An Uncommon Tree

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Many people don’t realize this, but we have palm trees here in Barrow. That’s right. Palm trees. Case in point, these beautiful specimens right here. They can be found in a fish camp just North of the college.

Now you may be wondering how palm trees ended up here in the arctic?

Well, I could tell you, but…

Reza Aslan and New Atheists Who Really are Atheists After All

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r.-aslanThe ongoing feud between Reza Aslan and the so-called “New Atheists” continues to shed more heat than light. The latest round of this race to the bottom of the intellectual barrel comes to us in the form of a Salon piece written by Aslan. It presently carries the provocative title, “Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and “New Atheists” aren’t new, aren’t even atheists.” This is certainly a provocative enough title. I expect I wasn’t the only person to open the page wondering just how he was going to make the case that Dawkins and company aren’t atheists.

Score one for the god of misleading headlines. This article gets its provocative angle compliments of a rather weak bit of semantics:

In fact, not only is the New Atheism not representative of atheism. It isn’t even mere atheism (and it certainly is not “new”). What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18th century – one properly termed, anti-theism.

Apparently, the New Atheists aren’t really Atheists because they aren’t merely Atheists. So, if you aren’t ‘merely’ a thing you aren’t that thing at all, at least in the mind of whoever wrote the title of that Salon piece. And if you’re also a thing+ or possess an extra helping of thingatude, then well, no, you’re not even a thing at all.

Out of generosity, I’ll assume it wasn’t Aslan that chose that title.

The larger point of Aslan’s piece is actually to differentiate the ‘New Atheism’ from its predecessors, and apparently to embed that differentiation in a narrative that does as much as possible to discredit new atheism. The resulting sleight of hand is definitely Aslan’s doing. It is admittedly more clever than the title fiasco.

Aslan’s essay includes a rather sweeping narrative about the history of non-belief, touching on a number of things well worth thinking about. Aslan comes to the main point with a fairly specific passage in which he ties the New Atheism with the atrocities of state communism. To get to that point, he first introduces the notion that anti-theism is an intellectual tradition in its own right, one of many twists an turns in the history of unbelief. As strident opposition to religion is what folks like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens do, Aslan assures us they are themselves clearly part of the intellectual movement of anti-theism rather than simply part of the traditions of atheism.

I’m not entirely sold on the historicism here, but as far as this goes, it’s probably fair enough to describe these folks as anti-theists. The problem here is what Aslan does with this point. While he works hard to distinguish anti-theism from mere unbelief, Aslan works equally hard to ensure that we do not distinguish intellectual opposition to religion from the slaughter of innocents.

It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?

For an historian of religion this is an inexcusable bit of misdirection. Aslan moves seamlessly from a narrative about the work of Marx and the rise of state communism to a series of direct references to his present intellectual opponents in the New Atheism movement. In fact, he uses the views of today’s New Atheists as a direct argument regarding the motivations of Stalin and Mao.

…actually, I should say he uses some of their more outrageous quotes. This isn’t really a consideration of their views so much as a bit of quote-mining masquerading as an intellectual criticism, but still the main point is, the man is explaining the actions of communist dictators with random comments from people who weren’t yet a gleam in their fathers’ eyes when Stalin was starving his peasants and Mao was waging his war on sparrows.

In effect, Aslan turns Harris and company into the present-day spokesmen for some of history’s most horrific genocides. This is anachronism at its worst, and Aslan uses it to advance the notion that anti-theism is responsible for the tragic abuses of state communism.

So, there it is. According to Aslan, the Stalinist purges and those of Mao can be understood as a direct reflection of an anti-theistic world view. We needn’t consider the politics of either nation, it’s economic complexities, or any alternative explanations behind these histories. We need only look at what New Atheists have to say today in order to know that this is what the New Atheists is capable of.

…and perhaps to shudder at the prospect.

Ironically, Aslan’s critique of New Atheism smacks of the very inattention to social complexities that many (including Aslan) see in the approach Dawkins and Harris have taken to Islam. It’s an approach that treats doctrines as if they themselves were the driving engines of history, and it in doing so it reduces historical knowledge to the needs of present-day polemics. This view of history sees little in the complexities of human conflict that one can’t fit into a well-written tweet (or perhaps a pithy and misleading title). Aslan has often advocated a nuanced view of the relationship between religion and violence, but with this piece, that nuance might as well be a nine-pound hammer.

Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the battle between Aslan and Harris, et. al. The dialog is increasingly more personal points, and that just isn’t the best role that a public intellectual could play. This a duel between two simplistic views of history, each of them equally myopic. If the rest of us are supposed to chose a side, then count me out.

 

 

 

An Uncommon Request

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I could never tell what tune it was that my mother wanted me to play. For years she would ask me to play “the song.” Asked what song she wanted me to play, Mom would say “the one that goes doodoodoDoodoodoDoodoo…”

…I had no idea what she was talking about.

I would scan my albums of Heart (and later my disks), but Mom seemed to know the Heart tunes. If she wanted, she could ask me to play one of them by name. I would play some of Van Halen’s guitar solos, which she often liked, but no, none of those turned out to be the golden tune. She said I played the song all the time but she could never remember to tell me when I had it on, and I could never figure out what it was when Mom asked for it out of the clear blue.

It was the least I could do for her, so I thought, to play the occasional tune she actually liked after blasting her and dad without mercy for pretty much all day every day. They must have heard enough hard rock to keep Beavis and Butthead head-banging for a decade. …which is saying something, because neither was really a fan of rock&roll at all. So, when Mom said she liked something in my young metal-head playlist, I couldn’t help but want to meet that request.

But what was the song?

I scanned my Jethro Tull collection countless times, trying desperately to match the tune to Mom’s odd description. It was always the same description, and she could never add any details. Alas! Nothing Ian Anderson and his band ever did met turned out to be the song, though she was always happy to listen to Songs From the Wood.

And then one day she came in to my room waving her hands to get my attention. That was it! The song I had on right at that very moment was the one she always wanted me to play. What was it?

This

…In Mom’s defense, I don’t think she ever really understood the lyrics.

A Rambling Little Bit About the Consolations of Free Market Fundamentalism

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hqdefaultAt what point does hope of success in world of rigged economic competition become indistinguishable from belief in the rewards of heaven? At what point does hope for a better life in this world become no more meaningful than hope for a better life in the next?

We’ve all heard the old historical narratives about medieval peasants living in the hope of an afterlife. The point of that narrative is usually some sort of contrast with a more open society, one in which upward social mobility is actually possible in THIS life. It’s a tidy narrative, perhaps a bit to tidy.

How many Americans, I wonder, will live their entire lives in trailer courts and small apartments, all the while counting themselves so much better off than those peasants?

Because opportunity!

Hell! Who could fault anyone for living with hope? Assuming of course that hope doesn’t interfere with their sense of reality, I sure wouldn’t. Unfortunately, the American dream is slipping further and further from our grasp. Ironically, the more distant that dream gets the harder some people fight to hold on to the illusion that it’s still a viable prospect in our current social order.

Heaven forbid a national healthcare system! Damn the welfare queens! The Hell with minimum wage, and let’s privatize Social Security!

I get why some of the economic elites would make such noises, but the every day believer in the free market is often a mystery to me? It seems that such people don’t just want success; they want it on terms which make it incredibly unlikely to ever happen. And in the meantime they reject all manner of public assistance, much of it critical to their own health and welfare. It isn’t even enough to survive; one must survive under the present terms.

In this religion, ‘socialism’ is the Devil, and one of its magic powers is an ever broadening semantic domain. It is increasingly the root evil behind social institutions that have stabilized the American economy for nearly a century. But what makes this rather a-historical devil so powerful in the minds of the average trailer-court republican? I can’t help thinking it’s in some sense an affront to the just world hypothesis, that vague sense that the world is basically good. If that world is good, then any righteous American ought to be able to make it on his own, so the thinking appears to go. In the end it’s the promise of a certain type of success these folks cling to so desperately, one which is no less fantastic than all any waiting beyond the Pearly Gates. The success they hope for is not just paid bills and a good meal on the table; it’s a success that vouches for their own moral superiority, and it is a success promised only in a world that will separate the righteous from the unworthy. It is a success held in the minds of the faithful with all the power and desperation that one could ever find amongst the faithful of any church. Only a dark force would suggest that this wasn’t going to happen, and only such a dark force could be blamed for the reason it hasn’t so far. And so people falling further and further behind the contest they believe in so much work ever so hard to remove one more piece of the safety net that keeps them in the game at all.

…and in some instances, keeps them alive.

