Atheist Andrew? Is Andrew Sullivan on His Way to Becoming an Ex-Catholic?

The grotesque story coming to light of the sexual shaming of single mothers and their children in Tuam in mid-20th century Catholic Ireland–and the septic tank there that was used as the collective and unmarked grave for bastard children–800 of them–is becoming known as “the scandal of the Irish 800 of Tuam,” and it has rattled Andrew Sullivan’s Catholic faith: “In the wake of the immeasurable silent pain of so many children for so many years in the sex abuse crisis, to witness another form of barbarism against children in the heart of my own church … well, it’s one of those things that really does shake the foundations of one’s commitment to an organized religion. And maybe it’s because it’s in a part of Ireland where my own grandmother was born and grew up, and about a particular strain of Irish Catholicism that I know only too well – but it’s one of those news events that are hard to get past. It will sink slowly into our consciousness, the way the sudden revelations at Abu Ghraib did, and hint at so much more darkness beyond.”

I wonder if this incident might deliver Andrew to the roller coaster journey of a complete loss of belief in God, and I wonder if Andrew has seen Julia Sweeney’s contemporary counter to St. Augustine’s Confessions, which she calls Letting Go of God.

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Sweeney’s full confession is here:

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Can Feminism Endure Questioning?

At Feministing, Juliana Britto is impatient with privileged white males who, in conversation, play the “devil’s advocate” for non-feminist perspectives. Here are three quotes from her essay (as a representative taste):

  • These discussions [surrounding patriarchy] may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you.
  • It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you?
  • Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. time. So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

I don’t like this. This way of talking sounds too much like the complaints a religious fundamentalist might make on hearing skepticism directed at religion. “What, you can make critical observations and walk away? It’s because you haven’t had my experience. You’re an outsider. You cannot possibly understand.” Well, yes, of course. That’s it. I am obviously not capable of imaginative sympathy, otherwise I’d agree with you completely. It’s not because your claims are in need of sustained critical scrutiny.

And no one is responsible for other people’s education. The breaking down of a point for others in conversation is fine only insofar as you actually want to do it (or are being paid to do it as a teacher). If you don’t want to do it, you can point them to a book and be done. If they don’t read it, that’s their choice.

I’m a feminist, I’m raising feminist daughters, and the surest way to make more feminists is to encourage, not discourage, persistent interrogation of claims, however dearly held. All claims. From any person that makes them. The hope of the world is in critical thinking.

Feminism is on the side of critical thinking and reason. It will win wherever it is in contact with reality and given space to speak in competition with other ideas. It can endure questioning and will evolve in the furnace of hard questions, even questions delivered ironically, in bad faith, or accompanied by a lack of empathy.

What we take seriously can be in the same room with another’s resistances and ironies. Coming out of closets (as gay, feminist, religious, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist, liberal, Marxist, libertarian, Muslim, etc.) doesn’t mean that this creates a social obligation upon others to step into closets themselves. Coming out of closets is not a zero-sum game. We can all be out of the closet about our thoughts and stay in the room together. We can work with each other’s perspectives. And if we don’t want this–if we want to cloister ourselves with the like-minded (as, say, the Amish do)–we can do that as well.

But dialogue requires patience and raising questions, including questions posed in the form of “devil’s advocate.” Nobody needs to shut up or temper such questioning. Adults can hear words, ideas, and questions–even irreverent and seemingly gratuitous ones. It may seem like a distraction or the long way around, but it’s actually the path of progress. If feminism is true, there’s no reason to especially fear or loathe questions and skepticism directed toward it.

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Humans Cause Global Warming By Tipping The Balance

Is it true that humans make only a tiny contribution to the Earth’s carbon cycle each year? Yes. Does this mean that humans aren’t causing global warming? No. Science journalist Graham Wayne explains:

Although our output of 29 gigatons of CO2 is tiny compared to the 750 gigatons moving through the carbon cycle each year, it adds up because the land and ocean cannot absorb all of the extra CO2. About 40% of this additional CO2 is absorbed. The rest remains in the atmosphere, and as a consequence, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years (Tripati 2009). (A natural change of 100ppm normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years. The recent increase of 100ppm has taken just 120 years).

