Skip This, Watch The Virgin Suicides Instead

Our old old dear dear friend idoubtit suddenly seems to show a glimmer of recognition of, to have cracked the doors open a smidge to, notions that the news media are not all they appear to be and that what they report is not either. Huzzah!

What’s she actually asking more of now? This story on the English site of Dainik Bhaskar that reports that pubescent girls (and at least one boy) in Madhya Pradesh have been setting themselves on fire and so dying, and a prevailing story round Indore and environs is that ghosts are telling them to do it.

idoubtit’s to-be-expected roundup?

A paranormal power? A pathetic excuse. Were these troubled teen girls? FAR more likely. If this is a trend, it is a very scary one. There is not enough information to know if they had family trouble or mental illnesses that were left untreated or some other real life cause for their desperate acts but the fact that this is treated without addressing material causes (at least in this source) is very disturbing.

Were they troubled girls? Fucking DUH! They fucking killed themselves, up to 20 of ‘em. Family trouble, mental illness or some other “real world” cause? Shit, lady, I’d find no fault if you wanted to ask questions about broader social conditions and the plight of young girls and women in India (connected to specific historical circumstances). The point is, wow! you’re actually asking questions for a change.

That you imply that actors and other observers are oblivious to such possible bases is the height of conceit.

But, congratulations, idoubtit, you’re on the verge of the full blowed realization that culture/religion actually says something about the “real world.” But here’s a bit more pointed advice, like my previous commentary, that might help you into the room with the rest of the thoughtful who actually pursue questions, who actually try to interpret the world in a coherent meaningful way on the basis of such data.

First, and this is just stylistic advice. Ditch the emotive editorial language and whatnot for fucking already.

A paranormal power? A pathetic excuse.

The question mark (I’da called it a rhetorical question, but since we’re dealing with two incomplete sentences here, that’s not entirely accurate) is a rhetorical device best employed by professionals, please don’t try this at home.

Is “pathetic” a modifier you really wanna use to make your point? Pathos here there surely is. Why undermine the glimmer of empathy you’re experiencing by a term that means lame in common parlance? No matter, I’m used to that out of you – curing it overnight seems unlikely.

“Excuse.” Also not a good word. Now that you’re intellectually on the verge of asking after coherent fulsome explanations, you need to be careful with respect to such vocabulary choices. You’re this -> <- close to suggesting that the paranormal thing is expressive of something in a larger social world, don’t sneer at the fact when you (and I) live in a world in which that kinda thing is not regularly culturally operative.

It’s not an excuse (pathetic or otherwise).  Cummon, you’re halfway there. Culture both reveals and occludes. Recognize that, refine the way you deal with it, and you just may get all the way there.

Alright, maybe you’ve taken my grumpy old professor’s suggestions constructively so far. This is proly gunna be a little harder for you to swallow.

Let’s look at this “real world” you speak of.

Imagine for a minute that from, not so much a god’s eye view (a whole other problem of yours that we’re not ready to tackle headon) but as a view entailing, well, everything yours entails, you suddenly find yourself observing a social situation in which the assumptions, possibilities, language, other cultural junk, etc. built into life are almost completely Other than your own. Honestly, how do you make any given state of affairs, set of events make real sense?

When you come from a world wherein a cherub of a hillbilly child whose claim to, uh, fame consists of the made-for-television construction of her family’s tossing her into cattle auctions for judging such sub-adults, plus more carefully constructed peering into the lives of such a calf and her cow, is popular entertainment, can you honestly say you belong to a real world or one that is objective enough to render judgements on social formations elsewhere?

I’m really not trying to poison your well here. Go all Pomo. But let’s make it clear. Poo-pooin much if not all of culture when we encounter it, with a sense we stand completely above and apart and superior, is at best fraught.

Moving on.

My goodness.

not enough information to know … treated without addressing

Your source might not be telling you a full story? Endulge me whilst I say … didn’t I fucking tell you so! Repeatedly! In several ways (including the comment of mine you wouldn’t publish, justa be a bitchy blogger)!

I don’t mean to apologize for Dainik Bhaskar (= Daily Bhaskar, the English page, = “The Daily Sun”). But you have consistently, and here also, refused to acknowledge the built-in shortcomings of the sources which you broadcast and upon which you offer passing shots.

Be human, and an educated human at that. You are in a complex web of translation and interpretation. But, that you pretend otherwise, like you have up to this post, like you do to degree in this one, is fucking vulgar. Again, by all means, if it hasn’t been made clear so far, bring every one of you naturalistic assumptions to these issues and events, but don’t let that shit blind you to the theatrical way that others under no pressure to accept your naturalism act out all the social stuff of their lives, for better or worse. Til you can explain your way out of your culture, which gave us Honey Boo Boo, I don’t think you oughta be tsk-tskin the matters like for which I’ve been calling you to task.

Finally – praise Jeebus! You suddenly seem to have got religion with respect to the fact that media don’t tell you a full story about any set of events. But now you’re overcompensating – you surely realize that if you let these seeds of doubt grow to fruition, your whole doubtful news enterprise collapses under its own weight, don’t you? Don’t fear, if you simply take your sources for what they’re properly worth, you can keep on keepin’ on. Just stop the shit I’ve been buggin’ about, ask good questions, and you’ll be fine. No, strike that. Just stop reporting and fucking commenting on shit you’ve no capacity to fathom!

very disturbing

Not as disturbing as your past broadcasting of similar stories, with your unreflective snark, refusing to ask questions and refusing to recognize that these mere specimens of journalism point to far more dynamic things beneath the surfaces they consist of.

Go figure. Journalism, like the culture it belongs to, both reveals and occludes. It’s not disturbing; it’s part of the very structure of the material your soapbox is built out of.

Still. Cummon in to the room where ppl actually think about all such things. I’m inviting you, intellectual vampire that you are. I’m just hoping that in future you’ll not suck the life out of any more interesting and complex cultural phenomena. But maybe you need a new blog since with the post in question you’ve established, if you hadn’t already, that “Doubtful News” is redundant in name, not to mention full of complete crap in substance.

