The Other America

May 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

It has come to my attention that there is another United States of America somewhere. It is very different than the country in which I grew up. In this Other US, all of the cars are electric. And they fly. There is universal healthcare, and it works perfectly. Everyone can divide by zero as much and as often as they want, and the results are mathematically useful. I learned of this Other America because over there it is a huge surprise that Americans would celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. I wonder what the night sky looks like there.

I’ll get to my own feelings on the matter in a minute. First I want to talk about other people’ feelings about other people’s feelings.

Pam Spritzer is among the deplorable yippies hemming and hawing over the least surprising thing ever to happen. She scrawled out this piece of self-important garbage for huffpo (world leader in that particular field). If I had to pick one excerpt to encapsulate the fake solemnity and almost impossible unawareness, I’d go with this one:

“Lest we forget, bin Laden too was a human being, born helpless like the rest of us, coddled by his mother, traumatized by the sudden death of his father when he was a boy of ten. Many have described him as considerate, gentle, and generous.”

That’s a good point; some less enlightened folks might have lapsed and thought we just killed a Komodo Dragon, or a moose. Naturally, the rest of Huffington’s op-ed page basically wall-to-wall newage wank over how sad we should be that Osama Bin Laden is dead. They tell us (with varying degrees of truth) that various religious traditions prohibit such displays, and remind us as above that Osama Bin Laden was Still A Person. B’kef.

In case anyone other than Pam Spritzer needs this explained: The people celebrating Osama’s death know that he was a human being. This is not the point on which they need to be educated, and at this juncture I don’t think any number of character references is going to make up for the atrocities he committed either in Afghanistan or abroad. The Americans celebrating his death are knowingly celebrating the death of another human being. You know, the same way they’ve done since the exact beginning of human history. Anyone claiming to be disturbed by this all of a sudden is either too stupid or too dishonest to be worth listening to.

Many people on facebook (check out youropenbook.org if you don’t believe me) are posting statements to the effect that celebrating Bin Laden’s death makes us “just like them”. I don’t really know who “us” and “them” are in that equation, but I can’t think of any combination that isn’t incredibly, offensively stupid. Ultimately this is what bothers me about the whole conceit: ‘Other Americans are jerks for being happy, I’m better than them for pretending to be sad.’ Real helpful guys.

So here are a few facts about the America in which I grew up: In my America, people believe that the US military is the single best and greatest thing ever to exist (other than maybe Jesus). In my America, the very same people believe that they must stockpile firearms and ammunition in order to fight that very same military, should the need arise. In my America, posters on freerepublic and stormfront still make veiled references to the assassination of the president. They do not get banned. And in my America, students at my high school counter-protested demonstrations opposing the invasion of Iraq. They threw bottles into a crowd of their peers in order to voice the desire to see their own friends cousins, siblings, and parents sent to war. If Osama Bin Laden was killed and the collective response of American citizenry was solemn contemplation, I’d be forced to wonder where my America went.

I’m not saying that any of the above are good things, or that the death of anyone (even Bin Laden) ought to be met with jubilation. What I am saying is this: a) The celebrations of Bin Laden’s demise are so unsurprising that they scarcely warrant mention and b) Just because it’s wrong or at least unseemly to celebrate the deaths of one’s enemies, it’s not necessarily mandatory to mourn them.

I am glad that Bin Laden is dead. Not throwing-a-barbecue-and-buying-a-commemorative-plate glad, but glad. I don’t know what the tactical value of the killing was, nor do I particularly care. I don’t mourn Bin Laden’s death because I think that the net result is better than the result of him staying alive. I think it would still have been better to arrest him, but I will lose precisely no sleep at all over the fact that he was shot instead. I think that mourning a death is only meaningful if it is somehow connected to a relationship that existed in life. In practice, I do think that almost all deaths warrant mourning. Still, some individuals have such an adverse effect on so many other people that their deaths leave me ambivalent.

The reasons I’m actively glad that Bin Laden is dead have little to do with the man himself. They have much more to do with the name ‘Osama Bin Laden’ and the effect it has had on American politics since 2001. For conservative politicians, Osama was a trump card authorizing them to do whatever they wished. The name curtailed attempts at revising policy in Afghanistan (“We have to get Osama!”) and helped drive us headlong into the bloodbath of Iraq. The conservative base in the US tend to be wound pretty tight, but the unknown whereabouts of Bin Laden in the years following 9/11 drove them to new and psychotic lengths.

