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Thursday, November 30, 2006
(2:34 PM) | sam k:
Another bleg

I can't fully explain why, but "delve", as in "I delved into Bonhoeffer's theology", is possibly one of the lamest words of the English language. It is a rather weak verb, of course, but, in addition, it actually sounds stupid.

So: replacements? While slightly less Freshman-comp, "examine" sucks too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
(6:37 PM) | Stephen:
My Beliefs are Less Evil Than Yours

Mr. D'Souza, you're not helping.

If there are people like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris who try to blame religious belief for all the world's problems, then it is ok to point out the flaws in their arguments, the ways in which they misunderstand the nature of belief and the assertions they make that don't actually have enough supporting evidence.

Using their exact same methods to defend religion and attack atheism as the greater evil is not only intelletually hypocritical, it just doesn't help things.

The problem is not religion, it is not atheism, it is not agnosticism. The problem is people. How about we spend our resources on solutions to our problems instead of merely blaming the people we don't like.

I'm looking at you, D'Souza and Dawkins.

(5:19 PM) | Stephen:
The Church is Doomed

So here's a couple of things:

Mainline churches - Lutheran, Episcopal, UCC, United Methodist, etc. - have been declining for years now. Conservative churches - SBC, Assemblies of God, various independent congregations - have been growing for years now.

Clear so far? Good.

Ok, Conservative Evangelical churches require people to have a particular type of experience and lifestyle in order to belong. They generally do not allow smoking or drinking, and will often frown on dancing. Being a Christian requires being "born again," which involves a specific confession of one's sins and need for forgiveness. These churches often will not baptize infants at all, and will only baptize children if they are judged to have attained sufficient age for understanding what it is they are doing. Baptism, then, is not initiation so much as it is testimony, a public statement about one's new status as a born-again Christian. These churches will also usually re-baptize anyone who was baptized as an infant in another tradition.

This last is particularly important to the point I wish to make. Within the Conservative Evangelical movement, estimated at around 20 million adults in the USA, Mainline denominations are usually characterized as being made up of a few "real" Christians and a lot of "nominal" Christians - people who say they believe in Jesus and the Bible but who don't actually have a "personal relationship" with God.

Here's the point of all this: Conservative Evangelical churches are growing by gaining the people who are leaving the Mainline denominations. They are growing by attracting people who wish to redefine their Christianity, rather than those who actually have no previous connection to the faith.

Obviously, this is not true 100% of the time. But the Church - the whole deal, capital-C Church - is declining overall. The number of attendees is going down, as are the numbers of people who say they believe in God, those who claim Christianity as their religion, whatever that may mean, all across the board, the numbers are going down.

And the only "growth" to which Christians can point is cannibalism.

This may also partially explain the phenomenon that Sanpete observed in comments about there being a wider divide between Liberal and Conservative Christians than between Christians and non-believers. I don't totally agree with him, and I want to deal with this in depth a bit later. But Liberal Christians have spent years being demonized by the Conservatives, and have seen their members leave in order to go to these newer, more tchnologically advanced and more "certain" churches. They can't be happy about it.

Friday, November 17, 2006
(9:56 AM) | Stephen:
beliefs, Belief & unbelief; 4th in the series

Part one.

Part two.

Part three.

The last post was a little hard on Atheists. It needed to be said, but obviously Christians, as both the majority in this country and the ones who make the most noise about everyone conforming to their beliefs, also need to be taken to task. This post will deal more with the ways that Christians, even progressives, need to change their thinking. I also hope that this will give Atheists some ways to talk about these issues without resorting to blanket condemnations of religion.

It should be noted that the point of this series is not to try and set up a way to attract radical right-wing Christians to the Democratic party or to progressivism. It just isn't going to happen, as the last election taught us. However, there are many non-radical rightwing Christians whose voting for the last several elections reflects an emphasis on a very narrow portion of Christian values. And I for one think that they know it and are wondering if there is a place for them within the progressive community. Of course there is and always has been, and we don't need to pander to anyone in order to get that point across. But we do need to work on getting along which, again, is the larger goal here.

At any rate, here are some values that all progressives - actually, all people - should be able to accept and promote.

1. Civil rights apply to everyone

This means not just various races but women and the LBGT community as well. Just as it was wrong to intern Japanese Americans during WWII, it is wrong to withhold the HPV vaccine from young girls because it is seen as a license to have premarital sex. Just as it is wrong when polygamist groups sexually exploit young girls and physically assault males in their communities, it is wrong to deny homosexuals the same rights and privileges afforded everyone else in this society.

