From the category archives:

Religion

The Steelwool Scrub – A Fallacy

by John Holbo on May 7, 2019

This case is picture-perfect for making a simple point in debates about religious liberty: ‘sincere religious belief’ is not a ‘get out of bigotry free’ card. It is no carte blanche defense (legal or moral).

The man is nothing if not religiously sincere. Anyone who wasn’t would have kept his mouth shut, not blurted the following: [click to continue…]

Cults

by Harry on January 8, 2019

A while ago I was helping a couple of students decide what to register for the following semester. One of them had discovered a class in Religious Studies called “Sex and Cults” which the other student and I thought sounded thrilling, and were very disappointed to discover we had been mishearing, and it was in fact just “Sects and Cults”. Even so, I’ve long had an interest in cults (and sects), so I’d like to recommend a couple of great podcasts about cults (partly in the rather forlorn hopes of someone being able to offer me something else equally good).

End Of Days is a BBC documentary about the Branch Davidians, told from the British perspective: 24 Brits, all recruited from the Seventh Day Adventists, and almost all of them Afro-Carribean in origin, died in the conflagration. The reporter seems particularly incomprehending that Brits could end up in a cult in Waco, as if there is something in the national DNA that immunizes us from such gullibility, which might irritate some listeners, as might the slightly superior attitude toward the Americans they meet. And he is exceptionally unsympathetic to the cultists and, for example, is remarkably uncritical of the idea the idea that the cultists were brainwashed. The phrase “Whackos of Waco” is repeated much too often! But it is well worth listening all the way through: its a compelling story, well told, you get a real sense of the ways in which it was tragic for those left behind. They trace the role of, and interview, a remarkable and rather sinister character, Livingstone Fagan, who helped Koresh recruit and whose wife and mother, whom he refuses to mourn, were killed in the fire. They deal particularly well with the siege and conflagration: as with all accounts I’ve heard its hard to escape the conclusion that the ATF and FBI were spectacularly irresponsible.

Better still is Glynn Washington’s series about Heaven’s Gate. Washington was, himself, raised in a cult which, I think, helps him understand the state of mind of the cultists much better than the makers of End Of Days. The end is, of course, the starting point for the investigation, but whereas the BBC documentary maintains consistent focus on the conflagration, for Washington the end is just the end. He traces the whole history of the cult, interviewing people who knew Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles before they became cult leaders, and many former members and friends and family of those who died. Whereas Koresh lived very differently from his followers (he, and they, believed he was the second coming of the Messiah and, oddly given what we read in the Bible, thought that entitled him to sex with any woman, or girl, that he wanted). Applewhite lived just like them—he was one of the several men who underwent voluntary castration to affirm their ascetic lifestyle. (Nettles who, it becomes clear, was the true leader, pretty followed rules that all were expected to abide by while she was alive, with one notable exemption that Washington teases out). Nettles and Applewhite were clearly in love with each other but seem to have remained celibate. Washington goes much deeper into the psychology of cult membership, and devotes an entire episode to the ethics of deprogramming and whether brainwashing is real. Much more than End of Days, Heaven’s Gate gives you a feel for what life was like for the followers.

If you can recommend other long form podcasts about sects and cults (or even sex and cults), go ahead!

Judaeo-Christian (updated)

by John Quiggin on October 22, 2017

My son Daniel pointed out to me a feature of Trump’s speech to the laughably named Values Voters summit which seems to have slipped by most observers. As summarized by Colbert King in the Washington Post

Telling a revved-up Values Voter audience that he is “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump suggested to the crowd, which already thinks a “war on Christianity” is being waged, that invoking “Merry Christmas” is a way of fighting back.

But “Happy Holidays” is exactly an expression of Judaeo-Christian values, coined to embrace the Jewish Hanukkah as well as Christmas. In this context, King’s suggestion that “Happy Holidays” is secular misses the point. The majority of secular Americans celebrate Christmas (happily mixing Santa Claus, carols, and consumerism). They say “Happy Holidays” as a nod to religious diversity among believers, not because they feel excluded from Christmas.