***

BTW, idi, as far as I can tell the story isn’t translated. It’s written in a form of Indian English, the kind of English many North Indians speak and write in, with its own syntax, idioms and vocabulary, and often clipped in journalistic prose (“cent percent” = 100%). And so it’s devoid of the error which you claim. As for thanking me for this bit of cultural sensitivity training? Mention it not (even though fortnightly you are eating my brain).

But since most of us in the Commonwealth are an apologetic lot: one lakh, one crore(!) apologies on behalf of all us colonials who are not writing American. But come on, you’ve got to love the coloUr in it. Chintzy, I know, can make me spit on my chemise sometimes. Anyway, I must make a move; I’ve got to shift out of my pyjama now and be going to the Home Hardware godown for some plumbing supplies.

But again, mauf kejiye.

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On This Unluckiest of Indian Days of The Week.

Thinking about the Blue Moon yesterday, and some related things, I remembered that I’ve been meaning to post this, the 2nd best class handout I ever made.

Indian Days of the Week and Their Origin

This was for Hinduism class. I post it now for anybuddy unfamiliar with how we got our days of the week and in the order they are. Pet peeve – stoopid mocking shit atheists say about the perceived religious nature of those same days o’ the week. It ain’t religious in the 1st instance, atheists, it’s ancient science! (Mistaken about the solar system though it is.)

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David’s Book Club: Darkness at Noon

[In keeping with my vow to blog more and to turn any fb status longer than what twitter allows into a post here, I offer this. BTW, I was supposed to start with my chili recipe, but Frum pissed me off again.]

I wonder if David Frum and I read the same book (but to be fair, I haven’t read DaN since I was myself a 1980s-era reader). In any case, WTF is this “perverse idealism” he thinks moves Stalinism, Jihadism or in the plot of DaN itself? I don’t think I realized til now that to be a successful shill one needs toxic doses of bougie naïveté.

How can anyone comment, and be heard, about politics today (probably in any day) if one’s epistemology does not entail the basic principle that one’s real, or imagined, enemies are such obdurate true-believers that there’s no reasoning with them? And from the intellectual to the visceral – they hate freedom, yadda yadda yadda.

Seems to me that Frum, despite the recent appearance of some sort of change of heart subsequent to his break with AEI, remains a loyal servant, though to what? you may ask. To the big picture of course, to the forces behind the decade-long Central Asian disaster, and their dreams for a future imperium.*** I don’t recall a bitter word from him, any telling of tales, subsequent to his shit-canning after his wife ran around bragging about how David coined ‘axis of evil’.

So maybe Frum is giving us a wink and a nod at the end of his little Koestler review with his evocation of Bernard Lewis: he’s not so naïve, merely playing his part for the cause, always ready to follow orders.

Again, it’s been almost 30 years since I read DaN, but I always thought that Rubashov didn’t accept his fate with equinimity because he believed, but because he knew, like most thugs and gangsters know, that such a fate is inevitable for the likes of him. FFS, we know how arrests, show-trials, and the obliteration of enemies of the state go, in the course of the novel, because Rubashov narrates, as a former offical, how it’s done.

Like Bo Xilai knows exactly what his part, and his wife Gu Kailai’s part, and Neil Heywood’s part, are in the theatre in which he stands just off centre stage.

Now, I’m not denying that there are those honest-to-god faithful to the ickiest ideologies. But if you, like David Frum, think the locus of power is to be found among them, then you, like David Frum, are not just naïve, you are balls deep in an ugly case of transference, you are a true believer, and you are probably among the first to rat out your neighbour when the cause expects it.

On the other hand, you also die by the sword. My nightmares of an American police state are not without their silver linings – they include the show trials of the likes of David Frum, David Brooks, and Ann Coulter.

***Majorly funny. Soft apologist for America, Fareed Zakharia got caught stealing in service of the cause; aggressive cheerleader, Niall Ferguson, made shit up in that same service. All in these dog-days of the summer of 2012.

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Atheism’s “Supreme Fiction,” or Today, Let Us Pick on Someone New

Wanna really piss of an atheist? Tellem/er that Atheism is just like any other religion; they’ll do angry rhetorical cartwheels. Of course, the mere assertion is simply polemical. And it’s on the basis of the mere assertion that atheists get so angry. But what they won’t do is engage the claim, ask for qualification, or interrogate the assertion and its terms, despite the emotive charge (and so neutralize it) that’s attached there – thus the response is simply and equally emotive.

Par exemple. Here’s Greta Christina’s response (to the charge as she’s constructed it):

“Atheism is just another religion. And you’re just as close-minded / faith-based as the believers you criticize.”

No, it isn’t. And no, I’m not. It simply isn’t the case that atheists are 100% convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is no God. I’ve met hundreds of atheists — thousands, if you count the ones I’ve met on the Internet — and I’ve encountered maybe half a dozen who thought that. (And most of them back down when you press them on it.) Contrary to popular belief, atheism isn’t an unshakeable faith in the non-existence of God. Atheism is… well, it’s different for different people. But for most atheists I know, it’s more or less the position that the God hypothesis is an extremely unlikely one, not supported by evidence or reason, and that in the absence of any convincing evidence, it’s reasonable to discard it. It’s the position that the Christian /Judaic /Muslim god is about as probable as Zeus or Thor… and that if you don’t believe in those gods, it makes sense to disbelieve in Jehovah /Yahweh /Allah as well. (And the same is true for the Hindu gods, and the Wicca Goddess, and every other god or goddess or supernatural being anyone has ever conceived of. Just while we’re at it.) And it’s simply not true that I don’t give any reasons for my disbelief, and that I take my disbelief on faith. I’ve written extensive arguments about why I don’t believe in God, or a soul, or an afterlife. As have countless other writers, from Richard Dawkins to Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett to Sam Harris. Take a look at The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God in Chapter Eight, and at the Resource Guide in Chapter Fifteen, if you want to yourself.

