When Satan Comes Sweeping Down the Plains, or Of Bread and Satanists

If the Satanist group that rented out a small theater at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City for a black mass recently is an indication of how pernicious evil is when it has a real face, we are all going to be just fine. To call it buffoonery might be a bit judgmental, but I am not sure what else to call a grown man in robes "casting out the Holy Spirit" in a "reverse exorcism." That hundreds of Christians arrayed in near-military looking ranks in front of the Civic Center to protest this melodramatic, low-comedy expression of one man's narcissism and anti-social personality disorder only shows that the conservative American church can't tell the difference between a bad Vincent Price impersonation and real evil.

First for the happenings inside, and then to the more interesting story outside. The press was herded into a foyer on the north side of the Civic Center. The entrance was where ticketed guests would enter when the doors opened, which is only a metaphor, as the only cop in the foyer insisted that the doors stay closed unless someone approached said doors. "All we need is one crazy to crash the doors, and we're all screwed," he said, clearly repeating lines from  his screen test for "tall, white, cop-looking guy" in season nine of Criminal Minds.

The traditional velvet rope was set up to stop us from wandering down the hall to see the theater prior to the arrival of Ahriman. So, quick side note here. The Satanist group that performed (officiated? held? presented? sponsored?) the rituals that night used Zoroastrian language. Go easy on yourself if you don't know much about it, but if you are a preacher, pastor, reverend, etc., do not go easy on yourself.

The modern concepts of hell and heaven are deeply indebted to the sixth century BCE version of Zoroastrian cosmogony. Zoroaster, a Persian prophet who influenced the Hebrew captives in Babylon after the Persian conquest, preached of a dualistic universe created by the good god Ahura Mazda, who was opposed by the evil demigod Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu. Jewish theology had no concept of heaven and hell prior to the Babylonian captivity, but the doctrines are adopted and integrated over the centuries between 539 BCE and the life of Jesus in the first four decades of the first century CE, thanks to Zoroaster.

All that to say that Adam Daniels, the leader (Dastur, according to his preference) of the Satanists, knows far more about the origins of "satan" than the Christians who were arrayed out front, and it is Ahriman he allegedly serves. Odd as it may sound, it's almost a complete waste of words to describe the rituals. Snippets can be found online to sate curiosity, but suffice it to say it was the sum of combining a desire to be blasphemous and contrary with a too-serious self-image and a bizarre respect for theatrical, religious language, costumes, and gestures.

If you have not seen the Nicholas Cage film 8mm, I recommend avoiding it, based on the axiom that what is seen cannot be unseen (barring amnesia), but there is a helpful scene near the end in which Cage finally confronts the man who has murdered a young woman as part of a snuff film. When the killer is unmasked, he looks like one of those fat, cherubic kids whose lives in middle school are a living hell, but he confronts Cage in a way that makes perfect, horrible sense: Did you expect a monster? His version of evil is real because it's visited on the innocent, and it has a this-worldly manifestation that is unavoidable.

Daniels could play that role, easily. But his form of evil is banal, not because he is incapable of evil, but because he worships yet another deity or demigod, but his version is maltheistic instead of whitebread theism. His god is evil, but still personal, still accessible, and still active in the world—if you believe the mythology. Which is to say, it's yet another god whose existence cannot be demonstrated and whose story stretches credulity.

One ritual genuinely involved casting out the Holy Spirit. The recipient of this "ministry" was a former Catholic. Apparently the Satanists don't understand Catholic theology all that well. Only someone who was raised in some Evangelical tradition that preaches "once saved, always saved" could believe that the Holy Spirit abides in apostates, but only a fool or a drunk or a grad student argues pneumatology with a Satanist. The other ritual was the much-billed Black Mass, basically, a blasphemous version of the Catholic Mass.

Originally, the finale was to involve stomping on a consecrated host, the wafer consumed by Catholics as part of the Eucharist, what Protestants call the Lord's Supper or communion. A consecrated version means that the wafer had already been blessed and was ready for Mass, and, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, would become the actual body of Jesus at the appropriate time during the Mass. The implications of that for a Black Mass should be obvious.

Daniels managed to obtain a consecrated host through unknown means: stolen, contributed, delivered by an agent of Ahriman, or created in a clever fabrication. That the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pursued legal remedies is a strong indication that it was a real, consecrated host. An Oklahoma judge ultimately ruled that Daniels had to return the host, and, as he told me in a phone interview, "I said, 'Fine. You can have your cracker back.'"

Losing the consecrated host meant that the Black Mass was less blasphemous, as the bread trod upon at the end of the ceremony was not the actual body of the Christ Pantokrator, but in a very non-metaphorical sense was bread, not John 6:35 bread, which is also a metaphor, unless you are Catholic, but real "you can eat it and not go to hell" bread.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, has written at length about phrases like this taken to their linguistic/logical conclusion causing "irruptions of the real," which is a moment when the lexical meaning of the term is forced into the real world and shown to be absurd. This is clearly an example of that because we are talking about bread, not magic bread or Hansel and Gretel bread, just bread. The Catholics are uncharacteristically literalists on this point, as they manage to use the Magisterium to excuse every other non-literal interpretation of Jesus' words in the corpus of Catholic doctrine and dogma.

