Christianity, feminism, gender, media, politics, race, racism, religion, social justice, Uncategorized, white privilege

Why “Politically Correct” Is A Right-Wing Slur Designed to Silence Opposition

I was recently asked about whether “politically correct is correct”. Here is my response.

The term “politically correct” is a right-wing specter. I have never once in my life heard an informed activist for the LGBTQ movement, the civil rights and anti-racist movement, the feminist movement, etc. say to someone “We have to be politically correct”. It doesn’t work, it has a namby-pamby ring to it, it doesn’t express the appropriate outrage, and it is frankly not appropriate for activism.
There are so many problems with the assertions against “PC” (I will now call them “basic courtesy and accuracy”) arguments.

The most major one is that we are never discussing the mere use of a slur in isolation. Even when a comedian breaks decorum in some way that costs them popularity, like when Michael Richards (of Kramer fame) did it, no one was focusing just on the mere use of the n-word. It wasn’t as if Richards said, “Man, isn’t Al Sharpton cool? He’s my ni**a”. Rather, he said “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside-down with a f**king fork up your ass!” and “That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man, don’t you know?” In other words, Richards’ rant was racial terrorism. He evoked some of the horrible atrocities that happened to people who were lynched, including being burnt with blowtorches and having pieces taken off, and he asserted his white supremacy and the degree to which he belonged. Yes, that was all still rhetoric, but it wasn’t just the literal word: it was his aggressiveness against people of color.

Many defended Richards on this front. They defended him as if his opposition was just fetishizing a word, “ni**er”, and giving it magical properties.

Of course, each time I write out that word, that word that has been used with hate, my stomach churns. See, whites have the privilege of viewing that word as just being a word. For blacks and even many other people of color (especially Native Americans, Arabs and Muslims, who have been roped into it by “prairie ni**er” and “sand ni**er”), it evokes five hundred years of history. It evokes hundreds of years where that word was bellowed in an effort to kill, enslave, bomb, hurt, lynch, burn, terrorize, and mangle people. It evokes hundreds of years of fear.
White folks routinely have the privilege of pretending history doesn’t matter and doesn’t echo. Even I, as the son of an immigrant, have to know better than that. I know supremacy has a life and a breath all of its own.

When people on the political left and center-left bring up that we should call people “transgender” and call them by the gender pronoun that matches their new gender identity, we aren’t just saying that as an idle matter of decorum: we are saying it to people who want them to go into a bathroom that they will mentally and in many cases physically not belong, who want to cut their wages or kick them out of their community.

When people on the political left and center-left bring up that we should try to call “Mexicans” Chicana/os, Hispanics or Latina/os, we aren’t just talking to people who insist on calling people from Mexico Mexicans: we are fighting against those who would call them rapists and drug dealers, as if the entire group was just one raping, drug dealing apparatus or entity, some tentacled monster.

When people on the political left and center-left insist that we should use gender-neutral language (“firefighters” rather than “firemen”), we aren’t just fighting the rhetorical obliteration of females doing a job: we’re also fighting those who think women can’t be leaders because of their periods.
Notice how no one really organizes as a movement to say “Don’t call atheists ‘godless heathens'”, and yet they still encounter a widespread sentiment that they are inferior and dangerous.

See, conservatives seem to think, “You’ve won everything! Can’t you just leave the English language alone?”

Oh, no, brother (and it is so often a brother rather than a sister), you have it twisted.

In fact, we have so far to go, from anti-discrimination law to basic tolerance in public spaces to people actually being informed about atheists. We are fighting institutional discrimination, prejudice and bigotry stemming from institutional racism and white supremacy, homophobia and heteronormativity, sexism and male dominance, anti-atheist and agnostic bigotry and Christian hegemony, anti-immigrant and anti-global attitudes and American hegemony, and classism and the dominance of the rich. Notice how, in each case, I listed not just the group that was being targeted but the group that was being elevated. Every time someone says “This is a Christian nation”, it is yet another rhetorical assertion of a dominance that they have come to expect and yet have no right to expect and have not earned because such an endeavor would be impossible. The sacrifices of Christians who came before gives no modern Christian a single claim to institutional supremacy. Their majority status does not either.
Even within the realm of language, we’re not just making individual words taboo. When someone says “Blacks have lower IQ”, they are repeating an essentialist, racist, bigoted, stereotypical notion of people of color as if they’re in a spreadsheet. Even when there is some evidence supporting it, that evidence is never deployed honestly or consistently. And many times, such evidence is just outright false and dishonest. We are fighting people’s racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideas of other human beings, arguing that other human beings are on average just as competent, decent, intelligent and kind as they are. And those biases are used to justify present inequities. The logic, even when it isn’t stated out loud, goes, “Well, black people are criminals anyways, so why bother feeding their children?” or “Well, blacks are more likely to commit a homicide anyways, so why bother getting lead off the walls?” Once again, we can’t separate language and cognition from political ideas. Martin Gilens, and researchers working in his vein, have repeatedly found that racist biases are massively deterministic of whether one is willing to support policies like welfare. Policy issues in America are racialized and sexualized. Masculine identity is part of militaristic policies, which in turn influences debates like gays and women in the military.
The second issue is that, even insofar as we’re rectifying language, this is what societies do.
No society within the history of the planet has ever said that all language is equally appropriate in public parlance.

