Return to the Desert IV: The Xenophobe
I kept walking, leaving the canyons behind. The eerie stone pillars and rugged topography of the badlands faded away like a mirage, and soon, the land was flat and featureless again.
This part of the desert was what geologists called a hamada, a low, level plain of boulders and stony soil. Low, wind-carved dunes rose in the distance, and far beyond them, hazy with distance, stood the ever-present mountains in whose rainshadow this barren land lay. My steps crunched on the rough gravel, whose wobbly and irregular stones threatened to twist a carelessly placed ankle.
Out on the open plain, there was no shelter from the sun's brutal heat. I pulled the brim of my hat low to shade my face, but I could feel beads of sweat sliding down my back. The ground was brilliant white, a blinding dazzle, and even if there had been anything to see, it was hidden in the heat shimmer. Under those circumstances, it was no surprise that I almost tripped over the stone wall before I saw it.
Regaining my balance, I took a step back and surveyed the scene. The wall was no more than knee-high, made of rough, natural rocks that someone had carried and fit together. It was circular in shape, enclosing an area the size of a small room. It was much the same as the stone walls you might find on an old farmstead, but here in the desert, beneath this blistering sun, the labor required to build it must have been grueling.
I walked around the perimeter of the wall, trying to guess who might have built it and why, when I got a second violent shock. Someone leaped up from where he had been crouching behind it, someone I hadn't seen before, and glared full into my face. He had skin the color of leather or old parchment, a long, scraggly beard and a balding head of wispy gray hair, and wore only shapeless, colorless rags. His eyes were set deep in his skull-like face, and they darted around like the eyes of some trapped animal.
"Enemies!" he shrieked, in a voice like an old cracked radio. "Danger! Beware! Enemies all around!"
With that, he dove back down, huddling behind the wall as if it could shelter him. I glanced out across the scorched plain, but from horizon to horizon, there was no one else in sight besides the two of us.
"What enemies are you afraid of?" I inquired, as politely as I could.
He leaped up again. "Terrorists! Immigrants! Gays! Communists! Scary dark-skinned people! They're coming to take our guns and our Bibles. We have to bomb them, we have to occupy them. We have to invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity! The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!"
Despite myself, I was impressed. He had delivered that entire rant without pausing for breath.
"I think you've spent too much time listening to the gossips and scandal-mongers out here in the desert," I said. "Is this how you live? Have you ever stopped to consider why it is that you spend every day being told about the newest group of people to hate and fear? Your leaders do it on purpose - fill your head with fear, teach you to jump at shadows - because people who are angry and afraid don't think. They're easily herded, less likely to think rationally, and they'll gladly follow anyone who promises them safety. It's a tactic that political leaders and demagogues have been using successfully for centuries. The script stays the same every time; it's only the name of the enemy that changes. And the remarkable thing is that this works even when the designated victim is a small, marginalized, almost powerless minority, and it's the large, powerful majority that's being told to be afraid."
I couldn't tell if the raggedy man was even listening to me. He paced back and forth inside his circle of stones, muttering words under his breath as if deep in thought. "The powers that be are watching. The Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. Children dragged away by jackbooted thugs for praying in school. Satanic cults and their baby sacrifices. Evolution is a fraud. Global warming is an invention of Big Environmentalism. Christmas is under attack. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cell phones cause cancer. Toxins in our vaccines. Teach the controversy!"
"And isn't it remarkable that you see yourself as surrounded by enemies?" I asked. "Who here is really threatening you? What rights of yours are being taken away? You in the desert far outnumber us in the garden, you realize. We've never called for the conquest of the desert by force, nor could we succeed even if we tried. All we're doing - all we've ever done - is to assert our right to live as we choose, and ask that you respect that by not trying to coerce or bully us. Our society has gone so out of kilter that you have special privileges which you've come to think of as your due. When fairness prevails and those special rights are taken away, you think you're being unfairly persecuted, because you don't realize that no one else has ever had them."
The strange man shook his head, but I couldn't tell whether it was in response to what I was saying. "All flu shots are poison, you know. 9/11 was an inside job. HIV doesn't cause AIDS! HIV was man-made to cause AIDS! They have secret technology to cause earthquakes and hurricanes. They put fluoride in our drinking water to keep us under control. Chemtrails sprayed from airplanes. The moon landing hoax. Who really shot JFK? Big Pharma is hiding the cure for cancer - there are natural cures they don't want you to know about! You can run your car on water. Big Oil is covering it up!"
"Have you ever heard the theory," I asked, still unsure if my words were falling on deaf ears, "of the hyperactive agency detector module? Human beings are primed to see intelligent agents even in natural cycles where none exist - or to see broader patterns of agency and intent where the actions of one or a few are a perfectly sufficient explanation. It's as if we have a predisposition to believe that the intent must correspond to the cause - that a huge disaster can't be caused by random chance, or by basic human motivations like self-interest and in-group bias, but must be the product of an equally huge and powerful conspiracy.
But don't you see what all these conspiracy theories require you to believe about your fellow human beings? They force you to see us - to see everyone outside your narrow circle of like-minded allies, as not merely ignorant or indifferent, but as actively malevolent. They force you to see other people as strange and dangerous aliens whose wants and desires can never be reconciled with yours. Do you really find it plausible that we're so different from you? Despite the scare stories, all we really want is the same things you want: peace and safety, health and prosperity, and the right to make our own choices in life. We're all human beings trying to live together on this world, and the things which make us similar are far more important and meaningful than the ones that make us different. You really don't have to be afraid."
I awaited another burst of accusations, but there wasn't one. Instead, when I looked up, the man was staring at me with a haunted expression. "I really don't have to be afraid...?" he said hesitantly. He took a step forward, but flinched back from the boundary of the stone wall.
"It's just a little step, you know," I said.
He stepped forward again, and this time he didn't flinch back. He stepped over the stone wall, and the instant that he did, he vanished like a swirl of smoke: no longer a denizen of the desert, but gone on to some other place entirely. In the same instant, a startling change came over the circle of desert enclosed by the rock wall: suddenly, it was no longer a desert at all, but an oasis. Where once there had been sand and stones, leafy flowering plants and tall palm trees now shaded a shallow pool of bright, clear water. It might not last forever, I knew... but even in the desert, such places did appear sometimes. More importantly, I knew I could use it as a path home. All gardens were connected at some level.
I looked around the otherwise desolate land once more. "Until next time," I murmured, and stepped into the shade of the trees. I knew there would be a next time... but if there was a prospect of causing more gardens like this one to bloom in the desert, the thought of returning didn't seem nearly as dreadful.
