Sunday, October 23, 2005

Violence, religion, and double standards

Some of the replies to my previous post have predictably remarked on the casual violence therein. Truthfully, I am a little uncomfortable with it --- but only a little, since I see it as an illustrative thought experiment, not an incitement to actual violent action. I don't actually advocate using a baseball bat on Intelligent Design advocates, any more than Schrödinger advocated giving radiation poisoning to cats.

Nevertheless, I do take the point that the seductiveness of violent rhetoric is a dangerous thing to fall into. Therefore, I will apologize for my previous post if Intelligent Design advocates agree to disavow the text containing the following passages:

Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first born of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never or will ever be again.
Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them: "Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam's advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, "Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.
The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

Any Christian who doesn't disavow the above has no grounds for criticizing the violence in my previous post. These passages aren't from some random blog; they're from the central text of a religion. The crazy thing is that, unlike my completely hypothetical thought experiment, Christians seriously believe that God did (or will do) these things, and that he's righteous in doing so (everything God does is axiomatically righteous).

By my estimate, I have a huge amount of headroom here. Unless I start wishing that Intelligent Design advocates choke for a thousand years on the putrid rot of their own entrails while watching their children being raped by goats, I'm still way undershooting the cruelty that's glorified by the Bible.

But this is just the same old story: there's a double standard for secular and religious folk. When a secularist, even in jest, even in a moment of frustration, invokes hypothetical slapstick violence to illustrate a point, it's evidence that we're evil. Yet when the central holy text of a religion advocates deadly serious, brutal violence on a massive scale, that's somehow OK. Similarly, evolution has mountains of evidence behind it, but should be dismissed because there are still some open questions. Yet Intelligent Design, which completely lacks evidence --- or even anything resembling a testable hypothesis for which evidence could be adduced --- should be taken seriously. What can one call this, but intellectual dishonesty on a massive scale?

20 comments:

  1. I like your blog. And I'll get back to it. I'd like to put a link on mine to yours. Yours is rare. I think 19 out 20 blogs I survey are adolescent or worse. ...or Malayan.
    Wally

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  2. Wow, I didn't expect to find a Blog like This! This is exactly what I was looking for!

    I first found out about this Blog thing through Roger Martinez'z site. "Warpath of the Fatherless".

    If you don't know who he is, he is the lead singer for about the HEAVYIST metal band I have ever heard!

    Ironically his band used to be Christian with himself being a evangelizer/preacher for Christ.

    As the story goes his band went bankrupt and he blames God for it. Or something like that. Hes turned into an Atheist/Blasphemer. His web site is devoted to hating Christianity in the most vile sense. He also use that verse from The Book Of Numbers to make his point.

    Now I must admit this verse is a hard one for Christians to defend! The folks at the Christian Research Institute (www.equip.org) have a response to it. I don't really buy it and like I said this is a really hard verse to defend. I'm changing their argument around but it goes something like this....No one has a problem with the flood story {except for getting all those animals on the Ark} that is no one seems to care that god commited genacide by drowning the human race! No one seems to care that he killed all those sexual perverts at Sodom and Gamorrah!

    But when it come to God and Moses commanding to take no prisoners during a war, slaughter all the men woman, and children and animals, leave nothing alive....

    That's just a little too grusome to swallow!

    The folks at CRI seem to say that these folks were just so unbelievably wicked (beyond even our imagination that God just had to wipe them out). Again I don't really buy this but their mission is to defend the Bible so they did the best they could!

    As a Christian, Christianity may have it's error and flaws but I believe it's better than the alturnitive. I believe it better than being Atheist, Agnostic, or even picking and choosing ecclecticly among the Religions.

    As a choice in Religions it's a heck of a lot more logical than the Eastern Religions (Buddist, Hindu etc..) Muslim's are even more violent than Christiants obviously, and Jews well I can't Really figure them out, Let's just say Christianity is Judaism with benefits.

