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February 14, 2007

Matthew 6
Posted by Patrick at 10:38 PM * 152 comments

Atrios highlights this bit from “religious left” spokesperson (and former Kerry campaign “director of religious outreach”) Mara Vanderslice:

I’ve never been more on fire for the work that I’m doing. I hope that I’ll find a way to continue to pioneer this path for the Democrats. I’d love to be involved in continuing to build up the voices of faith in the party and providing the training and infrastructure on the ground to state parties, to future candidates, to reach out to these constituencies, because I just believe that the religious community can be the conscience and the soul of the Democratic Party, and the more we bring that back in, I believe, the stronger our party will be, the better we’ll be able to represent our positive vision for the future, and I think it’ll help us start winning elections again.
Atrios, not a religious person at all as far as I know, takes exception to the arrogance implicit in Vanderslice’s assertion that “the religious community can be the conscience and the soul of the Democratic Party”. Observes Atrios: “[T]his is part and parcel with the basic messages people like me get regularly from people all over the spectrum, that atheists and agnostics lack a conscience and a sense of values, and these things only come from religion and the religious.”

Atrios is right. Theologically, too. Vanderslice’s unselfconscious remark, meant for her own brand of religious insider, reeks of the same kind of spiritual vanity we’ve seen all too often from the self-anointed “religious left.” “The religious community can be the conscience and the soul of the Democratic Party”? As in, nobody else has a conscience, or a detectable soul? Amazing how much unearned snottiness, to say nothing of bad theology, can be encapsulated in just a couple of definite articles.

I’d like to take all these hustlers, Jim Wallis, Mara Vanderslice, Brian O’Dwyer, and the rest of them, roll them up in a paper bag, and toss them into a room with nothing to read except the archives of Slacktivist. There’s what actual religious seriousness looks like. Meanwhile, speaking as a religious person, I’ll take Pharyngula and The Rude Pundit over the lot of them.

Comments on Matthew 6:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2007, 11:13 PM:

(Besides, anyone who refers to William Donahue as "a man whose ass is so tight he shits dental floss" has instantly stored up enough grace to power entire communions of saints. Of Transformers. Of Godzillas.)

#2 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2007, 11:40 PM:

And who is the patron saint of Transformers and Godzillas?

#3 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:01 AM:

Q: And who is the patron saint of Transformers and Godzillas?

A: Um, Archie McPhee?

#4 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:18 AM:

And does a literal reading of Matthew 6:3 mandate a full corpus callosotomy before alms?

#5 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:19 AM:

As a non-religious person, I wasn't put off so much by the arrogance as I was curious about the basic disconnect.

Let's roll the tape... "I just believe that the religious community can be the conscience and the soul of the Democratic Party, and the more we bring that back in, I believe, the stronger our party will be, the better we’ll be able to represent our positive vision for the future, and I think it’ll help us start winning elections again."

p1. How would the Democratic Party be any different if the current set of religiously affiliated leaders were replaced by other members of the so-called "religious community?"

p2. I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that the new "conscience and soul of the Democratic Party" will be just as quick as the old one to squeeze its atheist and non-religious constituents with Sister Souljah gambits. Why wouldn't it?

p2. Oh wait, I see what the difference is you're hoping this will make. The wonderful "positive vision of the future" that the Democratic Party already possesses will be so much "better represented" by its new and improved leadership. Well, aren't you just special.

p3. Lastly, when did the Democratic Party stop winning elections? I'm sorry about raising my voice there, but it just seemed really odd, given the results of the 2006 mid-terms. Have I been trapped in a virtual pseudoreality matrix again? I hate when that happens, and I miss important elections!

#6 ::: paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:22 AM:

Patrick I'm SO GLAD I'm reading this at home and not at work. I had to step back and tell myself to breath. Yikes.

#7 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:36 AM:

Kevin Drum also picks up on Atrios's post, and describes the offending bit as "harmless boilerplate". Leaving aside the question of harmlessness, he's right about the boilerplate. As in, a chunk of standardized language inserted automatically into a document. As in, something written or said without thought. As in, just the sort of thing Orwell was talking about when he described writing that "consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

In other words, Vanderslice had some handy stock phrases, and she lazily used them in place of actually thinking about what she was saying.

#8 ::: FMguru ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:39 AM:

The "religious left" sells itself as trying to take back religious discourse from the Falwells and Dobsons of the world, but in practice they seem to spend 90% of their time hectoring Democrats about not being sufficiently receptive to their particular strand of religious politics, which in practice are usually just slightly-attenuated versions of religious right talking points.

If they really were kicking conservative ass from a liberal-religious perspective, that'd be great. But they don't. Instead of James Dobson Is A Giant Hypocrite and Jesus Was A Big Believer In Helping The Poor You Know and The Bible Doesn't Say That You Morons, we get Let's Compromise On Abortion and Stop Talking About Equal Rights For Gays and What Does It Hurt Really To Put The Ten Commandments In Every Classroom Anyway. They're worse than useless.

And again, the weird emphasis on pinning future Democratic success on appealing to the very people least likely to switch to the Democrats (i.e. white Southern and suburban Evangelicals). This is the counterpart to the Mudcat Saunders plan of revitalizing the Democrats by winning over working class Southerner NASCAR fans (instead of the much more viable Thomas Schaller "Whistling Past Dixie" strategy of appealing to Westerners and Latinos). Both of them aim squarely at the most difficult-to-switch components of the Republican base, which is just stupid. Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan didn't build their majorities around retaking Berkeley or Harlem - they went after much easier targets (disaffected rust belt workers, etc.) It's a terrible strategy that's doomed to fail, which would no doubt be explained as the Democrats being insufficiently devout in sucking up to Evangelicals, so they'd better move even further to the right on religious affairs (sorry, gays and women - guess you'll just have to take another hit for the team.). And on and on until the Democratic Party is acceptable to Dobson and Falwell. What a great strategy! Where do I sign up?

The other thing that amuses me about the actual advice the "religious left" spouts is that it's all built around language. The idea is that if Democrats use more religious language and imagery and bible quotes, then we'd show religous voters that we're not hostile to them and they'd be more likely to support us. That's right - religious voters are such easy marks that they can be swayed with just a little more honeyed God-talk. Sheesh, and they accuse us seculars of belittling and disrespecting believers.

Besides, it doesn't work. Bill Clinton filled his speeches with scriptural references (anyone remember the New Covenant?). Obama talks about his faith all the time, Hillary gives a lot of speeches in churches, John Kerry went to mass like clockwork. And still, we get finger waving lectures from the "relgious left" about how hostile to religion we are, and Christian social conservatives are still the unmovable granite base of the Republican coalition.

Finally, Steve Gilliard made the point that this is also an exclusively white endeavor. Blacks and Latinos have strong, integrated religious components to their political structures and no Democrats have any problem with that. So why do we have throw all these people overboard in order to chase these very, very difficult-to-reach voters? It's nonsense.

#9 ::: Suzanne M ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:54 AM:

Sometimes I wonder if these "religious left" people are actually sent from the religious right to undermine the Democratic Party.

#10 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 12:59 AM:

FMGuru, you are so right that I now need a cigarette.

#11 ::: steve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:01 AM:

"I'm with God. And I am here to save your party."
"Sorry, Ms V. I think you have us mixed up with someone else."

If by "Christian" we mean people living by Christ's "Treat others as you would be treated" - by whatever means they choose to express that ideal - then I say let them all joint us in the Democratic party. It is this ethic, I believe, more than any other that informs the policies of the party faithful. One need not buy any of the other institutional trappings of the faith to buy the ideal: the enlightenment might have taught us that. Athiests sometimes managed the trick better than many "real Christians." Humility develops naturally from living according to this ideal, a kind that is absent Ms V's pronouncement.

#12 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:06 AM:

Along with Slacktivist, I'd have them read Real Live Preacher and The Velveteer Rabbi as examples of seriously religious, seriously lefty viewpoints. The Democrats can learn a great deal from people whose focus is on people, not on elections.

#13 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:08 AM:

I'd like to see these self-appointed representatives of the "Religious Left" start by defending the religious mainstream that is being attacked by the religious right. Such as the Episcopalians who peacefully and democratically elected for their bishop a good man who happens to be gay, and are now threatened with the destruction of their church by a coordinated and well-funded campaign from outside. Or the United Church of Christ, who weren't allowed to run an ad on network TV because it said "Jesus didn't turn people away." I'm not holding my breath. These hustlers (thank you, Patrick) are all about pandering to the holier-than-thou crowd. They dare not talk about the real moral principles that unite the religious (and secular) left: freedom of religion, non-discrimination, and democracy. And not turning people away.

#14 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:10 AM:

And yet, and yet... It's my contrariness showing. But still...I wonder if, perhaps, the Democrats were more willing to publicly quote scripture, and say things like "who would Jesus torture?", "what does the Talmud say?", or even "is this Islamic?" we might not be in a better place today.

Avram #4, it's a whatch-you-call-it metterfor. Jesus not only spoke in parable and metaphor, he did puzzles, too. Look in Thomas.

#15 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:13 AM:

Avram, no surprise - this sort of power play in the guise of pandering to what bright young things imagine teh religious are interested in is a bit of a staple for the councils of the Serious Center of nominal Democrats.

It's just another clever way for people with nothing at stake to play Risk with human pawns.

#16 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:14 AM:

http://www.reallivepreacher.com/

What more need be said?

#17 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:16 AM:

I'm with you, Patrick. I have my own objections to certain bits of leftist rhetoric which I feel are contemptuous of religious faith, but I also object to Mara Vanderslice's blither which suggests that the Democratic Party doesn't have a moral center and needs to listen to self-identified and self-appointed religious spokespeople to find it. It does, we do, and at the core of that moral center is our Holy Scripture, otherwise known as the Constitution of the United States. (It may be boilerplate language, thank you Avram, but it isn't harmless, no, not at all.)

Isn't Mara Vanderslice a great name, though?

#18 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:25 AM:

Sometimes I wonder if these "religious left" people are actually sent from the religious right to undermine the Democratic Party.

I'm starting to get that very feeling, and I've only been blogging at Pandagon for a couple days.

#19 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:56 AM:

Christianity can never be truly compatible with democracy, anyway. It's too attached to the idea of obeying God. There's a reason they call it a Kingdom of Heaven. Ditto Judaism, and even more so, ditto Islam. God being inconveniently absent (or at least silent), this generally reduces to obeying his proxies and/or written pronouncements - regardless of what the governed think of them.

We can amend the Constitution, but can you imagine a religion that has a procedure for amending the Bible (or its equivalent)? The Constitution doesn't support slavery anymore - the Bible still does.

That's why church and state need to be kept separate - the church is an absolute monarchy and always will be. Peons like us don't have the right to suggest that God may have gotten a few things wrong and we might be better off changing them.

Accordingly, people anchored to the misogyny, gay-bashing, etc. of the Bible aren't going to move to the left in any significant way, which is why they keep trying to get the left to move to them, as FMguru points out.

#20 ::: FMguru ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:34 AM:

Sometimes I wonder if these "religious left" people are actually sent from the religious right to undermine the Democratic Party.

I think they're religious people who see Falwell and Dobson call the shots in the Republican Party and want to do the same within the Democratic Party. So their advice is primarily about increasing their influence in the Democratic Party, and only incidentally about getting Democrats elected or passing liberal legislation. They don't want to put the Democrats in the hands of Falwell and Dobson, they want to become Falwell and Dobson.

#21 ::: Individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:38 AM:

Chris, I've got into arguments before about the meme that religion is incompatible with democracy, so I shan't bother again. But I would point out that the whole basis of Judaism is, in effect, "a procedure for amending the Bible".

