Category Archives: Religion

War on Christmas? Ho-ho-ho!

There is no clearer and better example of Artificial controversy than the War on Christmas, as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity re-invent it every year in order to boost their tanking ratings. What War on Christmas? Just drive along a street and see all the lights on houses, go into a store and look at the merchandise while listening to the Christmas music, peer into people’s windows to see decorated Christmas trees and presents, or turn on any radio station – Christmas is everywhere.
But, believe it or not, there are people who are even stupider than O’Reilly and Hannity – people who really want to ban Christmas! Who? The Bosnian education authorities:

“Is Santa Clause a religious figure? He doesn’t wear anything religious (maybe only a funny hat like the Pope). He is dressed in red – probably a communist, in which case it’s safe to say he’s not that religious. He is fat and round just like Buddah, but I guess that’s probably the consequence of a reindeer meat diet and too much coke.
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By banning the Santa, people from the Bosnian education authorities who did this proved that ultra-nationalists from all three sides in Bosnia – Croatian, Serbian and Bosniak, have two things in common – 1. they all really, really hate Santa, and 2. they are all really, really stupid. This ban would probably not last thanks to the outrage it caused among normal people in Bosnia and the decision will probably be reversed, just like after that Darwin ban situation in Serbia some time ago.”

Desk? No: Head-desk! McCain is….Jesus Christ!

Little Light explains the strange tale about the school desk from Huckabee’s speech. As we should have known by now – it is a dogwhistle:

Sound familiar yet? Please tell me it does. This is the doctrine of “Grace, Not Works” or “Grace Alone,” a theological position expounded during the Reformation, cuddled by Calvin, and popular among evangelical Christians. It’s not a desk, it’s a place in Heaven. And it’s not soldiers we’re talking about, it’s Jesus Christ. Don’t buy the connection of this story as an allegory for the doctrine of Grace Alone? Here’s a few ways to put it. And the guy talking is clergy in a denomination that holds this doctrine dear, so he knows what he’s doing and who his audience is.

James Fallows agrees:

Of course that’s the explanation, as anyone who has listened to religious radio shows should know. I feel silly to have missed it. (Why else would Huckabee, an ordained minister and very smart person, keep using the story in his stump speeches, despite its surface-level pointlessness?)

So, this is all about the ‘Left Behind’ crowd, I see, the Soldiers of Christ.

So, how are evangelicals and fundamentalists responding to Palin?

owlz:

Stated or not, the extreme right, the real audience intended to be won over by the Palin choice, will be eagerly anticipating her becoming president at the earliest possible date. They will be looking for her to have influence even while McCain is in office. The cynicism of choosing someone at odds with his one-time positions on major issues for the purpose of getting in the Oval Office could be among the most irresponsible actions ever taken by the presidential candidate of a major party.
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McCain’s choice was to give a person from the quite far-right the greatest boost someone from that extreme has ever been given.
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You can well imagine that if he is elected John McCain will immediately join the less rabidly right wing members of the Supreme Court on the list of those whose deaths are fervently prayed for by the far right. We know the list exists, they’ve openly talked about it on TV.

Hanna Rosin

Conservative women became a powerful tool for the party, and everyone was willing to overlook the cost to their personal lives. If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.

Not all evangelical conservatives are thrilled with Palin:

I am not arguing that large numbers of conservative Christians will refuse to vote for the Republican ticket because they disapprove of Palin. But we should be aware that this pick was controversial within the evangelical Christian community as well as among other segments of the Republican base.
Even with Palin at his side, I do not think McCain will inspire as large an army of volunteer Christian soldiers as Bush did four years ago.

Praying for McCain’s death:

Based on the little bit that they know about Palin and her religious beliefs, these guys are ready to pray for the death of a president and all the risky disruption that would go with that. Their desire for a theocracy where they can dictate the moral lives of others completely trumps any rational or practical considerations. They live in dream-like bubble entirely defined by their hatred of other Americans.
So far, this is just the isolated rantings of two bloggers who do not officially speak for any major church or group. But how many others out there share their feelings? Last year Rev. Wiley Drake, then Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, called on his followers to pray to God to smite the staff of Americans United for Separation of Church and State because they filed a complaint against him with the IRS for violating his church’s tax exempt status.
The most extreme elements of the religious right are not happy with McCain as their standard bearer. Many were disappointed by Huckabee’s rise and fall. Now they see another chance to put one of their own in office with Palin. We can probably expect to see more of this kind of imprecatory prayer (literally calling on God to damn someone). The Secret Service should keep an eye on this and make sure they limit there actions to prayer. After all, many of these same people come from the wing of the anti-abortion movement that cheers on doctor killers.

