Violent video games and the Bible

April 18, 2012

Last night a Toronto public school board finalized a ban on the distribution of Gideon Bibles to fifth graders. (There were threats of violence from various Christian objectors, but that’s a topic for another day.) The decision was based on possible human rights violations (I’m not sure of the details), but another serious argument was apparently ignored, namely that the Bible just isn’t suitable for fifth graders.

I can almost see Christians steaming from the ears at such a suggestion, but I think it warrants consideration. There is a lot of gruesome violence in the Bible, including the mass slaughter and rape of women and children. If you don’t want to expose your children to this type of violence, you should probably put your Bibles on the top shelf.

The irony is that it is Christian groups who are often at the forefront of protests against violent video games and other media (see here and here, for instance) even as they grant their young children unfettered access to the scriptures.

Of course, there are some churches that are willing to let their objection of violence slide when it allows them to recruit new members (if there is one thing I’ve learned from my experience as a Christian, it’s that most churches’ long-held doctrines and traditions become unusually flexible the moment the congregation starts to shrink). In 2007, The New York Times ran a story about churches using the violent Halo video game to attract young people. Nothing like a little violence to turn people onto Jesus! (Apparently the “WWJD” mantra was conveniently forgotten here.)

Although I’m an atheist, I have no objections to my child reading the Bible. Indeed, to be well educated about religion, he should read it. (I would even consider pointing him to the Qur’an, but after having read it myself I’m not sure I can bring myself to make such a recommendation.)

However, just as with the violent video games, my child’s going to have to wait until he’s a little older.


You’re a heretic! And you! And you!

April 18, 2012

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is grumpy.

He’s grumpy because of all those heretical (his word choice) Americans who dare to adopt independent religious beliefs and practices, instead of kowtowing to traditional institutional directives (you guessed it – Douthat’s Catholic).

Of course, this grumpiness is accompanied by the usual Chicken Little demagoguery: the moral sky is falling down, thinks Douthat, because people aren’t going to church on Sundays to recite the Nicene Creed.

Perhaps Douthat has data in his new book in support of the claim that morality is declining in America, but I somehow doubt it. Almost all classes of crime, including homicide, rape, and robbery, have been steadily declining for at least the last two decades. Perhaps Douthat is thinking of lesbian and gay relationships, extra-marital sex, and other bugbears of social conservative America, yet it’s not even clear that these are moral issues to begin with, let alone that they represent a decline in morality – in fact the opposite is the case as far as I’m concerned.

Douthat should cheer up. He lives in a country that enshrines the freedom of religious expression in its constitution. People have easy access to information that allows them to assess the value of various religious traditions, and pick the one they think hews closest to the truth. If Catholicism cannot compete in this arena of ideas, then Douthat should acknowledge the real cause of the problem: an often immoral, out-of-touch leadership espousing medieval ideas.

We the people of Sweden

April 12, 2012

Sweden is generally regarded as a very liberal secular democracy. Interestingly, it had a state church (the Church of Sweden) until the year 2000.

It’s constitution has four parts. The most relevant for our purposes are the Instrument of Government and the Freedom of the Press Act. Let’s see what they say.

In Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Instrument of Government, we have:

The public institutions shall combat discrimination of persons on grounds of gender, colour, national or ethnic origin, linguistic or religious affiliation, functional disability, sexual orientation, age or other circumstance affecting the private person. Opportunities should be promoted for ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own.

The latter statement is interesting, especially for a country that is more secular than the United States, which in turn has no such statement in its constitution.

Article 1 of Chapter 2 lists the rights and freedoms afforded to citizens. Among them is:

freedom of worship: that is, the freedom to practise one’s religion alone or in the company of others.

(Later in the constitution, the right of the state to restrict these freedoms under certain rare circumstances, e.g. protection of the state, is laid out.) Some of these freedoms are also afforded to foreign nationals.

Then, in Article 2 of Chapter 2, we find quite a novel statement about coercion of citizens by public institutions:

Every citizen shall be protected in his relations with the public institutions against any coercion to divulge an opinion in a political, religious, cultural or other such connection. He shall furthermore be protected in his relations with the public institutions against any coercion to participate in a meeting for the formation of opinion or a demonstration or other manifestation of opinion, or to belong to a political association, religious community or other association for opinion referred to in sentence one.

In Article 4, Chapter 7 of the Freedom of the Press Act, we are told that certain things, if put into writing, will constitute punishable offenses against the freedom of the press. Among them are:

agitation against a population group, whereby a person threatens or expresses contempt for a population group or other such group with allusion to race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religious faith or sexual orientation

Importantly, the contempt described here is for a group of people, not a particular set of ideas or beliefs. I’m not sure if I’m just reading that into the text, but it seems that criminalizing any expression of contempt for an idea or a belief would be a clear case of government censorship.