What all the good, Christian folk arrayed out front were saying by their presence and prayers and songs and sermons was that stomping on bread is a way of summoning evil. I realize that is a bit atomistic, but this is a case of metaphysical differences creating tribes. For people like me for whom the devil is childish nonsense or a poor externalization of mythical, Jungian archetypes, we are talking about portly Vincent Price trampling bread. For others, that tribe of theists who believe the world is magical, or at least believe that myths are referentially true stories, also called histories, the buffoon was summoning the actual devil.

Theism can exist quite nicely without a personification of evil. In fact, humans seem all too capable of hurting each other without inspiration from a smooth-talking, Miltonian fallen angel to guide our perversities. I left the ministry and the faith in 2006; I stopped believing in the devil a half dozen years before that. The concept is unnecessary and answers nothing. The entirety of Genesis 3 makes more sense as a mythological explanation (etiology) for the loss of innocence in a psychological sense, expressed as a universal reality, than as a talking snake (the devil) tempting primordial humans to forsake YHWH. In other words, Satanists have less credibility than Christians, Jews, or Muslims, primarily because the Satanists' god is superfluous. Everything he does, we do without his assistance, and without his love of verbosity.

Yet, there were 400-500 people gathered outside the Civic Center that evening, and all were convinced that portly Vincent Price was summoning God's principal enemy, as if free will needs a competitor in that regard. Milton's Lucifer was correct about at least one thing: God is a dictator, and the quest for free will runs contrary to ethical monotheism. The Christians—I saw no other tribe—were arrayed out front of the Civic Center, which faces east, in clans or families within the larger tribe.

Catholics were a full sixty percent of the crowd, including a group of approximately 300 members of TFP, a group that needs a bit of an introduction. The group was founded in Brazil in 1960 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The abbreviation stands for Tradition, Family, and Property, or, as I prefer to call it, the Holy Trinity of Missing the Point. You will spend many hours scouring the New Testament for Jesus' teachings on personal property. You will find a brief reference like this: "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head..." Don't let that trouble you, though. Jesus was definitely a fan of John Locke, because he foreknew Locke's idea of life, liberty, and property, which was changed in our Constitution to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

TFP is the group that got the Black Mass canceled at Harvard, and so they bussed 300 of the faithful here to prevent the Oklahoma City version, even as our beloved governor, just like a broken clock, was right this time when she refused to stop the event, even though she tried to find a "legal" way to stop it. Let's be clear: conservatives are way more concerned about tradition than they are about law. However, the Black Mass went forward, even with 300 TFP members out front, dressed conservatively and sporting red sashes with a gold lion pin emblematic of, as one idealistic teenager told me, "Our Lord, the Lion of Judah." Jesus, it seems, is always available for protests, lawn parties, and political campaigns; one only needs the name to invoke the power, prestige, or theological justification for a claim that can be conveniently tied to an all too agreeable Savior. Perhaps in his zeal to save us all, he can't say no?

To their credit, the Catholics were occupied singing hymns or praying the Rosary. They did have a dizzying display of signage, including pleas to return America to "one nation under God," and they were singing God Bless America when I arrived (not a hymn, alas), so their agenda was clearly religious in the sense of civil religion, but, again, to their credit, they were the best behaved tribe of Christians on the east side of the Civic Center, an area that is a large plaza, composed of sidewalks, benches, public art, and occasional covered areas, and toward which the entrance faces. In other words, if you walk out the east side of the Civic Center, you are facing downtown Oklahoma City, and on this day, representatives of "the Lord's Army," arrayed, squadron-style, in denominations and traditions.

To quote Jay Kelly, the plaza was a Tilt-a-Whirl and an Indian taco stand away from being the State Fair of Religion. That's a fair assessment. The plaza was a rallying point for many different squadrons of the Lord's Army. Catholics made up at least sixty percent of the crowd, but other groups were noticeable for their volume (voice, not number).

I talked to an Apostolic minister from Sapulpa, Okla., who divided his time preaching hellfire for those who cooperated with Satan and speaking (yelling) in tongues. His name was Albert, and after I coaxed him down from his park bench-soapbox-pulpit, he was soft-spoken and kind. He was there to explain the error of the Satanists' ways; he simply thought loud and histrionic was more effective than kind and gentle. He immediately started yelling his sermon as soon as we stopped the interview.

A group of young, African American men, sporting combat boots and dressed in purple and gold vestments emblazoned with "Israel United in Christ," held down the southwest corner of the plaza, and posed back to back, as if they were fighting a last stand, a la Thermopylae, while they shouted Bible verses, the gist of which was that Jesus came to redeem Israel. Israel, according to their understanding and proclamation, was composed of people of color, I assume. Of course. History be damned. Real Jews are black. Everyone knows that.

A Pentecostal congregation squatted on the northwest corner of the plaza. Their pastor preached and prayed in a Thulsa Doom-worthy voice about the fate of Satanists and all who cooperated with Satan. The congregation, variously sitting, kneeling, and standing with hands raised, prayed in English and "tongues of angels."

They were perched next to the TFP Catholics who composed the middle of the phalanx, if we are to extend the military metaphor. Behind the phalanx were various other sub-tribes, including independent fundamentalists and evangelicals. Even farther back were singles and couples who were praying quietly in out-of-the-way places, much like Jesus would have commended, it seems.