Most societies had very strong rules about what one could say in public. Honor codes, rules about courtesy that governed not just what hand one shook with (often as part of an effort to avoid contamination and the spread of germs even before people knew about the modern germ theory), kosher rules… the idea that there are certain things one does not say and do is common to history. Two of the Ten Commandments concern speech: Not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and honoring one’s mother and father.

One could argue that this was the case of feudal, monarchic and non-democratic societies. But that is emphatically false. Courtesy rules, manners books and so forth still exist. There are numerous 1950s shorts about the proper courtesy and rules for having a family dinner together. These emphatically include ways of talking and not talking: don’t gossip, don’t monopolize speech, don’t put people off their lunch.

What astonishes me so much about this is the political cleavage. Naively, I would have thought that many conservatives, people who are concerned with courtesy and decorum, would naturally and easily come to accept that there are certain ways we should and should not speak as a normative fact. They would come to accept, “Ah, these human beings prefer to be addressed by the opposite gender. How boorish would it be not to accommodate it?” One would think it’d be punk leftists who would spit and say “They’re a dude!”

But of course this is accepting conservative self-image and propaganda. In fact, the right-wing across history, the forces that preserve tradition, have always been perfectly able to be rude, cruel, and decidedly non-courteous. They just pretended otherwise as a thin veneer of civilization.
And challenging the entitlement (not the right but the sense that one should not face consequences) of those used to being afforded unlimited latitude challenges their supremacy. And when their supremacy is challenged, they are willing to get mighty rude.
Now, of course, is there a balance to be struck? Of course. Certain taboos should always be challenged. A transgressive attitude is always healthy at the right time and the right place. If friends are hanging out and talking, and there’s a high degree of trust, then it can be reasonable to say some things one might not say in mixed company. And certainly artists, comedians, etc. need to be granted some leeway to break sacred cows without too much criticism in response.
But remember: So many of the same people who fight the “PC agenda” will loudly support Trump’s support of seditious libel suits against journalists, loudly insist that one shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, demand that the American flag never be burned or defaced, and insist that one should always “support the troops” no matter one’s disagreements with American foreign policy.
And it is precisely that “high degree of trust” that is not to be taken for granted. When so many people are able to say “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”, or otherwise signal that they’re not “one of the bad ones” and should be given some latitude, they fundamentally misunderstand the trust people. People of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, atheists and agnostics… none of them can trust the rhetorical goodwill of someone they don’t know.
The final point is precisely what the original questioner asked: “Others believe that being politically correct limits opinions, and will restrain them from conversing and interacting with others. Because of this, it will create a barrier between different groups, and do more harm then good”.
In other words, for the need of social lubrication and discussion, once again people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, non-Americans, immigrants… they all must sacrifice their sense of humanity and how they wish people would speak to them for the good of society.
Never once must the dominant group sacrifice their own sense of comfort, even temporarily, in order to learn new language and to (much more importantly) unlearn their toxic, unfair biases.
Every human being has a right to say, “I demand to be treated with respect, and if you don’t, I will not interact with you, I will not speak to you, and I will not do business with you”. There is a bare minimum of treatment we can demand in order to interact with us in commerce and daily life.

