How Did Christianity Become the New Relativism?

“It’s true for me”  This was said during a famous debate between conservative political commentator and Christianity-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I had been conditioned to eschew this wishy-washy postmodernist thought.  “True for me but not for you” was liberal, “worldly” thinking that Christians were supposed to know how to combat, not use themselves.  Yet here it was the conservative Christian saying it and not the godless liberal.  Apparently just as shocked by this role-reversal, Dawkins responded with the absolutist logic which I had previously only associated with Christianity: “You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else?  Something’s either got to be true or not.”

Christianity and relativism have been at odds since the dawn of postmodernism.  Christianity is a religion which makes absolute claims of truth, and relativism is an ideology which rejects the very concept of absolute truth.  Yet strangely, it is increasingly Christians who have unwittingly been the proponents of relativism in recent times.  I’ve previously written about how sectarianism tends to prioritize subjective and relative morality over objective morality.  Most Christians today haven’t transcended the culture of postmodernism even if they claim to be against it; they are still very much products, if not prisoners, of that mindset.

Even Christians who believe relativism is a problem may not be able to correctly identity what relativism actually is.  For instance, some Christians erroneously oppose any religious pluralism because they have mistaken it for cultural relativism.  But while relativism is a form of pluralism, not all pluralism is relativistic.  Pluralism, in the narrow distinction between the two, is simply the tolerance of opposing beliefs; it is the pragmatic acceptance that those who hold beliefs which are untrue still have the right to equally coexist in the same society.  Relativism, on the other hand, is a doctrinaire opinion that there is no objective truth.  Relativism leads to the same tolerance as pluralism, not for the admirable reason that people who are wrong should still be treated fairly, but rather because it cannot make an evaluation of right or wrong in the first place.  Pluralists, however, can still tolerate relativists without losing objective truth.

Unfortunately, Christians have not only attacked the wrong problems but also promoted the wrong solutions. For years Christians have been incorrectly told that absolutism is the counter to relativism.  They’ve been led to believe that as long as they refuse to compromise on their beliefs then they are immune to relativistic influences.  Doubling down on the Bible or church authority as their sole argument for everything, they’ve ignored that this sort of weak reasoning can and is exercised by people of all faiths.  Christians are usually at a loss to explain why Islamic or Mormon claims to absolute truth on the basis of their sacred texts differ in any way to Christian claims to absolute truth based only on the Bible.  Obviously, anyone can be an absolutist on any position, that in itself is not a remedy for relativism.  The missing component is objective truth, truths which can be communicated and accepted without first having to believe in a religion.  Religious identity is the last resort of people who have failed to present an objective truth.  Saying “I can’t have an abortion because it’s taking an innocent life” is a more compelling argument than saying “I can’t have an abortion because I’m Catholic.”  If the only justification you have for why you do something a certain way is your religion, then you probably don’t have a sufficient reason; otherwise, you would have given that as your reason in the first place.

The same-sex marriage battle is a fascinating study of how conservatives in general have lost all sense of objectivity.  At seemingly every turn, they have contradicted their own arguments if it suited their cause.  When the Defense of Marriage Act was on the books, they argued that federal law trumped state law, but after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional (and even before) they’ve been champions of so-called “states’ rights” ever since.  Conservatives heavily criticized the Obama administration for not defending DOMA before the Supreme Court, but then remained quiet when governor Scott Walker similarly refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  Contrary to purported claims about executive duty and the rule of law, the rightwing will seemingly take up whichever argument they feel will support their predetermined crusade.  While there’s no denying these conservatives are absolutely against gay marriage, their duplicitous attempts to try to achieve their ends at any cost betray any claim to objective reasoning.

There are numerous things that churches have absolutely opposed in no uncertain terms, only to completely reverse their positions later: abolition, women’s suffrage, integration, interracial marriage.  The Republicans’ latest retreat into “religious freedom” measures–allowing business owners, workers, or officials to refuse business or involvement in same-sex wedding ceremonies out of personal religious beliefs–underscores the consummation of modern Christianity’s journey into fully realized postmodernism (it should be pointed out that there was never any regard for religious freedom of churches who performed same-sex marriages before it was legal).  As has already been demonstrated in case after case, conservative Christians are completely at a loss to present any objective reasoning why consenting adult same-sex couples should not be afforded the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples.  Now that this loss seems inevitable at the Supreme Court level, conservatives seem to be preparing to cease universal bans and instead allow individuals to opt out.  It’s noteworthy that conservatives didn’t really entertain this solution in their past failed culture wars.  While some Christians still tried to maintain segregation in their private schools, they don’t try to allow volunteers at polling places to refuse women, or to permit businesses or state officials to refuse interracial weddings.  These Christians are now put in the awkward position of having to justify why a nationwide ban was considered so absolutely necessary yet the same practice is now permissible on a personal level.  There just doesn’t seem to be an objective way to re-phrase “I won’t provide this service for you that I do for everybody else because you’re gay.”  Effectively, these individuals would be telling gay couples that their beliefs are “true for me but not for you.”