A Brief and Amusing Encounter
Yesterday on my lunch hour, I was sitting outside the library, eating lunch and enjoying a rare day of warm weather, when I was approached by two young men in Orthodox Jewish garb.
"Hello, are you Jewish?" one of them greeted me.
"No," I said, as cheerfully as possible. "I'm an atheist."
Give them credit for one thing: they didn't flinch. "You can be Jewish and an atheist," he insisted, still smiling. "Judaism has nothing to do with what you believe."
Now, I acknowledge there's a certain sense in which this claim could be true. But it clearly wasn't the same sense being used by these two young men standing before me in Orthodox black garb, yarmulkes and peyot. If it was only the ethnic definition of Judaism they were interested in, it wouldn't be necessary to get people to do anything, and these two clearly had something more in mind. I could see the bait-and-switch coming a mile off, and I tried to forestall it. "I think Judaism has more to do with which ideas you accept," I demurred.
But the proselytizers clearly had a script they were determined to stick to. "What about your parents?" they asked. "Were they Jewish?" They asked a few questions about my family, until it emerged that my maternal grandmother was Jewish. (This is technically true, but only in the loosest sense: as I've written before, she was an entirely secular person. The extent of her Judaism was that she gave her grandchildren presents on Hanukkah.)
Naturally, the two proselytizers were very excited to discover this. "You're 100% Jewish!" they announced.
If this was supposed to produce a moment of epiphany in me (like in the Jack Chick comics where the protagonist announces, "But why didn't anyone ever tell me about Jesus?"), it didn't work. Actually, I found it presumptuous and arrogant: What gives you the right to just dismiss all the rest of my family's ancestry and culture? How dare you think you can define who and what I am without my participation?
I didn't have time to say that, though, because they were pressing on to the next part of their script. "We're trying to get all Jews to put on tefillin," he said. "Would you like to wear them?"
I gave them a very flat look. "No, I don't think so."
"Can I give you this pamphlet then?" he asked, pushing some literature into my hands. I glanced down at it, and as I expected, it was a newsletter published by the Chabad Lubavitch sect, extolling the limitless virtues of their deceased rabbi.
I probably didn't succeed at holding back a smirk. "Isn't this the guy you believe is the messiah?"
The two Lubavitchers suddenly looked very uncomfortable. For them, this was probably like a Scientologist being asked about Xenu. "Well, not exactly," the spokesman admitted. "There are some people who believe that, yes, but I'm not really... I don't know if..."
"I believe it!" the other one piped up, interrupting him. I guessed this was a matter of some awkwardness between them.
"And the fact that he's dead doesn't convince you otherwise?"
"No," the first one said, shaking his head. "It doesn't." Clearly, he had dropped any pretense that he wasn't also a messianic believer. They're probably told not to talk about this in public, but as I already knew, I assumed he saw no further point in trying to deceive me.
Since I wasn't going to convert to Orthodox Judaism on the spot, they sensed the conversation had run its course, and after shaking my hand, they walked away. In retrospect, I should have talked to them for longer. I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn't believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal's Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice? Or - more likely - did they believe that their deceased rabbi will only return once all the Jewish people in the world are obeying their commandments? If the latter, it would have been a treat to see how they'd have explained that to me.
But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy. They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were "Jewish" (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It's the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define "good person" as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner. The next time I run into some of these people (and I'm sure I will - they're all over Manhattan), they're not going to get off so lightly.
Return to the Desert: The Eschatologist
The salt-crusted stone shack disappeared before I had been walking more than a few minutes, swallowed up in a sandstorm gust. Squaring my face to the wind, I kept walking.
The salt flats soon fell away behind me, and I entered a new region of the desert. It was a badlands: a barren landscape of mesas and canyons, steep slopes and sawtooth ridges, all sculpted into fantastic, unearthly shapes like the topography of an alien planet. Tall, twisted spires and jagged outcroppings rose all around me in a stone forest. A pale daytime moon hung, huge and ghostly, in a dusty pink sky.
As I slowly picked my way across this forbidding terrain, I began to notice a curious feature of the landscape. The tall, spindly stone spires were being replaced by narrow, stumpy boulders like thick pillars, jutting out of the earth at curious angles. Most of them were rough and featureless, blasted by sand and wind, but one or two had an odd resemblance to human forms.
The trail led into a slot canyon, with high stone walls rising above me and narrow shafts of sunlight streaming down from above. Echoes bounced off the rock. There were more of the lumpy stone pillars here, and their resemblance to frozen human shapes seemed stronger still. Then I rounded a bend, and flinched back with a cry of astonishment. Standing directly in the path ahead of me was the stone figure of a human, eyes and mouth wide in terror, the arms upraised to protect the head. It was no coincidence or mirage, and I realized in a flash that the oddly shaped stone pillars I had been seeing were similar sculptures, but eroded and worn down to almost nothing. Or were they sculptures at all?
My answer wasn't long in coming. Another bend, and in a small clearing, what met my eyes was a strange and terrifying sight. From the chest down, it was a humanoid statue like the rest. But from the shoulders up, it was a living person - arms and head of flesh fixed to that immobile torso of stone, the one blending seamlessly into the other.
It was a horrifying predicament, but the person didn't seem in the least disconcerted. He had a craggy face, a long black beard, and bushy eyebrows beneath which dark eyes burned with fervor. He saw me at the same time I saw him. "Repent, stranger!" the bizarre figure cried out in a voice of thunderous command.
This wasn't the greeting I had been expecting. "Repent?" I echoed in confusion. "For what?"
"For your sins, of course!" he boomed. "The end of the world is fast approaching. It may be days. It may be only hours! This is your last chance to cleanse yourself of your evil deeds before God comes in judgment to scour the earth with fire."
"You seem very confident of that," I observed.
"The signs are everywhere! How could you doubt that the end is upon us? Everything is coming to pass as foretold in the prophecies. Do you not see the famines, the plagues, the war?"
"What war is that?" I inquired.
"Any war!" he bellowed. "See how swiftly the world is changing! During the day it is scorching hot, and at night, freezing cold. The rains come less and less, and the wind carries stinging grit that burns my face and skin. All signs of the end! The world cannot abide for long under these conditions!"
"I'm pretty sure those are normal conditions for this place and always have been. As for wars, plagues and famines, those are nothing unusual or out of the ordinary - humanity has been dealing with those more or less constantly since the start of recorded history. And that reminds me." I thought back to the line of stone statues, most eroded down to nearly nothing. "By telling me all this, I take it you're carrying on the hallowed traditions of your sect?"