What has me thinking about this was a recent reminder that ‘Democracy’ was one of the great fears plaguing some of our nation’s founding fathers. The fear that the masses would, if given the chance, vote away the privileges of the wealthy and redistribute that very wealth was quite real for the likes of John Adams or even James Madison. I wonder if these men could ever have envisioned a nation of people so content to wait for their boat to come in, so pleased to work away their lives in the hope that the labor would somehow return far more than it ever had before.

If and when the ‘job makers’ ever deem it the right time!

It’s no small wonder that so many who believe promise of eternal heaven would also believe in that of Free Markets. It seems that the gods of each work in mysterious ways.

But one day!

It’s the Disinformation Charlie Brown

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BQiZ-CdCUAAcJsVI came across this D-Nuts bit last night. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but what the Hell? This time I thought I’d take a moment to bloggetize a comment or two on the matter. What’s interesting about this piece, you may ask?

We could start with the most obvious game that’s being played here. On one level it is simply a red herring. A claim about the present-day Republican Party has been answered with a series of claims about what the history of the GOP and the Democrats, thus substituting a question about what each HAS BEEN for an argument about what each IS today.

Taken at face value, this red herring contains another problem, a seriously convenient omission of historical information, namely the shift in voting patterns over the 20th century culminating in the famous “southern strategy” of Richard Nixon. Simply put, an awful lot of southern conservatives switched parties over the years since the founding of the GOP and the KKK. It’s tempting to say that a number of them did so precisely because they saw the modern GOP as a better vehicle for their own racist agenda. In any event, the shift has left both parties flip-flopped on civil rights and the proper balance of federal and state authority. There are some other factors besides race at work here to be sure, but a number of GOP leaders have made conscious appeals to racist sentiments over the years and the results have been quite striking.

So, is it fair to say that the GOP is racist?

I could see reasonable arguments against an affirmative answer. Those arguments do not rest on a conveniently incomplete account of history.

Even still, I can’t help thinking the best (worst) part about this cartoon is just how well its content fits with its intended purpose. Here we have Charlie Brown whitesplaining the topic of racism to Franklin, the one black character in Peanuts. Franklin is clueless in comparison to Charlie’s wisdom. The cartoonist has him reacting with a stubborn inarticulate refusal to see Charlie’s point or even to engage the argument in any meaningful way. He just sticks to his position as if incapable of grasping the issues at hand. He is in effect simply playing the so called race card without any substantive reasons for doing so. So, the GOP isn’t racist, so the cartoon would have us believe, but apparently it takes a white person to understand that.

…a message which would probably come as no surprise to Franklin.

 

 

An Uncommon Pitch Line

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???????????????????????????????Have a look at the pitch line on this movie. “In the chaos of war, peace can only come from within.” What’s odd about that, you may ask? It is after all a story about a soldier and the psychiatrist who has been assigned to help him recover from Shell Shock. So, the line makes a lot of sense right? Well, yes it does.

Unless of course, you’ve seen the movie.

Because if you’ve seen the movie, then you will likely realize that the premise of the film is actually that the soldier, Sigfried Sassoon is NOT actually suffering from Shell Shock. (Sassoon was in fact a real historical figure, by the way, one well worth knowing about.) He had in fact published an open letter in opposition to the war. As the man was already a highly celebrated war hero and a recipient of the military cross, this posed a bit of an unusual problem for the British high command. You can’t just put a hero in front of a firing squad, can you? So, the British military wasn’t quite sure what to do about this. The solution was to declare him ill and assign a psychiatrist to treat him. By ‘treat’ in this case we mean of course that the psychiatrist in the film was expected to talk Sassoon into going back out to join the fighting. Far from a movie about finding inner peace, this is a film about the misuse of medical science in the politics of war. It is in fact a very bitter tale of a medical practice that wasn’t about finding peace of any kind.

But, hey ad guys! Don’t let that stop you from putting a perfectly vapid cliché on the cover of this wonderful film. Better yet, why don’t you pick a theme that carries forward the very hypocrisy addressed in the movie itself.

Oh Hello Dere!

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(click to embiggen)

(click to embiggen)

So, I opened the door to head off to work earlier today and this fellow was sitting outside. He stayed long enough for me to get my camera and snap a few pics. Being totally free of superstition and all, I immediately decided this fellow was trying to tell me I have been a jack-ass for letting my blog go like this. One of my students ended up giving me a ride. She figured it was the same owl that’d been scaring her dog and said he was probably in town looking for food.