In other words, unlike with the natural carbon cycle, humans add carbon to the atmosphere, but don’t sufficiently offset their carbon footprint with things like, say, planting large tracts of additional forests. The result: a small but steady accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere because of human activity. Nature tends to recycle its carbon, generally maintaining a homeostatic balance, while humans don’t. The slow effect over time is global warming.

For more on this issue, see the below link.

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http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php?a=16&p=4

How do human CO2 emissions compare to natural CO2 emissions?www.skepticalscience.com

The CO2 that nature emits (from the ocean and vegetation) is balanced by natural absorptions (again by the ocean and vegetation). Therefore human emissions upset the natural…

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Global Warming: Converging Lines of Evidence

The link below provides a nice example of converging lines of evidence from different scientific disciplines leading to the same conclusion: the planet is warming. Two weeks ago, NASA announced accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica, and this week it was reported that biological researchers “who looked at 366 species of butterfly and 107 kinds of dragonfly, observed a clear pattern of change between 1988 and 2006. In warmer, sunnier southern Europe, the light-coloured varieties are doing well, and the darker kinds have migrated northwards. The southern migrant hawker dragonfly (Aeshna affinis), the scarlet darter (Crocothemis erythraea) have moved to Germany, and in 2010 the dainty damselfly (Coenagrion scitulum) was seen in England for the first time in 50 years.”

In other words, darker Mediterranean insects absorb more solar radiation than lighter Mediterranean insects, and so are more sensitive to rising temperatures. They are akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine: they’re the first to register a change that causes them to depart. And where these insects are going is north, not south, to places that are ever more Mediterranean-like in climate–Germany and England. Think about that. Germany and England are north of the Mediterranean and yet are increasingly suitable for Mediterranean insects. How could that be, logically, if the planet was, on average, cooling instead of warming? It it was cooling, these darker insects would be moving south, looking to capture with their wings more solar radiation. But they’re not. They’re going north, trying to get away from the heat. And when they reach further north, they find the same sorts of Mediterranean conditions that they’re most familiar with, and to which they are best adapted. And yet they’re in Germany and England, places we tend to think of as generally chilly, not Mediterranean, in climate.

So when the below article’s title declares, “Insects Get Light Relief from Warming,” what is meant is that they get relief from warming by moving north, away from the heat. That’s an unmistakable sign of global warming, not cooling.

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Insects Get Light Relief From Warming

http://www.truthdig.com

“As European summers get warmer, research reveals that lighter-colored insects are thriving—while milder winters in the Southern Hemisphere are restricting the growth of some shrubs and trees. [...]” – 2014/05/31

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A Song I Haven’t Heard in a While

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Woman Stoned in Nuclear Pakistan

Stoned to death. In the 21st century. And she was three months pregnant. And Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons. Think about that. What if fanatic, populist, fundamentalist Muslims of the sort that stoned this woman for “family honor” attain the highest reaches of power in Pakistan and decide that national or religious honor is at stake in a crisis with India (which also has about 100 nuclear weapons)? Nuclear stones disintegrate all bones. Given that we’re an irrational, violent, and territorial species, we’ve been darn lucky that nuclear weapons haven’t been exchanged between nations already. The article below is a grim reminder of just how precarious our collective situation continues to be. Steeled emotionally to the doing of any deed deemed righteous, lacking all sense of proportion, offended in honor, sure you’re on the side of God, sure the afterlife exists, and in possession of weapons. Not good.

Pregnant woman killed outside courthouse in Lahore for marrying man without family’s approval.
WWW.ALJAZEERA.COM
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Gavin Schmidt Of NASA On Why Climate Change Models Are Growing Increasingly Accurate

In the below TED talk, Gavin Schmidt of NASA explains, clear as a bell, why global climate change models mirror, with ever greater accuracy, what we actually observe on Earth. It has to do with a trial-and-error process of calibrating models to new observations. Whenever the models aren’t in the ballpark of an observation, they’re tweaked so that, statistically, they’re more likely to track that observation in the future. The result is that, each year, the models and the actual climate we observe have been converging. Given adjustments and new computer code being added to the models constantly, climate scientists are becoming ever more accurate in their predictions. Put another way, the sustained brain power being devoted to these models, and the reality testing at work all along the way, should give the lay person a high level of confidence that climate scientists have not called the global warming trend in the wrong direction. There’s simply no good reason to dismiss climate change modelling and prediction as delusional, especially going forward.