"For thousands of years," he said proudly. "My ancestors, too, preached the great message that people must repent to escape destruction. Those glorious words of hope have been handed down to me from those whose names have long since faded to dust. I'm proud to uphold the sacred traditions of my unimaginably distant forefathers by warning the world of its imminent and certain doom."
"And you don't see a contradiction in that? All your ancestors preached that the end would come soon, probably with the same certainty as you, and they were all wrong. Doesn't that mean, just going by probability, that I should conclude that you're probably wrong also? What makes you so sure that this time you've got it right?"
"My ancestors were not wrong!" he raged. "The reckoning has been delayed in accordance with God's plan, that is all. When they preached to their hearers that destruction would come upon 'this generation,' they meant my generation, the one that will actually live to see the apocalypse! It will be the glorious culmination of all their hopes!"
I rolled my eyes. "Well, I'm glad to see you've got this all worked out. And I'm sure your far-distant descendants will say the same thing about the words you're speaking to me now?"
"There will be no others! This time the end is really and truly coming, with no doubt whatsoever. I thought I had made that perfectly clear!"
"Yes, I think you've made yourself quite clear," I agreed. "Maybe you've made yourself clearer than you intended. Obviously, it makes you feel good to believe you know in advance that the end is coming. It makes you feel that you're in possession of a special, secret truth, one that makes you morally and spiritually superior to the ignorant people all around who are going about their lives in blind complacency. It makes you feel as if you're the protagonist in a story where you know that you win in the end. It's an exciting feeling, one that gives your life a sense of purpose and meaning.
"But look again at that consummation you so devoutly wish. Literally, you're rooting for the death of everyone who doesn't believe as you do. When you hold a view like that, you inevitably start seeing your fellow men and women as unworthy of moral consideration, as deserving only of hate and destruction. After all, if they're God's enemies, aren't they your enemies too? If God's only plan for them is eternal damnation, why should you treat them any better? Holding a view like that for long starts to rob you of your humanity. Just look at what's happening to you, at what's already happened to your ancestors. You end up losing all your love, all your compassion, all the best qualities that make us human: you end up with a heart of lifeless stone."
The half-flesh, half-stone figure stared at me wildly, and for a split-second, I thought I had gotten through to him. Then he shrieked and crouched over as far as he could, sheltering his head with his arms: the exact posture of the last statue I had seen. "The end! The end is coming! Repent! Repent!"
I sighed. It was what I had been expecting, but just for that one moment, I had retained a sliver of hope. It wasn't too late for this self-styled prophet, even now, if only he was willing to listen. I had seen people escape the desert after being in worse predicaments than his, seen stone change back into living flesh and blood. But he wasn't willing, and as I walked away, I thought gloomily that if I returned in a year or two, I'd likely find nothing here but another frozen statue - another colossal wreck amidst the lone and level sands of the desert.
Return to the Desert: The Scholar
A gust of stinging wind assailed me as soon as I passed through the portal, blowing fine grit into my face. I coughed and staggered back a step, tasting a bitterness in my mouth. It was a few moments before I could clear my eyes and look up, and when I did, the lay of the land was different than it had been. Instead of steep, rising dunes, it was a flat plain of barren red and brown, cracked and crazed in unearthly patterns by the pounding of the sun. Weathered red mesas rose in the distance ahead.
This was no more than I had been expecting. It was impossible to map this trackless wasteland; no traveler was likely to find the same terrain twice. That was just as well, since I had no desire to repeat my fruitless conversations with the same people I'd encountered here last time. There were other things to explore. Shouldering my backpack and taking a firm grip on my walking stick, I set off.
Several lonely hours of walking passed without seeing another living thing. I scaled low hills and forded dry wadis, but the mesas seemed to get no nearer. Never had I seen a place so still, so dead. Not the lonely cawing of a vulture nor the slightest whisper of wind disturbed the vast silence, nor did the smallest splash of lichen or cacti interrupt the remorseless monotony of the sun-dried land.
Rather than sand, this part of the desert had a powdery soil, the color of ashes, as fine as dust. Every footstep stirred billows of it, until I was trailed by an enormous, sluggishly swirling cloud. A ragged haze drifted across the face of the sun.
I crested another rise and saw a strange vision: the earth ahead was sheeted with pale white. Snow in this desolate furnace? Then I realized the truth: it was a salt flat. Water had once flowed here, but it had been dried up for a very, very long time, leaving behind only a salty residue, and the land was parched and lifeless. But more important to me was that, in the midst of this desolation, there was a small, tumbledown stone cottage, with a roof of white-crusted slate.
I thrust open the door, and inside was a single, low room. Shafts of light rayed through tiny windows, and at the far end, a hunched, wrinkled figure was bent over a stone desk. It was clad in a faded, threadbare robe the same color as the ashy sand. Something about the cut told me it must once have been a garment of some majesty, but it had faded under the relentless chiseling of this land.
I raised a hand in greeting, but the scholar had heard the door open and turned to meet me. "Welcome, friend, to my home!" he enthused.
"Greetings!" I hailed him. "It's good to meet you. You know, I couldn't help but notice you're living in the middle of a desolate salt flat. I have a home, not far from here, where there are beautiful gardens. Do you want to leave here and come back with me?"
His eyes narrowed. I saw the corners of his mouth turn down. "Are you one of those people?"
"If by that you mean I'm one of the people who want to help desert-dwellers find a more peaceful and fulfilling life, then yes, guilty as charged," I admitted cheerfully. "So, are you interested?"
"I hope you know how rude you're being," he huffed. "There are millions of people who live here and don't want to move. It's arrogant for you to tell them differently! By what right do you claim to know better than them where they should be?"
"By the same right as everyone else has," I replied, "the right to speak the truth as I see it and defend my point of view. You seem to think that inhabitants of the desert are owed some special respect, some unique right not to be disturbed that we don't afford to anyone else. I say that every opinion, no matter how old and venerable, no matter how sacred it's believed to be by its adherents, can be questioned. If it's true, it should have nothing to fear from being asked to prove itself."
"But you're not questioning the right arguments!" the scholar cried triumphantly. "I know your sort. You're ignorant, brutish, uneducated. You don't care to know anything about what you ridicule. The arguments for staying in the desert that you attack are pitifully simplistic. There are much more sophisticated arguments for staying right where I am that you never talk about - they're all in those books!"
He pointed to one corner of the house, where a squat, blocky mass sat in the shadows. I looked hard at it. It could have been a stack of books; it had the right rectangular shape. But the leather bindings, if that was what they were, were fragile and spiderwebbed with cracks, and the whole mound was thickly encrusted under a layer of salt deposits.