Notice that neither religion nor faith is really clarified. Note that the charge is merely answered with the claim that reasons not to believe are given, and hence atheism is the only term for which explanation is given.

Now, she does imply something of what religion is. Or, I must confess, I know full well what she thinks it amounts to:

Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.

Yeah … maybe … sorta (and if Greta can use the ellipsis promiscuously, so can I).

To find that understanding adequate (and to limit faith to belief in the supernatural) is obviously partisan in innumerable ways. (Surly I don’t need to spell that out here, do I? In any case, it’s beside the point for my present purposes.)

Anyway, one of those hairs the atheists absolutely refuse to split (spose I can’t entirely blame them) is between faith and belief. When the distinction between them is made it often turns into faith-as-hope and it’s usually a lot of bargain basement Schleiermacher and liberal bougie treacle (see Reitan’s Is God A Delusion: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers.)

But, if we accept that semi-theologically entailed in faith in lots of cases is hope in the sense of an expectation with respect to the shape of things to come, then we clearly have to accept that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are not completely synonymous.

And if the terms of such hope are eschatological (or might we use a less theologically specific term like millenarian?) faith-as-hope cannot so easily be brushed aside, even by undermining the apparent truth-claims that undergird it. For we’re no longer confined to a global image of religion (with Christina’s idea of it at the centre) as a system of ideas (or rather truth-claims); we are in the realm of Simon Critchley’s ‘supreme fictions’ for which attempts to determine their veracity are really beside the point.

Lemme just toss this out there (though it’s hardly original to me). If atheists acknowledged that appeals to millenarian mythology (say, of the decidedly religious sort) in any given historical moment expressed the hopes and fears and ambitions and anxieties (or sometimes death wishes, I’ll grant) of a given community, and “truth” is not and cannot really be an issue, then they’d surely have to acknowledge that an equally millenarian (and identically motivated) mythology runs right through their movement.

So here I get near to my purpose. There’s a broadish swath of atheists whose godless hopes consist of the belief that a secular-scientisty-Star Trek future is just around the corner.

This was brought home to me this week by a coupla posts by the blogger Staks  who belongs to the Planet Atheism network.

Let’s begin with his post of 17/08/12.

I am someone who has hope for the future of humanity. I believe that human knowledge and technology are progressing at an ever increasing rate. Just a little over a hundred years ago, the Wright Brothers flew for the first time. Now we can fly around the globe with relative ease. It was only 43 years ago that we put a man on the moon and now we are sending robots to Mars. What will we be doing 100 years from now?

Well, that’s quite the positive spin. Morbid sort that I am, when I reflect on the history of flight, I’m inclined to think: the Wright brothers’ flights got us the jet fighter and attack helicopter; rocketry gave us the ICBM; and robotics gave us the unmanned drone. In any case, we’ve obviously walked right into the myth of progress. (A low rent version at that: surely I’m not the only midlevel geek who immediately thought of the title sequence of Star Trek: Enterprise here, am I?)

But it isn’t just knowledge, science, and technology that are changing. Morality is changing too. A century and a half ago, we were fighting a war to end slavery. 100 years ago, we were fighting in the streets to allow women the right to vote. 70 years ago, we were fighting against genocide and racial purity. 45 years ago we were marching for civil rights. Within the last 10 to 20 years we are marching for gay rights. Just 5 months ago, we rallied for reason.

Who picked the cocoa in those Almond Joys you scarf whilst playing Xbox? Has the resurgence of European anti-Semitism escaped your notice? I don’t even know what to say about your imagining that minority and women’s rights have made any fundamental progress. And as for the rest, similarly, what a blinkered short-horizoned vision of the state of the world your eyes see. Yeah yeah, I know, it’s all religion’s fault, right?

Religion is still a dominant force in the world. There is no doubt about that. But it is changing. The world is getting more secular; atheism is on the rise and religiosity is in decline. Religion will never be completely gone, but someday it will be viewed in the same way most people view those who believe in astrology or voodoo.

“Secular.” I don’t think that word means what you think it does. Atheists and nones may be a growing demographic, but the world is becoming more secular?

What’s your basis for such predictions? Seems to me that it’s not much more than the bases upon which the original 19th century myth of progress was built. What makes you think that another century will make a difference? Mere hope, certainly not evidence.

BTW, my Indian astrologer suggested that I put off posting this to today since one can’t expect a positive result from actions undertaken on Saturn’s day.

Today we have the internet. The religions of the world can’t hide any more. All the bad arguments they have made can now be shown for what they are, bad arguments. A quick Google search can now educate religious believers. The need for special holy people who are needed to interpret ancient texts for the believer is vanishing. Religious believers are starting to read their holy books for themselves without the need for middlemen. This of course leads to atheism. I believe that we are close to the tipping point. We may even see religion take a steep decline in our lifetime.

Breathtaking. But of course we’ve seen virtual atheist nonsense like this before. Only took 400 years of Protestant bible reading to produce a world full of atheists, eh? And thank the FSM that the internet liberated all those BOOKS so that ppl can finally, finally read them for themselves. Personally, I blame librarians for keeping everyone ignurnt.

This is important because it will pave the way for a brighter future. The Dark Ages began when Hypatia of Alexandria was brutally killed by Christians in a manner far more horrific that the alleged death of Jesus. Carl Sagan claimed that had this not happened humanity might be a 1000 years more advanced than we are today.

I’m speechless. And the atheists think David Barton is a bad historian. Can we call this the myth of regress?

Religion is holding us back. It is robbing us of the future. The more religion fades from prominence the more advanced scientifically, technologically, and morally we become. The future is almost here, but we have to shape it today.

Yeah, damn religion. If it weren’t for that we might have some sorta institution – call it, I dunno, the university – in which all kinds of research might be going on free from the interference of religion and politics and whatnot. Hey wait a minute, didn’t religion invent that institution already?

“The future is almost here.” I actually snorted when I read that. “We have to shape it today.” Buddy has a promising future in nonsensical jingle writing.

Straight up utopianism. I guess he doesn’t think Skynet is going to kill us all.