The first polls after the announcement showed a small move (around 5%) of Republican women (but not men) from the mildly-support to the strongly-support column. So, some strengthening of support in the base. But the same polls showed a small move away from McCain by the independents and undecideds of both sexes. I did not see any new polls after the Palin speech at the convention.
So, some are excited, some are not, some are a little bit too excited. In any case, these are not good news – for McCain.

Why teaching evolution is dangerous

It is so nice teaching biology to adults when there are no (obvious) Creationists in the classroom. It does not always happen that way – I have had a couple of cases in the past – but this time it was really nice as I could freely cover all topics deeply within an evolutionary framework (not always seen in my public notes, though, as I try to gauge the class first and then decide how overtly to talk ebout everything in evolutionary terms). It is always a conundrum. If there is a potential resentment of my lectures, I have to thread carefully. I have to remember that I am not trying to turn them into biologists, but that I am trying to make them think for themselves and to understand evolution even if they do not want to ‘believe’ it for religious reasons. Thus, I first teach about cell, heredity and development, which gives them (and me) tools for coverage of evolution. Then I explain evolution using insects as an example before ending with a “humans, of course” as well. Then I cover Origin of Life, evolution of diversity and current diversity. But I do not leave evolution behind when I move on to ecology, behavior and physiology either. More easily this time, but sometimes a little more ‘sneakily’ if I know I have Creationists in class.
So, I know exactly how difficult it is to teach even younger students – they are more likely to act rebelliously (adults will go along in order to get the grade and move on) and they are still more under the influence of parents and do not have enough world experiences. I admire high school teachers who teach Biology in areas of the country in which Creationism is rampant and most of the kids are likely to be a priori biased against it.
A week after the nice column by Olivia Judson about the necessity of teaching evolution in school, NYTimes once again visits this question, with a very nice article about Mr.Campbell, a biology teacher in Florida, one of the people who was involved in the latest science curriculum battles in that state this year.
Like a game of whack-a-mole, Creationist get defeated in court in one state, just to resurface in another state and start the process all over again. As they keep losing in courts, they are forced to dilute their message, and adopt the language that may, on the surface, seem OK, unless you know exactly what THEY mean by that language and how that language is supposed to be a wedge that lets religious instruction into public school science classes.
The NYTimes article was brought to my attention by Jonathan Eisen, Tom Levenson, Kent and Mike Dunford and then I saw that many other bloggers have picked up on it since.
Ed Darrell points out the competitive advantage this gives the rest of the world and how local the problem of Creationism is.
David Rea sees that the NCSE responses to Well’s “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution” (also accessible at the NYT site next to the article) are far too nuanced and likely to go over the heads of most Americans, and suggests to use them to teach the meaning of words, and the meaning of evolutionary concepts – they cannot stand for themselves but can be useful as a starting point for a classroom discussion.
Peter Dawson Buckland responds to one of the frequent misrepresentations of evolution that shows up in the article (voiced by a Creationist teacher in the same school as Campbell) and gives a vote to pragmatism over philosophical accuracy. PZ Myers disagrees and insists on absolute accuracy. John Hawks points out that the Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution – with which I agree: like Pokemon (and perhaps Spore), it is an example of gradual metamorphosis, in this case exacerbated by the fact that change is not induced by the natural environment but by human marketers.
As of this writing, the article has 342 comments on the NYTimes site, mainly by people who liked it and who – some clumsily, others with more expertise – try to explain the difference between scientific and colloquial usages of “theory” and other answers to those age-old questions that Creationists have been asking for a century or more already (and bored everyone to death, including myself, as the answers are readily available online, in books, etc.).
One comment that I particularly liked was this one:

I second comment #3. Bless Mr. Campbell. He was my high school biology teacher, and this article only begins to illustrate all the ways in which he is an amazing teacher. He constantly challenges his students to think for themselves, to analyze, and to test hypotheses rather than simply accept things at face value. He was the first teacher who ever taught me how, not what, to think, and Mr. Campbell is the reason I am now a biologist, studying evolutionary biology. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, and all biology teachers like you, who, in teaching evolution well, nurture the natural curiosity in young minds.
— Natalie Wright, Gainesville, FL

But some of the best commentary is right there in the article – words of Campbell himself. See this:

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

Mr. Campbell knows how tricky this process is. You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. If a student, like Natalie Wright who I quoted above, goes on to study biology, then he or she will unlearn the inaccuracies in time. If most of the students do not, but those cutesy examples help them accept evolution, then it is OK if they keep some of those little inaccuracies for the rest of their lives. It is perfectly fine if they keep thinking that Mickey Mouse evolved as long as they think evolution is fine and dandy overall. Without Mickey, they may have become Creationist activists instead. Without belief in NOMA they would have never accepted anything, and well, so be it. Better NOMA-believers than Creationists, don’t you think?
But for me, the key quote of the article is this one:

“If you see something you don’t understand, you have to ask ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ ” Mr. Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.

