Tag Archives: religion

Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.

If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions [2] — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.

As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.

In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.

But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:

  • Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an [3], “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
  • The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
  • People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
  • Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
  • Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”

He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.

In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.

At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. [4]

The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? [5]

Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.

For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:

The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.

The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.

Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. [6]

The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.

Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.

Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.

  • The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
  • In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
  • Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
  • Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
  • The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.

Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.

Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. [7]

The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.

If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.

An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.


[1] Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.

Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.

[2] By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.

In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.

In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.

[3] Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.

[4] A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.

[5] Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?

[6] So if you buy the argument in [1], Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.

[7] He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

Are the principles that protect religious liberty secure, or are recent court decisions steps on a slippery slope?


One of this week’s big stories was Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of S.B. 1062, “An Act … Relating to the Free Exercise of Religion“. Proponents claim that this law (and similar proposed laws around the country) is necessary to protect Christians from being forced to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations, in violation of their freedoms of conscience and religious liberty.

There’s one important thing you need to understand about this controversy: It’s symbolic. I went looking for cases where businesses were forced to deal with same-sex weddings and I found exactly five in the entire country.

  • In New Mexico, a photography business was successfully sued by a lesbian couple whose commitment ceremony (same-sex marriage being illegal in New Mexico) it refused to photograph. (I covered the ruling in a weekly summary last August.)
  • The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that a bakery had violated state law when it refused to make a wedding cake for another lesbian couple.
  • A judge in Colorado similarly ruled against a bakery.
  • A Vermont inn was sued for refusing to host a wedding reception for a same-sex couple, which the owners claim was a misunderstanding. The case was settled out of court, so we don’t know what a judge would have said.
  • A suit is pending against a florist in Washington.

Some writers make it sound like these are representative examples out of many, but they may well be the only instances to date.

Last June, the Pew Research Center estimated that over 70,000 same-sex marriages had been performed in the United States, plus an uncounted number of civil unions and legally unrecognized commitment ceremonies like the one in New Mexico. In all but a handful of them, people seem to have worked out whatever differences they had. Wedding planners, photographers, bakers, dress-makers, tuxedo-rental places, florists, celebrants, meeting halls, church sanctuaries … either they approved or they swallowed their disapproval or the couples took the hint and looked for service-with-a-smile elsewhere. Or maybe they found compromises they could all live with. (“I’ll sell you the cake, but you’ll have to put the two brides on top yourself.”)

In short, S.B. 1062 does not address a practical issue. Across the country, people are behaving like adults and working things out without involving the government. Governor Brewer recognized as much in her veto statement:

Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.

The uproar is also symbolic on the other side. Critics of S.B. 1062 warned about “gay Jim Crow” laws, but just as there is no flood of suits against fundamentalist Christian florists, neither are large numbers of businesses waiting for the state’s permission to display “No Gays Allowed” signs. As The Christian Post pointed out, Arizona (like many other states) has no state law protecting gays from discrimination. (New Mexico does, which is why the lesbian couple won their suit against the photographers.) So outside a few cities that have local anti-discrimination ordinances, Arizona businesses are already free to put out “No Gays Allowed” signs without S.B. 1062. If any have done so, nobody is making a big deal out of it.

What this all resembles more than anything is the argument over the constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Actual flag-burnings are so rare that most of the amendment’s backers couldn’t cite a particular case, but they felt very strongly about it all the same. The few cases that actually exist are merely chips in a poker game; they are symbols of some deeper philosophical conflict, but mean little in themselves.

That’s not to say that philosophical conflicts are unimportant, but they are also not urgent. Because major injustices against one side or the other are not happening every day — and depending on your definition of “major injustice” may not be happening at all — we can afford to take some time to think this through calmly: What principles of religious liberty should we be trying to protect, and are any of those principles implicated in the cases that have been decided?

In my view, one basic principle is: No one should be forced to participate in a religious ritual. That’s why I don’t want teachers leading prayers in public school classrooms, especially when the children are too young to make a meaningful choice about opting out. For the same reason, it would be wrong to sue a priest who refused to perform a Catholic marriage ritual for a marriage his church did not sanction.

Some supporters of laws like S.B. 1062 (and the pending H.B. 2481) are citing this principle, but I think we need to be careful not to stretch the definition of a religious ritual. For example, civil marriage is not a religious ritual, so neither an officiating judge nor the clerk who issues a license is participating in religion. (If they were, that would seriously violate the separation of church and state.) Requiring that they do their jobs is not a violation of their religious liberty. The fact that you don’t make the laws and may disagree with them is a normal hardship of working for the government, not a First Amendment issue.

Similarly, a wedding reception is not a religious ritual; it’s a party that happens to take place after a religious ritual. Baking the cake or DJing the music or manning the bar are not sacramental roles, and do not deserve that kind of protection.

A second principle is: No one should be compelled to make a statement against his or her conscience. This was used as a defense in the Colorado bakery case. Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer rejected it like this:

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. The undisputed evidence is that [the baker] categorically refused to prepare a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding before there was any discussion about what that cake would look like. [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage.

So if a wedding-reception singer refused to sing some special gay-rights anthem, I would support him under this principle. But if he refused to perform at all, or refused to perform more-or-less the same collection of songs he does for everyone else who hires him, then I wouldn’t. Leading the friends and families of a same-sex couple in “The Hokey Pokey” is not a religious or political statement that should challenge anyone’s conscience.

Weighing against these exceptions is a public-accommodation principle that got established during the Civil Rights movement: If a business serves the public, then it should serve the whole public. The point of Jim Crow laws wasn’t to protect the consciences of white business owners, it was to exclude black people from the general public. If excluding gay and lesbian couples from the general public is the purpose behind refusing to serve them, that shouldn’t be allowed.

People try to fudge this principle by creating me-or-him situations. I grew up reading Ann Landers’ advice column in the newspaper. Ann used to regularly get questions like: “My good friend says she can’t come to my wedding if my other good friend is going to be there. What should I do?” As best I remember, her answer was always something like: “Invite everyone who you want to see there. If your friend doesn’t want to come, that’s her decision.” The same idea works here: Everyone should be invited to the marketplace. If you feel that the presence of gays and lesbians in the marketplace means you can’t be there, that’s your decision. No one has forced you out. (This is my answer to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, who claim “Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services.”)

The other frequently raised issue has to do with venues: Will the law force my church sanctuary to be available for same-sex marriages? The idea that a sanctified site will be used for some unholy purpose strikes many people very deeply.

The case that is always cited — often not very precisely — involves a Methodist group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey. The OGCMA owned a boardwalk pavilion, which the judge described as “open-air wood-framed seating area along the boardwalk facing the Atlantic Ocean.” The Methodist group used the facility “primarily for religious programming”, but had received a tax exemption for the property the pavilion was on. One condition of the exemption was that the facility be open to the public. The OGCMA had a web page advertising “An Ocean Grove Wedding”, which cost $250 in rent. The OGCMA did not conduct or plan the weddings, and the page said nothing about Methodist doctrines concerning marriage.

Until the OGCMA turned down a lesbian couple that wanted to celebrate a civil union in 2007, no one could recall a wedding being refused for any reason other than scheduling. After the couple sued, OGCMA re-organized its use of the pavilion. It stopped advertising it to the public and sought a different kind of tax exemption available to it as a religious organization. The judge found:

[The OGCMA] can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination]. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.