Anyway, I’m already tired, but let’s soldier on and look at Staks’ post from a couple of days before the one above.

Many religious believers believe that we not only have an immortal soul, but that this soul is our true self. When we die, we live on as our soul. They often ask in a serious manner, “Where will we be in 1000 years?”

[Never mind the theologically goo that gets in here.] Who! Who asks that question?

Of course the reality is that in 1000 years we will be dead and just as there was no consciousness before we were born, there will almost certainly be no consciousness after we die. But I like to refocus the question on the collective “we.” Where will we (as humanity) be in 1000 years?

Oh, ok, that theological nonsense above has nothing to do with your point. But I smell uptopia coming on.

The religious never stop predicting the end of the world and it always seems to be going to happen soon. They always think that we are living in the end times. The really scary thing is that many of them hope that we are because the standard Christian interpretation of Revelations is that the world needs to end in order for Jesus to return and give special few Christians “God’s kingdom.”

[Pedant in me says, uh, it’s the book of REVELATION, singular.]

One, you don’t know much about (Xtn) eschatology, do you? Two, they may not ever stop talking about it, but they talk a lot more in historical circumstances of widespread anxiety and uncertainty. Maybe you wanna pay attention to that sorta thing.

More interesting to me is the fact that you flip out about Xtn (and Islamic) apocalypticism and offer in its stead Sci-fi utopianism, ignoring, of course, Sci-fi apocalypticism and Xtn utopianism.

Oddly enough, I thought they would be much happier in Heaven. Why bother trying to create a kingdom of God on Earth after the whole world is destroyed when you can sit up in Heaven enjoying bliss for all eternity. Something doesn’t make sense here… I suspect a great many things don’t make sense here actually.

But let’s move on to where I hope humanity will be in 1000 years. As an atheist and a humanist, I hope that we have ditched religion and other superstitious beliefs and that human beings have socially evolved past our petty differences, greed, jealousy, hate, etc. I dream of a world similar to Star Trek (which is a mere 200 to 300 years in the future) in which we are exploring strange new worlds far from Earth.

Doesn’t make sense? Then fucking work to make sense of it. Or get on with your life. But no, that’s not your plan, you’ve got a story to sell. You foresee a world of peace love and understanding. And seems that you think religion (whatever that is) is that thing holding back your utopia. But no matter, now we’re down to brass tacks. For …

YOU DREAM OF A WORLD SIMILAR TO STAR TREK!

Are you fucking serious? Lemme get this straight, a view of the future entailing the idea that the hour is coming and is now is morally and reality challenged, but hoping for a future in which we travel at unimaginable speeds to planets we haven’t even identified is reasonable? No, atheism isn’t a religion, that’s just crazy talk.

But we’ve seen this atheist sci-fi-myth-love before. Remember Guy P. Harrison?

When I’m not staring at a blank computer screen hoping that words will appear, I’m likely to be running, hiking, reading a science book, working out at a gym, or trying to teach life lessons to my children via repeated viewings of Star Trek. When normal people are busy thinking about politics, economics, and the Kardashians, I’m usually daydreaming about time travel, the singularity (nerd rapture) ancient Greece, extremophiles, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and robots.

Funny thing about these nerds and their Star Trek theology – they all neglect the fact that in the mythology, before we get to the United Federation of Planets and all those good times, we have the Eugenics Wars and World War III.

Jeebus, and they chide the religious for cherry-picking.

This really is the stark difference between the theists and atheists when it comes to our hopes for the future. Now sure, not all theists think this way, but a most do. And even if a theist shares the atheistic hope for a better future, they should realize that religion is one of the main things holding us back from reaching that goal.

NOT ALL ATHEISTS THINK THIS WAY, BUT MOST DO.

I don’t even know what to say. But we’re clearly no longer in the realm of an atheism that even pretends to offer a substantive critique of religion; we’re squarely in the realm of fantasy. Or rather, we’re in the realm of what Simon Critchley calls “Supreme Fiction” which he describes thusly: “It’s taking something that does not quite exist and, as it were, forcing it into existence through a certain declaration, through a certain act of faith.”

There’s simply no winning with these geeks: science and tech are absolute goods and religion an absolute evil, and don’t let historical and contemporary fact stand in the way of faith in that. ‘Atheism is just another religion’ is not an argument I’d make as baldly as that, but in the face of nerd utopianism like Staks’ … and Harrison’s … and of other atheists by the dozen, it must be recognized that we’re dealing with a kind of evangelism for an old myth no less eschatological than that of the (Western) religion it rails against.

If I had my way, anybuddy who’s attended a Star Trek convention, Comic-Con or the like would be barred from holding public office. (My friend June excepted.)

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“Doubtful News” is Redundant

[BTW, before I go on this tear, is it necessary to disclose that I am not a believer?]

So here I got myself an abfab opportunity to drive home a point expressed or implied in some previous posts.

Not only are atheist responses to the latest outrage perpetrated by the religious (as reported by hincky and not-so-hinky media) jawdroppingly base in their substance, but – and this is the gold-standard kicker – the atheists, in their haste to report a gotcha, readily gussy themselves up in gullibility to share what they present as unassailable good news.

These are moments when the diktats of skepticism are conveniently set aside for the greater good of the cause.

Case.in.point. Last week our friend idoubtit and the blog Canadian Atheist quoted stories from The Star-Tribune,  The Guardian, and The Toronto Star (an important fact as you’ll see in a minute), pulled from AP, Reuters, and AP again respectively. To wit:

Cult living underground raided by Russian police.

Oh nozz! Freaky Muslims (and their womenz and chid’ren) held hostage underground, under the thumb of their creepy leader.

Well lookie there, The Star reports today that maybe things weren’t quite as they appeared:

A brief visit inside the compound, which provided shocking headlines around the world when police raided it and seized the children, revealed none of the elaborate underground design described by prosecutors. Nor does a police video showing rooms inside. The father of a cult member, who originally disapproved of his daughter joining the group, said he was able to visit freely and has no complaints about how members live or treat their children.

