Let Us Not Praise the Prosperity Gospel With Faint Damn: It’s Worse than its Theology!

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2016-08-05 (3)“Joel Osteen’s Fake, Heretical ‘Christianity’ Isn’t Any Better Than Atheism.”

That’s the title of an article from blogger Matt Walsh published yesterday on The Blaze. If Matt Walsh ever does have a thought worthy of publication, he will no mistake it for a bad cold, and there is certainly no chance The Blaze would publish anything that challenges the grade-school level reading skills of its founder, Glenn Beck. Still, sometimes even soft-heads and soft-targets merit a response of some kind.

I can think of all kinds of criticisms that Joel Osteen deserves, but this is a case of praising with faint damn. No better than atheists? It’s amusing to be the on the as end of a justazzy equation for a change, but one could do worse than to do no better than an atheism. The problem here is of course that Osteen certainly does worse than we generally do in at least one very significant respect. Just as every other televangelist I can think of, Osteen rakes in millions off the gullibility of his followers. There is no telling how many elderly couples are going right now without basic comforts or even important medication because they choose to contribute to Osteen’s cause or those like it. I know of no comparable movement within atheism, certainly none with anywhere near the impact of the many financial empires sailing under the banner of Christianity. So, it’s damned odd to find out that what’s really wrong with this Huxter is that his message is just like ours, which it simply isn’t. We have our faults, to be sure, but this doesn’t seem like one of them. Hell, it’s not even close.

But let’s be clear. I would find his message would be no less disturbing if Walsh’s title didn’t involve a swipe at people like me. Once again, people like Osteen consistently make their money off the backs of people who cannot afford it. But Walsh’s problem with Osteen isn’t the exploitation of people of others in the name of God; it’s his theology. Ironically enough, what Walsh takes issue with is Osteen’s advocacy of something called “the Prosperity Gospel.” Loosely speaking, this is the notion that God may convey blessings in the form of material wealth on his faithful. So, you can see that questions about the relationship between money and spirituality are at the heart of Osteen’s ministry, but Walsh’s never seems to address just how serious these questions really are.

Walsh  is concerned that Prosperity Gospel  is teaching people to value wealth in this life too much. Indeed, Walsh suggests people would be better off hungry if that’s what it took to get them to the right message of Christianity. What Walsh misses is the fact that doctrines like the Prosperity Gospel can get people to hungry status just as effectively as any doctrine he imagines to be more scripturally sound. Osteen’s message of wealth is lost in one very important sense on Osteen’s own followers, they aren’t going to get wealthy  off his message. Indeed, a good number of them are going to lose a portion of whatever they do have buy pouring it into his empire. Far from being ‘no better than atheism’, this is a problem that resides almost entirely within the halls of big business evangelism.

Walsh begins his criticisms by pressing Osteen’s ambiguous use of language. He thinks Osteen’s blend of self-help nonsense if largely meaningless. Walsh likens it to a kind of ‘verbal smoothie’ filled with meaningless cliches. Fair enough on that account (I do not disagree in the slightest) but what would make things better? Walsh wants to hear more about Jesus:

But there are some words that never seem to make it into the smoothie. If you listen closely to all the self-help mumbo jumbo spewed by these heretics, you may notice the glaring absence of certain crucial terms; terms that any pastor ought to be shouting proudly and with great regularity. For one thing, you won’t hear ”Christ.” Neither will you hear “sin.” Or redemption, sacrifice, atonement, repentance, Bible, etc. Prosperity preachers are notoriously hesitant to share the spotlight with Jesus. They’d rather keep all the attention centered on the self — their own selves, specifically – and some vague “god” character, who, according to their mythology, is a genie-like figure who shows up to grant wishes before returning to his magic lamp.

This is really fascinating, actually. The Prosperity Gospel is a message calculated to present donations to the church as a means to financial success. It enables preachers to imply a quid pro quo without stating it outright, and that makes it a highly effective tool for con artists. One con-artist after anotherhas used it to separate people from their money, even from their life-savings. With all that could be said about this particular message, what Walsh thinks is bad about this is that they don’t mention Jesus enough.

But what if they did?

More importantly, what about when they actually do?

The Prosperity Gospel was all over the ministries of Jan and Paul Crouch, and it never crowded the name of Jesus out of their conniving mouths. There is a good deal of Prosperity Gospel in the messages of Pat Robertson as well, and that doesn’t stop him from invoking Jesus. Jim and Tammy Fae Baker never had any trouble mixing Jesus into their own version of the Prosperity Gospel. I could go on of course, but the point is obvious enough. The name of ‘Jesus’ is all over the Prosperity Gospel. In fact, the connection between devotion to Jesus and hopes for material blessings are at least as old as the Puritans. Contemporary New Age spokesmen and countless motivational speakers (even some secular ones) are merely a minor variation on this old theme, but few have had more success with that theme than those who kept Jesus front and center in the message. The Prosperity Gospel is a message that flourished in Christian churches long before it ever escaped the pews for more ambiguous theological settings.

Walsh has his own scriptures, to be sure, scriptures he thinks will refute the interest in wealth, but of course the Prosperity crowd has their own. They can go back and forth all they like, but neither will resolve anything to anyone except themselves. And here is where atheism may well matter after all in this equation, because I for one don’t give a damn what the scriptures have to say about it. What I see when I look at someone like Osteen is a con artist depriving countless people of essential financial resources so that he can enjoy wealth they can only imagine. That the Prosperity Gospel uses the image of wealth to part people from what little they have is the problem with people like Osteen. I have known many Christians who could see that problem. There is little evidence that Walsh does.

Simply put,the problem with the Prosperity Gospel is NOT one of theology; it is one of economics. I’ve known many community pastors and priests worthy of respect, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a televangelist who struck me as anything else but a thief. The former deal with real people and their problems, some wonderfully and some disastrously. Televangelists provide the face of money-making machines. These people are in business, and unfortunately they are in business with the full benefits of non-profit status. It simply should not be an option to sell false hope, and we ought not as a nation to sit idly by as people like Osteen and countless other huxters make themselves filthy rich off the waning judgement of people heading into retirement.

It is the cover of spirituality that makes Osteen’s con possible. His message may no better than atheism to the likes of Walsh, but it is not atheism that empowers his exploitation of others. To find the source of that empowerment, we have only to look at those who quibble over matters of theology while saying little to nothing about the outright larceny that is modern televangelism.

 

A Cheating Post

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unlv2In high school, I could hardly be bothered to cheat, mostly because I could hardly be bothered at all. The freshman class president once offered to do all my English assignments for me. All I had to do was turn them in. It just irritated her that I wouldn’t do anything at all in class. It irritated her more that I turned down the offer.

A year later, I did find it amusing to hand my finished weekly vocabulary assignment to the student behind me. After she’d copied them, she’d hand them to the guy behind her and so on. My goal was to have two full rows copy off me before the end of the period. I never quite made it, but I was damned close on several occasions. As this was the only homework I ever did in that class, I didn’t get much of a grade out of it, but it was fun to see how many could cheat off my paper.

Ah well!

