Saturday, January 30, 2010

Squawkin’ Rich Dawkins Weighs in on Haiti and Christianity

Is Pat Robertson the Real Christian?

Every now and then there are writers on post-modern comparative religion such as Karen Armstrong (The Case for God) who prevail upon the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins to cool down his rhetoric a bit towards people of religious faith, arguing that there is too much heat being generated already in a world full of colliding fundamentalisms. He tries to tone down it down for a while, but he is what he is, and eventually he lets fly again.

Recently, in a response to Pat Robertson’s statement indicating that the Haitians were being punished by God for having made a pact with the devil, Dawkins came out swinging hard with both fists, not so much at fundamentalists like Robertson, whom he credits for being a real and unabashedly honest Christian, but at Christian moderates, whom he accuses of dissembling and duplicity.

His article Haiti and the Hypocrisy of Christian Theology is hard-hitting and lays down a provocative indictment and challenge towards all Christians. For all believers, it’s certainly worth reading in its entirety. Is he right? Are people like Pat Robertson the real Christians?
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.
There are plenty of Christians who acknowledge this. I did so myself, along with a few commenters here not two posts ago. The world is built to change via the forces unleashed by volcanoes and earthquakes. They were essential for life itself to flourish to begin with, and shifting continental plates and volcanoes actually provide a means for the world to recycle and renew itself. As we learn more about these things it forces us to reconsider how we view God and our relationship with each other and with creation itself. It doesn't necessarily force us to abandon faith.
The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human sin. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today's Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson's views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable 'mystery', or who 'see God' in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God 'suffering on the cross' in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Where was God in Noah's flood? He was systematically drowning the entire world, animal as well as human, as punishment for 'sin'. Where was God when Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed with fire and brimstone? He was deliberately barbecuing the citizenry, lock stock and barrel, as punishment for 'sin'. Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with 'sin', with punishment and with atonement. Where do you find the effrontery to condemn Pat Robertson, you who have signed up to the obnoxious doctrine that the central purpose of Jesus' incarnation was to have himself tortured as a scapegoat for the 'sins' of all mankind, past, present and future, beginning with the 'sin' of Adam, who (as any modern theologian well knows) never even existed?
True, but that’s just one model of atonement. Loren Rosson, a Unitarian, does a fine job here (a much better job, in fact, than many Trinitarians would be capable of) of explaining how biblical texts can support not only this model of atonement, but several others besides (martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption).

Just a note regarding Dawkins' accusation of hypocrisy. It has to be taken seriously, there is certainly plenty of hypocrisy to go around, but he ought to consider if he’s a bit guilty of his own. How delicious it must be for him to throw an indictment against all Christians with his catalog of God’s genocidal misdeeds as described in the Old Testament. If Dawkins’ examples are to be culled from the Books of the Torah, why doesn’t he hew to his own standards of intellectual honesty and consistency by hurling his accusation against Judaism? Would he dare to? I tend to think not, because he knows the consequences of doing such a thing. How much safer it is from his perspective to attack Christianity instead.

To quote the President of one theological seminary, writing in these very pages:
"The earthquake in Haiti, like every other earthly disaster, reminds us that creation groans under the weight of sin and the judgment of God. This is true for every cell in our bodies, even as it is for the crust of the earth at every point on the globe."
You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson's suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the devil. But you worship a god-man who - as you tell your congregations even if you don't believe it yourself - 'cast out devils'. You even believe (or you don't disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the 'devils' in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift and inspire the Sunday School and the Infant Bible Class. Pat Robertson may spout evil nonsense, but he is a mere amateur at that game. Just read your own Bible. Pat Robertson is true to it. But you?

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for 'sin' - or suffering as 'atonement' for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up.
You may weep now too, Mr. Dawkins, but where have you been up until now? You make an ostentatious donation and urge your atheist followers to do the same in order to prove that you are as compassionate as the religious, but where have you been and what is your answer to evil, but nothing?

