Pastor John Hagee, the well-known televangelist, is out with a new book and it looks like he’s trying to give Isaac Newton a physics lesson.
According to Hagee, God is “controlling the Sun and the moon right now to send our generation a signal,” which is why we have eclipses. That might have been a compelling theory, but Isaac Newton figured out that the Sun, moon, and all planetary bodies follow natural laws and aren’t actually celestial pegs in God’s Lite-Brite billboard. Granted, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a pretty dense book and Hagee may not have had a chance to read it. Then again it’s been around since 1687 so you think he might have heard about its lessons by now.
Helpfully we have Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot to let prophesying Christians catchup with three centuries of scientific advancement. Episode 3 takes on the issue of scientific vs religious prognostication specifically.
In an arduous tour-de-force of mathematical brilliance, [Edmund] Halley discovered that comets were bound to the Sun in long elliptical orbits. And he was the first to know that the comets seen in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one in the same – a single comet that returned every 76 years.
In a stunning example of true pattern recognition, he predicted it would be seen again within 50 years in the future. For millennia comets have been props for mystics who considered them to be merely omens of human events. Halley shattered their monopoly; beating them at their own game. A game that no scientist had ever played before: prophesy. And he did not hedge his bet. Like Babe Ruth predicting where his next home-run would land in the stands, Halley stated flatly, the comet would return that the end of 1758 from a particular part of the sky, following a specific path. There is hardly a prophesy attempted by the mystics that ever he even strives for comparable precision.
Newton’s laws made it possible for Edmond Halley to see some 50 years into the future and predict the behavior of a single comet. Scientists have been using these laws ever since – opening the way to the moon and even beyond our solar system.
In contrast we have Hagee’s prediction: a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.” It doesn’t really seem quite as precise. Maybe Hagee should pick up Newton’s Principia or Halley’s A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets. Compared to the Bible, they’re practically new releases!
(image: Cosmos photo gallery)
As more evidence mounts it has become increasing clear that the Boston Marathon bombers were influenced by their radical Islamic faith. Yet, some writers have acted as if noticing that is unjustified Islamophobia.
But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tuscon and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism).
Others like Kevin Drum and Conor Friedersdorf, agree, and take the position that we should just remain agnostics on whether the suspects’ interpretation of Islam played a role in their actions until more evidence proves it.
So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone “knows” to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad?
There should be no objection to waiting for evidence and displaying skepticism toward knee-jerk assumptions. Everyone is and ought to be legally entitled to due-process to prove any guilt. But the problem with writers such as Greenwald and others that are quick to label opponents as Islamophobes is that their skepticism never ends – in practice they remain permanent agnostics that religion could really motivate terrorists or other enemies of civil society. Scott Atran, for all his valuable insights, argues that “the greatest predictor from going from support [of the Jihad] to violence has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with whether you belong to a soccer club or not.” This type of statement is representative of those who divorce statistics from a coherent casual theory.
Everyone agrees that politics, social alienation, nationalism, and brain structure are reasonable factors in the casual chain, but for some religious apologists their Pyrrhonian skepticism only kicks in when you point out that some doctrines of Islam contribute to violent acts. Even Greenwald is happy to cite politics as the suspects’ motivation in another post despite chastising everyone else with a reminder that “media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial” when they mention religion.
Given what we know, we can provisionally consider the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists that are more than likely partially motivated by religious ideology. Obviously it’s not impossible that’s wrong (which is why we have due process), but it’d be a strange scenario indeed for something so important to their lives to NOT have influenced their actions.
Tamerlan was apparently kicked out of his mosque for being too extreme in his religion. A foreign government noticed and alerted the US that he was potentially a dangerous religious extremist before the bombings. They had an interest in Jihadist videos. Tamerlan traveled to areas that are “hotbeds” of political and religious extremism. The two brothers committed an act seemingly designed to purposefully create public terror and, as Dzhokhar says, “he and his brother had learned to make the pressure-cooker bombs that they used at the marathon from Inspire, the online Al Qaeda magazine.” Neither brother has a known history of diagnosed mental health problems. At a certain point when data begins to fit into a coherent theory it verges into reasonable inference. I’m more than happy to concede nothing is “proven,” but again, I refuse to not notice out loud what is obviously the most likely scenario – religious ideology inspired these two alleged terrorists.
If it’s true that some people unfairly and prejudiciously assume any suspected terrorist is an Islamic fanatic -and that unfortunately happens- a converse is also true; some people overcompensate and go to unreasonable lengths to deny what is most parsimonious: those seemingly radical Islamic bombers of innocent civilians at a highly public event were actually radical Islamic terrorists.
(photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
On a recent episode of Up with Chris Hayes the panel discussed atheism in America. Richard Dawkins provocatively suggested that there isn’t too much discussion of religious beliefs in the public square, but too little. Dawkins believes that private religious beliefs should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other belief candidates may hold.