Conservatives would argue that this is merely a legal compromise on an issue forced upon them, but that alone doesn’t explain why this strategy is being deployed here when it wasn’t for other positions they opposed just as absolutely.  This is likely because conservatives came to the simple realization that there were no satisfactory reasons to forcibly segregate drinking fountains.  Conversely, conservatives have held their ground more capably on the abortion issue where they were able to find objective arguments based on life ethics.  If conservatives behaved the same on gay marriage as they do on abortion, then we ought to have expected a stronger reaction than it simply being a matter of personal conscience (but perhaps they’ll surprise me and start an insurrection in June).  While they may not be intentionally relativistic in their reasoning, this nevertheless has all the trademarks of it.  Little by little, conservatives are eroding a cooperative pluralistic society by not merely tolerating nonfactual beliefs, but by permitting those beliefs to have dominance over facts.  Conservatives haven’t outright rejected that an objective truth exists, yet their inability to objectively support their positions has netted the exact same results as if they had.  Or perhaps worse, it looks like they’ve achieved cultural relativism without the pluralism that usually accompanies it.

Conservatism, with Christianity at the helm, is now steering us towards a relativistic society where individuals are free to ignore anti-discrimination laws if they claim it violates their personal beliefs.  As much as they want to limit it just to homosexuality, I have yet to hear a good reason why sincerely held beliefs on sexuality should be protected more than equally sincere Bible-based beliefs on racial superiority or gender inequality.  They might argue that sexual orientation shouldn’t be a protected class, usually for disingenuous reasons such as claiming homosexuality is a choice, somehow differing from other protected categories like religion, pregnancy, or marital status which are also choices (I should also point out that, contrary to what many conservatives erroneously think, the classes in anti-discrimination laws do not single out minorities, women, or gays for heightened protection; instead they are based on universal attributes applicable to everyone: race, gender, and sexual orientation).  I would counter-argue that needing to protect classes of people should be unnecessary in the first place, and contrary to Republican assumptions, an individual doesn’t actually need to be a member of a group on an itemized list to make a valid case of discrimination.  It says more about the flawed deontological morality of these discrimination advocates that they only seem to believe it’s wrong to refuse service to a black person just because the law specifically prohibits discrimination on race.  Ultimately, their problem is the same fault underlying all relativism: they don’t really know basic right and wrong.

In a bizarre twist of the Republican party’s role reversal from formerly being the progressive party to presently being the conservative party, the GOP has also become a powerful champion of postmodernism.  Their challenges to the Affordable Care Act have been some of the most blatant postmodern arguments in recent memory.  The first case challenged the birth control provisions strictly on the personal beliefs of the employer, because they disapprove of birth control or incorrectly believe it causes an abortion.  The present case before the court amounts to trying to invalidate the law on the basis of a strict reading of a typo rather than the stated intent of the law, which commenters have compared to the “Moops” doctrine from the sitcom Sienfeld.  Of course, the irony is that the ACA originated as a conservative idea, effected in Massachusetts by Republican Governor and Obama Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney.

A side effect of the Right’s opposition politics is an inability to articulate what they actually stand for.  They seem to be willing to reverse a position to spite an opponent, or commit to one in spite of facts.  Even when I specifically ask conservatives what they’re for, I get a response that’s merely a restatement of what they’re against.  Liberal positions, on the other hand, do not depend on a pre-existing “other” to oppose.  When liberals stand for equality, we mean that everybody should be treated the same under the law; inequality does not need to be an antecedent.  Positions, not principles, seem to drive conservative strategy these days.  Principles are what guide us to conclusions, whereas positions are fixed conclusions irrespective of principles.  The use of contradictory arguments to support the same position is patently unprincipled reasoning.  While changing a position because of new information is admirable, changing principles relative to a position is not.