Separation of church and state is not clearly defined in the constitution, and in fact some government functions can be delegated to religious communities:

Administrative functions may be delegated to a limited company, association, collective, foundation, registered religious community or any part of its organisation, or to a private person. If such a function involves the exercise of public authority, delegation shall be made by virtue of law. (Article 6, Chapter 11, Instruments of Government.)

And that wraps it up for Sweden!

Religion fails to answer “why” questions

April 12, 2012

Christians sometimes tell us that religion answers the “why” questions, while science answers the “how” questions, a topic I’ve written about before. Daniel, of the Good Reason blog, has written an excellent post that raises enormous problems for this idea. Go read it!

Purpose in the afterlife

April 11, 2012

Christians sometimes decry atheists for choosing a purposeless existence. I understand this accusation, especially coming from those who still harbor false stereotypes about atheism.

But that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to look at the concept of purpose in the Christian framework. It is worth pointing out that there is little freedom in having your life’s purpose handed down to you from a higher authority, without you having any say in it. I hope – for their sake – that there are many Christians who don’t hold this view, since it strikes me as equally fatalistic as the misconstrued view of atheism that many Christians hold.

Importantly, whatever view of purpose Christians have, they usually talk about it in the context of their life on earth. This is understandable: life on earth is happening right now. We know what it feels like, and we know what sort of things we are capable of doing. We therefore naturally talk about our purpose in life.

But consider for the moment that most Christians believe in an eternal afterlife in heaven. What this really means is that essentially all of Christians’ experiences are going to be had in heaven, not on earth.

For instance, if the average adult has, say, 10 really profound experiences in a lifespan of 80 years, he will have 125,000 profound experiences in his first million years in heaven (assuming that the rate of profound experiences is constant – if anything, it should go up, in which case the figures shift in favor of my argument). During those first million years, then, a full 99.992 percent of his experiences will have been had in heaven. And he’ll still have millions of years to go.

So why aren’t Christians talking more about what their purpose is going to be in the afterlife? If the afterlife is going to make up the lion’s share of their existence, why don’t they talk more about what they are going to do with all that time? Are they really going to sit at God’s side singing songs for billions of years? This cartoon vision of heaven would qualify as most people’s idea of hell, no matter how fun God is to be with. Most Christians I know start fidgeting in the pew after one or two hours of praising God, let alone a million years.

And so I wonder how many Christians have really thought about what happens after their initial entry into heaven. The allure of heaven is that it allows you to escape the death that you know awaits you around the metaphorical corner. But what happens after that is going to define Christians’ lives – it’s going to be their default state, a state that they will always be in. They should be talking about it more.

Let’s pretend He’s real

April 11, 2012

Listening to Monday’s edition of Fresh Air, I almost drove off the road.

I almost drove off the road because I was being told that some evangelical Christian communities openly admit to pretending that God is real.

Of course, these Christians don’t actually see it that way: they believe God exists. What they’re pretending is that God can be detected with the senses. (If you have trouble distinguishing between these two ideas, join the club.) Yet this seems like a staggering enough admission in itself: God is not detectable with the senses, so we have to pretend he is.

Let me back up a little.

Terry Gross’s guest on Fresh Air was Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist, who has written a book entitled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. As part of her research, she spent a lot of time in evangelical churches.

I’d like to quote some excerpts from the conversation on Fresh Air, so that you can get a good sense of what Lurhmann found.

Get ready for some sophistry.

First, Luhrmann introduces the idea of pretending that God is real:

GROSS: Well, you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learned to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

Right off the bat, this is sophistry of a supreme caliber. Using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God? How is that different to me using my imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with Charles Darwin, or my long-dead grandmother, or Superman?

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation. And what they’re trying to do, what they’re seeking to do – I mean, they’re using their own understanding of conversation, their own conversations, their own friends. They’re building this daydream-like exchange.

In a nutshell, these Christians are pretending that God is real. But they’re not really pretending he is real, they argue, because the practice of pretending allows them to “experience what is real”. This is C. S. Lewis’s sophistry at its best. What, exactly, is real in this process, and what is imaginary? How do they even know there is anything real there to begin with?

Terry Gross is clearly not convinced:

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

It is mind-boggling to me that church leaders can actually get away with such obvious trickery without their congregation catching on (I suppose they believe it themselves). What the congregation is being trained to do here is label some of their own thoughts as coming from God, because those thoughts are the sorts of thoughts God might have had (even though Christians are often taught that it’s impossible to know the mind of God).