***

In college I was pleasantly surprised to find myself actually giving a damn. This led to an awkward moment in my first semester as I suddenly found myself unable to answer a question in psychology, on a test I actually wanted to pass. I found my eyes drifting slowly to the scantron sheet of a student two rows down. It was more a kind of wishful thinking than a decision to cheat. I hadn’t yet focused enough to read what he’d put down, but I wanted so desperately to find the answer somewhere. The thought did occur to me that I had no reason to believe he would know the answer anymore than I did, and then I felt guilty, and then I thought maybe I could get just a few answers from him, and then I thought about the cute girl nearby…

and then I looked up to find the teaching assistant staring at me.

Nothing came of it except a decision not to play the rest of my college years straight, so to speak

***

The prospect of cheating didn’t enter my head again until one summer in my senior year. I retook the introduction to political science. By then I knew a fair bit of the material, but that didn’t change the C- I’d received one semester when I blew the class off out of disinterest. Getting rid of that lowlier would help my GPA substantially, so there I sat in an intro class on a topic I knew pretty well at that point and feeling really out of place. When a test came down for a chapter on the Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government, I suddenly felt especially stressed. I ought to know that subject damned well, I thought. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t quite prepared, not like I should have been. So, I sat there, wanting desperately to cheat off the incoming freshman girl sitting beside me. Once again, I had no reason to believe her paper would be better than my own production, but once again, I wanted a magic solution. The sudden desire to look at her paper was overwhelming, and that alone felt damned disconcerting. I kept my eyes to my own paper, of course, but doing so took a surprising amount of effort. I got a ‘A’ on the test, but to this day I shudder at the feeling of uncertainty I felt staring down at the test that day and thinking I didn’t really know the answers.

***

Oh wait a minute! There was one other time I wanted to cheat. In logical theory, the professor used to walk out of the class, wait a few minutes, then burst through the doorway looking around to see if he could catch us cheating. I learned a lot from that guy, but sitting there killing the written portion of that test, I couldn’t help but think it might be nice to cheat somehow just to spite him.

***

I had another professor who used to hand out the tests and go to his office. Oddly enough, I don’t think any of us cheated on his exams. Our classmates would have handled it.

******

As a graduate student I began to see cheating from the other side. I recall once watching a student sit motionless for half an hour of a test before making himself one of the first students to hand it in. Half the exam had been multiple choice using a scantron sheet and half had been written. I was damned surprised to see the essay portion of his exam completed in full, especially since it was in black ink and he had filled out the front of the booklet in blue. Not to mention, he hadn’t written anything while I was watching. W

What surprised me most about this case was that we didn’t flunk him. Instead the department chair advised me to grade the assignment as though it were a graduate-level essay.

Oddly enough, that always seemed kind of unfair to me.

***

I was once one of four teaching assistants (TAs) in a large class on German history. Each of us ran our study groups once a week. At some point, I recall hearing that one or two of the other TAs were going over the questions for up-coming exams in their study groups. This was definitely contrary to our instructions from the professor. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe it until a students approached me before the final exam to ask about the specific answer to a specific multiple choice question he knew would be on the test.

Yeah, that was just a little frustrating.

***

One of the most amusing examples of cheating I ever encountered began one day in an advanced course on constitutional history. We received take-home essay questions a week before coming in for an in-class exam. So, I walked into the last class session before the in-class exam to find a guy who’d been gone all semester. He offered to pay $50.00 to see my take-home essays. What bothered me most about this was the offer of money. It also bothered me that I didn’t know him. Taken together, these were not a good sign.

Had the guy been an active student, and had I known him, I wouldn’t have hesitated to share my essays with him. I did that with many friends on take-home assignments. We learned from each others’ work and wrote our own responses. But this was an unknown entity offering me money. I figured the $50.00 wasn’t for a casual look at my work; he would certainly be handing in those very essays. Before I could even reply, the man added insult to idiocy, commenting that the two girls sitting in class at that moment wouldn’t do it. Listening to him emphasize the word ‘girls’ I think I actually laughed a little. Obviously, I thought, as a man, I must be obligated to do the good buddy thing and help a bro out. So, I guess it was kind of a gender-bender moment when I turned him down.

I have to admit, it felt kinda good when the teacher caught him cheating on the in-class portion of the essay.

******

A friend of mine once told me he was taking his English teacher out to dinner in exchange for a passing grade. Another neighbor of mine once told me about a beautiful young woman who received an ‘A’ in his sociology class. I reckon, that’s the pay-off to cheating from the other side. For myself, I figure any pay-off I get would have to be worth the risk of losing an entire career. So, I always tell my students I can be bought, but they can’t afford the price.  If pressed, I clarify, that the pay-off would need to be sufficient to fund my retirement.

I’m almost certainly joking about that.

******

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve run into my share of efforts at cheating.

I once had a student tell me she was leaving town, so she asked if she could take the exam early. Her two friends turned in the same answers she did, which might have helped them had she given me the right answers to begin with. All tree received failing grades on that assignment, and for a time I began assigning the same penalty to exams taken early as I did to those taken late. I generally announce my essay topics ahead of time, so students have often tried to sneak pre-written essays into the classroom. This lead to a brief period in which I handed out colored paper with every exam. Like a lot of people, I think, I now ask students to hand their research papers in in stages, so that I can see the progress they make on them. A few students have been disappointed when producing a completed paper on a completely new topic earned them a choice between a zero and little extra time to redo the whole project.

I have yet to burst into class looking around in hopes of catching someone cheating.

***

I once had a married couple turn in virtually identical take-home essays. I gave them a do-over. When they turned in a second pair of essays with barely a few lines different between them, I sent in a couple Fs to the registrar.

***

Not surprisingly, the internet has proven itself to be my biggest cheat-hazard. I am continually surprised at the number of students who have copied Wikipedia entries and handed them in after making a few minor changes. I’m a little more surprised to see how often they will then cite Wikipedia as if naming the source resolved any questions about turning in a paper that was nearly identical to that source. Perhaps, the biggest surprise for me came when a high school teacher with a master’s degree did that very thing. I offered him a chance to rewrite the paper, which I thought a damned generous move on my part. So, I was REALLY surprised to find the fellow arguing over the matter with me. When he asked to speak to my supervisor, I recall giving him the contact information for the Dean, adding something along the lines of; “but let’s be clear about this. We are talking about plagiarism.” Ten minutes later, I received an email telling me he would send in a new paper that evening.

I really don’t can’t imagine what he was thinking.

******

What strikes me most about the cheating I’ve seen since making the transition from student to teacher is just how often cheating proves unhelpful, even from the standpoint of a grade. Simply put, the same student who needs to cheat is rarely a student capable of cheating the subject effectively. That may vary between different disciplines and pedagogical techniques, but as a general rule, when I catch someone cheating,  I generally catch them cheating badly. Of course, I have no doubt that a few have gotten past me. Perhaps, that blank spot in the data set contains all the information necessary to refute my little observation here.

If so, I reckon the refutation will one day make an appearance in a wiki entry somewhere.

I’ll learn it from a partially rewritten essay.

Route 66 Under the Tires and on the Screen

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Cars_2006So my girlfriend has this theory that the Pixar movie, Cars, did a lot to help revive the tourist trade along Route 66. I don’t know how serious she is about this theory, but it’s as good an excuse to talk about Route 66 as any, and about Cars, so here goes…

What has Monica talking about Cars? We’ve taken a couple trips along I-40 this summer and last. This year, we’ve taken a few of the detours off I-40 to see what we can find along Route 66. It’s nostalgia for me. I’ve driven large parts of the southwestern route enough to get to know quite a few of the stops quite well. Having someone unfamiliar with it all is interesting though, because I get to see these old sites through her new eyes.

