The Delusion of a Just World

You've probably heard religious apologists assert that if God didn't exist, the world would be an unjust place where some people were never rewarded or punished as their behavior deserved. (They usually hold back from explicitly stating the conclusion, "Therefore, God must exist, because it would make us very sad if he didn't," probably out of subconscious recognition that this would make the fallacy too obvious.) As prominent a religious figure as Pope Benedict has endorsed this reasoning.

Claims like these arise from a fundamental bias of human psychology called the "just world" hypothesis, first described by the psychologist Melvin Lerner. In his experiments, Lerner found that people are uncomfortable believing that suffering is random, that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. Instead, we prefer to believe that people must have done something to deserve what they get. This is obviously a reassuring and comforting belief, which explains its wide appeal. (If bad things only happen to those who deserve it, and I'm a good person, then I can be sure that nothing bad will happen to me.) Belief in the just world can be thought of as a failure to apply the null hypothesis in the moral domain: rejecting the explanation of chance, we prefer to believe that everything that happens is deserved.

But the problem is that, however much we'd prefer to believe otherwise, the world is random and sometimes bad things do happen for no reason. And because it encourages us to look down on victims of misfortune as deserving their fate, the just world hypothesis usually leads to worse injustices. For example, it lies behind the common belief that people who've been unemployed for a long time must be lazy (and therefore not deserving of a social safety net or other help), or the belief that rape victims are at fault for being raped if they were dressed "provocatively":

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. "We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed," said the jury foreman.

But religion, more than anything else, encourages and supports the just-world delusion. By postulating an all-powerful god who orders events, it offers an easy one-size-fits-all explanation for any misfortune: the victims were sinners, and God was punishing them. That's why a Harvard study, from one of the links above, found that

...people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

The just-world belief is found throughout human culture. It has one of its most extreme expressions in Hinduism's caste system, where each person's station in life is presumed to be the result of sins or virtues from a previous existence. But it finds expression in evangelical Christianity as well, in an even more ridiculous (if no less morally outrageous) form: the belief that everyone in the world who isn't a Christian is deliberately suppressing their knowledge of the truth.

As already mentioned, just-world believers tend to show less concern for the suffering of others and less desire to work toward creating an actually more just society. Ironically, belief in a just world impedes justice. When you believe that God is in charge and everything will work out for the best, this can't help but detract from the urgency of attempts to create a better world by our own effort. How much human suffering has been ignored, how many evils allowed to persist, because of the belief that the downtrodden are sinners who deserve what they get, or that injustice should be patiently endured rather than actively battled? If we truly care about fairness and seeing that justice is done, we need to give up the harmful belief that higher powers control the course of events, and recognize instead that the only moral order in the universe is what we create for ourselves.

October 3, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink41 comments
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We Don't Need Religion to Have Morality

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don't believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet's major religions, the way we know what's right and what's wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it's a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.

Now, I've never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they're staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn't address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we're wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?

Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, an mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God's will. I believe that morality is real, that it's objective, and that it's a thoroughly natural phenomenon that's perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.

To see how this can be, consider the question from another angle: What's the point of morality? What quality are we trying to bring more of into the world?

The problem with most common answers to this question is that they're arbitrary. If your answer is something like freedom or justice or familial duty or piety, you can always ask why we should care about that quality and not a different one. Why should we care about freedom more than stability? Why should we care about free speech more than harmony? There obviously can't be an infinite regress of justifications, but we should keep asking the question as long as it can be meaningfully answered. And if you do keep asking, there's only one answer you'll find at the bottom.

The only quality that's immune to this question is happiness. You can ask someone, "Why do you want [good friends/a loving family/a fulfilling job/etc.]?", and the answer is, "Because it will make me happy," but it's meaningless to ask, "Why do you want to be happy?" Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake. Even theists who say that morality is based on following God's commands, whether they realize it or not, are really basing their morality on happiness. After all, if you should do what God says because you'll go to heaven if you do and to hell if you don't, what is this if not a claim about which actions will or won't lead to happiness?

This is my answer to moral anti-realists who say that facts are out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, but morality isn't. They rightly point out that there's no elementary particle of good or evil, that it would be bizarre to have a moral commandment - an "ought" - just hovering there, hanging over us with no prior explanation for its existence. This is a spooky, mystical, weird notion, and they're right to reject it. But as I've said, this only applies to arbitrary qualities chosen as the basis of morality with no real justification. Happiness is not an arbitrary choice; by definition, it's what we all wish for. This, then, is where that "ought" comes from. It comes from us: from our essential nature as human beings and from the fact that we all have this basic desire in common.

My definition of happiness isn't just physical well-being or pleasure of the senses. Nor is it limited to economic stability, or meaningful human relationships, or productive achievement. Rather, it's a balanced approach that includes all of these and more besides. Some might charge that this is too vague, but I'd answer that any moral theory which reflects the almost limitless variety of human experience is bound to be multivariate, sprawling and diverse, and not reducible to a single number on a measuring stick. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris notes, "health" is a similarly broad concept - the inability to leap three feet straight up could be perfectly normal for me, while for an NBA player, it could be a sign of crippling injury - but no one would argue that therefore the concept of health is too poorly defined to base the entire field of medicine on.

The next question to ask is why I should care about other people's happiness, rather than just my own. In theory, you could use happiness as the basis of morality and construct an Ayn Rand-type moral system where everyone is perfectly selfish and cares only about themselves. But the problem with this is that human beings are intrinsically social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups - which is why people who are deprived of contact with others, like prisoners in solitary confinement, tend to go insane in short order. Our social nature gives rise to the phenomenon of emotional contagion: for better or for worse, we're affected by the moods of those around us.