Recognizing that the couple mainly sought “the finding that they were wronged” and that the OGCMA had not “acted with ill motive”, the judge assessed no damages.

In other words, this example is not particularly scary when you know the details. The principle here is pretty simple: If you worry about the sanctity of your holy space, don’t rent it out to the public – which is good advice in general, irrespective of same-sex marriage. If you do rent it out, then we’re back to the public-accommodation principle.

In conclusion, I’m not seeing anything particularly alarming in the five cases (six, if you add the boardwalk pavilion case) that are motivating people to support S.B. 1062 or similar laws. Reasonable principles are prevailing, and I do not see a slippery slope.

So if you’re worried about your minister being forced to bless a same-sex wedding in your sanctuary or go to jail, don’t be. It’s not happening and nobody is advocating for it to happen. Nothing in the cases that have been decided leads in that direction.

To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist

From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger. But two recent stories underline a contrasting point: If Christians really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.

Christian pastor Ryan Bell is literally trying, and it’s not going well. In the spirit of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Bell announced that he would live 2014 as an atheist and chronicle his experiences on his A Year Without God blog. In his announcement post, he portrayed his experiment partly as a religious identity crisis and partly as an attempt to answer a friend’s question: “What difference does God make?”

How could Bell explain the difference unless he had tried both? So:

For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

No doubt Bell anticipated writing about challenges like: Could he really “live as if there is no God”, or would his sensibilities rebel at the vision of a godless universe? Would he get depressed without God to give him hope? Would his moral character weaken? Would he have to abandon his experiment if he faced a true life crisis? Near the end of the year, would he look forward to the day when he could return to religion? In 2015 would he, like King David, be “glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord”?

What actually happened is that in the first week he lost all his sources of income.

I was an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching Intercultural Communication to undergrads, and Fuller Theological Seminary, coaching doctoral candidates in the writing of their dissertation proposals. Both are Christian institutions of higher learning that have a requirement that their instructors and staff be committed followers of Jesus and, obviously, believers in God. They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I’m am in this year long process. … The other work I do is consulting with congregations … the fact that I was embarking on a year without god was just too much for them.

His friends have not ostracized him, but he hadn’t realized that was even a risk. Apparently it was.

We still love you!

So many of my closest friends and colleagues have said this to me in the past few days. My initial, unspoken reaction was, “Well, I certainly hope so.” Now I understand that this is not a forgone conclusion. I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence.

The lesson seems pretty clear: If you’re having doubts about God’s existence, don’t tell anybody.

The second story concerns Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog. Mehta lives in Naperville, Illinois. In October, the local American Legion post in nearby Morton Grove stopped giving financial support to the Morton Grove Park District because one of the district’s board members was refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Mehta asked his readers to make up the difference, and raised $3000 to more than replace the Legion’s $2600. There were no strings. Mehta says, “the only ‘ethical implication’ of accepting money from atheists is that you get money.”

The Park District turned it down. So did the library, after the library’s treasurer referred to Mehta and his readers as “a hate group” and backed up that accusation by reading “a couple of the religiously-inflammatory and expletive-ridden comments posted on Mehta’s Friendly Atheist Facebook Page.” (As if you couldn’t find offensive comments on any popular Facebook page, including Christian ones.) She asked the other trustees: “Would you take money from the Klan?”

The apparent reference is to Georgia’s refusal to let a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan participate in its Adopt-a-Highway program. But there the Klan would get a benefit:

The program provides advertising for sponsors who agree to clean a stretch of road on a sign posted along the stretch.

Mehta, on the other hand, was asking for nothing: no plaque, no mention in the newsletter, nothing. Just take the money. He comments:

I firmly believe that if the money came from the “Friendly Christian,” none of this would be an issue. The “A” word is just freaking everybody out.

Finally, the Niles Township Food Pantry cashed the check. If any of the food it bought burst into flames when the needy said grace over it, I haven’t heard.

I know: As examples of religious persecution, neither of these stories holds a candle to the Holocaust or the Inquisition. Nobody is dying, languishing in prison, or getting tossed into a fiery furnace. But in the same way, they put into perspective fundamentalist Christian problems like not being able to display a Ten Commandments monument at the state supreme court, or your monument maybe being forced to share public space with other people’s monuments, or the law forcing you to treat gays and lesbians as if they were part of the general public, or being offended that someone wished you “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”.

But still, Christians can give no-strings-attached money to the local library without worrying that they might be likened to the KKK. Compared to the alternatives, being Christian in America is still a pretty cushy gig.

What to Make of Pope Francis?

Is Pope Francis’ denunciation of “unfettered capitalism” new? or long-standing Catholic doctrine most Americans have ignored and forgotten? Either way, does it matter?


The Catholic Church has always been torn: Is it the church of Jesus, who told a rich man, “Go, sell all that you own and give to the poor”? Or is it the church of the Emperor Constantine, who put the Rome in Roman Catholicism? Is it the church of Saint Francis or of the Borgia popes? Of liberation theology or of Franco’s fascist collaborators?

The church in recent American politics. In recent years the public face of the American church has been turned primarily towards sexual issues: abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. And so the bishops have become allies of the Republican Party; the American politician most publicly identified as Catholic has been Rick Santorum. American cardinals have denied communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians like John Kerry and Kathleen Sebelius, but when a Catholic conservative like Paul Ryan proposes slashing programs that help the poor, a letter of protest is deemed sufficient. (Cardinal Dolan, then president of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, subsequently described Ryan as “a great public servant”.)

On ObamaCare, the American bishops have manufactured great outrage against the fairly minor point* of the contraception mandate, while saying relatively little about Medicaid expansion, which will provide health insurance to millions of the working poor.

Liberal Catholic tradition. Unknown to much of the American public, though, the Catholic Church has a long history of liberal economic positions, going back at least to the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII.

I encountered this tradition myself in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II, when I went back and read his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. In that encyclical, the Pope re-examined the relationship between capital and labor, and rejected a point of view he called economism (that workers are just another factor of production, like tools or raw materials, rather than divinely created beings with souls), which he saw underlying both capitalism and communism. He also assigned a secondary and functional role to the institution of private property: If a system of private property leads to a better society, fine, but it’s not an end in itself.

So (unlike Rush Limbaugh) I was not shocked this week when I read headlines like Pope Francis attacks ‘tyranny’ of unfettered capitalism, ‘idolatory of money’. Is this actually something new, I wondered, or does it just look new from within the sex-obsessed bubble constructed by the American bishops and their Republican allies?

Symbols and gestures. Pope Francis made a strong first impression on the world when he rejected many of the regal trappings of the papacy and chose the name Francis, which harkens back to the voluntary poverty and simplicity of Saint Francis of Assisi.

He then made a series of conciliatory statements. About gays:

When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.

And atheists:

We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

Where Pope Benedict had enraged Muslims, Francis reached out them, sending a personal message to a leading imam in Cairo, calling for “understanding among Christians and Muslims in the world, to build peace and justice.”

And running through all of his statements was an awareness of the poor, those who have been cut off from the abundant produce of the planet God created to sustain all people.

So far, so good. But would he actually change anything?

Evangelii Gaudium. A week ago yesterday, the Vatican published an “apostolic exhortation” from Pope Francis. Apostolic exhortations are what the name implies: They’re meant to nudge people into action, not announce new doctrine.