Those who demand that people not correct other people’s speech… are correcting other people’s speech.
The anti-PC brigade have a fundamental hypocrisy: They say “I should be able to say anything I want, and you shouldn’t be able to say anything you want”.
To quote Jeremy Sherman’s astute analysis: “By accusing people of being PC we try to persuade people to be less sensitive, less influenced by other people’s opinions, but in declaring PC a universal moral error, we pretend that we could live in a world where no one influences anyone. Usually we do it as a way of claiming our right to try to influence others without being influenced. It’s like the current libertarian craze, motivated by ‘my freedom to say and do what I want, without getting hassled’ If you want your freedom to say and do what you want, expect the same from everyone else. The person who accuses others of being PC has his own PC sensitivities. He’s saying it’s politically incorrect for you to be politically correct. Anti-PC and libertarianism are often rationalizations for dishing it out without having to take it in”.
Either we accept that anything is okay to say or we accept that there should be voluntary rules that we choose, as civilized human beings, as to what we say or do not say. And if anything is okay to say, I get to tell someone else to shut up. If someone else gets to call a friend of mine the “n-word”, I get to call them a monster who shouldn’t show their face in public. If we’re going to make society an endless war of words, then we get every weapon just like you do. Either way, the anti-PC crowd is wrong. Either way, they are demanding “My rules for thee but not for me”.
See, what conservatives want is consequence-free speech, not free speech.
Not only is that not a right, not only is it a logical contradiction, but it is a moral absurdity.
You see, this entire battle is really a battle of entitlement against responsibility.

When we have rights as human beings, that gives us power. And with great power comes great responsibility.

If we have the right to choose how we speak, we have the duty to choose that speech carefully.

Those who argue against those calling on them to have respect and kindness for others are arguing to be moral children. They want the rights without the attendant responsibilities.
That is not good for them. And it must be obliterated as an idea.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses and Facile “Truths”

Faith is no excuse for banality.

I received a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet a few months ago. You can check out the text at the Jehovah’s Witness site.

PamphletFront

Let me begin by clearing up some misconceptions. I don’t dislike Jehovah’s Witnesses as a group. As a Buddhist, I do believe in the proscription against proselytizing. I don’t think it’s fair to try to convert someone else in the vast majority of instances: In many cases, someone embraced what we had to say not because they had intelligently reviewed all of the answers but because they were desperate enough to jump at the first answer stated by someone who cared. Still, I am not against the idea of sharing our faith door-to-door. If you believe in something, why shouldn’t’ you share it? How is it fair for any of us to demand the silence of anyone else? I speak out against silence constantly. How can I possibly consistently deny them their chance to speak?

I also think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have several quite valid points about Christian exegesis. While there’s some positions that they have about the Bible that I think are batty, a lot of their points are well-taken. (Again, this is said as a Buddhist with no personal stake in these theological questions, merely scholarly ones).

But when someone comes along and tells you they have the answer, you better hold them to a goddamn high standard.

Not even science claims to have the answer. Einsteinian relativity is a way of looking at the world, a model with very good empirical support. Evolution has many components to it, and scientists still debate the minutiae (not the core of the model, but questions like how often speciation occurs, how much evolution may be bounded by other factors, etc.) Many fields of science have an answer to phenomena.

In sociology, when we look at a single variable or a single model, we’re happy if it explains 20% of the variation in another variable. That’s practically a sociological home run.

Yet religious people are so often convinced not only that they have an answer, a way of looking at the world that may have some value, but the only perspective.

Anyone who says that had better back it up. And the arguments in this pamphlet are facile. They are barely even coherent answers when taken as one possible aspect of the equation, let alone the whole thing.

Before I go into beating up on silliness, Let me repeat an analogy I often use. If I get sick, is it because a virus or a bacterium got into my system and replicated? Might it be because I didn’t wash my hands, or wasn’t careful enough about exposing myself to people? Maybe it was because I had a bad diet, or drank alcohol, or had some other comorbidity like asthma? Maybe it was because it was an opportunistic infection? In fact, the answer could well be “Yes, all of those things were part of it”.

When someone says, “A square is a polygon with four sides”, they’re accurate, but not completely so. If they say, “A square has equilateral sides”, they’re again accurate but still not completely so. Someone has to say, “A square is a polygon with four equilateral sides with right angles that is a special case of a rhombus”. Only when they include every part of the reality are they accurate. But in real life, there’s never just one or two or three causal factors at play. The entire universe prior to any one event had some interplay. So if you want to describe even something as apparently simple as you reading this article, you have to go back to the absolute beginning of the universe.

When people like Wittgenstein and Russell tried to find an absolute foundation for logic and math, they failed. It’s just too complicated.

So how can someone have found the answer? Well, they didn’t.

The pamphlet opens with this gem: “Where would you look for answers to these questions? If you went to libraries or bookstores, you might find thousands of books claiming to provide the answers. Often, though, one book contradicts another. Others seem valid at the moment but soon become outdated and are revised or replaced.”

But anyone who is honest would have to admit that there is no special reason that the Bible is different, that it “contains reliable answers”. That’s an article of faith, not reason. In fact, the Bible is very outdated, including renditions of history, science, astronomy and cosmology that we now know to be at best simplistic and at worst utterly wrong. The Hebrew scholars were fantastically devoted and honest at rendering their holy text, but they didn’t have the benefit of millennia of intellectual work.