Hayes, an atheist, strongly disagrees and emphasizes that private and public beliefs are separate because “no one is legislating on transubstantiation.” I don’t need to check the legislative calendar to know he’s right, but I’m not sure that means we should “respect a distinction between beliefs on public matters and public policy and private beliefs.” Superficially, the distinction makes some sense, but practically we run into difficulties.
We don’t treat other private beliefs that way
Candidates get asked questions about their families and other non-public matters all the time. Off the top of my head:
- Romney’s dog or is Romney an emotionless robot
- Dennis Kucinich’s UFO
- The sexual lives of countless politicians
Now, maybe Chris Hayes himself has never brought up any private issues. That’s a respectable position, but the media as a whole doesn’t seem to honor that distinction. “Character issues” either matter or they don’t. Sheltering religious beliefs from criticism is purely convention and cowardliness. Arguably, all the “private” issues that the media currently discuss are far less consequential than a candidate’s faith.
We don’t know in advance what issues will be public
Let’s take a look a few innocuous private religious beliefs:
- The 2nd Commandment prohibition on images of God’s likeness
Turns out that really caring about drawing heavenly images is why we see deadly riots after Danish cartoons. How strongly you feel about the second commandment will probably affect your response such controversies.
- Life begins at conception
It wasn’t that long ago that no one ever talked about stem-cell research. But again and again as technology progresses, a naive little conviction that life begins at conception affects public policy. Abortion>In vitro fertilisation>stem cell research>?
- The Noah’s Ark Myth
We all know that creationist style beliefs about the age of the earth lead to politicians promoting nonsense in science classes. But what if a politician takes a short passage in Genesis 8:21-22 seriously? It’s exactly those words that lead Rep. John Shimkus, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to dismiss global warming as problem. That’s what God told Noah, apparently.
So, should the press assume that evidence-free beliefs will never become a matter of public concern because no one is legislating on them right now?
The Way We Think
Subjecting public figures’ style of thinking to skepticism and examination should not be taboo. If someone credulously accepts nonsense that’s important to know. The media should expect to be loathed. Politeness is never an excuse for the Fourth Estate. We’ll never know every issue that will confront us before we elect our representatives, which is exactly why appraising how they think is so crucial to voters.
Anyone that cares about women’s rights and health is rightly upset at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s break with Planned Parenthood. The decision to stop grants to Planned Parenthood was clearly motivated by anti-abortion politics, but E.G. from the Democracy in America blog wonders why the healthcare provider receives such a high level of aggression:
The bulk of its activities are focused on contraception, STI screening, and cancer screening, and it places a particular emphasis on providing reproductive health care to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access. They also provide abortions, which are controversial, obviously, but legal, obviously. And insofar as access to contraception and other family-planning services reduces the demand for abortion, Planned Parenthood also prevents abortion. In my view, it is an important part of civil society. Even from a pro-life position, I would think it qualifies: being pro-life is a coherent moral position, and not one that necessarily implies a lack of concern for women’s health. So I really don’t understand why Planned Parenthood gets so much grief from the right.
It’s difficult to understand because most of the pro-life right is not anti-abortion because of a reasoned moral opinion, but rather because of religious dogma. So when E.G. looks at a moral calculation based on the consequences of behavior and policy and she notices that contraception services reduce the number of abortions it seems inconsistent to disapprove. However, if you recognize that fundamentalist religious ethics is based on a rule-based system that says abortion, contraception, and church-unapproved sexual activity are all evil in principle it makes “sense.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say the religious consciously don’t care about the effects on actual people, but religious ethical dogma is not concerned about the effects on actual people. It’s not morality. It’s fundamentalism.
“Being the president of the United States has to be the hardest job in the world. And the idea that one of us sitting around this table could do it with our own human intellect, our capability, is beyond any of us” – Rick Perry at the Thanksgiving Family Forum.
Looking around that table… I couldn’t agree more:
On a more serious note there was some truly disturbing theocratic rhetoric. Shortly after Perry’s insight, Newt goes on to argue that Americans have “attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Kirk Murphy’s mother became worried about her son’s behavior:
I was becoming a little concerned about playing with the girls’ toys and stroking the hair – ya know, the long hair and stuff. I was seeing effeminate mannerisms. That bothered me because I wanted Kirk to grow up and have a normal life.
In order to give her child the most normal life possible she subjected Kirk to experimental behavioral control therpy, emotionally neglected him, and allowed her husband to beat him as part of a reward/punishment plan. His brother says he became empty, couldn’t relate to people, and was never a happy child again after the age of 4. Kirk killed himself at 38.
Watch the beginning of Anderson Cooper’s 3-part series on George Rekers’ homosexual cure therapy.
I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.
To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.
Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.
Where does good come from?
Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”
Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?
Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”
Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?
Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”
Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?
Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”
Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?
Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”
Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.
All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.
This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.