Also she gave me an assignment.

…to watch Cars.

I’ve certainly done worse duty. The movie is cute, perhaps a little too cute. I should probably gruff it off, but I actually enjoyed it. Funny though, I spent the first half of the movie thinking the judge-car (Doc Hudson) sounded an awful lot like Paul Newman. Couldn’t figure out who else it could have been until I mentioned it. Turns out the voice for the car is Paul Newman, and the film turned out to be a little older than I thought.

It’s fitting that Newman would appear in Cars, because I think The Hustler is pretty much the prototype for sports movies. I know, straight pool is a bit of a stretch for a sport, and perhaps a cartoon race-car is an odd subject for a sports film, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. It’s a story of a prodigy in a competitive field, one who needs to get his priorities straight. That’s almost every sports movie I can think of, and the voice of Fast Eddie Felson (Newman’s character in The Hustler) haunts them all as far as I’m concerned. In this case Fast Eddie’s voice sounds a bit aged, but it’s literally there. And this is certainly a film about a prodigy that needs to get his priorities straight.

…which is an interesting theme through which to explore the relationship between I-40 and Route 66.

***

…er spoilers!

There are no people in this movie; just cars, cars that seem a lot like people. The film’s main character is a race car named Lightning McQueen. Lightning is a talented race-car who is tearing up the tracks during his rookie year on the circuit. He is one of three contenders for the annual Piston Cup award, which would effectively make him the biggest champion of the year. Unfortunately, Lightning’s ego alienates his pit crew and so they leave him just before the final show-down, a race against two great rivals to be held in California. Lightning plans to win the race all by himself, but first he must get to California. For reasons best watched for yourself, Lightning ends up stranded in the tiny southwestern town of Radiator Springs. Having accidentally destroyed the towns main road (a section of Route 66), McQueen finds himself sentenced to repair it before he can go.

Radiator Springs is very much in decline. It had its heyday in the fabled days when Route 66 was alive. The creation of Interstate 40 effectively rerouted the traffic just a few miles off the old route, and in this case, that few miles proved enough to be the undoing of the town. Its inhabitants can only hope to catch the attention of an occasional tourist, but it gets precious few of those.

…even before Lightning comes disastrously to town.

Pressed for time, Lightning struggles first to escape and then to finish the repairs in time to make his final race. In the interim, he must contend with a small cast of character-cars (most of whom were based on actual people living along route 66), including a love interest (a lovely little Porche). He wants out badly, of course, but in time Lightning grows to appreciate the town and its four-wheeled denizens. Having finally grown to appreciate the human side of things, …or at least the personified motor-car variant thereof, Lightning finds himself both a better race-car and a better person car for it. In the end, he doesn’t merely repair the damaged road and make a good showing the race (I’m not going to tell you who won, ha!). Lightning also revitalizes the town, establishing it as a thriving tourist trap with a promising future.

***

So, what does this movie have to say about Route 66? Well, I think one of the best lines about that topic comes from Sally (Lightning’s love interest). She tells Lightning that people moved through the landscape differently when it was Route 66. Asked how, she says:

Well, the road didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.

So there it is, the claim this movie makes about Route 66. It represents the rich experience that travel can be in direct opposition to a modern strictly utilitarian form of transportation.  The question is which matters more? The experience of traveling across the landscape or simply getting there? This theme smacks of nostalgia, of course, and I can’t help but begin to imagine counter-examples (great road-trips on I-40 or the near certainty that at least some people must have taken to Route 66 for the specific purpose of getting somewhere fast). If there is a concrete difference between the actual roads, it also lies in way the old route goes through small towns while the new one goes around them. Which approach is more welcome may depend a lot on why one is behind the wheel, and how much time one has to get where they mean to go. Still I-40 does nudge things a bit in the direction of getting from point B to point A with a bit more efficiency, and that does come at the cost of seeing a stretch of small-town America.

This nostalgic moment has its own creative force. Many of the small towns along Route 66 have indeed made precisely the transformation depicted in Cars, turning themselves into tourist-traps in the hopes of diverting people off the main highway. As far as I can remember, references to Route 66 have always lured tourists off the main highway along the route, but I can’t help thinking the scale of Route 66 marketing has gone up a notch in the last decade or so. Perhaps Moni is right. Maybe that’s a post-hoc fallacy sweetened with a dose of confirmation bias on my part, but I was rather surprised to see just how much draw some of these towns seem to be getting out of the subject. Whether or not people used to drive Route 66 to have a great time, many do seem to be pulling off onto the small detours now for precisely that reason. No doubt, such traffic brings a few smiles to the faces of locals to match those of those taking in the sites.

Moni and I couldn’t help but notice at least one person who wasn’t so happy about all the traffic. Sitting in gridlock traffic in the middle of downtown Williams, Arizona, neither of us could quite tell what the woman a few cars ahead had been ranting about. The words; “Oh my god, Get out of my fucking way!” clarified things a bit. We watched as a tourist slowly decided to take advice from a green light and the exasperated local finally got around him and made a little headway along main-street. A few minutes later, I heard the same woman shouting “One way street” as she walked along behind a vehicle making a rapid and quite unplanned side-turn.

Yep, there are definitely definite down-sides to tourism.

Didn’t stop Moni and I from taking pictures.

(Click to embiggen; it’s what Fast Eddie Felson would want you to do.)

 

* Pictures marked with a star came from Moni’s camera. She also helped me find a source or two, and of course it was Moni’s request that we take some of these detours that led to this post in the first place. She also reminded me to give a fuck to a certain quote, so to speak. Moni is solely responsible for the good parts of this post. I of course am the devil messing up the details.

Rural Murals

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Buffalo

Look closely

Just drove north of Flagstaff along Highway 89 up to Kanab. I used to commute from Flagstaff up to Tuba City for work, so a stretch of this was very familiar to me. I was pleasantly surprised to see one new element along the road, a certain amount of street art.

The subject matter is rather distinctive, but I can’t help thinking one of the best things about this material is the background.

An elderly Navajo working one of the craft stands told me there were a couple different people in the area putting these up. I don’t know much more.

Thought I’d share.

(Click to embiggen!)

 

 

P.S. My girlfriend tells me I’m not supposed to include the pictures of the child and a goat on account of she accidentally picked up a black ant taking pictures of those herself. We ejected the hitchhiker on the outskirts of Page. A little Hydrocortisol and a couple Advil had us on our way. The cycle of pain may continue once she realizes what I did here.  I’m not a praying man, but your kind thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks Fido, It Was a Rhetorical Question

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This was many years back, and it may be too much information, but I still think it’s a funny story. Sad to say, it’s not fiction

***

Fido

The Culprit

How low can you sink in life?

That was my question, sitting there on the toilet seat, staring at the roll of toilet paper standing upright on the floor in front of me, my last roll of toilet paper.

…and realizing it was damned near out.

My cats were there to help me of course, as they always are when I head to the bathroom, but neither Fido nor Junkmail had any special skill in toilet-paper assessment. They flittered about my feet a little while before sliding one by one out the door and leaving me to ponder this new dilemma all by myself.

Would it be enough?

And might I need more before the day was out?

I knew I was also out of napkins, because I had used a bit of toilet paper for a napkin the night before. Presumably, I didn’t have any paper towels either. I would certainly have used one of those at dinner, if it’d been available.