Maybe objectivity is something Christianity has lost, or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention in my youth and conservatives never really had a grasp on objective truth.  Either way, if Christianity is going to find its foothold, it cannot be with the same logic advanced by conservatives for the past decade.  Just pointing out conservative relativism can get you accused of being a relativist yourself, but only because that identifies your opposite belief as liberal and conservatives associate liberalism with postmodernism.  Conservatives need to stop basing their beliefs on what their opponent believes and find out in objective terms what they actually believe themselves.

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I’m Now a Contributor on Political Moll

I’m excited to announce that I’m now a contributor on Political Moll.

You can read my first article there now:

The Real Reason The Right Wants To Ban Gay Marriage

Going forward, posts that are more political in nature will be appearing there, but I’ll still be tackling religious topics on this blog, and of course I’ll let my readers know when a new article posts over there.  Stay tuned.

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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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Islam Never Should Have Been a World Religion

A public beheading in Saudi Arabia

A public beheading in Saudi Arabia

The savage barbarity of the Islamic State, comparable only to the barbarity of other Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, shocks the world.  Critics and apologists of Islam alike are calling for an overdue Reformation to civilize the religion much the same way as Protestantism is seen to have done to Christianity.  But reformers seem unable to bring Islam out of the 7th century, and I would wager this is because Islam is forever locked in place, not just to a point in time, but also to a point on the map.  The biggest problem with Islam is that nothing in its teachings or practices should have justified it becoming a global world religion in the first place.

1.  The world is a circle.

Three to five times a day, Muslims all over the world are supposed to pray facing the Ka’aba in Mecca.  Originally this was just a spiteful way for Muhammad to turn his back on the Christians and Jews who customarily prayed facing Jerusalem in his day, but the further Islam stretched from the Middle East, the less sense this really makes.  Like his contemporaries, Muhammad clearly had no idea the earth is a sphere, and that any line drawn through one point to another eventually connects completely around the world.  So because even facing the opposite direction of Mecca is ultimately still facing Mecca, geometrically speaking, Muslims don’t pray facing a certain point, they just pray in the shortest distance between two points.  Unless they happen to be equidistant from Mecca, in which case they could theoretically pray facing any direction.  His followers have spent centuries developing methods, instruments, and apps to calculate the quibla, even convening a conference of Muslim scientists and scholars to determine how to pray in outer space (which can explain why so many Muslims are prone to believe in faked moon landing conspiracy theories).  It seems obvious that Muslims are just over-thinking something that simply wasn’t thought out in the first place.

2.  The lunar calendar is inaccurate.

All time in Islam is based on the lunar calendar, from the year after the hegira, to the start of Ramadan.  This made sense for desert bedouins without clocks or calendars, but it makes no sense in a modern world with atomic time accuracy and a predictable Gregorian calendar.  The Islamic calendar can never be synced with today’s standardized dates, nor can it accurately forecast years or even months in advance.  Early Muslims had no idea the time of day was different around the world, and that the moon’s phases appear differently in each hemisphere, making the technical start of Ramadan dependent on local observers in Saudi Arabia.

3.  The length of day varies by latitude. 

In the holy month of Ramadan devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, which can be a problem for Muslims living closer to the northern and southern poles where “days” can last six months.  Assuming Allah did not intend for his worshippers to starve to death, one must conclude that either Islam was not designed to travel far beyond the Arabian desert, or Muslims were simply not intended to live in regions like Scandinavia.

4.  Nobody speaks Arabic.

The Qur’an was the first book written in Arabic.  If not for the spread of Islam, Arabic would have most likely remained an obscure tribal language spoken only in the Arabian desert.  Muslims now call Arabic the language of heaven and don’t consider translations to be equal to it.  Despite having their holy book locked in Arabic, however, not even most Muslims today actually speak the language (if they can read at all), and non-Muslims have almost no reasons to learn it.  Much has been ridiculed about how humans can be multilingual but the Muslim god can apparently only speak one language.  And conveniently, it’s the same language as the illiterate desert warlord who used his religion for power, profit, and sex.