Insistence on “Merry Christmas”, by contrast, is a repudiation of the claim implicit in “Judaeo-Christian”, namely, that Jews and Christians have essentially the same beliefs and worship the same god, and that the differences between the two are ultimately less important than the commonalities. On any interpretation of Christianity in which all who reject Christ (including, I imagine, most of us here at CT) are damned, “Judaeo-Christian” is a much more pernicious version of political correctness than “Happy Holidays”.

I haven’t got to a proper analysis of this, so I’ll turn it over to commenters.

Updated A lengthy and sometimes heated comments thread, from which I’ll extract the following: “Judaeo-Christian” has been used in all sorts of ways, from an inclusivist way of speaking about the two main religious traditions historically present in European and the US, to a “supersessionist” Christian doctrine, in which Judaism is an imperfect forerunner of Christianity, to a code word for Islamophobia. Obviously, Trump and his audience were mainly using it in non-inclusive ways. Even so, there’s no way it can be consistent with a purely Christianist objection to “Happy Holidays”. The contradiction reflects the collapse of modern conservatisim into “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble thought”.

Happy Hari Raya Haji

by Belle Waring on September 1, 2017

Happy Hari Raya Haji/Eid al-Adha to all our Muslim readers! I live very near a huge mosque, and all the parking in the opposite lot is taken up, and all the street signs are full of locked bicycles, and the sidewalk is bordered with scores of scooters and motorcycles, and you can hear the call to prayer for a change. Normally Singapore more or less mutes it in the name of religious harmony—that is to say they forbid loudspeakers so the muezzin is singing alone, and so desperately quiet over the traffic noise and the inevitable jackhammering going on in Singapore at all times. The Indian ceremonies in which someone is blowing on a conch is frankly louder, and don’t get me started on drumming in Chinese temples or lion dances at CNY. I feel as if the men with the white caps that indicate they have been on the hajj have a little swagger today. Today on my hike I noticed the other men have generally worn embroidered and beaded black caps to keep up appearances. For those of you who don’t know, the feast celebrates both the ending of the hajj and the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail. Ibrahim and Ismail are said to have made the Kaaba later at the source of the miraculous spring which appeared when the earth was struck by the angel Jibra’il (or alternately much earlier where Hagar collapsed in prayer after wandering, in the hopes of saving her child from death from lack of water). It’s called the Zamzam Well, which is literally the coolest name ever. The day includes the sacrifice of a big valuable animal which is divided for a ritual feast, in commemoration of the ram substituted for Ismail. Lots of the many Singaporean Muslims with family in Malaysia travel there for the feast, where the cows or sheep or goats are more easily available (though of course they are shipped into mosques here.) People raise funds for charity also. Anyway, happy day!

Trumpism and religion

by John Quiggin on March 16, 2017

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s election victory was the overwhelming support he received from white Christians, rising to near-unanimity among white evangelicals, where Trump outpolled all previous Republican candidates. In thinking about the global rise of Trumpism, I’ve been under the impression that the US is a special case, and that the rise of Trumpism in a largely post-religious Europe suggests that the link between Christianism and Trumpism is a spurious correlation.

But, on reading a bit about the Dutch election, I found the suggestion that there is a long tradition of confessional politics in the Netherlands (maybe Ingrid could explain more about this) and that support for the racist PVV is centred on Limburg, and inherited from the formerly dominant Catholic party there. And, re-examining my previous position, it’s obvious that being “largely post-Christian” does not preclude the existence of a large bloc of Christian, and therefore potentially Christianist voters.

So, I’m now thinking that Trumpism can be seen, in large measure, as a reaction by white Christians against the loss of their assumed position as the social norm, against which assertions of rights for anyone else can be seen as identity politics, political correctness and so on. As is usual, as soon as I formed this idea, I found evidence for it everywhere. Obvious cases are Putin and Russian Orthodoxy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Fillon in France. Looking a bit harder, I found that British Christians voted strongly for Brexit. And, in my own backyard, all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist.