Okay, fine, that’s too easy to point out. So let’s say that the Bible truly is a special book. It really does contain answers that are true across all space and time.

What does the Bible have to say about how you should prepare zucchini?

Fly an airplane?

Do open heart surgery?

I know, I know, those aren’t spiritual questions. But when you’re on a plane that’s about to crash, what would you rather have: A philosophically uncertain appeal that you’ll go to heaven upon your death, or a manual for how to fly the damn thing? “The truth” that matters to you is contextual.

Even the six questions that the pamphlet asks, “Does God really care about us? Will war and suffering ever end? What happens to us when we die? Is there any hope for the dead? How can I pray and be heard by God? How can I find happiness in life?” aren’t answered exhaustively by the Bible. The idea that sociology, psychology, biology, political science, etc. can’t help answer some of these questions is just absurd.

So, let’s take these, one by one.

First of all, in response to the idea that God may not care about us, they offer this evidence: “God never causes what is wicked. ‘Far be it from the true God to act wickedly, and the Almighty to act unjustly!’ (Job 34:10)”.

But this is obviously a rhetorical dodge, not a real argument. You can’t just have your text say, “God is good”, to prove God is good. It’s a circular argument. Maybe God directly never acts wickedly or unjustly, but that doesn’t prove that It cares about you. Plenty of people who are plenty righteous don’t care about some random individual they don’t know. And while God does know people, maybe God is just operating at a higher level. Do you care about an individual ant?

The fact that God seems to callously allow us to suffer requires something better than this argument.

They then go on to argue that, “Our Father in the heavens, let…your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” But Jesus teaching us to pray isn’t a guarantee that any prayer will be fulfilled. The fact that I can ask you for something and you will literally get the message doesn’t mean you’ll reply. In fact, a lot of people pray for things that they don’t get.

They finally cap this off with, “God cares so deeply about us that he has gone to great lengths to make the fulfillment of his purpose a certainty”. But this is, again, handwaving the problem aside. The fact that He has a purpose doesn’t make that purpose very helpful for someone suffering. Why is it okay that justice will take thousands of years to fulfill (putting aside that the idea of justice in the Bible is pretty creepy and awful)?

There are answers to these questions that one can provide, either by having an idea of God that isn’t omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent or by actually handling the issue head-on. But these aren’t answers. They’re not even the best Biblical responses.

As for war’s ending, they claim that “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things [including today’s injustices and sufferings] have passed away (Revelation 21:3,4)”. Now, to their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not view Hell as fiery torment but just as oblivion. But the fact that even Jacob and Job are going to go to oblivion is pretty remarkable. What kind of God wouldn’t save everyone from oblivion? Moreover, while they cite some aspects of the Bible to suit their needs, the idea that Sheol or Hell is just nothingness doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why have a word and an idea for it?

Anyways, the point here is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses point only to the end of days, basically. Great. Can we stop war before then?

They don’t even include the little tidbit that a pretty classic Christian answer to the idea of endless peace is that it’s impossible due to original sin and Man’s corrupt nature. That’s a pretty big omission, isn’t it?

I think we can stop war, or at least come pretty damn close. I believe that based off of my view of human history, psychology and biology.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even want to try to answer that question. This is the answer to the question of war. But it’s a useless one for the vast majority of people that will ever live.

The third question, “What happens to us when we die?”, doesn’t even bother to find any kind of support from near-death experiences, even though some of them do support the Christian narrative. The Jehovah’s Witnesses view Hell as basically just being dead. Basically, since Jesus only grants everlasting life to his followers, and since Hell would still be a form of everlasting life, that’s somewhat logical…

Except for Matthew 25:46, where he says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment”. It’s dishonest to interpret that as just being “death”. Punishment implies something active. Matthew 13:50 further clarifies: “and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Again, it’s just not honestly possible to view that as being some kind of weird description of garden-variety oblivion.

Revelation 21:8 clearly states, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death”. Again, the fact that anyone would view this as justice is creepy. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses just want to ignore the passages they don’t like. Remember: Revelations 21:3-4 was cited above by them! They’re ignoring passages in the same book!

Mark 9:43 also states that “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out”.

So the idea that the sinner and the unbeliever will burn in fire isn’t a modern misconception. It’s right there in the text.