This means that, if you value your own happiness, it's not in your interest to live in a society where it can only be achieved by the downfall of others. Friendly competition has its place, but there's greater potential for happiness in a society structured to encourage cooperation and reciprocal altruism, one where we can achieve more by working together rather than fighting against each other. If your success is others' success as well, they'll have every reason to work with you and assist you, rather than opposing you and impeding you from achieving your goals. Regardless of what you personally desire, the best thing for you is to live in a society that values honesty, generosity, fairness and the like. A rational being will always come to this conclusion, regardless of their own desires.

One more key piece of this moral synthesis is that we should choose our actions so as to create not just the least actual suffering and the most actual happiness for those immediately involved, but the least potential suffering and greatest potential happiness. In short, this moral system asks us to care not just about the immediate impact of our actions, but the precedent they set down the line, which establishes a basis for principles like human rights. Even if you can come up with contrived and unlikely scenarios where a temporary gain in happiness could be realized by violating a fundamental right like free speech, in the long run, it's far better for all of us to live in a society that respects those principles.

Now, I acknowledge that this argument won't win everyone over. If there's someone who believes that happiness can't be proven to be the highest good, there's little I can say to them. But then again, no rational system can derive its starting principles out of thin air. Every field of human inquiry, from science to history to mathematics, is based on assumptions that a stubborn person could reject. Just as a morality denier could say, "Why should I care about happiness?", a science denier could say, "Why should I care about the scientific method?" The only answer you could give that person is that science works - it discovers truths about the world, and thereby makes it possible for us to achieve our desires. And the same is true of morality. The only real, practical reason for believing in it and adopting it is because it works - because it makes the world more free, more fair, more peaceful, and makes it possible for more people to lead happy and fulfilling lives. In this respect, morality could even be seen as another field of science, like a subdomain of anthropology or sociology: the study of how best to promote human flourishing.

With these basic ingredients, we can build a moral system that's completely secular and religion-neutral, one that's in no way dependent on following the decrees of a holy book or a religious authority. By always seeking to bring about the greatest happiness, we have a guide for what we should do in any situation, one that's rooted in human nature and based on something real and measurable.

That said, I want to emphasize that I don't claim to possess the definitive answer to every ethical problem. The theory of morality I've sketched here is more like the scientific method: not a list of claims to be taken as dogma, but a way of thinking about certain kinds of problems. It still requires people to evaluate evidence, offer reasoned arguments and use their own judgment, and I consider this a point in its favor.

But even in its broadest strokes, a world where everyone agreed on the goal of advancing human happiness would be dramatically different from the world we live in now. In this society, other, more selfish goals - increasing the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, maintaining the privilege of the few at the expense of the many - often interfere and cause suffering and inequality to persist. But a world where happiness was the primary goal, and where every human being's happiness was judged to be of equal value, would necessarily entail some major changes.

It would be a world of democracy, where all people have a say in how their society is governed, and where human rights are fixed and inviolable. It would be a world of free enterprise, where people succeed on the basis of effort and merit; but it would also be a progressive world with a strong safety net and a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, rather than the law-of-the-jungle capitalism championed by libertarians or the Dickensian dystopia sought by Tea Party conservatives. It would be a world that valued sustainability and environmental conservation for the sake of future generations that have yet to come into existence, but whose happiness matters no less than our own despite that.

It would be a world where all people have access to education and the other public goods needed to develop their talents to their fullest extent; since, after all, a society where everyone is educated, productive and prosperous offers far more potential for happiness than a world with a vast gap between rich and poor, where people succeed or fail based on accidents of birth. For the same reason, it would be a world of free choice, where no woman would ever become pregnant against her will, where population is sustainable and every child is wanted and cared for.

And, most of all, this would be a secular world. Whether religion still existed or not, it would be a private and individual matter, not the loud, overbearing presence in public affairs that it currently has, and moral rules based purely on religious belief would fade away. As I said earlier, most religious moralities are also based on happiness; but their error is that they arrive at moral decisions through unverifiable private faith, rather than facts and evidence that can be demonstrated to anyone's satisfaction. The fact that the world's longest-running, most destructive and most intractable conflicts all stem from religion only highlights this problem... and in a world built on secular reason and compassion rather than faith, it's entirely possible that these would finally cease.

Imagine a world where the sun rises on olive trees and vineyards growing where once there was barbed wire and checkpoints; a world where religious terrorism is unknown and the holy books that preach war and vengeance on the infidels peacefully gather dust on shelves. In this world, the churches, mosques and temples, institutions which teach doctrines that divide people from each other, will have become libraries and museums, institutions that teach wisdom and advance the common good; and human beings care about each other's happiness in the present, rather than looking wistfully to an afterlife where evil will be eradicated.

I freely admit this is a utopian vision. But even if's unattainable, it still has value as a guide, a best-possible outcome that we should try to approach as closely as we can. If every person was willing to work together, it wouldn't take much effort at all to create a better world. All I'm suggesting is that we each do the small part that would be required of us in that ideal scenario. As the great orator and freethinker Robert Ingersoll said, we can all help "toward covering this world with the mantle of joy." What higher purpose, what deeper meaning, could you ask for in a human lifetime, regardless of what you do or don't believe?

September 14, 2011, 6:40 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink45 comments
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Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist

The other day, I found this article from a Google alert: an essay on the religious website First Things by the author and Catholic apologist Elizabeth Scalia (who also blogs as The Anchoress).

The post was about Terry Pratchett, the celebrated fantasy author and secular humanist. Since his personal beliefs come through clearly in his writing, I was surprised to find out that Scalia's a fan of his Discworld series. She quotes with approval the following passage from one of the Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum, which features a dialogue between the Discworld's greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats:

"There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example," said Oats.

"And what do they think? Against it, are they?" said Granny Weatherwax.

"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."

"Nope."

"Pardon?"

"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that—"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes—"

"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."