Religion is not synonymous with moronic Biblical literalism. However, I do agree with you that religion should be kept out of public life, and I also agree that the small proportion of religious people who are moronic Biblical literalists are never going to vote for progressive values.

#22 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:48 AM:

j h woodyatt, #5:

No, you haven't done the Timewarp again. The date on the interview is November 10, 2004, so the 2006 election wins were yet to come.

#23 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:53 AM:

The statement about Christianity not being compatible with democracy overlooks the history of congregations electing their bishops, and of the many Christian communities that were egalitarian or even communist in their organization. Sure, the Romans had better infantry, but just because they became the dominant branch of the Church doesn't mean there is no other way.

#24 ::: hamletta ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 03:33 AM:

But still...I wonder if, perhaps, the Democrats were more willing to publicly quote scripture, and say things like "who would Jesus torture?", "what does the Talmud say?", or even "is this Islamic?" we might not be in a better place today.

Wonder not. Of course we would.

But the Mara Vanderslices of the world advise against it, because 24 is real popular and stuff, so Democrats are just supposed to say that abortion is icky.

Because that's what faith is all about!

#25 ::: Ken MacLeod ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 03:50 AM:

Chris # 19:We can amend the Constitution, but can you imagine a religion that has a procedure for amending the Bible (or its equivalent)?

It's called the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches. Don't knock it.

#26 ::: Laurel ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:04 AM:

Chris #19:There's a reason they call it a Kingdom of Heaven.

That's why my church choir spends a few minutes every week changing all the "Lord," "Kingdom," "He," and so on before learning our music.

#27 ::: Mikael Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:21 AM:

Nowadays, one of my favourite personal anecdotes about "Meeting the weirdly religious" features an american mormon missionary in the town centre of Jena. He stopped me, and started the conversation with asking me whether I had considered the place of the Lord in my life.

Since I'd denote myself as quite a staunch atheist, and always enjoy a good argument, of course I stayed and spoke with him, arguing the points he was making, and pointing out what flaws I could see.

It didn't get painfully far out until he stated, straight off, that unless there is a Watchful and Vengeful God who Cares for You, everyone would succumb to orgies, robberies and all sorts of Bad Behaviour.

I called the notion preposterous, and still do, though am still amazed at the number of people I see expressing the idea that morality can only be had in their particular brand of religion.

#28 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:43 AM:

I don't really mind being described as not having a soul, since I'm pretty sure I don't actually have one. I mean, I don't have a homunculus in my head pulling levers to control me* either, nor do I think my personality is determined by the level of humours in my body. The incorporeal, immaterial, immortal soul is right up there with those fabulously inaccurate ideas.

(I do understand that they generally mean something bad by this - like that I'm some kind of biological robot. Mind you, since I completely agree with that statement and find it about as controversial as pointing out that I have two legs, I guess I'd have to work quite hard to take offense.)

On the other hand, last time I checked I did have a conscience - I have hardly eaten any babies this year, and I felt really bad about it afterwards, well, sort of, well, okay, not at all, but I did think that I probably should feel bad about it, which ought to count for something.

Anyway, I have no problem with Christian values per se, as long as we can go beyond the popular media/wingnut perception of them consisting entirely of opinions on abortion and teh gay. How about some of that sell all your possessions and give to the poor and turn the other cheek stuff? But given the percentage of politicians who claim to be religious and talk about religion all the time (just about 100%) I don't think we're suffering any lack of that right now.

* which makes me think of Invader Zim in the giant robot, yelling "Push those buttons! Pull those levers!" as he rampages around his own home planet. I'm pretty sure he's not in my head though. Pretty sure.

#29 ::: hamletta ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:56 AM:

Check out Gilliard's take on the roundheels for roundheads.

#30 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:08 AM:

#22: I'm baffled. If it's more than two years old, why on earth is Atrios getting worked up about it now?

#31 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:58 AM:

Randolph at #14--But Democrats DO quote scripture, make religious references, etc. See FMguru's excellent post at #8. Democrats get attacked as being anti-religion and insensitive to the religious believers among us anyway.

There are people on the political left who say rude, hostile things about religious believers and presume we're all morons because no intelligent, democratically-inclined person could possibly be religious (see Chris's ignorant nonsense at #19), but they're not the mainstream elected leaders or major powers in the Democratic Party. Mostly, they're bloggers or fringe figures whom the mainstream media do not consider worthy of notice except when they need evidence that Democrats or the political left are anti-religion.

#32 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 06:32 AM:

Trying to take back what passes for "religious discourse" from the Falwells and Dobsons of the world is like trying to take back gas chambers from the Nazis.

Religion is a private matter.

#33 ::: lalouve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:06 AM:

While I strongly believe in taking religious discourse back from the people who are currently owning it, I'd like to state that I have no desire to be the backbone of any party whatsoever. The backbone of a party is its political agenda and its voters.

#34 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:09 AM:

Lizzy L #17 Isn't Mara Vanderslice a great name, though?

Corruption of the Dutch surname van der Sluis (older spelling van der Sluys) - literally "of the sluice" - the family who lived by the water-channel or the gate controlling it, such things being common in Holland; the dipthong in sluis rhymes with "house" said in an upper-class English accent, more rounded than "slice" but not very far away.

#35 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:09 AM:

Ajay, re #30: Democratic activists go through this same routine every election. It's kicking up early this time around. Atrios was referring to a 2004 address because Vanderslice is out saying the same kinds of things again now, and he wanted to get some of her fuller exposition from last tme as context for current remarks.

I particularly like Atrios' emphasis on the way "religion" becomes a contentless, amorphous bulk of something or other in political discourse, and strongly share his preference for talking about specifics.

#36 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:34 AM:

Observes Atrios: “[T]his is part and parcel with the basic messages people like me get regularly from people all over the spectrum, that atheists and agnostics lack a conscience and a sense of values, and these things only come from religion and the religious.”

Everyone has a conscience and a sense of values; the difference is that religions have written-down codes of values to guide the personal conscience, so you can say that a religious person ought to follow the principles laid down in the scriptures of his religion. You can argue about translation and interpretation of the scriptures (and they do), you can say they're out-of-date, you can say that many people who claim religion are notably poor at following even the basic principles of their religions (watch how some Irish "Christians" love their neighbours, for example), but nonetheless the guidance is there. Atheists and agnostics, as I understand it, have no guidance but their own individual intellects, so they have to make it up as they go along, if you will forgive the phrase. None the worse for that, but different, surely.

#37 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:46 AM:

Randolph, #14: "I wonder if, perhaps, the Democrats were more willing to publicly quote scripture"

Christ on a crutch, Randolph, if modern Democratic leaders made any more of a show of flogging their religiosity, DNC meetings would be indistinguishable from tent revivals. And yet it does no good whatsoever with the hard core of white "evangelicals" in this country for whom "religion" means "kick the brown people and the gay people to the curb." Claiming that American politics could be solved if liberals would just be a little more god-mongering is about as plausible as claiming that the National Socialists could have been turned back in the early 1930s if the opposition parties had put on snappier uniforms.

Individ-ewe-al, #21: "religion should be kept out of public life"

No it shouldn't, any more than any other form of strong feeling should be "kept out of public life." Particular religious notions should never be allowed to be legally determinative, and religious people need to get over their bad habit (visible in the rhetoric of Bill Donahue and Mara Vanderslice alike) of demanding that secular people engage with them on religious terms. Demands that religion be "kept out of public life" tend to seem, whether meant that way or not, like claims that we'd be better off if the Reverend Martin Luther King had never engaged with "public life." It's notable, of course, that King never attacked anyone for not being religious, and he certainly never guilt-tripped his allies for not paying lip service to his particular sect's shibboleths. He was too busy tending to the suffering and speaking the truth.

#38 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:48 AM:

Once I saw a politician on TV carry a bible as he walked out of a church...

Not just any standard-issue small bible, mind you... but a BIG, well-worn volume that must've weighed 4 pounds, lots of bookmarks sticking out of it, highly visible from a distance. He just had to showboat.

Don't the truly pious know, in their hearts, when they are being played?

#39 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:55 AM:

John Stanning, #36: "Everyone has a conscience and a sense of values; the difference is that religions have written-down codes of values to guide the personal conscience, so you can say that a religious person ought to follow the principles laid down in the scriptures of his religion. You can argue about translation and interpretation of the scriptures (and they do), you can say they're out-of-date, you can say that many people who claim religion are notably poor at following even the basic principles of their religions (watch how some Irish 'Christians' love their neighbours, for example), but nonetheless the guidance is there. Atheists and agnostics, as I understand it, have no guidance but their own individual intellects, so they have to make it up as they go along, if you will forgive the phrase. None the worse for that, but different, surely."

Somewhere in this paragraph, several thousand years of secular thought and writing about ethics and morality appear to have ceased to exist. Religious people are the only ones with "written-down codes of values"? Atheists and agnostics are all making it up ab ovum? This is the kind of casual assertion that drives secular people up the wall, and no wonder.

#40 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:56 AM:

Chris Clarke, #18: Word.

#41 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:09 AM:

#38: they're not being played. What that politician was saying was "I am prepared to look ridiculous and deceive people, if that will keep you happy". It's the equivalent of the head-ducking gesture that gulls make to other gulls higher up in the pecking order - a demonstration of submission.

#36: My family brought me up to believe stealing was wrong, and they didn't use the threat of Hell to back it up. I assure you, I am not "making things up as I go along". I suggest you read the opening lines of Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" for an example of how a non-religious man can develop his moral code. In the sense that I was guided by my own intellect, in choosing to accept or reject what they taught me - well, any religious person does the same when he decides, in a moment of doubt, whether or not to follow the Church's teaching.

#42 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:10 AM:

I grew up in a non-religious home.

And believe it or not, I got much of my written-down code of values from reading Superman comics. Protect the weak, promote truth and justice, always use strength in the service of good... and took these values to heart.

But I don't pray to Superman... I don't walk around in a cape and tights... and I don't believe anyone has superpowers.

There is a lesson to be learned here, but I fear spelling it out would make some people very angry.


#43 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:11 AM:

oth the religious faction in the Republican movement and this particular brand of fruitcake seem to come out of the same sort of view of religiousity. They're not Republican and they're not Democratic. They both look to be on the religious right, which isn't necessarilty the same as the political right. Just as there might be an ecological "right".

What they share is a strong authoritarianism, and a certain sort of philosophical conservatism. They're the sort of people who already know the answers and, by Jove, they're going to make sure that the rest of us do the right thing.

There's more truth in coinages such as "smoking nazis" than some of us might be entirely comfortable with. Even when they do have science and right on their side, their argument and thinking is expressed in quasi-religious terms of faith and an unquestioning devotion to the leader.

And it sometimes seems to be an American quasi-fascism, of the sort that also seems to peek out in such things as the school pep-rally. I almost certainly get a misleading view of America from what I see in the media, though so much of that is provided by America, but it giving me a chill feeling in the spine, sometimes, to see so many things that could be fascist, combined with the remorseless steps on that path by the Republican Party.

How far is it from a daily Pledge of Allegiance to a five-minute hate?

And how much effort would it take in some schools?

#44 ::: Individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:30 AM:

Patrick, you're making a useful distinction by criticizing my lazy phrase about religion and public life. I absolutely believe that religious views should inform how particular individuals conduct their public and political lives, because otherwise their so-called religion isn't worth much. (Besides which, even if it were desirable it would be completely impossible to legislate against that.) But religion, as opposed to religious people, should not dictate policy nor control state institutions.

To return your semantic criticism, religion is not merely a "form of strong feeling". Religions are institutions, and like any institution have the possibility to accrue so much power that they threaten democracy, unless curbed. Religions are also tribes and identities; I think it's a reasonable statement of the secularist ideal that religious affiliation should in no circumstances bar anyone from participating in politics or benefitting from public services.