I say all of this not because I believe a lick of it (I do not believe there is any Hell besides the prison of an unjust mind trapped without meaning and love), but because they’re not being honest about fully representing even the one source that they use. Why would you trust anyone who can’t even cite one book’s relevant passages fully? Why would you trust a book that includes some really complex arguments that are at best hard to reconcile and at worst outright contradictory?

Finally, there’s the most noxious answer that they give: About happiness.

They begin by pointing out, correctly, that fame, money and beauty aren’t real solutions to the problem of unhappiness. That’s fair enough, except that these things can sometimes grant happiness, even if only in the short term.

They then argue, again I think with a lot of support, that “Jesus identified the key to happiness when he said: ‘Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need’” (Matthew 5:3).

Okay, and?

How do I get there?

They claim, “True happiness can be found only if we take steps to fill our greatest need—our hunger for spiritual truth about God and his purpose for us. That truth is found in the Bible. Knowing that truth can help us to discern what is really important and what is not. Allowing Bible truth to guide our decisions and actions leads to a more meaningful life.”

Great. Except there’s plenty of miserable Christians. There’s plenty of devout people who go to church and can recite the dogma who are angry and confused.

So… That’s not the whole goddamn secret, is it?

What about marriage? What about altruism? What about a good and rewarding job? What about seeking meaning in philosophy? What about discovering new and amazing things in the world?

Biology, sociology, psychology, and a ton of disciplines help us try to characterize happiness. Plenty of philosophers worked within Christianity, as do many psychologists today. Kierkegaard discussed the path from Don Juan to Socrates to the faithful man. There are ways of being a Christian and seeing greater meaning. There are ways of using the Bible as a beginning to meaning, not an end.

I won’t address tons of other fallacies found in this pamphlet, like the argument from popularity when they say that millions have found happiness as a result of their specific Bible interpretation, which even if true wouldn’t prove that the façade was meaningful. An honest person would admit that there were plenty of happy worshipers of Zeus, Thor and Marduk. A person eating a pork chop may think that that’s the best cut of meat, but how can they be sure it’s the best until they eat a steak? Just because someone says that they’re happy as a result of these programs doesn’t mean that they are, especially in the long-term.

I’m not trying to pick on Christianity or Jehovah’s Witnesses here. My point is that these ideas are really, really important.

Whether or not we can end war, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, violence, rape, ecological devastation, homophobia, terrorism and political instability is a real question. Anyone who actually cares about human beings will want as many ways to guarantee that we can as possible.

Whether or not we can achieve happiness in this lifetime is a question that every person struggles with. Even those of us who are happy want to insure that we maintain that happiness, and that that happiness is meaningful and rich.

Christians have every right to come to the table and offer their position as to why they believe there are answers to these questions. But they better be ready to admit that they’re only offering part of the answer, part of the truths that can be helpful.

Just like no good photographer owns only one lens for all occasions, so too can we as a human species not tolerate only having one theoretical lens to try to look through.

Every religious leader that is not encouraging the followers of their faith to think as deeply, broadly and humanly as possible is failing humanity. This pamphlet says that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would rather have obedient followers than people capable of discovering real truths. It’s cynical at its core.

Humanity deserves better.

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Easter and Sacrifice

Today, billions of people are celebrating a holiday centered around a miracle.

Passover for Jewish people is from April 3rd to April 11th this year.

For Christians, today is Easter, the commemoration of the day of Yeshua  ben Joseph’s resurrection.

Recently, I have begun embracing my theistic views. I started realizing that the idea of an absolute entity pervading the universe was one that kept resounding with my experience.

Many have suggested that I take that last little leap and become Christian.

I will admit, this idea has been tempting. There are times when I do seem to feel the Word, the Power and the Glory. There’s much to see in Christianity.

But then I begin thinking as a rationalist thinker, and I find that there’s something that makes me recoil each time.

Easter is a perfect example of what that separation is for me.

I asked myself yesterday, “Do I believe that Jesus resurrected?”

I did so in the context of a man who believes that Yeshua ben Joseph was a prophet and a bodhisattva, a man who saw beyond the veil of samsara to something real. That reality gave him anger which was misinterpreted as vengeance, love which was misinterpreted as something far more limited, and strength.

But, barring actual evidence, I cannot believe Yeshua ben Joseph was more than a man.

So why do people celebrate his death and resurrection?

We want to believe in miracles so much that we will accept the idea of a man resurrecting his body then leaving the mortal plane.

But I think if Yeshua ben Joseph were still alive today, he’d remind us that we don’t need to imagine a person with superpowers to believe in miracles.

Every time we see people truly forgive and move forward, we see a miracle.

Every time we see an organism evolve and adapt to some new situation based only on the interplay of molecules, we see a miracle.