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Get a Free “Open for Business to Everyone!” Sign

Arizona Open for Business

“Open for business to everyone!

If you’re a business owner and want to show support for gay equality, below is a link to run off a copy of the above sign to put in your storefront window. It comes via Human Rights Campaign in response to the sorts of Jim Crow-style laws that are being proposed against gay people by right wing legislators in the United States.

http://www.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/OPEN_FOR_BUSINESS.pdf

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Edward Feser Thinks God Flashed Fire Upon Elijah’s Sacrifice

Given the level of sophistication that the philosopher Edward Feser brings to his defense of medieval Thomism, I was somewhat taken aback recently to see him write at his blog the following:

I think a divine cause was the source of the fire in the case of the priests of Baal.

Such a casual statement, but think of its implication: God hates it when people worship false gods and is jealous for his reputation. He sometimes bypasses the laws of nature and directly causes such things as fire to come down from heaven. In this particular instance, Feser appears to literally believe that God did this miracle to vindicate Elijah in his prayer competition with the priests of Baal, and that God then approved the prophet’s slaughter of those priests for being worshipers of a false god.

Weird. Crass. Primitive. Medieval. Here’s the biblical passage (1 Kings 18:38-40):

38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God. 40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

Again, Feser, a highly educated and accomplished intellectual, loses his mind here. He thinks this really, really happened–and he apparently approves of Elijah’s behavior. In bringing up the incident, he certainly says nothing–nothing–to distance himself from the story’s grotesque outcome–the mass killing of a whole people’s religious leaders.

Is this what taking seriously medieval Thomistic philosophical notions of God leads one to? Feser’s remark about the priests of Baal incident reminds me of another intellectual apologist for religion, William Lane Craig, who defended God’s slaughter of the Canaanites in this way:

God stays His judgement of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability!  This is the long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He even allows his own chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgement and calling His people forth from Egypt.

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.  The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18).  God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel.

All such talk is too much for me. If this is what believing in the God of classical theism brings one to, who can endure it? Better to be a Buddhist, an agnostic, an atheist, a deist, or a Reformed Jew. When, for example, the literary critic Irving Howe, at the age of fifteen, told his Jewish uncle that he was an atheist, his uncle smiled and replied, “You think God cares?” How sensible, how freeing–how funny. It hits the spot. No narcissism. No threats. Just good sense–and a bit of noodling to keep the young Howe on his intellectual toes.

So in their confidence monotheism, Craig and Feser can have their One True God of fire, blood, ethnic cleansing, and war, for it echoes too comfortably with the silly, silly prayer that a fundamentalist prayed at a McCain rally in 2008:

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When apologists like Craig and Feser claim to defend a sophisticated view of God, it’s good to ask: What about the Canaanites? What about the priests of Baal?

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George Will Attacks Scientists, Jonathan Chait Retorts

George Will attacks:

There is a sociology of science. Scientists are not saints in white laboratory smocks. They have got interests like everybody else. If you want a tenure-track position in academia, don’t question the reigning orthodoxy on climate change. If you want money from the biggest source of direct research in this country, the federal government, don’t question its orthodoxy. If you want to get along with your peers, conform to peer pressure. This is what’s happening.

Jonathan Chait retorts:

Will is arguing that climate scientists have been massively corrupted by federal funding and peer pressure. (“They have got interests like everybody else.”) He does not consider the countervailing power of opposing financial interests that might lure scientists to question of the scientific consensus, such as the lucrative funding made available in the right-wing think-tank world. He likewise discounts the possibility that scientists would find the lure of being proven eventually correct to be a powerful reputational incentive, let alone that they would actually care enough about being right to disregard social and financial pressure. If Will has any specific sense of how these social pressures survived the rigors of the scientific method and peer review, he does not explicate them.