Of course, there’s nothing distinctively Christian in the actual politics of Trumpism, so the analysis applies equally well to Islamists like Erdoganhat (and al-Baghdadi for that matter) and Hindu nationalists like Modi. In fact, looking over the recent upsurge of Trumpists, the only counterexample I can find to the analysis is Duterte in the Phillipines, who has been denounced by the Catholic Church and has returned the compliment in spades.

What does this mean for the future of Trumpism?

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Demography and irreligion, one year on

by John Quiggin on August 1, 2016

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about a Pew study predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. But a closer look revealed a surprising prediction for the US, the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050 (emphasis added), while the unaffiliated would rise from 16 to 26 per cent. Given that more than 30 per cent of Millennials are already unaffiliated, that seemed like a surprisingly slow rate of change. However, judging by the comments threads, a lot of readers seemed to find the Pew projections fairly plausible.

A year on, Pew has undertaken a new survey focused on the US election. The headline results are for registered voters, but the results turn out to be the same as for the full sample. The big news: “The non-religious are now the country’s largest religious voting bloc, at 21 per cent of registered voters. The Christian groups reported by Pew add up to 66.7 per cent of the population (my calculation, and emphasis added). Other religions account for 11 per cent (according to the WP) leaving a small residual (maybe “declined to say”).

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Pre and Post-Scarcity Ecotheonomics

by John Holbo on July 29, 2016

Erick Erickson:

In Genesis, God put Adam and Eve to work in the garden. There is something soul nourishing about work. When we all get to Heaven we will all have jobs. Getting people comfortable not working sucks their souls away and destroys their families.
Two questions here. [click to continue…]

Zarathustra and Kierkegaard

by John Holbo on July 15, 2016

Apologies for lack of posts. I’ve been without keyboard for 10 days. It’s silent meditation for the fingertips, if – like me – you type quickly. (I don’t count that hunt-and-pecking ground on my iPad mini as a keyboard.) But before leaving home I prepared a few “On Beyond Zarathustra” installments to hold my clamorous readership (yet you are all so politely silent!) until I return to my Cintiq at summer’s end.

I’ve been using my keyboard-free time to read news and be horrified, also to read as many hundreds of pages of Kierkegaard as I can before August. (When I get tired, I read Lord Dunsany, pagan palate-cleanser, when the Kierkegaardian Christianity gets too much.) So far I’ve gotten all the way through Either/Or, in the Penguin Classics edition, which is slightly abridged but – you know what? – I’m not complaining. (Have YOU ever read all the way through both volumes of Either/Or, as opposed to skimming “The Diary of a Seducer” for naughty bits, then getting disappointed and bored?) I have also made it through Philosophical Fragments, which is shorter but even more head-scratching. [click to continue…]

Demography and irreligion

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2015

A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.

Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
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Charlie Hebdo

by Chris Bertram on January 7, 2015

We don’t have all the facts about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but it seems very likely that it was carried out by extreme Islamists as revenge for the magazine’s satirizing of Islam. I’m sure there will be a lot of comment over the next few days about the symbolic and principled aspects, the need to stand up for freedom of speech, and so on. I don’t dissent from that, but I’m finding it hard to see past the immediate horror of ten, eleven or more human beings, journalists, gunned down like that in a West European capital city. Awful.

The attack comes just after the Islamophobic marches in Germany by Pegida and the many reports of desperate refugees fleeing Syria in unseaworthy hulks. No doubt the Islamophobic parties, the Front National, UKIP and the rest will try to take advantage and ordinary Muslims will feel more isolated and threatened. We need to remember that most of the victims of extremists of this type have been everyday people who happen to be Muslims, we owe those victims our solidarity and to resist the voices who will try to shut them out. We can do that by affirming that citizenship and inclusion are for everyone, regardless of religion, and that we will help those fleeing from persecution by IS and the like.

A Christmas story

by Chris Bertram on December 23, 2014

And when they [the wise men] were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of by the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. (Matthew 13-14).

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were able to get asylum in Egypt, having, as they did, a well-founded fear of persecution, and when it was safe for them to return, they did. Today, by contrast, wealthy states (like the Egypt of the time) do all they can to prevent those fleeing political or religious persecution from getting across the border. The barriers are such that many people take desperate risks to escape the regimes they are threatened by in Syria or Eritrea, and end up drowning in the Mediterranean. Those that do make it are often disbelieved, stigmatized as “bogus” asylum-seekers, and even prosecuted for using false documents to enter.