It's interesting that Scalia didn't mention that Omnianism is a satire of Christianity. But in any case, she approves of this passage because, as she reminds us, Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's and has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, when the time is right, rather than wait for the disease to rob him of himself. She thinks that Pratchett's own characters would counsel him against that course of action:

I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself — placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become — for others, if not himself — if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.

This sounds like a challenge, and I accept it. I've been a fan of Discworld for a long time, and I'll be damned if a Catholic apologist is going to tell me that Terry Pratchett's wonderful cast of characters is on her side. And as it happens, I remembered another passage from the very same book, one which bears far more directly on the topic, which Scalia's post didn't mention. Here it is:

Granny Weatherwax was airborne again, glad of the clean, crisp air. She was well above the trees and, to the benefit of all concerned, no one could see her face.

....There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms...

They were about those times when medicines didn't help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or deliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn't push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and... showed them the way.

There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they'd never, ever put words around, or maybe they'd say "is there something you can do for him?" and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they'd be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.

....She'd been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn't have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn't ask for anything in return.

When I pointed this out in a comment, Scalia responded with the following. I invite you to judge how plausible an interpretation of the above passage it is:

I think I interpret that very differently, along the lines of both the death of JPII and my own brother's passing..."reaching in and showing them the way" through love and presence to the end.

I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who "pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made". As many times as I read it, I can't understand her argument that ending your life on your own terms is degrading to the people around you by treating them as "mere markers". (Why doesn't this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn't it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts? If anything, aren't they the ones who treat others as markers of their deaths?)

Insofar as this definition of sin is a useful moral standard, the Catholics are the ones who are guilty of transgressing it. If treating people as people means anything at all, it means recognizing their right to self-determination, allowing them to make their own choices even when we disagree. Yet it's the Catholics who think they have the right to control others' decisions; it's the Catholics who regard a person's happiness or suffering, their independence and autonomy, as unimportant, and it's the Catholics who advocate keeping a person alive, even against their own expressed wishes, to suffer the disintegration of self and the ravages of terminal illness. Terry Pratchett saw these people for what they are long ago, so I'll let him have the final word, by way of one more apt quote from Granny Weatherwax:

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

September 9, 2011, 5:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink34 comments
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Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments
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Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory

In "The Aura of Infallibility", I mentioned William Lane Craig's belief in something he calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit", which he considers to be the most persuasive, crowning argument for Christianity. Basically, all it boils down to is that Craig has a really strong feeling that Christianity is true, and he believes that that feeling should be privileged above any and all evidence.

As Craig himself puts it, in question #136:

For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit's witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer...

What I'm claiming is that even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.

In essence, Craig is claiming infallibility for himself. On the basis of some warm and fuzzy feelings he's had, he declares himself an inerrant judge presiding over all the cosmos, deciding the truth of every factual proposition his warm feelings tell him about and refusing to admit even the possibility of error. This is a laughable and ridiculously arrogant self-exaltation, although he's by no means alone among religious people in making it; he just does it more explicitly than most of them. (As another example, take this from the official statement of faith of Answers in Genesis: "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field... can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record").

But it doesn't stop there. Craig also insists on believing that everyone else has these feelings too, which leads him to draw a morally outrageous conclusion that insults all non-Christians:

When a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. (source)

In other words, Craig's position requires him to believe that everyone - everyone - in the world who's not an evangelical Christian - every atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i, Sikh and Shintoist, every pagan past and present, every member of every indigenous tribe - is fully aware of the truth of evangelical Christianity and refuses to admit this out of a stubborn desire to sin. It forces him to believe in a worldwide conspiracy involving sustained, lifelong deception practiced on a daily basis by billions of people throughout history.

This contorted position arises from the four-part contradiction that all believers like Craig are forced to confront as a result of their theology:

(1) It's immoral to punish people for making an honest mistake.
(2) At least some non-members of my religion are honestly mistaken in what they believe.
(3) God will eternally punish all non-members of my religion.
(4) God never acts immorally.

Logically, all four of these statements can't be true; at least one has to be false. But believers like Craig refuse to surrender any of the theological points, and instead he jettisons the one empirical statement in the tetrad: that at least some nonbelievers are honestly mistaken. He thus ends up with a bizarre, massive conspiracy theory which holds that everyone in the world who doesn't believe as he does is being deliberately deceptive.

This is a paradigm example of how compensating for logical flaws in a belief system lead to immoral views of one's fellow humans. "God wouldn't damn people for making an honest mistake," the thought process goes, "and therefore, no one is making an honest mistake! Everyone who's not in my religion really knows I'm right and is just lying." Not only does this soothe the believer's troubled conscience, it gives them a convenient excuse to avoid having to deal with any nonbeliever's argument on the merits: all such arguments can be waved away because the believer "knows" that they're not being offered in good faith. Bizarre and ridiculous as it is, the evangelical conspiracy theory is one of the more effective means by which religious fundamentalists cocoon their minds away from the world.

Other posts in this series:

September 2, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
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Little-Known Bible Verses: The Holy Kiss

Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been on a tear lately, posting some outstanding articles about the theological roots of dominionism and its influence in American politics. And today, he wrote another post that inspired me.

This post was about a new book by the sociologist Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, which deplores a group whom Smith dubs "biblicists" (I'd probably just call them fundamentalists). These are Christians who believe that the Bible is a perfectly self-sufficient guide to humanity which needs no outside authority to interpret it; that all one has to do is read the plain and literal words of the Bible to find God's clear and unmistakable plan for what to believe and how to live. Yet, somehow, Christians who all say they believe this keep coming to opposite conclusions on a bewilderingly huge range of theological issues. The review lists some of them:

For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism; and on and on.