Every time we see clans or nations conquer decades of hatred and move towards peace, we see a miracle.

We keep looking for something greater than those moments, but those moments where we fall in love, conquer depression and fear, and commit to doing something greater are the most important in life.

And then I started to become incredibly angry as I started to think about how the mythology of Easter actually diminishes Yeshua ben Joseph’s courage and commitment.

Comedian David Cross once pointed out that Jesus’ sacrifice meant that he would more rapidly move from a world of limitation and poverty into a Heaven where he ruled at the side of the Father.

I personally know people who have endured tortures of longer duration and an at-least equivalent magnitude to Jesus’. It’s not hard to look in history and find examples of state brutality and human cruelty that turns the stomach far more than the crucifixion, as horrible as the crucifixion undoubtedly was.

If Yeshua ben Joseph was of the same substance as the divine, it makes the entire idea of the resurrection and sacrifice fairly meaningless. Even a human being can forgive that kind of torture without the delights of heaven.

I’ve always found something grotesquely arbitrary about the idea of an entity of pure love sending a son to die in order to forgive humanity. Why bother? The idea of the Lamb presupposes a deity that still requires sacrifice. But that is the deity of people afraid of thunder and lightning, not a deity of omnipotence and omniscience. If God wanted to forgive, It would have done so. If It wanted to be angry, It would not have sent a human agent to forgive in Its stead. The whole exercise makes no sense even from the perspective of people, and a God should be far beyond us in terms of compassion, forgiveness and love.

Maybe two millennia ago, there was a man who somehow managed to survive torture and execution. Perhaps he even did so through a divine gift. I don’t know, and no one else does. They can have faith, but that’s not knowledge.

But I know that divine love is real. I know that people can be better and stronger. I know there’s a better world waiting for us, and not in the afterlife but on planet Earth. And it won’t be worship or idle hope that gets it but action based in love, “good works”.

And what I also know is that millions of people like Yeshua ben Joseph have died for their beliefs.

Yeshua ben Joseph, near as we can reconstruct, was executed for daring to tell people in power that their power had no legitimacy, that love was all that mattered, that humanity was equal, and that their world could end and they had no power to stop it. He told people that sharing, generosity and compassion was the measure of the human spirit, not judgment and strength.

Isn’t it much more impressive and much more worthy of praise that he then died for those beliefs, with no magic and with all the fear anyone else might have facing the prospect of oblivion?

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“Thanks to Him”: Mormons, Propaganda and Self-Loathing

“Thanks to Him, my past doesn’t have to hold me back”.

I get the sincere feeling behind this Mormon propaganda. Sometimes, we need a little help. Sometimes, our past can feel so restrictive that it may seem to require a miracle to act against it.

The problem is that it, again, reinforces a narrative of helplessness. Only someone else can solve our problems. Give your heart to them and they’ll fix everything.

That idea has been at the core of quite a lot of the damage that I have encountered. Whether it was a woman feeling that way about a man she loved, a person becoming trapped by a religious group, or any other pathological relationship of misbegotten authority, the source of the problem was this idea that the individual needed special and external help because of their worthlessness. The loathsome cognition that people are below love and redemption without some kind of external power (especially some kind of magical and supernatural power) is so utterly against Jesus’ ministry that I can’t imagine how this ideological contaminant has sullied the clear waters of our minds for so long. (Maybe because it’s such a good idea if one wants to act as the proxy for that external power and therefore, like the Church, monarchs, demagogues and states have throughout history, gain temporal power from this spiritual concept?)

The whole point of Jesus calling on those without sin to throw the first stone was not to say, “Everyone is contaminated and below love”. It was to say, “Everyone’s flawed, so let’s try to stop judging and start caring”.

No one should have their self-esteem or sense of worth bullied by anyone, especially not a church.

No one needs the Mormon Church, or a lama, or LSD, or a miracle to escape their past. They just need hard work and, sometimes, a helping hand in the real world.

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Christian Rock and Self-Loathing

Yesterday, I was listening to a cross-section of radio.

I must have come across the religious band on the FM dial, because I first heard a Christian rock song then a sermon.

The sermon was interesting enough, actually. The priest was going into David’s understanding of a God that is omnipresent and omniscient. I personally felt that everything he was saying can be simply derived from God being the spirit of the universe. David felt that the fact that God knew him was a marvelous thing, but if God is the totality of the cosmos, then God knowing us is like us knowing our finger. We may love our finger, we may know it intimately, but that doesn’t sound that impressive put that way. David also felt that the fact that God was in Heaven, Earth and Sheol was an amazing one, but again, if God is the entirety of the cosmos, there’s no darkness nor light that It isn’t part of.