But we could do precisely the same thing for any fictitious character. Take Superman, for instance. We know from a long series of comics what sort of character Superman is. I can therefore look at all my thoughts, and pick out the ones that Superman might have thought. Eventually, whenever I have a Superman-like thought I will, in a metaphorical sense, “recognize” his voice speaking to me. But they’re still all my thoughts. How is it any different with God?

Lurhmann then scrambles to come up with an answer to a question that follows inexorably from the discussion thus far:

GROSS: OK, if you’re a rationalist, you know, you would say: Well, what’s the difference between the imaginary friend that you’re supposed to outgrow and this approach to believing that, you know, God or Jesus is like your friend, your buddy, you’re talking to each other?

LUHRMANN: In some sense, none. It depends on your ontological stance, what you take to be externally real about the world. So the way that I think about it is that I, as an anthropologist, I don’t have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or God is not real. I don’t feel like I have a horse in that race.

I don’t feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing.

And so when people experience God as a companion in their lives, they’re using their imagination the same way a child is using the imagination to experience an imaginary companion. But at the same – but, you know, that person doesn’t experience God as being imaginary, because they have a different ontological stance. And, you know, who are we to pronounce on that?

More apologetic sophistry. Christians have a different “ontological stance”. A big fancy term that might impress the listeners. But what it really means is that Christians arbitrarily choose to see their imagined relationship with God as somehow real, while seeing their imagined relationship with a childhood imaginary friend as completely imaginary. Why exactly is it that justifies this difference in “ontological stance”?

(Later in the interview, Terry Gross asks Luhrmann some probing questions on other topics, including the difficulty distinguishing some churches’ theology from the ideas of pop-psych self-help, and the contradiction of teaching people not to judge while simultaneously judging them – think gay marriage, etc.. So, I encourage you to read or listen to the rest of the program.)

I’ve written before about the “personal relationship” Christians claim to have with God, and Luhrmann’s findings amount to an astonishing admission, by Christians themselves, that this personal relationship is, indeed, imaginary. All it takes is a quick flourish of the sophist’s wand to endow this make believe relationship with some sort of vague, unspecified connection to reality. Yet this, too, is imaginary.

We the people of Myanmar

April 7, 2012

I thought it would be interesting to look at a constitution that has not generally been respected by its own government. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is, many people would agree, one such example.

The first indirect mention of religious liberty in Myanmar’s constitution is found in one of the “basic principles”:

The Union’s consistent objectives are … enhancing the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty and Equality in the Union

Then, in Section 34, we have:

Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practise religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.

I think it is interesting that practice of religion is subject to “morality”. It seems the government could easily use an accusation of immorality to clamp down on any religious practice they happened to disagree with. Unsurprisingly, “morality” is not defined.

Later in the constitution, a rather odd caveat is given to Section 34:

The freedom of religious right given in Section 34 shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice.

I’m afraid I can’t make sense of this: is it really saying that no economic, financial, or political activity can be associated with religious practice? This would exclude pastors from receiving salaries. It would exclude churches from being built. It would effectively limit the practice of religion to people’s homes.

Religion features again in the list of disqualifications for holding government office. The following two disqualifications hold, as far as I can tell, for the legislative houses (the Pyithu Hluttaw):

The following persons shall not be entitled to be elected as the Pyithu Hluttaw representatives :

(h) person himself or is of a member of an organization who abets the act of inciting, giving speech, conversing or issuing declaration to vote or not to vote based on religion for political purpose;

(i) member of a religious order;

This appears to set the scene for church-state separation.

Then, in a section on citizens’ rights and duties, we have:

The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth

This sentiment is expressed in greater detail a little later on (emphasis mine):

Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality:

(a) to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions;

(b) to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession;

(c) to form associations and organizations;

(d) to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.

Next, the constitution makes it clear that it is not entirely non-discriminatory when it comes to religion. Only certain religions are recognized, and protection of these religions is not guaranteed (emphasis mine):

361. The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.

362. The Union also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.

363. The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.

The next Section is an anti-defamation statement:

The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.

This is unnecessarily restrictive, much like the UN laws. For instance, it’s almost impossible to say anything critical of Islam without at least one Muslim calling for your head.

Oddly, members of religious orders are not permitted to vote (Section 392). (Other people who are not eligible to vote include “persons disqualified by election law” – a deliberate opening for election abuse if ever there was one!)

That wraps it up for Myanmar. Hopefully it’s on its way to a more fully democratic society. Things are looking up, but one can never be sure.