    I have a similar discussion brewing on my Blog

    www.whatwouldbe.blogspot.com

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  3. There is certainly a double standard. A majority population that still hasn't forgotten how to feign a minority-style persecution complex.

    All the times I have heard violence advocated for atheists (Bush the elder doesn't think we can even be citizens of the U.S.) and yet I've "turned the other cheek" and let it slide. The idea that apostates and atheists will burn in hell is nothing if not fictional violence on our persons.

    Ah, the glorious history of real violence advocated in the name of gods pales with anything your blog could do. They should turn their ire on the likes of Fred Phelps.

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  4. My sister dropped your baseball bat ID analogy into the comments of my blog where it generated a great deal of mirth among my friends.

    I frequently get a lot of Godspam from well-meaning acquaintances that are trying to convert me. It’s been my experience that Fundamentalists are inherently arrogant and condescending toward all who don’t believe as they. I’d laugh if it didn’t drive me up the wall so often!

    I’m going to include your analogy in the links I provide to Fundies and ID-iots who email me – but I know it won’t do a shred of good. They won’t look anyway.

    I’ve heard it said that Ignorance is curable, but willful stupidity is frequently fatal. Evidence suggests that it isn’t fatal enough to cleanse the gene pool.

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  5. Calladus, if people are constantly trying to convert you, why not do what I do: Tell them you're a Deist. That usually stops them in their tracks, confuses them, and makes them lay off (for a while, anyway). For bonus points, you can say you're a Deist, "like most of the Founding Fathers." That usually gets them.

    "As a choice in Religions it's a heck of a lot more logical than the Eastern Religions (Buddist, Hindu etc..) Muslim's are even more violent than Christiants obviously, and Jews well I can't Really figure them out, Let's just say Christianity is Judaism with benefits."

    Including such benefits as a comical disregard for the rules of grammar, spelling, learning and logic! *snort*

    ybhqxlm

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  6. Isnt it amazing that Michael f****** Behe is always able to fall back to scientific babble (which the layman would'nt understand anyway) to make his arguments, and get away with it? Heck, I could throw in an equation here and there and make anything look scientific, for that matter...whats more disturbing is how the ID "movement" seems to be able to change its colors so efficiently..

    A~

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  7. Don't feel too bad. What would the Flying Spaghetti Monster do? (WWFSMD) He'd lay the noodley appendage on 'em hard! Make 'em wish they never heard of white sauce!

    I say beat 'em!

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  8. Well, I'm one of your detractors, and I'm afraid that I'm going to remain so for the time being. Don't get me wrong: I'm not an ID supporter; I just don't think you're that funny, or that the humor serves, in the broader sense, a good purpose.

    I'm not going to speak for Christians, but in the Jewish tradition (you've got a few citations from Torah, there, and your other commenters are clearly ignorant on the subject) there's a clear distinction between the actions of God and the actions of humans: God's justice is both absolute and beyond human understanding; we are, on the other hand, flawed beings who must strive for justice but who will rarely succeed perfectly. We would not attempt to emulate God in the smiting of the Egyptians, not because we don't have the power but because we know that we don't have the capacity to pass ultimate judgement. Figures like Moses and Abraham are flawed and human, and insofar as they can act in ways that we might not forgive for others, it is because they are clearly and openly acting with the permission and assistance of God. That's a privilege which does not exist today, which the Rabbis even as early as the Talmud did eschew, and which no true Jew should claim.

    Well, I'm sure that's more religion than you wanted, and I'm sure that you will find it flawed in some fashion, but not all of those who take the old texts seriously take them literally, nor are we bound by your interpretations of our beliefs.

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  9. I'm quite familiar with religious believers' distinction between the actions of God and the actions of humans. I just find the refusal to judge God's actions to be a cowardly abdication of moral responsibility. And I don't take the selective outrage of moral cowards very seriously.