This is just what I wrote about in "The Aura of Infallibility": people who say they believe that the Bible is infallible really mean that their own interpretations of it are infallible. It ought to be incredibly embarrassing to people who consider the Bible a clear and authoritative guide that they can't agree among themselves on what guidance it actually gives. This has been noted by other Christian writers, most notably C.S. Lewis, who wrote that proselytizers should try to hide the existence of differing Christian sects from potential converts, because a person who was aware of this fact about Christianity would be less likely to become a Christian.

In any case, this brings me (finally!) to the subject of this post, which is a Bible verse coincidentally pointed out in the review of Smith's book. The Christian fundamentalists we're all so familiar with claim that the Bible is holy, inerrant and authoritative, and contains advice applicable to all Christians at all times, including divine ordinances on how to organize and behave in a church community. So why don't they obey this verse from Second Corinthians?

"Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss."

—2 Corinthians 13:11-12

This isn't the only verse in the Bible that teaches this custom, either. In fact, no fewer than five verses from five different books of the New Testament all order it - Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14, in addition to the one cited above - which implies, given the strength of their recommendation, that the biblical authors saw it as essential. St. Augustine even says that the kiss should be on the lips to be done properly:

This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.

Needless to say, the vast majority of evangelical churches politely ignore this. Even the fundamentalist churches that practice snake-handling tend to find this one a bridge too far. (It actually is practiced as part of worship in some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though not usually on the lips as far as I know.)

As silly as it is, there's an important point here. The next time you encounter someone who claims to interpret the Bible "literally", ask them if they do this at their church. If the answer is no, as it most probably will be, you'll have made your point: even supposedly "literal" interpretations are driven and shaped by the believer's culture and by their own ideas and prejudices, and not simply by doing whatever the text says.

Other posts in this series:

August 31, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink46 comments
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Be Careful What You Wish For (Why I Hate Hate Crimes Legislation, But I Love Hate Speech)

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 - 02/02/10)

I saw a woman in niqab on the UC Berkeley campus the other week. I was shocked. I didn't approach her. I didn't speak to her. She was with two other women in hijab, on the opposite side of a wide walkway.

But, I was shocked. And, appalled. Here was a woman (or, at least, I assume she was a woman), in the heart of what is arguably the most politically liberal university campus and city in the US, a fount for civil rights and 60's hippie culture, engaging in a brazen act of gender segregation and slavery in the egalitarian public space of a secular, liberal, constitutional, democratic republic. I think it is a great shame for a woman living in a secular democracy to perpetuate a barbaric, patriarchal religio-cultural tradition when women are fighting and dying across the globe to be free from gender segregation and slavery.

My views on public anti-mask laws (burqa bans, colloquially) as both public safety and gender desegregation measures are well known. We can no more tolerate gender segregation in the public space than we can tolerate racial segregation in the public space, above and beyond the simple fact that we can neither protect nor prosecute those whom we cannot identify, creating an untenable public safety and security hazard.

I expressed my great upset at witnessing this barbarism on the UC Berkeley campus on the English-language facebook page, which I maintain for Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) is the amazing women's rights organization, with global headquarters in Paris, France, which grew out of the outrage over the egregious gender violence being perpetrated upon the Muslim immigrant women and girls of the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding the major cities of France. I maintain this page to spread the Ni Putes Ni Soumises message of Secularism, Gender Equality, and Gender Desegregation throughout the English-speaking world.

There are a handful of misogynistic Islamists who occasionally try their hand at debating me on such subjects as US constitutional law and abortion rights on my NPNS facebook page. There's little I enjoy more than publicly humiliating them online. In truth, I owe them no small amount of gratitude. Every time they bait me, and I engage them, my readership jumps precipitously. And, I relish the opportunity to vent a little of my barely contained rage.

So, of course, my misogynistic Islamist readers couldn't pass up a choice opportunity to point out my obvious anti-immigrant racism and bigotry. (I'll admit to being purposely and purposefully provocative in describing the event as an abomination.) But, after comparing the burqa/niqab to the offense of having to watch a woman walk across campus in a mini-skirt, my Islamist interlocutors took a more interesting tack.

They accused me of having perpetrated a hate crime against Muslims and threatened me with hate crimes prosecution, under the guise of being terribly concerned that I not place myself in legal hot water, of course. It was a public service on their part, really. Of course, I pointed out that, not only did I reject their presumption of the role of spokespersons for the Muslim community as a whole, but that gender-based hate crimes are also included in the federal hate crimes act, not to mention the fact that I refuse to be deterred from exercising my constitutional right to free speech.

But, here's the thing. They're right. I have reason to be worried. And, they don't. Because it's always ok to hate women in America. This is why they felt no qualms about hatefully haranguing women with impunity and turning around and intimating that I was opening myself up to hate crimes prosecution by attacking the niqab. (In fact I said nothing hateful whatsoever about Muslims, or even Islam. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is not anti-religion or anti-Islam, just anti-religionism and anti-Islamism. Most of the women advocating on behalf of secularism for NPNS are Muslim immigrants themselves.)

But, they understand that religious groups enjoy a privileged position, which is denied to women. They understand that the likelihood that they should ever be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime is all but non-existent, while the possibility that I could ever be prosecuted for a religion-based hate crime is quite real. They understand that even if they should decide to go on a raping rampage against women, that their misogynistic diatribes will never be unearthed, nor will any serious attempt ever be made to unearth them, in all probability. Because no one cares if you hate women in America.

For the rest of my life, if I should ever get into any kind of a dispute or altercation with anyone who claims to be Muslim, I could conceivably be prosecuted for a hate crime. My vehement anti-religion, and especially anti-Islam, ramblings on facebook, my personal blog, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's website, and Daylight Atheism could be used against me in a court of law.

