Apr 29, 2013

Robert Ingersoll in his own time

1. A portrait of the famed anti-religious orator at middle age, circa 1880, taken by famed Civil War photographers Matthew Brady and Levin Handy. The Library of Congress title for the portrait is "Robert Ingersoll (The Infidel)":

2. A recording of Ingersoll -- of of the few -- on the subject of hope.
The prejudiced priest and the malicious minister say that I am trying to take away the hope of a future life. I am not trying to destroy another world, but I am endeavoring to prevent the theologians from destroying this. 
The hope of another life was in the heart, long before the 'sacred books' were written, and will remain there long after all the 'sacred books' are known to be the work of savage and superstitious men. Hope is the consolation of the world.

Apr 27, 2013

Howard Phillips, 1941-2013

Howard Phillips, a leader of the religious right who spent more than 30 years pushing conservatives to be more true to their anti-government principals, has died at the age of 72.

He worked for Richard Nixon in the 1970s, dismantling welfare programs, but resigned when Nixon failed to stop funding programs he had promised to slash. Phillips was a key player in the founding of the Moral Majority and the politicization of evangelicals in the 1980s, and then founded a religious right party as an alternative to the Republicans in 1991. Phillips ran for president three times on the U.S. Taxpayers' Party ticket, in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

He embraced Christian Reconstructionism and libertarian economics, and was particularly interesting as a radical figure who refused to compromise. At his most politically successful, in 1996, Howard got .19 percent of the vote.

In 2000, during his last presidential run, he devoted some of his campaigning to attacking George W. Bush, a politically conservative evangelical Christian embraced by much of the religious right. Phillips, however, called Bush "a pretty new face to mask the ugly old policies" of "America's permanent power structure."

A candidate for the mind of God

Talking about the theory of an 11-dimensional mulitiverse, the physics popularizer and string theory theorist Michio Kaku says that science now has "a candidate for the mind of God."

Kaku explains "how we physicist's view things" by talking about Albert Einstein's belief in God, and that phrase, "the mind of God." According to Kaku, Einstein didn't believe in a personal or interventionist God, but "he believed in the God of order, harmony, beauty, simplicity, and elegance .... because he thought the universe was so gorgeous. It didn't have to be that way. It could have been chaotic. Ugly. Messy."

Apr 25, 2013

Judges seem skeptical of homeschoolers' persecution claims

The three judges set to decide whether a German homeschooling family qualifies for asylum in the United States seemed skeptical during a court hearing Tuesday in Cincinnati, Ohio, according to news reports.

Uwe and Hannelore Romeike are arguing that homeschoolers ought to be considered a "particular social group" persecuted by countries that have laws requiring all children attend public or state-approved private schools. According to U.S. law, people persecuted because they belong to a "particular social group" are granted asylum. The law does not define the term, but federal courts have generally interpreted it as meaning a group that has some immutable characteristic. A lower court found that the family could not be considered religious or political refugees. If the Romeikes lose the appeal, they will not be required to return to Germany, but they will have to leave the U.S.

One of the three judges who will decide the case asked pointedly whether any German law is targeted at homeschoolers specifically, or if the law is not rather of general applicability. He also said that it's entirely possible for children to attend a public school and still receive additional private training from their parents, the Associated Press reported.

"Germany is not forbidding home-schooling ... It's not like saying you can't teach them at home in the evenings," said Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, a George W. Bush administration appointee.

Apr 24, 2013

America's religious regions, according to geo-coded data

A map of the Christian denominational landscape of the United States, as represented by internet-user-generated data. 

The creators, Matthew Zook and Taylor Shelton from the University of Kentucky and Mark Graham from Oxford, use a software program to mine online, geo-coded data -- Google Maps placemarks, Flickr and Instagram photos, tweets, etc. -- and produce maps such as the above. They write that the internet 
serves to represent and reproduce society in a variety of ways [....] Particularly compelling are the new types of linkages made between online activity and offline locations in which Internet users associate meaning -- ranging from the prosaic to the profound -- to specific sites in the material world. These novel phenomena, commonly referred to as geotagging (also georeferencing or geocoding), provides an innovative means for studying the spatial contours of the virtual dimension of practically any subject, including religion.
This is a different, interesting way to conceptualize the religious landscape of America.

