Saturday, April 28, 2007

Why I May Seem So Strident

Well, I know that at least one other person has read my blog. It was an old friend of mine that I had not thought to hear from again that also happens to be a stunningly attractive woman. Anyway, her advice to me was to “be myself, but tone it down.” As it has been a while since I last posted anything, I thought I might make a reply to my gorgeous friend and other persons of faith who might be reading this, by expanding on why I may seem, at least to some, so strident. The following points are going to mainly apply to those that come from the Christian tradition. I will also make reference to items from the news and the history of Christianity which any person of Christian faith ought to be aware. This is entirely in the spirit of I Peter 3: 14-16, which admonishes believers to “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (KJV) As with anyone who maintains an opinion on any subject (be it the virgin birth or auto mechanics), if they are shown to be ignorant of basic facts and current events relevant to the opinion they hold, then their opinion is worthless. Additionally, if, after being told of the gaps in their knowledge, they persist in their point of view, they can justly be considered a fool.

I am going to address two general topics that touch on different aspects of why I come off the way I do.

1. The first topic is that of morality and public policy. First, we have to define what morality is and what it is not. Morality is about how we treat other human beings and how our actions affect their happiness and well-being in the here and now. By these criteria, turning a blind eye to injustice and human suffering is immoral. That said I will move on to a specific incident/example. According to recent news stories(1) the new vice-President of the National Association of Evangelicals came under fire from James Dobson (of Focus on the Family fame) for his efforts to get the Association to take a stand against our government’s use of torture and for environmental stewardship (caring for God’s creation and all that). Dobson’s (and other’s) justification for this criticism of the vice-President, Richard Cizik, was that it distracted the faithful from the pressing “moral” issues of “gay marriage” and abortion.

First off let me say that abortion is becoming a bona-fide, rationally-based moral issue. There is no evidence for the notion of souls in a Petri-dish and I have yet to hear a rational (i.e. no talk of immortal souls or of vague notions of “potential” allowed) argument as to in what possible sense a 3-day old blastocyst could be considered a “human life,” because first you would have to define (and defend) your definition of a “human life.” The reason that abortion is becoming a genuine moral issue is because of advancements in neonatal care that make it possible for babies delivered as early as 18 weeks premature to survive to the point where they can, at the very least, go home with the parents. If it would be considered murder to kill an 18 week premature baby in an incubator in a neonatal intensive care unit (I think we can all agree with that), I can imagine no moral or ethical argument that would permit the abortion of an otherwise healthy fetus, at the same stage of development as the one in the neonatal intensive care unit, carried by a healthy woman capable of safely (for both the mother and the fetus) carrying the baby to term. Please note the underlined portions, they are important and I will be merciless to those that quote me out of context.

Moving on, by what informed, well thought out, rational piece of moral reasoning are we to accept the assertion that “gay marriage” is a “moral” issue for society at large, but the systematic torture of human beings by agents of a supposedly enlightened democracy, i.e. the United States, is not a “moral” issue!!!??? In terms of civil law, marriage is a contract, like any other contract. Conservative Christians have as much a right to demand that the doctrinal dictates of their particular brand of Christianity regarding marriage and sexuality form part of civil law as Orthodox Jews have to demand that once Bar-Mitzvahed, a 13 year old male be considered an adult in the eyes of the law. Obviously, they have no such right.

The desire of two consenting adults that just happen to be of the same sex to form a personal, physical, economic, and legally binding relationship (which is what heterosexual marriage is in the eyes of the law) based on mutual love and respect harms no one in any rationally demonstrable way. While how the two people involved treat each other obviously has a moral dimension, it is not a “moral” issue for the general public at all. However, there is a word that describes what is going on when believers are afraid that the “god” that they believe in will become angry at them because of the personal choices of their neighbors that, by the way, do not believe as they do, and that apart from irrational psychological distress over “god’s wrath,” does no rationally demonstrable harm to the believer. The above behavior is best described by the term “pious,” in the sense of adherence to a specific religious tenet. The idea that one could be compelled by law, to act, in either word or deed, as though one subscribed to religious beliefs that one does not, in fact, subscribe to, is the absolute antithesis of the ideals upon which our nation was founded.