This is a movie I’m seeing over and over again lately. Anybuddy remember the story about the new law in Egypt legalizing the ultimate dead fuck? If so, did you also see that the story was completely discredited?[UPDATE] (Seems that even PZ Meyers couldn’t himself be bothered to note this fact, though to their credit some of his commenters did.)

And I tellya, this is a movie I’ve see in long drawn-out classic fashion in times long past. Thuggee anyone?

So, heads up atheists, when I argue at some future point that you and your ideology are the – witting or unwitting – handmaid of Neo-Liberalism, don’t even fucking dare to take me to task. No doubt in my mind that you are the contemporary equivalent of Low Church 19th century Britsh Liberals and Utilitarians.

[UPDATE] Alright, alright. To try to satisfy anonymous commenter and Doubtful News Fan “Chew,” I note that Doubtful News corrected this story. But like I told, uh, it, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube ….”

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More Thin Description

I hate to sound like a broken record, but jeebus, those scientisty types sure like their world shaded in nothing but greys.

Our good friend idoubtit is at it again with this: “Swiss change tactics with prayer to stop glacial ice from disappearing.”

So what’s the skinny? From Nat’l Geo Daily News:

About 50 people set out on foot from the Swiss village of Fiesch at dawn on July 31. As the sun rose over 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) Alpine peaks, the procession moved slowly up a mountainside and into the cool of a pine forest, stopping at a tiny church.

By 7:30 the group had swollen to around a hundred—too many to fit inside the chapel of Maria Heimsuchung, or Mary of the Visitation, so a makeshift altar was erected outside.

“Glacier is ice, ice is water, water is life,” intoned priest Toni Wenger, before beseeching God to stop the glaciers high above them from melting.

By changing a few, crucial words in the liturgy, Father Wenger reversed a Catholic ritual that for 350 years had implored the heavens to push back the glaciers.

The Vatican had approved the change as the effects of global warming became all too tangible in the Alps.

….

The people of devoutly Catholic Fiesch and Fieschertal have made the annual pilgrimage since 1674, when Europe was in the grip of the Little Ice Age.

Looming over the villages, the two largest glaciers in the Alps … grew over the next two centuries, reaching their maximum lengths around 1850.

….

The consequences for the villagers were dire.

When pieces of the Aletsch [glacier] fell into Lake Märjelen—which lies between the two glaciers—the lake overflowed. Three hundred and fifty-three million cubic feet (10 million cubic metres) of water rushed down the valley below, inundating settlements, damaging property, and killing villagers. Extremely poor until the late 19th century, the locals had few options but to rebuild.

Having endured hundreds such diasters, the villagers—with the help of local Jesuits—organized the pilgrimage, to be held annually on July 31: the Catholic feast day dedicated to the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

….

The glaciers began receding in the 1860s, and they continue to shrink today.

The Aletsch … has lost nearly 3 miles (5 kilometers) in length and 650 feet (200 meters) in depth since 1864.

“We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked—too well,” said Herbert Volken, mountain guide and mayor of Conches, the district that includes Fiesch.

….

Today the villagers no longer worry about floods, he said, but about having less drinking water, energy, and food for their animals, and more forest fires. Another problem is the impact the dwindling glaciers could have on tourism—the main source of income, besides hydropower, for the district—which is already strained by recession and the Eurozone crisis.

So far, icemelt doesn’t appear to be a factor in the tourism dropoff, Volken said. But “if the [Aletsch] glacier isn’t there any more, the tourists won’t come.”

….

Hanspeter Holzhäuser, a University of Bern geographer who specializes in glacier history, said the Aletsch is losing about 75 feet (23 meters) a year in length.

….

“Even if all the new prayer does is to draw attention to man-made global warming,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”

idoubtit’s commentary?

Here is a great example of superstition at work. They prayed to stop the destruction of their lands from the glacier’s floods and hazards. Global warming decimated the ice which has receded to such a degree that it’s causing its own hazards such as lack of water and increased fires. So, with the help of nature (aided by the industrial age), the prayer appeared to work. Now, reality bites.

The new prayers will do nothing to reverse global warming. Based on trends the rapid warming—and subsequent melting—will continue for at least the next 30 years. Yet, people will cling to their hope they can exert some effect on the environment by appealing to a higher power.

What is this ‘superstition’ of which you speak? Ok, ok, that was rhetorical. I understand what you mean: you think all those Swiss Misters and Misses believe in such hocus and/or pocus; you think they believe it’s worked (to reverse effect) in the past, and so it’ll work in the future. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: dunno quite how you are so sure of that, but so what if they do? What makes you think that that’s what’s fundamentally operative here?

Let’s start with the sorta metasocial facts of me, you, the story, and the liturgy. If the press hadn’t tagged along for the pilgrimage (were they invited? I wonder), you, me and all the readers of the Nat’l Geo website would have no idea this even had occurred. You don’t suppose that maybe, just maybe, those villagers (or at least pilgrimage organizers) were keen to have the press along, and maybe because they were keen to have the larger world made aware of their plight in the epoch of climate change, do you? Holzhäuser implies as much: “Even if all the new prayer does is to draw attention to man-made global warming … it’s a good thing.” So, don’t you think that if the pilgrims, or at least the authorities, thought for a minute that all anyone would see was a bunch of yokles trying to pull of a magic trick if the press observed, they might try to keep the press away? Dontcha?

And if you accept that, even just a smidge, ask yourself what the layer of meaning just below that is. But of course, as long as you’re working with a single element taxonomy, there is no meaning to be discerned.* Allow me work from an assumption you cannot allow yourself to make. What if a force of directors/actors here do genuinely accept the process of climate change (and hence can’t, presumably, genuinely believe that this liturgy is potentially effective)?