Round one: Chait.

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Four Hundred Fifty Antisemitic Verses In The Gospels And Book of Acts

Acclaimed Holocaust historian, Daniel Goldhagen, in his most recent book, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism (Little, Brown & Co. 2013), claims the following about the New Testament:

The Christian bible contains four hundred fifty antisemitic verses just in the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, … (70)

He counts 80 antisemitic verses in Matthew alone, and 130 in John. Your mileage may vary in the way you count up the antisemitic verses, but it’s hard to quarrel with the basic thrust of Goldhagen’s observation: malicious rhetoric is directed at Jews throughout the New Testament, and that malicious rhetoric is pervasive and spawned the subsequent history of Christian antisemitism.

His number seems to be in the ballpark.

An obvious and notorious example: the multi-generational blood libel passage in Matthew: “His blood be on us and our children!” There is little doubt that throughout history the passage caused–and continues to cause–enormous damage to the Jewish people, implicating Jews not even alive at the time of Jesus with the murder of God. And here’s Jesus’s characterization of Jews in John: “You are of your father the devil.”

And in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, non-believing Jews are depicted in a stridently antisemitic manner. On Matthew’s account, the Jews supposedly sought to bribe the soldiers guarding Jesus’s tomb to lie about his resurrection. The implication is that no amount of evidence will ever satisfy a Jew, and that even in the teeth of knowing the truth directly and firsthand, Jews will still engage in the most despicable behavior against it. Matthew’s story is grotesque, libelous, defamatory, and offered up without the least sourcing or evidence of any kind whatsoever. It’s the kind of conspiracy theory that only an antisemite or a person committed to demonizing all resistance to his message could tell. It simply drips with hot hatred for the leadership of non-believing Jews–and therefore of the Jews as a distinct people themselves. (In the Book of Revelation Jews are referred to as belonging to the “synagogue of Satan.”)

Jews are thus the people with the dubious distinction, on Matthew’s account, of not only killing God (and being punished for it with a generational blood curse, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and exile into the nations), but of their leadership willfully denying–in the teeth of direct knowledge on their part–the resurrection of Jesus, conspiring to send forth falsehoods about it.

So the passages above are not innocent observations, simply pointing out the so-called “shortcomings” of Jews. Their cumulative effect is to dehumanize and demonize a class of people in a manner that we all recognize today as antisemitic. Such passages are found throughout the books of the New Testament. They are present across the genres (in its narratives, its epistles, and its apocalypse).

Put another way, Goldhagen’s 450 number doesn’t even count the antisemitic passages in Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation.

Goldhagen writes the following at the end of his book: “Antisemitism, the real devil that Christianity spawned, has not died and shows no prospect of dying anytime soon” (458). Now that antisemitism has gone global, it surely must give one pause to call the New Testament divinely inspired.

Can a good tree really produce such bad fruit?

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: 9780316097871: Amazon.com: Books

 

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Between Gods And Animals, The Sweet Spot

From the vantage of the Greco-Roman pagans, because we’re neither gods nor exclusively animals, human beings are in a very, very sweet spot. Arguably the best spot.

Think about it. The gods can make choices; they can fight and have dalliances with other gods; they can watch the goings on on Earth and can manipulate things, but because they’re immortal, they’re really in need of nothing. They can always push the reset button on their eternal lives. Nothing is at stake for them. Like video gamers, they can walk away from the carnage or amors on their perceptual “screens,” go have a sandwich, run to the toilet. They’re gods. They’ve got it good.

By contrast, animals are mortal. They don’t model the future in their heads like gods, nor do they make choices based on those models. They run on instinct. They don’t even know they’ll die. If they experience stress or anxiety, it’s in the moment, not in anticipation of the future.

Humans are very different from either gods or animals, but they also share traits with them. Humans are amphibians. Like gods, they can model and anticipate the future and make choices; like animals, they’re mortal. This combination means that everything is at stake for humans. Our choices matter.