So much for the store bought stuff!

I wondered if a few extra napkins from a fast food joint might be tucked away in a coat pocket somewhere, or perhaps stuffed into a space near the computer. Could I have set one to the side while downing a burger?

Maybe.

But of course, getting through the crisis of the moment was one thing; living through the next couple days was another. I really didn’t want to spend the five dollars remaining in my wallet on a package of toilet paper. So, this was a tough call.

I thought perhaps I could walk over to the mall and use their toilet, but wow! That’s desperation. When you can’t afford your own toiletries, you know life hasn’t turned out the way you planned.

I supposed I could get a single roll at the store for a little over a dollar if I remembered the prices correctly. That would leave me with about 4 dollars for other things. I preferred to buy in bulk, but that was no longer an option, much less a preference. In toiletries too, the inefficiencies of poverty prevail, even for those of us with no valid excuses for being poor. I had long since lost count of the stupid mistakes that had put me in this situation.

“Idiot!”

There was nothing feigned about that little moment of self-contempt. I was pretty pissed at myself. How much worse can things get, I wondered, as I reached for the roll? How much more pathetic?

In a blaze of black and cream-colored fur, Fido flew into the room, tackled the roll and tumbled into the far corner of the bathroom, just out a little beyond the reach of my hand, His claws and teeth whirled furiously about for a second or two before he darted out the door just as quickly as he’d entered it.

And there I sat, my hand still extended, staring at the pile of shreds that had formerly been my last roll of toilet paper.

 

Southern Paiutes As Portrayed in Las Vegas Area Museums.

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Paiutedisplay

Clark County Museum

One of the dominant themes in Vegas area museums would have to be the struggle with nature. By ‘nature’ I of course mean the desert. It’s kind of fascinating to me as parallel themes dominate literature and cinema dealing with the arctic. It’s a pretty straight-forward notion in either event. Extreme environments help to frame a basic man-against-nature story-line, which is a common enough theme in fiction as well as some historical narratives, even a good number of anthropological works.

Where the arctic narratives focus on cold and the lack of food, Vegas area narratives focus on heat and lack of food & water. Both themes definitely have a little space reserved for the indigenous peoples of the region. “How did THEY survive?” would seem to be a common question, one which segways easily into stories about how WE survive now. The part about how WE survive typically morphs into a larger narrative about thriving civilization. Okay, so the North Slope of Alaska may be a little soft on the civilization theme, not that that’s ever stopped a runaway narrative, but more to the point, in Vegas that narrative steams full bore ahead to land us in a world of casinos, mobsters, and showgirls.

…but those narratives often start with Paiutes.

Okay, so sometimes these narratives start with older Puebloan societies or even Paleo-Indians, but even then the stories quicken with the arrival of Paiutes into the area. These were the indigenous community of Las Vegas when Europeans arrived, so they figure more prominently in plot-lines anticipating those casinos and showgirls. Not surprisingly, the Vegas area museums often use the presence of Paiutes in the valley to frame general questions about survival in the desert, questions that will then play well into later developments in the area. Their own modest use of the area sets the stage in these stories for the mega-resorts of today. And if that seems an odd contrast, that is precisely the point. A miracle in the desert, so to speak. It’s all the more miraculous if we catch a glimpse of its modest beginnings.

SouthernPaiute

A Convenience Store (Not

Of course, American stories of progress often treat Native Americans as just one more feature of nature standing in the way of progress, but I honestly think most of these museums try to handle things a little better than that. Still, there is a bit of slippage here and there. Anyway, the topic is worth a little time on my keyboard, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?

***

What first got me interested in this was a visit to the Mormon Fort, a state park commemorating the first Anglo-American settlement in the Vegas Valley. It contains a number of exhibits, one of which enables you to watch a video recounting the history of Vegas from the creation of the fort itself up through to the development boom of the 1980s (about the time my own family moved into the area). It’s the story of a city built in the midst of a hot desert, and that story begins with the discovery of two springs by European explorers.

As with other such discoveries, it turns out someone was already there. According to one of my old anthropology professors, Martha C. Knack, the Vegas Valley was already home to about a 150 Paiutes with a variety of related communities nearby. It was at these Springs, a kind of Oasis in the middle of the hot desert, that the story of Las Vegas begins.

This story takes off when Brigham Young sends a small group of missionaries to build at Fort at the Springs to serve as a weigh station on the way to Southern California. According to the video, local Paiutes had used the Springs for irrigation projects, so there is little doubt as to a native presence at the Springs. Still, when those first missionaries up and leave, the video suggests that their major accomplishment was to prove that people could make a permanent settlement in the area.

…which of course leaves me wondering what about the Paiute? Hadn’t they already proved that?

This may not be as egregious as it sounds. I could well see white folks at the time thinking of it in that light, biased as it is, so I could see the point of calling attention to this perspective. Still, the commentary in the video is as invested in the bias as any Anglo-American might have been at the time the missionaries left, and so the resulting narrative does seem to erase the Paiute. There is enough information about the local Paiute around the rest of Mormon Fort and even in the video itself to contradict that kind of thinking, but the story-line has its own impact.

Could be worse, could be better.

Mostly, it could be better.

***

That said, the Mormon Fort is a great place in its own right. If you’re in the area, and have a little pocket change left, I would definitely go check it out.

***

I found a couple of interesting origin-narratives for the local Paiute, one at the Clark County Museum and one at the Springs Preserve. Each of these are Coyote stories, so it goes without saying that something is going to go terribly  wrong in them. That’s how trickster narratives work. Each presents the choice of a Paiute homeland as something of an accident. At the Springs Preserve, this accident seems to suggest that Paiute ended up in the wrong place. Coyote opened the basket early (somewhere between Las Vegas and Moapa). The Clark County variant suggests that people had already been escaping and heading in different directions, and Coyote closed the sack before carrying it a ways further and pouring out those who would become Paiute. Whether this means they ended up where they were supposed to go or not, I can’t tell from the source at the museum.

I’ve presented both of these stories directly below (a video and a picture). Of course this kind of presentation strips a lot of the context out of each narrative, but I think a bit of the flavor in such stories does come through. I find myself thinking of the accident in terms of the arid setting, as if it were meant to explain how Paiute ended up in such a dry location with its sparse resources. Still, I’m not sure how much of that would have been the point of the Paiute story and how much of that may be the rest of the presentations in which they occur. With so much of each exhibit devoted to explaining how these people survived in the local desert, it seems easy to think of this as the point of the accident, that Paiute weren’t really meant to be here, but perhaps just me. Either way, I can’t help thinking it’s an interesting way of thinking about how one’s people ended up where they are. Mistakes happen. Sometimes a mistake mean you ruin lunch, put up a video with bad sound quality, or end up with a low grade on a test.

…and sometimes a mistake create a world to live in.

Sackofalltribes

***

Now the Springs Preserve is interesting in itself. This place is huge, and after four visits, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen everything. It contains the Nevada State Museum and the Origin Museum as well as a number of outdoor exhibits (one of which is the Paiute village where I recorded the origin story above). That story is one of several narratives relating to Paiutes that you can find in the Springs Preserve. The Origin Museum contains a couple more videos. One appears to be a straight-foreword history of Las Vegas beginning with the arrival of Native Americans in the area. It further mentions the brief history of interaction (including conflict) between whites and natives. A second, more dramatic video (set up in a stand of artificial tulies) appears to depict a Paiute elder greeting us (the visitors) as if she were meeting non-natives for the first time. She is friendly, of course, and explains a thing or two about her people’s survival strategies, but the video ends on a dark turn. She sees change coming, and it seems to fair to suggest this is an allusion to the hazards of contact and colonization.

