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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Blind Faith: It's not just for the religious anymore.

Recently in the LA Times (registration required), someone named Sam Harris has pronounced a fatwa against unfrozen caveman types who insist on pestering the rest of the world with the stories and mores of their nonexistent Bronze Age Palestinian sky god.

Verdict? Guilty of aggravated idiocy. [Warning: salty language to follow.]

President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed — for the moment — to bring the Constitution into conformity with Judeo-Christian teachings.

Everyone--and I mean every last one of us on this benighted orb--has gods. Something we follow or pursue with adoration and a single-minded determination. It's either God (glimpsed and followed however unknowingly, incompletely or incorrectly), or something created. When it's created, that condition is something we extra-Y-chromosome types call "idolatry," which essentially prefers the created items of this earth to its sovereign Creator.

The last century has just been lousy with idolatry, with billions choosing to worship an ideology, the State, material goods, or (increasingly) our marvelous selves.

Mr. Sam Harris is a practical polytheist, whether he knows it or not. His first god is a piece of yellowed parchment written by slave owners whose home states had established churches. His demigods are a pantheon of smart enlightened people (those who agree with him, naturally) fortunate enough to be able to afford law school, pass a two day exam, pay a yearly fee to maintain a license, and either afford to advertise for a judgeship or be connected enough to get appointed to one. Sounds remarkably elitist and anti-democratic to me, but since that's what the parchment says, Harris hears and obeys.

Don't get me wrong--I love the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the American experiment in liberty. It permits obscure blowhards like me to fulminate at great length without fear of being tossed into the slammer, where minions of the displeased state can attach electrodes to my testicles or threaten to mutilate my loved ones. It birthed a republic where I don't have to bow and scrape to some inbred with a title. It created a nation where I can better my family's prospects, and one where I can worship (or not) freely.

I even suspect I like parts of it he doesn't, like that sentence that recognizes my right to own a boomstick from S-Mart. But, ultimately, it's a document drafted by deeply flawed human beings.

Which brings me to my next point: Harris' idol itself was flawed from its remarkable birth. Even the slave-owning establishmentarians who signed it recognized that circumstances could change, rendering the document itself in need of change. As in "amendment." As in what's been done 28 times. As in what those evil Republicans were trying to do a couple weeks back.

Not so by the way: man-woman marriage is hardly a "Judeo-Christian" concept. It's more a Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Hindu-Confucian-Buddhist-Animist-Et Cetera thing. No major religion's keen on marrying people with the same plumbing. But do go on--blaming it on Christians tends to excite the LA Times' fan base.

But even if they had passed a bill calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, that would have been only a beginning. Leviticus 20:13 and the New Testament book of Romans reveal that the God of the Bible doesn't merely disapprove of homosexuality; he specifically says homosexuals should be killed: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death."

The perils of atheists quoting the Bible. It's a little like me trying to breakdance: I don't exactly do the art form any credit and look like the Chippendales-sketch Chris Farley in full meltdown mode.

Leviticus says that. Romans doesn't. You might want to try to actually read the material you are trashing before flapping your blowhole, Mr. Harris. Oh, and another thing--you might want to study up on how often Jews, pre-Christianity, applied capital punishment in all such cases.
Such commandments were believed to be prescriptive, the penalties were rarely applied, required extensive proof and the authorities imposed extensive procedural safeguards which also increased the rarity of the sanction. Translation: hen's teeth rare, and a warning to shape conduct. Christian scholarship agrees:

"Many of the penalties listed here [Leviticus 20:9-21] prescribe a 'cutting off,' in contrast to a judicial execution. Some have rather convincingly argued that the expression to 'cut off' in many of these lists of penalties meant to excommunicate that person from the community of God. The case, however, is not altogether clear, for in some of these situations, the threat of punishment from God in some form of premature death appears to fit the meaning best.

It must be noted that the death penalty might also indicate the seriousness of the crime without calling for the actual implementation of it in every case. In fact, there is little evidence that many of these sanctions were ever carried out in ancient Israel. Only in the case of premeditated murder was there the added stricture of 'Do not accept a ransom for the life of the murder, who deserves to die (Numbers 35:31). The word ransom is the Hebrew kopfer, meaning a 'deliverance or a ransom by means of a substitute.' Traditional wisdom, in both the Jewish and Christian communities, interpreted this verse in Numbers 35:31 to mean that out of the almost 20 cases calling for capital punishment in the Old Testament, every one of them could have the sanction commuted by an appropriate substitute of money or anything that showed the seriousness of the crime; but in the case of what we today call first-degree murder, there was never to be offered or accepted any substitute or bargaining of any kind: the offender had to pay with his or her life."