Is that better? Verbal precision is good, but I'm not as skilled as I would like to be at balancing precision with brevity.

#45 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:11 AM:

Rather than "form of strong feeling," I should have said "source of strong feeling."

#46 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:36 AM:

The difficulty I have with both the Religious Right and the new Religious Left, is their version of religion removes ethics and morality from an individual/internal source and replaces it with an external source that those in power positions can control/change. This leads to arguments like:

"Are you a Christian? All Christians believe this thing that I (the person in power) say because it's in the Bible. And all Christians believe in the Bible so what I say must be True and you must believe it because you say you are Christian."

Now change the first and last word "believe" with "think" or "feel."

It is my opinion that religious people of all political stripes should be allowed to follow their religion (as it harms none, I should make that caveat). Religious people should also run for office, non-religious people, as well, should run for office. Once religion becomes a litmus test for electability or as the reason for legislation, as we seem to be headed toward, that's when it should be shouted down in the public square.

#47 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:43 AM:

Well, I didn't expect my assertion that religions have scriptures, and atheists/agnostics don't, to go down unchallenged; and I hope I'm not getting in deeper here. But no, Patrick, I'm not unaware of the several thousand years of secular thought and writing about ethics and morality.

Look: if I claim to be a Muslim, my duty is to follow the moral code set out in the Qu'ran and the hadith and so on, give or take whichever sect I happen to adhere to; and other people can criticise me on the basis of my success or otherwise in following them. In fact, you often hear Muslims say that such-and-such is "un-Islamic", meaning that it's something that Muslims should not do.
But if I'm non-religious, I can't point to any specific rules for behavior of an atheist or agnostic or whatever; and if I misbehave, nobody can complain that I'm not following the precepts of Marcus Aurelius or John Stuart Mill or Superman, because I've no duty to follow anything in particular. I have a set of values, but what I base them on is up to me, because there's no agreed reference for what constitutes atheism or agnosticism or other non-religion (except, respectively, disbelief in gods or uncertainty about gods). And that makes religion different from non-religion. Yes? Whether that's an advantage or disadvantage, is another question.

#48 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:53 AM:

Well, if we're going to light into 2004 interviews from the Kerry campaign, I'd say a bigger problem with the campaign there was that the outreach I saw to Catholics was more in the line of identity politics than as an engagement of Catholic concerns. (Yes, there was appeal to such concerns when it was consonant with the Democratic Party line, but failure to engage otherwise. A typical example came in Kerry's response in one of the town hall debates to a question about taxpayer-funded abortions. I didn't expect Kerry to agree with the questioner, necessarily, but I was hoping that he'd at least address the concerns the questioner expressed-- which were specificaly directed at the taxpayer-funded aspect-- and he didn't, though he made sure to mention that he'd been an altar boy.) Matthew 6 gives pretty short shrift to the identity-politics type of religion-based rhetoric too.

Regarding the issue at hand, I agree that there's cause for a special revulsion to hooey that's backed by religious rhetoric as compared to hooey that isn't. (Again, that comes across pretty strongly in the Gospels.) At the same time, let's look at the comparison we're asked to make by the end of the post. On the one hand, we have someone who two years ago was answering questions in an oral interview that thoughtlessly slighted atheists and agnostics. On the other hand, we're pointed to a blog which I see today has taken the time the write a thoroughly contemptuous blast against Catholics of all varieties. (See, "No, This is Catholic Bashing" on the Rude Pundit blog.)

So are Catholics supposed to let that sort of thing roll off their backs, which expresses much harsher and broader contempt than some on-air babblings that atheists and agnostics seem to be expected to take great offense at?

Well, from a theological perspective, the answer is actually yes. Catholics and other Christians are, after all, trying to follow the person who had just preached "turn the other cheek" just a few sentences before the chapter Patrick cites.

From a political perspective, though, promoting the remarks of Rude Pundit while condemning those of Vanderslice is the sort of coalitional tone-deafness that's cost the Democrats more than one election in the past.

(Yes, the Dems won Congress in 2006, after a long stretch of losses, but this time they had the advantages of a widely unpopular war, and Republican corruptions of office and principle that were much more blatant and obvious than usual -- and they *still* only won a relatively small House majority by historic standards. and the most tenuous of margins in the Senate. They can't count on having that much wind at their backs in future elections. Admittedly the way Bush is going, it might get them through 2008 at least, but even that's not certain.)


#49 ::: David Wilford ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 10:18 AM:

But if I'm non-religious, I can't point to any specific rules for behavior of an atheist or agnostic or whatever;

There are secular laws that serve as rules for behavior for the religious and non-religious alike, however.

#50 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 10:28 AM:

#49: True, but that isn't the same thing. Secular law isn't a moral code or a set of values, as such, though of course it's based on moral assumptions. Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and atheists and agnostics and etcetera have morals and values that may be different from each other, even though in a secular state they all submit to the same law.

#51 ::: David Wilford ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 10:37 AM:

John S., you're making a distinction without a difference between secular and canonical law. Secular laws may not tell you to give alms to the poor, but they do tax you in order to provide welfare to mothers with dependent children.

#52 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:04 AM:

<obrimsot> I saw Matthew 6 when they played the garden. Genesis opened... </obrimshot>

Religiosity for the sake of being religious is like an engine being turned on for the purpose of generating heat.

I don't care if someone feels they can be the soul of the party, as long as they don't override the brains of the party. Given that we have a pluralistic society, the brains are required to convince others who may not even agree that there is such a thing as a soul that our course is correct. I want a party that can govern as opposed to one that can rule.

#53 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:08 AM:

More importantly, secular laws often aren't all that secular. Anyone want to point me to a list of the non-religious motivations for sodomy laws? Even the name is a Biblical reference. It's illegal because God said so, and for no other reason.

Secular law is a nice ideal, but don't fool yourself into thinking we have it in practice.


I suppose this isn't really the place to go into the semantic argument of whether or not people who go to church to hang out with their friends, but don't believe they are really obligated to obey God's orders or that anything much will happen if they don't, are "really" religious or not.

If such people want to describe themselves as religious, fine (at least they get to avoid anti-atheist bigotry that way); then my previous statement at #19 was overbroad. Consider it hereby amended to apply only to those people who really do believe that they have to obey God or else. *Those* people can't participate in a democracy because they already owe allegiance to a king in the sky.

#54 ::: Michael Bloom ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:10 AM:

Seems to me that one reason this argument keeps recurring is that it elides some important differences. For example, I have grown to believe that there is a built-in difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and the key to it is right there in their names. The Democratic Party trusts the people to make good choices in their own governance. The Republican Party believes instead that there should be a guiding role for other institutions in the Res Publica, to constrain the transient passions of the mob, and obviously the church is just such an institution. I think this implies that calls for more "religion in public life" inherently promote the Republican mode of governance, and I think that means the onus is on the Vanderslices of the world to demonstrate how what they're advocating actually helps Democrats. And just to say "talk like us and you'll win more elections" smacks of pandering to me.

#55 ::: Vardibidian ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:26 AM:

If we're talking about winning elections, then it's clear to me that the Republicans generally pick people who are uncomfortable talking about religion, such as Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, and that's why they lose so many elections. The Democrats, on the other hand, generally are more comfortable talking about religion, and that's why our candidates, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were successful. That's pretty much why the Republicans are so bad at winning elections, in my view: their discomfort with religion.

What? I'm cherry-picking? I started from my conclusion? Sure! But I think it's just as plausible as the idea that Republicans have been successful because they are "comfortable talking about religion" and the Democrats are not. I mean, where's the evidence?

But we don't need evidence. Because the Democratic Party believes in separation of church and state, atheists, agnostics and seculars of all kinds are largely found in our Party, which must mean that our Party is a bunch of atheists, and that all cats are black. The fact that Republicans have been selling the line that Democrats hate the Bible for a generation must mean something more than that Republicans have been selling the line that Democrats hate the Bible. It must mean that Democrats really do hate the Bible. Right?

Thanks,
-V.

#56 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:36 AM:

#51: you're making a distinction without a difference between secular and canonical law
No, I think I'm making a distinction with a difference! Example: secular law tells me what I may not do to my neighbor (the person who lives next door) - I may not kill him, rob him, make a loud noise in the middle of the night, etc. My values say those things, and more. The secular law doesn't tell me to feed his cat when he's away, take him in when his house burns down, tolerate his taste in music... My values tell me that I ought to love him. [sigh]

#53: The secular laws, in countries like the US and UK, still have roots in Christian values for historical reasons.
Sodomy is illegal because God said so, and for no other reason.
I think there is another reason: because some lawmaker(s) had a prejudice against it. The secular law doesn't say everything that God said; it was a human who picked out sodomy, for a human reason.

#57 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:59 AM:

But we don't need evidence. Because the Democratic Party believes in separation of church and state, atheists, agnostics and seculars of all kinds are largely found in our Party, which must mean that our Party is a bunch of atheists, and that all cats are black. The fact that Republicans have been selling the line that Democrats hate the Bible for a generation must mean something more than that Republicans have been selling the line that Democrats hate the Bible. It must mean that Democrats really do hate the Bible. Right?

The problem is that it's not just Republican politicians who are pushing that line, it's right-wing religious leaders. What's really missing is an active counter to that from moderate and liberal religious leaders.

It doesn't matter how often Democrats name-check God on the campaign trail if people go to church on Sunday or flip on the tv and see priests and preachers telling them that God wants them to vote Republican. That's going to beat out any amount of God-chatter from politicians themselves, because everybody knows that politicians will say anything to get elected...

If you really want to counter the Republican monopoly (or the appearance of a monopoly) on religion, what you need is not politicians who talk like preachers, but preachers who talk about politics. You need people to go to church on Sunday or flip on the tv, and hear moderate and liberal religious leaders saying that Jesus was a liberal and wants you to vote for the Democrats with all the same force and conviction as their right-leaning colleagues.

It doesn't matter what the candidates say about themselves, it matters what the clergy say about the candidates.

#58 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:18 PM:

Chad Orzel: what you need is not politicians who talk like preachers, but preachers who talk about politics.

Welcome to St. Benedict's Episcopal Church, Lacey, WA, where the priests engage matters of social justice, environmental responsibility, and international peace.

Speaking as self-identified a liberal Christian, I'm a whole lot less concerned about getting right-wing crackhead fundamentalists out of political control than I am about getting them out of control of the religious sector. The damage they're doing to the body politic is subsequent to and lesser than the damage they're doing to the Body of Christ.

#59 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:21 PM:

Damn. I broke my resolution not to read any comments on any post having to do with religion on this blog. Well, I will try to keep my comments civil enough that I won't end up disemvowelled.

Chris:
Consider it hereby amended to apply only to those people who really do believe that they have to obey God or else. *Those* people can't participate in a democracy because they already owe allegiance to a king in the sky.

I cannot begin to go into what a load of tripe this is. It completely ignores the complexity of religious experience for even fundmentalist believers.

There are all sorts of allegiances that are sacrosanct to people, not all of them to God. Does an allegiance to the bottom line, a belief that all actions must be taken maximize one's personal wealth, disqualify one from participating in democracy? Such a belief can be as distorting to the democratic process as religious belief.

There is such a notion as a heirarchy of allegiance. Arguably, anyone who engages in civil disobedience, as opposed to working within the legislative process, is following a higher allegiance than to democracy. I for one would never argue that the only people involved in the civil rights movement were religiously minded, nor that people of faith have cornered the market on upright, ethical and courageous behavior and belief.

An allegiance to "do the right thing" because it is mandated by God or simply because you are driven to do what you believe to be the right thing regardless of the costs is functionally the same thing.