Which means we can be heroes. Gods can’t be heroes, nor can animals, but we can. Hercules was a mortal–and a hero. The three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae were heroes. Antigone in Sophocles’s play is a hero.

A hero rises to his or her existential occasion–and achieves immortality through fame.

So a hero needs an audience. Heroes aren’t off in a corner alone with their creativity, energy, and courage. They’re out in the world; a force of nature against nature. They are players on the stage of life.

This is why Nietzsche pointed us back to the ancient Greeks for our models for living after Darwin and the death of God. The medieval idea of imagining yourself to be immortal (when you die your soul will just ascend to heaven, no big whoop) diminishes what’s at stake in this life and on this planet. Instead, the Greeks had it right. Choose your life and way of death because it matters. Don’t run away from suffering and difficulty, run towards it; work with it. Everything is at stake because you’re a mortal. Perform on the stage well; be brave, energetic, and creative. Hovering between gods and animals, you’re in the sweetest of existential spots. Know you’ll die. Now choose.

With regard to the proto-existentialism of the ancients, I like this passage in Carlin Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (pg. 32, UC Press 2001):

As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with a dagger in her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will. But there were, in the Roman mind, good contests and bad ones. A good contest obeyed restrictions: it needed to be a) framed and circumscribed within implicit or explicit boundaries accepted by the competitors, b) between relative equals, c) witnessed, and d) strenuous. The context between Mucius and Porsena was a hard but good one. Porsena was the enemy, but, in Livy’s mind, he and Mucius were playing by the same rules. The Etruscan chieftain could recognize Mucius’s gesture and appreciate the courage that it took. Overwhelmed with admiration for Mucius’s act, and for what it told of the Roman spirit, King Porsena freed his mutilated captive, raised the siege, and sought an alliance with the Romans.

In this is the hint as to how to live. And here as well:

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God, The New Testament, And The Holocaust

It’s very, very hard to speak of God’s existence and of human history going according to a divine plan after the Holocaust. In 1945, Theodore Adorno famously said that it’s absurd to write poetry after the Holocaust, and it seems equally absurd, post-Holocaust, to write theology as well.

The Holocaust pretty much killed off the traditional God hypothesis. No contemporary religious apologist should be taken seriously who cannot offer a sane account of the Holocaust as part of a personal God’s plan, and there really is no sane account of this on traditional theistic terms. Whatever is said about the Holocaust and God tends to run pretty quickly to the grotesque and morally repugnant. The Holocaust poses difficulties for theology that are more than just the traditional problem of suffering.

Christians have an especially problematic issue here because the Holocaust was the fruit of Christian antisemitism percolating in Europe for millennia. And the New Testament is full of antisemitic tropes (the Jews were responsible for the death of God; Jews are of the Synagogue of Satan; their hearts are hard; their leadership is corrupt; the Antichrist will be a Jew; God destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD because Jews crucified Christ; Jews spread malicious rumors that Jesus never raised from the dead; Jews were the chief enemies of Paul’s preaching; Jews that don’t convert are going to hell; Jesus supersedes the Jewish law; the temple priests of Jesus’s day were vipers, etc.). Hitler just plucked the low-hanging fruit from the Christian tree of historic Christian antisemitism. It was its logical extension put into a nationalist and bureaucratic context. And a tree is known for its fruit.

How then can anyone use the New Testament, after the Holocaust, as an authority for whether an afterlife exists–or for anything else for that matter? If the New Testament has shown itself so disastrously wrong about the Jews in tone and content–and its subsequent historical effect upon Jews has been so pernicious–how can one any longer seriously appeal to it?

Here’s a book by some Christian intellectuals wrestling with this very issue:

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Bart Ehrman: The Upton Sinclair of Jesus Studies

Look at the title of Bart Erhman’s new book in contrast with the title of its “flea” (the apologetic book that piggybacks on it):

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Notice that Ehrman’s book title invites the reader to explore something available to investigation and data: the historical process by which Christians came to believe that Jesus is God. In other words, we all know that this was not a rabbit-out-of-the-hat process. Beliefs emerge out of history, and Ehrman attempts to trace the history and evolution of an idea. Ehrman is a historian. He’s not pronouncing on the metaphysical question of God’s existence or Jesus’s divinity.