She’s right of course, but I’m going to commence rebloggination anyway.

…starting with this guy.

God, This Movie is Awfully Damned Trite!

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gods-not-dead-prof-and-studentThe most fascinating thing about the movie ‘God is Not Dead’ isn’t the conflict between atheism and Christianity; it’s the tension between narrative and argumentative styles of presentation. The premise for this film is simple enough; an atheist professor demands that his students sign a statement to the effect that God is dead. When a student refuses to do so, the professor commands his to prove that god exists in a series of 3 debates to be held in the first few weeks of class. Failure, it is clear from the outset, will mean an ‘F’ for the class, but the student’s only other option is to sign the statement. This a clash between Christianity and atheism to be sure, but its also a clash that takes the form of a debate, and sort of reasoning that takes place in a debate changes a great deal when it is reframed in narrative form. In God is Not Dead, arguments become a story, and the premises and conclusions of those arguments become events in a storyline.

If the main characters appear as proponents in a debate between a College Professor (Jeffrey Raddison played by Kevin Sorbo) and a college student (Josh Wheaton played by Shane Harper), they are also antagonists in a life or death struggle quite familiar to movie-goers of all faiths and none. Josh is the underdog fighting for his faith; Radisson is a monster who torments his students without mercy. This is David and Goliath to be sure, but this time Goliath wields a grade-book, and David goes to the library. The David and Goliath aspects of the story are not an accident, and the film-makers were clearly trying to make a statement about the treatment of Christians in academia, and the moral vision of these participants overshadows the film’s approach to the debate which is to follow.

The opening scenes of God is Not Dead drive home just how important winning the debate will be to Josh Wheaton. In the event that he loses that debate, Josh will get an ‘F’ in the class, and (as his high-school sweetheart reminds him) that will be the end of long-term career plans. To make matters worse, she regards his willingness to risk his own future as a betrayal of the future they have planned together. She will thus leave him if he goes through with the effort. Josh’s pastor doesn’t help matters much by telling Josh his own actions may be the only exposure his classmates will have to Christianity. So, the stakes are awfully high. Just as David, Josh is fighting not only for his own future, but also for the good of his people (in this case, his classmates). This might seem like a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a college freshmen, but they would be quite familiar to many Christian apologists. This is not just debate over the the truth of a given claim; it is a battle for the souls of all involved.

So, this story about a classroom debate is really a sort of war-story. And of course it will be told in three acts. It should come as no surprise that the villain will be vanquished in the end, though it may come as a surprise just how completely vanquished (and yes, saved) this villain will be.

The first act of the story is largely about Josh’s decision to accept the debate in the first place. His preparations are unimportant, as is the actual argument he produces when the time comes. Josh begins this first round of battle with an argument to the effect that the Big Bang is consistent with, and even requires, the existence of a creator. Radisson simply tells him that according to Stephen Hawking it doesn’t, going on to ask if Josh thinks himself smarter than Hawking. Thus ends the first debate with an outcome that should surprise no-one. What kind of principle villain gets his ass kicked in the First Act of the story? Certainly not this mean-spirited professor!

Still, the first debate does establish a bit more than the fully expected set-back for our underdog Josh. Already, a few patterns begin to emerge from the vision of academic dialogue presented in this film. Both participants rely heavily on appeal to authority, even to the point of simple quote-mining. Both parties will also spend a significant amount of time on science, and in particular the science of cosmogony. The end result is a rather sophomoric vision of philosophy in which the battling heroes themselves pay homage to their own heroes in lieu of exploring the full arguments, all the while coming across as arm-chair scientists rather than participants in a philosophical exchange. To say that this is an impoverished vision of philosophy would be putting it mildly. To say that it is a vision common among Christian apologists would be putting it closer to the point.

In the second debate, Josh returns with a source describing Hawking’s own arguments on the origins of everything as circular. Pressed upon the matter, he reminds Professor Radisson that Hawking himself has suggested that philosophy is dead. Josh goes on to raise familiar concerns about abiogenesis in evolutionary theory.  Hawking was of course talking about precisely this sort of second-hand science discussion, but most importantly, playing the anti-philosophical card in this scene raises the dramatic significance of the debate. A humiliated Radisson has little to offer in response, opting instead to mock Wheaton after the other students have left the room. It is an angry confrontation, and in his anger Radisson reveals his greatest weakness. Asked by Josh, what happened to make him so angry, Radisson recounts the story of his own mother’s death and the prayers he offered as a twelve year old in the hopes she would live. This is an interesting speech, because it is one of the few times when the professor is allowed to be something other than a foolish caricature. He ties his own pain in the loss of a loved one to the outrage that some divine plan could ever account for it, and for just a brief moment Radisson seems both eloquent and human.