Two circumstances made the night more remarkable than it would have been otherwise. The first was a growing realization amongst the fundamentalists that the majority of the protesters were Catholic. The fundamentalists had been directing their invective at the Satanists for most of the evening. A few intrepid evangelists camped at the edge of the police line on the north side of the building—the cops blocked the north street to allow press and Satanists to enter unmolested. The evangelists had bullhorns, and they used them to direct a constant flow of sermon, prayer, and mockery at the Satanists on the north side of the building. In fact, most of the group gathered on that side was composed of a metal band that Daniels had booked for the show and then subsequently ignored, even as the band pleaded for a brief audience with the Vicar of Ahriman.

The bullhorns broadcasted the evangelists' displeasure with the blasphemers in various ways, including, "Shame on you for sneaking in the back door! You hide from the truth! Cowards!" The police and staff at the Civic Center had developed the logistics to avoid a confrontation, but the fundamentalist ministers were not going to let reality impinge on their sermons, and yes, this is only one instantiation of that pattern. Once the bullhorn bearers realized that their words were wasted, they found a new target: Catholics.

Yes, the fundamentalists posted up in front of the TFP group and began to mock/proselytize the Catholics. One of the evangelists held forth on the differences between soteriology in the Catholic framework and the "correct" one, which is to say some version of Protestantism, especially faux-literalist, fundamentalist Baptist. Apparently, their failure to use imprecatory prayers to stop the Black Mass left them no recourse but to save the Papists from false salvation, which is to say, trusting in works as opposed to faith. I want to use the term shitshow, but it's not really a word, so I'll just mention that the worst offender directed his efforts at clean-cut Catholic teens, all of whom maintained their composure in the face of egregious douchebaggery. As Mark Twain said, "God is better than his reputation," and this preacher buttressed the truth of that assertion.

Finally, the gathered tribes were treated to one of God's signs shortly after the reverse exorcism began. It had rained just enough to soil clean cars right before the event, and because science is more consistent in its predictability than theism, a rainbow appeared above downtown Oklahoma City. People in the crowd sighed expansively and took pics of the amazing phenomenon. A rainbow! During a Black Mass! What could it mean? Albert, the heavenly polyglot, was near me when it appeared.

"Do you know what that means?" He yelled, undisguised joy in his expression.

I took the high road. "That's God's covenant with Noah," I said,

He slapped me on the back, and said, "That's right, brother!" He moved off toward the east, praying in tongues, hands and Bible aloft.

I would have received no reward for saying, "According to the text, it simply means YHWH won't flood the world again. There is no guarantee against destruction by fire, wind, virus, bacteria, rabid wombats, or the herp."

There is no cure for pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns in random stimuli. People find signs where and in ways that suit their narrative. The rainbow reassured the faithful army that God was there and on their side. The rainbow was located above downtown, though. It could have easily been a sign that God likes portly Vincent Price and his stab at being evil. It could also have been an effect based on light refracted through water, but who knows? God works in mysterious ways, his bread to transform. 


The Language of Faith, or Why it's Impossible to Say Anything Clearly about Hobby Lobby

If you want to read about the Hobby Lobby decision, I'm going to suggest you go elsewhere. I have very little to say about it until the rhetorical, hyperbolic, slippery-slope-generating dust settles. I only need to talk about the Hobby Lobby details as illustrative of a larger problem within certain forms of theism, especially American evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A few observers have noted that the entire Hobby Lobby case rests on the conflict between science and religion, specifically the tendency to distrust science as somehow antithetical or at least hostile to faith. That topic is best covered in a different post, and I, quite frankly, have no interest in writing one about it. It is clear that the mistrust of science led to some of the stronger rhetoric, and certainly in the triumphalism evident in some circles after the decision.

To be clear, the case rested on the Green family being allowed to define pregnancy in a way that is counter to how medical professionals define pregnancy. I have no idea why I should take the word of business owners who specialize in selling imported crap for display in middle class homes around evangelicaldom when the American Medical Association seems a far more reliable source of information about medicine, but it's America, and as my students regularly inform me with scalable—depending on their level of offense at my cultural blasphemy—levels of indignation, "Everyone has a right to their own opinion."

Indeed, even if those opinions are wrong. At least once in my career I have wished that a student would test scientific opinions with real world experiments, like the theory of gravitation from the roof of the library, or energy exchanges in collisions by standing in front of a speeding truck. It's not one of my better moments, but I can only be expected to explain "scientific theory" to college students so many times before I lose patience with the systems that work against science education in this country. (Science educators, I feel your pain, and I sincerely hope that you get your own shopping-mall-sized particle collider in science heaven.) More informed writers than I have lamented at length the ways in which science education is deficient in this country, and fundangelical Christianity bears a substantial portion of the blame for this unhappy circumstance. This, however, is also not the subject of this post.

The Hobby Lobby decision is a hydra-headed clusterfuck, and we'll be sorting out the implications for a long time. That the SCOTUS majority opinion specifically said the decision could not be used for precedential purposes related to blood transfusions and other medical realities about which different faith traditions have differing beliefs is a strong indication that they know this was a perilously bad decision. Either the principle applies or it doesn't, and in this case, they treated a comprehensive application of principle as an ad hoc application of principle, but the box is still open and the five justices in the majority will be living with their decision in the form of litigation for years to come.

As for how this relates to religion and public life, my favorite topic for you newbies, this is an excellent (for illustrative purposes, I mean) example of the tendency of confusing the purpose, nature, and object of faith with a clearer task of language and a more testable version of truth. Faith, at least in a theological framework, is likely best defined as trust. Like many terms related to metaphysics, the edges of the definition are blurry, so precising definitions are always necessary in discussions of faith. Trust, I think, comes closest in a comprehensive sense.