But the historical question nerves out the apologist because it’s obviously not the sort of question that lends itself to certainty, clean presentation, and confident proclamation.

Ehrman is thus the Upton Sinclair of Christianity. His books are different iterations on The Jungle. They are histories of the manufacture of religion.

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By contrast with Ehrman’s Jungle writing, the apologist really doesn’t want the religious flock to think all that much about the messy and contingent historical processes by which this or that religion evolved. He or she just wants to lay the plate of religious sausage before the consumer and say, “Eat.” So the history question gets sublimated or gussied up by the apologist beyond serious recognition, and in place of history, the apologist introduces metaphysics: Jesus is God right up front, he became man, and now I’ll spin the history in the light of this (unsupported) assumption.

It’s dishonest. It assumes in advance what is actually in question and in need of argument. It’s the game of confidence men, not seekers after truth. The truth is that we know less than we would like to–and pretend to know more than we do. And the truth is that every idea has a history–an evolutionary history.

It’s not always pleasant to think about how sausage is made–religious or otherwise. Ehrman’s new book is the chronicle of how the religious sausage of Jesus’s divinity got made before it hit our table.

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Koch Brothers Seek Reversal Of Solar Policies

I find this extremely upsetting. According to The New York Times, the billionaire Koch brothers are not just indifferent to solar energy, but actively trying to reverse alternative energy policies in the United States wherever they are found, state by state. They want more carbon emissions. More. They’re strategizing ways to make this happen. They don’t even want to pretend that it’s good public policy to try to slow or reverse current carbon emission trends globally. I had no idea. If this is Tea Party libertarianism, no sane person with children or grandchildren should want any part of it. For the sake of the human future, Republicans and Democrats should be able to find solidarity in some sort of pro-business route to a sustainable future. It’s a point where we ought to all be able to intersect as Americans and as human beings. The sustainable future part of this equation is where liberals can support business ventures and conservatives can support ecology and efficiency, but the Koch brothers want to impede even this minimal contact between the parties. It’s a scorched earth policy, literally, that they’re pursuing. All I can say is wow.

Here’s an interesting segment on the subject that I found on YouTube:

And here’s another:

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Does the Truth Matter or Not?

Catholic Andrew Sullivan, in the context of reading the biblical scholar Bart Erhman’s new book, How Jesus Became God (Harper 2014), makes a crisp and refreshingly direct statement to his fellow biblical religionists who ignore expert consensus and the general findings of contemporary biblical scholarship and archaeology:

In the end, the sole criterion of a religion is whether it is true. And if you’re misreading its core texts and failing to understand their origins and nuances, you’re not committed to the truth.

Towel. Snap.

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Clive Bundy’s Racist Meltdown

Nevada rancher Clive Bundy–Sean Hannity’s hero, the Tea Party’s id, and the latest cause celebre on Fox News–has just had his predictable meltdown, expressing overtly racist sentiments to a New York Times reporter. Right wing politicians, including presidential hopeful Rand Paul, are now trying to beat a hasty retreat from their embrace of him as an anti-government poster boy for Republican activism. This is in the NYT this morning:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

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From the Neuron to the Coffee House to the Internet: Steven Johnson’s TED Talk on How Ideas Have Sex

Great, great TED talk. From the neuronal network in your skull to the coffee house to the Internet, the idea world is rhizomatic.

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Is God a Person or The Ground of Being?