Neither of these videos goes into much detail about the troubled relations between Paiute and non-natives, but each mentions them. Where the first is dry and a little up-beat, the second is cryptic and disturbing.

A quick listen to the Coyote narrative always seems to put things in perspective for me. Odd, I know to want to follow modern history with an origin narrative, but I doubt Coyote would object.

Oh, the videos!

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***

The Springs Preserve also contains a history of Las Vegas as portrayed in paintings by the artist Roy Purcell. The only explicit mention of natives I recall seeing in this exhibit is a reference to Spanish raids on local Indians. That’s pretty much it. It’s an interesting history. I at least would have found it a bit more interesting if it had a place for the indigenous population. His website suggests that Purcell is working on Native American subjects now. This sounds promising.

No pictures are allowed in the Purcell exhibit, so I haven’t anything to show for that part of the Springs Preserve.

***

The Nevada State Museum (also in the Springs Preserve) doesn’t seem as focused on questions of subsistence, but it does have a few interesting pieces on indigenous peoples of the area. A life-size photo of Sarah Winnemucca had me wondering if she wasn’t a bit south of her usual residence. My personal fussiness aside, she certainly deserves a place in the Nevada STATE Museum. The museum also includes a video presentation in which a modern actress interprets some of her words for visitors at the Museum. Similar videos provide a glimpse of Wovoka’s prophesies, and a woman whose name translates to Little Willow teaches us a bit about basket-making. Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the audios. To get the full experience, you’ll just have to go to the Museum.

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***

CnNS4cNUMAELRKRThere is one other thing I really must say about the Nevada State Museum, and that it that it seems to contain the White Tree of Gondor. Oh, they call it a Great Basin Bristle Cone Pine, but I know the White Tree of Gondor when I see it. You can’t fool me!

I know, this has nothing to do with Paiutes, but seriously, I think the White Tree of Gondor deserves at least a mention. Don’t you?

***

I’ve written about the Atomic Testing Museum before, and I don’t have a lot to add here, except to note that the museum does reference the indigenous populations of the testing zones. It’s a smallish display by comparison, focusing primarily on cultural preservation. By some accounts Newe Segobia is the most bombed nation in the world, but that story falls a bit North of this post. It’s worth noting though, the general tenor of the Museum’s approach to Native Americans. They want us to know they are trying to do the right thing, but their treatment of the issue doesn’t really escape the largely pro-testing narratives of the museum as a whole.

Let me conclude with a smattering of selected photos from the museums. As always, you may click to embiggen.

The Eagles of Metlakatla

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IMG_20160702_101108So, I spent most of June on the Metlakatla Indian Reserve on in Southeast Alaska. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Its eagles were one of the first things I noticed about the place. It seems to have a lot of them. Locals seemed amused to see me clicking away at the local equivalent of pigeons, but to me they were damned beautiful pigeons, and so I clicked on. These are lazy eagles, or so one my students told me. They don’t hunt as much as eagles out and away from the harbor. These guys obviously get a lot of easy meals off the boats, I’m sure. And still, that doesn’t make them any less majestic looking. So, again, I clicked away.

When an eagle looks back at you, it’s hard to escape the notion that one is being judged. Yeah, judge me if you like dude; I got your picture, so there! It’s really hard  to get a decent picture of these guys in flight. I tried hard and almost managed it a time or two. I definitely prefer it when they perch in a tree and pose for me. They can judge all they like, just so long as they give me time to zoom in.

So, I figure, what could be more fitting for an Independence Day post than a bunch of eagle pics? Anyway, have a look!

(You may of course click to embiggen.)

 

Metlakatla is the only Indian reservation in Alaska. It began when William Duncan, an Anglican missionary separated with his church and brought a portion of his Tsimshian congregation from old Metlakatla to Annette Island, thus founding the community of New Metlakatla. It is still predominantly a Tsimshian community, though Tlingit and Haida, and a whole host of other peoples live there as well. Father Duncan’s faith isn’t the only one here anymore, but with half a dozen churches in a town of 1300, it is still very much a Christian community.

The town has a casino, but that didn’t get a lot of action while I was there, or at least I didn’t notice it. They also have a tourist ship, which seems to get a little business. (At least they did from me.) They also have a cannery, and this meant lots of outsiders showed up as the fishing season started. …Suddenly Russian could be heard all over the place. All in all, it was an interesting place.

(Click to embiggen. You know you wanna!)

I recall talking to someone before I went about activities on the island. She said, there were plenty of good hiking places. I asked if it was dangerous, and was told in reply that there were no bears on the island. So, I hiked a good 5 miles or so away from town out on the beach. Later someone told me they do have wolves.

…good to know.

Funny thing about beaches. It’s no real surprise that refuse washes up on shore and sometimes people leave stuff. They should know better, yes, but they do. What’s not so obvious is just why so much of it gets hung up or stuck on a tree branch.

(Don’t click to embiggen this stuff! Seriously, just don’t!)

One day, I had the oddest exchange. It went like this:

Stranger: Sorry to bother you, I had to check on my log.

Me: Your log?

Stranger: My log.

The mystery was somewhat resolved when a boat came to haul it away. The skipper told me it was going to be a totem.

CmKyLJvUkAE8zKx

For most of the time I stayed on the island, local fisherman used drift nets, but the very morning I left, they shifted to seine netting which was a bit more interesting cause you can see the floats.

(Click to embiggen!)

The eagles certainly found these nets rather interesting. They were very interested in seeing the results.

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Happy July 4th everybody!

 

Thieves Road (A Review)

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Thieves RoadAside from being my birthday, last Saturday (June 25th) was the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I finished a book about the man that afternoon. A 336 page volume written by Terry Mort, it’s called Thieves Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to Little Bighorn (Prometheus Books, 2015). No, the book doesn’t cover the events at Little Bighorn. As the subtitle suggest, this book is about Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills, which is to say that this book is about the reconnaissance expedition that lead to the war that lead to Little Bighorn. Officially the expedition had been tasked with helping to establish a Fort in Sioux territory. Unofficially, they were looking for gold. The discovery of that gold would lead to the Great Sioux War of 1876 (and among other things the death of Custer and his men). This particular expedition is a subject I’ve wanted to know more about for sometime, so I was happy to pick this one up.

I’ve written about Custer before, minor tangents here and here, and of course he is the principle villain in the movie Little Big Man, which is an all-time favorite of mine. So, anyway, this isn’t the first time things-Custerly have made their way into my blog. All references to significance of the date aside, it probably won’t be the last either.

Anyway…

For me, the most interesting part of the book would have to be Mort’s efforts to connect this expedition to the larger political economies of the gilded age. All-too-often people (even historians who should know better) speak and write about the the events of western history as though their significance could be understood entirely within the confines of life out on the frontier. We may appreciate that immigration is pushing folks out there or that the civil war affected the availability of troops, and so on, but rarely does anyone make a serious effort to elaborate on the connection between events occurring out west and the larger patterns of U.S. and world history. Mort is definitely an exception to this pattern.