I reiterate what Sean Michael Winters recently wrote
My friend Christopher Hitchens says that the suffering of one child should force us to question the existence of God. And so it should. But, it is more than a little ironic that Hitchens’ robustly secular worldview does not require anything in the way of solidarity with the suffering of a child and the religious worldview he questions not only demands such solidarity, it already had people on the ground before the earthquake. The Church’s concern and care for the poor does not need a headline to become manifest, it is on-going, and has been from that day when the Master fed the hungry multitudes with five loaves and two fish until today.
I’m not really trying to be confrontational here. I actually do have some respect for flat-out atheists, even the new radical variety we see in people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and PZ Myers, etc… At least they come by their skepticism honestly. They trust in empiricism and nothing else, and that’s understandable . Arguments crafted around the Bible, apostolic witness and succession, Aristotle’s First Cause and Unmoved Mover, Anselm’s Ontological Argument, and Pascal’s Wager are unconvincing and unpersuasive for them. OK. Fair enough. In addition, it has to be admitted that theodicy is certainly a problem for Christianity. It’s always been there, it’s nothing new, but at least we grapple with it. One thing I’ve noticed about the new atheists, however, is that no one looks to them for comfort or for an explanation when their children die. They have none to offer in either case.

When he posted this column on his website, he got plenty of accolades and “attaboys” from his admirers, and some counter-arguments from religious believers, but of the thousands and thousands of comments that rolled in I appreciated this humble and cautionary note I happened to notice that came from a humanist, a certain Luis Cayetano:
Good article, but there is an important qualification that needs to be made: the Haitian disaster wasn't simply the result of plate tectonics, it was also the result of economic fundamentalism. A similar earthquake that struck California killed 63 people. In Haiti, they've registered 170,000 bodies in Port-au-Prince. We should be asking why Haiti doesn't have any building codes, why its government isn't empowered to make sovereign economic decisions on behalf of its people, and why so many people live in slums in the first place.

The religious exploitation of the tragedy should be treated with the contempt it deserves (this is of course something that shouldn't even need mentioning), but let's not miss the most important factor here: how WE might have contributed to this disaster. We already know that Robertson is a sorry excuse for a human being. That's easy to acknowledge, and easy to deal with in the sense that it doesn't provoke any cognitive dissonance within us. What's harder is to challenge doctrines that WE'RE responsible for allowing to be perpetuated and implemented. If we miss the elephant in the room, then we effectively endorse doctrines just as pernicious and harmful as anything being spouted by Robertson, and our critiques of Robertson, while justified, won't be as principled as we would like to imagine. As Dawkins has said on so many occassions, ideas have consequences. Let's not overlook that when it comes to secular mythologies. If anything, we should hold ourselves to standards far higher than we would ever dream of holding religious fanatics up to, if we dare to call ourselves rationalists and humanists in the fullest sense of those terms.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Misplaced Anger and Misguided Populism

The Meaning of Scott Brown

Oh, how soon we forget. Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank discuss how blame was shifted from Bush/Cheney to Obama in just one year

Said Cristina from Aosta (Northern Italy):
The Brown election ( and the voters attitude against Obama and Heath care) reminds me a Italian saying : ” Un uomo che si evira per fare dispetto alla moglie” – “A man to play a nasty trick on his wife castrates himself.”
I was going to write a post congratulating Google for standing up to the Chinese government and refusing to abide any longer by China's censoring rules once they had detected organized and coordinated hacking attempts on the gmail accounts of various Chinese dissidents. It would have been nice if they had acted earlier out of conviction; out of principles related to respect for free speech and human rights and less out of their concern about intrusions into their proprietary operating systems, but at least it's something. At least somebody is standing up to China over something.

I've been by turn both solicitous towards China as in here (in the case of their earthquake), and critical of them (as in here, here, and here). I don't get many comments on this blog, but the majority of the ones I do get these days are Chinese language spam getting bounced off of various servers in Taiwan and making its way past Blogger's word verification. I've had a couple of bad viruses on my home machine in the past year that have required me to re-install the O/S from scratch. That might explain why I’m a target for all of this, but I also find myself wondering if just a bit of it has anything to do with my content.

I wanted to congratulate Google. After the Supreme Court’s astonishing SCOTUS decision, however, which seems to equate speech with money and further solidifies the court’s dubious contention that a corporation is actually the same thing as a person, I’ve been giving second thoughts towards publishing a “Good for Google” post. After all, with their doggedly proven determination to be the dominant personal information owners & brokers in the age of cloud computing, I find myself wondering who we should fear more…. Authoritarian governments such as China’s, or corporate behemoths like Google?

I found great irony in the fact that the day after Republican Scott Brown’s winning of “the people’s seat” in Massachusetts, hailed by both him and his supporters as a victory of “the common man over special interests,” the Supreme Court, with a majority built around recent Republican appointees, voted to overturn precedent and to grant corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. You can’t make stuff like this up. I mention the unions, toothless and insignificant as they are by virtue of the fact that they only represent 7% of the private sector workforce, because it’s the only way to get a conservative to pay any attention to this decision at all. The whole thing doesn’t seem to matter much to Brown or to the people who voted for him. It doesn’t seem to matter much to the whole Tea Party crowd in general, which is why I suspect that a lot of the so-called right-wing populism we see these days is manufactured and orchestrated rather than genuinely spontaneous.