The obvious weakness of this map is the extent to which it relies on denomination names. It's interesting, though, that even as more Protestant churches downplay organizational affiliations, and non-denominational churches are on the rise, there's still quite a bit of information that can be gathered using the organization names generated by internet users, and that information gives one a decent overview of the strong regional differences in American's religious choices.

Apr 23, 2013

Hitler wins: the disjunction of law & politics in Romeike v. Holder

The definition of a very vague legal term is at the center of oral arguments being heard today in a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio. That term is "particular social group."

In US law, that is one of five named groups of people eligible for asylum -- and the most ill-defined. The other categories are race, religion, nationality, and political opinions. If someone can demonstrate they are being persecuted or that they fear being persecuted on those grounds, they can be granted refugee status in America. People also have the right to asylum if they're being persecuted because they belong to a "particular social group," but what that means, who that applies to, is a matter of a legal dispute. In the case in court today, the question is whether or not homeschoolers count as a "particular social group" and should be granted asylum if they come to the US from a country where homeschooling isn't legal, such as Germany.

The political agitation coming out of this court case bears only the slightest relation to the legal issue, though.

The activists who care about this case, Romeike vs. Holder, don't appear to be at all interested in the legal issue at the heart of the case. They are, though, very interested in the way public perception of the case allows them to agitate against the Obama administration and for homeschooling.

Apr 22, 2013

Teaching the history of American atheism

There are more than a few resources available to those who would teach on atheism, so long as they conceive of atheism in philosophical terms. There are anthologies, and college course syllabi available online, and a more-or-less established sense of what would be included in such a course.

For those interested in teaching on the history of atheism, this isn't the case.

Personally, I became interested in atheism as a historical phenomena when thinking about how to explain the relationship between the New Atheists and the cultural changes at the turn of the century -- the terrorist attacks of 2001, the election of George W. Bush, and the rise of blogging in particular. While the arguments being advanced by New Atheists were, from the most part, not directly speaking to their political and cultural context, those things seemed relevant nonetheless. They're relevant not necessarily in terms of evaluating the arguments being made, but in terms of understanding why the arguments were what they were, and why they were being made in the ways they were. It seemed, further, that in the atheism debates that sprang up in the first part of the 21st century, atheism was consistently being treated as one thing, a timeless and unchanging philosophy. But when one looks at actually existing atheism, there are always multiple movements and counter-movements and many contested claims about coextensive commitments that come along with atheism.

Atheism, that is to say, is always, in history, atheisms. In the plural, they are, I find, more complex, more fraught, and more alive than they're generally made to seem in popular, public conversations.

Thinking about atheism ahistorically means leaving out a lot of interesting and arguably important aspects of the atheisms that people hold to and live their lives with.

Approaching the subject as history, on the other hand, allows one to focus on at least two important issues. One, what cultural conditions contributed to and determined the shape and tenor of various atheist movements, and two, what effect those movements had and have on the culture. Approaching atheism historically can mean (for example) allowing for the space necessary to think about how different political environments and philosophies were hospitable to different movements of atheists at different times -- why, for example, Republicans in the Gilded Age gladly counted Robert Ingersoll as one of their own, while in the first decades of the 20th century atheists were associated and affiliated with the more radical strains of the politics of the left.

As far as I can tell, the only readily available historical works on atheism tend towards hagiography, or are designed to be dismissive, so that "history" means either "model for moral instruction" or "refutation." Such approaches aren't great, academically. While they may be useful for arguing for atheism or against atheism, they're not helpful in teaching about atheism, which is what I want to do.

I am trying to teach the history of American atheism(s) this semester. I've had to create my own canon, to do that, with a bit of very helpful advice. With the thought that there may be others interested in teaching such a course, or anyway, general interest in approaching atheism as aspect of American history, I offer my course schedule reading list here, along with some explanatory notes.