"I don't think anyone has so much as opened those books in decades, if not longer," I observed. "We could debate all day about what's in them, but whatever they say, those obscure arguments clearly aren't why most people who live in the desert are here. Most of them are here because they were born here, it's all they know, and they've never thought much about it beyond that. It may be courtly manners where you come from to ignore those people, but the truth is, they're the vast majority. I haven't come to talk to the tiny minority of scholars like yourself - I've come to talk to those people, the majority, and to deal with the reasons they actually present for staying. Those beliefs are the ones that cause the most harm, to themselves and others, and those are the beliefs I've come to engage."
"You're not helping," he said petulantly. "My goal is to make the people of the desert happy where they are. I go out every day to tell them that they don't need to leave."
"And who says I'm supposed to be helping you? What makes you think that our goals are the same? My goal is simple, as I've told you: to speak the truth as I see it. Everything else is secondary to that. If I truly believe that the garden is better, why should I not say so? Yes, I may step on some people's toes; true, I may never be the most popular person in the desert. I'll probably never be a scholar like you and live," I added, glancing around the dark interior of the little house, "in luxury like this. And that's fine with me. Besides, don't the people of the desert deserve a chance to make up their own minds? I want to show them that there are alternatives and let them make up their own minds. You want to protect them from views that don't agree with theirs. You called me arrogant, but don't you think that you're being the arrogant one?"
The scholar frowned. He hunched deeper into the shadows. "You're just making the people of the desert hate you and turn away from you. When you come to argue with them, when you criticize them and ridicule them, you're showing that you don't respect their deep convictions about wanting to stay here. Those tactics just make them want to stay where they are even more."
I smiled. "Friend, I'm sorry to be blunt, but you're being cowardly. You're acting as if people's opinions are immutable, as if they can never be convinced to move from where they are. That's not true. I've seen it happen - not all the time, of course, but probably more often than you think. For all your talk about respect, has it occurred to you that I respect these people more than you do? I treat them as adults who can listen to persuasion, who can rationally consider contrary arguments and make up their own minds, and who can be criticized when they do wrong. You treat them as if they were children who need you to shelter them from possibly upsetting truths for their own good. I don't doubt that I may say things some people would rather not hear, but you know what? I make no apologies for that."
But I wasn't finished. "As for the ones who won't listen, well, trust me, they don't need any prompting to hate and fear us. They already despise people from the garden, regardless of what we say or don't say. They've always been taught that we're the villains, intruders from a strange, frightening, far-away land. If we stay silent, if we hold back out of some misguided notion of politeness, all we accomplish is to permit those hurtful stereotypes to survive and flourish. If we come out here, if we speak up and introduce ourselves, we may at least make some of them realize that we're not the monsters they've been told we are. You talk as if we have to leave them alone or they'll fall on us in a great wave. Do you not see that that's already happening? They've already organized against us. They're already trying to spread their desert into my garden. They started this fight, not me. Can you blame me for defending myself? Speech is the only weapon I have, and I intend to use it. Whose side will you be on?"
I waited for a reply, but none was forthcoming. The scholar was a hunched shape in the shadows, his back turned to me. Clearly, in his mind, this conversation was over.
"I see you've made up your mind," I murmured, and turned to depart. A bitter wind swirled around me as I left the shack, pulling the door shut behind me and plunging the interior into darkness.
Return to the Desert
The sun beat down, hot and harsh, from a lead-colored sky. I stood at the end of a dusty, winding trail. Behind me lay gray marsh and scrubland, grassy plains, forest and woodland, and finally the rivers and gardens of my home. But before me was a harsh, arid land, parched and withered and hostile, bleak and savage and yet inhabited: my destination. The desert.
In front of me rose an arch of crumbling red stone, pitted and scoured by wind and blowing sand, the words once engraved deeply into its keystone now too worn and faded to read. In the distance past that portal, the sand rose into high, rolling dunes sculpted into fantastic, serpentine shapes. The heat shimmer over the dunes made it impossible to tell what lay beyond them, save in the far distance where jagged mountains rose.
It had been three years since I'd last walked the sands of the desert. On my last journey, I'd stayed too long and gotten lost on the way back - an error I was determined not to repeat. But although I'd stayed away for a long time, I couldn't seclude myself forever. Despite all the torments this place would bring, I had a responsibility to go back. There were people here, dwelling in this wasteland - some by choice, some imprisoned, either by others or by their own self-built delusions. If I could free some of them, persuade them to go back with me, I would have achieved my purpose in returning to this place. I knew it was possible, and though I wasn't looking forward to the trip, I had a duty to try.
I checked my canteen, safe in my backpack, and ran my hand along the sturdy length of my walking stick for reassurance. There were strange things that lived on the border of the desert, old superstitions and hauntings that had taken physical form; the fear of encountering them probably kept many people in. I had yet to come across any of them on this trip, but even if I did, I was prepared. Nothing could be allowed to dissuade me from my mission.
"Time to go," I told myself, trying to work up my courage, and then stepped forward. The wind swirled up around me as I passed through the arch.
To be continued...
In Praise of Human Diversity
The Nobel committee has awarded this year's prize in physiology or medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization. Given how long ago this achievement took place, this decision is surely meant to be read partially as a political statement - an implicit rebuke of the right-wing churches that want to deny people the right to exercise control over their own bodies.
And right on cue, the Roman Catholic church stepped in to once again remind us of its existence:
The Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations also expressed its dismay about the Nobel committee's announcement.
Jose Simon Castellvi, the federation's president, said: "Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person."
A 2008 document on bioethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of in vitro fertilisation because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage...
Whatever else you can say about them, at least the Catholic hierarchy realizes the implications of their own beliefs. A normal IVF cycle involves the fertilization of multiple eggs, of which only one is usually implanted and the rest discarded - so if a fertilized egg is a person possessing a soul, then fertility clinics would be engaging in destruction of human life akin to abortion. So it makes sense, given their starting premises, that they'd be opposed to that as well. On the other hand, you have to admit that their opposition seems much more perfunctory, compared to the time, energy and effort they spend trying to stop abortion. When was the last time you heard of someone being denied communion for having a test-tube baby, or pro-lifers picketing a fertility clinic?
But regardless, their position is still a ridiculous and irrational superstition. A fertilized egg is not a person, just as an acorn is not an oak tree. Personhood requires sentience, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and the zygote has none of these. It's a seed from which those qualities may someday develop, but only if a long and complicated chain of developmental events occurs successfully. If that chain of events doesn't occur, the zygote has no more chance of becoming a human being than a swab of cheek cells.