Kaiser, et al, (Eds.), Hard Sayings of the Bible (IVP 1996), p. 162.

God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents.

"God also instructs us to murder...." Nice. Spoken like a certified, braying jackass. See above for refutation of the same.

In addition, Mr. Harris doesn't mention, interestingly enough, that the same penalties applied to guys who slept with their mothers, sisters and daughters, or Springer-bait women who do the same with male relatives. After all, he wouldn't want to elicit any gut sympathy for the Levitical code in his go-along-to-get-along, just-as-long-as-nobody-gets-hurt Times readership, I suppose.

While they're at it, members of Congress might want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because it turns out that God approves of slavery — unless a master beats his slave so severely that he loses an eye or teeth, in which case Exodus 21 tells us he must be freed.

I haven't seen an article that contains so much concentrated ignorance combined with swaggering a-hole arrogance in a long, long time. It can't possibly be all that impressive to even a sympathetic audience, can it? There's too much of a stench of "Sophomore Atheist with a 2.8 GPA Lectures Planet" wafting up in gale-force gusts. It wears more quickly at book length. My prediction for sales? Sitting in piles at Borders' Outlets in six months, sporting $2.99 stickers, and about to be marked down even further. It's not political enough to fool the same morons who buy Michael Moore, nor is it soft enough to replace two-ply on an extended basis.

Here's my challenge for "God approves of slavery" fanatics: Prove it, gasbag. Find the verse where the Almighty mandates slavery, and approves of it as a positive good.

Happy hunting.

Oh, and in the process, try to explain why the earliest abolitionists--men like William Wilberforce and John Wesley--were devout Christians who revered the Bible.

What should we conclude from all this? That whatever their import to people of faith, ancient religious texts shouldn't form the basis of social policy in the 21st century. The Bible was written at a time when people thought the Earth was flat, when the wheelbarrow was high tech.

Hooray! The Technology Equals Morality Sect beams in with a pitcher of Kool-Aid! Please--have a nice big glass!

Hoo, boy. Where to begin? Let's keep it short:

"Silly primitives: couldn't even come up with Zyklon B."

Say what you will about the "social policy" of first century Hebrews, but I'd much rather have visited Herod's Temple than Hitler's Auschwitz or Stalin's Vorkuta (and both of the latter cultures had electricity and flush toilets).

How about you?

Are its teachings applicable to the challenges we now face as a global civilization?


Consider the subject of stem-cell research.


Many religious people, drawing from what they've heard from the pulpit, believe that 3-day-old embryos — which are microscopic collections of 150 cells the size of a pinhead — are fully endowed with human souls and, therefore, must be protected as people. But if we know anything about the neurology of sensory perception, we know that there is no reason to believe that embryos at this stage of development have the capacity to sense pain to suffer or to experience death in any way at all.

Many religious people are also aware of two other things. First, "stem cell research" is a much wider field than Mr. Harris seems to understand. In addition to cannibalizing embryos for spare parts, it also includes the removal of stem cells from adults and the umbilical cords of infants. The difference of course, is that non-embroynic stem cells have been successfully used to treat actual illnesses while the former has only been successfully used to medicate consciences that would otherwise be troubled by the idea of abortion.

But embryonic stem-cell research is the only one that gets press. Go figure.

The second thing ensoullment freaks know is that Mr. Harris' reasoning is grotesquely flawed, based as it is on our current levels of understanding and the philosophy of pain avoidance uber alles. It comes down to this: under Harris' religious beliefs, we could forcibly experiment on comatose patients, persons with Alzheimer's, people in persistent vegetative states, or other useless eaters, so long as enough ether has been applied to both the patient and the collective conscience of the society willing to take a flier on it. Mr. Harris is probably opposed to such things--even vehemently so--but on what distinguishing basis does he object?

The "ick" factor is a mighty flimsy barrier to an otherwise ethically-impaired society fearful of pain and death.

(There are, for comparison's sake, 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.)

Mickey Mantle's last home run was hit at Tiger Stadium in 1968, the last year the regular season really meant something in baseball. It is also widely believed (if not fully confirmed by those involved), that Denny McLain deliberately served up a home run ball in a meaningless game as a tribute to the retiring Yankee great and to give the home crowd a thrill.