However, what bothered me far more was the Christian rock.

It’s not just that it’s banal, and trite, and generally Nickelback-level rock in terms of having any complexity or voice. (And to be clear: I actually enjoy several Nickelback songs, but I won’t pretend that they are lyrical or musical geniuses).

It’s the trend in Christian rock to have phrases like the following (I am not quoting from any songs in particular because actually looking up Christian rock lyrics is cognate to stabbing myself in the frontal lobe with a salad fork):

“Lift me up when I fall”.

“I am weak without your aid”.

There’s a narrative of weakness in Christianity, especially in white evangelical Christianity. Far from talking about the lions of the faithful who fight for justice the way that black Christianity often does, this is a narrative of worthlessness.

And I know that, as sincere as those songs may sometimes be, they’re not really being driven by the divine spirit, but by something far more mundane and banal: Self-loathing.

See, if you really let something or someone love you, it changes you. It elevates you. You know that they’d want you to be happy and proud, so you are, even if it just because of their influence.

If Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit love mankind, what does that mean?

It means They would want us to be proud and at our endeavors.

It means They would want us to see the good in ourselves and build it.

And that explains to me why so many people are so determined to insist that God will touch them directly and fill them with something great.

Those people don’t know love. They don’t know truly what it is to be loved and to love others.

When we love someone, we want to slap someone talking shit about them. We hate when the people we love castigate themselves, kick themselves in humiliation. We want the best for them.

But here’s a secret, and I know it might be hard to hear:

God can’t make you love if you don’t know what love is.

There’s a lot of miracles out there. Even I as a Buddhist and as a person who believes in a non-interventionist God see miracles everywhere, just as Dr. Manhattan saw the miracle that was life.

But there’s no miracle that will let someone whose heart is clouded by self-hatred begin to love. They have to get there on their own, doing the hard work.

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religion, science

A Rant About Creationist Geology

I just had the thoroughly unpleasant experience of having to read creationist literature when I looked up information for a geology project.

In specific, the issue at hand was, “Is there a single place where the geologic column can be seen?”

Of course not. Just erosion alone would guarantee that isn’t the case. The geologic column is an abstraction. It’s our cumulative understanding from compiling rock faces and geological data from all over the world.

What is so utterly frustrating about this discussion is the ludicrous double standard at play.

On the one hand, there are some valid methodological criticisms being raised by creationists.

Yes, it is hard to infer ancestry through DNA, analogous and homologous traits, and all the other techniques that are used. It’s hard to combine index fossils, geological principles of how rocks are formed (like the Principle of Original Horizontality regarding how sedimentary rocks are formed ), equations of wind and water decay, and other clues to try to get a really robust understanding of the whole history of the Earth. The Earth is a hugely complicated system, even at the seemingly simple geological level, let alone the staggeringly complex biological level.

Just think about how we can be confident that a particular fossil is from a particular time period. Well, it’s because we have a bunch of fossils and we assume that that record is at least a representative cross-section. But it may not be. New fossil discoveries change our models for the world.

But the other hand is the soot-stained one. Because once creationists raise valid methodological criticisms, they then put the Bible into the balance as a piece of evidence on the other hand.

Let’s be extremely clear: Putting theology aside, the Bible as a piece of evidence is human observation and speculation. One can believe whatever one likes religiously, but when we talk about science, the Bible’s value is exactly the same as any other book written millennia ago.

When the Bible does have valid observations, like many of Jesus’ insights about human nature, then they should of course be included in discussions. The Bible has certainly been used extensively for historical work, and while we do have reason to believe that its version of history is as distorted as any other combined oral-written record, the Jewish scholars throughout history have always been scrupulous in their accuracy of transmission and their attention to detail. For that reason alone, the Bible deserves to be taken very seriously as a document describing historical
events.

But when it comes to geology, astronomy, biology, or any other field, the only argument that one can make from perceived evidence (not from our faith or beliefs) is that it was written by human beings, translated and transmitted by human beings, and that the vast majority of those who wrote and transmitted the Bible throughout history would have had a scientific understanding that would have been painfully ignorant to a modern sixth grader.

Of course there’s problems with our picture of the world. But every scientific discipline, from biology and genetics to geology to astronomy, has compiled a simply staggering amount of evidence that says that the Bible’s empirical statements about cosmology are just wrong. (And, by the way, that almost every other creation myth, also made by people who believed sincerely in their faith and were trying to grasp for truth in explaining their world so they could function for it, is just as wrong, if not possibly more so).