In truth, I find the Catholic church's ranting against IVF more than a little sad and comical. They really haven't advanced at all since the Dark Ages, and their attempts to interpret the world of the 21st century through the lens of a medieval worldview are pitiably ridiculous. Even after everything we've learned about how the mind arises from the brain, and how an intricate genetic program choreographs the development of a ball of cells into a thinking, feeling human being, the Catholic theologians continue to insist that personhood exists solely in virtue of possessing an undetectable supernatural appendage called a soul. This idea is of the same vintage as the belief that the solar system is a set of nested crystalline spheres, and bears just as much correspondence to reality.
But there is one thing about this that's truly offensive, and that's the belief - not unique to Catholics, but found among the hierarchs of most religions - that there is only one acceptable way to live, and that they alone are the authorities who know what it is. If anything at all disrespects "the dignity of the human person", it's telling people how they must lead their lives - only one kind of birth, one kind of love, one kind of marriage, one kind of death that's allowable, and that they're sinful and disordered if they don't conform.
The true nature of human beings is diversity - diversity in who we love, in how we pledge our commitment, in how we organize our families, in how we react to the slings and arrows of fate - and there is more than one way to lead a healthy, happy, ethical life. As long as religious fundamentalists deny this and try to force all human beings onto the one narrow path they deem permissible, they will deserve only scorn and condemnation.
Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise
Apologies, folks, this post took a bit longer than promised. I have been struggling for two weeks or so to write a post on the activist fallacy of the "Righteous Victim," but it seems that the post which wants to be written first is the fallacy of the "Separatist Paradise." This concept, the concept that we will be safer, or happier, or freer, in the company of others of our own kind, (and sometimes accompanied with a concept of "our own kind" as being special, exceptional, even) often underlies certain types of nationalism - it was a defining feature of Hitler's Third Reich, of the Basque separatist movement in France and Spain, and it has had an influence on strains of Irish nationalism. It is likewise a defining feature of Zionist philosophy, and it has had a huge influence, for awhile, on the black power movement in the 70's and on feminism in the 80's and various other liberation movements in history. Currently, I see it as a motivating force in the development of the tea party, which seems to be unable to articulate its aims exactly, but which have something to do with finding common cause with "folk like us."
The underlying concept of fairness that has always underwritten the struggle for a more equitable society, is not, I think, an arcane or complex one - most of us were able to make a pretty effective "Argument from Fairness" in kindergarten, when Charlie wouldn't share the paste, or when the teacher kept picking Sarah to hand out the crayons. Therefore, it is rarely necessary to persuade people of the benefits of fairness in and of itself - most people are already mightily convinced on that score. The battle that we must continually fight is about where we should draw the circle that includes the people that we believe are entitled to fair treatment, and that excludes those who we believe do not. (For the sake of brevity, and in memory of a place where valuable moral lessons are often learned, alongside other important issues such as bladder control, permit me a "kindergarten-ish" term - let's call this our Fairness Circle).
The reasons for making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are many, and they are more or less persuasive, depending on our personal experiences or upbringing. The consequences of making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are, of course, severe on the excluded - beyond the pale, anything goes - threats, extortion, theft, dispossession, rape, torture, murder, denial of justice, denial of rights, silencing of speech. If we can be persuaded that the members of a specific group are a threat to us, then excluding them from our Fairness Circle, either temporarily or permanently, until the threat is neutralised, is traditionally an easy sell. Think Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib. A variation on this theme is if we think members of a certain group may hurt us in the future, in which case ejecting them from our Fairness Circle before they can do so, can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. Think internment of Japanese Americans, and confiscation of their homes and businesses, during the Second World War. If we can be persuaded that, in a variety of ways, people are somehow "not like us," (lots of relevant words here - childlike, primitive, inferior, uncivilised, fanatical, evil, elite, monstrous, disgusting, treacherous, etc) then the task of persuading us that our kindergarten-simple concepts of fairness and equality simply do not apply to them is made so much easier. Such words have been variously used during the course of American history to deny some or all of the benefits of the American Fairness Circle to black people, women, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gay people, native people, communists, trade unionists, and others, seizing always on this or that identity tag that marks out membership in the excluded group.
The struggle that must be waged in each case is to demonstrate that the excluded group belongs within the Fairness Circle fold, where we can all agree that its members are perfectly entitled to the same standards of fair treatment as everyone else, rather than outside it, where they may continue to be discriminated against. But in arguing that, yes, people with black skin, or that, yes, people with vaginas, or that, yes, people whose parents had them circumcised or baptised as infants, happen to be people, just like other people, we who are in the struggle may get hung up on this issue of difference. Whatever the marker is that initially led to us being in the excluded group, it can take on a magical, powerful aura of its own - a fatal attraction, if we allow it to ensnare us in its glamour. And a fatal distraction, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the goal is to find a separate safe place where we can set up our own Fairness Circle, beyond the reach of those who excluded us from theirs.
Terry Pratchett calls us "Pan narrans," the story-telling ape, many liberation movements of people who have experienced exclusion, intimidation and discrimination, are held together by the story of their sufferings, and by the story of how those shared sufferings make that people special. And how we will naturally be happiest and safest in the company of others in our "special" group. I want to illustrate my point with two different takes on the same story - the story of the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy 34:1-5 tells the story of Moses, who having led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and having placed them on the road to the Promised Land, is not permitted to go there himself. However, he is permitted an eagle's eye view of the Promised Land from the mountain top, just before he dies.
"Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab upon mount Nebo... And the Lord said to him: This is the land, for which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to thy seed. Thou hast seen it with thy eyes, and shalt not pass over to it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, by the commandment of the Lord:"
The biblical story of the liberation of a people formerly enslaved and suffering, is a powerful story. As we shall see, it has an archetypal resonance, even today. But the original story of the land that God had promised to Israel also tells that it had people living in it already. So was God promising the Israelites a shared inheritance, a land in which all God's children could live in peace and brotherhood? Not so:
"When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."
This is the story of a liberation, but it is fatally flawed. The Israelites are not liberated because slavery is wrong, but to fulfill an oath that God has made. And in order to help God fulfill His oath to them, the people of Israel must destroy the people who already live in the land God recklessly promised to them. They are not to find common cause with the native inhabitants, they must instead believe that they are called to be a "special people." If they were to find common ground between themselves and the Canaanites, they might be tempted to spare them.
The biblical Promise to Israel, therefore, is a Separatist Paradise - a Special land for a Special people, one where they would reside in covenant with God, but enter no covenant with any other earthly people. To my mind, this is not the story of a true liberation. Or, it is the story of a liberation that got sidetracked away from the true road of liberation based on the rights of all humans, down the cul-de-sac of "liberation" based on special privileges for the chosen few. But, if people gain the right to the land because God has chosen them to be special, what happens if, or when, God chooses differently?