Trust in god is the proper application of faith, and the possible permutations of that phrase, while possibly hard to quantify, at least offer a hint about the purpose and object of faith. Faith is trust directed at god, and it relies on believing things that can't be known. This is contra Reformed theology, especially Calvin, which sees faith as "firm and certain knowledge" about particular revelations that come from God and that are testified to by the Holy Spirit, whose task is to reveal them to our minds and seal them on our hearts (ugh, useless metaphor there). This is metaphysical magic talk for "we know things that there is no way to actually know."

Since I think of Reformed and neo-Reformed theology (except Barth) as synonymous with logically consistent insanity, you will forgive me for saying Calvin is explaining a reality that he can only agree to if his god is THE god. Extend that definition to Hinduism or Santeria, and he would argue that reason is the means to prove the superiority of Christianity over those other religions, and not faith as a mode of knowledge. How, after all, do you argue for the superiority of one sacred text over another without using reason, especially when both religions rely on revelation as a means to knowledge of god?

So, to the issue at hand. Faith in god does not imply the ability to define non-theological terms, like pregnancy, so that they are consistent with a particular brand of theism. The object of faith is not definitions or meanings that are only tangentially related to words in a sacred text; the object of faith is god. This will necessitate that theists believe certain things are true or false, but extracting categories from the text and then insisting testable truths be understood in light of those categories is not helpful in communicating with members of various tribes who do not share those categories. Pregnant means, for all tribes, a fertilized egg is implanted in the wall of the uterus. To equate faith with the belief in definitions that are contrary to known scientific realities is to impose an anti-intellectual burden on believers that makes meaningful, intertribal communication impossible.


Wherein I Get Interviewed But Don't Use Profanity For Several Minutes

The guys from The Armchair Philsopher interviewed me yesterday. They had heard Tripp Fuller's discussion with me over at Homebrewed Christianity. They wanted to talk about skepticism and a little about theology and culture. So we did. The podcast, including music from a band that was new to me, is here.

Confessions of a Bible Thumper: A Review

I could just as easily have called this "How to be Reasonable for Eleven Chapters so People will Hopefully Believe that Nonsense in the Pseduo-Science Chapter," but that seemed a bit long for a title. I'm reviewing this for Mike Morrell's Speakeasy, by the way.

Confessions of a Bible Thumper is a new ebook by Michael Camp, a former self-described "missionary, pro-life activist, and lay leader." He is not to be confused with Steve Camp, the man responsible for so many bad songs in the CCM world. I had literally never heard of the guy, but I am endlessly fascinated with spiritual narratives, as I've found most all of them, including my own, are redacted in layers over many years, and I try to understand the motivation to tell a story in such a way as to account for the present moment in terms of how anyone views the world and its relationship to god(s).

The book is unremarkable in many ways. I think his discussion of human sexuality, especially gay rights issues, is worth reading. I think the biographical portions could have been left out entirely. I found them tedious. The profanity is always appreciated, but it seems only to serve to show how "outside the box" this writer is vis-a-vis "traditional Christianity." Yes, I'm using tons of scare quotes because so many words and phrases in this book aren't defined. He also has a bad habit of setting conversations in a bar which allows him to nerd out about his favorite microbrews, a complete waste of time for an undertaking like this, and indicates the book needed more editing. Other than to earn some sort of beer culture cred, I have no idea why the references are in there. We get it; you like beer, microbrews especially. The other problem with the bar conversations is it all felt so New Kind of Christian Dan meets Neo, as if Camp took the idea from McLaren and has been drinking enough high end beer in a Portland dive to be able to tell just this story that never really seems to accomplish much.

I know; I'm being a little harsh, but there is absolutely nothing here that hasn't been said better elsewhere. If your claim to fame is that you used to be super conservative and now you're not, I find that unremarkable. Congratulations. We'll put this title in amidst all the other titles wherein someone has an epiphany and switches from Religion X to Religion Y or to No Religion. Personal narratives about metaphysics are sort of built on the idea that the writers somehow have experience or credibility based on a prior way of being in the world: I once was lost but now I'm found, or I once was found but now I'm happily lost. Both are pointless in one respect: if I don't know you well, trust your judgment, or give a shit about you, your story is not compelling. This is largely a function of the fundangelical idea that testimonies ought to be told so that someone might hear and believe, or disbelieve, or disbelieve certain things in the case of this book.

Camp does a good job of covering issues, and his tone is reasonable and full of conviction. He clearly cares about these issues, and he wants us to care. There's the rub. Who is us? Who is the audience here? Does he believe a current Bible Thumper will read and be moved? That current Bible Thumper will get to the first use of "fuck" (page 34) and close the book. Do we post Bible Thumpers need to read this, and if so, why? What good will come of me reading about someone else's abandonment of fundamentalism. Preaching to the choir would be an appropriate analogy here. Seriously, he has good chapters on hermeneutics, politics, and sex, but you're better off to read explications from Paul Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture, Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (New Forum Books) and Mark Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. Just kidding about that last one! That guy is a freak. Anyway, I don't know good theist sex books. Probably you should just practice having sex and maybe even ask your partnter what works and stop writing books about how God wants you to have sex.