Evangelii Gaudium (“the joy of the gospel”) is no different. Its purpose is to “encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality”. Most of the text has nothing to do with politics or economics; it ranges through subjects as diverse as how the faithful should motivate themselves and advice to priests on preparing good homilies.

[In a couple of subjects — abortion and women priests — he announces that there will be no new doctrine, though he does make this interesting and enigmatic statement:

The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.

Time will tell whether that is a fig leaf for continued patriarchy or an indication that women could come to have more power in the Church, even if they aren’t serving mass.]

But a document encouraging Catholics to make their faith felt in the world has to say something about what, specifically, the world should be made to feel. And here he did not focus on sexual issues, but on economic ones.

Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.

Each individual and every community. Not “the poor — that’s somebody else’s gig — I’m fighting against same-sex marriage”.

Catholic economics. Consistently through the years, Catholic economics has revolved around two ideas:

  • God created the world for everybody. Pope Francis is not staking out any new territory when he writes: “we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.”
  • God did not institute any particular economic system. Economic systems are human constructions, so they are not proper objects of veneration. God is not a capitalist, a communist, or anything else. So economic arrangements have to be justified in practical terms, by their results.

So even something as basic as private property or the freedom to buy and sell has only a functional justification. Protecting property or upholding economic freedom has no value in itself. Rather

The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good. … Sadly, even human rights can be used as a justification for an inordinate defense of individual rights or the rights of the richer peoples.

This position puts the Church fundamentally at odds with Rand-style (or Ryan-style) libertarianism, in which property rights and economic freedom are moral values, not just useful tricks for increasing production. In Randism, the produce of the world rightfully belongs to the people who own the world; if those who own nothing are to survive, they must appeal to the charity of the owners. The owners are the Makers, the poor are the Takers.

Francis observes this position with horror:

We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

He calls on Catholics not just to give alms, but

to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor … We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use. [quotes from Pope John XXIII]

This can’t happen without political action that leads to structural change. The market won’t do it.

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.

A mind that worships the Market can only see God as dangerous.

[E]thics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.

And a society that writes off the poor can never know peace or be safe from revolution.

Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. … When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.

Is this new? No, this is Catholic economics as it has stood for more than a century, with roots going back even further. What’s new is a pope who seems willing to make this the center of his papacy. He has not changed any doctrine — at least not yet — but he has announced a new emphasis away from sex and towards economic justice. As he said in an interview shortly after taking office:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. … The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

But the Pope’s re-prioritization of doctrine is going to be a problem for a lot of American bishops. As Jesuit Priest Thomas Reese wrote:

the bishops as a conference have been embarrassingly silent on economic justice during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. … Many bishops fear that speaking loudly about economic issues would help Democrats and undermine their alliance with the Republican Party on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and religious liberty. Some even think that the conference’s earlier letters, “Economic Justice for All” and “The Challenge of Peace,” were mistakes because they hurt their friends.

Conservative Catholic response. I recommend reading a thoughtful article by the conservative Catholic NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat observes that the shoe is now on the other foot: For years liberal Catholics have had a yes-but relationship with the Vatican, remaining faithful by their own lights while refusing to get in line with official pronouncements on sexual issues. Now it’s conservatives who want to pick and choose which doctrines they support:

for Catholics who pride themselves on fidelity to Rome, the burden is on them — on us — to explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.

He attempts to do so, resting his case primarily on the practical effects of capitalism’s increased production, but then concludes:

This Catholic case for limited government, however, is not a case for the Ayn Randian temptation inherent to a capitalism-friendly politics. There is no Catholic warrant for valorizing entrepreneurs at the expense of ordinary workers, or for dismissing all regulation as unnecessary and all redistribution as immoral.

Let me state that conclusion more boldly: If capitalism is going to be justified by its practical ability to create prosperity even for the underclass, then that’s how it must be judged. You can’t talk about the wonders of increasing GDP in the abstract and then ignore the suffering of real people, or worse, blame them for their own suffering and label them as “takers” for wanting to share in the productivity of the planet God made for everyone.

Are you listening, Paul Ryan?


* They’ve been so successful at voicing their manufactured outrage that I need to explain this: Catholic institutions are not required to buy contraceptives for their employees or promote their use. The institutions in question are just required to provide health insurance (or pay a fine). Employees can use their health insurance for contraception if they decide to, just as they can use their wages to buy all sorts of things the Catholic Church disapproves of. The moral onus of choosing contraception (or not) falls on the employee, as it should.

As I have said at length elsewhere, construing this situation as some kind of moral issue for the employer is just passive aggression. They are hyper-extending the sensitivity of their consciences in order to control other people.

Pots, Kettles, and Projections from the Religious Right

Unlike Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or Newt Gingrich labeling Barack Obama “the Food Stamp President“, I don’t think Stephen Baskerville was trolling when he delivered the annual mandatory-attendance Faith and Reason Lecture ten days ago at Patrick Henry College. On the contrary, I think this was one of those among-the-faithful communications that Alternet’s Amanda Marcotte says the rest of us should be paying more attention to.

Several other writers — at first former PHC students like QueerPHC and David Sessions, then others — have already picked out the outrageous highlights of Baskerville’s speech: gays are responsible for the rise Nazism, prisons are overcrowded because feminists “invented crimes” to control men, sex education is “government-sponsored pornography”, the welfare state caused the financial crisis, and on and on. It’s hard to read more than a paragraph of Baskerville’s text without finding something objectionable.

But I want to back up a step, look at the speech as a whole, and consider what it tells us about the extreme Christianist* mindset. Religious-Right writings are often unintentionally revealing, because of a unique dogmatic quirk: To look at their own worldview as if it were one belief system among many is to commit the sin of relativism.

Self-awareness. People of all religions and philosophies find it hard to “see ourselves as others see us”, but most of us at least pay lip service to the idea that we should. On the Religious Right, though, it’s not just hard to look at your faith from the outside, it’s wrong. (Something similar happens on the political Right with “American exceptionalism”; it’s not just difficult for Americans to see the United States as a nation among other nations, it’s a mistake that should be rejected out of hand.)

This dogmatic quirk has a predictable result: Religious Right speakers and authors have a profound lack of self-awareness. When anybody else would stop and think, “Whoa. What did I just hear come out of my mouth?” Christianist extremists like Stephen Baskerville reject that self-criticism as the voice of the Devil and say “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

That lack of self-awareness is exacerbated when Christianists segregate themselves behind the walls of an institution in which “our Christian faith precedes and informs all that we at Patrick Henry College study, teach, and learn.” Now imagine being a voice of authority in such a place, where those who disagree with you are not just mistaken, they are a corrupting influence on the entire community. What kind of unchecked nonsense would get into your head?

Projection. People who lack self-awareness are prone to what psychologists call projection — their repressed self-criticism doesn’t just evaporate, it comes out as criticism of others. Projection is why liars don’t trust anybody and gossips believe everyone is talking about them. Projection is why puritans imagine that everyone else is obsessed with sex, and ideologues see themselves beset by everyone else’s ideology.

That’s what’s going on in this speech,”Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology“. Baskerville is pointing to what he sees as an important problem in American society today: Ideologues are politicizing sex and the family.

Where, oh where, might he look to see such a phenomenon?

The setting. As you read the speech, keep in mind that Baskerville isn’t one of those unfortunate professors who had an ill-considered ramble recorded on somebody’s iPhone and posted to the world.