As a blogger from Massachusetts, I suppose it would be remiss of me not to offer my take on the whole Scott Brown phenomenon. I really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him during the tail end of 2009 because I don’t have much use for pro-choice Republicans as a rule of thumb in any case, but when I was watching Brown's acceptance speech the other night I was struck by what an intellectual lightweight he appears to be. All of this nonsense about his “available” daughters and pickup trucks... I felt like I was watching an event in Alabama. In the midst of that crowd I didn't recognize Massachusetts at all. The guy from Wrentham in the pickup truck, playing the regular-guy populist role as if he was a pipe-fitter, is a BC Law School grad who owns 5 properties, including a timeshare in Aruba.

I don't know what all of these ecstatic people think Brown is going to be able to do for them. Is he going to advocate for more of the same failed deregulatory Bush policies that were so thoroughly discredited in the financial meltdown of 2008? Sadly, I think the constant paranoiac drumbeat at FOX News has sunk into the American mindset more than I would like to admit. People in my state were cheering for the suspension of constitutional rights and the negation of the rule of law? It’s chilling, and these people have voted for another failed presidency in a time when we can least afford one.

I have to put some of the blame on the Democrats too. They raised people's hopeful expectations at the federal level and in our state too (under Deval Patrick), and failed to deliver on national health care reform despite the fact that they controlled both the White House and Congress. Now, angry people are just lashing out at whoever is in power without thinking, swinging like a gate in the wind.

I offer no defense for the Democrats. Martha Coakley ran a miserably lackadaisical, arrogant and impersonal campaign. She’s an extremely bright and competent woman, but a terrible campaigner. I’ll always have fondness and respect for her for the way she won justice for Matthew Eappen as a prosecutor against a team of dishonest defense lawyers in the Louise Woodward case (Coakley was the victim of popular anger in that instance too, and a spineless judge bowed to public pressure and set aside the verdict). Nevertheless, she couldn’t get away with arrogant remarks that revealed her as being out of touch with the public, and her suggestion that devout Catholics shouldn’t work in emergency rooms (in response to a question about conscience clauses and medical workers) was inexplicable, especially considering that her husband is a daily communicant. Is this really what the Democratic Party has come to? By Democratic Party standards, at least in Massachusetts, if someone has difficulty comprehending how two men make for a marriage he’s branded as a homophobe and a bigot, but at the same time it’s not unreasonable for Democrats to suggest that people with religious scruples shouldn’t work in emergency rooms... This is a seriously confused party that has lost its way in some key fundamental areas. It’s small wonder that so many people found it impossible to cast a vote for her even though they may have wanted to find reasons to do so.

There’s a place for populist anger. I consider myself a populist in many ways, but what frustrates me is how misplaced the anger in this country is and how misguided the trajectory of the middle class populist movement has been. Despite what was done to the country by Wall Street, middle class anger is being directed downward (towards immigrants and people receiving public assistance), not upward. Instead of being angry at people at the top who’ve rigged the game so that they have everything, the middle class is angry at powerless people who have next to nothing. They’ve also been conditioned to hold nothing but contempt for government, which does not bode well for the future of a republic.

IMHO, the biggest problem this country faces is the mass disappearance of middle class jobs as a result of technological automation and of the competitive pressures of globalization. The exodus of these jobs coupled with the effects of deregulation which created a superclass of corporate executives and financial professionals has created the largest gap in income equality we’ve seen since 1929. Bruce Judson, Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management writes:
In 2007, the percent of total income received by the top 10% of families was 49.74%, or effectively one-half of the nation's total. This compares to 1980, when the top 10% received 34.63%, or about one-third of all income.
No republic can survive this kind of widening of income inequality without experiencing great social upheaval. Despite this, the mantra you hear at FOX News these days from libertarian apologists is how unfair it is that “40% of Americans pay no federal income taxes and that the wealthy shouldn’t be expected to keep shouldering more of the burden.” I don’t know if that statistic is correct or not, but if that many people are experiencing downward mobility to the extent that they are now eligible for earned income tax credits, it should be a cause for alarm for all of us about where we are heading, not a battle cry of resentment on the part of the wealthy.