Apr 21, 2013

A tax on sex outside of marriage

Chuck Colson died a year ago today. The one-time Watergate criminal, who converted to evangelical Christianity after his indictment, played a pivotal role in the political mobilization of American evangelicals, particularly by popularizing and promoting the work of Francis Schaeffer and the idea of "worldviews," and also in convincing evangelicals to work with Catholics on common social causes.

In one of his very last daily radio commentaries, broadcast April 2, Colson argued tax policies necessarily reflects legislator's worldview, and that conceptions of "sin" are important to the shape that those tax policies take. He said,
... the number of sin taxes is increasing, perhaps because legislators simply want to be on record as opposing the 'sins' of alcohol, smoking, and even sugary drinks! 
It’s odd, though, that despite this feeding frenzy, nobody is proposing to tax an activity that nearly every previous generation saw as truly sinful and harmful to society: sexual promiscuity. 
In fact, the word 'promiscuity' is no longer uttered after the word 'sexual' in polite company, although the word 'freedom' certainly is. And we actually celebrate sexual promiscuity. 
... now the Sexual Left not only excuses sin, they want us to actually subsidize it.
It's a clever argument, partly playfully facetious, built not on argument for a policy position per se but the deftness of the reversal of the policy position being opposed, an argument via subversion, mutates mutandis.

That style was not incidental to his success, I don't think.

The late Colson's radio commentaries can be heard here. Colson's columns for Christianity Today, including those he co-wrote with the Catholic theologian Robert P. George, can be found here. The radio commentaries of those who have continued his work -- including those of popular Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas -- can be heard here.

Apr 17, 2013

George Beverly Shea, 1909 - 2013

George Beverly Shea, who sang at Billy Graham crusades for more than 60 years, died on Tuesday at the age of 104.

According to the PR Newswire article, he was
Born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister, Shea's first public singing was in the choir of his father's church. Between Crusade, radio, and television dates in many countries, he sang at hundreds of concerts and recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music. At age 23 he composed the music to one of his best known solos, "I'd Rather Have Jesus."
He won a Grammy in 1965, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 2011. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996.

According to Shea's authorized biography, written by Paul Davis, Shea turned down an early offer of a career in secular music. He won a radio competition, singing Go Down Moses and was offered a recording contract, but wasn't comfortable with anything but gospel music. After he joined with Graham in 1940s, he wholly committed his talent to evangelical outreach. That talent did not go unappreciated. As Davis writes,
In those dizzy, busy days of Billy Graham Missions, his hit records barely kept pace with demand as his multiple admirers flocked to see him in person or on the silver screen in his movie musical shorts or cameo in Christian feature films.
The New York Times reports he was "perhaps the most widely heard gospel artist in the world."

Apr 16, 2013

Psalms for sale

One of the few extant copies of the Bay Psalm Book, either the first book or one of the first books printed in what is now the United States (depending on your definition of "book"). The psalter is very small -- 6 inches by 5 inches -- and is one of only 1,700 printed by Massachusetts Puritans in 1640. The book goes on auction in November. It is expected to bring in more than $15 million. That money will go to Boston's Old South Church, the current owner, a United Church of Christ congregation that has been struggling financially.

The head of the auction house's book department said "It is a mythical rarity. Yet here it is today, this modest little book printed in the American wilderness but embodying the values that created our nation: political freedom and religious liberty."

Update: One of the bombs that went off yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon (after I wrote this post) was outside the Old South Church. The church was not damaged. On their facebook page, they ask people to "Please continue to pray for those impacted by today's events."

[Cross-posted at Jonathan Edwards Center Germany].

Apr 15, 2013

'Heathens' and the history of 'In God We Trust'

In a pending federal lawsuit, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is seeking to get "God" taken off of U.S. currency. Previous attempts have been unsuccessful. The group claims that the motto -- which was reaffirmed by Congress in 2011 -- makes full citizenship seem to be contingent on assent with monotheism, and coerces atheists into promoting monotheism, as they're forced to carry and distribute the message "In God We Trust."