Education is a subversive activity that is implicitly in place in order to counter the prevailing culture. And the prevailing culture in the case of Campbell’s school, and many other schools in the country, is a deeply conservative religious culture.
There are many ideals or “values” that conservatives and liberals share. Freedom, strength, honesty, generosity, courage, responsibility, etc. are equally valued by people of all ideologies. The conservatives and liberals may define or understand them a little differently, they may order them differently according to importance, and they may deduce some very different policy proposals out of them, but in general they all agree that these are good human values.
But there is one human trait where the two ideologies differ. That is Obedience. For conservatives, this is a positive human trait. For liberals, it is viewed quite negatively. Why?
Because the two ideologies view time and history differently.
Conservatives see history as a story of decline from some mythical Golden Age which, depends who you ask, may be the Garden of Eden, or middle ages when Church and State were one and the same, or late 19th century USA with robber barons in charge, or 1930s Italy and Germany when Business and State were one and the same (and kept all the “Others” down), or 1950s when women were sent to the kitchen. They feel like the future is bleak and that their duty is to slow down and stop the decline, or reverse it if they can.
Their belief that world is dangerous is a part of this mindset – they always think that the world is more to be feared now than it was in the mystical past. Corporate media help them in this – switch off the TV and tell me: how many violent crimes, tragic accidents, horrific natural disasters, and war terrors, have you personally witnessed today in real life? Yesterday, the day before, throughout your life? How come you are still alive? Oh, but the media wants to deliver you to the advertising so you will buy whatever will alleviate your fears today and make life worth living yet another day.
For us (liberals), the history is seen as an arrow of progress: every generation has a better life than the previous one, every generation puts some work and effort, and if needed fight, to make the world a better place for the next generation. We want to foster and continue this trend. For this to happen, each generation needs to break with the parents’ worldview to some extent. What is considered “normal” part of life for one’s elders, may not be so for the youngsters who take a serious look at it. Most importantly, each generation brings in another level of equality, bringing up a group that was institutionally pushed down during history, be it women, gays, blacks, etc.
Now, the word “equality” is understood differently by the two ideologies. It does not mean handicapping everyone to have the same no matter what their talents and hard work should earn them. It does not mean preventing people from attaining success. It means allowing people to go to the top regardless of who their parents were. If you made it, your kids should not get a leg-up because of that – they need to start from zero and try to make it as well. Or fail. But more importantly, it does not matter if your parents are rich or poor, white or black, US-born or foreign-born, religious or not, if you are male or female, straight or gay – you should have the exact same social and instititutional support in your strivings toward success.
Also, the measure of success in dollars is a pretty conservative notion – you can be dirt-poor yet be successful, consider yourself successful and be regarded by others as successful along other criteria, e.g., generosity, skill, talent. And the accidents of your birth should not be a factor.
In a worldview which sees everything as a zero-sum game, equality is anathema. If one goes up, this means someone else is going down. If women are gaining, this means men are losing. If Blacks are gaining equality, this means Whites are losing. If you see the world as hierarchical this is the inevitable outcome of your worldview.
Thus, the most essential thing that conservatives want to conserve is the social organization, including all of its power relationships, with the white, American, Christian, (officially) straight, rich, adult, male humans on top of everyone else. If that is your worldview, of course what normal people consider progress will look like doom to you. After all, we measure progress by how big strides we have made in eliminating the old power structures that used to subdue groups of people under others.
Another way to call this is authoritarianism, in which one group asserts authority over others and does whatever it takes to keep it that way.
An important aspect of the conservative hierarchy is the authority of old over the young. The stereotype of an Old Wise Man Who Remembers The Golden Age of Yore. He who can bring that Golden Age back. The top of the hierarchy. Thus, obedience to His authority is essential for preservation of the hierarchical power structure. Thus, conservatives do not like education, they prefer “training”. They start early by training little kids, by methods bordering on abuse, to unquestioningly obey their elders.
The school should be a place to instill obedience (measure of success in rolling back progress) as well as to train for jobs that bring in the money (monetary measure of success). Thus, conservatives tend to fight against the liberal academia and hate to be told that Reality has a Liberal Bias. And most importantly, they fight against science education as it directly undermines the obedience.
See what Mr.Campbell is doing? Kids who were taught obedience know they are supposed to unquestioningly obey their elders, which includes their parents, priests and teachers. But Campbell puts them in a mental bind – they want to obey him but he is telling them things opposite from what their parents and priests are saying. Who to listen to? As a result of this exercise, they unlearn obedience. A red-flag danger for the conservatives. Their kids have been corrupted – they were, gasp, taught to think for themselves. And we all know what independent thinking brings about – progress! We can’t have that, can we?!
This is why Creationism is such an important plank in the conservative political strategy – it undermines the teaching of independent thinking. The asking of How and Why questions. All the stuff that each generation needs in order to analyze and reject their parent’s generation’s regressive worldview. Doom!