Mort links the effort to find gold in the  Black Hills to the financing the financing of the civil war (in particular the need to pay off war bonds in gold currency), to the failures of the Northern Pacific Railway (due in part to fears over Indian raids … fears ironically triggered by Custer’s own reports), and by a cascading series of bank failures stemming from post-war sales of Yankee wheat to Britain (a problem for Russian nobles). If all of that sounds interesting to you, then well, …you know what to do.

I am less impressed with Mort’s approach to activities of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne during these events. He doesn’t embrace stereotypes, but his account of Native American lives never strays far from them. In fact, much of Mort’s approach to native culture and native actions in the days leading up to the Great Sioux War consists of a critique of the very stereotypes held by whites of the day (particularly those in western states). He gives us just enough to appreciate that those stereotypes are not accurate, but not enough to outgrow them altogether.

What makes this problem particularly interesting to me is Mort’s claim that the Lakota did not really want peace, at least not a lasting and general peace with everyone around them. This, according to Mort, would have left Lakota men without any means of proving themselves. In Lakota society, according to Mort, one became a man primarily through honors that had to be earned in warfare. Significantly, it is this incentive to raiding that provides the critical moment in history as far as Mort is concerned, because it was Sioux raids that provided the reason Custer’s expedition was authorized as a means of establishing a fort in Sioux territory (p.296). It was Custer, according to Mort that chose to combine this expedition with a search for gold, and it was of course the discovery of that very gold that lead to the Great Sioux War.

Don’t get me wrong. Mort’s treatment of the Sioux is very respectful, but respectful and a buck will buy you a beer. The question here is whether or not his treatment is actually fair to them, and frankly I don’t think it is. Mort places the ultimate responsibility for the coming war on their shoulders, and specifically on their interest in perpetuating war for its own sake. The critical moment in history, the moment when things could have gone some other way, is thus one determined by the Sioux themselves. To be sure, Mort has a lot to say about the decisions of any number of parties in events leading up to this war, but the foibles of non-natives are largely those of individuals in his treatment, and I at least cannot help but sense a kind of fatalism in the overall story. However Custer might stumble, his direction seems a foregone conclusion. This is not simply because we know the end of this particular story; it’s a sense that the U.S. would inevitably go after the Black Hills. It’s just what we do, at least when vast stretches of land lay in the hands of people like the Lakota and the Cheyenne.

The historical moment that settled everything was, as Mort understands it, the one in which young Indian men took to leaving the agencies in the summer and engaging in raids before coming back to those same agencies for the winter. For all we can say about the vagaries of finance, the consequences of greed, or the recklessness of Custer’s particular quest for fame and fortune, in the final analysis, the cause of the coming war at the close of the book is a feature of Lakota society.

…not ours.

To say that I am uncomfortable with this is putting it mildly. I suspect others might choose pick apart the centrality of warfare among Sioux and Cheyenne. For myself, I am more concerned at the failure to find comparable incentive to warfare in other circles, particularly in those of American society itself. Lakota are not the only society that has struggled with the question of what to do with young and violent men, nor would they be the first (or last) to answer that question by sending such men off to visit their violence on someone else. The honors accorded to warriors can be seen all across popular U.S. media, both in Custer’s day and our own. IF an eagle feather might be thought a cause of war to a Lakota, can a medal be any less for a U.S. soldier? If such honors may be thought the reason nations go to war, is this any less true of the U.S. army than it is for people First Nations?

Of course, we normally account for the warfare of nation-states by looking at the larger political and economic forces guiding hands of key decision-makers not the ambitions of particular warriors, and Mort does that very well for both the Indian and white side of this story. Yet, he sees in the actions of native warriors a sort of cultural pathology that seems absent in his treatment of U.S. soldiers.

It’s clear enough that Custer sought honors comparable to those of Sioux warriors, as Mort himself points out, but the cultural significance of those honors doesn’t seem as fatal in Mort’s treatment (except perhaps for Custer and his troops). Of course not every American male goes to war whereas such conduct would be far more normative in Lakota society, so perhaps there are some dissimilarities. Yet the same markets that provide for diversification of labor also create the need for resources that send particular troops to particular paces (like the Black Hills) even as others stay home. Mort himself does a great job of explaining exactly how that happened in this instance. So, if it is fair to say of the Sioux that they didn’t want a lasting or general peace, I think that is every bit as true of the U.S. (then and now). We may not all be warriors, but in a nation like the U.S. that simply isn’t how things work. We have the likes of Custer to secure needed resources for us.

As Vine Deloria might have reminded us, Custer died for our sins.

 

Oh Hell! (I’m Old)

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IMG_20160604_044613I remember as a toddler I didn’t like old people. Is that unusual? I don’t think so. Even still, I REALLY didn’t like old people. I couldn’t have been more than 4, but I distinctly recall my discomfort around them. It was their smiles that bothered me most.

What was that about?

I remember thinking I was supposed to smile back, and I also remember wondering what it was about a simple smile from a perfect stranger that was supposed to make me happy enough to smile back? The whole exercise seemed awfully damned creepy to me.  I couldn’t have explained it then. All I could do was not smile back.

Grumpiness came easily to me, even at an early age.

I think about this whole smiling-elderly thing now and then. In particular, I think about it when I catch myself smiling at a random toddler for no reason other than that random toddlers make me want to smile. I suppose I do want them to smile back, and I suppose my reasons are every bit as lame as I might have imagined back when I was too small to reach the middle shelf. Even still, I now smile and young kids in much the same way that they used to smile at me, and every now and then I wonder if they are as creeped out by that as I was.

I turn fifty today.

…dammit!

That’s not too old, I suppose, but it’s old enough. Old enough to feel it in my knees when I descend a staircase. Old enough find most contemporary music and just about all contemporary television programming lame as hell. Old enough to have a few genuine regrets. Old enough to have more stories than most really want to hear, and and old enough to think I might have learned a thing or two over the years. I expect that’s a foolish thought, but I can’t help thinking it. It’s a old-guy thing.

So, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few of the lessons I’ve learned (or at least that I think I’ve learned) over the years. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you take these lessons to heart, much less that you should actually try to put them into practice. (You really shouldn’t in at least a few cases.) Just smile back at the old fart who types them and pretend the whole advice-charade isn’t really all that creepy, even though we both know it really is.

So, here they are, just a maxims I try to keep in mind.

  • Anything not worth doing well is not worth doing at all.
  • It’s a sure bet, people will fit you into one stereotype or another. You might as well pick the one you’re most comfortable with.
  • Never go to bed with anyone you don’t want to wake up to.
  • Every good story needs a villain. It’s not a bad calling.
  • Let others argue about whether the glass is half empty or half full. The damned thing is probably leaking!
  • When people talk about tradition, they usually mean the way they themselves grew up. Most would never know if that had anything to do with the way things worked in generations past.
  • There is no cause to take revenge on an individual that would not make a better reason to say ‘goodbye’ and be done with them once and for all.
  • People don’t really have sex. Sex has them.
  • If you take a job you don’t like just for the money, you’ll probably blow the money letting off steam after work. If you take a job doing something important and meaningful, circumstances will likely suck the value right out of it. If your career is the exception to this dilemma, then seriously, go fuck yourself!
  • The word ‘ubiquitous’ isn’t.
  • Whatever terrible things you may find younger people are into these days, you can take comfort in the knowledge that their own kids will find it every bit as lame as you do.
  • Youth may be wasted on the young. Wisdom is no less wasted on the elderly.
  • Don’t kid yourself. It can always get worse.
  • Most new ideas are really just old ideas expressed in new vocabulary. …which isn’t really that new either.
  • You never will outgrow some of your more childish habits, interests, and hobbies. When you stop trying, you may count that as a kind of maturity in itself.
  • You probably will regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did, but a good many who might say otherwise didn’t live to tell the tale.
  • You will never ever ever ever be as comfortable as your own cat.
  • Confirmation bias means others consistently over-estimate the evidence that I am wrong.
  • Listen to people sharing their thoughts about God. You will never hear a more honest account of their own character.
  • Most of the things you are saving for antiquity will be thrown away when you pass on.
  • Publish a list like this and you will find yourself thinking up more long after you do. Also, you will keep wondering if this or that one wasn’t something you read before.