It is interesting what happens with the story of the Promised Land in the hands of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the greatest orators on the theme of liberation in the 20th century. He draws on a deep well of Biblical symbolism in his speeches, as expressed in the subversive tradition of Gospel music. Just as generations of slaveholders had found comfort in Scripture for their slaveholding ways, generations of slaves had been inspired with the hope of deliverance by the biblical story of the Israelites being brought out of slavery in Egypt into their promised land. In Memphis, in April 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr King gave a poignant speech in which he presciently invokes the possibility of his death, saying it does not cause him fear or dismay, because, like Moses, he has been to the mountain top:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
But, there are differences, huge differences in Dr King's use of this imagery. And by changing key features of the story, he avoids the biblical Separatist Paradise fallacy. Take a look at his "I have a Dream" speech, given in Washington DC in a more optimistic 1963. The Promise being claimed in Dr King's speech is not God's Covenant for a Special people, and it is not a promise to be claimed the expense of any other person. Rather, Dr King shows that the Promise being claimed in that speech, was based on a human covenant - a human covenant which promised the same rights to every citizen:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The danger of Separatism, of Exceptionalism is that it comes to base its claims not on true justice, or rights, or fairness, but on Special Privilege. Which is seductive. But once we argue for a special privilege - once we claim a "right" for ourselves, that we are unwilling to grant to others, we have lost our fight for rights, and the only road we can travel is to be the most persuasive as to our entitlement to special privileges.
Dr King unfailingly avoided this pitfall and his speeches still have an illuminating quality for anyone who cares to study a path of liberation and justice. He said, "I know that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We are all in this together. There is only one fight for justice and we must keep waging it always on behalf of one another. And there is only one Fairness Circle - and every human being on earth belongs inside it.
2007Rapture.com: A Case Study in Failed Prophecy
Since I've written recently about the rapidly approaching failure of Harold Camping's 2011 doomsday prediction, I thought it'd be amusing to take a look back at another prophetic misfire. Our case study is the website 2007Rapture.com, which for obvious reasons is now defunct - but the Internet Archive has snapshots that show how the author, one Shelby Corbitt, reacted to her prediction's failure.
The Internet Archive's first capture of the site, back in August 2004, starts with a bold warning:
The rapture of the church (God's children) willl happen JULY 2007. This means Jesus Christ is going to appear in the eastern sky and call all His children up to Heaven, leaving all the sinners and unbelievers behind - this is not the end of the world - but it will be the beginning of a terrible tribulation for those left behind. DON'T GET LEFT BEHIND!
For a while there's no change, but by December 2005, the author had backtracked slightly to allow herself some wiggle room:
The rapture of the church (God's children) will happen during the SUMMER OF 2007. This could be anytime from June 21-September 21. This means Jesus Christ is going to appear in the eastern sky and call all His children up to Heaven, leaving all the sinners and unbelievers behind - this is not the end of the world - but it will be the beginning of a terrible tribulation for those left behind.
As this date drew nearer, the author also explains how she came by these beliefs: a vivid prophetic dream that she'd had years prior, which she'd written down but kept a secret until a strange coincidence.
In 2003, a woman from church said she had a word from God for me. It was for me to get the word out that God had given me. She said now was the time. She didn't really know what that word was, but I knew. I immediately thought of the vision God had given me 17 years earlier. I found the vision that I had written down, opened it up, and reread it. Everything God had shown me that was going to happen in my life had happened, and I knew she was right, that now is finally the time to release the vision. God was using this woman to be the voice I had been waiting to hear to tell me when to release the vision.
By December 2006, the author was getting more and more excited, and was disclosing specific details of her dream:
God specifically told me 2007 was the year. He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. I interpret this to mean summertime. Therefore the prophetic message is that the rapture of the church (God's children) will happen during the SUMMER OF 2007.
The next major update is on June 29, just after the start of the predicted interval, and the site has worked itself into a fever pitch of excitement, with this headline in large type:
THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH IS GOING TO HAPPEN DURING THE SUMMER, THIS YEAR (JUNE 21-SEPTEMBER 21) 2007!!
On August 20, that headline was still up, but it seems the author was feeling a tinge of uncertainty:
God specifically told me 2007 was the year. He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. I interpret this to mean summertime. I live in Florida, and although we are normally able to swim through October, I am still interpreting the vision to mean literal summertime.
September 21 came and went. For several weeks there was no update, but at the beginning of November, the site offered this lengthy excuse:
God revealed to me two things about the timing of the rapture. God specifically told me 2007 was the year, because I was only going to have from 3 to 3 1/2 years to spread the message after my book was published. It was published in June 2004. Then He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. The fact that we were swimming immediately made me think summer. I was not sure if God was showing me summerlike weather or if He was trying to tell me literal summertime. Since literal summer ended on September 21st, God obviously meant it would be summerlike weather here where I live in Florida. It is summerlike weather here the majority of the year. This year 2007 we seem to be breaking all kinds of heatwave records.... Even if it stays warm enough to swim all year, 2007 is still the year of the rapture.
The weeks ticked by and the year slipped away. Even by the last week of December, the author's faith remained unshaken:
We are down to the last few days until 2007 is over. This could be your first, last and/or ONLY warning you get from God to repent and prepare yourself for the return of Jesus Christ. God has made it possible for me to reach you and get this warning to you. You do not have time to think about this any longer. Today is your day and NOW is your time!!
The Wayback Machine's final snapshot was on January 2, 2008. The author updated the site one last time with a long, all-caps message plainly conveying her bewilderment and despair:
I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHY THE RAPTURE DID NOT HAPPEN IN THE TIME FRAME I SAID. I KNEW I WAS NOT TO RELEASE THIS PROPHECY UNTIL GOD TOLD ME TO. THAT IS WHY I KEPT THE DREAM TO MYSELF FROM 1986 TO 2003. I STILL BELIEVE THE PROPHETIC DREAM I HAD WAS FROM GOD. I HAVE TOLD THE DREAM JUST AS GOD GAVE IT TO ME. THE ONLY THING I CAN THINK OF IS THAT I RELEASED THE DREAM AT THE WRONG TIME AND GOT THE BOOK PUBLISHED TOO EARLY. MAYBE THE DREAM HAD SOME KIND OF SYMBOLIC MEANING INSTEAD OF A LITERAL MEANING THAT I HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO FIGURE OUT YET. I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHAT I HAVE DONE WRONG AND WHY THE PROPHECY FAILED. I PROMISE ALL OF YOU THAT I DID NOT INTENTIONALLY MEAN TO HURT OR MISLEAD ANYBODY. I PROMISE I DID NOT MAKE UP THE DREAM. I KNOW MANY OF YOU ARE VERY DISAPPOINTED, BUT I ASSURE YOU NO ONE IS AS DISAPPOINTED AS I AM.