Let's expand that last a bit, since homosexual marriage is such a bugaboo for us. To begin, marriage is not a "right." Not for anyone. There is not one person licensed to solemnize marriages who is therefore required to marry anyone. So one person can refuse all blue-eyed grooms, while another can refuse to marry mixed-race couples - as odious as that is - or people of different faiths or brides with facial hair.

Even Justices of the Peace are not required, as I understand it, to marry people they don't want to marry. But this talk of marriage not being a right is rather misleading, because we really have two institutions in the USA. One is a civil, domestic contract between two people, allowing them to share finances and responsibility for assets and children if they are involved. There is nothing sacred about a joint tax return, nothing particularly holy about rights of survivorship.

The idea of marriage, both as a religious and a civil union, of course predates the USA. As this nation expanded, clergy were often the only people in a large area with any education or authority, so it was natural to give them the authority to solemnize a purely civil arrangement at the time of sanctifying a religious vow. As the societal landscape has changed, so has our definition of what is or is not a marriage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Marriage has not had only one definition, not from the Garden of Eden till now, and certainly not during the history of the USA. Common-law marriages are not really endorsed by churches, but that does not make them invalid. The various legal and financial complications that divorce entails has created whole new arenas in US law. When a marriage breaks up, there are many civil consequences, issues in which the Church and its representatives have no say.

It is this aspect of marriage, this idea of it as a civil institution, a domestic contract, that can be conceived to be a right. Any two people who wish to enter into a domestic contract should be able to do so, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or even if there is a sexual relationship between them or not. It's just a civil contract. If we as a nation recognize that it can be beneficial for two people to join together, beneficial for them and often for children, then there should be no obstacles to it.

If we get back to the religious side of marriage, we see that every law passed that restricts marriage to "one man and one woman" is unconstitutional - and state constitutional amendments cannot override the federal Constitution. The reason for this is found in the First Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from passing a "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There are religions, including several prominent Christian denominations, that believe homosexuality is ok, and that are willing to solemnize homosexual marriages. To give civil legitimacy to the marriages of some churches while denying the same to others is a clear violation of the Bill of Rights. This isn't about what we like or what makes us uncomfortable; it's about being a nation governed by laws, not the theological leanings of part of the population - even if that part is the majority.

2. Religious doctrine needs to stay out of the public sphere

I am a Wesleyan-Arminian. That may not mean anything to you. In a nutshell, it means that I don't accept any of the 5 points of TULIP-style Calvinism. It means, from my perspective, that I believe in the full power of grace to transform us now, here on earth. It means that I believe God wants human beings to actually have relationships with him and cooperate with him to redeem this fallen earth.

So if I ever catch anyone at my children's schools teaching them that God chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell, or that once they are saved it is irreversable, or any other bit of Calvinistic nonsense - sorry, um, beliefs - I will raise holy hell. Same thing if someone tries to tell them that the earth is 6,000 years old or that Jonah was a real guy who was really swallowed by a real fish and really lived 3 days in its stomach, only to be vomited on the beach - and if this is not "true," then neither are any claims about Jesus Christ. That's why my kids are going to public schools, to keep them away from what I consider to be wrongheaded and often dangerous beliefs about the Bible and Christianity.

I am also sick of seeing so-called Nativities on any public property, I don't like the fight - instigated and perpetuated by conservative Christians - between "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas." I'm not sure that I want my children, or me for that matter, to associate the stress, tackyness and frenzy that overtakes our stores this time of year with the birth of the Messiah.

Ted Olson, Solicitor General of the United States, put it well when he argued at the Supreme Court for the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. He said that this phrase was really just "ceremonial deism," not an actual reference to any god of any religion. Rather, it's just a way to describe the mindset of the people who founded this country. He goes on to assert that the phrase "under God" actually refers to the political philosophy of the sovereignty of the individual. Think about that for a moment. Saying "under God" is asserting the sovereignty of the individual. Let me repeat: Religious doctrine needs to stay out of the public sphere - no matter how hard we try to divest it of any meaning.

3. Stop treating political battles as religious wars.

The Religious Right in this country is waging a political battle, not religious. Faith and religion are being used as weapons in this battle, to give it a veneer of Jesus-approval, but they are not the point. This is a good move for them, because it puts their opponents in the position of attacking their beliefs or even religion in general, and we all know that this is not a winning position in America.

So the key is to not fight political battles as religious. Progressives need to respond politically. We need to always emphasize the founding principles of the USA as a place where no religion is given status above another, and where all people can be free to believe as they wish. So Creation "Science" shouldn't be taught in schools, not because it's just plain wrong or a silly superstition, but because there are many religious beliefs about the beginning of the world, and many different interpretations of Genesis within Christianity (let alone Judaism). Secular schools simply aren't theologically up to the task of wading through all the different beliefs and doctrines.