Excursus: I'm pretty sure your GodConcept's rules can be enumerated very briefly: No kids. No animals. She cums first (and last if you're any good). Be respectful. Communicate. Have fun. Be safe. Turn off the television, unless the Thunder are playing, and then go reverse cowgirl or doggy so she can't see you watching, unless she likes the NBA also, and then you two work it out.

Finally, he does the one thing I wish he hadn't done. In the penultimate chapter Intelligent Debate, he tries to cash in on the reasonable tone he's used all along to sell us Intelligent Design. First, he's not a scientist. Christians who aren't scientists or even science savvy should not weigh in on this. You're just functioning from a place of confusion. If you really want some help, here's another book for you: Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul. Second, he uses an incredibly dubious source. And third, he has no idea what he's talking about. This chapter makes an unremarkable book remarkable for all the wrong reasons. Rather than break it down for you, I asked someone who actually knows what the hell he's talking about to review the chapter. I should have just done this in two parts, but I'm stubborn, and I realize, all of you won't be interested in the ID debate. 

Leighton, known to many regular readers around here as a remarkably brilliant, patient, and reasonable atheist, happily sent me a thorough critique of the chapter. Perhaps Mr. Camp will find it useful. This is a review that Leighton recommends on Camp's dubious source. Everything from here on is Leighton, including right up front, his assessment of Camp's dubious source.

*Berlinski is a self-confessed crackpot who has not actually published
any original research in mathematics, and his histories of mathematics
have material inaccuracies both in the history and the mathematics. In
short, he fits right in with the Discovery Institute. I find him more
entertaining than enraging, though, and I agree with him about the
dry, pedagogically useless style of mathematics papers (not that he is
the first person ever to make that observation). More of substance to
come once I've read the chapter.

* It's deeply convenient that he doesn't name any names when
attributing ridiculous quotes to the scientists he supposedly
encountered in college. "'Biological evolution explains the origin of
life on earth without the need to appeal to a miraculous creator,' my
Botany teacher confidently asserted." (262) Well, no, evolution and
abiogenesis are two distinct things. It's true that abiogenesis would
explain the origins of life without the need of a creator, pushing the
mystery back to cosmology - how did the planets form, and whence came
the laws of physics? But claiming that evolution and creationism are
the only "suspects" (261) is the usual tactic for propagandists who
like to hand-pick quotes from Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and
Dennett where they sound dickish, and juxtapose those with ID quotes
where the science-deniers come off as simple, honest folk wrestling
with difficult questions, head in hands, with no ulterior motives. "We
may not have all the answers - we probably don't - but isn't that
better than pretending to know everything and being angry all the
time? Come ask some simple, honest questions with us." Tone is more
important than substance in propaganda.

* "Intellectual honesty has the moral high ground, whatever one
believes about life's origins." (263)  Well...it's hard to argue with
this, but note how he doesn't define honesty, so much as imply that it
entails "go[ing] where the evidence leads," as distinguished from
"axe-grind[ing]." Who gets to pick what evidence matters? Are we
talking the evidence of nature that the overwhelming majority of
evolutionary biologists use? Or are we talking the hand-picked and
largely fabricated rubbish that apologists build their edifices in?
"Gee, maybe there could be something to that" is a shitty way to
approach arguments you've already spent a lot of time studying, which
makes it a bad idea to use tone as a heuristic for evaluating the
opinions of experts. Is a political commentator intellectually
dishonest because she assumes a priori that a politician seeking
re-election is lying about his intentions, or is this the result of
decades of careful observation of the political process? Substance is
more important than tone in works that aim to discover things.

* His recitation of apologist quote-mining in 269-272 is extremely
suspicious. The Gould and Eldridge quotes he cites are very common to
find out of context like this, cf.
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/quotes/mine/part3.html   And Lynn
Margulis was arguing for the autopoietic Gaia hypothesis (the entire
earth is a single organism), for fuck's sake. If he were doing his own
research (instead of quoting apologists), he would have used her as an
example of the diversity of views in biology. You could twist that
much easier into an argument for the lack of consensus among
evolution-studiers. Instead, he cites her credentials and her zinger
quote about Darwinian evolution, because he's so invested in using
evolution and creationism as thesis and antithesis so he can later
spontaneously discover ID as the synthesis. Oh, and she didn't "later"
formulate a theory to answer those questions, as he claims. That line
came AS she was arguing for her hypothesis. This is a really subtle
thing: he's using her as an example of someone who stood up to say,
"This doesn't work, period!" before later coming up with something
that does. Well, he's doing that too! Evolution doesn't work,
creationism doesn't work. This sets up the stage for him later to
independently decide that the Discovery Institute's answers work.
Subtle.

* "Mutations are generally destructive." (276) False. Mutations are
generally neutral, as they usually do not occur within a region of DNA
that actually codes for a protein.
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/mutations.html

* Berlinski's argument is flashy but irrelevant. Genes are
ridiculously flexible. In a nutshell: Nobody has used the metaphor of
DNA as a blueprint for 75 years (this is partly, though not
exclusively, why no scientist ever took Michael Crichton seriously).
Genes aren't specifications for a product, so much as a set of
contingent instructions. Every part of development is contingent on
having a certain kind of environment, whether in utero, or having eggs
a certain temperature, things like this. Changes in the environment
with zero changes in genetics lead to wildly different things
happening in development - this is why we don't like pregnant women
smoking crack. Not all the environmental changes lead to detrimental
effects, though; a lot are strongly adaptive. Carl Zimmer's "Endless
Forms Most Beautiful" is a good, slightly dense treatment of this. In
short, having ~100,000 minor morphological changes between forms does
not in any way imply that we would need ~100,000 transitional
generations; that's utter nonsense. But it's also the best way to
baffle scientists: ask them a question that shouldn't even occur to
someone who even faintly understands the material they claim expertise
about. There is not a sufficient description in the book for me to
decipher what specific claim Berlinski was making (which is exactly
the point when the objective is to insinuate rather than claim
outright that all these angry scientists are dishonest), but Talk
Origin's fossil record responses are CC200 and following, and may shed
some light on how actual paleontologists view the fossil record:
http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html