    Aside from which: from a secular point of view, the actions of a fictional "God" are basically the work of the humans who invented the fiction. To place that fiction beyond judgment is to place a human invention beyond judgment. Unless you condemn God's actions, then you are endorsing human violence of the most brutal and serious kind.

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  10. From a secular point of view (and from many a religious point of view), the stories of a fictional "god" are the work of the humans, and stories serve many purposes, as did yours. They are a mythology, a history, and a starting place. The fact that we (most of us) no longer cleave to the literal law and that we (most of us) no longer presume to speak for God means that we don't need to "condemn" God in order to be morally responsible.

    The rest of your argument is so fallacy ridden .... In the Jewish tradition we do not seek to emulate God, understood as metaphor or as reality. You are arguing with a literal tradition that is relatively recent and, within Judaism at least, a distinct minority position.

    I know, from the standpoint of a devout secularist, there's no such thing as a rational and consistent believer in God, particularly not in a tradition like Judaism. I'm not going to try to convince you; I'm simply trying to point out that you're not going to convince or browbeat me, either.

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  11. Your second comment is 100% red herring. One can analyze the morality of symbolic or metaphorical actions just as easily as one can analyze the morality of literal ones. Nothing in my argument depends on a literal interpretation of the Torah, any more than your critique of my post depends on a literal interpretation of my post.

    Look, presumably you came here because you wanted to make some kind of point about the immorality of (certain kinds of) fictional violent narratives. My point, therefore, is very simple: either you believe that killing every firstborn child in Egypt is an immoral action, or you believe that killing every firstborn child in Egypt is a moral action. Which is it? If the former, then you're condemning God's actions, but you're being consistent with your earlier condemnation of fictional violence. If the latter, then you're being inconsistent in your condemnation of fictional violence.

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  12. You say herring, I say whitefish; you say inconsistent, I say discriminating. You say that analysis is possible, you say "certain kinds of" but you are relying on false dilemmas to make your case. If it wasn't an insult to Mani, I'd call it a Manichean position. Really, it's just simplistic.

    The violence of the Torah is serious violence. It is violence which derives from justice. It is not terribly different from the violence which we as a society authorize in the protection of the citizenry. There is violence in the world; not all of it is unjustified. The Jews, every Passover, spill wine in honor of those who died so that we might be free. Yes, we thank God for our liberation, even at the cost of those lives.

    The violence of your post served to belittle and mock, served to legitimize not justice, but indifference. I agree that we have to make the best arguments possible against ID as science; I agree that the arguments in favor of ID (even as a faith position) are logically and theologically flawed; I don't believe that we should advance our arguments at the expense of advancing our harmony as a society, at the expense of our civility and humanity.

    Clarity, yes, but also empathy. Vigorous, yes, but also subtle and qualified. The world is too complicated for simplicity to be a viable long-term option.

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  13. In other words, you claim that killing all of Egypt's firstborn "derives from justice" and is therefore moral. Do you sincerely believe that killing "the first born of the female slave who is behind the handmill" is an appropriate way to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go? Do you sincerely believe that an omnipotent God could devise no less blunt or brutal instrument to achieve this political end? Do you doubt that this fictional narrative dehumanizes the victims?

    Of course you don't, because you're not an idiot. Alas, you are an apologist, which means you're unwilling to confront the inevitable corollaries of the answers. Accuse me of invoking "false dilemmas" all you want --- you do come down on one side, the side of inconsistency. According to you, brutal, dehumanizing fictional violence is justified, so long as you agree with the cause. The Palestinian terrorist who bombs a café operates according to the same rude logic as the Angel of Death: kill innocents to arouse a political reaction. Somehow I doubt that you'd accept the "justice" of this action so readily.

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  14. Do you sincerely believe that an omnipotent God could devise no less blunt or brutal instrument to achieve this political end?

    No. But I distinguish between the ineffable God and the texts which we devise and study to approach God.

    Do you doubt that this fictional narrative dehumanizes the victims?