And regarding your seeming assertion at #19 that believers never change their beliefs, as Ken said at #25, it's called the work of the Holy Spirit. People who believe in God can change the way they think about particular political and social issues without changing their core belief in God. At my church, it's called growing in faith.

#60 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:24 PM:

JESR,

I'm a whole lot less concerned about getting right-wing crackhead fundamentalists out of political control than I am about getting them out of control of the religious sector. The damage they're doing to the body politic is subsequent to and lesser than the damage they're doing to the Body of Christ.

Ain't that the truth.

#61 ::: Hogan ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 01:56 PM:

John Stanning: religions have written-down codes of values to guide the personal conscience

Some religions have them. Many don't. (Historically speaking, I would say most don't.)

#62 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:12 PM:

Speaking as self-identified a liberal Christian, I'm a whole lot less concerned about getting right-wing crackhead fundamentalists out of political control than I am about getting them out of control of the religious sector.

These are not mutually exclusive. In fact, weakening the link between "religion" and "crackhead fundamentalists" in the public mind would be a real good step toward prying them out of public office.

#63 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:25 PM:

Chad Orzel writes: "You need people to go to church on Sunday or flip on the tv, and hear moderate and liberal religious leaders saying that Jesus was a liberal and wants you to vote for the Democrats with all the same force and conviction as their right-leaning colleagues."

That seems unlikely ever to happen.

Their right-leaning colleagues include most of the overtly (and covertly) theocratic elements of American society. When they go up to the pulpit, they don't just say "Jesus was a conservative and wants you to vote for the Republicans," they say "Jesus is God and wants you to vote for his earthly servants, i.e. the Republicans— and, oh, by the way, all the soulless, conscienceless, amoral, depraved and evil atheists always vote against God, so get all your friends and family to vote for the Republicans, too."

If the so-called "religious left" think they can counter a movement like that without embracing atheists and other secular progressives, then they're no better than UsefulIdiots™ for the other side. I can't imagine them saying anything, for example, as forceful as this: "Jesus despises the overtly righteous, and a vote for an openly religious politician is a vote against God. Vote for liberal Democrats who don't make public displays of their faith, and vote for the kind of government that pleases God: secular progressive representative government."

If they can't articulate a message like that, which sinks in with regular American church-goers, then they're not effectively countering the religious right, and probably doing more harm.

#64 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:49 PM:

If the so-called "religious left" think they can counter a movement like that without embracing atheists and other secular progressives, then they're no better than UsefulIdiots™ for the other side. I can't imagine them saying anything, for example, as forceful as this: "Jesus despises the overtly righteous, and a vote for an openly religious politician is a vote against God. Vote for liberal Democrats who don't make public displays of their faith, and vote for the kind of government that pleases God: secular progressive representative government."

It's not like it'd be hard to come up with a text:

5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Just for starters...

What I'm talking about has almost nothing to do with the self-identified "religious left," though, who seem to me to be nothing but another group of useless political consultants trying to change the things that candidates say about themselves and each other. What we need is more of a ground-level thing, starting with individual congregations-- it shouldn't really be associated with a specific party, let alone a specific candidate. It's a matter of decent, progressive religious people standing up and making some noise in response to the people who are polluting poltiics and religion with their warped view.

It's a hard thing to ask, because it cuts against the character of the sort of person that really needs to be behind this. Hate makes better spectacle than love, and it's hard to get on tv by being nice. It's a whole lot easier to be Jerry Fallwell than Martin Luther King.

But I think we'd be a whole lot better off if some nice religious folks were a little more willing to play media hardball.

#65 ::: Vardibidian ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:51 PM:

Chad Orzel #57: The problem is that it's not just Republican politicians who are pushing that line, it's right-wing religious leaders. What's really missing is an active counter to that from moderate and liberal religious leaders.

Well, and I think the active counter is not Democrats don't really hate the Bible that much! or even Democrats really like the Bible, just like Republicans! but Republicans have been lying. I'd just as soon hear that from my Party as from other religious leaders, particularly those outside the party. If they are active in the party, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson was, then that's fine. I don't distinguish (in a case like this) between the elected officials of the Party and the unelected spokesmen and activists. But the focus of the response should not be on the Democrats, and what they actually believe, which is out there for everyone to see anyway, but on the Republicans, and their attempt to get away with these lies ... and all the other ones, too.

Thanks,
-V.

#66 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 02:57 PM:

I'm 100% with Atrios. I'm a religious leftist, and when Mara Vanderslice talks about the Religious Left, I don't recognize what she describes as anything that includes me.

#67 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:02 PM:

Hogan #61: AFAIK the major religions, at least, do have written scriptures which either specify codes of values, or from which codes of values are derived. I'm not an expert in comparative religion, and others here probably know better and can correct or expand the following list:
Judaism: Tanakh, Talmud
Christianity: Bible, both Old Testament (Jewish Tanakh) and New Testament (teachings of Jesus and followers)
Islam: Qur'an and hadith, with recognition of the Jewish prophets, especially Moses and Abraham
Hinduism: numerous writings, especially the Dharmasutras
Buddhism: Tipitaka
Confucianism: the Analects?
Sikhism: Guru Granth Sahib
etcetera

#68 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:03 PM:

I think the active counter is not Democrats don't really hate the Bible that much! or even Democrats really like the Bible, just like Republicans! but Republicans have been lying. I'd just as soon hear that from my Party as from other religious leaders, particularly those outside the party.

Yeah, but you're already going to vote for the Democrats. You're not the people who need to be reached.

The problem with having Democratic officials denounce the Republicans for lying is that you have an authority gap when it comes to religious folks who aren't already partisan Democrats. If Democratic politicians say that Republicans are lying, and right-wing preachers say they're not, well, it doesn't take a great deal of thought to see who's going to win.

The whole point of the exercise is to either get new votes for the Democrats from religious people who don't already vote for them, or at the very least to peel votes away from the Republicans. You're not going to do that with Democratic politicians alone, no matter how many times they mention God. You might do it by having some religious leaders who aren't Democratic party hacks stand up and offer religious counter-arguments.

#69 ::: Individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:29 PM:

Like pat, I should probably stay out of this thread. But Chris, you are making exactly the same fallacious argument that Dawkins makes, though with less rhetorical grace. It goes like this:

Dawkins (echoed by Chris): Look, the Bible is stupid! It says π=3. You'd have to be pretty foolish to believe that π=3, so all religious people are idiots!
Religious people: But we don't read the Bible like that.
Dawkins : Well, obviously you're not really religious then. If you were really religious you'd take the Bible literally.
Other religious people: But the Bible isn't our holy book.
Dawkins: Yes, but all other religions are just as stupid as Christianity.

It's as if the True Scotsman somehow managed to breed with the Straw man and produced a straw Scotsman offspring. If you're going to discount actual religious believers in order to claim that some hypothetical near illiterates might interpret a few verses of the Bible in a way that is anti-democratic, there's nothing very useful anyone can say to you.

#70 ::: Hogan ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:33 PM:

#62: The problem lies in using "Christianity" (or "Christianity and those other religions that most nearly resemble it") as a synonym for "religion as such." Plenty of religions got by and get by without written scriptures; that you don't consider them "major" is neither here nor there. Christians and Jews and Muslims and some others use written scriptures as guides to moral behavior. Religious people may or may not.

#71 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:34 PM:

The characterization of Democrats and liberals in general as anti-religious immoral atheists is a smear. Lately I've been learning a lot more than I ever wanted to about smears. They are more than just lies. There are think tanks for coming up with the best lies. There are pundits and news organizations that publicize the lies and report on them seriously, as if they were justifiable, until they become conventional wisdom. One of a smear's most pernicious effects, and really its ultimate purpose, is it causes the people who accept it to act against their own long-term interests. It is depressingly easy for this to happen.

#72 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:35 PM:

JESR @ #58:
Speaking as self-identified a liberal Christian, I'm a whole lot less concerned about getting right-wing crackhead fundamentalists out of political control than I am about getting them out of control of the religious sector. The damage they're doing to the body politic is subsequent to and lesser than the damage they're doing to the Body of Christ.

Um...but from the not-of-the-Body-of-Christ perspective (I'm not even sure what that means, exactly, but I'm quite sure I'm not part of it), the damage to the body politic is rather more important. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but your post reads like you feel that what they do to the rest of the people in this country is less important than what they're doing to (whichever) church.

#73 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:57 PM:

#69 bears just about no resemblance to what Dawkins actually says or writes. It appears to have been written without any reference to said source material.

I don't know why Dawkins is supposed to be such a scare figure. He's quite reasonable & polite.

#74 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 04:59 PM:

In regards to John Stanning's comments in #47, I agree that the non-religious traditions are relatively lacking in well defined rules. It goes along with the lack of funding, staff, and facilities. But people in non-religious households are still raised within some moral tradition. It isn't like they have to go without any moral framework until they take enough college philosophy classes. Of course, they probably have more freedom to choose for themselves than someone raised in a strict religion, but those choices they freely make are likely based on values they learned while very young. Non-religious people have just as much of a duty to be moral as anyone else. If anything, their burden is greater because it includes the duty to learn to be moral; they can't make excuses that they were just following orders.

Not that I think religion is that different. There are many religions to choose from. People often leave their religion and join another, or form one. The moral rules and duties within a religion may be very clear (in most religions but not all -- some are more subtle), but the most important duty of a religious person is to choose a good religion to follow.

#75 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:01 PM:

Susan, not quite; what they do to others-not-Christian is, in practice, part of the damage they do to the idea of Christianity. It has to do with being enjoined to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the prisoner, and also enjoined, with equal force, not to exclude people from being fed, clothed, comforted, and given company on the basis of their behaving in ways we do not approve of.

My personal assessment of the Falwell/Dobson theology is that it amounts to looking for excuses not to love one another. I'm pretty sure they don't love me.

#76 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:09 PM:

Jacob, if you think Dawkins is reasonable and polite, I'm interested to hear what you think of the Terry Eagleton piece linked in Teresa's Particles, in which Eagleton extremely reasonably and politely makes the case that Dawkins is neither.

#77 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:14 PM:

And, incidentally, and as someone who's about as atheist as you can get, I don't believe that Christianity or other religions are incompatible with democracy. In fact, given that all the American & European democracies have populations that were and are majority-Christian, it seems quite obviously untrue.

What I find truly odd is the idea that atheists are drifting in a sea of moral uncertainty, relative to, say, Christians. Look, Christians pick and choose what they agree with from the Bible. They generally don't take the genocides of the Old Testament as their day-to-day model, and given the number of divorced Christians it seems pretty clear they don't adhere to every word ascribed to Christ either.

Now as an atheist, what's the difference? I can read the Bible too, you know, and pick out the parts I agree and disagree with. (In fact I think I could say I was more familiar with the Bible than a lot of self-described Christians, though not at the level of any serious Christian.)

It's a book. It's not written in a secret code that only believers can understand.

#78 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:22 PM:

Hogan #70: I'm not sure where you're coming from, but I at least am certainly not using Christianity, or even the Abrahamic religions, as a synonym for "religion as such". My expression "major religions" referred to numbers of adherents; whether you like it or not, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism - including all sects of each - are by far the most significant religions in terms of numbers of followers worldwide. After those three you get Buddhism and "Chinese traditional religion" which seems to include elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. All of the above except, in part, Chinese traditional, do have written scriptures. Of course there are lots of religions that don't, but their followers are far, far fewer.
[see www.adherents.com; even if you consider the numbers to be suspect, because they originate from a Christian-based organization, it seems difficult to dispute the top three.]
My original post did generalize inaccurately that "religions have written-down codes of values"; I apologise for that; I should have said "major religions", defining "major" as above.

#79 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:33 PM:

You know what I'd like to see... just once?

