Archive for the ‘religion’ category

The Lambs Still Scream…

August 7, 2014

…for the performance artist formerly known as Ann Coulter [via TPM]:

In the column, titled “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded To ‘Idiotic,’” Coulter called Dr. Kent Brantly’s humanitarian work in Liberia nothing more than the efforts of an ego-driven Christian and “the first real-world demonstration of the economics of Obamacare.”

…Coulter then said Brantly left the country to provide health insurance for Liberians because he wanted “his membership in the ‘Gold Humanism Honor Society.’”

“There may be no reason for panic about the Ebola doctor, but there is reason for annoyance at Christian narcissism,” she wrote.

I guess this is what you write when you hear that anguished sound inside your head, the one that asks “why aren’t they paying attention to MEEEEEE!!!???”

At least that’s what I hope.  Worse, by far, would be the thought that what Ann Coulter says does in fact reflect broader opinion; that within our great polity, a substantial number of people believe that the suffering of others merits no concern; that there are “right” people to care for, distinguished from those wrong ones — wrong by geography, class, color, what have you.

I’m no Christian myself, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, and in the tradition that I inherited we have a term “tikkun olam” — to heal the world.   From earliest Hebrew School — at least at the commie-liberal orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, California in which I was brought up and become bar-mitzvah — we were taught to view tikkun loam as the singular obligation (one most of us meet terribly imperfectly, of course — but it matters that it’s there as the challenge/demand).  I’ve spoken since with rabbis and other teachers who render the essential demand of Judaism on its adherents in almost-Christian terms, a formula in which the law secondary to action:  keep the Sabbath* and do tikkun olam.  That much, and there you have the sinews of a good life.**

571px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_9_(Canto_III_-_Charon)

There is, of course, a Christian formulation of the same idea, one that comes to much the same point.  Matthew 25:34-40 puts it pretty plainly:

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Which leads me to a last thought.  If Ann Coulter thinks that the Jesus of Matthew 25 is a narcissistic Christian, and she does in fact speak for any recognizable segment of the American conservative movement, then you know all you need to know about the theology of those self-proclaimed guardians of values.  If there is in fact a Christian God, a Christian heaven, and especially, a Christian hell, then it would take a Dante to describe the destination for which Coulter and her ilk are bound. It’s beyond me.

*Which I also do most indifferently, though I find that creating what Abraham Joshua Heschel Abraham Joshua Heschel called sacred time is always restorative, on those rare occasions when I can actually bring it off, even for a couple of hours.

**And so it is, I believe; certainly, as an atheist Jew, that’s where my religious tradition retains its claim on my head and my heart.

Gustave Doré, illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon“And lo! towards us coming in a boat / An old man, hoary with the hair of eld, / Crying: ‘Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!'” (Longfellow’s translation), 1857

My New Favorite Mayor…

July 20, 2014

…would be Her Honor Kimberley Driscoll, chief executive of the town of Salem, MA, now caught up in a  dispute with Gordon College.   Gordon is a Christian school with an educational mission it describes thusly:

The best foundation for Christian higher education is the narrative of Scripture, and the goal of Christian higher learning is love—for both God and neighbor.”

That love does not extend to all neighbors.

Thomas_Eakins_-_Swimming_(1895)

The college recently requested an exemption from President Obama’s LGBT anti-workplace-discrimination order, a decision that caught the attention of Salem officials.  In response, the city  ended a contract it had with the school to manage its town hall.

That caught the attention of, among others, Glenn Beck, who warmed up the usual suspects to object to Salem’s decision.   In a letter posted to her Facebook page on Wednesday, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said her office had received more than 50 calls that day from supporters of Beck and “right-leaning” blogs result,  many of them…how to say this?…not what you would call civil:

Driscoll said the callers expressed “some patently offensive views regarding LGBT individuals.”

No surprise there. But what came next turns this from a conventional story of conservative/religious push-button rage that the exercise of the their first amendment rights were not without consequences into a lovely moment, courtesy of Mayor Driscoll:

So to fight back, she said she planned to donate $5 for every phone call to the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (nAGLY).

Hee!