According to the lawsuit, the motto on American money violates both religion clauses of the First Amendment, giving a government endorsement to a religious belief and putting a substantial burden on atheists right not to practice religion.

Whatever one thinks of the legal merits of Newdow vs. the Congress of the United States, the complaint offers an extensive and fascinating look at the history or American money's dedication to God. Part of the story is familiar: in the context of Cold War antagonisms, American politicians, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were eager for the country to confess God, even if only in the vaguest of terms. Religiousness served to unify Americans against "the Godless commies," and to sanctify economic and political interests.

Less familiar are mid 19th century efforts to put "God" on American money.

In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, some thought mentioning the divine on coins would be a good response to "heathenism."

Possibly, in particular, the suspected heathenism of Abraham Lincoln.

Apr 13, 2013

Death of a witness to vulgar grace: Brennan Manning, 1934 - 2013

Brennan Manning, a former priest, alcoholic, and author of the spiritual classic The Ragamuffin Gospel, who wrote extensively on the theme of grace and God's love, died yesterday at the age of 78. He would have been 79 this month. 

From his memoir, All is Grace, his last book:
My life is a witness to vulgar grace -- a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief's request -- 'Please, remember me' -- and assures him, 'You bet!'... This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It's not cheap. It's free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough... 
Sin and forgiveness and falling and getting back up and losing the pearl of great price in the couch cushions but then finding it again, and again, and again? Those are the stumbling steps to becoming Real, the only script that's really worth following in this world or the one that's coming. Some may be offended by this ragamuffin memoir, a tale told by quite possibly the repeat of all repeat prodigals. Some might even go so far as to call it ugly. But you see that doesn't matter, because once you are Real you can't be ugly except to people who don't understand...that yes, all is grace. It is enough. And it's beautiful.
Christianity Today published a good piece on Manning and his ministry -- and influence on American evangelicals -- in 2005. The article notes how Manning's message of grace spoke to those who felt like they were faking their way through life, but wanted something more than the usual self-help fare:
His light denim jeans are cheekily patched up with colorful squares. It's as if to remind himself and me, 'Don't think I'm a saint. I'm a ragamuffin, you're a ragamuffin, and God loves us anyway.' In his bestseller The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 1990), he writes that 'justification by grace through faith means that I know myself accepted by God as I am.' He explains, 'Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind games, or pop psychology. It is an act of faith in the grace of God alone.'[....] 
We sit down, and Manning tells me that there's nothing he'd rather do than what he has done for 41 years: help sinners journey from self-hatred to self-acceptance. 
He's been there -- or, to put it more accurately -- he is there, traveling this road daily, never too far from a character he calls the Imposter. Everyone's got one. It's 'the slick, sick, and subtle impersonator of my true self.' The persona craves to be liked, loved, approved, accepted, to fit in. 'It's the self that refuses to accept that my true self, centered in Christ, is really more likeable, more attractive, and more real than the fallen self.'
On his facebook page, a statement from Manning's family reads: "While he will be greatly missed we should all take comfort in the fact that he is resting in the loving arms of his Abba."

Apr 12, 2013

What 'Mormon' means to the media when you're murdered

Travis Alexander was a Mormon.

He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in high school. He did his two-year mission in Denver. He abstained from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, in keeping with the common understanding of the church's health codes, and cared about eating nutritional meals, which isn't always true for financially successful 30-year-olds. He wanted to live in a community with a strong Mormon presence. That was part of why he moved to Mesa, Az. He wrote a spiritual self-help book, titled Raising You, and was trying to get it published when he died.

When he died, the Arizona Republic said Alexander was a "a devout Mormon." It was the first sentence of their first story about how he was murdered in his shower: "Travis Alexander was a young, successful businessman, a well-known motivational speaker and a devout Mormon."

It's never really clear what news reports mean by "devout." It's often a kind of content-free intensifier, like "really" or "literally." The stylebook for religion reporters discourages use of the word, since "It's a subjective term without a precise meaning to all readers." Sometimes it seems to mean the person adheres more to a religion's teachings than others do (with the journalist sweeping right by the always-present internal struggles over the right understanding of a religion's teaching). Sometimes it seems to mean measurable practices, like prayer or proselytizing, are practiced by this person -- practiced, sometimes, vaguely more, or a lot, or even at all. Sometimes it doesn't even mean anything observable, but is a gesture at how the person presented themselves as if religion and religiousness were important. Or maybe the word works to justify religion's inclusion in a story, since after all the vast majority of people in America identify with

In any case, it's all very hand-wavy.

When Travis Alexander was murdered, though, the Arizona Republic made mention of his Mormonism and did the hand waving, and dubbed him "devout."

That was five years ago, though. In more recent stories, covering the high-profile trial of Alexander's girlfriend, who is charged with murdering him, the man's Mormonism has been described a bit differently. On Jan. 2, for example, as the trial began, the paper summed up the court case this way:
An outwardly religious young man is shot down and slashed apart by the angry young woman who was his secret sex partner. Prosecutors call it first-degree murder; [...] defense attorneys call it self-defense. The network TV news magazines call it the trial of the year.
On Jan. 30, as the defense phase of the trial began, the Arizona Republic repeated the description of the murdered man as an "outwardly religious Mormon." The story reads:
[Jodi] Arias is on trial in the 2008 killing of Alexander, 30, an outwardly religious Mormon who was found shot and stabbed in the shower of his home. Arias, his secret sex partner, admits killing Alexander but claims it was in self-defense.
Presumably Alexander's piety -- his Mormon-ness -- has not changed in five years of being dead. How the major Arizona paper describes that piety has changed, however.


Apr 10, 2013

What an atheist learned while writing Atheism For Dummies

Dale McGowan, author of the recently released Atheism For Dummies, on 20 things he learned while writing the book:

No. 17 seems deeply methodologically problematic. And McGowan, in this talk at least, also seems to have a tendency to decontextualize nuanced theological statements from diverse historical periods and construe them as basically like contemporary anglophone atheism. There are important differences between points made in disputes during Islamic golden age philosophy and what the teenage McGowan was saying, which the adult McGowan seems to miss. I worry, too, about the extent to which the field of atheist history is being shaped by atheists' need for a canon and the drive to hagiography.

This is, of course, only the For Dummies series, but these things have a way of shaping popular understanding and public discussions.

The introduction of the book is available at The Friendly Atheist.

Apr 9, 2013

Atheist seeks to free Hispanics from faith, community

What holds American Hispanics to their faiths? Community.

That was the claim made at the American Atheist's 2013 convention in a talk by David Tamayo about how to reach out to Hispanics. According to a conference report, Tamayo thinks a substantial number of Hispanics in America are skeptical of religion -- even "natural atheist allies" --  but trapped by their families and their communities, and their needs for the infrastructure and social support that religion provides.

Whether or not this is generally true, it is the case that this is what happened in Tamayo's own life, as he told a Virginia newspaper last year. The paper reported:
Tamayo cites his own life as a case in point. Raised in a Catholic household, he described himself as an extremely devout youth who even pondered whether to become a priest. 
By the time he realized he was an atheist at around 40, it still took him years to explain his beliefs to his parents, who remain skeptical, he said. 
He has been asked not to attend marriages of friends and why he hates God. He feels uncomfortable discussing his beliefs at work, where a prayer group meets regularly.

Apr 7, 2013

But it's okay


On the wall of the bathroom stall at the Wal-Mart where I worked stocking shelves my last year of college, someone had scratched the start of a game of tic-tac-toe. X in the center. O in the upper corner. (The start of a stalemate, a cat's game).

On the wall of a corridor in the hospital in Tübingen where I've been this last week, there are framed portraits of famous people who had diseases. FDR had polio, and look what he did with his life. Gauguin had syphilis, but didn't let it hold him back.

The lesson of the first wall is one I am only slowly unlearning.

Apr 2, 2013

Southern white Pentecostals, from the documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

The late novelist Harry Crews, in another part of the documentary, makes the point:
Truth of the matter was, stories were everything and everything was stories. Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was there understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know the way they believed the world worked, the way that was right and the way that was not so right.