When I first heard that he’d been killed, I felt relieved. On reflection, I realized that I was really feeling relief over the catharsis that I suspect has taken place throughout the American conservative population. If their constant fear and anger is in any way mitigated by Bin Laden’s death, if it allows them to relax at all, then I’m glad it happened. And if the celebrations we’re seeing are followed by an opportunity for a slightly less depraved national discourse, I’m not too concerned about them.

Outbursts of glee over this event should not be troubling in and of themselves. They should be troubling because they are the logical, predictable outgrowth of a discourse that has been thriving in the USA for decades now. They should be troubling because of their inevitability. But I don’t think it’s constructive to focus on this one facet of the larger problem. The celebrations, and the attitudes they express, are indications of a miseducated and emotionally damaged populace.

The USA is plagued by factual and moral ignorance, and that is a deeply pressing concern. It is also, however, a complicated concern; one that I would argue would be better served by more empathy toward the living rather than the dead. I agree that Bin Laden’s death should not be cause for dancing in the streets, but I find it equally disgusting to see it used as a cheap means for self-congratulatory posturing. I think that the amount of good that follows now will be proportionate to our collective ability to seriously engage with the issues.

Mark: 2 (In Which I Fail Bible 101 Due To Lack of Attendance)

February 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

Well this is getting a bit ridiculous. This time around I’m absent from bible study because I mis-remembered the time as 1:30 when it was actually 11:30. No excuse for that other than the fact that God is supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent so really this is still all on him. Despite the apparent divine injunction against my scriptural education (or my own incompetence, whichever makes more sense to you) I did read the second page of Mark (approximately 1:16-1-32) last night and did more highlighting and deep contemplation, so here yet again are me brief thoughts on the text.

General Thoughts

Even more than the last page, this one seems absolutely packed. The narrative style is aggressively condensed, either because that’s the nature of the original idiom or to conserve writing supplies or both. I get the distinct feeling that the author is working really hard to write down only the really important stuff and trusting the reader (or himself, if he personally planned to teach from the text) to fill in the gaps. I don’t know enough about ancient Greek or Aramaic to say that this wasn’t just a feature of the language, but other translated Greek and Hebrew works I’ve read don’t come off as rushed in nearly the same way. The idea that writing supplies (and time for that matter) were expensive and/or scarce makes sense to me. In the context of the early writings– where much religion (and Jewish religion specifically) involved an oral tradition that was distinct from the written one, so it’s plausible to me that an author of this period would pack things into as few pages as possible trusting that any omissions would be conveyed by other means.

I don’t know if I’m right about any of that of course, but those are the things that today’s reading brought to mind. This line of thought, if it is even close to correct in the abstract, helps me grasp the desire for four Gospels. Obviously that’s a far smaller number than were written, but many early Christian and pre-Christian sects only used one. Once the decision was made to select a definitive version of the story, I can imagine that any one version would seem to leave out indispensable information. Especially if the decision is being made by a committee of individuals who don’t all agree about what qualifies as “indispensable” anyway.

Drop Everything

As usual, quotes are from the NRSV that the study uses.

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

This is weird, right? Based on my scant knowledge of Greek I would say that the phrase “fishers of men” scans a little more like a pun in the original language, since the difference between “men who fish” and “fishers among men” likely depends on a prefix and/or word placement rather than a separate word indicating the relationship of these particular men to other men and the act of fishing.

Another explanation would be that the idea of being a “fisher of _____” was some sort of idiom at the time, or a reference to Jewish religion. The only things I know about this passage for sure are a) That the Pope has a cool ring designed around it, and b) That it is really strange that the response from everyone is just to go “Oh okay then” and drop their work and follow along. Basically one of three things would seem to be the case:

  1. Everyone involved is already on familiar terms with Jesus and this is just a general invitation to go somewhere.
  2. Jesus is employing some spooky Pied-Piper style persuasion techniques which we’re meant to file under “miracle”.
  3. The interaction reads as abrupt because the author is trying to move toward the important parts of the plot rather than draw out an interaction that is only of consequence insofar as it results in everyone going along with Jesus– the part that’s actually spelled out.

