Apr 152008
Maybe you know someone who has been suckered in by the numerous distortions, outright lies, and malevolent accusations of the “documentary” Expelled, starring famous bore and Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein. Perhaps even you have been convinced by its “startling” array of important “facts” about the “controversy” between the scientifically useless design conjecture and staggeringly successful evolutionary theory. If so, I urge you to direct your credulous friend (or yourself) to Expelled Exposed, a website devoted to debunking the lies of this appalling propaganda flick. Even if you favor a creationist viewpoint I think you will find it highly disturbing how freely the creators of this film distort the truth to favor their views.

In addition, for general knowledge on debunking the claims of creationists you should check out The Panda’s Thumb, TalkOrigins, TalkDesign, TalkReason, and the National Center for Science Education.

Also, New Scientist has an excellent article up featuring 24 misconceptions about evolution. Read it.

Also check out some other articles about the film and its marketing:
Biologist PZ Myers, interviewed in the film, is expelled from a screening of Expelled. But they let Dawkins in.

An animation in Expelled was ripped off from Harvard University and XVIVO. It should be noted that famous cdesign proponentsist William Dembski was for a long time in the habit of stealing this film to display in paid lectures.

Expelled tries to draw a line between belief in evolution and anti-Semitism. Interestingly, one of the creationist scientists they interview is the anti-Semite Maciej Giertych.

Dec 012007
Perhaps you have already heard about the 14-year-old Washington boy who refused extended blood transfusion treatment and therefore died (some additional info can be found here and here). Obviously, this is a terrible tragedy for his family, and I certainly hope his aunt is a true believer because if she is not then she’ll have no solace for the fact that her ignorant superstitious nonsense killed him. The judge in the case, who upheld the boy’s right to refuse the transfusions, will come in for a great deal of much-warranted scrutiny, but the fact of the matter is that it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses who deserve the scrutiny and the blame for what has happened.

I think anyone reading about this will have a knee-jerk reaction that the judge in the case made the wrong decision. The AP quotes judge Meyer as saying that the boy understood the consequences of his decision, which may well be true, in an analytical sense. Young Mr. Lindberg probably understood that he would die, but there are very few 14-year-olds, let alone 14-year-old boys, who have a good appreciation of what that means. Death isn’t something you understand unless you’ve spent some time around it, brushed up against it. And think of the teenagers you know. Would you trust any of them with life-and-death decisions? Hell, we don’t trust 14-year-olds with cars. It’s also true that the boy’s parents, who did not have custody of him, wanted him to take the transfusion—could his relationship with them have played a role in his decision?

So Meyer can be justly criticized on the grounds that Lindberg was not competent to make that judgment, or that it wasn’t Lindberg’s judgment to make. However, it should also be pointed out that this was not some one-off transfusion that would instantly cure the boy. The treatment under discussion was a long course of transfusions that would run alongside the chemotherapy. And according to the doctors the prognosis was that he had a 70% chance of surviving the ordeal, with all the discomfort and side effects to boot. Being forced to undergo the treatment against his will would certainly make this harder on the boy, and on his doctors.

That said, I personally feel that Meyer should have erred on the side of curing the boy. Lindberg’s decision was dangerous and self-destructive, and this should have indicated the opposite ruling. However, I wasn’t present for the hearing, and the decision Meyer did make wasn’t groundless. Maybe there was something in Lindberg’s demeanor suggesting greater maturity than his age would typically indicate.

You’ll note that I didn’t say anything about the religious sensibilities. That is because I give them no weight at all. Lots of people dislike the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a variety of reasons, but I’ve never been bothered by them; certainly not to the degree that I am bothered by other odious “Christians” living a life of hatred at maximum volume. So this is not a statement emerging from a blanket dislike: their attitude towards transfusion reeks of ignorance, superstition, and flat-earthism. The soul, if it exists, is not bound up in any bodily organ or fluid. Certainly people who have received massive blood transfusions have not absorbed someone else’s soul—or at least I’m sure that didn’t happen to me.

There is a bright line with religious beliefs, especially laws of practice: they’re fine as long as they don’t hurt anyone. We in America do not allow cannibalism or polygamy, although these are both religious practices with long histories. Nor are we tolerant of female genital mutilation, stoning people to death for violations of the laws of Leviticus, or human sacrifice, religious practices all. This indoctrination against lifesaving medical procedures is just as dangerous and fatal, especially when the subject is a teenager lacking in perspective and a diversity of life experiences. Judge Meyer made a mistake by allowing Lindberg to finish the deed, but it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their purity practices that killed that boy. That ought not be allowed.

Spongiform theology

 religion  Comments Off on Spongiform theology
Sep 072007
I have just finished reading a couple of books by John Shelby Spong, once Episcopal Bishop of Newark and long a voice against the literal interpretation of the Bible. Spong’s viewpoint really appeals to those who, like myself, view the Bible as containing principles of virtue rather than recitations of fact. The unfortunate thing about Spong’s writing, besides his preacher’s penchant for repetition, is that it appeals to those who, like myself, view the Bible as containing principles of virtue rather than recitations of fact. For very different reasons, Spong’s books probably will not convince an atheist that there is anything of particular value in the Bible, and they certainly will not convince a Biblical literalist that it should be read as the epic myth it is.