* "I was fascinated with David Berlinski more than any of the other
debaters because he seemed the most objective of all. He was neither
religiously nor academically motivated. ... He took nothing for
granted and questioned everything. It appeared that he just wanted to
go where the evidence led. The quintessential skeptic. He must be a
distant cousin of mine." (278) Note the similarity here between this
and how Lee Strobel described William Lane Craig in "The Case for
Christ"? Camp got conned (people who think they're skeptical of
everyone and everything are usually the softest targets), and like
Strobel, he is happy to perpetuate the con because it flatters his ego
to think that he too can be a brilliant investigator simply by being a
bit obnoxious toward people who annoy him and making a few clever
word-plays. Watch a few Berlinski videos on Youtube if you want to see
this effect first-hand - seriously, take some time to check him out.
He's a brilliant showman from whom every public speaker should learn,
particularly with respect to insinuation. (Not everyone can get
audiences to repeat their talking points verbatim while also believing
that they only arrived at those opinions after their own grueling
inquiry.) But he's not a biologist. And from Camp, now we finally know
what "go[ing] where the evidence lead[s]" means. Hint: the evidence in
question isn't found in nature.

* Note that when he's contrasting Berlinski's lucid brilliance with
Dawkins' blinkered crow-cawing on 279, he doesn't actually quote
Dawkins. This is a common approach of both con artists and con
victims; they tend to authoritatively dismiss competing views with
insinuations and vague, unspecific impressions that can't possibly be
rebutted.

* On 282, he uncritically cites Ben Stein's "Expelled" film, without
mentioning that this was the same film that compared evolutionary
biologists to Nazis setting up death camps.

I'd have to read the rest of the book (which I won't) and probably
meet him in person to decide whether he is an ID propagandist
sophisticated enough to conceal his ideology in a couple layers of
smokescreen, or just one of the least skeptical people in the world.
(Which is typical of people who go out of their way to volunteer,
repeatedly, how skeptical they are.)


God Particles and Particular Gods, or Can We Call it the Jesus Particle?

First the good news. This is not about science, not directly anway. About all I know of the Higgs Boson is that it's a tiny tiny tiny particle--smaller than the dust mote in Horton Hears a Who I'm told--that physicists believe has something to do with how we and all things around us have mass. If that's not right, Leigton will let me know. Some shortsighted nitwit decided to call it the God Particle a few years back, and now that scientists finally have evidence of it, facebook and twitter have lit up with Christians who simply don't understand how language works--nor have they ever heard of the god of the gaps, it seems.

Stephanie Drury, whom you should totally follow on twitter @stuffcclikes, has done a great job of tracking some of these. Really, you can do it yourself if you need a chuckle or an embolism. Just search #godparticle and prepare to be embarrassed by your fellow Christians or amused by your former tribe. I think the best word for me is exasperated. Why? Because I knew what someone would eventually say. Knew it. Predicted it in conversation. Could see it in the future like that old black lady in The Stand. It's Colossians 1:17. The verse occurs in a hymn of sorts by the Pauline author of the letter to church at Colossae. Here's the verse: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

The reference is to Jesus, and the author is talking about his supremacy over all things. Christians are horrified (or disdainful) by the discovery of the Higgs Boson, although physicists have known for many years that it had to be there. The unfortunate "God Particle" name has led to consternation on the part of Christians, and even non-Christians like me. As much fun as it is to say "God Particle" and watch the forehead veins begin to throb, I'm intentionally not using the term in conversation with anyone. It's not helpful. However, Christian friends, quoting verses from the Bible to show the Higgs Boson's job is already taken by Jesus is not a great idea either. Here's a favorite from Hebrews 1:3, another hymn to Jesus: "And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power."

The god of the gaps is the god who does whatever jobs are left once we discover the natural causes and structures in the universe. These days, god's primary tasks, apart from sporting events, seem to be creation, Second Coming, loving unborn babies, improperly communicating his plan for my life, and wanting me to be happy and live forever with him in heaven. It's a thankless fuckin' job for the most part and certainly without flash.( No one really believes that Tebow plays well because the Holy Spirit moves his legs the right way, do they?) The best analogy I can come up with on the fly is how emasculated Zeus must have felt when we figured out that lightning bolts weren't in his quiver.

The Higgs Boson will help us understand another layer of what used to be a mystery. That's good for science, and certainly good for humanity. Had no one ever called this the God Particle, Christians would not be so upset right now. Imagine if we'd called atoms Jesus Particles. Yeah, you get it, right? So, do your favorite physicist a favor and stop calling it the God Particle. Science loves you. Amen.