Oh that’s enough!

I should probably take a few of those out anyway, because they just aren’t that good, but I’m just not that concerned about it, and applying the first maxim. Anyway, I guess I will conclude with another thought about old people. (People older than me, dammit!) I don’t recall when I first noticed it, but I have come to  regard it as a constant of sorts. When I see elderly folks, no matter how old they are, I can’t help noticing something new about them. They play just like children. I don’t mean they jump and hop or that they kick a ball with the same energy as a yard ape. I mean that when they crack a joke or even simply smile at one, they might as well be children. It’s one of the few things a rickety body and a cluttered old mind seems to have in common with the growing spirit of a toddler, a certain delight in foolish things.

I wouldn’t say this is an objective claim by any means. Hell, it’s probably me trying to tell myself the path I’m on isn’t so bad, but anymore I just can’t help to see things this way. I don’t care how old someone is when they laugh and joke, they seem (if only for a moment to me) just as young as my old playmates from childhood. Even if their knees have long since said ‘no’ to stairs going up or down. If they know even less about pop-music than I do, and if they could tell you (albeit in a halting way) first hand stories about historical events long since past. You watch two old friends share a joke and they are in that moment much as they might have been at recess long ago.

I keep thinking this must have some relevance to my first point about old people and their smiles. Maybe it should tell me what that smiling stuff was about all  those years ago when I kept wondering what the Hell old people were doing smiling at me like that. I suppose I could sort it out if I really wanted to, but then again I’m too old to give it much more thought, or maybe I’m still to young to work it out. Anyway, the first maxim above still applies.

Anyway, get off my lawn!

…and stop smiling at me, dammit!

 

The Proof of Burdens

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IMG_20160605_113520Does God exist? In discussions between atheists and believers that question always seems to be on hold, because we seldom get past the other question, the one about who has the burden of proof in that debate. …and yes, these discussions are usually debates, at least in a very general sense of the term. So, we start with a simple (seemingly perfunctory question) who is going to prove what, but the burden of settling that very question proves to be our undoing. It seems absurd, really, like reading the preface to a book that turns out to last until the final page. Still, there is no point in wishing the whole thing away. There is a reason we keep getting hung up on this question.

Oddly enough, it matters.

One of the things that makes this question interesting is that this question resides at the intersection between reasoning and social practice. It’s one of many ways in which what we do when we talk to each other spills out a little past the range of what we actually manage to say in that conversation. What makes that especially interesting is that these are precisely the sort of conversations that are supposed to be maximally transparent. Were there something about a poem or a theatrical performance that escaped our immediate ability to describe its significance, well that would be just as many might expect, but in the realm of theoretical discussion and debate ineffables are horribles.

Bad burden of proof!

You spoil everything.

The topic of burdens of proof is often folded into questions about the meaning of ‘atheism’. Here, the question is whether or not atheism denotes the mere absence of belief in God or a belief that God does not exist. The first is usually considered the weak atheist position and second the strong one. While many in the atheist community will opt for one or the other as the best term to denote our own individual stance, Christian apologists often object to the use of ‘atheist’ in the weak sense at all. Countless Christian bloggers insist that the term ‘atheist’ ought not to be used for those who merely lack belief in God. So, we end up with two different vocabularies and a lot of bitterness between them.

The crux of the theist objection is usually a sense that atheists using the term to denote a mere absence of belief in God are effectively disavowing any burden of proof. Using the term in this way enables people to take a stance that will reject belief in God unless given sufficient reason to change his or her mind. They do not hope to provide a proof themselves to the effect that God does not exist. But is this fair? Apologists often suggest that those unsatisfied with arguments in favor of God ought to consider ourselves ‘agnostic’ instead of ‘atheist’. That many of us call ourselves ‘agnostic atheists’ doesn’t seem to help matters. So, countless Christian apologists insist that the only acceptable default position in this instance is ‘agnostic’ and that those of us adopting the label ‘atheist’ on the basis of no more than an absence of belief in God are shirking our responsibilities to any discussion we may have on the subject.

***

Alright! All that’s old hat for most us, right? So, why am I thinking about it lately? Actually, I have a range of observations on my mind. They may not be entirely new to others, but (thinking my keyboard), I am trying to explain them in a way that is at least a little new for me.

***

First, I still think much of the debate leans far too heavily on vocabulary, and as part of that tendency, an awful lot of people engaged in this topic resort to prescriptivist readings of ‘thuh dictionary‘. The term ‘atheist’ can be used to denote either of the positions mentioned above. It has in times past even been used to denote a lack of morals. We could probably find a few other uses of the term if we look hard enough, but my point at present is that there is only so much value that we are going to get out of debate over what the term itself means. If someone wishes to use the term atheist to mean the rafters of an abandoned structure, then we can probably say that’s a little too ideosyncratic to be all that helpful, but if someone uses one of its conventional meanings to describe himself, a reasonable discussion ought to take it from there. The refusal to accept that kind of self-application is I think little other than an act of social aggression and indication of bad faith, …to wit, a sign that one might want to end the conversation soon.

Second, a burden of proof (BOP) is not the sole responsibility driving a debate of this type. I have often seen apologists speak of the issue as though the entire debate begins and ends with the assignment of a BOP. More to the point, folks often seem to assume that a party without a burden of proof has no responsibilities and thus enjoys an unfair advantage in the discussion.

Here, I think formal debate (especially collegiate debate systems) may be an instructive analogy. In CEDA debate, for example, the burden of proof is commonly placed on the affirmative side (i.e. that which advances a resolution). Theoretically, this means that they must produce a compelling case for that resolution whereas the negative side may win either by advancing a case of its own or by simply picking apart the affirmative side. Does that give an advantage to the negs? Yes. But along with that, affirmative position gets the privilege of tacking the first crack at the issue. Yes, this means they speak first. It also means they get to define key terms and values. The other side may certainly take issue with any aspect of the case, including those terms and values, but it may not simply ignore them and construct a case using a completely different vocabulary and value system (at least not without first presenting a compelling reason to reject those of the affirmative side). Simply put, the negative side of such a debate carries a burden to respond to the case laid out by the affirmative position.