What my misogynistic Islamist pals don't know, and how could they, since I was representing not myself, but Ni Putes Ni Soumises during our little exchange, is that literally nothing can deter me from exercising my right to free speech to advocate on behalf of women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. I am a loner. I will never marry nor have children, which is a tactical choice. I am responsible for no one. I have no possessions. I have no money. I have no family. I have no community. I have no allegiances to any person or group or organization or corporation. I am as free as can be. I have my freedom, which is the only thing I value. I am beholden to no one and nothing, save my dead brother's memory and my own conscience. Jacob's suicide freed, enraged, and empowered me. I also know a thing or two about the law. In other words, you can't scare me. What are you going to do? Kill me? Put me in prison? We're all going to die someday. I choose to take advantage of every possible moment, while I'm still here, to leave a glorious legacy for my beloved sibling and myself. And, I choose to use my freedom and my knowledge to fight for secularism, gender equality, and gender desegregation.

Since I hate to mince words, let me just say: Hate crimes legislation is stupid. Seriously stupid. Abominably stupid. I hate hate crimes legislation. But, I love hate speech. Hate crimes legislation has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association. This is why hate crimes legislation is in direct contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Under hate crimes legislation, anyone who has ever said anything, which might be deemed hateful, directed at one of the groups protected under the legislation, opens themselves up to hate crimes prosecution in perpetuity, if they should ever find themselves in a dispute or altercation with someone who claims membership in any of those aforementioned protected groups. I want the haters out in the open, in the disinfecting sunlight of free and open discourse in the public marketplace of ideas. When people feel like their voices aren't being heard, that's usually when violence erupts. Thus, the paradox of hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation couches the criminal penalty for hate speech within a crime of violence. But, in my opinion, nothing moves one to violence so much as being denied the right to speak one's mind.

Hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation. Hate crimes legislation criminalizes the motive behind a crime. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing the why. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing thoughts. A hate crime is an additional penalty, above and beyond the penalty imposed for whatever crime of violence. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her motive. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her thoughts, for his/her reason for having acted violently. This is thought crime. Pure and simple.

But, since we don't live inside a Philip K. Dick story, we can't read people's minds, which is why we can only know someone's thoughts by their speech, or, in some cases, their actions. Which brings us back to my point about the chilling effect that hate crimes legislation has upon free speech. If my speech opens me up to legal liability in perpetuity, then I'm not going to speak. (Well, I am, but my imperviousness is rather anomalous, I would think.)

There are two most commonly cited justifications for implementing hate crimes legislation, and both are egregious errors. First, proponents of hate crimes legislation argue that we already penalize perpetrators of crimes for their thoughts, because mens rea (mental intent) is always an element of any crime. Second, proponents argue that, even if hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation, this is ok, because it is thought crime legislation, which is only ever prosecuted after the point at which the perpetrator has acted violently against someone.

Mens rea (mental intent) and motive are NOT the same thing. Mental intent is always a required element of whichever crime. We don't punish people for perpetrating crimes, which they do not intend to perpetrate unless they should have been aware that they were perpetrating crimes. We don't charge people who have seizures behind the wheel, precipitating fatal car accidents, with murder. But, if they were aware of a dangerous medical condition and failed to take reasonable precautions, then that degree of negligence or recklessness could rise to the level of criminality.

The Model Penal Code defines mens rea as having done something purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or in a grossly negligent fashion. What should already be obvious to even the legal layperson is that none of these criteria for satisfying the mental intent element of a crime addresses the issue of motive. Motive is a wholly separable and severable issue. Motive is equivalent to the reason behind having perpetrated a crime. Motive asks the question, "Why did the accused perpetrate this crime?" Motive does not ask whether or not the accused intended to perpetrate the crime. If I am behaving in a criminally negligent fashion, I still have a motive, presumably, for my behavior. Perhaps I am aware of a dangerous medical condition of mine, which induces seizures. Perhaps I fail to take reasonable precautions. Perhaps, I get behind the wheel, because I am feeling incredibly ill, and I intend to drive myself to the hospital emergency room. I have a seizure and get into a fatal car accident. What was my motive? My motive was to drive myself to the hospital emergency room for medical care. What was my mental intent? Did I intend to have a seizure and get into a car accident, resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders? Should I have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? Was my degree of negligence gross? Does my motive tell you anything about whether I should have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? What if my motive was to drive myself to the movies?

Motive is never an element of any given crime, EXCEPT in the case of hate crimes legislation. Motive can be admitted as evidence of mental intent, but it is not an element of the crime. If I chose to drive myself to the movies, and I bought a ticket online immediately before getting behind the wheel, this can be admitted as evidence that I behaved in a grossly negligent fashion. But, I am not being penalized for wanting to go to the movies; I am being penalized for failing, in a gross manner, to act as a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances. Likewise, without inventing an even more extravagant scenario, perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, in the case of my having chosen to drive myself to the hospital, which led me to believe that I had no other options than to do so.

Conflating motive and mens rea is a serious error, which places our entire American legal system in jeopardy. Allow me to explain why. I'll continue with the preceding example, because I find that examples serve best in explaining difficult legal concepts. And, these concepts are difficult for everyone, lawyers included. Let's say that our legislators, responding to a popular mandate, decide to promulgate stupid crimes legislation, wherein those who perpetrate crimes of criminal negligence for particularly stupid motives, like, say, going to the movies, face additional penalties, and that this legislation is a response to moral majority outrage over the loss of life and the infliction of serious bodily harm while engaging in frivolous activities for frivolous purposes. The public is incensed by the flagrant disregard for public safety and welfare.