5.  Mecca is at capacity.

Every year, or at least once in their lives, Muslims who are able to do so are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.  This is a big problem for a city of limited size and a religion of 1.5 billion people and growing.  The Hajj, as the pilgrimage is called, is an annual event and cannot be distributed throughout the year.  Saudi Arabia’s government has tried to manage the inevitable overcrowding by setting arbitrary visa limitations per each country, which gives Saudi clerics remarkable leverage and control over all Islam.  They’ve also restricted access to the holy cities to Muslims only.  Still, some 3,000 people have died in the Hajj in the past 20 years due mostly to overcrowding issues like stampedes in tunnels and bridges, or the dangerous “stoning of the devil” ritual.  The pilgrimage is a relic of a time when the world was thought to be smaller, less populated, and more difficult to travel.  Fortunately for Islam, their religion keeps the majority of them too impoverished to be able to afford the Hajj.  If not for the discovery of fossil fuels, even most Saudis would likely be too poor.  Of course, if a similar boom were to lift other Muslim countries out of poverty, there would be no way the city of Mecca could handle the volume.  In the Islamic fantasy of world conquest, at least the genocidal ISIS seems to readily acknowledge that the earth’s population would have to be drastically reduced if the whole world were to be Muslim.

The goal of expecting Islam to behave like all the civilized world religions is hopeless, Islam will never truly be a world religion in the usual sense.  Expecting Muslims to abandon 7th century barbarism is as futile as expecting them to abandon flat-earth models of direction or the lunar calendar.  And even though Muslims might say they don’t approve of Saudi Arabia’s innumerable crimes against humanity, their criticism stops short when it comes to fulfilling their religious obligations to visit the country or just to pray facing it every day.  To do otherwise would no longer be the same religion, so we shouldn’t be surprised when Arabia’s appendages in the Islamic State resemble that godforsaken desert.  Without the cultural attachments to Arabia, Islam would just be a benign unitarianism, for unitarians can’t as easily justify beheading nonbelievers.  Islam isn’t just a product of its time, it’s a product of its place.  It can no more be taken out of the desert than it can be taken out of the 7th century.

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The Price of Progress

Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), included a scene that would be unintentionally prophetic. A red safety flag falls off of a passing truck and Charlie picks it up. Trying to get their attention, he follows after them waving the flag, not realizing that a labor protest has formed in the street behind him. The police attack the crowd and Charlie is arrested as a communist agitator. After he gets out of jail, he tries to get work again in several occupations, but at the end of the movie he still remains a poor tramp.

Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Several years later, he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940).  Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for an anti-Jewish dictator who looks and sounds a lot like Adolph Hitler.   A decade later, however, he would find himself caught in the House Un-American Activities witchhunt.  Chaplin was, despite never having been associated with the party, suspected of being a communist for having endorsed progressive candidates, refusing to cross picket lines during a strike, and publicly praising then-ally the Soviet Union during World War II (as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do).  However, Chaplin had also publicly criticized Hitler before the United States was involved in the war, and in the twisted minds of the McCarthy overlords one would have only done that if they were a pro-Communist sympathizer.  Chaplin defied the HUAC by refusing to name names and he suggested he was being bullied because they also erroneously thought that he was Jewish.  As payback, the little Tramp was banished to England and could not return again until the 1970’s to receive an honorary Academy Award.

In the 1930’s, it was estimated there were over 800 fascist organizations operating in the United States.  While the movements and activities of the official Nazi party were monitored and restricted during the war, others like the Ku Klux Klan were never investigated by the HUAC because they believed the Klan’s activities were part of American heritage.  There was never a similar witchhunt of Klan members, even when the group’s terrorist activities were undeniable.  After the national KKK dissolved, its former members carried on with their jobs and their lives with impunity; the culprits behind the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing weren’t brought to justice until almost 40 years later.  Pro-segregation politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace still won elections after desegregation.  A new American Nazi party formed in 1960 and its members could still be acquitted by all-white juries as late as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.

In the same period, civil rights leaders faced very real lynchings and assassinations, while being slandered by their opponents as “socialists.”  Rightwing propaganda to this day still refers to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front.”  Conservative supporters of apartheid in South Africa, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, justified this brutal white supremacy as a lesser evil to an imagined communist threat.  This has been a successful strategy, a false accusation of being a communist can potentially ruin somebody’s life, whereas members of actual un-American groups on the right are seldom held accountable.  Going back to the Civil War, the insurrectionists of the Confederacy were pardoned during Reconstruction.  Former slaveowners were not punished for their numerous crimes against humanity, but instead were permitted to continue abusing their former slaves and their descendants for generations as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South.  Whereas the freedmen received no restitution for their lost wages, they were expected to move on as if the labor camps, the beatings and the rapes had never happened.  With the lone exception of South Carolina, Southern blacks never came close to electing a majority of black representatives in their state legislatures like D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation depicted, but that gave a paranoid white South an imaginary justification to restrict black voting rights.  Even when black communities overcame the odds and achieved respectable success, they were viciously burned down like the 1921 Tulsa race riot; true to form, Oklahoma acquitted the guilty parties and denied the victims any compensation for their miscarriage of justice.