Patrick Henry College is the intellectual center of the evangelical Christian home-schooling movement**. It’s the subject of Hanna Rosin’s book God’s Harvard: a Christian College on a mission to save America. The school’s purpose is to take home-schooled evangelicals and groom them for positions in politics and government. It was a disproportionate source of Bush administration interns.

The Faith and Reason Lecture highlights an annual day-long festival and student attendance is mandatory. The PHC web site quotes its provost:

To me, the Faith & Reason festival exemplifies what Patrick Henry College is all about: committed Christians pursuing the highest level of academic scholarship.

David Sessions recalls that the original Faith and Reason lecture in 2005 was pre-screened by the college president and presented only after numerous changes. So he finds it “difficult to imagine” that Baskerville’s speech was not endorsed by the administration.

Ideology. The “ideologies” Baskerville warns his students against are feminism (renamed “sexual radicalism” or “sexualityism”) and Islamism. He never defines ideology, but he explicitly denies that Christianity can be an ideology.

One obvious reason why Christian faith is not an ideology is because of its unique and highly qualified relationship with the state; Christianity does not augment state power but limits it. Yet equally plausible is that Christianity is not an ideology because it has a unique theology of resentment. All true ideologies channel grievances into government power, with the ultimate aim of settling scores against politically defined criminals. Christianity alone offers a theology of forgiveness that neutralizes resentment and channels its sources into service for others and for God.

I’m sure that women forced to have unwanted vaginal probes or scientists who have to fight for their right to teach science in public schools will be comforted to learn that Christianity does not augment state power. LIkewise, I’m sure people who knew and loved Dr. George Tiller appreciate the Religious Right’s forgiving nature. And all you have to do is finish reading Baskerville’s speech to find a litany of Christianist resentment and grievance, a topic I have written about at length elsewhere. You will search in vain to find any hint of Baskerville neutralizing his resentment or channeling it into service — he can’t neutralize his own resentment and grievance because that only exists in other people.

Having defended against self-awareness, he goes on to express clear insight into resentment:

resentment is simply the form of pride that is directed at those possessing power that we feel we deserve.

Just so, Stephen. Just so.

Ending disagreement. Since Baskerville doesn’t define ideology, the only way to know what he means is to watch how he uses it. We’ve already seen that Christianity isn’t an ideology. Further “Ideology is a defining feature of modernity” that didn’t exist until it was invented, along with other modern notions like political parties, the left-right spectrum, and progress.

What he’s actually pointing to is ideological conflict: two or more ideologies co-existing in the same society. That really is a feature of modernity. Christianity by itself doesn’t lead to ideological conflict, but a Christianist society that lets Islam or feminism into the public square does have ideological conflict. If only we could get back to a society where Christianity is the only ideology and all other views are aberrations, then we could ignore the existence of ideology altogether. That seems to be his goal.

My argument is not that we must win the ideological wars but that we should be endeavouring to put the ideological genie back into the bottle.

Freedom is slavery. Slavery is freedom. Baskerville admiringly quotes Puritan minister John Geree from 1641:

There is a service which is freedom, the service of Christ; and there is a freedom which is servitude, the freedom to sin. There is a liberty which is bondage and … a bondage which is liberty.

This Orwellian principle explains how PHC can advocate repressive policies against women, gays, and non-Christians under the college slogan “for Christ and for Liberty”. Forcing others to live by Religious Right principles “liberates” them from the bondage of sin. Conversely,

sin enslaves and license destroys freedom.

The frame here is addiction: When your child is addicted to heroin, you may be justified in locking him up until he finishes going through withdrawal. (He may thank you later, once the craving is gone.) If you apply that model to, say, homosexuality, you are justified in packing your kid off to an ex-gay camp to be deprogrammed.

In the larger world, Christianists picture themselves in the parental role and see the rest of us as addicted to sin. This frame justifies them in seizing whatever power they need to make us behave, all in the name of “liberty”.

This view has become part of the conservative mainstream. In the 2012 campaign, for example, Rick Santorum redefined the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as “God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. [my emphasis] That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.” So gays, feminists, and Muslims can be enemies of freedom, but by definition true Christians cannot.

Tactics for seizing power. Once you put aside the dodge that Baskerville is talking about other people, his criticisms are right on target.

What Gottschalk has stumbled upon is our own homegrown version of Stalinism: the process by which triumphant radicals first challenge and then commandeer both traditional values and the instruments of state repression for their own purposes as they trade ideological purity for power.

Quite right, Prof. Baskerville: America does have a movement that justifies its quest for power by commandeering “traditional values”.

The new ideology uses sexuality — and also its products, children — as instruments to acquire political power. … If one wishes to enact measures that intrude into the private lives of adults, the way to neutralize opposition is to present it as being “for the children.”

Indeed. Christianist attempts to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying the people they love are typically framed as a defense of children. Similarly, the government must intrude into what you read or see on TV or on the internet to protect children.

Baskerville understands that other people’s obsessive focus on sex is bad for society.

It is unhealthy for any society to have its civic life so dominated by sex as ours has now become. When sex becomes a society’s political currency, the public agenda comes to be controlled by those willing to use sexuality as a weapon to acquire power.

A good example of this would be how Republicans used ban-gay-marriage ballot proposals to boost evangelical turnout in key swing states in 2004.

The Hungarian Stalinist Matyas Rakosi coined the term “salami tactics” to describe how determined, disciplined, and organized activists can seize power by wheedling their way into key institutions, such as the police, justice system, penal apparatus, and military.

Baskerville could be describing the mission of Patrick Henry College itself.

The Vision of Patrick Henry College is to aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice, and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence.

Later in the speech, Baskerville applies a military analogy to PHC.

This “university” is tiny, but so was the army of Gideon.

And the Bolsheviks. Don’t forget the Bolsheviks.

Grievances. If your plan is to “channel grievances into government power”, then you have to be able to manufacture grievances.

Here too, we also see the familiar pattern of radical ideologies creating the very evils they then re-package as grievances, and which then serve to rationalize further “empowerment”.

Who manufactures more grievances than the Religious Right, with its imaginary War on Christmas and its belief that its religious freedom has been violated whenever it is not allowed to rule over everyone else?

Invented crimes. Baskerville spends a great deal of time talking about “new crimes” that come from looking at the world through a feminist lens: He puts scare quotes around “rape”, “harassment”, “child abuse”, “stalking”, and “bullying”. (I won’t detail this because Libby Anne already has.)

But he ignores new crimes like fetal homicide, which have been foisted upon us by the Religious Right, or the proposal that Virginia women report their miscarriages to the police within 24 hours. Failure to report could lead to a year in prison.

Not hypocrisy. The temptation is to label this kind of double-standard-keeping as hypocrisy. But it’s stranger than that: The Religious Right isn’t hypocritical, it is just profoundly lacking in self-awareness. They really have no idea that the criticisms they aim outward apply more accurately to themselves.

And how would they? In order to see how their criticisms apply to their own actions, they’d have to consider their worldview as one among many. And to them, that’s relativism. It’s just wrong.


* I use Christianist in the same sense that the mainstream media uses Islamist. I am not talking about all Christians, but specifically about those who believe that their particular version of Christianity should control the government, and especially those who are working to achieve that goal.