As an agnostic, I find the argument between intellectual Christians over whether God is a person or the Ground of Being interesting. On one side are Protestants like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne (God is a person, not merely some abstract Ground of Being). On the other are Catholics like Edward Feser and Thomas Aquinas (God is prior to personhood). Here’s Feser framing the debate:

The God of classical theism — of Athanasius and Augustine, Avicenna and Maimonides, Anselm and Aquinas — is (among other things) pure actuality, subsistent being itself, absolutely simple, immutable, and eternal.  Critics of classical theism sometimes allege that such a conception of God makes of him something sub-personal and is otherwise incompatible with the Christian conception.  As I have argued many times (e.g. hereherehere, and here) nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, to deny divine simplicity or the other attributes distinctive of the classical theist conception of God is implicitly to make of God a creature rather than the creator.  For it makes of him a mere instance of a kind, even if a unique instance.  It makes of him something which could in principle have had a cause of his own, in which case he cannot be the ultimate explanation of things.  It is, accordingly, implicitly to deny the core of theism itself.  As David Bentley Hart writes in The Experience of God (in a passage I had occasion to quote recently), it amounts to a kind of “mono-poly-theism,” or indeed to atheism.

Never mind that in the above passage Feser, in a bit of incoherence, repeatedly refers to God as he. Instead, focus on what Feser is arguing. He’s saying that if you think of God as literally a person–the greatest of ghost persons, with or without a ghost dick–who prefers and makes in the way that you prefer and make, you basically have a notion of God indistinguishable from a demiurge (a god like Zeus or Baal):

Theistic personalists are, as I have said, explicitly or implicitly committed to regarding God as an instance of a kind.  Their core thesis, to the effect that God is “a person without a body” (Swinburne) or that “there is such a person as God” (Plantinga), seems to give us something like the following picture: There’s the genus person and under it the two species embodied persons and disembodied persons.  Disembodied persons is, in turn, a genus relative to the species disembodied souls, angelic persons, and divine persons.  And it’s in the latter class, it seems, that you’ll find God.

And from here, Feser goes on the attack, his critique of personalistic theism ironically adopting the ridiculing tone–and even argumentative form–of new atheists like Richard Dawkins:

For the theistic personalist, then, the biblical assertion that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” seems to amount to something like “a certain instance of a species within the genus disembodied persons acquired a body.”  Now, when you think about it, that’s essentially the plot of Ghostbusters II.  Not as bad as the critics took it to be, I suppose, but hardly the Greatest Story Ever Told. [...] What you’ve got then is [...] the Incarnation as a movie pitch: [...]  I think we can get Anthony Hopkins, though maybe he’ll worry about typecasting after the Thor movies.  Anyway, God’s an Intelligent Designer too, like Downey, Jr. in Iron Man but with angels.  We’ll show him making bacterial flagella and stuff — CGI’s pretty good now, so it’ll look realistic.  Now, here’s the twist: He takes on a human body and comes to earth!  It’s The Ten Commandments meets Brother from Another Planet.

This is coming, recall, from a Catholic. And Feser continues:

Well, we’ve seen that movie a hundred times.  Horus was incarnate in the Pharaohs, Zeus changed into a swan, the Marvel Comics version of Thor took on the human guise of Donald Blake, and so on.  If God were, as theistic personalism claims, “a person” and “a being” alongside all the other persons and beings that populate the world, then he would differ only in degree from these other gods.

Okay, that’s ridiculous. If God really exists, God is not like that. But what’s the alternative? Here’s Feser again:

Now for the classical theist, God is not “a being” — not because he lacks being but on the contrary because he is Being Itself rather than something which merely “has” or “possesses” being (in “every possible world” or otherwise).  Nor is he “a person” — not because he is impersonal but on the contrary because he is Intellect Itself rather than something which merely “exemplifies” “properties” like intellect and will.  (As I have put it before, the problem with the sentence “God is a person” is not the word “person” but the word “a.”)  Describing God as “a being” or “a person” trivializes the notion of God, and it thereby trivializes too the notion of God Incarnate.

For the classical theist, what the doctrine of God Incarnate entails is that that which is subsistent being itselfpure actuality, and absolutely simple or non-composite, that in which all things participate but which itself participates in nothing, that which thereby sustains all things in being — that that “became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That is a truly astounding claim, so astounding that its critics often accuse it of incoherence.

And that’s the problem. You’ve got a child’s conception of God–which Feser ably dismantles–or you’ve got accusations of incoherence.