The final debate is all about the argument from evil, the notion that the existence of God as he is commonly envisioned in Christianity cannot be reconciled with the existence of suffering. Both parties advance arguments on the topic, but the most significant feature of this scene is the increasingly emotional tone of the discussion. Josh can feel the threat to his grade and his ambitions and Radisson can feel the growing threat to his own credibility. Their voices grow louder, and their demeanor more intense. As both parties become increasingly excited, Josh asks Radisson in front of the class to explain why he hates God so much knowing that science supports His existence. In the heat of the moment, Professor Radisson answers Josh in precisely those terms, proclaiming that God took everything from him.

One could chase ugly rabbits down so many holes in this film, but that single response from Professor Radisson really is the core message of the film. It is also the most disturbing thing about the film. For all it’s many simplicities and distortions, God is Not Dead is first and foremost a statement to the effect that atheism is really about hatred of God rather than disbelief.It is a statement that arguments against the existence of God (and counters to arguments in favor of His existence) are simply deceitful rationalizations. The argument from evil is, as this film would have it, less an argument about the (in)consistency of someone’s thoughts about God than an expression of hatred aimed directly at God himself.

In this plot twist, the very topic of debate simply vanishes in front of us, and the story sets all questions of god’s existence aside. Radisson is not really an unbeliever at all; he is a rebellious child (which might help to explain his childish antics). The storyline of the film thus overtakes any effort to address the issues at hand, presenting us with a narrative in which non-believers produce arguments only in the service of venting their own pain. One does not resolve their questions by rational rational argument so much as a kind of spiritual counseling. This counseling is presented still more clearly in one of the films many side-stories, that of a snarky atheist blogger who enjoys poking wholes in religious thought (…hey!). The script-writers must have found it quite amusing to pre-empt a decent portion of their future critics with this particular story-line, but to get back to the point, Amy Ryan (played by Trisha LaFache) learns that she is dying of cancer, a fact which throws quite a curve ball into her life of internet snarketry. When she finds her way backstage at a Christian concert, all of her arguments crumble quite completely as the drummer for the Newsboys suggests that she had actually come to their concert, not to mock them, but so so that they could help her find faith.

…and the subplot ends with a lovely group prayer.

The Newsboys concert fills the final moments of the film with enough exposition to compete with the worst papers from a creative writing workshop. It includes an appearance from Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson who cheers on Josh and invites the concert audience to send out a text telling everyone they know that God is Not Dead. This is a message clearly intended to break through the fourth wall and reach into the lives of audience members in the theaters. So I suppose it is no small wonder that evangelical Christians of all shapes and sizes were indeed pushing this film for awhile. I lost track of the number of people who told me that I really should watch the film, assuring me that even non-believers would find it thoughtful and enjoyable. Most seemed quite prepared to concede the one-sidedness of the story-line, even to accept that Sorbo’s character was a bit over the top (it was in fact, well out of earth orbit). What many of those urging this film on others seem unaware of is just how demeaning the story really is for those of us who don’t believe in God. It isn’t just that this film portrays an atheist in an extraordinarily bad light, or even that portrays academia in general as a place filled with cruel and sadistic professors just looking for an excuse to hurt those of faith. What this film does is to empower a dismissiveness that undermines any subsequent dialogue. It encourages believers to think of atheists (and skeptics in general) as people who do not understand our own motivations. It encourages Christian apologists to think of our words as unworthy of consideration, mere diversions from a spiritual tragedy which they understand and we do not.

It is a deeply dehumanizing vision of atheists that this movie presents. For me at least that vision is a conversation-ender; it is not the opening stages of a promising dialogue. As with so much of what passes for Christian apologetics, what is so unfortunate about this film is the degree to which it poisons its own well. In the end, this film does little to engage those of us who don’t share the Christian faith. It never really takes us seriously to begin with, and it never takes seriously the possibilities of dialogue between believers and non-believers.

Its fans should not be surprised to find many of us will respond in kind.

 

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