I thought they were spineless to begin with…

But new research shows they lose spine gradually over the years. [via]

Door To Door Atheists Bother Mormons

Silly, but funny to see how people react when treated to a dose of their own medicine:

“Australian filmmaker John Safran is so fed up with mormons ringing his doorbell early in the morning that he flies to Salt Lake City Utah and tries to convert Mormons to atheism. Needless to say, the locals were not pleased.”


[Hat-tip: Tanja]

When religion goes berserk!

I guess it is unlikely you have not already heard about the big brouhaha that erupted when Bill Donohue targeted PZ Myers for showing disrespect towards a belief that made some religious nuts go crazy and violent against a child (yes, Eucharist is just a cracker, sorry, but that is just a factual statement about the world). If not, the entire story, and it is still evolving, can be found on PZ’s blog so check out the numerous comments here, here,
here, here, here, here and here.
Also see what Greg Laden and Tristero say. [Update: see also John Wilkins and Mike Dunford for some good clear thinking on the issue.]
Of course, since it is Bill Donohue, everyone’s favorite douche-bag, I went to see what is said on the blogs of my other two friends who, quite recently, had to survive the army of ogres that Donohue can send to make good people’s lives miserable – Melissa and Amanda.
On Shakesville, Jeff Fecke wrote about it.
On Pandagon, it is Jesse Taylor (yes, he is back there on his old blog) who wrote about this today (as Amanda is in a middle of a move and offline).
Both posts also triggered an interesting round of comments.
So, go and check out all those links, spend several hours immersed in this topic, and you’ll both learn a lot and get really, really angry (at whom? That’s your choice).
But while I was at Pandagon I also saw that Amanda started reading (and blogging about) Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” (I never wrote a real book review of it, but most of what I intended to say found its way into some posts of mine, e.g., here, here, here and here). The initial post triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, so Amanda added some clarifications which triggered another round of interesting comments.
The main question in both of those Pandagon thread is how to define religion. The focus is on what people believe, thus there is a lot of parsing the words going on, trying to define “God”. “personal god”, “supernatural”, etc. This is important as the second recurring question in those threads is if Stalinism/Maoism is a religion or not.
If you have been reading my blog for a very looooong time, back at the time when I used to write about religion (and politics) much more often, you may recall that I think of religion in somewhat different terms. I think that the main reason religions evolved is to ensure group cohesion. In other words, I think that the social aspect of religion is the most important one and that other aspects – beliefs, canonical works, behavioral rules, priestly hierarchy, ceremonies, etc. – are additions that in some way help ensure the group cohesion. This is why I was really mad at both Dawkins and Dennet for their outright dismissal and refusal to even consider the group-selectionist ideas of David Sloan Wilson whose book, Darwin’s Cathedral, although thin on data, is in my mind the best-laid-out hypothesis and the most promising avenue for future research on the evolution of religion. For the same reason, I think that Dawkins’ and Dennett’s infatuation with memes is misplaced and that the memetics will be pretty useless in this endeavor (or in any endeavor for that matter – it is an immature photocopy of sociology and linguistics with new terminology).
What does it really mean “group cohesion”? In the olden days, this was a feeling of belonging and loyalty to one’s own tribe – obviously maladapted to the modern world of multicultural societies, global economy, fast travel, instant communication and overpopulation. The inevitable result of group cohesion is the division of the world into an in-group and out-group. Members of the in-group are friends to be defended, while the members of the out-group, barely human, are to be detested and, when possible, killed.
For the group cohesion to work, one HAS to, by definition, feel that one’s group is superior to all other groups. This sense of superiority is enhanced by the additional “attachments” that may differ between different religious traditions, e.g., the belief in an inerrancy of the leader who gets orders directly from the group’s omnipotent god(s), various trance-inducing chants and dances, behavioral rules, sacred books, etc. All of these also promote internal policing by the group – those of “weak faith” are detected and punished mainly by other members, not necessarily by any kind of official armed forces, though some groups may use the latter as well.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is further enhanced by the sense of insecurity as “the other” is portrayed as much more dangerous than reality warrants – this persecution complex is a great way to ensure that all group-members “stick together” and severely punish the members who question the wisdom of the leaders, beliefs and behaviors.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is also enhanced by adding another layer of personal sense of insecurity – the strict sexual norms render both men and women insecure: the men do the macho man-bonding stuff in order to keep each other courageous (those who survive wars will get to breed in the end, after all), while women try to find security by exchanging sex for protection with powerful men.
To go back to the question of Stalinism/Maoism as a religion, if one looks at the religion as group coherence mechanism detached from what people believe, then the answer is Yes – those were religions (and so is being a Republican, for what that matters). But I will try to support this statement with the example I know best – that of Yugoslavia:

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