They’re just going along? Possibly, but I doubt it. Cognitive dissonance? That’s not an explanation. But, if you could get anywhere near the idea of ritual-as-theatre, you might be able to ask, what’s this little play trying to say? Maybe the play (and so the actors whether they are conscious of it or not) is saying, there is a problem (melting glaciers), the cause of the problem is known (global climate change), the powers that be cannot inact a solution to the problem, thus, there’s nothing else to be done but try to generate a miracle (a specific miracle for this specific problem, hence the liturgical change to produce the opposite effect from the traditionally desired one). And if you can’t conceive of such an interpretation, and if you can’t recognize the potential for political resistance in that (‘hey politicians, scientists, et al. you’ve got to fucking do something!’) is any form of communication between us even possible?

But fine, dismiss me as a pretentious apologist for all such religious nonsense. Let’s grant at this point then, your simple analysis (and I use that term loosely) that we’re dealing here with nothing but superstition. What drove the locals to this annual fit of woo from 1674?** The persistent existential threat represented by two gianormous glaciers looming over a poor village in the Alps. What drove them to reorient this woofest now? The new existential threat represented by the rapid receding of those formerly gianormous glaciers. These are people with a long history of getting fucked by the fickle finger of fate. Your dismissal of the expression of their anxieties – “people will cling to their hope they can exert some effect on the environment by appealing to a higher power” – isn’t just condescending, isn’t just stoopid, it’s absolutely, positively, fucking callous.

———-

*And you and your ilk do this all the time – you read some piece of online journalism and take it entirely at face value and ask not a single interesting question about it. Forgive me for presuming, but I have to imagine that you have taken Herbert Volken’s remark, “We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked—too well,” simply as an affirmation of faith in the ritual. Maybe he chuckled as he said that to the reporter, maybe his anxiety about the effects of climate change on his life was palpable (if not expressed). In any case, every time you encounter a story that gets your knickers atwisted you rush in headlong, never suggesting that any qualification or interpretation of the reported ‘facts’ might be required.

**BTW, while I know nothing of the history of Catholicism in this part of Switzerland, I’m interested in the fact that this pilgrimage coincides with the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (fyi, a statutory holiday at my workplace). Few other Catholic orders are so intimately associated with education – including scientific education – as the Jesuits. Might not this religious activity entail a plea for scientific and technological help? I merely speculate.

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Thinking out Loud about Published Atheists

A brief (ha!) look at 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison (Prometheus Books, 2008).

[Again, like my last 3 part post, I’m not after a soft target to score an easy point, but finding myself gobsmacked yet again by an atheist tome, I feel the need to give some thought to this source in order to move my thinking forward in some way. At this point in my life, as I go through material like this, a fundamental problem that I face is that I’m pulled in two directions – my first reaction is invariably to tag what is, in one way or another, wrong with the work in question; but my subsequent reflections consist of asking how does this fit into the bigger religious picture? The latter approach is the far more interesting one and, I think, the only really viable one for the academic study of religion – I just don’t know precisely what it looks like yet. But that the atheists neither bring an A-game nor play fair cannot be ignored; so, they still need to be called out on the shuck and jive they often pull.]

For all the atheists’ talk of their reverence for empiricism and critical thinking (whatever that is), and the sanctity of evidence and peer review, it’s surprising how often they flout their own basic dogmas. (K, not really surprising.) Of course, make an argument for the existence of god or creationism and you’ll face the litany of, what is your evidence and where do you get it from? what does science have to say? and your logic will be carefully scrutinized …. and found wanting. As it should: WTF are you up to arguing such positions? (Sorry, not really a good objective RLST response.) But, there’s no denying that many writing/blogging atheists lack both the wherewithal to interrogate adequately evidence of religiosity as the find it, or simply invent it to suit their purposes; and they simply have little or no interest in what current scholarship on religiosity has to say. Hence, their arguments almost never entail anything more than the evaluation of the truth-claims expressed or implied within believers’ religiosity wherever they encounter it. And so it is on this basis that we who study religion for a living must make our way from how atheists get religion wrong to how their reactionary position fits into the complex of phenomena that we call “religion” (used for convenience’ sake, speaking to the laity at least). Alas, with respect to the matter at hand, I can’t get myself much past the intellectual travesty that is this book, and its like, for the present.

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, is as good a title for a monograph about religiosity as any, I assert charitably. But of course, my hermeneutically suspicious tendencies demand that I ask what the range of meanings such a title might include. (Thoroughly parsing this title seems a little over the top. Still, note that ’50 reasons’ is a common trope in middlebrow publishing.) Is it too much to ask that ‘belief’ and ‘god’ get some extended consideration or definition? (They don’t here. And while this point invites reference to a distinction that might be made between belief and faith, I can’t consider it here – that’ll have to wait for some other time and place.) More nuanced, how exactly were those 50 reasons derived? Who was asked? How were they asked? What specifically were they asked? The answers given are pretty sketchy stuff in this book, where they’re even addressed (so I’ll have lots more about that later). All’s to say, we’re in no way dealing with a formal monograph about belief among the religious, but a conception which serves only as a foil for an atheist author seeking a means to argue that any reason to believe is specious. All I’ve got to say at this point is… And?

At the outset, indulge me in the tedious presentation of the list of those 50 reasons. From the ToC:

***BTW, full disclosure, I haven’t read all 50 reasons. I just can’t face them. I read the first few, put the book down, and now have taken to reading them randomly now and again.***

1. My god is obvious. 2. Almost everybody on Earth is religious. 3. Faith is a good thing. 4. Archaeological discoveries prove that my god exists. 5. Only my god can make me feel significant. 6. Atheism is just another religion. 7. Evolution is bad. 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident. 9. My god created the universe. 10. Believing in my god makes me happy. 11. Better safe than sorry. 12. A sacred book proves my god is real. 13. Divine justice proves my god is real. 14. My god answers prayers. 15. I would rather worship my god than the devil. 16. My god heals sick people. 17. Anything is better than being an atheist. 18. My god made the human body. 19. My god sacrificed his only son for me. 20. Atheists are jerks who think they know everything. 21. I don’t lose anything by believing in my god. 22. I didn’t come from a monkey. 23. I don’t want to go to hell. 24. I feel my god when I pray. 25. I need my god to protect me. 26. I want eternal life. 27. Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong. 28. My god makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. 29. My religion makes more sense than all the others. 30. My god changes lives. 31. Intelligent design proves my god is real. 32. Millions of people can’t be wrong about my religion. 33. Miracles prove my god is real. 34. Religion is beautiful. 35. Some very smart people believe in my god. 36. Ancient prophecies prove my god exists. 37. No one has ever disproved the existence of my god. 38. People have gone to heaven and returned. 39. Religion brings people together. 40. My god inspires people. 41. Science can’t explain everything. 42. Society would fall apart without religion. 43. My religion is so old, it must be true. 44. Someone I trust told me that my god is real. 45. Atheism is a negative and empty philosophy. 46. Believing in a god doesn’t hurt anyone. 47. The earth is perfectly tuned to support life. 48. Believing is natural so my god must be real. 49. The end is near. 50. I am afraid of not believing.