The toll of being a progressive has always been a high cost, some escaped with only the loss of their careers, others lost everything including their lives.  It has always been comparatively safer and easier to be a conservative, yet ironically it is conservatives who more frequently exhibit a persecution complex.  They still toss around baseless accusations of communism to try to preemptively shut down any discussion of reform, and if they don’t get their way they manufacture cases of hardship and oppression.  The Confederate-invented narrative of the Civil War focuses solely on the so-called “tyranny” of the federal government and the loss of so-called “states’ rights”, while ignoring or mitigating the extent and brutality of slavery.  Their distress at the loss of privilege outweighs an opponents’ actual loss of individual rights.  For instance, they irrationally act as if monogamous gays getting legally married is somehow an inexplicable threat to their freedom, while ignoring the very real harm caused to gay families by being denied recognition before the law.  Suddenly, baking a cake or arranging flowers for a gay couple has become a violation of conservatives’ “religious freedom.”  Of course, these same bakers and florists never made an issue of gay anniversaries, gay birthdays, gay Valentine’s Day, gay Easter, gay Christmas, or gay Hanukkah, etc.; gay couples had been having commitment ceremonies for decades, but that never became an issue either, not until after conservatives lost their marriage battle.  This is obviously nothing but the same political payback and hissy fitting that followed after the Civil War, and they should have already learned from losing the Civil Rights war that a business owner doesn’t get to decide who can buy a product or what they can use it for.  If they can’t understand this, then they shouldn’t be in business.  It’s time for conservatives to give up their delusions of being persecuted, they have been the oppressors far more often than they have been the oppressed, if ever.

Disgracefully, conservative bigotry persists because every generation weighs themselves against their forebears and seems relatively better by comparison: the segregationists were not as bad as the klansmen, and the klansmen were not as bad as the slaveowners.  Like liquid following the path of least resistance, bigotry lazily finds refuge wherever it can still be seen as acceptable.  On the positive side, however, today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives.  They never had to fight for progress themselves, but they can comfortably adopt positions that the previous generation would have condemned as too liberal.  Because of that, most people are not truly liberal simply because they were born into a world where slavery and segregation were illegal.  To truly consider ourselves liberal, we have to identify the safe zones where bigotry has presently slithered and stamp it out into a new corner.

This appears to be on the verge of happening in the latest gay rights battle.  A decade ago, a Christian could come into serious conflict with many churches just for saying that the government had no authority to ban gays from marriage, even if they didn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage themselves.  If the Supreme Court rules against the bans this summer, as they have indicated they will, that same position will then naturally become the prevalent view among anti-gay churches.  Liberals will welcome this forward progress even though those conservatives may have literally demonized them like the segregations formerly did to their liberal opponents.  To the conservatives who continue to resist and resent any comparison between the civil rights movement and gay rights, I beg you: now that Alabama justice Roy Moore has invited the comparisons to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, please do not consummate the likeness to those racists by resorting to violence.   You can either actively support progress, or passively become tomorrow’s conservative, but if you try to remain a conservative of the moment, then you will inevitably be compared to the ones before you.  And really, you have nothing to lose, the progressives have already paid the price for progress.

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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.

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Free Speech and Islam

Recently, some ads critical of Islam went up on buses in San Francisco, courtesy of controversial blogger Pamela Geller.  Not long after that, it appeared several of these ads had been defaced.  The graffiti artist covered up the message with one of their own, as well as the image of Muslim superhero Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel introduced a year ago by Marvel Comics.  The book’s muslim writer, G. Willow Wilson, approved of the graffiti on twitter.

I first heard about all this through Gawker’s io9 blog, which wasn’t very helpful because it didn’t even give any description of the content that it dismissed as “Islamophobic.”  Since their editors lacked either the journalistic integrity or the courage to print that, I’ll have to do it myself.  Next to a photo of Adolf Hitler with Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, it reads: “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two-thirds of all US aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries.”

msmarvel

The messages being sent by the vandals were confusing to say the least.  One says, “Stamp out racism”, the honor brigade‘s usual method of shutting out critics of Islam by calling them racists, even though Islam is not a race.  Another reads, “Free speech isn’t a license to spread hate”, the typical Muslim concession to a vague idea of free speech as long it doesn’t protect anything they object to.  Of course, Muslim leaders never seem to be as concerned with stopping their own from saying or doing things that other religions might find offensive.

