Religion

You Make Me Feel Like Danzig

Ed Brayton delves into the beliefs of a Catholic priest in England who recently announced that “among the causes of homosexuality is a contagious demonic factor.” The priest, Father Jeremy Davies, also said that “extreme secular humanism, ‘atheist scientism,’ is comparable to ‘rational satanism,’” which is one of the more ridiculous terms of abuse I’ve ever heard. I guess “secular humanism” is losing its sting.

I can’t give Father Davies’s demonic theories much credence. I know many kind-hearted, utterly un-demonic homosexuals. And everything I know about demons I learned from Glenn Danzig. According to Danzig’s studies of the phenomenon, demonic factors lead primarily not to homosexuality but to awesomely ridiculous heavy metal videos:

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Bleak House

Asra Q. Nomani relates a dispiriting story in the Wall Street Journal about Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’s “racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet [sic] Muhammad.” The reason for the decision is depressingly familiar:

Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well, considering the mayhem that followed the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, I’m sure the publication of a book describing Muhammad and Aisha’s wedding night might “incite” acts of violence (by people, it must be remembered, who are perfectly capable of deciding not to be violent in response to such “incitement”). But it’s not as if Random House’s decision not to publish will be free of nasty consequences. It will embolden that small, radical segment to threaten other publishers with violence the next time something it finds offensive is published. Perry’s statement might more accurately be rendered as, “If we’re about to publish something you don’t like, threaten us with violence and we won’t publish it.”

It’s especially shameful that this has happened at Random House, whose co-founder, Bennett Cerf, faced an obscenity trial for trying to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Cerf and Random House won the case, of course, and began typesetting copies of Ulysses within ten minutes of the decision.) It’s hard to think of a more dismal way to traduce Cerf’s legacy than to cave in to the demands of religious fanatics.

It’s shameful, too, that the University of Texas, alma mater of my parents and my paternal grandfather, has a part in this. Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at UT, was asked to review Jones’s book by Random House and after doing so took it upon herself to mobilize Muslim opposition to the publication of The Jewel of Medina. According to Nomani’s article, Spellberg said, “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

You can’t? Why not? It’s a novel, that is, a work of the imagination, not a history book. And anyway, offending religious sensibilities and titillating readers with soft-core pornography are an important part of the novelistic tradition and have been since the very beginning, as anyone who’s ever read François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, to name only two early novelists, can tell you. I hope there is a publisher out there with a spine and an understanding of the fundamental importance of defending freedom of speech against thugs, bullies, and perpetually offended humanities professors (someone in other words more like Bennett Cerf than Thomas Perry), who will publish this book.

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I Blame the Parasites

The Economist has an article with a provocative sub-heading: “Religious diversity may be caused by disease.” The article refers to a recent scientific study suggesting that religious groups might form as a way of protecting their followers from exposure to diseases. The Economist summarizes the paper thus:

“[The] hypothesis is that in places where disease is rampant, it behoves groups not to mix with one another more than is strictly necessary, in order to reduce the risk of contagion. [The authors of the study] therefore predict that patterns of behaviour which promote group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas. Since religious differences are certainly in that category, they specifically predict that the number of different religions in a place will vary with the disease load. Which is, as they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the case.”

While there are numerous possible criticisms of this study, it could explain in part why I occasionally feel an urge to wash my hands after talking to a Southern Baptist. And as intuitively far-fetched as it sounds to propose that the development of religions might have been driven by parasites, ever since I read about Toxoplasma gondii on science writer Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, I can’t put anything past parasites. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of Toxoplasma gondii, click on that link and read. It might change the way you look at the world.)

(Via The Rough Guide to Evolution.)

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Grim News from Afghanistan

Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, 23, a journalism student and reporter in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, has been sentenced to death by a local court for insulting Muhammad by calling him “a killer and adulterer,” and “downloading a controversial article and adding some of his own words about the ignorance of the Prophet [sic] Muhammad on women’s rights.”

Kambakhsh has the right to appeal his sentence, and I hope the Supreme Court will be more liberal in its views of the right to free speech than the lower court has been.

Index on Censorship has more, and says it’s possible for Kambakhsh to receive a pardon from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, though he has not yet spoken on the case. Still, it is appalling that anybody could be convicted for such a victimless “crime” in the first place.

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Both Sides of the Story

Here’s a depressing report on the forced resignation of Christine Comer, former director of curriculum for science at the Texas Education Agency. Comer was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail about a lecture by Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Her ouster is apparently part of a plan on the part of Gov. Rick Perry and his cretinous minions to introduce, yet again, the intelligent design “debate” into public school curricula. The State Board of Education will be reviewing the science curriculum in January, Flying Spaghetti Monster help us all.

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Truly Truly Truly Outrageous

Via Butterflies and Wheels, a philosophy blog on the silliness (well, it’s a philosophy blog, so rather the unreasonableness) of imagining that being offended—even deeply offended—gives one the right to demand that offending statements cease:

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that our public culture has become so infected with subjectivist assumptions that people don’t realize that there’s a difference between desires and reasons. Sentiments are taken as given; no-one ever stops to question whether their reactive attitudes are warranted. Any kind of negative emotion is not just evidence, but constitutive, of suffering injustice. You’re offended, therefore they’re in the wrong.