I’ve always felt that a similar burden applies in debates over the existence of God. If I am talking to a theist, I can of course say all manner of things about God (or rather ‘God’) as I understand the term. Heck, I could probably even try to prove that God doesn’t exist. The problem of course is that in doing so, I will have to have to define that God, and since I don’t believe in Her, it would be fair to ask where I got my definition? I can’t answer that question on the basis of metaphysics, because I can’t point to an underlying reality as the entity I wish to reference with that term. The basis for my answer must be drawn from the way other people talk about ‘God’, and it would probably be helpful if those people were folks who believed in Her. I can of course take a crack at it. I can use conventional definitions as I understand them, but this would put any believer who wished to take issue with my proofs in the ever-so-easy position of simply advocating God according to a different definition of the term. He wouldn’t even have to show that there was anything wrong with my own definition.

…suffice to say, I think such conversations go much better when the discussion is taylored to the views of the person I am talking to. I may expect him to take the lead in establishing a reason to believe as he understands Her, but I am also accepting responsibility to address that reason in terms he uses, or I find those terms unacceptable, to produce an argument to that effect. The responsibilities of each party in such a discussion are not uniformly equivalent for both parties, but neither have they been unifomrly dumped on one party alone. Is this the only way that we can set-up such a discussion? Definitely  not. Is it a reasonable approach to the topic? Well, I certainly think so.

Third: The fact that we (yes, even atheists) commonly speak of God using the conventions of a proper noun is a problem. This presupposes a level of familiarity that seems out of place with an entity whose existence is in question and whose nature is unknown. I can certainly understand how this manner of speaking would work for theists, but debating the subject in those terms does have the effect of injecting a circularity into the subject. It’s at least a little odd to presuppose direct familiarity with the very entity whose existence is in dispute.

Fourth: Speaking of names, and labels, there is an aspect to the label of atheism of atheism that I think apologists often miss. Specifically, it is the reason for my own preference for using the term ‘atheist’ as opposed to ‘agnostic’. What does it mean when you don’t have a reason to believe in God a god? Often I am told that if this alone, absent a specific reason to disbelieve in such an entity, the mere absence of a good reason to believer in one should leave me in an agnostic position. No reason good reason to believe and no good reason to disbelieve should leave me in a default stance, and many take it as obvious that that default stance is best viewed as agnosticism. It’s a pretty common argument. Suffice to say that I don’t find it convincing.

One concern I have here is that ‘agnostic’ too is an ambiguous term. Many take it as obvious that an ‘agnostic’ is simply someone who doesn’t claim to know whether or not a god exists. But of course that is simply the soft version of agnosticism. The term ‘agnostic’ is also used to refer to people who claim the existence of such an entity is inherently unknowable. I would not want to be associated with that position. Admittedly this problem is easily resolved with a single point of clarification, but frankly, I think the same is true of the term ‘atheist’. Either way, the vocabulary is going to take some clarification.

So, why do I prefer atheist? Because these labels do not merely refer to a stance in a debate. This brings us back to the notion of a burden of proof as something that connects our discourse about the world to our social actions in that world. We can say of a debate or a meditation on a claim that it ends in neutral position, that one is left without a compelling reason to believe one way or another. But of course the labels we used to denote our stance on these issues are not limited in their significance to the stance we have taken on any given intellectual question. They also give some sense of how we relate to the themes as they arise in our daily conduct.

It’s kind of funny. Questions about the existence of God can be raised in such an abstract way. In most debates, we hardly know what a yes or a no will mean in terms of our daily lives, but of course that’s only if we stick to what is considered in such an argument. In the real world, or more to the point, in our daily lives, we know very well what these things will mean, at least for ourselves. The answers appear when folks take hands to pray at the dinner table, when they invoke God in support of a political candidate, in opposition to abortion or the teaching of evolution. They appear in countless moral decisions, and countless explanations for the decisions make in their daily lives. It isn’t that any of this flows neatly from an efficient cause argument or Pascal’s Wager, but it’s part of what God means to believers (and yes, I’m back to personal-pronouning the deity). In a very real sense, it is for many, precisely what is at issue in those debates about the existence of God. It may well be that we can never really get from Paley’s watchmaker or Anselm’s being than which nothing greater can be conceived to the dictates of any particular believer’s personal faith, but it would be foolish to think the issue ends at QED.

It doesn’t for atheists either.

The time comes when you are asked to bow your head for a public prayer, to vote a political agenda predicated on the basis of scripture, or to refrain from this or that sexual act because of something else supposedly in a holy book somewhere.These moments do not wait patiently for us to resolve the intellectual questions we ask in philosophy class or to finally produce that one proof that settles the (non-)existence of God one way or another. We may not know if there is a god, or if that god really wants us to speak to him on Sundays, but sooner or later we are going to have to decide how we will act in this and countless other instances where folks typically invoke the the name of a deity. When such questions arise, we expect theists to act in certain ways, even those who may not be able to provide a single reason for their beliefs. A believer who has never once thought about to prove the existence of their god, one who may even be hostile to the notion that such a proof is valuable, will simply act on the basis of their beliefs, and it will be accepted that their behavior is partly a function of their belief in a god.

In such moments, I find the absence of God to be oddly significant, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Countless times I have stood respectfully by as a room full of people talk to someone I don’t believe to be there. I may have no particular proof that this person doesn’t exist, but I know very well that he has no current place in my worldview and that I will not be taking him into account in my behavior. I will not be consulting on moral questions. I will not be voting on the basis His will. I won’t even be experiencing nature on the basis of Her presence.I most certainly won’t be talking to him as the others do in these moments of prayer. At such moments, I am not suspended in indecision. Agnosticism has no bearing on these matters. And that is why the term ‘agnostic’ doesn’t resonate with me, and it never has. However one might characterize the default judgement of debates about the significance of god, in my daily live I am an atheist.

Fifth: It isn’t just self-described atheists who treat the mere absence of an affirmative belief as sufficient reason to invoke the term. In politics, one need to do no more than to oppose an explicitly Christian policy to find his stance labeled as atheism. Take for instance, David Barton’s claims that Barack Obama is really an atheist (a ‘Christian atheist‘) because he acts as if God is not alive. How often have pastors denounced the inability to lead prayer in the public schools as an atheistic policy? How often have apologists described modern evolutionary theory as atheistic because it did not incorporate references to god within it? Conservative Christians routinely rail against the atheism in policy debates when speaking of positions which seek only to remove active reference to God from public institutions. It’s easy enough to dismiss this sort of thing as a mere mistake, especially when so many who do believe in a god actively support some of these same policies and sciences, and yet there is a sense in which they are right. One can use ‘atheist’ to refer simply to the absence of god in a life, a belief, or a policy. How that relates to the sort of atheism that emerges as an intellectual commitment is a different question. I don’t expect many conservative Christians are asking it, but then again, perhaps they are not the only ones who seem to miss this question.

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What makes this issue, or this cluster of issues, so difficult to resolve is the occurrence of a subtlety in the midst of a polemic storm. It’s not really a problem of vocabulary so much as it is marking relationships. Sign systems are full of instances in which one or another category becomes a sort of default value, and then problems arise when we have to sort just how much the default really tells us about any given case. It’s a bit like pronouns wherein the common fashion of using ‘he’ to denote a person whose gender we don’t know or don’t care about can well cause confusion (or worse!). What do you do when evidence and reason don’t quite resolve an issue one way or another? The answer isn’t quite a function of logic itself, but neither is it an entirely arbitrary choice. It’s a sort of judgement call. We have just enough leverage to reason over the issue, but not enough to resolve it achieve a reasonable solution of the problem.