Archive for January, 2010

Andrew Sullivan on Fundamentalism

January 14, 2010

The following is an excerpt from “Addiction in the Heartland,” by Andrew Sullivan, posted today on The Daily Dish. You can read the entire post here.

Fundamentalism’s failure to encourage genuine, humble and humane faith that can finally come to terms with science and history is critical to this, which is why, increasingly, I think a reform of Christianity is central to preserving the liberal constitutional state. What has replaced real faith is, in fact, a form of neurotic attachment to literalism in Scripture (effectively debunked by scholarship), to authority figures who enforce order, if not coherence, onto otherwise chaotic lives (think Dobson or Ratzinger or Warren), rigid attachment to untruths in human history (as in denial of evolution), or the insistence of maintaining the appearance of Godliness to avoid confronting real human sin (think Ted Haggard or the countless child-abusing priests). None of this helps anyone actually cope with modern life, because it is too opposed to modern life. And so fundamentalism as a coping mechanism in fact  makes it all much worse, as rising rates of dysfunction, family breakdown, illegitimacy, abortion, HIV transmission, and drug abuse in the Christianist states reveal – just as the sexual dysfunction in Islamist societies cripples and immiserates them. If you want to find Ground Zero for this confluence of poverty, isolation, Christianism and meth, take a trip to Wasilla, Alaska, whence the new Esther has emerged.

The core element of Christianism and Islamism is denial: denial of a diverse world, denial of history, denial of science, denial of secular authority in favor of an ever-more rigid ideology, conveyed directly into the bloodstream through the web or FNC or other propaganda outlets.

This strikes me as the core evolution of our time, as I lay out with some urgency in the opening chapters of The Conservative Soul. I regard it not as a rebirth of faith but as a collapse of faith into neurosis.

It has profound political ramifications, which secular conservatives and liberals have been far too coy in taking on.

Opening Statement in the Proposition 8 Trial

January 12, 2010

To read Ted Olson’s opening statement in California’s Proposition 8 trial, click here.

“Band of Unusually Warm Air” to the South and East of GB on Same Day as GB Under Ice

January 10, 2010

This BBC map shows what meterologists describe as “bands of unusually warm air” to the south and east of Great Britain on the same day as the photo in the previous post (below) was taken. Follow the complete report here.

Great Britain Under Ice

January 8, 2010


January 8, 2010: This remarkable photo was taken yesterday from NASA’s Terra satellite.

James Carroll’s Broad Critique of Catholic Culture

January 8, 2010

Author James CarrollJames Carroll published Toward a New Catholic Church in 2002, close on the heels of Constantine’s Sword, his bestselling historical essay about the deep strains of anti-Judaism in the Catholic Church. The scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests was unfolding even as Carroll was writing, and the Church’s institutional complicity with the abusers was becoming more and more apparent with every fresh revelation. In Toward a New Catholic Church, Carroll adds his voice to a growing chorus of Catholics calling for reform—specifically, for a new Church council (Vatican III) that will end the Church’s moral paralysis and restore its damaged credibility regarding not only its historical anti-Judaism and the priest child abuse scandal but a host of other issues including birth control, homosexuality, the status of women, celibacy in an all-male priesthood, and the Church’s exclusionary stance toward other religions. There can be little doubt that Carroll and others calling for such reforms have embraced “modernist” values of democracy, reason, and pluralism, and for this they are ignored or denounced by more conservative and orthodox Catholics bent on preserving the status quo.

As a secular humanist who was never a Catholic, I am both handicapped and privileged in approaching Carroll’s work. I am handicapped because I have no deep understanding of Catholicism, and I am privileged because my perspective has not been shaped in any significant way by that faith. But the real question is, Why is this debate any of my business?


The Mountain of Evidence Outside My Window

January 4, 2010

In the course of discussions with climate change skeptics over the past year or so, I’ve always been amazed that so much denial could persist in the face of so much evidence. In fact, no amount of evidence ever seems to make any difference. Of course, people without science education are often intimidated by charts or unable to properly assess them, but you would still think that photographs or first-hand reports might be persuasive. After all, there is abundant photographic evidence that Arctic ice is melting at such a rapid rate that shipping lanes are now opening up in summer. And many Bangladeshis have seen the effects of rising sea levels first-hand. They can tell you about the incursion of sea water into their agricultural fields. I could multiply the examples endlessly, but the point is that the available evidence takes many forms, many of which are very accessible to folks without a basic science education.

Now, here’s an example that is literally outside my window. I live in an area of this country where the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, and I have what realtors sometimes call a “territorial view” (a realtor’s euphemism for a partial view) from my upstairs windows. On a clear day, I can see six or seven of the 15 glaciers on the slopes of the tallest peak in the Northwest, Mt. Rainier.

If I had been alert to what is happening to these glaciers, I might have been making my own photographs of them over the years. Instead, I must rely on TeleAtlas and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The glaciers are shrinking. They have lost more than 20 percent of their mass in the past century, releasing debris flows into the rivers and raising the risk of floods. Riverbeds in two nearby cities (Puyallup and Auburn) are rising, fir and cedar trees are standing in water, and the debris is bumping up against the bottoms of bridges and spilling onto roads. Recreational areas such as camp grounds are disappearing.