** It’s not my intention to smear home-schooling in general. I know more than one home-schooling household personally and I have participated in a few of their projects. Parents might home-school to deal with special needs, to be more involved in their children’s lives, to nurture special talents, to escape bullying, or for many other benign or admirable reasons.

But Christian home-schooling often has an additional goal: “protecting” children from learning about evolution, homosexuality, or feminism, or hearing any cogent criticism of a fundamentalist worldview. The more radical a Christianist group is, the more likely it is to advocate home-schooling.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics said 1.5 million American children were being home-schooled in 2007 (up from 1.1 million in 2003), with 72% of parents citing “religious or moral instruction” as a reason. Not all of those folks are radical Christian supremacists, but given growth and whatnot we still might be talking about a million kids.

“Religious Freedom” means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination

In an Orwellian inversion, “freedom” is now a tool for controlling others.


It’s over. Try something else.

For many anti-gay activists, the recent Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8 were the handwriting on the wall.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t get the result they wanted, but that in DOMA the Court’s majority simply didn’t buy the argument that homosexuality represents a threat to society. Neither does the general public, which supports that decision 56%-41%. (The margin under age 40 is 67%-30%, with 48% approving strongly.) The big post-DOMA public demonstrations expressed joy, not anger.

Just a few years ago anti-marriage-equality referendums were winning in states all over the country, but in 2012 one failed in Minnesota, while referendums legalizing same-sex marriage won at in Washington, Maryland, and Maine. Ten years ago, the first legislatures to make same-sex marriage legal were dragged by their state courts, but this year Delaware, Rhode Island, and Minnesota went there voluntarily, bringing the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal (as of August 1) to 13, plus the District of Columbia. (I’ll guess Oregon and Illinois will go next.)

It’s even clear why this is happening: Because gay millennials are not in the closet, everybody under 30 has gay and lesbian friends who dream about meeting their soulmates just like straight people do. To young Americans, laws blocking that worthy aspiration are pointlessly cruel and ultimately will not stand — not in Alabama, not in Utah, not anywhere.

So the generational tides run against the bigots of the Religious Right. Some still aren’t admitting it, but wiser heads are recognizing that it’s time to switch to Plan B.

The new face of bigotry: “freedom”. Fortunately for them, there’s a well-worked-out back-up plan: religious “freedom”.

Accept the inevitability of gay rights, advises Ross Douthat, but “build in as many protections for religious liberty as possible along the way.” Here’s the idea: If your disapproval of certain kinds of people can be rooted in church doctrine or a handful Biblical proof-texts, then forbidding you to mistreat those people violates the “free exercise” of religion you are promised by the First Amendment.

To make this work, conservative Christians need to divert attention from the people they are mistreating by portraying themselves as the victims. And that requires cultivating a hyper-sensitivity to any form of involvement in activities they disapprove of. So rather than sympathize with the lesbian couple who gets the bakery door slammed in their faces, the public should instead sympathize with the poor wedding-cake baker whose moral purity is besmirched when the labor of his hands is used in a celebration of immorality and perversion.

There’s a name for this tactic: passive aggression. It’s like on Sanford & Son when Fred would clutch his heart and start talking to his dead wife because Lamont planned to do something he disapproved of. Passive aggression is the last resort of people who have neither the power to get their way nor any reasonable argument why they should.

In fact the baker will be fine, as Willamette Week demonstrated by calling two such religious-liberty-defending bakeries and ordering cakes to celebrate a variety of other events conservative Christians disapprove of: a child born out of wedlock, a divorce party, a pagan solstice ritual. The bakers did not object, because their hyper-sensitive moral purity is an invention, a convenient excuse for treating same-sex couples badly.

But Jim DeMint insists that

A photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington, and a baker in Colorado have already been victims of such intolerant coercion.

And Matthew Franck is horrified that religious universities will have to provide same-sex married-student housing; religious “schools, universities, hospitals, hospices, and clinics; social service agencies, retirement homes, eldercare and childcare facilities, food pantries, and soup kitchens” who employ “teachers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, counselors and clinicians, caregivers, food-service workers, housekeeping and grounds staff, even pool lifeguards” won’t be able to refuse employment to people with same-sex spouses. Adoption services, marriage counselors, divorce lawyers, artificial insemination clinics etc. will have to deal with gay and lesbian couples … as if they were real human beings or something.

The race parallel. We worked this stuff out during the civil rights movement, because all the same ideas show up with regard to race.

Plenty of people claim a sincere religious belief in white supremacy, and root it in Biblical texts like the Curse of Ham. (This goes way back: American slave-owners found Biblical license for keeping their “property”.) But the law does not honor these claims, and somehow religion in America survives.

Here’s the principle that has served us well: In private life, you can associate with anybody you like and avoid anybody you don’t like. But if you offer goods or services for sale to the public, you don’t get to define who “the public” is. So when you’re making lunch at your house, you can invite anybody you like and snub anybody you don’t like, but if you run a lunch counter you have to serve blacks.

We’ve been living with principle for decades, and (other than Rand Paul) no one worries much about the racists’ loss of freedom.

That should apply to same-sex couples now: If your chapel is reserved for members of your congregation, fine. But if you rent it to the public for wedding ceremonies, same-sex couples are part of the public just like interracial couples are. You don’t get to define them away.

If that makes you reconsider whether you want to be open to the public, well, that’s your decision.

The sky will not fall. We just went through this with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, which supposedly would violate the religious “freedom” of evangelical military chaplains (who apparently had never before needed interact respectfully with people they believed were sinners). The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins predicted:

You have over 200 sponsoring organizations that may be prevented from sponsoring chaplains because they hold orthodox Christian views that will be in conflict with what the military says is stated policy.

That stated policy was: “All service members will continue to serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs, and they will be expected to treat everyone with respect.”

AP went looking for chaplains who couldn’t live with that and found “perhaps two or three departures of active-duty chaplains linked to the repeal.” A Catholic priest overseeing 50 other chaplains reported “I’ve received no complaints from chaplains raising concerns that their ministries were in any way conflicted or constrained.”

If any of Perkins’ 200 religious organizations has stopped sponsoring chaplains because DADT is gone, I haven’t heard about it. The chaplains’ hyper-sensitivity to openly gay soldiers was imaginary, and went away when the government refused to take it seriously.

The abortion parallels. The reason the Religious Right believes their passive-aggressive “religious freedom” approach will work on same-sex marriage is that the same approach is already working on reproductive rights.

It all started with a reasonable compromise: After the Religious Right lost the battle to keep abortion illegal, laws guaranteed that doctors who believe abortion is murder can’t be forced to perform one. This is similar to letting pacifists be conscientious objectors in war, and I completely support it.

But from there, Religious Right “freedom” has become a weapon to beat down the rights of everyone else. Since 1976, Medicaid has not paid for abortions — at a considerable cost to the government, since birth and child support are far more expensive — because pro-life taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund something they think is immoral. There’s no parallel to this anywhere else: The taxes of pacifist Quakers pay for weapons; the taxes of Jews and Muslims pay the salaries of federal pork inspectors.

Conservatives like to accuse gays and blacks of claiming “special rights”, well this is a special right: The conservative conscience gets considerations that nobody else’s conscience gets.