Certainly there are other options but none of them make much sense to me. I bet someone is going to totally school me on all of this in the comments so we’ll just wait and see how wrong I am.

Caper’naum

And they went into Caper’naum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

So that’s why names in sci-fi stuff always have so many apostrophes.

In any case, this passage caught my eye for a few reasons. First of all, the word “immediately” is being used in an unusual way, just like it was in the quote above. It’s translated exactly the same way in the ESV, but a few other versions use either “straightway” or “without delay”. My initial thought was that the word seems to be functioning more to locate things in time than to denote the quick succession of events, but the common thread in all three translations is pretty clear. So it would seem that the author of Mark really does want us to have the sense that all of these events are happening one right after the other. Odd.

Another interesting feature of this passage is the description of Jesus’ teaching style. Harold Bloom, in his excellent book Jesus and Yahweh suggests that the literary Jesus shows compelling signs of being a Pharisee. This passage, along with others, supports that theory. In the Jewish tradition, to “teach with authority” meant studying a whole bunch. In part this meant being born into the right family but that wasn’t quite a requirement– Hillel was Babylonian and although he apparently got some grief for it he still managed to be one of the most respected Jewish scholars ever.

In this passage and others, Jesus shows evidence of being literate in traditions written in Hebrew and Greek. If you’re religious you can explain this by saying that God conferred this knowledge to his son/self through magic. In a non-religious reading a less exciting explanation is required, and the idea that Jesus was part of the now-reviled priesthood does seem to fit. Some may object: “But he was a carpenter!” For our purposes, yes that’s true. But so was Shammai. Didn’t seem to slow him down.

Exorcise More

“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Again with the immediacy. Still, that’s the least strange part of this bit.

Everyone is already astonished, and suddenly a guy who is possessed by a demon barges into the synagogue. I say “barges”; literalist readers may be forced to assume that Mr. Linda Blair actually teleports in but I’m assuming once again that I’m meant to assume that the omitted details are unimportant, and that our Satanically-impaired friend entered the building in the usual way.

In the time of Mark the art of demonic possession was apparently still in its early stages, so instead of pea-soup vomit and unexplained education we just get rude interruptions and rhetorical questions. The question is an interesting one though. The Possessed Extra asks “What have you to do with us…?”, and then in John 2:4 Jesus himself says (to his mother) “”Woman, what does this have to do with me?'” The translation I usually see (from the always-entertaining KJV) is “‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?'” which is a direct paraphrase of P.E.

Why this similarity exists, and why the ESV translates it differently, I do not know.

The exorcism is only marginally more exciting than the possession, although it is the one place where we get a few descriptive details rather than a statement of consecutive events. The interesting thing to me though is the reaction from onlookers:

“With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

This is becomes important when we get to the question of why an omnipotent god would allow Satan and his various minions to exist and operate. I know there some complex apologetics regarding this, but the question of why God is so laissez faire about the devil is one that reliably elicits the answer “God can’t…” Setting aside that by most conventional definitions he can, this passage demonstrates it conclusively and (importantly for Christians) scripturally. If he felt like it, God could literally stop evil spirits just by telling them to. So it would seem the explanation of why he chooses not to is better left to the heavy hitters of apologetics, not just anyone with a bunch of Michael Horner videos favorited on youtube.

Also of interest in this vignette: The use of the word “unclean”. It refers to a whole lot of Jewish law, and Jewish folklore does incorporate dybbuks that are capable of possession. Theologically though, possession and evil spirits don’t begin to approach the importance that they see here. Just one of the many small shifts that make Christianity its own entity, and distinguish it from its Hebraic origin.

The Inclusive “Or”

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.”

I might write more on this specific topic later since I think it’s really interesting, I’ll just cover how I think it relates to Mark:

In this passage, the author makes an explicit distinction between being sick and being possessed. This indicates that at the time certain illnesses were understood to have purely physiological causes, and others were understood to be the product of “unclean spirits”. So first of all it points a little bit to where exactly this line was– based on this instance at least, behavioural problems of a certain nature and degree were classed as demonic. The thing is, physical illnesses were often attributed to divine retribution.