The second point I take first because it is easier. Spong spends a fair amount of time in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism going over some of the easiest-to-find contradictions in the Bible, and he repeats some of these in The Sins of Scripture. It’s fair to point these out, but mere contradictions will never compel fundamentalists to change their approach to the Bible. Nor will their minds be changed by some of the “terrible texts” Spong quotes in Sins. Nobody ever remembers that Lot offered up his daughters to the mob as a gang-rape alternative, or that he later through incest fathered two nations with them. No, all anyone ever remembers is that God destroyed Sodom for being home to a bunch of gays, and then they go on about how Lot and his family were spared because he was moral. Nor will the fervent quoter of Old Testament purity laws feel any compulsion to renounce his wool-blend suit. And when he tries to get out of that by saying that the New Testament eliminates the old laws (a position he did not hold two minutes earlier when he called homosexuality an abomination), he will nonetheless admit to no obligation to tell his wife to shut up each time they enter a church. Consistency is not a thing fundamentalists require of themselves; thus they are unlikely to require it of their holy book.

In fact, Spong does plenty in both these books to alienate the literalist, not least his contention that Paul was gay. I regard his case for this as interesting but not compelling; the literalist will probably regard it as deeply insulting. Spong takes it as inspiring, and I can see how some literalists could view it that way, but my impression is that the typical fundamentalist uses the Bible as a post hoc justification for existing homophobia, and thus would regard the theory as entirely negative no matter what it implies about the saving power of Scripture.

So much for the fundamentalist. Spong’s approach is almost entirely a loss. He comes closest to speaking to them when he points out that figurative or symbolic speech is a significant feature of Jesus’ teachings. If the literal words of God are to be understood figuratively, shouldn’t we look at “the word of God” the same way? But Spong doesn’t do much with this point. He also in a few spots implies that viewing the Bible as inerrant and all-truthful makes it a part of the Godhead and is therefore idolatry. Again, he does not build on this point. Perhaps these aren’t very strong (though I find them pretty compelling), but I feel that isn’t his reason for shying away from them. The real reason is that his target audience is not fundamentalists who might be swayed by this approach. He’s targeting people who already question their faith, or who have lost it by exposure to the fundamentalists. But does his work actually speak to these people?

In the end, I think it does not, or at least it will not call anyone to religion. Indeed, Spong makes it clear that what he seeks is a “religionless Christianity” or a “Christian humanism”. He wishes to strip away the idea of a corporeal resurrection, a literal creation of the world, and a unique set of religious laws handed down through time. But without these things, what is Christianity? What are you stating when you say “I am a Christian, but I don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ or that he was really the son of or consubstantial with God or that he died for my sins”?

Spong thinks it means something to say that, but what? That you agree with most of the things Jesus says in the gospels, except for the ones that are about God? If that’s it, then you’re just reading the gospels as third-hand philosophical dialogs, like a copy of a copy of some illiterate fisherman’s recollection of a reading of Phaedo. Jesus takes the role of Socrates, dispensing wisdom and ultimately getting killed by his enemies for no good reason, and why bother? Reading the Bible as philosophy just makes you a worse Humanist, because there’s no derivation of the New Testament’s truly revolutionary principle other than to say it comes from God’s love.

If you are coming to Christianity from without, what does believing in this add to your life other than useless dogma? If you are fleeing Christianity from within, what is there in this approach to bring you back into the embrace of the church? Nothing and nothing. There are better places to find a message of love for one another, undiluted by the racism, sexism, and absurdity that mar the pages of the Bible. If you already believe in loving your neighbor, why clutter that up with the baggage of Christianity? And if you feel that a logical derivation from first principles doesn’t support loving your neighbor, what about Christianity will convince you? Spong’s approach doesn’t give anyone a reason to join Christianity or even just stay. Whoever you are, there’s nothing in it for you.

Spong is right about one thing: Jesus had a revolutionary message for his day, one even most Christians today barely acknowledge and almost never put into practice. And the more loudly they proclaim their Christianity the further away from this message they usually are. This idea, running very much against the prevailing thought of the day, so transformed those who adopted it that they dressed his life up in the raiment of myth. That myth has swallowed the reality, and grown so large that the original message is suffocating to death beneath a blanket of hatred and mindless dogma and dead-hearted “Christians” carrying signs that say “God hates fags”.

If you take it literally, the story of Jesus is a superstitious morass no self-respecting empiricist could really believe. Taken figuratively, it is a story about how the enormous power of Jesus’ message can transform a person, not only in his dealings with others but also in his feelings about himself. Does the message have this power because God was within Jesus, or because God is within us? Does the resurrection mean that a dead man rose up, walked on water, and flew off into the stratosphere, or does it mean that God and Jesus are reborn within us every time we accept the message and live it out?

Spong doesn’t seem to answer these questions, and really, I’m not sure he wants to try. In the end, these books are of value, because they illustrate that a man can hold on to faith while acknowledging that his holy texts are human documents that exist in time, not divine writs that exist beyond it. He does much to explain the historical context of the different books of the Bible, and their role in the evolving story of Judaism and Christianity. But Spong’s vision for the future of Christianity is a road down which no true believer will go, nor any non-believer need go.