In the parlance of the game, this is called "grooving a pitch." It's sometimes done involuntarily, when a hurler ends up serving a pitch that the hitter is especially capable of crushing.

Whether he knows it or not, Harris just grooved one:

100,000 brain cells, eh? Given your comparative mental wattage, next time let the fly write the essay.

These facts notwithstanding, our president and our leaders in Congress, many of them citing religious teachings,

The...horror........the horror....

have decided to put the rights of undifferentiated cells before those of men and women suffering from spinal cord injuries, full-body burns, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

"These facts notwithstanding, our president and our leaders in Congress, many of them citing religious teachings, have decided to put the rights of those I don't deem to be fully human before those of fully-functional people terrified of infirmity. Like me."

Of course, the Bible is not the only ancient text that casts a shadow over the present. A social policy based on the Koran poses even greater dangers. Koran 9:123 tells us it is the duty of every Muslim man to "make war on the infidels who dwell around you." Osama bin Laden may be despicable, but it is hard to argue that he isn't acting in accord with at least some of the teachings of the Koran. It is true that most Muslims seem inclined to ignore the Koran's solicitations to martyrdom and jihad, but we cannot overlook the fact that some are not so inclined and that some of them murder innocent people for religious reasons. The phrase "the war on terrorism" is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles, because we are currently at war with precisely a vision of life presented to Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with "the friends of Satan"? Why did 19 well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed, on the authority of the Koran, that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so easily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.

I am thankful for Mr. Harris' article because of this section. At one time, I would have been inclined to give him a partial thumb's up (after retracting the tall finger) for his refreshingly anti-PC take on Islam. "Finally," I would have said.

But that would be deeply dishonest: if he bungled Judaism and Christianity that badly, I have no reason to believe that his take on Islam is any more honest, accurate or fair. Yes, there is a deeply violent strain running through a disturbingly large segment of Islam right now. Yes, the best of Muslims are too often silent when they should be acting against the worst among them. I know a Maronite Catholic who now lives here because his Muslim neighbors made life impossible for him back in Lebanon. He loves America, but he's still an exile.

But. There's obviously another take on those verses. I live forty-odd minutes away from the largest enclave of Muslims in North America. But my neighbors and I are not beating back human wave assaults coming out of Dearborn. I've represented Bengali Muslims in the past, and never heard one bad word about Christians and Jews from them (though they were quite critical of other Muslims).

So, yeah, I'm not buying what Harris is peddling about Islam. And you shouldn't either.

That, and Martin Niemoller is echoing around my cranium right now:

"They came for the Muslims, and I said nothing, because I was not a Muslim...."

Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person's religious beliefs.

We all, to some extent, become our parents. My dad and mom show up periodically in the way I speak or react to certain events. Upon reading the above two sentences, I had a vision of my daughters and son, twenty years from now, quietly reading a newspaper or magazine in the living room of our home. I see Madeleine, Dale or Rachel in mid-article, his or her eyes narrowing, a frown quickly developing, turning into a derisive scowl, followed by a loudly barked

"Oh, bulls**t."

Yeah, it's really "taboo" in these parts, Voltaire. "Always, and everywhere exonerated."

Suuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrre, it is.

Enjoying your stay on our planet? While you're at the spaceport, put down the Columbian Chronic and pick up a copy of The Da Vinci Code, mm-kay? Read that mega-million-selling "exoneration" of the faith of two billion-plus people.

Exoneration, evisceration--whatever.

About the only time religious belief gets the "always and everywhere" treatment is when it advances the dogma of the Church of the Affirmed Wang.

Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between the major religious traditions is simply never discussed. Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They too suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam versus those of Buddhism and Christianity.

Partial truth, but, as always, misses an important factor. The fact is, the Dark-Age brand of Islam advanced by Al Qaeda would have about as much influence in Islam as Paul Hill had on Christianity but for the fact that the Al Qaeda's philosophy is literally fueled by supertankerfuls of Saudi oil money. Wahhabi Islam is not an attractive philosophy, but it's loaded, and money talks. If he didn't have cash, bin Laden would be as popular as Fred Phelps.

There are now more people in our country who believe that the universe was created in six solar days than there were in Europe in the 14th century.

Don't know about this one, but I'll take him on faith (rimshot). Welllll--there are about five times more people in this country as there were in pre-plague 14th Century Europe.

