-product, a symptom, of the underlying unjust social institutions.  Since communism would fix that, religion would simply become unnecessary.  See here and here for more.

There’s no “special pleading” going on here, but a simple scholarly elucidation why no expert gives the alleged atheism-communism or -nazism connection the time of day.  Indeed, communism is so fungible an ideology that even Christians embrace it.  One such fusion, known as “liberation theology,” was even born in D’Souza’s own Roman Catholicism!  The reason Christianity must bear responsibility for its crimes is because they were extensively justified by Christian theology.  It is only by ignoring or re-interpreting its scripture that Christianity has cast off much of its barbarism.

Back from vacation

I figured before I left on vacation I’d be a virtual whirlwind of blogging activity, but it turned out to be precisely the opposite.  There was so much traveling and family to visit with, I simply found it too difficult to seriously think about topics I wanted to explore.  I’ve been pondering the concept of sin, for example, but haven’t decided on an angle and would really like to research it more in depth.  To merely observe that every religion has a different view of it, an inexplicable circumstance under the theory of some divinely engraved natural moral law, is trite.  What I’m curious about is what makes it so useful to religion, why it plays so prominent a part.  It seems to me it is partly a useful tool for community control and the strenghtening (or enforcement) of group identity.  But why do some behaviors become intolerable sins (e.g., slavery), while others are increasingly tolerated (e.g., divorce, homosexuality, adultery)?  Why do some people feel strongly about sin, their own and others’, while others do not?

Sin is clearly a complex subject from a sociological, psychological, and even religious standpoint.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize how little I understand it.  Perhaps spending a little time playing a new game I picked up, Sins of a Solar Empire, will clarify things a bit… 🙂

It is often said that two things should never be discussed in a family setting: religion and politics.  It’s a rule generally not observed in my family, at least when I’m around, and the recent visit was no exception.  There may be a few reasons why.  First, I probably know more about both topics than anyone else in my family, so members like to ask what I think.  Also, I approach discussions more informatively rather than argumentatively.  If I sense someone feels strongly emotional about a topic, I’ll begin to clam up.  I also avoid “proselytizing”.  Most everyone knows me (and one of my sisters) is an atheist, but I don’t make it a point to remind everyone of the fact.  No one is strongly religious, but I figure if they’re interested why I’m an atheist, they’ll raise the subject.

But vacation is over now, so time to get back to our regularly scheduled program!