    Yes. In fact, one of the really striking things about the Exodus narrative is the human frailty and complexity of the characters, including the Egyptian people.

    Alas, you are an apologist, which means you're unwilling to confront the inevitable corollaries of the answers.

    I'm willing to confront them (what the heck am I doing here, if not that?); I'm just not coming the same conclusions you do about the dilemmas we face.

    The Palestinian terrorist who bombs a café operates according to the same rude logic as the Angel of Death: kill innocents to arouse a political reaction.

    In a very rough sense, yes. "Rude logic" is a good word for it: it's the kind of facile parallel construction that works great as long as you don't actually think about it too hard. But the fact is, if you take the Exodus seriously, you have to take the idea of a God who is not just powerful, but omnipotent (though largely respectful of the free will of humanity [see below]), not just smart, but omniscient, not simply a judge, but the final arbiter. It's impossible, well, illogical, anyway, to judge human and divine actions by the exact same standard. To say "God killed people without presenting a full dossier proving their guilt in capital offenses beyond a reasonable doubt that was preserved through time and therefore is clearly no more than a terrorist" is just silly. The logic of the story doesn't work that way.

    Well, Cog, it's been fun!

    p.s. A parting gift: The slaying of the firstborn is not really the part of the story that makes liberal Jews really, really uncomfortable. It's when God hardens' Pharoah's heart (Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:9, 11:10)

    Shalom Aleichem!

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  15. "Clarity, yes, but also empathy. Vigorous, yes, but also subtle and qualified. The world is too complicated for simplicity to be a viable long-term option."

    So, those 10 commandments are probably a bad idea then.

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  16. it's simply the 'god in the gaps' phenomenon.
    what ever we don't know about the natural world automatically becomes proof that god exists.
    also as each hole gets filled by those willing to find out what really goes on sometimes risking life and limb, god seems to move from one hole to the next.

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  17. I can't engage sophists with the same verve you do. They are worth taking on, but oh god, they bore me. So many kudos to you.

    I know you closed your last thread, but I never got post my response. I love you.

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  18. I scorn ID as being deceptive in its claims and unscientific in its methods. It doesn't make for interesting philosophy, either.

    I loved your "The only..." piece, though I was mildly uncomfortable with its violence.

    I do think, though, that the claims you make in this piece, and in the comments following it, are problematic. You are clearly intelligent and well-informed (and funny as hell!) yet some of the claims that you make with respect to religion do not fully reflect that intelligence and information- though they do still reflect your sense of humour.

    I look forward to reading more of your writings, especially as you come to terms with the fact that stereotypy, though convenient, is seldom good logic; and that Christianity should not be stereotyped by its lowest common denominator.

    But then again, spending time on talk.origins tends to lead one to such stereotypy.

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  19. "and that Christianity should not be stereotyped by its lowest common denominator."

    No, he is arguing based on your basic text... if he were arguing based on the lowest common denominator he would have used the crusades or some other genocide carried out by catholics in god's name.

    "But then again, spending time on talk.origins tends to lead one to such stereotypy."

    You mean better understanding of just how religion perverts logic and reason? Yep.

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  20. Muslim's are even more violent than Christiants obviously

    If you studied history for a few hours, Mr. P, you would not make such claims carelessly.

    You have it backwards. Christian have massacred, torutured, and hanged far more christians and heathens on explicitly religious grounds than moslems have.

    An impressionistic tally - Christians have killed 5 times more people than Muslims - maybe ten times. Not even close.

    My favorite massacre, from the First Crusade - was when the Christians took Jerusalem and killed 50,000 men, women and children, muslim and jews. We have eyewitness accounts from horrified Catholic priests....

    Or the time the French killed 25,000 heretics at the start of the Albigensian Crusade, around 1220. My favorite quote, in answer to the commander's shocked questioning of his orders (from the Bishop) to kill EVERYONE in the city (Narbonne?), including non-heretics: "God will know his own."

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