Sex and Cancer, or How to Pick a Christian Spokesperson

California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 499, a law that will go into effect on January 1, 2012, that gives girls as young as 12 access to the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) without parental consent. The bill also provides for them to receive the hepatitis B vaccine and any other future vaccines for STIs. There is plenty of room here for discussion about parental rights and government authority. Parents groups are rightly worried about a government arrogant and paternalistic enough to abrogate parental rights under the guise of protecting young women. However, the question is about whether or not public health outweighs parental rights in this situation. It's a topic that ought to be open to vigorous debate, and both sides have good points.

Enter Christian author and rising star of the "Bronze Age Sexual Ethics for Modern Women" speaking circuit Teresa Tomeo. Tomeo, a Catholic and former "secular media" journalist (yes, secular media...sigh), has risen to prominence recently because of her new book: Extreme Makeover: Women Transformed by Christ, Not Conformed to the Culture.

Tomeo

The subtitle should tell you most of what you need to know, but this isn't about her book. It's about the press release her managment company sent out this week. Hilariously named The Maximus Group—presumably because the owner has a hard-on for Gladiator or John Eldredge or both—this is the company that handled advertising for the sappy, crappy film Courageous. And I apologize for calling schlocky propaganda a film. Ominously titled New California Law Frightens Bestselling Author Teresa Tomeo, the press release included some choice quotes from our Catholic ethicist.

Bestselling author Teresa Tomeo finds it disquieting, to say the least. "It is frightening that some in our society continue to push parents out of the picture when it comes to major decisions involving their sons' and daughters' health and welfare," said Tomeo, author of the new book EXTREME MAKEOVER: WOMEN TRANSFORMED BY CHRIST NOT CONFORMED TO THE CULTURE.

First, please note the Gospel of Marketing 1:1. Never miss an opportunity to sell your shit. We are told that Ms. Tomeo is feeling disquieted because of the nebulous "some," but we're also told she has a new book. Awesome! So, is this a public service announcement or an ad? That's just quibbling, though. This gets really funny.

"Children can't sign up for athletics — or be given as much as an aspirin in school — without Mom's or Dad's approval; but now, 12-year-olds in California can get the HPV vaccine without parental consent?!

First, that semicolon is all wrong and the dashes don't belong. Did Gladiator guy hire an English major to edit this shit? Might give it some consideration, or, er...pray over it? And what's with the double punctuation?! Really? Anyway. I suspect part of the reason children can't sign up for athletics or get an aspirin at school has something to do with liability issues for the schools. Also, this has nothing to do with health providers giving vaccines, but let's not let that stop the histrionics. Ready?

"We don't pass out filtered cigarettes or light beer to our youth," Tomeo added. "Why would we give them more reason to engage in unsafe behavior?"

Um, do we pass out full-calorie beer? Was she going for the "I'm a hip, drinking Catholic" with the beer reference? And what of unfiltered cigarettes? Those bizarre semantics aside, this is just faulty thinking. Cigarettes cause cancer; Gardasil prevents it. The analogy is simply false and inflammatory, oh, and stupid. Tomeo is yet another voice warning girls that sex is unsafe, just like cigarettes and beer. It remains true that Christian spokespersons who are so based on celebrity rather than intelligence or expertise seemingly have nothing new or interesting to contribute to any public debate.


Sneaking Achan into the White House, or Which Jesus did You Mean?

This may be the most interesting presidential campaign ever for Republicans, not just because they have a wingnut or two, but because the faith race appears to be a dead heat right now, with only Ron Paul (not really a Republican) and Jon Huntsman (a nominal Mormon—if such a thing exists) sounding somewhat sane about which metaphysical metanarrative they prefer. Expect to see entirely too much written about Dominionism, but be aware that most of what's written will be overly simple, inflammatory, misrepresented, or just plain wrong. There will be plenty of guilt by association fallacies as we saw with Obama and Jeremiah Wright, particularly where the name Francis Schaeffer is concerned. Already God has told three candidates to run, a "fact" that doesn't trouble me since it's conceivable within the logic and grammar of evangelicalism that God could ask a candidate to run knowing full well the candidate will lose. 

Bill Keller of the NYT has put together a questionnaire for candidates, and promises the NYT will run the answers if received. Pretty sure the answers are not going to be proffered, but if they are, I'm equally sure they will not be politically damaging enough to matter. I'm going to answer the questions first as concisely as possible. Over the next few posts, we'll work through them, plus the individualized questions Keller wrote for particular candidates.

1. Is it fair to question presidential candidates about details of their faith? 

Unequivocally, yes. Faith may be personal, but its implications aren't, especially when running for important offices.

2. Is it fair to question candidates about controversial remarks made by their pastors, mentors, close associates or thinkers whose books they recommend?

Yes, with the understanding that people who sit in pews will often disagree vehemently with their pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, etc., yet remain in the community for friendship, support, and a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with concordant theological positions. For the books they recommend, I'd simply like to ask which parts they agreed with and which parts they disagreed with and why. Just because someone recommends Mein Kampf doesn't mean she intends it as a philosophical inspiration. 

3. (a) Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation?” (b) What does that mean in  practice?

No. It means nothing in practice because it means nothing in reality. There is no such thing as a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. If they believe this, they should probably be treated with wary contempt.

4. If you encounter a conflict between your faith and the Constitution and laws of the United States, how would you resolve it? Has that happened, in your experience?

Constitution wins. Period. It happens every day with gay marriage. It ought to be legal, Leviticus and Saint Paul be damned. 

5. (a) Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? (b) What about an atheist?