The American politician X is interviewed on, say, CNN, and the reporter arrives at the expected Purity Test:

"What's your religion?"
"Why is that important?"
"If it's not a personal question..."
"It is. I refuse to answer it."
"You see, many members of the public want to know that you share their values..."
"I have taken the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm an American citizen. I'm a member of an official political party. You know my political credentials. Isn't that enough?"
"You haven't been seen walking into a church for the past few years..."
"And you measure a person's most private thoughts and feelings by how often he or she walks in and out of a public building? How shallow is that?"
"Are you hiding something?"
"You're damn right I'm hiding something. It's the most personal thing I own, the only part of my being that I cannot share with another human being, but can only share with something greater than myself, whatever that may or may not be. By merely asking these questions, you encourage me to diminish my relationship to the great mysteries of existence."
"So which God do you mean specifically?"
"Only God knows, and you never will."

(And this is where the pundits start to speculate that X must be a Satanist or follow some unspeakably horrible cult, because there Is No Such Thing As Personal Religion.)

#80 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:48 PM:

AR Yngve @ 79:

Ah, the politician has taken up the Vulcan Privacies! (ref: D Duane)

Personally, I think it's a wonderful idea.

#81 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 05:54 PM:

scraps, I've read that Eagleton piece before. It's fairly polite and fairly reasonable, but I think it mischaracterizes the way the book (The God Delusion) is written - for example, his statement "Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith" is plainly inaccurate - and that his arguments along the lines of "Dawkins doesn't know much about theology, so he shouldn't express an opinion" are, well, idiotic.

The hair-splitting differences in theology aren't relevant to the full-frontal attack Dawkins makes. No amount of theological knowledge about the nature of grace or hope makes any difference to the question of whether God exists, any more than (this is where I am neither reasonable nor polite) any amount of knowledge about the relationship between Optimus Prime and Soundwave makes any difference to the question of whether the Transformers actually exist.

Statements like this one: "Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do" hardly help his case. I mean, for one thing, all theologians agree on this point? Wow. But for another, he means it as an evasion of the scientific question of where, if God exists, he is. But it evades it only through meaninglessness. If I say, is the dog in the house or out of the house? - the answer that the dog is neither in the house or out of the house has no meaning. It's not an answer to the question. It's gibberish.

Eagleton further goes on to say, on the subject of the creation of the universe, "Dawkins [...] understands nothing of these traditional doctrines." This is simply untrue and unfair. Dawkins addresses a lot more than just the "created in 7 days" forms of the God-the-creator idea. He goes into the whole range of ideas, from 7-days to God-occasionally-nudges-evolution to God-created-the-universe-and-had-no-further-input. It strikes me as pretty dishonest to mischaracterize him this way.

Another example: "Dawkins’s Supreme Being is the God of those who seek to avert divine wrath by sacrificing animals, being choosy in their diet and being impeccably well behaved."

This is not "Dawkins'" Supreme Being. This is the God of the Old Testament. It's not a creation of Dawkins.

Another dishonest statement: "Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever." This is again untrue. The argument he makes is that they deserve no special respect over any other belief that people hold. For example, if I say the sky is neon green, it is not disrespectful to at least mention the lack of evidence for this belief. If I say that God is neither in the universe nor without it, no special respect accrues to that belief just because it's religious. It can still be questioned.

But Dawkins is not saying that we should go around spitting on cathedrals and needlessly offending religious people, far from it.

Here's, to me, the crux of the thing: "[C]ritics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive". If by "most persuasive" you mean a set of beliefs held only by a few theologians that would probably be rejected outright by 90% of religious believers, well, no, I don't believe you have a "moral obligation" to deal with them, since your case is against what people actually believe.

I strongly recommend reading the damn book, rather than reading some (in my opinion, rather dishonest) reviewer railing against it. If you've read it and you still think it's unreasonable and impolite, OK.

(Sorry for the side-tracking here.)

#82 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 06:03 PM:

Jacob Davies #77: What I find truly odd is the idea that atheists are drifting in a sea of moral uncertainty, relative to, say, Christians.

I, at least, didn't say that, and don't think it. But perhaps atheists have more moral freedom than, say, Christians.

Christians, except the extreme fringes, don't claim that every word of the Bible is literally true, or that it is the uncontestable word of God, even in tbe original languages, let alone in translation. They know that it was written by fallible humans and that a lot of it is not moral guidance but history (accurate or not), such as the accounts of wars and genocides in the Old Testament. But for Christians it's the primary source of values; they can, and do, read and benefit from secular texts and those of other religions, but Christians' values are supposed to correspond with the Bible and the writings of Christian thinkers. Though, yes, Christians can pick and choose with the best of them.

The position of some other religions is different. Islam, for instance (as I understand it), holds that the Qur'an is the actual word of God, dictated by the angel to Muhammad, which makes it much more difficult to pick and choose, though there are lively arguments over interpretation.

Atheists, by contrast, can choose from the whole world. You are unconstrained by religious adherence. You can go to any religious text, or to secular texts ranging from Plato to Superman comics (as someone up there suggested), for your moral inspiration. Is that easier, or more difficult?

Divorce? Few of us, Christian or otherwise, go into marriage thinking "this is only temporary, I'll dump him/her when I feel like it". Mostly we hope, or at least tell ourselves and our partners, that it's for life. If the marriage comes to bits, well, we're only human, after all. We divorce - not without sadness, in most cases - and move on. That doesn't mean that we dispute the principle tbat marriage ought to be permanent.

#83 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 06:11 PM:

There's nothing stopping Christians from reading other religious and philosophical writings. (It sounds like a good idea to me.) It's the people who keep sayiing that Christians shouldn't read anything but the Bible that bother me, mostly because it's saying to me that no one else matters.

#84 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 06:12 PM:

John Stanning, numerous posts. At least in Christianity, the very thin canonical primary documents do not offer a written code of values; there are a few general principles, some examples, and a lot of metaphors and parables. If one is willing to allow some of the non-canonical material, matters are even worse; there are puzzles! I think it's more accurate to think of the primary Christian teachings as something like a problem book for the study of values, rather than a code of values. The codes now associated with Christianity were all developed long after the Crucifixion and contradict each other, as well as the Jewish Law by which Jesus seems to have lived. This, ah, leads to much conflict.

#85 ::: Aloysius ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:02 PM:

Scraps #76: I've read Eagleton's piece, and I think it has very little to do with anything Dawkins actually says in his book. I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding about The God Delusion. Eagleton makes the claim that it failed to engage with actual theology, and that's true. But it was never meant to. While there are more sophisticated flavours of religion than the ones Dawkins discusses in his book, most people who have religious beliefs have beliefs of a character very much in keeping with what Dawkins discusses. This is certainly very true in America, and I should be very surprised were it not true elsewhere in the world as well. These are the people Dawkins is interested in reaching out to, and selling atheism to, not theologians. As such, a lot of Eagleton's piece is just noise. "Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus," for example, or on Eriugena, or what-have-you, are totally irrelevant, and I don't see that it damages Dawkins' arguments at all that he fails to address them: even most religious people are ignorant of and indifferent to such theologians, and their work, however much some may value it, simply does not play a part in most peoples' religious experiences.

It's easy to see why Dawkins would choose to address the audience that he did. Despite the sophistication of Eagleton's theology and the care and work that has gone into it, in the eyes of someone like Dawkins (or myself!) who has no belief in the supernatural it is I'm afraid devoid of any actual content or meaning. This is what it means to be a non-believer: the material world is all there is, and statements about a transcendent God just don't make any sense when there's nothing for them to refer to. Dawkins paints God as a neurotic old beardy man in the sky not only because there are a lot of people who think of him that way but moreover because as a nonbeliever Dawkins looks at the transcendent God of Eagleton and sees nothing there, not even an idea. Not only does this transcendent God not appear to exist in any physically meaningful sense, but the whole idea of a transcendent God appears to be meaningless. To give this notion content you have to invent whole categories of existence totally divorced from any aspect of the human experience. Or, as Dawkins does and as many believers do as well, you can attempt to shoehorn God into the ontology of the world as we know it. If you do that, then of course the whole idea of God starts to seem silly once you think about it. Dawkins wants to encourage people to start thinking about it in just that way. This is not dishonest or impolite or even unreasonable. This is an attempt to make the case for atheism as a logical and satisfying alternative to naive or unexamined religiosity.

#86 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:19 PM:

I think Dawkins is very much in the line of the skeptical philosophers who insist that valid beliefs require study and thought. This sets him in opposition of central ideas of most christianity, though it aligns him with many christian philosophers. Beyond that he is an uncompromising materialist, which is a much dicier belief; if science showed us a world much stranger than any religious metaphysic 200 years ago, it is also showing us a world much stranger than the materialism of 100 years ago; I think he is arguing ahead of his data.

#87 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:23 PM:

FMGuru @8: And again, the weird emphasis on pinning future Democratic success on appealing to the very people least likely to switch to the Democrats

The assumption at work here, I guess, are that there's a large contingent of religious folks who can be persuaded towards the left but can also be scared into the arms of the Christianists.

And the really bad thing (and the reason why this cozying up to the opposition is still going on, IME) is that many vaguely left or centrist strategists seem to feel secular humanists can safely be ignored, because they have nowhere else to go. What can they do, vote Republican?

#88 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:34 PM:

Mikael @28: It didn't get painfully far out until he stated, straight off, that unless there is a Watchful and Vengeful God who Cares for You, everyone would succumb to orgies, robberies and all sorts of Bad Behaviour.

The next time I hear that from someone who seems to expect a reply, I'll ask them "Would you?" and see what they make of it.

#89 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 07:41 PM:

Eagleton's piece is woeful. Dawkins make simple points a child could understand and Eagleton completely ignores then and witters on about irrelevancies.

For example, Dawkins points out that children are often taught their religion by their parents, and that most religious people believe what their parents taught them. Since parents in conflicting religions can't all be right, most religious people necessarily believe false religions their parents teach them.

This isn't an argument, it's a fact. Dawkins goes on to consider possible explanations for this fact, even Darwinian just-so stories of dubious scientific value.

Eagleton, however, goes off on an irrelevant rant about how doubt and questioning is a part of religious thought, as if Dawkins denied that and as if it was in any way relevant.

He doesn't even try to address Dawkins's arguments, dismissing them as the products of ignorance and bigotry.

#90 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:03 PM:

John Stanning: Your list of canonical sacred writings simply doesn't hold up. Tripitika, for instance, is not anything like the Abrahamic scriptures. It's a story, often discussed when literary theorists get into the history of the novel and its antecedents, written well after Buddhism arrived in China to dramatize and get moral entertainment out of some aspects of that process. It's usefully compared to the Aeneid. It might used as a teaching tool in some schools of Buddhism, but then again, literature of many kinds can be used as teaching tools. There simply are no consensus texts in Buddhism, nor any universally accepted sutras.

Similar considerations apply in Confucianism, Shinto, and a bunch of other religions, and of course to just about every shamanic tradition, and....on and on.

And of course Jacob Davies is exactly right. Nobody, but nobody, simply hews to any sacred text. They select, emphasize, arrange, and otherwise adapt to fit their purposes.

#91 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:06 PM:

A.R. Yngvy @79: The American politician X is interviewed on, say, CNN, and the reporter arrives at the expected Purity Test:

Going OT for no good reason except that it amuses me: There's actually a German word for that "expected [religious] Purity Test": Gretchenfrage. Which is a literary reference.

It's funny, because in the play, the guy who gets asked about his religious stance by said Gretchen considers himself enlightened and dodges the question, even when she directly asks "do you believe in God". And he still dodges, for no good reason, really, because he has made a deal with a devil and in the interest of theological consistency should be expected to believe in god.