But in one last, defiant message before signing off, she declares that the utter failure of her prophetic vision hasn't changed her beliefs at all:
THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH WILL BE IN MY LIFETIME AND IT WILL HAPPEN THE WAY GOD SHOWED ME IN THE DREAM... WE CAN'T LET THIS DELAY HARDEN OUR HEARTS SO THAT WHEN ANOTHER VOICE COMES CRYING OUT WE IGNORE IT. THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS YOU ALL!!
(Side note: Ms. Corbitt's magnum opus is still available on Amazon!)
As I've written before, possibly the only fatal error in religion is staking your beliefs on a definitive test. I suspect that many apocalyptic movements and other new religious ideas originate this way: a dream, hallucination or other misfire of the brain which the ignorant believe to be a divine communication. If the recipient's understanding of the "message" is seemingly corroborated by an unusual coincidence, so much the better. For atheists, it shouldn't be surprising that such things happen from time to time. Nor should it be surprising that most self-appointed prophets end up falling flat on their faces, since random brain firings, no matter how subjectively compelling, don't give any insight into the true nature of the world.
But devotees of superstition have an incredible ability to take failure in stride, and Shelby Corbitt is no exception. She's since launched a new site that's basically identical to the last, except that she no longer tries to predict a date. Of course, she still insists, "I know the rapture will happen in my lifetime." As James Randi has said, people like this are "unsinkable rubber ducks": her belief isn't driven by facts, but by a desire to believe, which makes the unbroken string of prophetic failures irrelevant.
Naming Activist Fallacies
Guest post by Scotlyn
[Editor's Note: Please welcome our newest guest author! Scotlyn is a long-time DA commenter who's been writing some really superb and well-thought comments lately. I thought it'd be interesting to extend the opportunity to write a guest post and see what else she has to say, and I wasn't disappointed.]
I am delighted to have been invited by Ebon to submit some guest posts on his blog, which to me has become an enjoyable and friendly sort of place to virtually hang out in from time to time. I sincerely hope I do not disappoint. This first post is by way of introducing myself and my background (at Ebon's request), and then, in future posts I hope to get into the really interesting stuff. This post, I hope, will explain how I developed an interest in the nature of "groupthink" and various mechanisms by means of which groupthink can become group tyranny. This can be a powerful feature both within religious groups and within various political and social movements I have been involved with. An important aspect of this phenomenon is the recurrence of certain memes I am naming "fallacies." I have alluded to some of these in recent comments - e.g., what I call the fallacy of the "Righteous Victim," or the fallacy of the "Separatist Paradise." I want to play with the word "fallacy" in this way, because I think that the naming of logical fallacies, such as "Argument from Authority," or "Argument from Incredulity" have been very helpful in the development of sceptical discourse, and have provided us with powerful tools with which to question and improve our own thinking habits. For those of us who share the goal of a more equitable and just society, I hope the identification of such "fallacies" in our framing of the issues will improve the quality of our social, moral and political discourse, so we are not sent down various dead ends instead of travelling the road that will get us where we wish to go.
To introduce myself, having turned 50 years old this year, I find myself in a reflective mood (although, since I boast of a grandmother who reached the age of 101, I am hopeful that this is a mere halfway station...). I was raised in a loving and supportive home, by my evangelical Christian parents, who took the family to live in Costa Rica when I was 4 years. As they saw it, they were called to serve the Lord as missionaries. I was raised there, a bilingual "gringa," and had little reason to question the faith I was raised in throughout my teenage years - years when, for those who remember the "old days" before email and Facebook - I had to resort to spending hours penning handwritten letters to friends and pen pals exhorting them to greater faith. (Does anyone hand-write letters any more?)
My mother does tell the story of my being "born again" at age three (I have no memory of this). She tells how we had a conversation in which she had explained that I needed to ask Jesus to come into my heart. I was then, as I have remained to this day, fascinated by human anatomy, and I apparently asked the logical question: "Will I have to cut off my head so Jesus can get into my heart?" My mother, of course, reassured me that this would not be necessary, and trusting her word (as one does when one is three), I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. Of course, I do not remember this episode, although it has often been mentioned as part of our family's personal historical canon. I only know that I was a Christian from as far back as I can remember, and that the gospel readings, the prayers, the songs, the prayer meetings, the youth groups, the constant attention to my personal "walk with Jesus," all seemed as natural to me as breathing. It was only later that I realised that my mother (albeit unwittingly) had lied to me. In fact, keeping Jesus in my heart would require me to, at least metaphorically, "cut off my head."
However, it was initially moral dissonance rather than cognitive dissonance that led me to question my faith. My parents, thankfully, are not young earth creationists, and therefore, I found nothing in any of the standard classes I took at school that caused any cognitive dissonance for me. I was particularly good at the sciences and maths, and I took AP Biology in my last year at high school, without ever seeing any conflict between what I was learning and my faith. In fact, the first time I ever encountered a young earth creationist I just thought he was off his head! I had no idea then that young earth creationism could, or would, sweep through the evangelical community to the extent that it has done - even through my own family, "the next generation". In fact, during my high school years, the only dissonance I remember experiencing because of my Christian faith was when I became friends at 16, with a girl who, I was aware, was "living in sin" with her boyfriend. She was lovely, and I did become uncomfortable at the idea that her "sin" was particularly egregious and hell-worthy. Even though I had been taught that "all are sinful, and fall short of the Glory of God," I had still absorbed the sub-text that sexual sins were somehow worse than other sins.
But my version of Christianity, the version I remember best from the years I practiced it as a teenager, was all about "being a light on the hill," about bearing "fruit" that would demonstrate God's love for the world, etc. Living in Latin America, this became bound up with current issues of local concern. During the years 1973 to 1978, these were issues like the US-supported coup against Allende, and the gathering popular uprising against Somoza in Nicaragua. Liberation theology was an important emerging thread in Latin American Catholicism, and since I was a member of an ecumenical youth group at that time, I met people strongly influenced by its reading of the bible, focusing on those verses which demonstrate God's love of and identification with the poor. I was aware, from some of our "furlough" tours of American churches, that many such churchgoers did not see US policies in Latin America as being problematic, but I put that down to poor education and bad quality reporting of the news. But my Latin American Christian friends and I would burn the midnight oil discussing these burning political issues, and trying to figure out what God would wish us to do about it.