One kind of sickness is a tool of God, the other is possession by an evil spirit. The Old Testament has God handing out leprosy and SIDS among other ailments. Later traditions attributed most normal germ-born illness to the vengeful almighty. If Mark’s representation is a trend (and I think that it is, at least in Charismatic sects), then the devil’s area of specialization is essentially the weird stuff. Symptoms that hurt, debilitate, and kill come from a just and loving God the Father. The stuff that changes who you are? That could only be the work of Satan.

This whole relationship to illness is fascinating to me, but this division of labour is of particular interest. It suggests to me that sickness can be seen as just a part of life, but that certain symptoms provoke a visceral horror that demands a supreme evil as its explanation. I wonder if Satan’s adequacy for that particular role is part of the reason for his construction, and later longevity.

So I guess this latest sliver of Mark has me thinking about health and the devil.

I wonder what they talked about at the actual session.

Notes From Tabling

January 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Sorry for the lapse everyone, I know you all miss my ramblings terribly. I was busy organizing tabling for SFU Clubs Days– an eventful time for the SFU Skeptics exec, but not nearly as busy as it used to be. Out volunteers are extremely dedicated and competent. This semester, for the first time ever, I had no anxiety whatsoever about leaving the table in the hands of our non-exec members. I’m irrationally anxious about these things, but they were so effective when I was watching this time that I really couldn’t worry. That’s a good feeling.

While they were handling everything brilliantly, I wandered around to talk to religious reps. I usually do this. It usually goes better than it did this time, where I wound up having two weird and not-very-good exchanges. Some brief thoughts on those:

Weird Conversation 1: Go Forth and Study…?

This was an exchange with a guy from a nondenominational group. As best as I can recall, here’s how the basic structure of our conversation went (after introductions):

  1. He said something to the effect that I was “closed-minded”.
  2. I gave some examples of things that would convince me of something similar to the god of the NT.
  3. He said, in a rather strange tone, that I “just need to study more.”
  4. Since he seemed to be setting a standard of scholarship for unbelief, I inquired as to whether the same standard, or any at all, also applies to belief under his system.
  5. Things got very weird and we talked past one another for a bit. He seemed kind of tongue-tied for whatever reason and I got the sense I was coming off as a jerk (and maybe even really being one) so I abruptly ended our interaction and went back to the Skeptics table.

Weird Conversation 2: As Usual, the Jews Are Wrong.

I ended up losing my patience in this case but I don’t feel bad about it. This was actually my second conversation with a girl who had spoken to us briefly on the first day of tabling, mostly to play devil’s advocate about homeopathy, which she said she doesn’t actually believe in.

My big problem with her is that she exhibited a high level of comfort with asserting flatly that the Jewish position on anything in the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament is wrong. It is very rare that I feel offended as a Jew, but explanations of the “second covenant” seem to be having that effect on me of late. I think I would be able to deal with an actual argument, but what I hear (and I’m sure it isn’t intended) is a very casual rejection of the totality of Jewish thought with respect to a Jewish book. “You see, this passage about David is really about Jesus, it’s just that every scholar in the Talmudic and normative traditions failed to grasp the concept that is so evident to me, a Christian with no real clue about the differences between the Torah and the OT.”

Again, this is what I hear. Maybe there’s a deep respect for Jewish history and culture there that I’m just missing.

This particular conversation jumped around quite a bit, as they tend to do between atheists and religious apologists. The next thing that really bothered me though was the response I got when I cited the passage in (let’s say) 2 Corinthians where Paul says that women shouldn’t be allowed to speak in churches, or be teachers of men. Now, I’ve heard before that this was only intended to refer to a specific group of women, not all of them. I don’t buy it, but it’s at least debatable. The response I got really isn’t.

What this individual told me was that permitting women to learn in “silent submission” actually constitutes an improvement on the convention in the Roman empire, under which they were forbidden from learning in general. Two things about this: First, I often hear defences of religious morality that hinge on it being a marginal improvement on an even worse system. Second, as in this case, the worse system is often completely made up. So that was a weird and frustrating argument.

We also found out during tabling that SFU now has its very own “Faith and Reason” club. Their plan seems to be to hold dialogue events centring around religion regularly throughout the semester. I’m currently in the process of trying to organize such an event myself, so I think their presence will be an asset. I’m a bit reticent about the ground rules they’ve set for their discussions (no one is allowed to say things that offend anyone else) but I’m willing to give them a chance. Anything that gets us talking about this subject is more than fine by me.