#92 ::: Michael Bloom ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:21 PM:

Inge @87 (and others, passim):

It occurs to me that Vanderslice is probably not thinking that there are hordes of congregants at the megachurches that the Democrats could compete for if we only spoke dogwhistle language better. I'm assuming she's thinking about edge cases, people who aren't predisposed to one or the other party, and end up thinking that maybe Republicans should win because (they say) they believe and (they say) the Democrats don't, but if we incorporate more faith talk into our stump speeches, we'll nullify that advantage.

What concerns me, and I think what concerns Atrios et al, is that the type of faith talk she proposes isn't the stuff based on Matthew 25:40 or the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, it seems she would have us hedge on abortion rights.

On the other hand, she is a consultant, and Kos, Atrios, et al would argue that she hews to the conventional wisdom among the consultant class. And I probably agree, except that I can think of one instance where the obligation of Christian charity was employed for political purposes, by a red state politician, and lost miserably, by about a two to one margin. This was in Alabama, if I remember right, where Governor Riley tried to pass a graduated tax that would have soaked the rich some but left the vast majority of his constituents better off. And most of the churches in Alabama came out against it. So maybe that sort of activist faith is not perceived to be a winning issue.

#93 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 08:48 PM:

I guess my point is not only that Christians pick & choose, but that as an atheist I'm not forbidden from drawing from the Christian Bible or moral tradition. Whether you believe in God is irrelevant to whether you see the moral value in Matthew 5:38-39: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

The profound moral meaning there is accessible to anyone, believer or not, and I could make you a list of others (but I'd have to do the searches - I know what I've read, but I don't know the references offhand, as I'm sure some more knowledgeable people here do). I'm not required to find an alternate source for that sentiment just because this one happens to be in the New Testament.

#94 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:10 PM:

"And the really bad thing (and the reason why this cozying up to the opposition is still going on, IME) is that many vaguely left or centrist strategists seem to feel secular humanists can safely be ignored, because they have nowhere else to go. What can they do, vote Republican?"

Yeah. The US Federal system has space for a ruling majority, a large minority opposition, and that's about it. There are complexities; a well-organized geographically distributed minority can gain control of the Senate and the Presidency, which is why we are discussing the religious right here. Bleh.

#95 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:15 PM:

PNH, Lis: you are right and my perhaps was wrong in this: the Dems do plenty of religious talking, too. Still, I don't think any major Democratic figure has said "Who would Jesus bomb?" The contrary, though, has lead me to reflecting that there are two kinds of religious moderate: a group that is moderate out of conviction and a group that's just not very religious, which I suspect is the majority. I think outreach to the not-very-religious is probably worth the trouble; without outreach from the moderate-from-conviction that group is left to the radicals.

#96 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:31 PM:

Jacob: Right on. One of the things my parents raised us to believe is that truth and wisdom can turn up absolutely anywhere, and if we find something worth treasuring in an unexpected place, we should feel free to go ahead and treasure it. And if someone we usually disagree with happens to have a handle on something important, so much the better for them and us.

Later I discovered the concept of "natural theology", but it wasn't a surprise. :)

#97 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:44 PM:

I just don't see it. People have been talking about religion and morality all my life (nearly 50 years), but I've never seen any real connection between the two. Indeed, what I have seen and experienced has shown me that the more one yammers about the connection between the two, the more one proves his own fallability in the moral arena.

#98 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 09:50 PM:

#42 ::: A.R.Yngve -

Yes, but how do you feel about kneeling before Zod?

#99 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 10:20 PM:

Regarding the discussion of religious practices as guides in life, I think the problem with picking and choosing spiritual practices is that, when one desperately needs something to cling to in a hard time, one is going to be more inclined to just drop one's practice and do something else. It's probably better to find something reasonable and stick with it, rather than keep trying to design one's one practice.

#100 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 10:44 PM:

Randolph Fritz @ 99

It's probably better to find something reasonable and stick with it, rather than keep trying to design one's one practice.

The minister at the church in which I was raised preached a sermon one Sunday on 'When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it'. It still sounds like good advice, but it would drive the conservatives nuts, since it's non-Biblical. (First find out what your knot is... then tie that knot.)

#101 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:26 PM:

Randolph 99: While I agree that one's birth tradition is best if it can be made to work, some of us find that what works best for us is to design ritual for each need that arises. This is a LOT more work, but I personally find it very satisfying.

That said, chanting traditional prayers to Ganesha and the White Tara has been a great comfort to me when I have no energy for ritual design.

#102 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:41 PM:

Subpoint on the Tripitaka. The majority of Buddhist in North America, and worldwide, are Mahayana Buddhists.

They reject, as the foundation of their faith, the idea that the Tripitaka is directly true and relevant to them. For them, the Tripitaka was a clever device for luring children out of a burning house by promising them ice cream forever and ever.

(Thousands of years, and millions of words were spent on this question. What I've said is a stick figure to a da Vinci.)

#103 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2007, 11:46 PM:

It's probably better to find something reasonable and stick with it, rather than keep trying to design one's one practice.

but when does "sticking with it" become blind (unquestioning) faith, or hypocrisy?

answer: sometimes. i think about this as a formerly-orthodox jew who is nevertheless sure she wants to keep ritual & belief in her life, & pass it on to her children.

orthodox jews can smugly quote statistics of how the stricter the judaism, the more likely your grandchildren are to practice it, & several generations down the line, even to identify as jews. so there is apparently something to just following the system as it was laid down, & there might be a weakness (if not for you, for your grandchildren) in adding your own innovations to rituals, making new rituals, or picking & choosing.

i want my kids to have a strong jewish identity (& i'd like my great-grandkids to, also, although it's none of my business, really, what my theoretical great-grandkids get up to). but i'd also rather not be a hypocrite.*

*note: i am not saying all orthodox jews are hypocrites. i am saying that if i conformed to orthodox judaism, i would be a hypocrite.

#104 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 02:34 AM:

Randolph Fritz @99, when one desperately needs something to cling to in a hard time, one is going to be more inclined to just drop one's practice and do something else.

After one spent years training oneself to follow a code that suits one well, you think one would fall into randomness under pressure? Or am I reading you wrong?

I feel that the most dangerous thing to have is an unexamined moral code. The moment a person is under pressure and training needs to take over, an unexamined code can take them dog knows where.

#105 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 02:54 AM:

Well, I have to move on (physically) so I'll sign off from this thread. Sorry if I've taken up more space here than is my usual wont. I've tried to be brief but haven't always had the time or, like individ-ewe-al up there, the necessary skill of verbal precision.

Thanks to all for your courteous engagement. Thanks to those who put me right about the Tripitaka (I know too little of Buddhism beyond the five, or eight, or ten, precepts). Thanks also to Randolph for "think of the primary Christian teachings as something like a problem book for the study of values, rather than a code of values" - I think that's very well put and might apply to other religions too. Best wishes.

#106 ::: bad Jim ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 03:51 AM:

Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

It may turn out to be the particular strength of the godless that we, unwedded to doctrine, were we to grasp the sorry scheme of things entire, might actually choose not to

shatter it to bits and mold it nearer to our hearts' desire

if only because the birds are singing in the trees outside.

#107 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 03:52 AM:

#98, Carl, asked:

#42 A.R.Yngve -

Yes, but how do you feel about kneeling before Zod?

- I say, kick his ass back into the Phantom Zone.
;-)

#108 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 03:56 AM:

#96: I appreciate the compliment, but to me at least, there's nothing unexpected about finding moral values I agree with in the Bible, especially the New Testament. Nor would I think of that as a source I usually disagree with, quite the opposite. We all, atheists & believers, grow up in a culture suffused with a set of moral values that are derived from or at least correspond pretty well to (a selected set of) those described in the Bible. Our moral sense is developed by this consensus regardless of whether we believe in God, which is why the idea that atheists are lack a moral compass (a view as far as I know not expressed by anyone here, of course) is so inaccurate.

That isn't to say that I crack open a Bible all the time for guidance. But there are certain things that have stuck with me pretty hard from what reading I've done over the years.

#109 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 05:09 AM:

Jacob #28, you can have some of my soul if you want. I'm giving it away to all comers, because if the fundies are right I've only got half of one already if life begins at conception, and it doesn't seem to have done me any harm. So either it doesn't exist or it's infinitely fungible, in which case I want to give everyone the dubious 'benefit' of having some of it.

(If souls really do exist, surely we need a Soul Transfusion Service...)

#110 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 12:50 PM:

Nix (#109):


True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams,[...]

Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth.

Shelley, Epipsychidion. The Romantic poets are full of bits that I treasure even when I think the structure as a whole is dangerous.

#111 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 01:41 PM:

Just a little note on the side: ref the not in/not out of the Universe question.

Gödel.

Does God exist? I don't know. The watchmaker argument is flawed (and certainly fails at the level of evolution), but there is a "prime mover question".

Things exist. The present model says there was a time when the universe wasn't. So where did it come from? No one knows. Something, apparently outside the present system, happened.

If, in a friendly setting, not the shibboleth test of the public square, I were to try and describe my religious sentiment... I am an agnostic with religious overtones.

The tenets of my upbringing, (and the cauldron of my culture) are such that Christian thinking, and theological issues, pervade my thinking. I don't know about the validity of God (and have gone round and round with those who try to use the circular logic of their sacred texts to prove Him to me), and, if there is no God, will never know.

I can live with that. I understand those who make the (justifiable) leap of faith that there is no God.

I dislike those who tell me they can prove his non-existence, and then attempt, whether polite or not, to mock me; and all others, who fail to see the sweet reason of their position.

And being politely offensive doesn't make it any better.

#112 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 02:03 PM:

Nix @109: If souls really do exist, surely we need a Soul Transfusion Service...

I liked the idea Philip Jose Farmer developed in his Riverworld stories (and in Inside Outside). You get the impression that the young PJF struggled with a religious upbringing, and what he learned of science. In these stories, souls would not naturally exist... but an ancient alien race thought that they should exist, and created a mechanism for creating artificial souls which sought out and attached themselves to living things above a certain level of complexity. Somehow, I don't think PZ Myers would find that a convincing line of argument.

For my part, I think something profound happens with language, writing, and memory; not just my memory of self, but also memories of me in others (the social field theory of soul). Even after die, I still influence people who knew me (and read me). I doubt that "I" have an escape capsule that will jet me away from the death of my body.

Now, from The Meaning of Life...

[Large corporate boardroom filled with suited executives]
Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: "The Meaning of Life" Now uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this "soul" does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?
Exec #2: Oh, Uh... people aren't wearing enough.
Exec #1: Is this true?
Exec #4: Certainly. Hat sales have increased but not pari passu, as our research...
Exec #3: [Interrupting] "Not wearing enough"? enough for what purpose?
Exec #5: Can I just ask, with reference to your second point, when you say souls don't develop because people become distracted...
[looking out window]
Exec #5: Has anyone noticed that building there before?

#113 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 02:37 PM:

Terry (#111)

re "The present model says there was a time when the universe wasn't. So where did it come from? No one knows. Something, apparently outside the present system, happened."

Seems to me that the use of that argument depends on the choice of analogy; that existence could be like the surface of a sphere, which is finite but doesn't have a boundary. (Is one; doesn't have one. Cf. 'center everywhere, boundary nowhere'?)

#114 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2007, 04:27 PM:

The problem with trying to reach out to conservative, fundamentalist, literalist right-wing Christians as fellow Christians is that, frankly, as far as they're concerned, if you aren't a member of their church, you're not Christian. Oh, you might think you are, you poor, deluded soul, but they know better. There is only One True Right and Only Way (tm), and it's theirs, and you don't follow it, so you're not Christian. And they've been taught that in order to protect themselves from your Satan-misled cooties, they should immediately, upon identifying you as one of the deluded, stop listening.

You will never, ever, ever pass their Purity Test without being one of them.