And conservative special rights keep growing. The argument for defunding Planned Parenthood is that public money not only shouldn’t pay for abortions, it shouldn’t even mix with money that pays for abortions. (“Giving taxpayer funds to abortion businesses that also provide non-abortion services subsidizes abortion,” says one petition.) I had a hard time imagining a parallel, but I finally came up with one: What if Jews were so sensitive to violations of the kosher rules that Food Stamps couldn’t be used (by anyone, for anything) in groceries that sold pork?

That would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

In some states, medical “conscience” laws now protect anyone in the medical system who wants to express their moral condemnation: If the pharmacist disapproves of your contraceptives, he doesn’t have to fill your prescription. One of the examples cited by the model conscience law of Americans United for Life as something that needs to be fixed is “an ambulance driver in Illinois being fired for refusing to take a woman to an abortion clinic”.

Clearly that ambulance driver’s immortal soul was at risk. The hyper-sensitive pro-life conscience needs to be protected from any contact with women making use of their constitutional rights.

Religious “freedom” and contraception. The other front in the religious “freedom” battle is contraception.

The Obama administration has had a lot of trouble finding the proper religious exemption to the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act. That’s because it’s hard to find the “right” version of something that shouldn’t exist at all. Contraception coverage does not violate any legitimate notion of religious freedom for any religious organizations, religious affiliated organizations, or religious individual employers. Their claims should be rejected without compromise.

The principle here ought to be simple: The employer isn’t paying for contraception or any other medical procedure; the employer is paying for health insurance. Health insurance is part of a worker’s earnings, just like a paycheck. And just like a paycheck, what the employee chooses to do with that health insurance is none of the employer’s business. If I’m the secretary of an orthodox rabbi, his religious freedom isn’t violated when I cash my paycheck and buy a ham sandwich. Ditto for contraceptives, health insurance, and the secretary of the Archbishop of Boston.

Religious organizations’ hyper-sensitive consciences are pure passive aggression. The classic example here is Wheaton College, which couldn’t join other religious organizations in their suit against the ACA because it discovered that it had inadvertently already covered the contraceptives that the tyrannical ACA was going to force it to cover. This was such a huge moral issue for the college that nobody there had noticed.

Worst of all is the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, which got a favorable ruling on an injunction recently. The Hobby Lobby case is the mating of two bad ideas — corporate personhood and employers’ right to control the medical choices of their employees — to produce something truly monstrous. HL’s case hangs on its claim that it is a “person” with regard to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and so its corporate “religious freedom” allows it to restrict its employees’ access to contraception.

Persecution or Privilege? Here are the kinds of sacrifices I make for my readers: I listened to the full half-hour of James Dobson’s post-DOMA radio show, where Dobson, Perkins, and Bill Becker threw around phrases like “the collapse of Western civilization in one day” and “the whole superstructure … can come down”. They described Christians as “an oppressed minority” and agreed that “persecution is likely in the days to come”.

But what is “persecution” exactly?

Tony Perkins expresses the challenge like this:

Do you believe God’s word is true and therefore you’re going to live your life based upon that truth, or are you going to shrink back in the fear of man and of them calling you bigots.

Whenever Christians discuss their “oppression”, fear of being called bigots plays a central role. According to CNN’s Belief Blog,

[Peter] Sprigg and other evangelicals say changing attitudes toward homosexuality have created a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.

In other words: Christians are oppressed unless they can express their moral condemnation of others without being subject to moral condemnation themselves.

Why would anyone imagine the existence of such a one-sided right? Simple: In practical terms, that’s a right they have had until recent years. Not so long ago, the James Dobson types were so intimidating that they could preach any kind of vicious nonsense about gays and face no response.

So what they are experiencing now isn’t persecution, it’s privileged distress, the anxiety a privileged class feels as its privileges fade and it slides towards equality with others. And rather than try to get over their distress and soothe their anxiety, they are intentionally pumping it up in a passive-aggressive attempt to claim victimhood and control the rest of us.

That bubble needs to be popped.

Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads

Every year I use Darwin’s birthday (last Tuesday) as an excuse to check in on the creation/evolution issue and the debate over what to teach in public schools. That pot is always simmering, so whenever you choose to pay attention something is bound to be happening somewhere. But it gets dull really quickly, because both sides repeat themselves a lot. Checking once a year is about right.

This year I watched PBS documentary “The Revisionaries” about the battle over curriculum standards in Texas. (You can watch it for free on the PBS web site until Feb. 28.) As always, I was impressed by how well the creationist side pitches its arguments to the general public. “Teach both sides,” they say. “Teach the controversy. Teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” It sounds so fair and reasonable — nothing at all like the stereotype of the crazy fundamentalist radical.

Then the scientists come on, and they look and sound exactly like their stereotype. You can tell they’re trying to be nice and non-threatening, but whatever they’re saying, the main thing that comes through is that they’re smart and they know better than you. It’s hard not to be reminded of all the other “experts” who are constantly explaining why everything you do is completely wrong: You eat wrong, you exercise wrong, you like the wrong kind of music, you watch the wrong kinds of movies and TV shows — everything you do is bad, and you should listen to them to learn how to do it right.

Most of all, you raise your kids wrong. When you let the kids do what they want, that’s wrong, but when you force them to do what you want, that’s wrong too. You talk to them wrong, you discipline them wrong — it goes on and on. And sure, you realize you aren’t the greatest human being who ever lived, but you do OK and your kids seem to be doing OK, so you wonder what you’d see if you walked into the experts’ houses and looked at their kids (if they have any). Are they better, really?

Sure, the evolution scientists are a different kind of expert entirely, but they look and sound exactly the same. You know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the look-and-feel thing is hard to get past. Watching them, all you can think is: “What do they want really? And why? Can’t they just come out and say that?” But they don’t. So when preachers tell you that the scientists want to destroy religion and convert everybody to atheism — well, at least that’s an answer.

I’ve lived a bunch of my life between the world of scientists and the world of ordinary people. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and spent a lot of afternoons helping my Dad on the farm. I went to a Lutheran grade school where we memorized Bible passage every night and had to recite them in the morning. (We definitely did not learn evolution. I started picking that up in the public high school.) But I was born with a knack for math and went on to get a bunch of degrees. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I can hang with them when they let their hair down and not seem out of place.

Let me see if I can translate how this discussion looks to a university biologist or a high school biology teacher.

Politicians are telling them how to do their job. I’m guessing you can appreciate how that feels. They’ve devoted their lives to studying biology, figuring out how it all fits together, and coming up with ways to teach that knowledge to other people. And then a legislature or a school board or Congress wants to stick a hand up their backsides and turn them into puppets who repeat whatever they’re supposed to say.

You know how you feel when people who don’t know your kids tell you how to raise your kids? Well, people who don’t know their subject are telling them how to teach their subject. It pisses them off.

One of the reasons they so often look phony is that emotional outbursts aren’t valued in scientific discussions. In science, you’re supposed to be reasonable all the time, even when you’re really pissed off. So they can’t let on how they really feel. Instead, all that anger gets channelled into a biting cleverness that can be really, really annoying.

Why evolution is important to them. I’m sure they think they answer this question all the time, but it never comes out in the language ordinary people speak, so let me see if I can explain it better.

Have you ever listened to six-year-old boys describe a movie they’ve just seen? They remember all of it — probably more than you would if you saw it. Their young brains are sponges that soak up detail. But when they talk about it, those details come back out in some stream of consciousness that you can’t possibly understand if you haven’t seen the movie yourself. That’s because they haven’t learned yet what a plot is, or how use a plot to organize a whole bunch of facts into a story that people can understand and think about together.