Stupid crimes legislation entails the imposition of vastly harsher penalties for particularly stupid motives. But, it only imposes those penalties upon those who actually end up negligently killing someone or inflicting serious bodily harm. The legislation is justified as a response to the increased and senseless harms inflicted upon the general public for especially stupid reasons. If you accidentally kill someone in the course of attempting to save someone's life, you're ok. You might still be punished for your criminal negligence, but you won't face additional penalties. But, if you accidentally kill someone in the course of going to the movies, you receive additional penalties, if convicted. The laws penalize only those motives, which are considered frivolous or stupid. Entertainment activities are generally considered frivolous or stupid.

Makes no sense, does it? It's going to make you think twice about going to see that brand new movie release or concert, won't it? Either way, you didn't intend to either purposely or knowingly kill someone. Your intent is no different. You weren't aware that you would kill someone, but you should have been aware that you could kill someone, and that negligence on your part was gross. But, now, you're going to receive additional penalties on the basis of the stupidity of your motive during the course of perpetrating a crime of gross negligence. Because the jury will be morally outraged that you ended someone's life while doing something as frivolous as going to the movie theater. You're not actually being criminalized for going to the movies, but for wanting to go the movies.

Does it make a difference that you won't actually risk these penalties until you've killed someone? None whatsoever. You're still being penalized for the additional crime of wanting to go to the movies, of thinking that you want to go to the movies. Which evokes a myriad equal protection concerns. Someone who wants to go to the movies is being punished differently than someone who wants to save someone's life. For the same crime. The only difference is motive.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation violates the constitutional rights of the accused. You can almost always bring in evidence of a defendant's motive to prove mental intent. However, Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence still applies. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence says that if the prejudicial nature of the evidence outweighs its probative value, meaning that if the evidence is going to so inflame a jury so as to call into question the defendant's right to a fair trial, then the evidence is out, no matter how on point and illuminating it is. But, hate crimes legislation throws the Federal Rules of Evidence out the window, as well as their goal of protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Hate crimes legislation specifically says that if evidence of motive is so inflammatory that it calls into question the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial, because it will provoke moral outrage in the jury, then it's admissible. And, not only is it admissible, but it is an element of the crime, and the accused faces harsher penalties, because of the inflammatory and morally outrageous nature of the evidence. It is no longer about merely proving mental intent. It is about purposely and purposefully enraging the jury. It is about criminalizing morally outrageous thoughts/speech. It is about penalizing the perpetrator for his/her morally outrageous thoughts. Hate crimes legislation tells the jury, "If you are morally outraged, then not only consider this evidence, but convict and punish on the basis of your moral outrage." If we uphold the Federal Rules of Evidence, then the Federal Rules of Evidence, which prohibits egregiously inflammatory motive evidence, will negate the existent of hate crimes legislation.

Regarding the second justification for hate crimes legislation, let's return to the Philip K. Dick story, in which we seemingly live. Hate crimes legislation is essentially future crimes legislation. If you speak hateful speech, then you will be penalized both now and in perpetuity, by the imposition of a legal liability, for some future violent crime, which you may commit. You will forever be in a position of legal vulnerability, especially with respect to anyone who claims membership in any group protected by hate crimes legislation. You are no longer fully and equally protected by the law. You are no longer a full citizen of the US.

Finally, hate crimes legislation is the granting of rights and legal personality to social groups, placing individual human rights, especially women's and children's rights in jeopardy. Proponents of hate crimes legislation also put forth the argument that hate crimes don't just affect the individual who has been transgressed, but that these crimes are harms against communities of persons, social groups. But, I'm afraid that someone is going to have to define these protected groups with some degree of certitude, including their boundaries, their membership, their protocols for inclusion/exclusion and acceptance/rejection (coming, staying, and going), their rules, their leadership, etc., etc..

Human beings are real. Social groups aren't. Not nations, not religions, not ethnicities, not cultures, and not races. Group identity is inherently arbitrary and illusory and fluid. There is no objective definition of a social group. The experience of being a self-identified member of a social group is a wholly personal and subjective experience, which only exists in the mind of one or another group member. It matters not that human beings are social creatures that evolved to live in social groups and make decisions communally. This says nothing about the objective reality of social groups. Each member of a social group experiences the group in an entirely different way than any other member. He/she understands his/her role, value, and status within the group differently. There is no objective leadership, no objective set of rules of conduct, no objective protocol for entering, maintaining, or leaving a social group. And, this is as it should remain. Social group identity should remain an arbitrary, illusory, and fluid entity, entirely the process of self-initiation. In the same way that government should pay no heed to religion whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter, government should pay no heed to social groups whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter.

Why? Why should this be so?

Just think about the consequences of legally defining social groups. By recognizing a social group as an objectively definable entity, and legalizing this so-called objective definition of whichever social group, and granting this legal fiction rights and legal personality, we do nothing so much as violate the personhood, autonomy, integrity (bodily and otherwise), and humanity of whichever social group's members. Group identity is no longer an ephemeral process of self-identification. It is now a process of government indoctrination. Typically, the government cedes its authority to write this legal fiction for whichever social group to the "leaders" of the group, which almost always means the powerful group members, and usually means men. Legalizing group rights is a license to oppress the less powerful members of a group, rendering individual human rights meaningless.

A recognized group with legal rights and personality is an entity, which will seek to perpetuate itself. The group leaders, powerful male group members most likely, will seek to control the means of reproduction of the group members, i.e. women's bodies and children. Is it any surprise that group leadership will define women group members, who may or may not have had a choice in residing within or without the group, as the sexual and reproductive property of the group? Is it any surprise that a legalized group will defend its right to police its own members, promulgate and enforce its own laws, and defend itself against attack by other groups? No one suffers more under religio-cultural / legal communitarianism than women and children. No one loses more rights than women when groups are granted rights.