There is no point in talking to people with fingers in their ears. The reason we're not reaching those people isn't because we're not speaking their language. It's because they steadfastly refuse to hear us. Claiming the breakdown in communication lies with nonconservative, nonfundamentalist, nonliteralist, nonright-wingers is a load of horsepucky.

#115 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2007, 02:11 AM:

Sigh. I despair, sometimes, of my ability to communicate my ideas.

Xopher #101: If you can design practices for your own needs, and not fall into the "window shopping" trap, more power to you; there are many people who don't seem to do it very well. I wasn't saying birth tradition, by the way, but stick with something.

Miriam #103: I agree with you down the line.

Inge #104: what I see a lot of--and you may not have encountered it--is people "window shopping" for beliefs. There's nothing "wrong" with that, but a weakly-held belief is not likely to survive much stress. "The moment a person is under pressure and training needs to take over, an unexamined code can take them dog knows where." Sure, but even a well-examined home-brew may have unexpected turns. I think ethics that have been used by a number of people have a better hope of taking one to some reasonable place, provided that was the goal in the first place.

#116 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2007, 06:32 AM:

By the way, that scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life pretty much sums it up. Brilliant stuff. :)

#117 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2007, 04:23 PM:

I'm curious--what did you folks think of Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue?

#118 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2007, 03:00 AM:

Randolph Fritz @115: people "window shopping" for beliefs

I know that type mostly as, "falls for any fad". I didn't consider those when answering your post, but I agree that they are likely to fall into "something else" under pressure: usually what their parents told them (most commonly Catholicism, where I come from), IME.

Which is a solid old system, all things considered, so, if one values spiritual practises or ethic systems for how much they have been used, that would be a very favorable outcome.

#119 ::: John Aspinall ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 12:14 PM:

Terry Karney (#111): "The present model says there was a time when the universe wasn't."

This is most definitely NOT a description of the current model. In (#113), clew hints at this, but I'll beg your indulgence and say a little more. Time is a coordinate we humans put on the spacetime manifold. I'm going to compare it to a coordinate we put on the earth -- latitude.

The shape of the earth, more or less a sphere for purposes of this discussion, is an inherent property of the earth. It's "spheritude" does not require us to be present. Latitude, on the other hand, is one of many possible coordinates we humans use to describe things on the earth.

The north pole is at latitude = +90 degrees. Does that mean there is something "north of the north pole" at latitude = +91 degrees? Nope, it doesn't. Similarly, the time coordinate for the big bang is the earliest possible time coordinate. Does that mean there is something mystical lurking "before the big bang"? Same answer.

#120 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 12:23 PM:

John 119: Thank you for that explanation! I knew there was no time before the Big Bang, but a) never understood it fully until now and b) certainly never had such a clear metaphor to explain it to those who never bothered with astronomy even to the trivial extent to which I explored it.

#121 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 03:01 PM:

Sometimes when people return to the practices they were raised in, it's a sign that they're getting serious about them. The problems in a new, foreign belief, or a constructed one, aren't plain to the eye, and it's easy to pretend that there aren't any. Going to a system where you know the flaws, and are prepared to deal with them, is a sign of true committment.

It's like dating someone and knowing they're human, rather than pretending they're somehow perfect. Only one of those is really love.

#122 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 08:03 PM:

119, 120: I'll second Xopher in saying 'thank you'.

But mostly I just want to say how much I love the word 'spheritude'.

#123 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 10:00 PM:

So is time merely a construction, a useful but arbitrary means of describing the relationship of one event to another, and is that is a necessary understanding of present cosmology?

I realise that I'm probably asking a question in words that can only be answered in mathematics; but the mathematics is far, far beyond me, and yet, dammit all, I still would like to know.

#124 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2007, 10:11 PM:

Dave Luckett #123: It all depends what we mean by time. Do we mean duration, or do we mean something else (subjective experience of duration, for example, or relationships at a distance)?

#125 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 12:05 AM:

After beating my head for some time against my own inability to put the question, I come time and again back to John Aspinall's metaphor of latitude.

Latitude is not arbitrary. It refers to two fixed points, properties of the earth: the points of the axis of its rotation. Latitude can be measured, and there is a point where it begins (and ends?) beyond which there is no more latitude. Time has these properties in common with latitude. But is time like this in other ways?

I think it must be. Time refers to fixed points, too. The fixed points are causation, and other points can be determined by reference to it. Which is further north, London or Winnipeg? There is a sensible answer to that question. Which is later in time, the itch or the scratching of it? There is a sensible answer to that, too. The latter came later. It must do. Causation requires it.

How late in time is a given event? We can (theoretically) place all events in sequence by reference to a fixed point - the Big Bang, from which all events derive. It follows that there was no earlier event. There was no time. Asking what occurred before the Big Bang is like asking what is further north, Lagos or the Dog Star. No sensible answer can be made. The direction of the Dog Star isn't 'north' of anything on earth.

But does this mean that it is meaningless to ask in what direction the Dog Star may be found? Not at all. It simply means that the direction must be given in terms other than terrestrial latitude. Some fixed point in the sky must be defined, and the sun's direction and distance from this point must be specified.

Hence, the question: Is it indeed meaningless to ask about causation where there is no time? What caused the Big Bang? What direction is the Dog Star? The answers to both questions require finding a reference point from which to measure.

Um... I find myself being herded towards deism, here. Help!

#126 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 04:56 AM:

Our current understanding of cosmology does not require a "fixed point" at the Big Bang. The "start" of the Big Bang ("t=0") is, in terms of General Relativity, a singularity: it's the point where the volume of space goes to zero and the density goes to infinity. This is an indication that the theory of GR is unable to handle it. That's one of the reasons people are keen on getting a working theory of quantum gravity, because it's hoped that such a theory will be able to deal with that point. (You also need quantum gravity to understand what happens very, very early in the Big Bang, when densities and energies are very high, even if there weren't a singularity sitting there.)

In fact, both "string theory" and "loop quantum gravity" suggest -- in a very speculative fashion -- that if you run the clock backwards, then as the universe shrinks back towards and through the Big Bang, you may get a minimum size for space, and a "re-expansion" at earlier times. In this case, there is no singularity, and it's probably sensible to talk about time "before" the Big Bang, though it may be very difficult to say anything about what was going on then....

So while John Aspinall's latitude analogy is a good one for a certain, mathematically simple toy model of the universe's evolution, it's by no means the model at this point. We have a very good idea what was going on back to a point very shortly after the nominal t=0 singularity, and some fairly good ideas what was going on a little bit earlier (but still later than t=0); before that, it's just speculation.

#127 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 05:53 AM:

Dave Luckett said (#125):
How late in time is a given event? We can (theoretically) place all events in sequence by reference to a fixed point - the Big Bang, from which all events derive. It follows that there was no earlier event. There was no time. Asking what occurred before the Big Bang is like asking what is further north, Lagos or the Dog Star. No sensible answer can be made. The direction of the Dog Star isn't 'north' of anything on earth.

But does this mean that it is meaningless to ask in what direction the Dog Star may be found? Not at all. It simply means that the direction must be given in terms other than terrestrial latitude. Some fixed point in the sky must be defined, and the sun's direction and distance from this point must be specified.

Just for the sake of argument -- because it's an interesting set of concepts -- let me attempt to point out where you're leaping outside the analogy. John Aspinall's suggestion was the idea of the spacetime of the entire universe being like the surface of the Earth, with latitude analogous to the time dimension. (If you stick strictly to this surface-of-the-earth model -- a "2-sphere" -- then it's a universe with only one spatial dimension, analogous to longitude.[*] There are higher-order versions of this -- e.g., spacetime as a 4-sphere, which would be the appropriate model for our universe -- but they're kinda hard to visualize.)

In any case, in this analogy there are no objects, events, times, etc. outside the surface. There is no "Dog Star" outside the universe, and there is no event or "cause" outside the universe, either. So the question of directions and reference points is moot.

It's easy to let your visual imagination mislead you, for two reasons. The first is that if someone mentions the surface of the Earth, you can readily think of things "outside" it (or "inside" it as well), like the Dog Star. The second is even when we're considering abstract mathematical shapes, we tend to visualize them as floating in some larger space. So even if you accept, in a vague way, the idea of a 4-dimensional sphere, you almost inevitably tend to think, "Well, doesn't that mean it's got to be sitting in some larger, 5-dimensional space?"

The tricky thing is that mathematically the answer is No. It's possible for a 4-sphere to be "embedded" within a larger, higher-dimensional space, but it's not necessary. This seems to defy our spatial-visual intuition, but that intuition has been tuned by evolution to deal with everyday, human-scale things in our local 3D space.

So if someone suggests, "The spacetime of the universe is a 4-sphere, with the origin of time at one 'pole' and the end of time at the other," it is mathematically valid for this to be all that there is, completely and splendidly self-contained and autonomous.

[*] So it's not even Flatland -- it's Lineland.

#128 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 02:41 PM:

More on spacetime and causality, with particular SFnal relevance: remember the whole speed-of-light-in-a-vacuum thing? The law, discussed more in the breach than the observance, that nothing goes faster than c? I had a totally excellent math course -- I can't even remember what the subject was, only that a classmate stole my beautiful notes -- in which we sorted out all of space into, essentially, cones of could-be-affected-by-event-X. X has a location in space and time; its possible effects radiate out at the speed of light. (The zone of effect is spherical in space, but conical in spacetime, because the sphere grows.)

I bet that doesn't help, but if anyone can remember what it's called, I highly recommend it - it wasn't too mathematically difficult. Lots of Euclidean algebra, really.

#129 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 02:45 PM:

Randolph Fritz, #118; because I just got out of an algorithm-error-analysis class, I have to take exception to the idea that because a system has been used for a long time we can assume it works well. We might merely be comfortable with its errors.

This is fine unless the errors also kill us, or others. (Literally or theologically, I suppose.)

#130 ::: John Aspinall ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 03:18 PM:

Thank you, Peter Erwin, for adding your assistance; I agree with everything you say.

Dave Luckett: you are wrestling, quite understandably, with the same conceptual difficulties that everyone faced a hundred years ago when Einstein's paper on special relativity first appeared.

In relativity, there is still an arrow of time. There is still causality, in fact you could argue that causality got "stricter" under relativity.
What there isn't, is a single time coordinate for everyone. So no, you can't "place all events in sequence by reference to a fixed point."

In classical mechanics, everyone can agree on the time coordinate of an event. In classical mechanics, time(A) < time(B) i.e. A happened before B, implies A might be a cause of B, but B can never be a cause of A.

In relativistic mechanics, there are many coordinate systems, each with their own 3 space-like coordinates and 1 time-like coordinate.
In relativistic mechanics, there are some events A and B where in all coordinate systems A happened before B. Just like in classical mechanics, we can say A might be a cause of B, but B can never be a cause of A.

But... there are also some events A and B where in some coordinate systems, A happened before B, and in some coordinate systems B happened before A. The only possible way to attach causality here is to say that A couldn't have caused B, and B couldn't have caused A. (And incidentally, this is basically the same statement as "you can't go faster than light".)

As far as the latitude metaphor goes, I'm happy that people find it useful, but beware of straying outside its bounds. The fact that our conventional latitude is centered on the "spin poles" doesn't make it necessary that all latitude systems be centered on the spin poles. We could easily invent another latitude system centered on the magnetic poles, or the Flatiron building and its antipode. All those systems would have the same property of lat = +91 being meaningless.

#131 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 04:04 PM:

"Nothing is Flatironward of the Flatiron Building." This is the Law.

The way I heard the revolutionary nature of General Relativity described, it was that up until that point everyone was assuming that time was constant and consistent, that is, that it flowed at the same "rate" in all parts of the universe, at all times, and in all frames of reference.