Finally, big announcement time:

I am going to be attending regular bible studies here at SFU.

Yeah. The subject is New Testament, gospel of Mark. I’m told we’re using the NRSV, which from my limited experience seems to be a pretty decent edition. It’s possible that one other SFU Skeptic will be attending with me, but as far as I know we’ll be the only secularists in evidence. If it works out and I go every week, I’ll try to blog about each one. I think it will do me some good to familiarize myself with the NT, although I’m a little bit worried that the people running the group will be disappointed if I’m not terribly impressed/instantly converted.

Again, sorry for the delay in posting. I think I’m mostly settled in at this point so I should be able to work something up if not every day, then hopefully every two days. No promises though.

In Which I Go Against My Better Judgment

December 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

… And respond to a Jonathan Van Maren blog. First, let’s be clear about Van Maren: He is so wrong so often that if he said two and two equal four I would feel compelled to check the math. I’m not sure if Van Maren is as ignorant and repulsive as he comes off or if he’s just hoping to make a career out of pandering to those who are. Whatever the case, I try not to give him too much attention. I’m making an exception in this case because he inadvertently brings up a good point. He’s on the wrong side of it, but he does bring it up:

“If atheists and humanists and others who regularly employ their anti-theocratic disdain on the Christian population at large find religion to be ridiculous, then why do they feel that aboriginal religions and spirituality have any more credence?”

The short answer is that we don’t. Native American/First Nations creation myths have no more grounding in fact than do the Jewish, Hindu, Egyptian, or ancient Sumerian ones. Van Maren is operating under the implicit premise that critics of religion must spend equal time on every variety of it, regardless of prevalence or influence in the public sector. Most people, including Van Maren, prioritize their criticism according to what they deem to be the most prevalent and urgent. Suggesting that others should take a less pragmatic approach is simply laughable.  Speaking of which:

“If they simply believe that religion is the result of humanity’s irrational desire to have unanswerable questions answered, than how does aboriginal spirituality, which compared to Christianity has accomplished far less, historically speaking, somehow manage to insert itself into hundreds of public occasions and gain the respect of smirking leftists?”

I’m not a smirking leftist, just a normal one so I can’t speak for Van Maren’s straw men. The fact that the ceremonies are representative of sovereign political entities might have something to do with it though. Also, there is no popular trope asserting that indigenous beliefs should have a strong  influence on policy. I’m sure some people advocate it, but it poses no practical threat to secular democracy.

As for the “historical accomplishments” of Christianity, it bears mentioning that the near-obliteration of indigenous belief is one of these. And let’s not forget the fate that indigenous people themselves suffered at the hands of those who sought to Christianize the Americas. The history of agressive campaigns to forcibly insert Christianity into public life is the reason that it deserves constant criticism now. And in certain cases it is also the reason other types of belief do not.

This is not to say that I think indigenous beliefs should be completely exempt from criticism. I don’t. And as I’ve remarked before I think more effort needs to be made to provide for non-believing individuals who come from minority communities that identify extensively through religious expression. I think this is true of Native American/First Nations, Muslims, Christians, and others. In these cases I think the practical and compassionate  approach is to ease the anxiety surrounding unbelief and to support the right of all individuals to retain whatever religious and cultural identity they choose regardless of their belief or lack thereof.

Privileged ideologues like Van Maren (not him in particular, but those like him) deserve more vocal opposition because the toxic views they promote are more widely accepted and tolerated in our society. There is a large contingent of individuals who believe that their particular religious views should be imposed in various ways on the general population. Much as they like to claim persecution, the largest of these groups do genuine harm to society. This effect is compounded by the political machinations that have infused North American Christian identity with other harmful ideologies.

So to summarize: Van Maren is as useless as ever, but secular activists can still stand to be reminded that no ideology or belief is off limits for reasoned discussion, and that minority communities also need need help to become more accepting of their non-religious membership.

Edit: Ian Bushfield also wrote a succinct and effective response.

Behind the Curtain: Addendum

December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

This Q&A with the curators of the NPG exhibit is very revealing and interesting. There are a few things that bear mentioning after my first post on the topic. First of all, the individual responsible for pulling the Wojnarowicz video is Secretary G. Wayne Clough, an Obama appointee. The curators didn’t cave, he did. In my opinion, he’s the one person who should actually be fired over this. Not because pulling the piece was cowardly, but because it was stupid. He should have recognized an empty threat coming from the right and called their bluff. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but I don’t think the Smithsonian can afford to have someone so devoid of political sense in such a high position. I’d like to see him gone.