You go, Madam Mayor.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, Swimming/The swimming hole, 1885

Things I Hate With The White Hot Heat Of A Thousand Suns

September 16, 2013

This, for one:

Gary Humes, a programs manager with the Navy, was entering the building where the shootings took place around 8:20 a.m. when he was met by people fleeing the building and warning of a shooter inside. He and more than 100 others ran to another building across the street, while others ran to the Navy museum nearby.

“I decided to go into work a little late this morning,” he said. “I guess God was with me.”” (from The Navy Times story on today’s mass shooting*).

Should we thus infer that God was not with the dead and wounded?

I’m not going to get into the problem of evil in this space.  There are ways religious believers reconcile themselves to the obvious fact that bad things happen to good people — or at least people for whom the evil outcomes are undeserved by any reasonable calculation.  There are certainly logically coherent ways to understand the presence of evil in the world as a strong indicator of the absence of deity actively intervening in human affairs.  Neither of those true statements is in play here.

Rather:  hosannas like the one above are to me the markers of failed religion.  I don’t me Mr Humes himself.  Dodging the kind of horror he did today would make anyone — me certainly – feel an almost giddy (and guilty) sense of relief.  He gets a pass from me on anything he says in the moment.  But it’s still possible to read something in the verbal formula that someone in such straits reaches for in such moments of trial.  And the “God is with me” trope — that to me is the signal of a religious culture thoroughly getting it wrong.

Or, to put it in another frame, what would Jesus say?

Aelbert_Cuyp_-_Landscape_with_cattle_-_Google_Art_Project

This, for example:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25)

 

Image: Aelbert Culp, Landscape with Cattle,  c. 1639-1649

 

Belated (But Not Completely Outdated) Happy New Year

September 6, 2013

I know Anne Laurie handled the start-of-holiday greetings, so I’m tagging on behind, with a few hours (and roughly 100 shofar blasts) to go in Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year.

Really, I’m doing so just to give me an excuse to post this image:

Gierymski_Feast_of_trumpets_I

I know of vanishingly few fine-art images of Jewish ritual life — even fewer of views of religious practice out in the world.  So when my art-historically sophisticated wife sent this on, it was a surprise.

Anyway, I find this holiday one of those that works on me, atheist-Jew that I am.  The two stories read on the two days of services come from the Abraham cycle.  Day one, we read of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the camp.  Day two, the binding of Isaac.*  Terrifying stuff, terribly sad, much grist for thought.

And then, after the chanting is done, apples and honey all round!  As we say in my family, so to you:  may the coming year be as sweet as this apple and this honey.

*If you want to read a brilliant, horrific account of the path the Akedah — the Isaac sacrifice story — took in Jewish history, look no further than Shalom Spiegel’s classic, The Last Trial.  For an equally brilliant dissection of the literary technique in the story, the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. is so good I believe every writer should read it.  Here’s the essay on its own. (In it, Auerbach compares the story of the sacrifice of Isaac to the scene in the Oddyssey, book 19, when Odysseus’ housekeeper recognizes the long-lost hero by the old scar on his leg.  Just a brilliant bit of literary analysis, and a great introduction to thinking about one’s own writing from the point of view of technique and desired ends.)

Image:  Alexander Gierymski, The Feast of Trumpets, 1884.

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?

Cranach,_Lucas_d._Ä._-_Doppelbildnis_Herzog_Heinrichs_des_Frommen_und_Gemahlin_Herzogin_Katharina_von_Mecklenburg_-_1514

Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.

Kindermord, GOP Style*

February 13, 2013

What is it with the folks over at the GOP command bunker?

The State of the Union response gig is a fool’s errand.  Nobody really cares about it; the media resents having to halt whatever self-amuse may be hair-ifying their palms; and the atmospherics of the actual speech are going to suck. No matter how much they may try (and they usually don’t very much)** you can’t win a visual comparison with a presidential address before a joint session of Congress.

Going up on the teevee after the President on such occasions is a necessary evil for the out-party, something that somebody has to do.  There’s a ton of pressure, and the near-certainty of losing the comparison with the act you’re attempting to follow

So:  do you put the rookie talent you’re trying to nurture into a role where merely avoiding embarrassment is a triumph?  Or do you choose someone who’s been to the dance before?

Bougival_Dance

If you’re the GOP, you burn Bobby Jindal four years ago, and now you toss Marco Rubio into a steaming pile of that which emerges from the south end of a north-facing horse.