The culprit? Rising temperatures. Less snow. More and heavier rain. It’s the heavy rainfall that triggers the debris flows. Data on the stream flows reveal that major floods on the Nisqually River, which used to occur about every 100 years, now occur about every 14 years. I frequently drive through these areas. I have friends who live in the floodplains.

What is happening to Mount Rainer’s 15 glaciers is happening to glaciers worldwide.

One would expect that those living in the floodplains of Mt. Rainier’s rivers would now almost uniformly accept the scientific evidence about climate change, regardless of their political or religious affiliations. Instead, I suspect that those whose worldviews rule out global warming scenarios will continue to be unimpressed by the “mountain” of evidence outside their windows.

Violence and the Sacred

January 3, 2010

January 2, 2010. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was attacked in his home by an axe- and knife-wielding Somali man linked to the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia. The man broke into his home and shouted that he intended to kill Westergaard, who immediately fled with his five-year-old grand-daughter to a secure room and called the police. When the police arrived, the Somali man threatened them with the axe and was shot in a knee and a hand.

Westergaard has received death threats from Islamic extremists since 2005, when he published 12 satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The cartoon sparked riots and boycotts of Danish goods across the Muslim world.

In a related story, lawmakers in Ireland passed an anti-blasphemy law last July, and it came into force on January 1. The law prohibits the publication of anything “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”

In Ireland, any of the following images might be barred from publication, depending on how “grossly abusive” they are judged to be:


“In God We Trust”: Urban Legend Spawns Fruitful Discussion

January 3, 2010

A four-year-old urban legend found its way this morning onto a blog site that I follow, and I swallowed it—hook, line, and sinker. I even posted the story on my own site, where it remained until a visitor spotted it and informed me that it was a fraud.

The story was that a new U.S. dollar coin is about to be minted without the national motto, “In God We Trust.” The politically conservative blogmeister who passed this story my way was scandalized by such a brazen disregard for our nation’s religious heritage, and I was speechless with delight (the speechlessness lasted for only a few minutes). He has since removed the story and the appended comments, but I saved my copies of the comments, at least. Here they are:

My initial comment:

This release of the new dollar coin without the words “In God We Trust” is good news. These words did not become the national motto until 1956, when anti-Communist sentiment was at its all-time high in this country.  The motto “E Pluribus Unum” (One from many) was used on the Great Seal of the U.S. starting in 1782, but it never became our country’s official motto. 

We live in one of the most pluralistic societies in the history of the world. If we must place a motto on our dollar coin, then I would favor a return to “E Pluribus Unum,” which acknowledges our pluralism and the strength that we can draw from it as a nation. “In God We Trust” is inappropriate in a society where roughly 35 million people profess no religion at all and millions of others profess non-theistic religions.

The motto “In God We Trust” is appropriate for use in religious institutions and should be kept out of secular government, not only to protect government from intrusion by religion, but also to prevent the cheapening of the motto itself.  

Response from “Ignatius”:

Your historical explanation leaves out a couple details. “In God We Trust“ began appearing on most U.S. coins in 1866 and has been on all U.S. coins since 1938. Connecting this to the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s isn’t entirely fair.

I live in a country, Austria, where mentioning God among politicians and the people as a whole is seen as being in very bad taste. Because the U.S. is different in this respect, at least a little, my students have sometimes asked me about the American perspective and about this motto on our coins. It gives me a chance to explain the religious roots of our nation, as expounded by Alexis de Tocqueville among others.

Eliminating this motto is part of a larger process of denying our national heritage and undermining our ethical foundation. Why so many are trying to make our country into just another European-type dystopia is beyond me.

My response to Ignatius:

Ignatius, the official motto has a long and complex history. I decided to focus only on the history of its official status, but I thank you for the additional information.

My preference for “E Pluribus Unum” has less to do with denying our national heritage than with celebrating our nation’s pluralism, which has always been one of its greatest strengths. I think we can recognize the contributions of religion without actually placing an article of faith on our currency. The phrase “In God We Trust” is much more than an evocation of heritage; it is an actual claim, and a false one. Its effect on 35 million Americans is subtly exclusionary and even divisive, while “E Pluribus Unum” is broadly inclusive of all the different strains of belief and non-belief that have made this nation great. Your concern that eliminating “In God We Trust” will undermine our ethical foundation is, to me, the perfect illustration of the problem with that motto. You’ve implied that our ethical foundation is exclusively Judeo-Christian and that people outside that tradition will somehow undermine it. This is not a message that we want to stamp on our currency.

I later received the following comment from a friend who had read the exchange:

I would expect you to be challenged by someone living in Austria, but for different reasons. The idea of God as a partisan and ally of our objectives—whatever they may be—strikes a sour note with many Germans and Austrians, who are still repenting of Nazi Germany. Of course, if God (Hitler) is with us, who can be against us?

Diminishing Marriage

January 1, 2010

The only difference between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple is the sex part—the physical part. When people say that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry, they tacitly admit that to them, marriage is primarily about sex—a limited and restrictive definition that actually diminishes marriage. –Lauren Becker

To listen to Lauren Becker’s entire essay on same-sex marriage, click here. (Note that her essay, broadcast on the Point of Inquiry program of June 9, 2006, precedes the program’s interview with Cathleen Falsani.)