Well, evolution is the plot of biology. By now, we know so much about cells and animals and environments and so forth that no one could possibly deal with it as a long list of details. You couldn’t learn it, you couldn’t teach it, you couldn’t even think about it, no matter how smart you are. But evolution arranges all that in a structure that people can learn and teach and think about. Even if evolution had turned out not to be true, biologists would still want to learn it as a memory device. It’s that useful.

Now, the obvious question is: Couldn’t creation or design become the plot of biology? It more-or-less was 200 years ago. And sure, we have a lot more details to organize now than we did then, but maybe biologists could make all that new knowledge fit somehow. So rather than saying “Giraffes evolved long necks because being able to eat leaves higher in the canopy gave them a survival advantage”, we could say “God designed giraffes with long necks because he knew they’d need to eat leaves high in the canopy.”

What’s wrong with that?

The first answer you’re likely to get from a biologist is that it wouldn’t work, because of things like your appendix. (It’s hard to make sense of the human appendix from a design point of view, because it doesn’t do anything useful. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, though, because similar organs serve a purpose in the digestive systems of animals we’re related to, and evolution works slowly, so it hasn’t been useless long enough to evolve away.)

But the better answer is: Who knows? Maybe there is some way to tie all our biological knowledge together in a design-oriented plot. But nobody has done it. Whether some design-oriented plot for biology could work or not, it doesn’t exist now. It’s like talking about whether solar power could someday supply all our needs. Maybe. But that doesn’t help me if I want to flip on a light now.

So if, today, you want to learn or teach or think about the full range of what we know about biology, evolution is all you’ve got. You either use it or you give up.

Textbooks and facades. Biology teachers know that K-12 students in China, India, Europe, and Japan are learning real science, not fantasies about approaches to science that maybe could work someday (but don’t work now and probably won’t work ever). So they wonder: How are American kids going to compete if we’re wasting their time like that?

Creationists can hide this state of affairs from the general public by writing design-oriented grade school and high school textbooks. But those textbooks are like the facade of Dodge City on the set of Gunsmoke. You’re supposed to think a whole town is back there, but it isn’t. What you can see is pretty much all there is.

Similarly, that creationist high-school textbook looks like the beginning of a complete design-oriented biological education. But in fact students who finish it are pretty close to the end of the line. If they get interested in biology and want to go further, they’ll have to start over in college and learn evolution. That’s not because colleges censor design, it’s because there isn’t much more design-oriented biology to learn.

I know that’s hard to believe, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Go listen to a creationist lecture. I predict they won’t tell you much of anything about creationist biology. Instead, they’ll spend all their time criticizing evolution. That’s because they don’t have anything else to present. Creationists are also using evolution to organize their thinking; they’re just against it rather than for it.

And that’s not going to change anytime soon, because creationists are not even trying to develop their theory. The budgets of creationist think-tanks like the Discovery Institute are almost entirely devoted to politics and public relations, with barely anything for research.

Creationists cheat. If putting up that kind of facade seems like cheating, well, creationists cheat in a lot of other ways too. Many of those reasonable-sounding arguments are just word games designed to confuse people.

Like: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Even scientists talk about “the theory of evolution”, right?

Of course, scientists also talk about “the theory of gravity” and “the theory of the solar system”. The word theory has a specialized meaning in science that has nothing to do with uncertainty. Gravity isn’t doubtful just because we have a theory about it.

That kind of trickery is not exceptional, it’s typical. Creationist arguments are full of untruths, half-truths, and word games — and the arguments keep circulating no matter how many times the fallacies get exposed.

Which is another reason why scientists get tied up in emotional knots at these public hearings. Very often the folks presenting some totally bogus argument are mothers who have an honest religious faith and are very genuinely concerned about their kids’ education. But it’s hard to see how the people who invent and popularize these arguments — the folks at the Discovery Institute, say — can be anything other than conmen who know better.

Scientists don’t know how to deal with that. The whole culture of science (going back to the 1600s) is based on arguing in good faith and assuming that your opponent is doing the same. A scientist who gets caught cheating is finished. There’s no rehabilitation process, you’re just done being a scientist. But dishonest creationist arguments live forever, and the people who invent them are not even embarrassed.

We’ve been through this already. Now let’s talk about what’s wrong with “teaching the controversy”. When biologists refuse to “teach both sides” or “teach the controversy”, it sounds like they’ve made evolution into some kind of unquestionable dogma, like the Trinity or the divine inspiration of the Bible is in some religions.

Everybody knows that scientific theories are wrong sometimes, and history is full of controversies when one theory challenges another. (The most famous one is the Copernican Revolution, when a Sun-centered theory of the planets replaced and Earth-centered theory.) When scientists won’t “teach the controversy” of evolution, they seem to be denying this history and to be hypocrites about the whole process of science.

What most people don’t realize is that there was a creation/evolution controversy in science, but it has been over for a long time. Scientists argued vociferously about evolution in the 1800s. By the 20th century the fact of evolution was widely accepted, but scientists continued to argue over the mechanism (i.e. natural selection) until mid-century, when the modern evolutionary synthesis came together. Just about all the scientific questions raised by creationists today were asked and answered generations ago.

Here’s an example: “Evolution can’t explain a complex organ like the eye.” Evolutionists run into that claim all the time, but in fact the basic framework of how the eye evolved was laid out more than half a century ago. If you’ve got two-and-a-half minutes, here’s the simple version.

If you’ve got an hour, here’s more detail.

The creation/evolution argument continues today not because new evidence raises new questions about evolution, but because people don’t want to believe answers that conflict with their religion. That is a religious controversy, not a scientific one. And if enough people want to impose their religion on the rest of us, they can create a political controversy or a legal controversy. But you can’t create a scientific controversy just by refusing believe something you don’t want to believe.

So by all means let’s teach the creation/evolution controversy in a history of science course, or in a course on religion, politics, or law. But it doesn’t belong in a biology class.

What’s different about evolution? And now we come to the most recent creationist political strategy (the one portrayed in The Revisionists): demanding that textbooks and curricula teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory.

Again, that is well constructed to make scientists look bad. What kind of dogmatist would refuse to let students learn about the weaknesses of his ideas? What’s he afraid of?

But a better question to ask at this point is: Why are we just talking about evolution? Why do the textbook stickers warn students to have “an open mind” just about evolution? Shouldn’t they also “critically consider” the “strengths and weaknesses“of theories like the solar system? the atom? continental drift?

What’s special about evolution?

Only this: Evolution conflicts with a popular religion. Otherwise, it’s like the germ theory of disease, electrical circuit theory, or any other scientific theory. (The solar system used to conflict with popular religion, but it no longer does.)

So again, this is dressed up like a conversation about science, but it’s really about religion. There’s no scientific reason to pick evolution out for special scrutiny.

What’s wrong with that? Some creationists are very open and honest about wanting to impose their views on the public through the public schools. In a democracy, the religion of the majority tends to become the religion of the government, and public resources are used to promote it.

I think the Founders looked at what had been happening in England since the Reformation — religious factions squabbling to get control of the government — and they wrote the First Amendment specifically to prevent that from happening here.