I don’t know about you, but I reckon there’s one to way in excess of 50 dissertations to be written on this list (and none of them would pass an oral exam in any university department if they were to argue for the inadequacy of any or all of these reasons). All that’s to say, close scrutiny of these reasons threatens to be endless. But perhaps a few general comments on the 50 will suffice to show that we are not looking at an inquiry undertaken in good faith (so to speak). Rather, the question is so obviously a challenge to Harrison’s informants that no thoughtful person should take these 50 reasons at face value.

It seems to me that we can identify (at least) three kinds of reasons here (again though, not that even these tell us about belief as such or anything else). Not surprisingly, many of the reasons are theological. Other reasons I’ll call existential. And also significant are the many reasons that we can recognize as defensive (or hostile even, towards atheism). What these kinds of responses all have in common is that they are all reactionary (meant in a neutral sense) with respect to the question: a question deemed theological gets theological answers (for ex. appeals to scripture, its theological standing, and its theological contents); a question that cuts to the heart of people’s personhood or identity is answered with reflections of – what to call it? – being-in-the-world; finally, the question is seen for what it is – an attack on belief – and as a result, it’s turned on the questioner, and the answer consists of a reflection on the wages of unbelief.

The question itself (with or without any knowledge about the conditions under which it was asked) skews to elicit religious responses, not measurably objective ones about belief: the question then serves as an invitation to a religious activity, ie. forms of religious testimony in the evaluation of which we cannot be certain that we are getting expressions of earnest belief rather than defensives of belief informants imagine to be expected of them. Social-scientifically speaking the question is, like the kids say, an epic FAIL.

Now, I just can’t leave it at that. Rather, I’m itching to peer a little deeper into the colour and the shape of the author’s project. To this end, let’s have a gander at the Introduction to the book (Harrison, 2008: 13-15).

I have asked many believers in many countries over several years a basic question: Why do you believe in your god or gods? This book is a response to the fifty most common answers I heard to that question. Many people gave me virtually identical reasons for belief, despite being adherents of contradictory religions. I learned that the gods may be very different and the faithful may sometimes hate and kill one another, but believers are remarkably synchronized on why they believe.

      With a boatload of questions beginning with the first clause I’m not being
      merely pedantic here, am I?

  • Look, I’m no expert on quantitative and qualitative analyses, but I gotta ask: how many believers? demographic breakdown according to age, gender, income, level of education, degree of religious observance, etc. etc.? how many countries? which Countries? over how many years?  was that your actual survey question? any others? what were the rest of the terms of your (what appears to be strictly) qualitative data gathering?
       
  • The results of your ‘research’ are a “response.” Not an analysis? Of course, I already know that your response is a challenge to belief. At what point were your informants aware of that and more importantly were they aware that you intended to publish your response to the data they provided? I’ve got limited experience with REBs, but I’m pretty sure clear informed consent is taken a tad more seriously than the Prime Directive – you don’t get to bend it in order to move the plot forward. (See Harrison’s about page on his website where he declares that he oft times employs Star trek to teach his children life lessons.)Not only would most self-respecting social scientists laugh you out of the room for your means of gathering data, I’m pretty sure you’d find yourself subject to a pretty serious tongue-lashing for your shaky ethics.
       
  • Explanation for the “virtually identical responses?” What does “contradictory” mean? What’s wrong with ‘different’? Nevertheless, what does that tell you? What assumptions are you making about differences between your informants? And oh yeah, back to basics, what’s the breakdown of religious affiliation among your informants?
      
  • Ok, so you use “different” in the next sentence. But HTF does hate and murder end up a feature of different? Ain’t saying such conflict doesn’t exist, I just wonder what in the name of Krishna and Christ and Kobo Daishi has this to do with the question at hand and the answers you got to it? Did you interview a bunch of murdering psychos, or are you merely suggesting that you assume that your informants carry with them a latent capacity for religious violence?

I also discovered that if you ask believers on the streets of Jerusalem, Cairo, Paris, Nairobi, New Delhi, Athens, Suva, New York City, and Port Moresby why they believe in their gods, the answers you hear are significantly different from the noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers. Most of the Christians I have encountered around the world, for example, don’t give much thought to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas or C. S. Lewis. They will tell anyone who asks, however, that they believe Jesus is a real god because the Bible says so or because they feel his presence when they pray. Out in the real world I found that believers have little interest in convoluted arguments for gods that involve imagining perfection, irreducible complexity, or the laws of thermodynamics. Unlike professsional creationists and apologists, most of the believers I talk with do not feel the need to cite long lists of questionable evidence to attempt to prove that their god is real. They “know” their gods are real because they have “faith” that they are. They believe because they think that they must in order to be a good person. They believe because the world is “perfect” or at least “beautiful.” They believe in a god because it is the only way they have ever known.

  • Ok, ok, I can’t help myself here. Were the authorities in Israel, Egypt, France, Kenya, India, Greece, Fiji, and PNG aware when they gave you your visas that you’d be conducting research whilst visiting their countries? Cuz, I tellya, the tourist and research visas I got for India were VERY clear about what I could and couldn’t do in the country under them. Alright, on to more serious things.
      