No. No. Nor a Christian, Jew, Wiccan, or Buddhist so long as number 4 is clearly understood.

6. Are Mormons Christians, in your view? Should the fact that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons influence how we think of them as candidates?

No. They are not within the historically orthodox community of Christians. Get over it. If I call myself a Mormon and worship Mary and Shiva, am I still a Mormon? This self-identification thing is getting out of hand. The Church has not historically referred to itself as Christian. Rather, they are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As to part 2 of the question, no, it shouldn't so long as they understand number 4.

7. What do you think of  the evangelical Christian movement known as Dominionism and the idea that Christians, and only Christians, should hold dominion over the secular institutions of the earth?

I think it's widely misunderstood and not nearly as important as the press and liberal opponents of certain candidates want it to seem. Dominionism is a broad term that can describe Christians from various traditions, all but about 100 of whom have no intention of "ruling the world." The movement and the corresponding silliness with the "7 Mountains" talk have never had a large influence on evangelicalism. Its proponents are rightly referred to as fundamentalists, and their numbers are far smaller than people realize. The final clause of the question reveals one of the primary misunderstandings of the overall movement. I was involved with the movement myself for a period of time in the 1990s and read only one book and met exactly zero people who understood Dominionism the way you describe it here. 

8. (a) What is your attitude toward the theory of evolution? (b) Do you believe it should be taught in public schools?

It's the most accurate and comprehensive explanatory model in biology and other critical science fields. It should be taught in public schools. Period. Creationism or ID should not. Period.

9. Do you believe it is proper for teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools?

No. Never.


Saving Monkeys, or Why Fundies Hate the Fact of Evolution

Fellow wine lover and former student Trevor sent along this well-written article from a newspaper in Maine, of all places. I do love seeing journalism related to religion wherein the writer actually gets it. Trevor asked for my thoughts, and since this is such a current topic in my home state, I thought I'd oblige. 

Evolution is as close to an established fact of biology as one gets in science. The chorus of Biblical literalists notwithstanding, evolution is clearly accepted by the overwhelming majority of biologists as simply true. The article points out that important people of faith, including JPII and C.S. Lewis, were fine with the idea of evolution existing as fact alongside the existence of God the Creator. And why should it pose a problem? The article does a good job of asking the questions that arise when the progressive development of humans is laid alongside the doctrine of complete and special creation of humans (i.e., that God created us in our current state) possessing the imago dei. I heard several of these points argued years ago by none other than the Apostle of Arrogance, the Cleric of Certainty, the Pope of Pomposity, the Lord of Literalism, etc., Hank Hanegraaff.

Hanegraaff was taking a call about the issue from a caller who wanted to know why it was such a big deal. The reason. If evolution is true, Jesus doesn't have to die on the cross. Wait? What the...? Of course, there is much more to it, but evolution's truth ultimately undermines the authority of Scripture, according to the Bible Answer Man. No, not making that up. It's consistent with what literalists sort of must believe, once they allow a Bronze Age text to be the arbiter and lens of which facts are actually allowable facts.

Here's the progression in reverse. We're saved because Jesus died on the cross for us and we accepted His salvific sacrifice for our sins. He had to die because we were all hopelessly trapped in original sin and unable to save ourselves. We were trapped in original sin because Adam and Eve "fell" and passed the sin gene along to all of us. Adam and Eve could only fall if they were innocent to begin with. They could not have been innocent to begin with if they were not created in a fully human, innocent state. Ergo, evolution is not true because the Bible is. Like swallowing a pine cone whole, i'n't it?

Even with a literalist Biblical argument the position can be shown to be absurd. Innocence could have been a state of the final stage of the awakening of consciousness and humanity that evolution delivered. I mean, once you're making shit up, why not go all out? One need not resort to a literalist argument, though. It's simply easier and Biblically consistent to dispense with the goofy doctrine of original sin. Oh, I know. David talks about being conceived in sin, and Paul has some oblique references, but if Augustine didn't flatten and fuck up metaphors better than any theologian save Calvin, this would never have achieved the level of doctrine. The Eastern Church has happily ignored it. Didn't hurt their theology overmuch. Salvation is still part of Eastern Orthodoxy even without original sin. Crazy idea.

Equally disturbing is the idea that the text as interpreted by a particular hermeneutical school should dictate what is true and false in fields upon which it doesn't speak. "No, you may not manufacture microprocessors. The Bible clearly indicates that they will eventually be used to create chips that are imbedded in our skin so that the Beast of Revelation can control commerce!" How about people believe their text in terms of their soteriologies, and leave science, math, history, and archeology to actual practitioners of those fields. This is not to say that people of faith can't be in those fields, only that the field sets the rules of the game, not a sacred text. I know. Another crazy idea.

Recently, I heard the greatest howler of all time related to this topic. An Oklahoman I can't name told me, "Christians who believe in evolution don't understand what the Bible says. The Bible says God has a plan for each of us as individuals, not that we're a product of chance." Wow! Now evolution isn't true because something that's in the Bible that isn't actually in the Bible means it can't be true. Exegetical gordian knot, meet evangelistic clusterfuck. Once we allow that interpretations of sacred texts dictate what is true in science, we might just as well allow erroneous interpretations of sacred texts to dictate as well. After all, he simply substituted a doctrine from the Book of Individualism for a doctrine from the Bible, and as we've come to know in American Christianity, the former nearly always trumps the latter in the context of praxis.