Seriously — this makes no sense.  In both cases two men that the Republican party at least seems to think are potential major national players were tossed into a structurally difficult task at the very beginning of their big-league political careers.

Both did worse than I think their handlers may have expected, but where was the sense in taking the risk at all?  It’s years yet –at least a couple, before the public presidential race kicks in.  There’s no conceivable benefit to the individuals or the party that could flow from a speech in these circumstances that will matter in any deep way either to the actual political process in the here and now, nor to presidential politics coming down the pike. Doesn’t it make more sense to send up there somebody who has been up and down the course a couple of times and can be trusted to come home with as few bogies as possible?

I know, I know.  In both the Jindal and Rubio examples there is a party motive: the attempt to portray the Republican gerontocracy as something other than old and pale.  But, to continue to mix metaphors, this is a case of eating your seed corn.  Jindal is still a figure of fun; Rubio took a real blow last night, IMHO.  It just seems like crappy long-term political management to me.  Which, of course, is just fine, coming from that side of the aisle.  Long may such fecklessness wave!

*Grim origin-event for this title.

**That said, you can do better or worse, and last night’s GOP set was truly horrendous.  My wife, a two-time Emmy award winning designer (bragsplaining, I know), wondered if the folks in the Republican brain trust have even heard of the concept of  production values.  Bad camera line, crappy camera-subject geometry, and cliched, busy visual design.  I know how hard it is to make a single-camera shot against a backdrop sing.  But it is a mere matter of professional skill to do it not-awfully.  Rubio, for all his own sins, was ill-served by those who should have taken much more care.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougivalbetw. c. 1882 adn 1883.

Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.

September 28, 2010

Much amusement is being had over the story about how little believers know about their own religions (and less about anyone else’s) compared with atheists and agnostics.*

Here’s my  favorite line in the New York Times piece on the Pew study various blocs’ knowledge:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” [American Atheists president] Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing.

I’d just like to point out to you that Albert Einstein, who did not quite call himself an atheist, made a similar point more than sixty years ago.  In his “Autobiographical Notes” (he described as  “something like an obituary,” Einstein remembered his approach to and then rejection of revealed religion — a journey accomplished by the time he was twelve years old.

In telling how he banished himself from what he called “the religious paradise of youth,” Einstein recalled his brief exposure to traditional Judaism, mandated by the Bavarian educational system that in the late nineteenth century required that all students undergo formal religious training.  Here’s how that experience played out, at least in the remembrance of that child-Einstein’s 68 year-old heir:

Even when I was a fairly precocious young man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.  Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase….As a first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.  Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity…

And it was an appreciation of traditional religion, not the rather loose God-in-nature talk of his later life.   His sister, among others, reported that Einstein absorbed both the formal outward signs of Jewish observance — cajoling his parents into forgoing pork, for example — and an inner emotional commitment that manifested itself, briefly, in spontaneous expression like composing religious songs on his way to school. And then it all…

…found an abrupt ending at the age of twelve.  Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively frantic [orgy of ]** of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies…

That reaction, which Einstein reports initially seemed tragic (“a crushing blow” is the phrase he used — in German, niederschmetternder Eindruck) grew less as he discovered the consolation, the reward of scientific inquiry.  He wrote, in one of the most beautiful scientific credos I know,

“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation [italics added].

Note, contra Silverman’s natty soundbite, it wasn’t just handing Einstein a Bible that made an impact, it was Einstein’s capacity to compare that text with experience.  Which is what I think Silverman was trying to say.

Just two more things:

First, three cheers for science writing!  It got Big Al off the schneid,so it must be worth doing, right?  Or so we here at MIT Science Writing do avow.

Second:  science, the investigation of “this huge world,…which stands before us like a great eternal riddle,” is liberating. Or, to use the word that describes what I feel when I encounter an intricate elegance or a grand idea, it exalts.

Which, for all the social value that I believe writing about science does indeed have, is really why I do this job.

*And Jews and Mormons, though I have to pause before touting the quality of Jewish religious education if the numbers on those who can correctly identify the faith professed by Maimonides are to be believed.

**the translator’s interjection, not mine.

Images: August Allebé “The Butterflies,” 1871

Gerard Dou, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” c. 1665


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