It’s a threat to free speech whenever a group or individual believes they alone have the authority to determine what criticisms about their ideology can be seen by the public, let alone to enforce that interpretation through criminal acts.  In this case the vandals could have bought their own rival ads, or swayed public opinion through a protest or a boycott.  They could have easily taken a free picture, defaced the ads in photoshop, and then posted it on the internet and that wouldn’t have been illegal.  But regrettably, this exemplifies the disturbing trend of Muslims breaking the law whenever they don’t like something somebody says about their religion.  A few weeks ago, Muslim terrorists killed a dozen innocent people in Paris over a silly cartoon.  The government of Saudi Arabia condemned those terrorists, but then proceeded to flog blogger Raif Badawi the very next week.  And now, a manufactured representative of moderate Islam is being used to shut out another critical message with her creator’s blessing.  While they don’t all resort to physical violence (aside from property damage, of course), all of these from moderate to extremists are nevertheless examples of opposition to free speech by force.  The only discernible difference is not their level of tolerance for opposing speech, just the level of force they’re willing to exert to silence it.  It’s par for the course that a Muslim superhero is the champion of suppressing free speech.

Of course, Kamala Khan doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even all moderate Muslims, but where are the voices of moderate Islam standing up for all free speech, not just sharia approved speech?  After the Charlie Hebdo attacks Alternet was quick to compile a list of 45 Islamic organizations denouncing the terrorism, yet this list seems less reassuring when put under scrutiny.  For starters, one of the examples (#18) is the brutal Saudi dictatorship which actively suppresses dissent with violence.  Another three are Ahmadi organizations (#’s 2, 7, and 15).  Although Ahmadiyya is the only sect of Islam that totally rejects violence as a matter of doctrine, they are at most only 1% of the worldwide Muslim population and generally considered heretics and persecuted by the greater Muslim majority, to the extent that it’s practically illegal to be an Ahmadi Muslim in several countries.  While their denunciation of violence is greatly appreciated, it not really statistically relevant because we could always count on this 1% to denounce violence, the other 99% of Muslims are the more important question.  It’s rather dishonest of Alternet to have such a small minority disproportionately representative of 6% of their sampling.  Even including Saudi Arabia, if the percentage of extremists truly were as tiny as Muslim apologists claim, then we could optimistically expect more than 90 responses for every Ahmadiyya organization that Alternet can find.  For 1 Ahmadi statement, there should theoretically be 99 statements representing the Ummah, but what we see instead is a huge blind spot of more than half the Muslim population.  This is why it’s important for Muslims everywhere to denounce violence and extremism as loudly and often as possible, because the world really has no clue where the majority stands.

G. Willow Wilson mistakenly believes the graffiti is also free speech, saying on twitter:  “To me, the graffiti is part of the back-and-forth of the free speech conversation. Call and response. Argument, counterargument.”  Some of her supporters have argued the mantra that the response to free speech is more speech, but anybody who can do basic math can see that the ads started with one message and ended with still only a single message.

Unfortunately, many misguided Western liberals have been swayed by the apologist’s “hate speech” argument.  Even if the media didn’t publish the content of the original message, they took their word that it must have been “Islamophobic”.  But while it should have mattered to those defending the censorship, the content really doesn’t matter to those who believe in the principle of freedom of speech.  One doesn’t have to approve of the message, but if you approve of it being suppressed, then you don’t really believe in free speech.  Like it or not, so-called hate speech is still free speech, and the idea of free speech exists for no reason other than to protect speech that somebody doesn’t like.  You’re not really a liberal if you support an oppressive religion silencing free speech.

Faster than you can cry “no true Scotsman!” I will argue that free speech is inseparable from liberty and liberalism–it’s a defining characteristic.  A compromising liberal accepting an ideology’s own limits of what critics can say about it is self-defeating, like a pro-lifer having an abortion or a vegan eating a cheeseburger.  Doing certain things that go completely against a professed ideology can exclude oneself from that identity.  And make no mistake, giving authoritarian religions control back over their own narratives is in effect neutering the progress of the Enlightenment and taking civilization back to the Dark Ages.  While you may freely agree with the Muslims that the criticism in question is incorrect or inappropriate, everybody should be ashamed of these lawless bullying tactics to take away another person’s right to speech.  Muslims will eventually have to start catching up to the 21st century, and Islam will have to stop being both the most easily offended religion in the world and also the most offensive.

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