Just go back to what I said about the geological column. That is based off of untold thousands of observations from across the planet. Geologists have braved glaciers and huge mountains, photographed and taken very careful samples. Radiological data was taken, based off of what are known to be incredibly accurate and time-tested rules about half-lives.

In fact, as Dave Matson pointed out in a response to Dr. Hovind, the geographical column as we understand it now is heavily based on the work of creationist scientists whose work dated from decades before Darwin! Two Reverends, Benjamin Richardson and Joseph Townsend, were part of the scientific tradition that gave us our current understanding. Lyell, Smith, Sedgwick, Murchison… they’re examples of Christians throughout history that took honest fact-finding over their own private beliefs.

The chances that even part of this picture are wrong is astronomical, in the billions even for just the possibility that we’ve arranged the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras inaccurately. There’s this colossal breadth of data just from geology alone and all the accepted principles of it.

So I read people nitpicking (usually with scientific ignorance that makes even someone with a social science degree and some basic science education like myself blush) and then offering, instead of comprehensive evidence today taken by incredibly careful scholars across the planet to form a cohesive model that makes accurate predictions constantly, a book written by people who lived in times where the idea of the four humors was cutting-edge medical science.

We talk in all the sciences, the natural ones and the social ones, about cherrypicking data to advance your theory. But this isn’t even that. This is putting one’s fingers into one’s ears and saying “I’m not listening”.

“Intelligent design” or not, any theory that’s going to go anywhere towards proving that the Earth is not billions of years old or that animals don’t evolve in some fashion (even it isn’t exactly Darwin’s model but may be according to some more robust version of natural selection) will have to explain away a mountain of evidence and provide an alternative model.

Creationists just don’t. And that’s why they’re dismissed as scientists.

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philosophy, religion

Free Will, Science and God

I’m sure I’ll be repeating this theme a number of times over the years, but there’s a problem with the way that humanistic, atheistic, or science-minded people often act.

It’s a specific argument: “Religion is coercive. It explains the universe as being at the whims of a capricious god”.

That’s a fair argument for a lot of faiths. It’s not the imagination of any religious person worthy of the name, though. Imagining a benevolence to the universe doesn’t mean imagining that that benevolence is restrictive and coercive. In fact, it means the opposite.

See, many religions have one exception for the whims of the gods: Free will.

It’s actually one of the cultures we have most closely emulated in the West, the Greeks, that advanced a fatalism that binded the universe, even their gods. The Greeks believed that Fate was a power even Zeus had to bend to. The masters of the sea, the sky, and the afterlife still were controlled by fate.

So too did the Nordic peoples believe that Ragnarok or Gotterdammerung (the death of the gods) was inevitable. Even Thor and Odin would die against their nemeses.

When we’re talking about “God”, what we’re often talking about is the nature of the cosmos. And this is one of those easy areas of overlap between science and religion.

So in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ability of people to choose, to venerate God or not to, to follow their own path that might go against the preferences of the creator, is a crucial piece of doctrine. It’s an important philosophical idea that runs throughout nature.

Of course, it’s scientifically quite likely (and seems in fact almost certain) that there’s more things in the universe that are not deterministic than the human will, derived from the human brain. And it’s even possible that human beings are more deterministic than we’d like to believe.

But the point here is that many scientific understandings are exactly as ideologically coercive as religious ones.

It’s easy for smart people with a mathematical or engineering mindset to think of the world as a nice, clean, neat machine. Everything fits in its place. There’s rules that govern it.

The only problem is that that mentality rarely works well with people.

So both religion and science have the ability to advance a notion of the universe as a whole where the parts don’t matter. Both religion and science can end in the conclusion that people are just machines puttering along, no different from a wind-up toy.

And it’s possible to believe in a God that loves freedom. After all, any good parent wants their child to be free, happy and to grow on their own merits. In fact, a truly great God (and one that would be uncomfortably compassionate for many Christians) would want Its children to exceed and succeed it.

Maybe the biggest problem is when we reduce incredibly complex belief systems to singular ideas. From Newtonian mechanics and the Enlightenment worldview on the side of secularism to the ideas of the Dreamtime or various Christian conceptions of the universe such as the gnostic idea of the universe being a locus of corruption, they’re big paradigms with lots of moving parts.

So maybe we should try to let people have the mix of ideas that work for them instead of pretending that there’s some simple one-to-one correlation between a complicated belief system and simplistic outcomes.

Certainly, let’s embrace the idea that human beings can be greater than the sum of their parts, and try to expand the amount of freedom we have to choose and to create.

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