I see this very debate as yet another example of theism in a state of serious intellectual crisis in the 21st century. You have intellectual Catholics summing up Protestantism as (at best) demiurgic polytheism and at worst atheism, and you’ve got intellectual Protestants summing up Catholicism as (at best) incoherent and at worst atheism (because the Ground of Being promoted by Thomists like Feser is simply too abstract a peg on which to hang a truly personal God). Both sides are highly, highly educated and well-versed in the issues at stake. Both sides have thought about God’s nature a lot. And they can’t agree, dismissing one another’s view of God as ultimately a subtle form of atheism.

What if they’re both right?

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The 2008 Financial Crisis Will Happen Again (Probably In The 2020s)

Forty reasons:

  • Risk-taking alpha males.
  • Coke using.
  • Hookers.
  • Nihilism.
  • Amorality.
  • The rich will turn their backs on society.
  • Emotional blackmail: “You need us! Without us the economy will crash!”
  • Abusers of the financial system will have well-prepared lawyers.
  • The culture rewards risk-takers and impulsivity.
  • Shell games.
  • Technology, as it complexifies still more, will tend to even greater levels of mystification and obfuscation than in 2008.
  • Gambling.
  • Never enough. More.
  • People tend to outsource their critical thinking to authority figures: “Things are under control–trust us!”
  • Those in power will make claims without supports under cover of authority.
  • Motivated reasoning and financially rewarded reasoning will continue to guide decision-making.
  • Regulators won’t be looking. They will deliberately not look. They will be asleep at the wheel. And what they do identify, they will not wholly understand.
  • Disinterested experts will not be sought out, and will be ignored if they speak out.
  • There will be no lobbying money on the other side to provide push-back against the financial sector.
  • Not risking their own money, financial sector workers will risk other people’s money, and there will be no penalty to them for the losses they incur.
  • The big money players will call what they’re doing “risk adjusted performance,” but it will actually be “more performance for more risk.”
  • Regulators will befriend those they are regulating. There will be a revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. There will be conflicts of interest.
  • People will be paid off for their silence.
  • People responsible for policing the financial sector won’t be talking or consulting with one another.
  • Dubious investment instruments will be given a high investment grade (AAA) by investment rating agencies.
  • Because of greed, the masses of people will be made complicit with the financial sector, and will thus be vulnerable to impulsive sales techniques: “Are you missing the real estate boom?” Selling will be driven by emotion, not reason.
  • Someone or something will be too big to fail.
  • Fraud. Bullshit. There will be no moment where regulators say to the financial sector’s leadership, “No bullshit, what’s the data?” False signals will be sent to investors.
  • Statements made in public will not be those made in private. People will thus invest based on false information and misleading statements.
  • Powerful people will make themselves inaccessible to scrutiny and contact. They will be untouchable. They’ll hire the best lawyers. You won’t even see photos of them. They will move about like phantoms.
  • The financial industry will donate to and lobby both parties in Washington, providing carrots and sticks to elected officials to look the other way. For every congressperson, there will be multiple lobbyist-lawyers assigned to them.
  • Academic experts will be for hire. Bright intellectuals will run cover for the financial industry, making money sitting on boards and writing reports. Economics, as a discipline, will go on being corrupted by money.
  • Bureaucracy–federal and corporate–will make buck-passing easy. There will be no lines of direct accountability. When the catastrophe hits, no one will claim to have had their hands on the wheel.
  • What regulatory agencies exist will be slowly starved for funds.
  • New ideologies will emerge to support the greed and corruption, and old ones will be trotted out and given a contemporary retread (Atlas Shrugged 2.0, etc.).
  • People will believe they can create something from nothing.
  • It will be hard to speak against the new banking shenanigans. Whistle blowers will be severely punished (as will politicians who support regulation). It will be very, very expensive to speak–both personally and financially. Those with a conscience will know bullying and isolation.
  • There will be no separation of powers balancing one another. It will all be incestuous. A free-for-all. A form of store-front looting on a global scale.

The script writes itself, doesn’t it?

I made this list, by the way, while watching Inside Job. None of the behaviors in that film have really changed. None of them. Things other than critical thinking and public spiritedness are aligning for a financial crisis replay.

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