A similar phenomenon, perhaps the flipside of this unquestioned subjectivism, is the way people seem to believe that their own anger about an issue is some sort of proof that they’re right about it. Very often among left-wing “viewers with alarm,” and probably among right-wingers, too, though I don’t pay as much attention, we hear that the country needs to see how angry they are. It’s summed up perfectly in the bumper sticker I’ve made fun of before: “If you’re not completely outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Those who are outraged are obviously the best informed, and if you’re not exploding with anger, well, you must not know what you’re talking about.

But isn’t anger generally an unreliable guide to what’s right? Certainly you can be outraged over true cases of injustice, but if I were to look over all the times I’ve been angry and the proximate causes thereof, I’m quite sure I’d find that often I was angry for no good reason at all. Anger and passion can certainly motivate (though they can also exhaust and depress), but they’re only worth celebrating if they’re motivating something worthwhile.

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A Grand Tour

In the new Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens recounts his experiences touring the U.S. to promote his book, God Is Not Great. It’s an amusing article, and there’s an especially good paragraph on Austin’s own Marvin Olasky, the man who invented the term “compassionate conservativism.” Olasky apparently claimed that the Americans won the Revolutionary War because George Washington enforced Christian morality among the troops:

Olasky’s book on presidential morality (which sadly was written before this president took office) says that George Washington won the Revolutionary War because he forbade drinking and swearing in the ranks of his army, whereas the British forces were awash in immorality. I argue that the war was won largely by the French, who were not strangers to wine or oaths, and that the American troops at Valley Forge were much inspired by Thomas Paine, who may not have cursed all that much but who never left the brandy bottle alone and who thought that Christianity was a joke. Moreover, the Brits—indicted by Olasky for their indulgence in adultery and even buggery—did manage to hold on to Canada, India, much of the Caribbean, and much of Africa in spite of divine disapproval. “God on Our Side” is one of the oldest and weakest arguments in human history.

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Supply-side Theology

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a possible uptick in religious observance in Europe as governments reduce their support of established churches. The idea is that “deregulating” churches, like deregulating any other industry, will boost competition, in this case for souls:

“The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported—but also controlled—the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.”

I wish the activists hell-bent on making the U.S. government more “Christian” would read and absorb the lesson of this article. Trying to make the government more like Old Time Gospel Hour might be more likely to bring a little bit of the spirit of the Department of Motor Vehicles to the house of God. Conversely, really militant atheists might start supporting faith-based initiatives and vouchers for religious schools as a reliable way to reduce religiosity in the country.

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Back in Black and White

In an earlier post on a New York Times article on state oppression in Iran, I pointed out the oddity of the reporter Neil McFarquhar’s claim that a judicial decision not to carry out a public stoning of an adulterous couple makes Iran “a difficult country to separate into black and white.” As is often the case when the supposedly liberal-minded try not to sound too judgmental, the meaning of the assertion is not clear.

If the reporter (or copyeditor) meant that you can’t judge the Iranian people by the actions of its government, he is right, but the point is obvious. If he meant, though, that we shouldn’t be too emphatic in our condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran because it’s capricious and unpredictable in its use of state violence, well, I disagree, to say the least. That Iranians are sometimes able to prevent their government from carrying out unjust and barbaric practices does not change the fact that any state that punishes adultery as a crime with stoning deserves condemnation, not suspension of judgment.

The hedging and moral muddle of that paragraph have been rendered superfluous, anyway. According to Iranian feminist site Women’s Field, Jafar Kiani, the male half of the couple, was stoned to death July 5, while his fellow accused, Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, waits in prison with her children.

Norm rounds up some of the condemnations, from the United Nations High Commissioner and Amnesty International and elsewhere, of this barbaric criminal act, carried out by an institution, the state, whose primary role in a just world would be to protect the rights of its citizens.

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Controversial Cartoons

I’ve been reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It’s a gratifying book to read when you live, as I do, in a state where politicians routinely try to outdo each other with public displays of piety, for it shows that the idea entertained by religious conservatives that the U.S. was a nation of God-fearing Christians until the 1960s came along is pure, uncut buncombe. It’s also a bit depressing to read, as it seems clear that current politicians with the religious views of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln (who never joined a church) might not be able to be elected.

In addition to writing about Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and Susan B. Anthony, Jacoby mentions a Missouri-based freethinking cartoonist named Watson Heston, whose “Bible Comically Illustrated” sold 10,000 copies in 1900 and probably sent the Baptists of his day into paroxysms of wounded outrage (though Jacoby doesn’t mention any Baptists carrying “Behead Those Who Insult Christianity” placards). The drawings are somewhat crude, but there’s an appealing absurdist sense of humor behind them.

You can see a few of his illustrations here, and can order a CD-ROM of his work, along with other freethinker writings on the Bible here.

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