Emphasizing civil unions as apposed to "gay marriage" is a good way to fight this politically rather than religiously. Let's cede the whole idea of what constitutes a marriage to the Religious Right. Fine. Marriage - within your church, mind you - is between one man and one woman (at least at a time). But other churches have a different view, and there are people who belong to no church at all. So the government will acknowledge these types of relationships and give all of them, "traditional" or not, the same legal standing. Those who wish to get "married" can just find a place willing to perform the ceremony, same as now.

There are others who have proposed this, but usually in a much more radical way. We don't have to be hard-core about this. All we're doing is being the reasonable, conciliatory group in the face of those who wish to remake US law in their image. So long as the Religious Right can cast these controversies as between faith and Atheism, they will win. So long as we can cast them as political battles between historic American values and ideals and those who would cast them aside, we have a chance of turning the tide.

Okay, that's it. Let me know what I got wrong, what I left out. I believe that the latest election shows what can happen when the various groups in the progressive coalition band together. There is no need for us to forget our differences, but if we can find enough common ground to allow us to work together and stop sniping at one another, then the direction of this country can be changed.

Thursday, November 16, 2006
(7:13 PM) | sam k:
Another Thing

More expandable post summaries tests.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

--Wilfred Owen

Wednesday, November 15, 2006
(5:49 PM) | Stephen:

Why am I having so much trouble with trackback posts? Why am I so incompetent when it comes to stuff like basic html and blog stuff?

Um, I mean, how do I fix the links in the last post to actually go where I want them to?

(5:40 PM) | Stephen:
Pro-choice is Pro-life is Pro-child

Update: Fixed the links.

Okay, so this is in The New Republic, which just loves to point out how silly, bad, and dumb Democrats are – all in the name of supporting them, of course. But this article by Amy Sullivan that is making the bloggers nuts is ridiculous.

Sullivan’s problem is that she buys into the conservative rhetoric about the “pro-choice” position so deeply that she ignores the mountains of evidence that contradicts it. So the compromise that she celebrates between pro-choice and pro-life Coloradans, which is to institute policies and programs aimed at reducing the rate of unwanted pregnancies is, as Scott Lemieux so aptly puts it, “is the pro-choice position.” It’s the pro-life crowd that also tends to oppose contraception, even to the point of ignoring all medical understanding in order to claim that birth control pills are actually abortifacents rather than doses of hormones that prevent a pregnancy from occuring.

The problem that Sullivan and others have with this issue is that they are willing to believe what people say about themselves than trust what they see and hear. Simply put, the only real “pro-life” position is to be “pro-choice.” And I’m not dragging out the good ol’ tropes about how most pro-lifers support the death penalty and regular use of military force, though these issues shouldn’t be ignored. Rather, I don’t have space for and don’t need them for the argument I am making.

No, I’m just talking about abortion, terminating a pregnancy. First, the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted – for any reason – pregnancies. This is done most effectively by access to contraception and education that encompasses all aspects of human sexual behavior, not just a series of lectures about how dirty it is outside of marriage and so “just say no.” If our focus is upon the children and not upon the sins committed by those who create these children, then we are morally obligated to make sure that people, especially the poor and the young, have easy access to birth control and the knowledge of how to use them. As much as it may offend people’s sensibilities that unmarried couples are having sex, when it comes to the issue of pregnancy, abortion and children, that really isn’t the point. Children are not punishment for having sex, they are gifts to us from a gracious and loving God. This same God has allowed human beings to develop methods for avoiding the production of a child as a result from sex, and we should use these methods. There are simply not enough people looking to adopt children from teenaged and/or poor parents, and I cannot understand the perversity of thinking that forcing children to grow up in poverty and neglect is somehow justified because it shows the parents (meaning just the mom) that there are “consequences” to having sex. There are plenty of “consequences” without making children suffer for the sins of their parents.

Aside from contraception, though, the pro-choice position is the only logical pro-life position because it recognizes that there are always at least two lives involved in a decision about abortion – that of the mother and the potential life of the fetus. Despite what “Dr.” Bill O’Reilly says, pregnancy is full of dangers to both mother and child, as is delivery. There are people who have to make hard choices about just who they want to save. At those moments a bunch of rhetoric based upon very flimsy scriptural support simply isn’t going to help. We must also understand that there are issues beyond “the mom will die” when it comes to the decision of abortion. I simply don’t want children to be born to meth addicts, alcoholics who drink during pregnancy, crack addicts, etc. What kind of “pro-life” position would dictate that a baby must spend the nine months of gestation with various toxins and poisons coursing into her bloodstream, only to be born with physical and mental disabilities – born with these disabilities to parents who will most assuredly neglect and/or abuse her in the pursuit of their addictions? Even beyond these extreme examples, there are many situations in which a child should frankly not be introduced. It is impossible to fully legislate these situations, creating a legal system that takes into account every single situation in which an abortion might be permissible as opposed to inappropriate. Unless, of course, one thinks that all pregnancy must be brought to term, even those taking place because of or in the presence of abuse, rape, incest and addiction. At which point I can admire the intellectual rigor and consistency, but the position itself is perverse.

That’s why this is about choice. Hard, difficult to manage choices. The issue of abortion is one of those things about being human that makes it so hard to be human. But trying to make it easier for ourselves by legislating it away will solve nothing and create even more problems. I am pro-choice because the high value I place on human life doesn’t allow me to sentence women and children to abuse, physical and mental damage or even death just to soothe my own conscience.

Another aspect of this is the presence of fertility clinics which are in possession of hundreds of thousands of embryos which will never, ever become anything other than embryos. Unless, of course, people are found who are willing to adopt them for the sake of political photo ops. That there are thousands of children in this country who have no family to take care of them while people with both means and a desire for children spend thousands of their own dollars to “have a child of their own” is twisted. Again, if our focus was upon children and not upon our own morality or the sins of others, these clinics would not be doing the booming business they currently are, and there would be a lot less unadopted children in this country. Let’s get our priorities straight.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006
(2:02 PM) | Stephen:
That's a Lotta Kids

Two questions for the Quiverfull folks:

1. I understand that many of the movement's followers are lower middle class. But is it considered appropriate for people who accept public assistance to become part of this movement? I seem to remember quite a few conservative arguments against allowing moms on "welfare" to have more kids.

2. I can understand the rationale behind the movement. But why does the declining birthrate in specifically white countries worry all of you so much? The Bible doesn't really say much about race, so if one race were to disappear because of an inability to produce enough children, who cares, right? Or is there something else that motivates this concern?

Monday, November 13, 2006
(12:18 PM) | Stephen:
Move over, Chuck


Rahm Emmanuel and his ilk would sell their mothers for two votes and a committee assignment.

You know, a large part of the GOP defeat this year is due to the number of GOP politicians who put their own power and fortunes ahead of their constituents' and party's concerns.

As far as I know, Rahm Emmanuel is the most righteous, upright Representative in Congress. But his attitude is distressingly similar to DeLay, Cunningham and others, and his priorities are clear: he's looking out for number 1, and if he needs to use the entire Democratic party to advance his interests, he will.

A resurgent Democratic base is his worst nightmare. He will be interesting to watch.

(3:04 AM) | Stephen:
The 2006 Liberal Religious Awakening That Wasn't

Apparently, Democrats did not win because massive numbers of Evangelical Christians voted for them.

What makes this so interesting is that even with such paltry gains among Evangelical and conservative Catholic Christians, the Democrats were able to dominate the midterm elections. Remember, no Democratic incumbent lost in any House, Senate or Governor's race. That has never happened before for any party in the USA. Democrats have Congress and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. To have been able to accomplish this without a substantial amount of support from Evangelical Christians is astonishing, especially because their participation in this election was on par with 2004.

I've been wondering if there was a backlash brewing among non-Evangelicals. Too early to tell, but this may have been an opening salvo.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has more. There are times that she lets slip criticisms of Belief itself, but there is no one better at dealing with religion on the left side of the blogosphere than her. When I talk about what we need to do in order to have good relationships between progressive Atheists and believers, Amanda is the template.

Sunday, November 12, 2006
(2:37 PM) | Stephen:
beliefs, Belief & unbelief

First part here.

Second part here.

The capitalization in the title is intentional; I hope to be able to delineate between a person's beliefs versus another's disagreement or lack of said beliefs and the idea of Belief - that is, that religion, spirituality, supersition, call it what you will, exists at all. This is an important distinction, especially if we are ever to come to a place where, in terms of the USA, believers and atheists can engage in profitable conversation.

Newsweek, continuing its obsession with American religious conservatives, had a cover story about "The Politics of Jesus" the week before the election. A sidebar to that article by Sam Harris illustrates all too well the assumptions and lack of comprehension that plague this issue. The current issue has an article about a gathering of atheistic scientists discussing what it means, basically, to be an atheist in this society and bemoaning that there are actually scientists! who believe in something other than what can be proved empirically.

Much of what these articles say is just fine. It is indeed a problem that so many American Christians believe Jesus will return within 50 years, though this is a problem that has plagued Christianity far longer than the USA has existed, and will plague it long past when the USA ceases to exist. Harris is quite right when he counts it a problem that so many American citizens believe the world was created 6,000 years ago, that the events of the Garden of Eden literally happened the way they are portrayed in Genesis, and that a collection of 150 human cells with no brain, no lungs, no differentiation at all (and no potential to ever become "more" because they will not be implanted in a human uterus) are to be counted equal - if not preferred - to fully developed human beings.

The problem comes when people who have trouble with specific beliefs then decide that it is not the beliefs, but Belief that is the real problem. The thinking behind this idea, this belief, if you will, is that to believe in something, anything, is to necessarily subscribe to dangerous, divisive, exclusive, bigoted and violent beliefs.

This is the stumbling block, the obstacle that stands in our way. The idea that Belief itself entails destructive and hateful beliefs - in all faiths - is, I hope you agree, absurd. That this view often comes from the perspective that those who believe in that which cannot be empirically proven are foolish and tragically ignorant is arrogant and, given the history of science itself, foolishly shortsighted.

Just as believers wish to claim the good that people do while ignoring those who perform evil acts in the name of religion, so the scientists mentioned in the linked Newsweek articles wish to make all believers responsible for the evil done in their name while ignoring or delegitimizing the good. In my previous post I argued that the good done in the name of a religion (or for that matter Atheism) is rightly considered to be an inherent part of that system, while the evil is rightly considered to be a perversion. This is because all systems of belief are intended to improve their adherents, all of them. This is, in my not so humble opinion, the only logically consistent way to treat relgion and Atheism. The other positions require a denial of far too much evidence to be seriously considered.

The point to all this is that it must be considered "ok" to believe - or not. Dawkins and his lot need to calm down, take a few deep breaths and maybe have a shot or two of some good, 12-year-old single-malt scotch, like Glenfidditch or Glenmorangie, preferably neat, but in a glass that's been in the freezer for a half hour.

Or so I've heard.

Anyway, within the progressive community, Belief must no longer be seen by anyone as a negative, an evil or a liability. This must be true whether it is Jesus, Allah, Buddha, the FSM, various dryads and nymphs or Zeus and Apollo. Period. And I'm going to let this statement about "tolerance" fall mostly toward the Atheists in the progressive community, because it seems to me that believers within this community are already primed to be sensitive to others' beliefs or lack thereof because of the actions of other believers.

So. Belief is not to be ridiculed or criticized. However, beliefs can and should be. So let's try to make some groundrules for dealing with beliefs.

Which we will do in the 4th post of my, um, trilogy. Sorry, but this is getting too long.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006
(2:24 PM) | Stephen:

Ok, so I spent yesterday walking the streets of south Kansas City for the McCaskill campaign. We were looking for those pesky Democrats who don't vote in the midterms. Apparently, we were able to find a few.

Yesterday morning, we were told by our fresh-faced campaign worker that McCaskill had approximately 4,000 volunteers out for the day all over Missouri. And other groups, other campaigns also had canvassers and phone-bankers, drivers and poll watchers.

So when it was finally declared that McCaskill had won and I was filled with strange pride at the fact, was it because that I, as merely one among thousands, made the difference? No, of course not. But I do know that a little more was done with 4,000 than would have been done with 3,999.

(2:19 PM) | Stephen:
This is cool

Chris and I have quite similar goals for this blog (I think). We want it to be a place to discuss a wide variety of topics in such a way that will hone our thinking and allow us to better understand what we do - and what we don't - believe.

Already, thanks to the excellent comments on the athiesm/religion posts, this goal has been met.* So thank you. I am still thinking through the 3rd post, having to now revise quite a bit of what I was going to originally say.

Michael in comments mentioned how nice it is to be able to discuss this without a lot of the usual rancor that accompanies such subjects. I'll admit, I am quite capable of rancor, though I'm trying to learn and develop. But Michael is right, the discussion has been really good.


*But please keep reading and commenting.

Sunday, November 05, 2006
(4:49 PM) | Stephen:
Just a Sunday Afternoon Story

Let me tell you about Miss Polly. Well, it's Pauline, really, but as a kid I called her Miss Polly, just like the little kids do today. I have no idea how old she is, but she was pretty old about 30 years ago. She's probably in her 110's, at least.

Miss Polly is not pretty. I know that's rude, but it's true. She has straw-colored hair that actually bunches up in strands that look like straw. She's incredibly gaunt and has facial hair. Her hands are almost useless to her because of arthritis, with huge knuckles and fingers gnarled into disturbing shapes. Miss Polly wears heavy brown shoes, the same kind every day, because they help her to walk. She is able to hold a cane to steady herself, and has learned to manipulate doors, books (somewhat) and papers. She can even write, though it is a long, slow process.

Of course you all know that the direction I'm heading is to tell you what a wonderful person this woman is. And it's true: Miss Polly is a wonderful person. She has taught Sunday School to children for longer than I've been alive, and manages to make the lessons pretty interesting, considering the state of most Sunday School curriculum. She's kind and generous and remarkably patient with kids. Most of all, she is happy. Content. Joyful. Not that kind of manic "joy" that we've all seen people put on when faced with the competing effects of traumatic events/conditions and the feeling that we "have to be joyful in everything." This isn't some deranged rictus, a pasted-on smile that hardly conceals the pain and grief behind it, or the recent widow/widower who is busier than ever before, and who talks constantly about "victory" but never about grief or healing. Miss Polly is content.

I bring her up because today is, for many Christian churches, All Saints Sunday. This morning, churches all over the world heard from their pastors and priests about the saints that have come before, both great like Francis, Peter and Bernard, and small, like Miss Polly. It's a good practice, really, to spend some time remembering those who have helped us, who have shown us love and compassion, who have taught us and inspired us. Religious belief is hardly required for this, though it of course figures prominently in my experience.

But today, especially before an election, especially as people are killing each other all over the world, especially as children starve and women are gang-raped for the sins of their brothers, perhaps it is good for those of us who can to stop for a moment and think of all the shining lights that have come our way, all the people who have helped us to see that there is a better way, a higher way, than the one that comes all too naturally.

Madeleine, L'Engle, writing in A Wrinkle in Time, shows Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace seeing for the first time the Darkness that threatens to overshadow the Earth, and which hold's Meg's and Charles Wallace's father captive. It is a dreadful moment, and their courage is gone. The 3 beings who have come to help the children, disguised as storybook witches, try to help them by mentioning how Earth has produced some of the best fighters the universe has known. Prompted by the good witches, the children gain strength from the examples of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, even Euclid, Newton and Einstein. Religious figures, philosophers, scientists and artists all help us to fight the Darkness that so threatens all of us, the children learn, and so they gain the courage the need to pass through the Darkness, take it on and rescue Mr. Murray.

To the list of luminaries we can all name, I would add Polly H., Patricia S., Lois Y., Bryan D., Toms B. and C., Dennis B., and so many others who have shown me love and grace far beyond what I deserve. They teach me that I can be better than I am. These, as Madelein L'Engle would say, know the Ancient Music, they sing the Old Songs with the stars and planets, the constellations and galaxies. And when the Darkness is all around, when hope flees and courage melts, these are the people, great and small, who begin to sing the Melodies of the Universe, making Creation itself pulse with the power of their song, and they make the Darkness fall away before them.

Keep singing, and teach me the words and tune that I may join in.

Saturday, November 04, 2006
(8:32 PM) | Stephen:
Ahh-Theism, Part II

See part one here.

Whenever there is a discussion between religious believers and non-believers, there are several assertions and rebuttals thrown back and forth. Most of the time, the non-believers will be quite logical in their approach, seeking to undermine the appeal of religion by showing it as something absurd or incoherent.

One such argument is that believers want to have it both ways; they want religion to claim the credit for all the good that people do while disowning the bad that people do, blaming it instead upon a perversion of religion. This is, of course, an illogical position. We can't pick and choose these kinds of things. We have to take the good with the bad, right?

Well, no. To believe this is to misunderstand the very nature of belief. All religious belief - and Atheism is included here, since it is a belief about religion - has always had the purpose of improving, elevating its adherents. Even what we consider to be bloody and oppressive religions, such as those that required human sacrifice, were systems of belief that promised to improve the moral character of those who believed and most especially those were "fortunate" enough to be chosen by the gods as sacrifices.

There is, quite simply, no religious system of belief that purports to degrade the character of those involved. This is also true of Atheism, perhaps even particularly so, since many Atheists see themselves as rejecting beliefs that do nothing but weigh them down and hold back the human race from its evolutionary future.

Quick note about the religious nature of atheistic belief: Buddhists are essentially atheistic. There are of course many people whose approach to Buddha is worshipful. However, the religion has no god. It is a system of thought and behavior intended to help its adherents develop into better people. Just like Western-style Atheism.

The atrocities committed in the name of religions are rightly considered to be perversions of those religions, and those who do them to be blasphemers, apostates, heretics and the like. The so-called Biblical justifications for slavery, then, were not correct readings of the Bible but perversions of its message. The same is true, then, of what bin Laden and others preach in Islam, or the Hindus who think it necessary to practice violence upon other religions.

This assertion runs into trouble when people read the Bible, however. They can point to several very plain passages in which God commands his people to murder, destroy, and generally act like jerks. Or where Paul said that women need to shut up and to not have leadership over men, or where Paul told Onesimus to stay a slave and be happy about it, and so on. The problem with this approach, though, is that it is a Fundamentalist Christian reading of the Bible. In fact, it is often more fundamentalist than the Fundamentalists. Just as Christian Fundamentalists need to employ their narrow interpretations of the Bible to justify their extreme beliefs and behaviors, those who use this argument against Christianity must employ the very same narrow interpretations to condemn their extreme beliefs and behaviors.

Christianity is no monolith. The only thing that ties all Christians together is some sort of emphasis upon the person of Jesus Christ. Even the level or type of emphasis is not uniform. Anyone who thinks they can lump all Christians together has never seen the difference between the Copts and the Primitive Baptists.

This last point is important for non-believers to understand. In the infamous thread (no, I won't link to it, some people got very nasty. Some people, not me of course) that started this all, I brought up how Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il were/are all atheists. That in fact they conducted pogroms against religions and their adherents, killing and imprisoning millions. What? I wasn't nasty about it!

Anyway, this did not go over well. I was informed that not all Atheists believe or act in the same way, that we can't lump all of them together. Exactly.

Another point regarding this is that Stalin, Mao, etc. didn't act from their Atheistic beliefs, but from desires for more political power or simple political expediency.

Read the above again. Do I really need to spell it out? Does anyone need to see how this argument is exactly the same for the Borgias of Medieval Italy or those like Tony Perkins or Pat Robertson today?

The goal here, I hope it is clear, is to begin to treat all beliefs the same, whether it is a belief in something there or a belief that nothing is there. The same standards need to apply to all of us, to all our beliefs. To think that rejecting religion brings one out of a moral and intellectual sewer, freeing one from the evolutionary swamp that entangles the rest of humanity is just as arrogant, exclusionary and judgmental as the belief that everyone who does not believe exactly the way I do is going to hell.

And since I can, using very logical methods, accuse Atheists of atrocities just as horrible as those leveled against the religious, perhaps a better way is to just declare a cease-fire and drop the hostilities on all sides. Let me be clear, though, that I don't believe Christians are persecuted in this country, or that "the Left" is hostile to religion, or any of those things. Atrios, Kos, Amanda & Pam, Gilly and loads of other lefty bloggers are all atheists. 99% of the time they focus upon behaviors and specific beliefs rather than religion itself. But hostility toward religion itself is present, both online and off. As a religious person who is a committed progressive and part of the lefty blogosphere, I feel a responsibility toward both "sides" of this issue, to try and help people to drop the wrong ideas, the assumptions and preconceptions. And part of this is to declare that no matter what the other "side" may say or do, it doesn't justify bad behavior or hateful words from us, whoever "us" may be.

Next post, we get into my suggestions for ways Atheists and various believers can get along like ebony and ivory, living together in perfect harmony, side by side, on a piano. Oh yeah.

(8:30 PM) | Stephen:

Recently I participated in a comment thread where Christianity was described as being "a stone in the bottom of a bucket of feces." Actually, all religions were described as being a worthless object covered in several gallons of, to be blunt, shit. Islam was declared the very worst, with Christianity a close second.

I'll admit, it's hard to be a believer right now. Ted Haggard is on all the news channels. Tom DeLay, when he resigned, effectively told us that he was just too Christian for Congress, and that was the source of his problems, not that he was utterly, thoroughly corrupt. Churches and parachurch organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women of America and so many others are focusing millions of dollars and their sizable influence upon getting laws - constitutional amendments if possible - passed in all 50 states that very narrowly define marriage. One funny thing about it is how this definition is narrower than that of the Old Testament, but never mind. The gap between rich and poor grows every day, there are over 40 million people in this country without health insurance, the poor line our streets, die in the summer from the heat and in the winter from the cold, and millions of Christians spend far more time worrying about homosexual marriage or teaching evolution in public schools than any of this.

And that's just Christianity. Islam is having its own problems, as we are all aware. Hindus in India have grown quite violent as well. Even Buddhists, the good ones of the religious world, are not exempt from violence. When my family lived in Korea there were a couple of Buddhist groups that attacked each other's members and vandalized their temples.

But even with all that, I didn't like to see all religion being characterized as buckets full of feces. And when I expressed my complaint at that type of thinking, I didn't like that the only response to my complaint was to list various atrocities committed by Christians.

People, I have a Master's of Divinity degree. It's 90 hours for that degree, about the same as an MD or JD. My Christian History professor is an authority on Medieval Spanish Christianity. Anyone remember the things that went on during this period, especially in Spain? I think I know pretty well how bad Christians can be to other people. I mean, jeez, there's a Christian college in the southern USA that used to have a scholarship set up for, I kid you not, whatever girl was most recently raped by one of the sponsoring denomination's leaders in that area. Lists of atrocities just don't impress me; mine are longer.

Aside from my irritation at being told stuff I already know, there's the fact that all this is beside the point. The issue that we really need to engage is the essence of belief itself and what that means for our behavior. As progressives, we need to try and find a common ground for those for whom belief in a deity is foundational and those for whom belief that there is no deity is foundational.

Because as much as Amy Sullivan, Barak Obama and all the other naggers about religion irritate me, the hostility toward religion that is on display from many of the grassroots of the progressive movement just isn't helping. We are at a critical point in American politics, a place where some cracking of the GOP business/religious coalition might be able to take place. There are believers who will be searching for a new political home, a place that emphasizes their other concerns, the concerns for the poor and sick that have been so ignored these last 20 years in the Religious Right.

The good news is that I think it is possible for us to work together. I firmly believe that believers and non-believers of all sorts can be a part of the Democratic coalition, and further that to accomplish it needs only a little work. But we have to be willing to work at it, and we have to be willing, all of us, to own up to the shortcomings of our beliefs and the "sins" committed in their name.

So that's what we're going to work on during the next few posts.

(1:07 PM) | Stephen:
Politics! Eek!

Here's the deal for next Tuesday. I can understand if you are a Republican or Independent, or a member of the Constitution party. I understand if you think that Democrats will take away your Bibles and hold abortion parties in your living room. And if you think that the war in Iraq is still a good thing, that Bush told the truth leading up to it, that it's making us safer, fine. Really, all of that is fine.

But the Republicans in Congress and the White House have instigated and overseen the largest increase in the size and power of the federal government in history. They have appropriated far more rights for the government to interfere into your home, your child's school, your church and your telephone lines than any other administration or Congress. They have reserved for themselves the right to deny American citizens the ability to either leave or enter the country.

So vote for whoever you want, I don't care. But if you vote for any Republican other than Chuck Hagel for national office, you don't get to call yourself a conservative anymore. The choice, then, is between your ideals and beliefs on one side, and making sure that your team wins on the other.

In between lies just what kind of person you want to be.

(12:55 PM) | Stephen:
Various Silly Things

Here's some stuff while I'm reworking the religion series:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006
(12:06 PM) | sam k:
An Open Letter to NBC

Dear NBC,

I am writing to help save Studio 60. I confess that I’ve been meaning to write your network for several weeks, and am only now making time because of rumors circulating this morning concerning NBC’s plans to cancel the show. I’ve been meaning to write your network for several weeks because Studio 60 is a great program. It’s clever, it’s incisive—it’s charming. I watch it every week, either with friends or with family (though I confess from time to time we TiVo it and fast forward through the commercials).

During my lunch break, I coach a high school debate club. It is my own pathetic attempt to combat the unremitting marginalization of intelligence in our culture. A task which, until now, NBC has not fully joined its counterparts in. It troubles me that NBC’s strategy seems to be that the only way to beat CBS is to become a little bit more like CBS. The show is clever, it’s incisive, it’s charming—it’s also right: All good things should flow into the boulevard.

I simply don’t have the tolerance for another tiresome criminal justice drama—CSI: Albuquerque, or Law & Order: Civil Action, I imagine—or another insipid game show. (Can we be honest for a moment? Deal or No Deal is just a guessing game. The bank is playing the odds. The contestants and the viewers are just making blind guesses. So exciting.) So if Studio 60 gets canceled, I’m turning off the TV.

Chris Jones

(10:11 AM) | Stephen:
Oh Help Us

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon (warning, there is some "language" and "liberal ideas" at that blog) describes a ruling handed down by a Maryland appellate court regarding the issue of rape - specifically, is a sexual act actually rape if consent is withdrawn after penetration has occurred? Amanda, of course, has a good perspective on this, and is worth reading. For example, page 32 of the opinion is rather appalling, both that Maryland's legal tradition contains such language and that current courts are, apparently, compelled to follow it.

However, I want to bring up another point, one that is not discussed often, if at all. Specifically, did you know that laws about rape are not designed to protect women? This is, I assure you, completely true and accurate. Of all the laws on the books in all the states and our federal government, not one is designed to protect women from rape.

Rather, these laws are designed to protect everyone from rape: women, girls and boys and even men.

We undermine these laws and the idea that consent can be withdrawn at any time at our own peril.

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