People that cannot make the distinction between moral/immoral actions, i.e. those actions which add or detract from, respectively, the real happiness, suffering, just treatment of, and well-being of our fellow human beings in the here-and-now, and pious actions, i.e. adherence to the demands of a particular religious tradition, are either self-deluded, intellectually dishonest, morally crippled, or all three, and I will continue to demand that they explain themselves whenever they open their mouths outside of houses of worship. My sense of personal, moral, and intellectual honesty (which are REAL moral virtues) demand no less of me.

2. I have a brother, whom I love and respect that is in the Army (I myself am retired Navy) and in September 2005, he got orders to Afghanistan and sent his children, who were being raised Catholic, to live with my parents for about a year. As I was in the same town and my parents are devout evangelical Protestants, I agreed to take my niece and nephew to Mass during that time. Because of my religious upbringing, I knew how to behave in a house of worship and knew many, but not all, of the hymns. In fact, I enjoyed singing those hymns that I fondly remembered from my childhood, and I still do, in the same sense that I enjoy singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” even though I know Rudolph is not real, and with the traditional hymns, unlike “Rudolph,” the music and the cadence of the songs are often very moving. This was fall 2005, and the controversy regarding the historicity of The DaVinci Code was going strong. For several weeks during that fall, there were announcements of classes and workshops devoted to debunking the claims in The DaVinci Code using the tools of legitimate historical inquiry. I found this utterly laughable and the height of arrogant, pious hypocrisy. The DaVinci Code belongs to the same genre of fiction as do the works of James Michener or Tom Clancy, where the authors take known events, situations, or technologies and extrapolate from them, with some authors extrapolating more than others. The idea that the history of Christianity, which has played a tremendous role in the history of Western civilization, is somehow off-limits to writers of historical/extrapolative fiction is arrogant beyond belief. Believers are just fine with the Left Behind series, but not the The DaVinci Code? I guess they do not object when the fiction is in accord with their beliefs but if it is contrary to their beliefs then that constitutes a form of blasphemy. What blatant hypocrisy!!!! What a double standard!!!!

This is, however, just the tip of the hypocrisy iceberg. The second species of hypocrisy at work here is the fact that believers are quite happy to use the tools of legitimate historical inquiry to attack ideas they do not agree with, but how do you think they would react to having the same tools applied to a critical examination of their core beliefs? They would cry foul to high heaven (pun intended).

Let’s go ahead and apply some of those tools to an examination of the life and work of the apostle Paul. Most scholars agree(2) that the earliest epistle of Paul, the book of Galatians, dates from about 48 C.E. to no later than 55 C.E. The first Gospel to be written was that of Mark, sometime between the late 60’s or early 70’s C.E.(3), likely after the death of Paul in 67 C.E.(4), in Rome during Nero’s persecution of Christians. The writings of Paul, as well as Luke, the likely author of the Acts of the Apostles(5), assert that he knew, first hand, those who knew Jesus while he was alive and yet, the only events in the life of Jesus mentioned by Paul are his crucifixion, death, and resurrection! No parables, no sayings, no virgin birth, no shepherds in the fields, no Magi, no nothing. This is suspicious and makes me think that perhaps the details of Jesus's life we made up, after the fact, after Christianity was on the rise. Were such arguments and evidence as Christians commonly trot out for the "historical reality" of Christ, presented, despite the hurdles to credibility I just mentioned, in a scholarly paper in a subject other than religion, would get one hounded out of the history department as a moron were it not for the exaggerated and misguided respect paid to “religion.” I utterly reject the notion that there are two sets of rules for determining the veracity of a claim, one for religious claims and one for profane, i.e. non-religious, claims.

One last piece of advice, don’t allow your faith to write checks your intellect can’t cash. You will feel embarrassed and others will think you a fool.







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