The interview also emphasizes the whole show as a priority though, and I think this is a good point. It was wrong to pull the Wojnarowicz piece, but  the exhibition itself is still extremely important and we shouldn’t act as if it isn’t just because of this debacle. As curator Katz says:

“What I think we need to remember is that the Smithsonian is courageous and that other museums were not. I’m increasingly getting concerned that the activist response targeting the Smithsonian loses the bigger picture, which is that it’s been 21 years since Mapplethorpe and no one has done a damn thing in that time, that museums have been sitting on their hands and that this incident confirms the wisdom of so doing.

It’s probably a vain hope, but I still want to express the hope that 11 seconds of video do not overshadow an exhibition that is historic.”

This is a salient point but I think it actually underscores the importance of having this fight now that it’s been started. Katz and Ward seem to say some contradictory things about the role of homophobia in this scandal. I maintain that it’s the core motivation for the attack and that the Wojnarowicz piece was chosen to cover that fact. That Bill Donohue feels he needs to disguise his motivation is a good sign, but I think it’s all the more reason to expose the truth in this instance.

Katz seems more or less in agreement:

“I think it’s an interesting cultural moment when the homophobes — and that’s what they are are — are actually trying to redirect the dialogue toward religion because clearly that suggests in my reading that the old homophobic line isn’t working as well anymore. Paradoxically I read that as progress.”

I think that it will be progress if pro-LGBT activists can make the homophobic elements of this debacle as public and as costly as possible.

The reason I think it’s important to have this fight then is to ensure that it isn’t another twenty-one years until another major institution holds an exhibit like this. It needs to be shown that the art world can refuse to be a pawn in social-conservative strategy. The Smithsonian has been dealt a pretty strong hand and I think that the network of LGBT activists is large enough to spin this in a more positive direction if they so chose. Skeptic and atheist bloggers who are concerned with free speech (of which there are many) would also do well to take part.

In summary: The Smithsonian absolutely deserves credit for putting this exhibition on in the first place. Wojnarowicz or no (and he actually has two other pieces still in the show) it’s a good and important thing. Clough should still be out on his ass for being a stupid pushover though, and every pundit and politician who attacked the piece should be held accountable for supporting a campaign that had no earthly reason to exist except for homophobia. That’s my opinion as of now at least.

I may also write an entire post on the role of religion in this thing as well– I think it’s culpable in a very complicated way; such that it actually does make sense to exclude it from soundbites and other heavily simplified communications.

Pay Close Attention to the Man Behind The Curtain

December 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

Bill Donahue is The Catholic League. He calls himself the president of the league, which is true, he just leaves out the fact that he’s also effectively every other part of it. He spends his time doing things like claiming that all of the priests implicated in sexual abuse are gay (no comment on the ones who protected and enabled them for decades), and that the Inquisition wasn’t that bad. Basically his role is to downplay real scandals that negatively impact the Church and invent scandals that validate and affirm generally bigoted and insane viewpoints. And shill for right wing politicians when it suits his agenda, which (surprise surprise) it always does.

His most recent accomplishment is getting a piece pulled from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit. The work at issue in this case is a video installation by David Wojnarowicz, called A Fire in My Belly. The piece is a devastating outpouring of rage, helplessness and grief. It was created in 1987 after Wojnarowicz lost a close friend to AIDS related complications; he died the same way himself in 1992. The piece contains frontal male nudity, blood, ritual self mutilation, and text from the bible. Conservatives are angry because it also depicts a crucifix covered in ants for about ten seconds.

Seriously, that’s what they picked to be angry about. After several months of the exhibit being up.

So talking heads and political officials railed against the piece, Glenn Beck accused it of breaking down the family (I guess people who contract HIV don’t have families in Beckistan), and various spokespersons smugly admonished liberals and other people who oppose the funding of interesting art with tax dollars, despite the fact that this particular exhibit was privately funded. Mostly by LGBT charities. No taxpayer dollars were harmed in the making of this exhibit.