As for my impression of Scott Brown, I have a feeling that people don’t know him as well as they think they do. The Tea Party folks are one thing, but I think a lot of social conservatives are going to be quite surprised at his views over time. As David Gibson pointed out in Politics Daily:
The political flexibility of religious conservatives in backing the pro-choice Brown certainly worked, and indeed may have put Brown over the top. But it also revealed two other realities of modern American politics.

The first is that there are Christian conservatives and there are Christian conservatives. The largely evangelical and conservative Catholic support for Brown and against health care reform contrasts sharply with the position of progressive evangelicals and the influential Catholic bishops of the United States, who have declared universal health care a "pro-life issue" and who were ready to throw their support behind Obamacare if, as was possible, it included sufficient bars on abortion funding. That is a gap wide enough to drive a health care bill through, though Democrats have never figured out how to exploit it.

The second is that the same powerful forces that carried Brown to victory -- and that many religious conservatives embraced in their zeal to block Obama -- often pay little heed to moral issues like abortion and gay marriage and stem cell research. Tea Party conservatism is at its core about unemployment and economic anxiety and anger and throwing out the rascals, whoever they are, or even if they are on the side of the angels. That could come back to haunt social conservatives.
Scott Brown seems like an affable enough fellow, and the following might seem like needless ad hominem, but I have a persistent feeling that Scott Brown is really pretty much all about Scott Brown.

I could be wrong. He could surprise me, but with the nude Cosmo shoot in 1982, his shallow frat-boy kind of remarks in Cosmo at the time, the marriage to the popular local news personality, the daughter on American Idol, the triathlons, etc… I just get the distinct impression that this is an extremely narcissistic man who craves attention. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first such senator by a long shot.

By the way, Scott Brown isn’t alone in that family for having posed for provocative shots. His wife, the extremely professional and impressive Boston newsreporter Gail Huff, was in a 1980s Digney Fignus rock video – The Girl with the Curious Hand. Here it is, just for kicks (click image).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prayers and Help for Haiti

Starting last Fall, my son has had the exceedingly good fortune to have a chance to play for a club soccer team that is run by the New England Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph. He's great at working with kids, and so are his coaches. Many of the coaches and staff associated with the club are from Haiti.

As more and more reports come in, we are seeing the horrific consequences emerging from Haiti as a result of the earthquake that struck this week. The scope of the destruction is enormous and the death toll may reach into the tens of thousands.

It took some of the coaches a long time to get any news out of Haiti, but as of today we now know that they've lost family members. Please join me in praying not only for them and their families, but for the thousands and thousands of people who are suffering in Haiti from this tragedy.

Ways to help:

Doctors without Borders. Hit Donate, choose ecards and tributes; choose donate online; and under tribute information type Shalrie Joseph SC Lions (If you write 'Shalrie Joseph SC Lions' for the tribute, they will ensure all donations go to Haiti).

Also, see America magazine:

Ways to Help

More Ways to Help in Haiti: JRS

How to Help in Haiti

Michael Sean Winters writes On Suffering:

On mornings like this, only the tears flow easily. Thoughts and words grapple with the enormity of a tragedy so devastating. Three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse have made their grim way to Haiti – War is busy elsewhere – and yet, already, we discern a fifth horseman on the horizon, Chaos, and know that he may bring the most evil and be the most difficult to overcome...

My friend Christopher Hitchens says that the suffering of one child should force us to question the existence of God. And so it should. But, it is more than a little ironic that Hitchens’ robustly secular worldview does not require anything in the way of solidarity with the suffering of a child and the religious worldview he questions not only demands such solidarity, it already had people on the ground before the earthquake. The Church’s concern and care for the poor does not need a headline to become manifest, it is on-going, and has been from that day when the Master fed the hungry multitudes with five loaves and two fish until today. Still, Hitchens’ question cannot be dismissed by good works. Why is there this new, acute suffering in a land where suffering was already chronic?

There is no answer to the question of suffering...

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete ... spoke about the mystery of suffering. He warned us not to try and seek answers to our suffering lest we become like Job’s friends. They, too, tried to explain to Job why he suffered and, at the end of the story, God upbraids them for this. He told us that only those who love suffer, that only a heart that is open is capable of breaking, and so the mystery is not suffering, the mystery is love. In the end, we are not called to understand suffering nor to explain it, but to embrace it as the price of love.

Today, let us embrace the suffering we feel in our hearts and the much greater suffering we see in the streets of Haiti. Let us turn our prayers to God, not in the manner of Job’s friends, but in the manner of the Mother of God, silently standing at the foot of the Cross... In a word, let us not be crippled by the suffering we see but let us find ways to love these Haitian neighbors in this dreadful hour. The mystery is not suffering. The mystery is love.