  • “noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers.” Alrighty, as long as we’re clear on the regard (or lack thereof) in which you hold formal explanation and explication of the faiths. Irregardless, doesn’t the fact that believers do not appeal to such rational enterprises tell you something? The importance of this question is reinforced by the fact that, as you say, believers don’t even appeal to the arguments of creationism, those thoroughly modern forms of religious justification, and the fact that believers don’t even “cite long list of questionable evidence.” Basically you’re saying that believers tend not to appeal to standard or prevalent forms of argument for belief. Seems to me then that your enterprise consists of cornering them into making arguments (or simply making up arguments for them).

This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods. Nor is it an attack on anyone’s entire religion. This is a respectful reply to the friendly people around the world who shared with me their reasons for believing in a god or gods, nothing more. Too many books that attempt to challenge belief in gods are interpreted by believers as combative and arrogant. I have made a sincere effort to prevent believers from feeling that way about this book. There is no name calling or condescending tone here. I do not think that I am smarter than believers, nor do I agree with anyone who feels that believers’ minds are hopelessly closed. My fifty replies to common justifications for belief can be read as friendly chats designed to do nothing more than stimulate critical thinking. I am not interested in winning debates or insulting anyone. I only want to encourage readers to think more deeply about why they believe in a god.

  • Well, insofar as the book doesn’t attempt to disprove god, it simply assumes god’s non-existence, doesn’t?
     
  • Not an attack on any entire religion? First page of the book in the main: “if a significant portion of our species insists on discriminating, hating, killing, and slowing scientific progress in the name of the gods, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least try and confirm whether or not these gods are even real in the first place?” (17). Ok, I suppose this isn’t an attack on any entire religion, but sure reads like an attack on religion entire. Oh, and so disproving the existence of the gods is at least an implied purpose of the book?
     
  • By all means, stimulate critical thinking (whatever that is, though it’s apparently code for arguments against any expressed or implied ‘reason’ – as in your response in 7. Evolution is bad.), particularly in the face of religious truth-claims (again, see 7. for ex.).But, you’ve already asserted that truth-claims are not at the heart of believers’ reasons to believe, eg. the world is beautiful. At least, I don’t take that as truth-claim, at least not of the same order as the reason that actually appears in the book as 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.No. reasons such as “34. Religion is beautiful” are not truth-claims, they are aesthetic valuations reflecting on believers’ experience of religiosity. Your response – a litany of religious wrong-doing, summarized in the statement, “religion is not pretty when it motivates terrorism, antiscience activists, and prejudice among people who might otherwise be cooperating to build a better future for everyone” (245) – is, first, hardly a friendly chat and certainly an attack not merely on religion itself but several particular religions. But second, and more importantly ATM, you endeavour to turn this straw-manish ‘reason’ (no believer is cited as saying religion is beautiful) into a truth-claim with the presentation of all the evidence that religion is ugly as you response.Lest it be imagined that I’m merely recasting your argument to suit my own purposes, let’s consider the material out of which you construct ‘religion is beautiful’. Smiling, crying, emotional, excited Jamaicans worshipping in a makeshift church in a shopping mall in the Cayman Islands. Pilgrims within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You standing in the centre of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus encountering kind, friendly and hospitable Muslims. Those good people are obliged to give an account of the bad and the ugly in the religions to which they belong? AYFSM! That’s neither friendly nor respectful (just an aesthetic observation on my part). But make no mistake, this is no invitation to critical thinking, this is an effort to score debate points, and it’s insulting. This isn’t mere debate, argument or persuasion, this is evangelism.

Readers will notice that I do not limit the scope of this book to the religions that are currently popular in the West. In my view all gods are equal, regardless of how many people believe in them at this moment in history. My skepticism for Ra and Apollo, for example, is no more or less than my skepticism for Jesus and Allah. Throughout this book I usually will write of gods in the plural rather than singular. This may feel awkward to readers who are used to only hearing and talking about one god. The fact is, however, there are many thousands of other gods that people have confidently claimed to be real throughout history. Failure to acknowledge this important truth would be historically ignorant and culturally prejudiced. Fairness and logic demand that we respect the indigenous tribal believer who sees many gods in the forest and the ancient Greek who saw several gods atop a mountain as much as we do the contemporary monotheist who sees one god in the sky.

  • Alright, I’ll let all this slide, since I’ve commented so much already. ‘Sides, smart people will see how some of my other remarks (and more I haven’t made, I assume) apply here.

Many people think that religious belief should be above challenge or somehow out of bounds. I disagree. There is a lot of good to be found in the world’s religions. I would never deny that. However, the dark side of religion cannot be overlooked. When claims for the existence of gods negatively impact world peace, the education of children, the development of new medical cures, safety and justice for women, and the progress of science, they must be challenged.

      “Many people.” Who? How Many? What are you data for that?

  • Anyway, there you have it. So much of what’s unseemly in contemporary atheism in a nutshell. Not to mention almost a complete contradiction (again) of what you’ve previously claimed the tenor of the book is.Who am I to tell you not to challenge religious belief? My only question is, why would you bother? Well ok, I understand why (alas, the legitimacy and politics of the claim that religion poisons everything must wait for another time). But, clearly your investigations of religion don’t teach you anything, and you’ve got nothing to teach others. (Plenty you feel the need to preach, however.)I’ve been fascinated by – no, gleeful about – the atheists’ responses to Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists. I’ve no doubt that de Botton knew full well that no dyed-in-the-wool atheist was going respond in any other way than to argue that any value or utility offered by religion can easily be recreated within an atheist community. I’m assured of this by the very first sentence of de Botton’s book which surely was intended to set off every atheist with a blog or facebook account:”The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”But of course, you’re completely invested in that question, or rather your answer to it. And as long as that’s the case with you and the other atheists, I can’t really regard you as interlocutors, I have to regard you as anthropological subjects. The basic problem I face is, I just can’t seem to find my way over to an analysis appropriate to that disposition; the grander intellectual, moral, and existential problem I face is that I just can’t stop taking you to task for the shit that you continue spout without consequence, thus contradicting the very stance I need to take.

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