Religio-cultural / legal communitarianism is a threat to our secular democracy. Legal communitarianism renders equal protection, rule of law, individual human rights, and secularism meaningless. If a religio-cultural social group can hold itself apart from our secular law and democratic institutions and make itself immune to our Constitution, then our democracy will not survive. And, our government will not be able to protect the most vulnerable and least powerful group members from egregious human rights abuses. Hermetic groups, which are impervious to government intervention, are human rights abuse laboratories. Power differentials coupled with a lack of transparency inevitably lead to human rights violations. And, women and children suffer most of all in these scenarios.

You might think I extrapolate too far from the purpose and effect of hate crimes legislation, but I don't. We lose a little more of our secular democracy each day. I want to take some of it back. I want to start with the repeal of hate crimes legislation.

I would extrapolate even further. We are a single, global human family. A single, global human race. We are one tribe. One global community. We are one. Nothing divides us. If we are not able to come to terms with this fact, then we will not survive. It is really that simple.

Promulgating criminal law based upon a subjective sense of moral indignation, be it moral majority outrage or otherwise, always sounds like a good idea until you're on the receiving end of that moral indignation. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation raises Due Process and 5th Amendment Double Jeopardy questions. But, this essay is already sufficiently lengthy. Suffice it to say that Due Process questions particularly arise in the instance when the accused is subjected to sentencing enhancements determined by a judge, in lieu of determination of guilt by a jury. Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy issues are evoked, because the accused is being prosecuted twice over for the same crime.

There are so many ways to think that hate crimes legislation is stupid. Even if you're not convinced by one argument, it is hard to imagine that anyone can remain immune to the persuasive power of the aggregation of arguments against hate crimes legislation.

And, now we see why it's always ok to hate women in America. Women having full access to their humanity is a direct threat to the existence of social groups. Both women and groups being able to wield the power of hate crimes legislation at the same time, against one another, renders hate crimes legislation meaningless. They cancel each other out. Like matter and anti-matter.

And, so, we wait for someone to be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime.

And, we wait. And wait.

Excuse me if I don't hold my breath.

August 22, 2011, 10:20 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink60 comments
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Sex and Taboos in Orthodox Judaism

In the past, I've poked fun at the Catholic church for the logical contortions it goes through to get around the problems it creates for itself with its nonsensical decrees about sex. But the Catholics are far from the only sect that has laughably ridiculous rules about sex, nor are they the only sect that goes to absurd ends to get around the problems those rules create. So, today I'm going to write about a particularly hilarious example which, like the last one, I first heard about from my lovely and talented wife.

The example I intend to discuss is a bizarre problem, specific to Orthodox Jews, called "halakhic infertility". It takes a little effort to explain what this is, but bear with me - I promise it's worth it.

According to Orthodox Jewish law (halakha, in Hebrew), women become niddah - that is to say, ritually unclean - at the onset of their menstrual period. (Because, you know, God is just absolutely disgusted by those bodily functions that he created.) An observant Jewish husband is prohibited from having sex with his wife while she's niddah. In fact, he's prohibited from touching her in any way, which even includes sitting on the same couch as her, passing a plate to her, or sleeping in the same bed with her.

After her menstrual bleeding has completely stopped, an Orthodox woman must wait seven full days before immersing herself in a mikveh, a ritual bath which removes the taint of uncleanliness. After that, she and her husband can touch each other again. But the problem is this: Some women have very regularly timed periods in which ovulation occurs early in the cycle, around the 12th day. Depending on how long the bleeding from her previous cycle lasts, if you add in the mandatory seven-day wait, it may be that the only time she's fertile is during the period of ritual uncleanliness when she's not permitted to have sex. Hence, "halakhic infertility" (see also). Basically, these families are inadvertently using the rhythm method!

As you can imagine, this dilemma is a source of considerable awkwardness and embarrassment to Orthodox clergy. Why don't they just change the rule and shorten the waiting period? Because of a belief in Orthodox Judaism that older rabbis, being closer in time to God's original revelation, always knew better than modern rabbis and can never be overruled. This also leads to other hilarity, like the belief that it's OK to eat a worm in your apple, despite the Torah ordinarily outlawing the consumption of crawling things, because ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple. The fact that we know more biology now than the people who originally made that rule doesn't matter at all.

So how do the Orthodox deal with this? These two articles from the website Jewish Women's Health discuss possible solutions. One solution that they suggest is for the woman to take clomiphene, a fertility drug, or other hormones that can delay ovulation. IVF is cited as another possibility. Of course, hormone therapy may increase the woman's risk of cancer, and IVF can be very expensive, but both these problems are viewed as trivial next to the consequences of disobeying the ruling of a religious authority who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

If these seem a bit drastic, one more solution they propose is that women can bathe earlier than they think, depending on what does or doesn't count as bleeding. As the site suggests, "Some women are embarrassed to approach a rabbi with intimate questions about their staining" (gee, you think?) and therefore delay the mikveh longer than they have to. Another common piece of advice for women is to wear black underwear so they're less likely to notice a blood spot (why God doesn't consider this cheating, I have no idea). But the absolute height of theological genius comes in the form of the following sentence, which I swear I'm not making up: "Women may also be unaware that rabbis are able to rule leniently regarding certain shades of brown..."

Certain shades of brown. How does this work, inquiring minds want to know? Are there official color swatches that rabbis can use to compare and contrast when a woman brings in her stained underwear for inspection? If your rabbi has red-green color blindness and thinks a blood stain is just a green polka dot, is it OK to have sex then, even if the woman herself knows differently? (I wouldn't be surprised if some esteemed and elderly theologian has actually addressed that question, but frankly, I don't want to know, so I'm not going to Google it.)

More so than any other religion, Judaism has preserved intact the primitive taboos of the past. These rules were self-evidently invented by men who suffered from such a crippling fear of contamination, they felt it essential to go to these extreme lengths to avoid contact with even one microscopic particle of blood. All the later elaborations spring from this irrational terror, which many centuries later is still causing difficulty and misery for the families who think they're doing God's will by obeying it. Like all people with nonsensical beliefs, they'd be much better off if they were willing to discard these foolish rules and try living in the real world instead.