But that issue takes us into textbook history standards, and a whole other set of things people want or don’t want to believe. Maybe I’ll save that topic for James Madison‘s birthday in March.

Government Theology is Un-American

If Congressman Mourdock wants to interpret the will of God to the People, he should move to a country where government officials do that, and leave my country alone.

This week, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock became the latest Republican candidate to make the political mistake of spelling out the consequences of his ideology: Not only would he make abortion illegal in all ordinary circumstances, but he sees no reason for a rape exception. He wants the government to force women to bear their rapists’ children.

Politics being what it is, a Rapist Procreation Act could never make it through Congress, even as an amendment to a larger Forced Motherhood Act. So euphemisms and rationalizations have to be employed.

Senate candidate Akin. Two months previously, Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin had made headlines by abusing science to support rapist procreation: Rape exceptions are unnecessary, he claimed, because rape pregnancies don’t happen. At least they don’t happen in cases of “legitimate rape”, i.e., the kind where the woman is penetrated by violence. “The female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he said.

Ignore the fact that no legitimate scientist believes this, so Akin had to search out a phony “expert” who is primarily another anti-abortion extremist. Even giving Akin’s words their most generous interpretation — that he meant to say “violent” rather than imply that the rape itself could be “legitimate” — they’re monstrous. In his view, for example, raped women who are drugged rather than beaten are not worth the law’s notice.

A friend of a friend once met a knife-wielding stranger on a stairwell. He said he wanted to kill her, but she negotiated him down to having sex instead. That also would not be a legitimate rape in Todd Akin’s view, so any possible pregnancy would be the woman’s responsibility, not the knifeman’s.

Or consider this account of an incest pregnancy. Sometimes her father raped her “legitimately” by violence. Sometimes threats were enough, and sometimes she submitted to save her younger sisters. What kind of rape got her pregnant? She doesn’t know.

Akin’s government would punish such men, presumably, but would also make sure that their reproductive strategy succeeds and their DNA is multiplied in the next generation.

Walsh. Illinois Republican Congressman Joe Walsh went a step further than Akin. Not only is a rape exception unnecessary, but a life-of-the-mother exception is unnecessary too — and for the same reason: It never happens. “With modern technology and science,” he said, “you can’t find one instance” of a medically necessary abortion.

Non-ideologues quickly came up with the example of ectopic pregnancy, which killed 876 American women between 1980 and 2007.

Mourdock. Having seen how much heat Akin took for abusing science, Mourdock decided to abuse theology instead. For Mourdock, the magic pregnancy-prevention intervention doesn’t come from the mysteries of female biology, it comes from God. If a woman gets pregnant through rape, that must be “something that God intended to happen.”

Again, let’s give Mourdock’s words their most generous interpretation, the one he begged for the next morning. (Consider the irony: We’re granting Mourdock a morning-after pill, so that his statement doesn’t bear any unwanted fruit.) He didn’t mean to say that God sends rapists to impregnate women. (“I don’t think God wants rape,” he said, in one of the strangest denials ever.) But once the sperm sights the ovum, it is up to God whether or not conception occurs.

This is the traditional God-of-the-gaps theology: Well-understood processes follow scientific cause-and-effect, but anything that happens mysteriously is God’s will. (Lightning strikes, for example, were God’s will until Ben Franklin thwarted God by understanding electricity and inventing the lightning rod.)

Personal vs. public. I find this view of God absurd, but that’s just me. If you want to interpret every unpredictable event as a message from your Creator, don’t let me stop you. If Mourdock’s family were to suffer a rape pregnancy (not that I’m wishing it on them), maybe they really would welcome the rapist’s baby as a “gift from God”. If they went on to raise that boy up to be a far better man than his father, I might even admire them for it.

But here’s where I get off the train: Mourdock the individual and the Mourdock Family should be free to believe what makes sense to them, and to organize their lives accordingly. But Congressman Mourdock and wannabee Senator Mourdock have no business telling the American people what God wants.

That’s not how America works. That is, in fact, what the Founders revolted against.

Old Europe vs. New America. In the old system of European monarchy, the King had a special relationship to God, and so his government stood between God and the People. In the same way that the bishops channeled God’s religious will, the King channeled God’s political will. The People may or may not understand why God wants them to go to war with Spain or pay a higher toll at the bridge, but no matter: The King and God had it all worked out, and it was the People’s duty to obey.

The American system of democracy reversed all that. In America, the People stand between God and the government.

In America, we believe that God pays no attention to rank; God speaks to everyone, and not just to high government officials.

In America, Congress is supposed to interpret the will of the People, not the will of God.

In America, it is up to the People to interpret the will of God for the government. It is not up to the government to interpret the will of God for the People.

Biology vs. Theology. One reason this anti-American tendency on the Right gets so little attention is that they have carefully framed their theological reasoning in biological terms: They claim to be talking about “when human life begins”, which sounds biological.

If you buy into that false framing, their favored answer “human life begins at conception” seems obvious: The fertilized ovum may be a one-celled organism that looks more like an amoeba than a baby, but it is alive and has human DNA, so it’s clearly “human life”.

But this is a strangely materialistic piece of logic that the Religious Right would not accept in any other case. Something makes killing a human being murder, but killing a pig dinner. Is that difference in the DNA somewhere? Can we hope that science will someday identify the “worth gene” that gives humans their incommensurable value?

Of course not. Imagine the outcry if someone claimed to pinpoint such a gene and showed that it was absent in certain birth defects.

Worth is not about DNA, it’s about soul. (If you don’t ordinarily use the word soul, you can take that as a functional definition: Whatever makes a human’s life more valuable than a pig’s is soul. Whether you think of it as a mystical whatever or as a socio-legal convention is, in practice, irrelevant.)

So the question of abortion is not when “human life” begins, it’s when the soul enters the body. (Or, for secularists, it’s when the law decides to take fetuses under its protection.)

All the biological evidence that is usually offered on the abortion question — when a fetus has a heartbeat or brainwaves or reacts in ways that resemble pain — is beside the point. A pig fetus at a similar stage would also have a heartbeat, brainwaves, and a cringing reflex. Paul Ryan might describe the “bean” that he saw on the ultrasound as a “baby”, but if a prankster had rigged the ultrasound to show Ryan the fetus of a pig or chimp, I doubt he’d have known the difference.

The difference between murder and dinner is not physical, it’s metaphysical. It’s a question for theologians, not biologists.

Government humility. And that means the government should stay out of it unless some compelling public interest is involved, which it isn’t. (In a post-apocalyptic world in need of repopulation, for example, the government would have such an interest.)

The ensoulment question has been debated as long as the Judeo-Christian tradition has existed, and the experts have often disagreed. (One frequently taken view was that ensoulment happened around 90 days — coincidentally corresponding to the first trimester when Roe v. Wade allows the fewest restrictions on abortion.) Other religious traditions have their own opinions on the matter. (Many, for example, would find the pig to be of comparable value to the human, and have a different notion of soul entirely. If they can build a majority somewhere, should the law reflect their theology? Or should they simply practice their beliefs without forcing vegetarianism on non-believers?)

In the American system, government takes a humble position in matters of theology: It recognizes that it has no special expertise, so it leaves such questions to the individual.

That’s what should happen here: Each sect should be free to put forward its own view of when a fetus acquires the incommensurable value of a human soul, and its practitioners should be free to practice that view.

That’s the American way.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,521 other followers