So it stands to reason, Sherlock. If anything, you should be pleased that the proportion of those holding such views as a share of the total population has dropped dramatically.

In the eyes of most of the civilized world, the United States is now a rogue power — imperialist, inarticulate and retrograde in its religiosity. Our erstwhile allies are right not to trust our judgment.

Oderint dum metuant.

Fine, too glib by half.

I don't mean that. Mostly. But I've always wanted to use that phrase in context, and there was my chance.

More substantive response: most of that same civilized world routinely averts its gaze from genocide, gladly does business with gore-drenched despots and generally behave like lazy hedonists on an extended Cancun bender. Moral approbation from that quarter needs to be taken not with a grain of salt, but the whole damn lick.

We elect leaders who squander time and money on issues like gay marriage, Janet Jackson's anatomy, Howard Stern's obscenities, marijuana use and a dozen other trifles lying at the heart of the Christian social agenda, while potentially catastrophic problems like nuclear proliferation and climate change go unresolved.

Trifles, eh? If keeping marriage what it always has been is a trifle in Harris' world, I'd say he's single and has no kids.

As to the rest, I have an idea. What we need is someone to beam radio signals consisting of nothing but Stern's rants into his home theatre system, and plaster his apartment windows and windshield with Ms. Jackson's rogue knocker, all done on a daily basis. Then maybe he'll get it.

Apropos of nothing, according to Janet herself, her sagging cleavage was actually part of a deft plot by President Bushitler to distract the country from the Iraqi Adventure. The man can't utter a coherent sentence, but he's so diabolically clever he can wave the Flappy Boob to distract the Voting Boobs, playing them like a master grifter.

Rain President.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

We elected a president who believes the jury is still out on evolution and who rejects sound, scientific judgments on the environment, on medical research, on family planning and on HIV/AIDS prevention in the developing world.

Our selected-not-elected Pope-Emperor is opposed to evolution? Citation, please--Harris hasn't exactly earned the benefit of any doubt in this little screed of his.

I'll bet those sound, scientific environmental judgments will be...somewhat less authoritative when Harris is paying $5 per gallon to fill up the Maxima. How many of those "erstwhile allies" ratified Kyoto again?

And let's see: family planning and HIV prevention. That would be (1) abort 'em and (2) wrap Mr. Happy in a Ziplock, right?

Pay no attention to Uganda, please.

The consequence, as we saw in recent elections in Spain, is that people who feel misled and entrapped by our dogmatic and peremptory approach to foreign policy will be unable to recognize a common enemy, even when that enemy massacres hundreds of people in their nation's capital.

I tried to make heads or tails of this one: the Spanish electorate was mad at our theocratic system because the ruling party of Spain attempted to pass off an Al Qaeda attack as the work of Basque terrorists? Uh....OK.

I need an Editor--stat!

It is time we recognize that religious beliefs have consequences.

As do yours, buddy.

As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels — and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it.

Which is why the Renaissance Center just collapsed into rubble.


Believe that "life starts at the moment of conception" and you will happily stand in the way of medical research that could alleviate the suffering of millions of your fellow human beings.

But life does start at the moment of conception, you twit. That's been conceded, dimwit, by the very science you try to wield as a club against your fellow citizens. You've been driven back to the defense line entitled "personhood," which forces you, against the consistency demanded by your logic, to draw some rather arbitrary lines between those you call "persons" and those you don't.

Rather god-like, when it comes down to it.

Believe that there is a God who sees and knows all things, and yet remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual acts between consenting adults, and you will think it ethical to punish people for engaging in private behavior that harms no one.

The Church of the Affirmed Wang, sharing the good news of no more guilt. On deck: polygamy, consensual adult incest, and lowered age of consent laws ("adulthood" being an artificial social construct and hangover from a more puritanical time, don't you know?). Caligulesque from my vantage point, but 'twouldn't be ethical to punish people because of my parochial views.

Now that our elected leaders have grown entranced by pseudo-problems like gay marriage, even while the genuine enemies of civilization hurl themselves at our gates, perhaps it is time we subjected our religious beliefs to the same standards of evidence we require in every other sphere of our lives. Perhaps it is time for us to realize, at the dawn of this perilous century, that we are paying too high a price to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

Yes, bring the jubilee. I wonder how Harris' libertine new order would deal with the backward non-conformists in their midst? When they are unpersuaded by the "evidence" refuting them, and still refuse to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar's new "toleration" policy. You can't make an omelette...

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