It was observed later that the ten second clip being targeted by all of this outrage is actually a reference to historical depictions of Jesus. It is a lamentation, not a satire or an attack. It’s an image borrowed from historical Catholic art. The people smugly condemning the piece as blasphemous aren’t just ignorant of contemporary art. They’re ignorant of all art, including that of their own traditions.

There are a few reasons that I think the Wojnarowicz piece became the target. First of all, it’s an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery focusing on LGBT issues. Since the explicit hatred of gay individuals is no longer quite as acceptable as it once was, Donahue and his ilk needed a pretense, paper thin though it may be, to attack the show.

While the Wojnarowicz piece technically does not blaspheme against Jesus, it does contain religious imagery. And it does blaspheme against an even more important conservative icon: Ronald Reagan, whose ignorance and/or apathy of the AIDS crises made him culpable in a great deal of suffering and death (in addition to the rest). But if it hadn’t been this piece it would have been another: The agenda here is to attack the presentation of significant LGBT work at the Smithsonian, and the people responsible for this mess should be called on that.

Moreover, they should be called on what they’re really doing because it would help institutions to stand up to this idiocy in the future. Here’s what I haven’t seen anyone say in the blogs or press covering the scandal:

Bill Donahue, John Boehner, and the rest of the right do not care about the outcome of this fight. They have no concern for museums or what takes place inside of them until they feel the need to score political points with people who think that Thomas Kincaid is the pinnacle of artistic achievement. This kind of fake outrage is just posturing and it only becomes a real issue because institutions actually cave to the ridiculous demands of a cardboard “league” and some otherwise irrelevant politicians.

This is what I would like to hear from museums whenever one of these fake scandals gets cooked up:

“You don’t really care about this. You don’t know enough about it to care, and your record of non-involvement shows that you don’t care. And if you don’t really care, then we don’t need to care. Find another whipping boy for this news cycle and let the grown-ups talk about grown-up art. There is no scandal here, there is no controversy. Those interested in seeing the exhibit can view it at [location] between [dates]. Those not interested in seeing it are free to do whatever it is they normally do, which probably doesn’t involve visiting art galleries anyway.”

The other thing that would help (and I don’t hold out much hope for this) would be for moderate Catholics to publicly reject the representation that Donohue imposes on them. He is orchestrating the attack on this exhibit for exactly one reason: He hates gay people. Politicians are playing along because they know that some of their constituents also hate gay people. This is about homophobia and politics. It’s time for religious moderates to do their share in fighting this deadly combination. I’m sick of being told that I’m conflating moderates with extremists after the former fail unilaterally to make themselves heard.

The silver lining here (thin though it may be) is that censorship is really hard to do nowadays. People have started bringing the piece in themselves on iPads and phones, and the offending segment is up on youtube for all to see and share. It is definitely Not Safe For Work, so click and repost accordingly:

The true outrage here is that a message that really matters, and principles that really matter, are being trampled on by cynical and morally bankrupt political operatives who have no real stake in the outcome. And the kicker is that the vast majority of religious people in the US have no objection to the piece at issue. Most people understand that if you don’t like a piece or an exhibit then you don’t have to go see it. A few people understand that sometimes it’s good to see art that you don’t like. And all of those people are being casually flipped off by the grand right wing circle-jerk that still thrives in this country.

Because they know that it’s still safe, still fashionable, and still politically expedient to be a homophobe in the USA in 2010.

And it will still be that way next year.

Religion, Ecumenicalism, and Sheer Numbers.

December 5, 2010 § 6 Comments

When I speak with religious students on campus there are a few arguments I almost always get around to making. I find when I bring an argument up regularly it’s either because it’s a response to something presented to me great deal, or because I think that it applies to religion in general rather than being specific to one faith or denomination. The argument I’m about to outline has both of these qualities– it’s a response to an argument that I’ve heard in support of almost every major religion and I think it’s a valid response in each case. So I’ll start with the pro-religion statement to which I’m responding:

“Can [X number] of [followers of a given religion] really all be wrong?”

This is an interesting argument to me for a few reasons so I’ll get the less interesting part out of the way first. The boring answer is just “Yes.” It is possible, in principle, for any number of people to be wrong about something. The argument from martyrdom is a kind of sub-species of this general approach and they are both susceptible to a correct one-word answer. I could leave it at that, but a) Just naming a fallacy and declaring victory is both a dick move and itself fallacious and b) Further analysis of the question highlights some important aspects of religious belief.