August 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
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They Have No Answer

The other day, I came across an essay titled "Staining the Silence" on Vox Nova, a Catholic group blog. The author, Mark Gordon, writes about how his son was deployed to combat in Iraq in 2007, how he feared for his safety as any parent would, and how at first he prayed every day for his son's safe return. But as time went by, he found himself unable to avoid an obvious and unpleasant realization: tens of thousands of parents, despite offering countless prayers of their own, had seen their sons and daughters return from war wounded and broken in mind and body, or not return at all. And he was forced to ask himself:

What right did I have to ask that my son be spared? More to the point, could I even believe in a God who might answer my prayer while ignoring the pleas of all those others?

...30,000 children die of malnutrition in this world each day, many of them in the dust, like animals. Can I believe that they are each simply living (or dying) out God's unique "plan" for them? Can I believe that while also believing that God's "plan" for me includes a lucrative new contract, a great bargain at the new car lot, or even the safe return of my son? No.

This is more self-awareness than most theists display, and I give him full credit for it. Not only does he recognize that it would be myopic and selfish to expect divine protection for his own family while others are suffering and dying, he goes on to say that his beliefs don't offer an answer to the larger problem of evil:

Most of us don't have the time, the capacity, or the will to dive deeply into scholarly debates about theodicy... We take the questions that flummox philosophers and set them aside; at least until we're confronted with the reality that life is far more complex than we would like to think. I am confronting that reality this week, and I'm sorry to say I have no real or satisfying answers.

Naturally, there were commenters who objected to this and expressed basically the same viewpoint that's mocked in this poem - that God specially protects a handful of his favorites while ignoring everyone else:

I think that it was your strong prayers for your son that kept him sane and whole admist that immoral war. Just imagine what your son's fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God.

What a bizarre and unsavory theology this is! It says that God is perfectly aware when someone needs help and could intervene at any time, but won't do anything unless he's asked - in fact, unless he's asked by someone else other than the person in need of help. That sounds less like the plan of a compassionate and loving person, and more like the whim of a sadistic tyrant who demands that supplicants stroke his ego before he'll consider granting a boon.

That view fails the test of morality. But the alternative, which was discussed in the comments, fails the test of reason:

When someone speaks of "God's plan," I say: Look at the Cross. That is God's plan ... for me, for those I love, for those children in the dust, for all humanity.

But this makes absolutely no sense! To say that God's plan for us includes tragedy, agony and heartbreak, but this is excusable because he put himself through the same suffering, just raises further and even more baffling questions. If I lose my job and end up sleeping on the streets, and I have a billionaire friend who could get me out of these troubles any time he wished and not even notice the amount spent, what would it accomplish for him to say, "I'm not going to give you any money, but to prove I have compassion on your plight, I'm going to leave my vast mansion, dress in rags and sleep on the street next to you"? What good would that do either of us?

In the comments, Gordon suggested that God is under no obligation to help the suffering because "I don't think he is in that business". But that apologetic just reiterates the question: Why isn't God in that business? Why does he refuse to provide help that's in his power to give?

I wrote last year, in "The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy", about theists who counsel each other to avoid thinking about the problem of evil because doing so damages their faith. This one, to his credit, doesn't flinch from it as others do, but faces up to it squarely. But even so, he has no more satisfying resolution to offer.

It's often said that people embrace religion because it brings them solace in times of tragedy. But how true can that really be when those same people admit that religion has no answer to the question of why we suffer? Isn't what we want a reason, an explanation for the pain we go through? Isn't that what gives us the ability to endure? I would think that, if anything, it would worsen the problem to believe that there's an all-powerful god causing it to happen for reasons that are inscrutable to us. It would add an extra level of bewilderment and frustration to misery and leave believers tormented by the thought that they somehow did something to deserve it all.

The atheist's answer is still the simplest and most persuasive: Suffering happens because there is no god, no cosmic overseer dispensing justice. There's only randomness and the impersonal forces of nature, which sometimes act in our favor and sometimes against. The only ones who are there for us in times of tragedy are our fellow human beings, and we must rely on each other if we want to make this world a better one. It's not the most comforting answer, but it has the benefit of being true, and contains no mysteries, no paradoxes, no unsolved contradictions that simply must be accepted on faith.

July 28, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink187 comments
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My Notes on the Ideological Turing Test

Following up my post analyzing the results of Unequally Yoked's ideological Turing test, this one lists how I voted on each of the atheist candidates. I took notes as I was going through them, trying to flag what stood out to me as evidence of genuineness or fakery. As you can see, some of my criteria turned out to work, some of them didn't.

#1

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#2

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#3

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#4

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#5

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Atheist

#6

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#7

I Said: Christian
Really Was: ??

#8

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#9

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Atheist

#10

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#11

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#12

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#13

#14

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#15

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

Overall, out of all the Christians, only #6 and #15 had me completely convinced that the authors were atheists. Three others, #1, #3 and #14, I was on the fence about, but went the wrong way on two and got one right. #2, #4 and #10 didn't fool me at all. Since there were 8 total Christians, I picked out half the fakers.

#5 and #9, by contrast, were real atheists that I wrongly flagged as fake. I think the common element there is that those people wrote short answers, or answers that seemed weak to me. Whether you were a real or a fake atheist, you had to put forward a vigorous defense of that view if you wanted to be taken seriously. Perhaps those people thought that, since they knew they were really atheists, that would come through easily and they didn't need to go to the trouble.

If you voted, what criteria did you use? What was the best way to tell the real atheists apart from the fakers?

July 23, 2011, 10:20 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink17 comments
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