With this assumption, they could not make sense of the universe they were observing, and were beginning to realize that they couldn't.

Einstein's revolutionary idea was that the speed of light in vacuum ("c") was the constant, and that time was variable throughout the cosmos, depending on frame of reference. This is a difficult concept for most people! But it allows the explanation of a lot of phenomena that were incomprehensible prior to Einstein. Or so they say...I don't really understand too much beyond that point.

You physics folks, correct that if any of it's wrong. It's the wad of chewing gum I'm currently sticking my understanding to, though.

#132 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 04:11 PM:

There was a scene in Bell, Book and Candle where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are seen on the roof of a building and watching the sun rise, right after he has (literally) come under her spell. The building? The Flatiron.

#133 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 05:15 PM:

Dave @ 123:

I think Hawking's popular book, A Brief History of Time, expresses fundamentally the same idea as John Aspinall's explanation. You might want to try reading that book - it's a good one - and see if it helps. I'll try to fumble through it in a way that might help it make some sense to you, as I get the sense that you are something of a visual thinker. Remember! this is all just a clumsy analogy or metaphor.

First, to answer your question: "is time merely a construction, a useful but arbitrary means of describing the relationship of one event to another, and is that a necessary understanding of present cosmology?"

Yes.

Before Einstein, time was pretty much viewed as something "sui generis", entirely other than space in dimensionality, except for purposes of mathematical calculation. Einstein's relativity principles took the standpoint that space and time were both parts of one unitary "thing", as it were. The maddening physics puzzles which this solved and the predictions it made about physics and cosmology - born out in observation - showed this to be true. Time is not a "thing" or a dimension in itself, it is a part of the same manifold (n-dimensional entity) as the spatial dimensions. Objects moving differently through space-time see a different time axis. In other words, what one sees as "time", another object will see as "time + space", i.e. motion through space. This is where all the strange simultaneity and time rate paradoxes of special relativity come in.

Given that in general relativity, space-time is viewed as one consistent geometric manifold, Hawking suggests that it might help one to visualize space-time - our entire universe - as being mapped onto the surface of a sphere, with time being exactly like the latitude coordinates on a globe and the time of the Big Bang corresponding to the North Pole. This is a "Lineland" universe in terms of its spatial properties: Lines of longitude will be perceived by intelligent entities in a similar reference frame to be points "standing still" as time passes. Moving points will appear to us to be Great Circle arcs (geodesics) on the globe, but will appear to the residents to be points "moving" along the line they exist on. (And if you ask them about 2-dimensional universes, they'll lock you up, or would if prisons were possible in a Lineland.)

While it's true that there there are things outside of a globe which one could think of directions being relevant to, nothing on this globe can be more northward than the north pole, just as in terms of the analogy, nothing in the context of our entire universe can be "before" the Big Bang. Outside this region, "time" simply doesn't apply as a relation.

Now if you just try to visualize that with two more spatial dimensions added in... right, your mind breaks, just like mine does. But if you could visualize it, then it would start being something like a model in small of our universe.

I think there has been some very speculative physics thought to the effect that our universe as a manifold (a 4-dimensional surface, essentially) might be embedded in other dimensions, and that other such manifolds could exist in some relationship to each other - the "multiverse" in other words. It's a speculation that is so abstruse it's hard to think of any way of proving or disproving it. If such other universes did exist, the concept of time still wouldn't really apply to the relation between them, any more than "North" or "South" would apply to two globes of the world sitting next to each other on a desk. Less so, perhaps.

It's worth noting that there are believed to be regions within our universe where time effectively stops applying as a relation, such as within the singularity horizon of black holes. (The globe analogy breaks down for this, too.)

One of the remaining deep mysteries of physics is why there seems to be a time "axis" - why do these dimensions of one manifold behave differently, or at least why do we perceive them so differently? We don't even know how to phrase this question properly yet.

#134 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 07:07 PM:

Xopher #131: That'll be the building at the junction of Peachtree and Broad, no doubt...

#135 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 07:09 PM:

Xopher #131: That'll be the building at the junction of Peachtree and Broad, no doubt...

#136 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2007, 07:26 PM:

I tried reading "A Short History of Time" a while ago. I'll have another go at it. I just can't get the concepts, though. General relativity lost me about the time of the experiment (the Michelton-Morley experiment, was it?) that showed that a beam of light is moving at the same speed relative to the observer whether the observer is moving towards or away from the source. I know that is true. It just doesn't make sense, and any talk of 'frame of reference' only deepens the mystery.

I have a mathematical blind spot. I had, for example, no idea at all that when asking about events before the Big Bang I was actually asking about General Relativity. The latitude metaphor pleased me immensely, in that it gave me a handle on why there was no time before the Big Bang. For a moment there, I thought I understood. Only, of course, I didn't.

Thank you to all for the kindly explanations. I don't understand, but that's not your fault. It frustrates me to be so obtuse.

#137 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 04:00 AM:

Go Slactivist! I found Making Light through Slactivist, now that I think about it.

As an atheist, he's one of the Christians that I find myself consistently challenged by. I'm glad that I live in an age where I can get his latest blog post nearly every week.

#138 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 08:00 AM:

Xopher @ 131:
With the trivial exception that what you're talking about is Special Relativity (1905) rather than General Relativity (1915), I'd say you're spot on.

General Relativity deals with gravity and acceleration, and is where the idea of curved spacetime and the interaction between mass/energy and spacetime gets introduced. (Since cosmology deals with the interaction of matter, energy, and spacetime on the largest scales, General Relativity becomes necessary.)

#139 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 08:41 AM:

#136 Dave Luckett--
I have had similar problems, and I think one of my difficulties with this sort of physics, quite a bit of higher mathematics, and some types of music is that they require me to think, as it were, in a different language than the one I'm used to using. I can do it, with a great deal of effort, but because I'm both so accustomed to the language I'm used to thinking in, and good at it as well, making the shift requires a great deal of effort and concentration--it's not just going from English to Latin, and dealing with a different grammatical system--it's going from English to Greek or Russian, and dealing not just with different grammar but a different alphabet as well--only harder than that, even.
It's rather like being able to reach out and touch something and just barely get my fingers around it, and thinking "If I just relax my joints a bit more so that my arm stretches a little farther, I can actually grasp this object firmly."
Sometimes it works, sometimes--not.

#140 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 09:27 AM:

fidelio (#139): Great analogies! For me, alas, the "just out of grasp" one translates into "several feet above my head, and me with no stepladder" -- a familiar feeling, actually, for someone under 5 foot 4.

#141 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 10:09 AM:

Faren @ 140... a familiar feeling, actually, for someone under 5 foot 4

You have it easy. Joan Crawford was 5 feet tall, and Judy Garland was 4 feet 11.

#142 ::: John Aspinall ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:09 PM:

Dave @136: while you're learning about equivalences that you didn't previously know, it might help you to know that "frame of reference" can also be pronounced "spacetime coordinate system".

Clifton @133: With respect to minds breaking, I deliberately kept the causality description limited to flat spacetime. Some folks want a mind breaker? OK, here we go. I'll be listening for the "pop".

Closed timelike curve.

#143 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 12:54 PM:

Dave @ 136: Well, don't feel too bad, because you're where all the great physicists in the world were when Einstein began publishing his papers. The Michelson-Morley experiment's results, showing that that the speed of light was constant to different reference frames, had opened a huge can of worms. Nobody wanted to believe it, but they were stuck because the observations were confirmed, Einstein's math was good, and nobody had a better solution to these problems in physics. Through the '50s, the popular claim was that only a few people in the world actually understood general relativity.

I think it may help if you read about it and start thinking about it when you're younger - I was puzzled by the ideas of relativity and started trying to read books on it when I was in junior high school, and eventually I started to get a rough handle on the concepts and at least accept them. Reading SF certainly didn't hurt.

John @ 142: I left those out deliberately - I am aware of the concept, and it's easy to introduce it on the imaginary spherical surface. Neither physicists nor SF writers seem quite sure what to do with that one. (SF writers find the masses and distances inconvenient for storytelling purposes, I think - Wells' machine is so much more appealing.)

Then there's what I've read happens to the math when you have extremely large black holes rotating extremely fast to form a toroidal event horizon...

#144 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 01:51 PM:

John @ 142:
Given all the time machine usage that was going on[*] back in Open Thread 80, I think some people here must be quite used to closed timelike curves.

[*] or will have been going on, or... oh, never mind.

#145 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:33 PM:

Clifton,

I don't know if he has the physics right, but Closed Timelike Curves play a major role in Kaleidoscope Century. (The physics of their behavior sounds like what I'm told is right.)

#146 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 02:55 PM:

adamsj: You're right, they are very like, but they're not based on Tipler cylinders.

P.S. Kaleidoscope Century was one of the very few books that I found so deeply unpleasant that I've wished I could unread it, or not have read it in the first place.

#147 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:30 PM:

Barnes in his unpleasant mode is nasty.

#148 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:31 PM:

Clifton,

You are not the only person I know who's had that reaction. (We are talking about the writer who invented Highly Unpleasant Things it is Sometimes Necessary to Know and Things That Are Not Good to Know at All.) I also know one person who found the first couple dozen pages so distressing that she, too, nearly abandoned it, persevered, and was ultimately glad she did.

I am curious--was it the physical detail that put you off? Or the amorality of the narrator? Both?

#149 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 03:44 PM:

Teresa,

That's true, and yet I don't think I've read a better recent novel than Kaleidoscope Century or Earth Made of Glass, both of which depressed me deeply on first readings.

(I finished Earth Made of Glass over lunch, and was too depressed to go back to work.)

But the violence in those books had a point to it beyond the violence itself. So much of stuff that passes through my view is fascinated with violence and war itself--it's no surprise to me that Tom Clancy blurbs a lot of military science fiction--to the point that it just repels me. It's not that 'nasty' physically. It's just void of ethical content beyond the effectiveness of power.

Exceptions, yes--I was pleasantly surprised by S. M. Stirling's books set in Oregon, humane and unfoolish--but generally, if you've read one war, kill all its writers and let God edit 'em out.

Or something like that.

#150 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2007, 07:15 PM:

I have various thoughts as to why I feel so strongly about that particular book, and don't feel at all the same way about Mother of Storms, which also has some extremely nasty bits. I'm not going to lay all of them out here, but I think at the core of it is this:

Kaleidoscope Century uses all the skills of the writer to engage the reader in identifying with its main character, along with his commission of genocide, torture-murders, and repeated rape, both for hire and whim, and a program of the careful and systematic destruction of societies which tried to stand in his/their way. As the main character is virtually the sole character, there's essentially no respite from this, no alternate perspective. One of the few other real characters is the one who deliberately helps shape him into this. It feels like watching Ilse: She-Wolf of the SS with neither the inadvertent humor, the occasional titillation, nor even a feeble gesture towards a positive ending.

Yes, the book provides some useful thoughts - it's a good guide to thinking about what much of Africa has beocme, for instance - but it's not worth the ordeal it was for me.

There's more to it than that, but that'll do to go on with.

#151 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2007, 03:05 PM:

Ummm... I wasn't meaning to bring all discussion here to a close. Particularly since neither space-time in relativity, nor Kaleidoscope Century had anything to do with the original thread subject. Oh well.

#152 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2007, 05:11 PM:

Clifford #151:

You didn't bring it to a close, just to a closed timelike curve. Maybe the effects are the same?

For the record, I actually found Mother of Storms to be more difficult than Kaleidoscope Century, and Earth Made of Glass to be considerably worse than either (probably because I could identify with Earth's protagonist, something I couldn't do with the others). But Barnes is still on my auto-buy list (although sometimes I wait for paperback, depending on my finances) because I can forgive him much for Orbital Resonance and parts of Patton's Spaceship.

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