First of all, the fact that I hear this argument from Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims is in itself pretty significant. The individuals trying to provoke incredulity by calling attention to the popularity of their own religious beliefs are totally unmoved by the very argument they’re employing when it’s used by anyone else. Not a good sign. When I point out that the group “all beliefs other than [religon X]” is always larger than [religion X], the subject is typically changed.

But let’s allow for the moment that the group that actually is the largest can use this argument persuasively. It isn’t logically sound but if we’re charitable we can say that it supports the plausibility of a given belief. This cosmetic credibility is the reason I think religious people (I assume unconsciously) fudge the numbers when they employ this technique. When Christians employ the argument they tend to state that the “number of Christians in the world” is somewhere between two and three billion (I recall hearing 2.5 and “over 3″ on different occasions). Muslims, having comparatively small numbers at present, tend to cite growth rate as the big selling point. So Islam is usually “[number] and the fastest growing”. This is problematic for more reasons than are even apparent at first.

I’m going to just grant that in the “real” version of this argument the numbers are based on hard data and not exaggerated for effect or by mistake. Even if the statistical data is what they say it is, the whole thing collapses when you start asking about the details. “Christianity” as measured in this way includes Catholicism, European Orthodox, American Protestant, Evangelical, and United churches all in the same lump sum. I’ve asked Catholics whether they really wanted to include snake-handling, tongue-speaking Charasmatic sects in their count. I’ve asked Pentacostals whether they want to include icon-worshipping papists (Catholics) in their count, and I have asked moderate Sunnis whether they feel Wahabi radicals are to be included in their ranks for this exercise. Despite their other differences, my religious peers seem in agreement that the answer to this particular question is “no.”

Now to recap, even if this argument was only being used by the single largest extant religious group it would not constitute proof or even evidence of accuracy. The reason I like to pursue this line of thought is that under slight scrutiny it actually shows the reverse of what it’s supposed to. So no one has a majority– the best they could do would be a plurality. But even if one denomination did have a majority under its generic designation, the aggregate of all other religions is always much bigger. This pie chart, which I think is accurate enough, shows the difference nicely.

What these numbers show is that no one has a majority either between religions or within a given (major) one. So whoever happens to have chosen both the right god and the right way to worship would appear to have done so almost entirely by luck, and whoever they are they constitute a minuscule fragment of religious believers, and by extension the population at large.

But what about the ecumenicalists? The people who say that everyone can be “right”, the differences are only on the surface and at their core the world’s faith systems are essentially in agreement? I encounter many people who promote some version of this, and it does seem to bypass the problem of numbers. It might actually do so, except for one detail: Followers of most major brands of theism explicitly reject it. Ask an evangelical if any religion that rejects the divinity of Christ can “also be right”. Ask even a moderate Muslim if it is possible to truly know Allah without recognizing Muhammad as his final and authoritative prophet. Repeat as necessary.

The problem of ecumenicalism then is that it is actually a distinct brand of belief. It’s not an apparatus that resolves the conflicts between existing faiths; it’s a rhetorical device used mostly by new-age “spiritual” types who belong to none of the individual groups that they purport to unite. The fact is that the majority of religious people profess to be practicing the one and only correct form of religion. I actually find it quite arrogant when individuals with no real education in religion (comparative or otherwise) declare that the majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others are simply doing it wrong.

I may disagree with religious people but at least when they tell me about the tenets of their faith I listen, and I take them at their word. I will admit that I do make value judgments about faith beliefs. Some beliefs are more destructive than others, and some make more plausible textual claims than others. What I don’t do is presume to define the religions of the world in terms that I find agreeable or  convenient. I spend a lot of time arguing against religious belief and so it is important to me that I address beliefs that people actually hold.

If readership keeps picking up, I fully expect that some believers will take the time to keep me honest on this point. It’s one of the easiest areas for someone on my side of the argument to slip up, so when I start being called upon to correct myself I expect that’s going to be the first place where it happens. And speaking of sheer numbers, congratulations if you’ve gotten this far and thanks for reading! I keep saying I’m going to make these posts shorter and it just doesn’t seem to happen. Maybe I should break long ones like this into parts?

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