In the fall of 1978, I became a freshman at Vassar College. And, like most college students, I was as much concerned to figure out which groups I should join as I was with which classes to enroll in. The groups I was attracted to in my first year were the Christian Fellowship, the college's chapter of Oxfam, and the Divest from South Africa group. And this was where the dissonance began to set in. In the Oxfam group we worked to educate other students about the politics of world hunger and raised funds for Oxfam's work. In the South Africa group, we campaigned to raise awareness among the student body of the nature of apartheid, and we canvassed the college trustees to divest any college endowment funds from companies which supported the South African apartheid government. And both these groups were filled (from my then point of view), with godless and happily "sinning" (drinking, smoking, being openly sexual) people who were yet highly morally concerned with the issues of social justice that I was.
The Christian Fellowship group, on the other hand, consisted of people who were not only ignorant of the plight of the poor, but utterly uninterested. They thought taking the gospel to the poor and needy was a sufficient moral duty of a Christian, that people's spiritual needs were far greater than their physical or material needs. (My own parents had never espoused such a view - they both were and are involved in activities that have merit in their own right, not only from the proselytising point of view). They rejected the idea that we had any responsibility to "this world" of Satan's, and they were also concerned about keeping their virginity to a degree which came to me to seem obsessive, in view of what I considered to be more pressing moral issues of social justice. It did not take the full of my first year to decide that the "godless" people I had met in the more activist groups had much higher moral aspirations than the Christians I was supposed to share a worldview with.
I began to read the Bible in a new way, fervently seeking to retain the roots of a moral worldview that would work for me, and became increasingly convinced that the Bible was anything but a moral book. Stories like the one where Abraham says, "Ok whatever you say," when God tells him to kill his son, like the one where God keeps hardening Pharoah's heart, therefore bringing about the conditions which justify the killings of the Egyptian first born, the one where God promises a new land for his people, but it so happens there are people already living there who need to be exterminated, the idea of eternal punishment for temporal sin, etc. began to convince me that wherever my own moral values came from, it couldn't be the Bible.
For me, it followed that I no longer had any particular reason to keep myself "pure" in the Christian sense, so at age 19-20 I began some of the tentative experimentations that many of my fellow students had begun years ago...and found that life was good... I also joined the women's group - which kept a "women's space" in one of the rooms in the student building, and I became acquainted with the campaign for lesbian and gay rights, which by now seemed completely reasonable to me. At this point, I began to find my trips home full of argument and incident - naturally enough, I was finding my own wings, discovering the shape of the space that would become natural for me to inhabit for my adult life, and all of this was a great shock and disappointment to my parents. To be fair, they have argued with me and prayed for me, but at no point (even when I became more than theoretically involved with another woman) did they ever show the least inclination to disown me - and nor could I ever consider disowning them. I suspect that in their hearts they fear and believe that the sequence of events I outline above occurred in the opposite direction - that I discovered how much fun it was to "sin," and that I then concocted an intellectual opposition to God and my childhood faith in order to justify myself.
To be truthful, I actually understand that their faith makes it almost impossible for them to take a completely neutral interest in what brought me to where I am, and how I could leave my faith, in the end, so easily behind me. They don't actually know how to just ask how things are with me, without another shadow question hovering in the air - "how is your spiritual life, and when are you going to return to your walk with Jesus." Ordinary, nonreligious people, when they ask how things are with you, are reasonably interested in what answer you might give, without prior expectations. They don't have a pre-set right answer (which to the end of my days I will never be able to give). It's sad. And that may be why, when I left college, I found it so easy to travel and end up living in a country at some distance from them. (After a few "gypsy" years, I met and settled down with my partner, in rural Ireland, where we are raising our two sons.) Nevertheless, I always enjoy my visits home, and I still think I am lucky to have come from a fundamentally loving and supportive family, albeit somewhat skewed by the suppression of true curiosity necessitated by faith. (I don't argue as much these days, either - I no longer need to convince myself of anything much).
Nevertheless, despite leaving my faith behind, I remain in many ways the product of my upbringing. For one, I have never lost the urge to give sermons (a long line of clergymen and missionaries testifies to the fact that I did not lick that up off the floor). Also, I think my "moral radar" owes a great deal to the teaching of my parents, who did put forward a broad view of morality, not the narrow focus on sexuality that many of their co-faithful would espouse. Finally, I think I owe a sense of being a "perennial outsider" to our somewhat wandering lifestyle when I was young. I changed schools at least 8 times prior to going to college. I kept having to leave old friends and make new ones (which was why I had so many pen pals). In one way, this has led to an ability to see everyone else's point of view almost too clearly - this is not always a good thing! At the same time, I have found that whenever I find a group of congenial people, there will always be some way in which I will differ, some bit of the groupthink with which I cannot acquiesce. And this fascinates me, and is the territory I hope to start exploring in upcoming posts.
The Contributions of Freethinkers: Gene Roddenberry
As a wedding present to ourselves, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the original Star Trek, and these past few months, we've been working our way through them. For myself, it was a test: I hadn't seen most of these episodes since my childhood, and I was curious to see if they held up. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, they more than hold their own. There's plenty to criticize, but after all this time, it hasn't lost its charm.
Despite everything that makes me roll my eyes about Star Trek - the dated special effects, the hammy acting, the hackneyed plots, the ludicrous science - there's a powerful heart of optimism beating beneath the surface of the show. The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we're setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we've become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life - for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy. And that's why it's no surprise that Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, was himself a humanist and a nonbeliever.
As Susan Sackett, Roddenberry's longtime personal assistant, put it to a humanist group in Massachusetts:
Ms. Sackett said that Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural.... She said Mr. Roddenberry, who lectured in Worcester in the 1990s, strived in his Star Trek ventures to affirm the dignity of all people.
"Rationality was the key... There was no recourse to the supernatural," she said.
Ms. Sackett said Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.
And Roddenberry himself said:
"I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, 'thou shalt not,' or 'thou shalt.' I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that." (source)
Brannon Braga, one of the original writers and producers, expressed similar thoughts at a 2006 atheist conference in Iceland:
STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity's exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of STAR TREK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.
Star Trek's humanist ethic comes through clearly in several classic episodes, including "Who Mourns for Adonais?", in which the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by an alien being who claims to be the god Apollo and demands their worship; or the Next Generation episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", in which the crew's existence accidentally becomes known to a primitive society, and they must convince those people that they are not gods.
With all that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Star Trek has spawned its own devotees who follow and imitate the show with an almost religious fervor. But even this, I think, is testimony to the hunger for an optimistic, humanist vision of the future, one not based on the supernatural, and that's the kind of thing that all atheists should be doing our utmost to provide.
Other posts in this series: