Religious Mountain News

Diana Hsieh writes that “tithing [as] a subject of public discussion in a well-respected national newspaper still floors me.” Yet at least a letter to the editor is in the editorial section. The Rocky Mountain News, whether by design or by accident, seems to be pandering to religious readers more often in news articles.

For example, I recently quoted a News article that begins, “Kristi Burton was just 13 when she asked God for guidance and got it.” Whether or not the author of the article actually believes that Burton received guidance from God, the line taken at face value presumes that she did.

Here’s another example:

Lotto win forestalls foreclosure
The Gazette
Originally published 12:30 a.m., November 27, 2007
Updated 11:50 a.m., November 27, 2007

As the Bible says: “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

Gloria Aguda, of Fountain, said she prayed to God for help, facing foreclosure and mounting bills. She won the jackpot in the Nov. 21 Lotto drawing, worth approximately $9 million.

The article, credited to the Gazette, appeared on the Rocky’s web page (though I’m not sure whether it also appeared in print). Again, taken at face value, the opening suggests that God played some role in the jackpot (which is ridiculous even from a religious perspective).

The Rocky has also reported on various occasions that victims of various accidents and tragedies thanked God for a relatively good outcome. However, the Rocky has not once mentioned why God allowed the tragedies in the first place, nor why others who pray to God nevertheless suffer worse outcomes.

I for one read the news to learn about the news — not to read gratuitous and frankly silly references to God.


Americans often take for granted the rule of law and a culture that values individual rights. Yet, for most of mankind’s existence, violence and barbarism were the norm. In many parts of the world, they still are.

The New York Times reports:

86 Police Officers Hurt in Paris Riots
By Katrin Bennhold

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France, Nov. 27 — The number of police officers injured during clashes by French youths in a suburb north of Paris rose to 86 after a second bout of violence overnight in which 60 officers were hurt, including six who are in serious condition, police officials said.

Three more horror stories come from theocratic and totalitarian regimes.

ABC News reports:

Exclusive: Saudi Rape Victim Tells Her Story
Victim to Receive Whipping and Jail for Being in Nonrelative’s Car When Attacked

By Lara Setrakian
Nov. 21, 2007

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice is defending a sentence of 200 lashes for the victim of a gang rape, punished because she was in the car of a male who wasn’t a relative when the two were attacked.

Fox News reports:

British Teacher Faces 40 Lashes for Naming Class Teddy Bear ‘Muhammad’
Monday, November 26, 2007

A British primary school teacher arrested in Sudan faces up to 40 lashes for blasphemy after letting her class of 7-year-olds name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, was arrested at at Khartoum’s Unity High School yesterday, and accused of insulting the Prophet of Islam.

Her colleagues said that they feared for her safety after reports that groups of young men had gathered outside the Khartoum police station where she was taken and were shouting death threats.

Fox News also reports:

150,000 Witness North Korea Execution of Factory Boss Whose Crime Was Making International Phone Calls
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean factory chief accused of making international phone calls was executed by a firing squad in a stadium before 150,000 spectators, a South Korean aid group reported. …

Most North Koreans are banned from communicating with the outside world, part of the regime’s authoritarian policies seeking to prevent any challenge to the iron-fisted rule of Kim Jong Il.

A culture of reason and individual rights is a gift neither of nature nor of God. It is the achievement of a society whose intellectual leaders adopt the right philosophy. The United States is a rare a precious accomplishment, made possible by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the courage of our Founding Fathers. It is possible for us to lose our liberty (to a greater degree than we have already), and, if we do not reverse trends toward welfare statism, centralized power, and faith-based politics, we will lose it, eventually.

The Conversion of Antony Flew

Recently I picked up the new book, There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, by Antony Flew, “with Roy Abraham Varghese” (though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). But you don’t need to buy the book to get the gist of its claims. The New York Times Magazine has published an article about Flew and his book.

Mark Oppenheimer writes:

[Flew’s] greatest contribution remains his first, a short paper from 1950 called “Theology and Falsification.” … In a masterfully terse thousand words, Flew argues that “God” is too vague a concept to be meaningful. For if God’s greatness entails being invisible, intangible and inscrutable, then he can’t be disproved — but nor can he be proved.

The book offers elegant, user-friendly descriptions of the arguments that persuaded Flew, arguments familiar to anyone who has heard evangelical Christians’ “scientific proof” of God. From the “fine tuning” argument that the laws of nature are too perfect to have been accidents to the “intelligent design” argument that human biology cannot be explained by evolution to various computations meant to show that probability favors a divine creator, “There Is a God” is perhaps the handiest primer ever written on the science (many would say pseudoscience) of religious belief.

In other words, Flew converted from a silly form of atheism to a silly form of religion. I mean, anyone who buys the analysist/positivist argument against God deserves to believe the argument from design. By the way, Flew’s early essay is also available. (I guess I’m just not sophisticated enough to write a line like the following: “For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion.”)

The Godfearers

I had not realized that, by the time of Paul, Judaism had attracted a large Gentile following. Garry Wills writes in What Paul Meant that Paul probably had much success preaching to these “Godfearers.”

[They] were inquiring and sympathetic non-Jews welcomed in synagogues… The Romans of the first century were out on quest for spiritual knowledge… [A]mong the exotic beliefs being entertained, the Jews had, for some, a special appeal, based on their monotheism (in a polytheistic world), their purity of life, and their ancient learning. (page 64-5)

Wills cites historian Robert Tannenbaum, who points out that Judaism was “therefore a more powerful rival to Christianity in the race for the Roman world” than used to be assumed. (page 66)

And Gerd Theissen argues (notes Wills):

Christianity… offered them the possibility of acknowledging monotheism and high moral principles and at the same time attaining full religious equality without circumcision, without ritual demands, [etc.]… [T]he Christian mission was luring away the very Gentiles who were Judaism’s patrons… (page 67).

This is interesting for two reasons. First, it indicates that Christianity benefitted from the prior appeal of Judaism to a segment of Romans. Second, it reveals additional causes of tension between Jews and Christians.

D’Souza’s Unicorn Analogy

Recently I watched part of a recorded debate between Dinesh D’Souza, author of What’ So Great About Christianity, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. (I couldn’t get the entire debate to download, for some reason.) Obviously, in this post I do not wish to address all or even most of the points raised in the discussion. I wish to address only the following statement by D’Souza:

We’re living in a very unusual time in which atheism has emerged as a kind of militant phenomenon. On the face of that, that’s a little bit odd. Because if you are an unbeliever, why be militant? I don’t believe in unicorns, but I haven’t written any books on the subject. I don’t spend a lot of time denouncing unicorns; I live my life as if unicorns did not exist. But what we have from the atheist side is a belligerent attack on theism, and specifically on Christianity.

D’Souza should not refer to spirited argument as “militant” or “belligerent.” Both of those terms derive from military usage, and both suggest a violent demeanor. Yes, both terms do have secondary meanings that suggest any sort of aggressiveness, and argument can be aggressive. But there is a very big difference between a so-called “militant” atheist who writes a book and a militant atheist who vandalizes a church. Similarly, there is a huge difference between a Christian who argues against abortion and one who murders doctors who perform abortions. I am bothered by the rhetorical blurring of these lines. I suggest that all parties use terms like “militant” and “belligerent” according to their primary usage, and use better-fitted terms to describe speech. For example, a “militant environmentalist” is one who torches buildings or spikes trees, not one who merely writes pamphlets.

But the more important point is D’Souza’s use of the unicorn analogy, which is just silly. Of course nobody spends time writing against unicorns, because nobody seriously believes that unicorns exist. On the other hand, most Americans believe that Christianity is true, and that belief profoundly impacts their lives. Moreover, many Christians wish to impose their beliefs on non-Christians. For instance, many Christians want to outlaw all abortions, impose censorship, ban certain types of medical research, spend tax dollars to promote theology, direct U.S. foreign policy according to theological beliefs, and so on. I guarantee that if a unicorn cult advocated similar policies, critics would soon emerge to oppose unicornists, too. Then unicornists would denounce as militant and belligerent the a-unicornists.

Of course, Christians have never shied away from criticizing beliefs that they think are false. Sometimes, Christians have grown militant and belligerent in the literal sense of threatening, harming, torturing, or murdering those with contrary beliefs.

What I like about D’Souza’s approach is that he explicitly bases his case for Christianity on reason and evidence. I hope he successfully persuades other Christians to sincerely do likewise.

(Note: after writing the text above, I Googled “D’Souza+unicorns” and discovered that other commentators have made criticisms similar to mine.)

Garry Wills on Paul

I picked up Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant at Costco while I was waiting for my glasses to be repaired, and I soon returned to buy the book.

Wills reminds us that Thomas Jefferson regarded Paul as the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus” (page 1). But Jefferson was wrong. Wills writes,

But scholarly enquiry has destroyed the idea that the Gospels have a simple biographical basis. They are sophisticated theological constructs, none written by their putative authors, all drawing on second- or third- or fourth-hand accounts — and all written from a quarter of a century to half a century after Paul’s letters. If we want to see what the original Jesus communities looked like, the first and best witness to this is Paul… (pages 9-10)

Wills also calls into question the account of Paul offered in Acts. That book claims that Paul participated in the murder of one Christian, threatened others, and dragged believers “back in chains to Jerusalem.” That is highly unlikely, writes Wills (pages 34-5). Paul could not have had the authority to do such things, Wills writes, nor would the local authorities have let him get away with it.

Wills account makes for interesting history. But there is something odd going on here. Wills writes sincerely of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus; clearly Wills’s intent is to show how Christianity properly rests on Pauline doctrine. Yet at the same time, to defend Paul, Wills refutes the historical accuracy of other sections of the Bible. So the riddle is how the Bible is for Christians both inspired by God and filled with human errors and misunderstandings. But that is a riddle that will take me some time to fully answer (from a critical perspective). In the meantime, I may quote a few more interesting passages from Wills’s book as I finish reading it.

Religious Motivation: Reply to Jamelle Bouie

In reply to my post, “Religious Right, Meet Religious Left,” Jamelle Bouie writes:

I’m not sure if you can equate religiously motivated politics with trying to “use the force of government to advance their religious agendas.”

Having a theologically based political belief is no different then having a philosophically based one. So for example, there are Christians who believe that Jesus’ admonitions about caring for the poor compel them to advocate — politically — on behalf of the poor.

They aren’t necessarily trying to impose a religious belief, but their actions are motivated by said belief.

Bouie distinguishes between advocating a policy from religious motives and advocating a policy that advances religious doctrine. This can indeed be a useful distinction.

Here are some examples of advocating a policy from religious motives, when the policy itself does not explicitly promote a religious doctrine. Various Christians want to outlaw abortion, because they believe that abortion is forbidden by God’s will, yet a law outlawing abortion need not explicitly mention any religious belief. Other Christians want to politically restrict the human emission of carbon dioxide, because they believe they have a religious duty to “save the earth” from such emissions, but those restrictions themselves do not necessarily promote Christian beliefs. Notably, many people who aren’t Christians also want to politically restrict such emissions. Many theists want to forcibly redistribute wealth to the poor, because they believe such redistribution is demanded by their religious precepts, yet statutes enforcing such redistribution need not mention religion. Many atheists also advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor.

Here are some examples of “trying to impose a religious belief” in the sense of using politics to advance a religious doctrine. Many “conservatives” (as noted) want to divert tax funds to schools that teach particular religious doctrines. Many conservatives also want government-run schools to teach creationism as science. In times past, various countries have passed statutes requiring people to attend some particular church. In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition murdered people for expressing beliefs heretical to Christianity.

However, as useful as this distinction is, it does not accomplish what Bouie thinks it does. I am not concerned merely with criticizing instances of political force that advance particular religious doctrines. I am also concerned with criticizing those who would “use the force of government to advance their religious agendas” in the broader sense. For example, I oppose the outlawing of abortion because it involves the illegitimate use of governmental force. In other words, I oppose the (initiatory) use of governmental force across the board, not merely when that use of force advances some particular religious doctrine.

Those who wish to outlaw abortion are indeed “trying to impose a religious belief” in the sense that matters. No, those who want to outlaw abortion are not trying to force me to say, “I accept that God forbids abortion,” but they are trying to interfere with the liberty of my wife and me to control our own lives. (As a side note, it turns out that my wife and I have discovered this wonderful invention called “birth control,” but we would not rule out an abortion if, for example, a pregnancy threatened the life of my wife. Of course, some Christians also want to outlaw birth control.)

In other cases, bad policies can be motivated by religious or secular ideologies. In such cases, does it really matter what the motivation is? Yes, it does, for two reasons. First, a full refutation of the case behind the policy is impossible without an understanding of what’s motivating the policy. A Christian and a Marxist might both advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor, but they’ll have different reasons for doing so (even though I agree with Leonard Peikoff that leftist collectivism is basically derived or borrowed from religious collectivism). Second, one cannot assess the potential cultural power of a particular policy proposal without knowing what’s motivating it. For example, in his June 12 post, Peikoff argues that the “anti-industrial Greens” will have “short-lived” success, but that religion is capable of much stronger and longer-lasting cultural influence.

As a side note, I strongly discourage writers from using the construction “advocate on” or “advocate for.” What does it mean to “advocate on behalf of the poor?” Advocate what? It is possible to advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor. It is possible to advocate Policy X. Let us stop this empty “advocating for” positions that are never specified. I oppose this egalitarianism of advocacy, this presumption that all forms of advocacy are created equal, regardless of what is being advocated. If you have the guts to advocate a particular policy or idea, then have the guts to name that policy or idea.

“He Went to Live with Two Homosexuals”

When criticizing James Dobson, I wrote, “I agree with many of Dobson’s criticisms of Giuliani’s personal life.” But I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. Many of Dobson’s criticisms of Giuliani are positives in my book. And some of Dobson’s criticisms are ridiculous:

Here’s why I cannot vote for Rudy Giuliani. He’s pro-abortion. He’s never repudiated gay marriage in New York City or at least the civil unions in New York City. He’s called a champion of gay rights. Rudy is opposed to school choice. He’s in favor of open borders. He lived with a mistress in the mansion in New York while he was married to his wife — and she was in the same house. He’s been married three times. When his second wife got sick of it she threw him out and he went to live with two homosexuals.

I don’t want abortion outlawed, I support domestic partnerships for homosexuals, I oppose school vouchers (because I support real free markets in education), and I favor open immigration (except for criminals and those with contagious diseases). I agree that Giuliani ought not have had a mistress (assuming that Dobson’s claims are correct); that was wrong of him.

But what is that last bit? “[H]e went to live with two homosexuals.” That’s the sort of line that gives me the surreal sense that somebody must be playing an elaborate practical joke. Why would it even occur to anyone to check to see whether Giuliani ever lived with two homosexuals? I mean, huh? When Dobson comes up with lines like that, parody is beside the point.

I keep having to remind myself that there are people in this country who take this guy seriously.

The Dobson Divide

Two days ago I signed a letter stating: “In coming election cycles, we will vote against any candidate who does not explicitly and unambiguously endorse the separation of church and state.” The letter asks candidates to respond to five questions, one of which is about abortion.

Today I read an interview with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Here’s what he has to say:

[T]here was an informal meeting of about 50 pro-family and pro-life leaders that had come together [in Salt Lake City]. The purpose of it was to talk about what we would do if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate…

There were about 50 people there and, to my count, 44 of them stood saying we will not vote for Rudy Giuliani or whoever it is we’re talking about that’s pro-abortion. And that got covered all over the nation and, as you can imagine, I was inundated.

So I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying why we would not do that — because you start with a moral principle. You have to make your decisions about who’s going to lead you not on the basis of pragmatics — not on the basis of who can win or who’s ahead in the polls or who has the most money or who’s the most popular. You begin by saying what are the irreducible minimums that I believe in, that I care about; what are the biblical values I cannot compromise.

At least Dobson doesn’t dodge the issue: he explicitly says he wants to base American politics on Christian doctrine.

Dobson wants to outlaw abortion and prevent marriage or domestic partnerships for homosexuals because that’s what he believes is the will of God. If Dobson has his way, what other policies might Christians try to impose? I have not researched Dobson’s particular views, but here are some policies that various Christians have proposed: censorship, criminal sanctions against homosexual acts among consenting adults, a ramped-up drug war including renewed alcohol prohibition, tax-funded religious education, tax-funded welfare, and bans on all sorts of medical research from cloning to stem cells. Certainly these policies, and many others involving a heavy hand of government, have found support in “biblical values.”

Dobson poses the typical false choice between pragmatism and religion. For what it’s worth, I agree with many of Dobson’s criticisms of Giuliani’s personal life. But Dobson’s “principles” are not grounded on any objective morality; they are merely arbitrary constructs, ultimately as subjectivist as what he claims to criticize. Dobson wants to govern America by his reading of an inherently ambiguous book of popular mythology. Giuliani has his personal faults, but at least he seems to be somewhat oriented toward reality.

I think that the Republican Party remains in deep, deep trouble. On one side, the religious right threatens to work against any candidate who does not pledge to govern according to Christian doctrine (as interpreted by the religious right). On the other side, voters more concerned about economic liberty and limited government are increasingly alienated by the religious right. (This is essentially the issue that handed Colorado to the Democrats.) Various leaders within the GOP have called for a renewal of vows, but the wedding was always one born of a shotgun. I suppose that one eventual possibility is for the free marketeers to seek out the civil libertarians of the left, even as the religious right and religious left grow closer together.

But Dobson is right about one thing. Politics is not primary. Ethics is primary. That is the real cultural battle today.