Many of the citizens of those wealthy states will take part in Christian religious services over the next few days, perhaps the only time they do that year. Many will be people who vote for parties committed to “clamping down” on migrants and erecting further barriers to the persecuted. Let’s hope that at least some of them notice that the Christmas story is also a story of refugees.

Render unto Caesar

by John Quiggin on October 2, 2014

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

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Southern Gothic

by Belle Waring on April 19, 2014

“Midnight in the Garden of Good an Evil” is not a great movie but an OK one; certainly if you want to see a lot of purty pictures of Savannah it’s a good one. Kevin Spacey portrays, according to my grandmother Henrietta, the main character extremely convincingly—even going so far as to both have his mannerisms and resemble him somewhat, which she thought incredible for a picture of a dead man. There must have been video of him, obviously. There are a number of very unconvincing things about the book, mainly the idea that this white journalist from New York (IIRC) could insinuate himself into both white high society (second tier—but still) and black society in so short a time as to be both privy to all kind of secrets and taken by an…I don’t know voodoo I guess…practitioner on a midnight rowboat ride up in a marsh somewhere. (First-tier Savannah society is so insular you could only gain that kind of access by marrying someone, even though it’s true everyone loves to gossip. But getting invited to parties?) I say “voodoo I guess” because despite the fact that people totally do this thing, or practice this religion, or whatever, we don’t even really call it anything, so much do we not talk about it. No, that’s an exaggeration, we call it voodoo; there’s an island near my dad’s place in Bluffton called either Voodoo Island or Devil’s Elbow Island (or more cheerfully Potato Island, but I think the Crams pushed that and it never happened.) You can read a short story about it here, if you like. I had been thinking for a while people might like to read it, it’s from 2004, so quite a while ago. Yeah, voodoo, but not like in Florida where people have actual Santeria churches and storefronts and stuff; more like everyone is a devout Christian—but everyone—but still there are women who will do voodoo for you. As I say in the story, white people hire black people to put curses on other white people. And I’m not entirely sure how they find them, except that everyone knows who to ask? Everyone knows everything about everyone, is the answer to that. Well, no, there are information asymmetries: the black community as a whole knows more because maids know everything about their employers but not vice versa, and so on for a lot of other things.

Best Video Ever

by Belle Waring on April 8, 2014

This is really for Straightwood, because I know the deeply meaningful and fully explained nature of this video of 50 Cent dubbed over a Jehovah’s Witness exhorting deaf students to abstain from masturbation will appeal to your keenly honed and not in any way homosexual aesthetic.

Karl Marx or Pope Francis?

by Kieran Healy on November 26, 2013

Pope Francis’s new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has been getting some attention today, mostly thanks to its reiteration of some long-standing Catholic doctrine on social justice and the market. So, here is a quiz to see whether you can distinguish statements by Pope Francis from statements by Karl Marx. I figured someone was likely to do this anyway, so why not be first to the market? It’s fair to say that the Pope and Karl Marx differ significantly on numerous points of theory as well as on what people asking questions at job talks refer to as the policy implications of their views. So I don’t think this quiz is very hard. At the same time, I sort of hope it will be picked up, stripped of this introductory paragraph, and circulated as evidence that the Pope and Marx agree on pretty much everything.

Questions!

1. In a similar way, by raising dreams of an inexhaustible market and by fostering false speculations, the present treaty may prepare a new crisis at the very moment when the market of the world is but slowly recovering from the recent universal shock.

2. … society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.

3. In this play of forces, poverty senses a beneficent power more humane than human power. The arbitrary action of privileged individuals is replaced … Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claim to alms distributed in the street, so it is also in regard to these alms of nature.

4. Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people … for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.

5. … the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society. This leads to a kind of alienation at every level, for a society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult … to establish solidarity between people.

6. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

7. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile … is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.

8. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. … Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.

9. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

10. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property.

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