Category Archives: Religion

I Am Tired of 9/11

Is it too soon to be tired of 9/11? Because I am.

I’m tired of not being able to bring my pinking shears on plane trips. I’m tired of conspiracy theories (except for ones involving reptilians.) I’m tired of pointless wars that waste trillions of dollars that could otherwise be funneled to unprofitable, politically-connected “green energy” companies. And I’m especially tired of having to refrain from referring to my penis as “the Top of the World observation deck” for fear of getting nasty looks from some girl who knows someone who knows someone who almost went to work that day.

I’m also tired of all the people constantly (by which I mean annually) exhorting me to “NEVER FORGET” what happened that day. All sorts of terrible things have happened to me over my life. There was that time I got tricked into watching Napoleon Dynamite, and then there was some sort of incident involving Nancy Drew’s dog, and there was even that one time that I almost got killed on 9/11. But after tens of thousands of dollars of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, craniosacral therapy, sandplay therapy, and reiki work, I’ve learned that “NEVER FORGET” is pretty much the worst advice there is, with the possible exceptions of “Be yourself”, “Girls can’t resist a guy who can chug a bottle of Tabasco sauce”, and “Vote for Obama”.

That doesn’t mean I can’t remember some of the lessons of that event, like “avoid Manhattan” and “don’t ignore the ‘STAY HOME FROM WORK TODAY JEWS!’ phone message” and “don’t wait too long to see that tourist attraction, lest some Muslims hijack and crash an airplane into it.” But these are lessons to put into practice everyday, not just in early September, and not just in years that end in a 1. And the more you “NEVER FORGET” the last crisis, the less prepared you are for the next different one.

So, sure, wear your patriotic shirt and eat your patriotic foods and click “like” on the “Like this if you are watching this on September 11th” comments on patriotic YouTube videos. But while you’re busy trying to “NEVER FORGET” what already happened, I’ll be thinking up jokes for what’s happening next. Advantage: Joel.

Sam Harris is Nonsensical in Principle

In my younger days, when I was full of libertarian bluster, I used to formulate arguments in terms of “Natural Rights.” Murder was Wrong (with a capital ‘W’) because it violated your “right to life.” I used to go on like this all day, until finally my friend Cesar (I think) kindly pointed out that I was full of shit.

I’m still full of libertarian bluster, I suppose, although you’d never in a million years catch me arguing based on “natural rights,” which (after my youthful indiscretions) I came to realize represent either religious (“they’re the rights god gave us”) or pseudo-religious (“they’re self-evident!”) attempts to create an “objective” basis for one’s policy preferences. (As a general rule, if most people refuse to agree with a proposition even after you’ve made your best case for it, it’s not “self-evident.”)

There’s no shortage of people who want an “objective” basis for their policy preferences. It turns them from opinions (e.g. “it’s my opinion that we should pay teachers more”) or hypothetical imperatives (e.g. “if we want to make teaching a more attractive profession, we should pay teachers more”) or self-interest (e.g. “speaking as a teacher, we should pay teachers more”) into “facts” (e.g. “it’s a fact that we should pay teachers more”) and “morals” (e.g. “if you don’t think we should pay teachers more, you’re a moral reprobate”). You can argue against opinions, but you can’t argue against facts! You can rail against self-interest, but not against morals!

It’s a nice sleight of hand when you can pull it off. Unfortunately, you usually can’t. Neither can Sam Harris, who has a new book out claiming that “science has a universal moral code.”

The book’s not quite out yet, but he’s posted an excerpt online.

Since it’s Sam Harris, his purpose is of course to debunk one of the arguments for god:

The defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance.

It’s true that this is sometimes offered (I wouldn’t say “most often”) as a defense of religon. In my own book it’s addressed in chapter 85: “But without religion…”

Some people argue that religion is a necessary source of morality, and that if people all realized their religions were false, they would no longer have any incentives to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, to chop off the tips of their babies’ penises, to restrict poor people’s access to contraception, to censor cartoons, to make it difficult to purchase liquor on Sundays, to stone homosexuals, or to murder apostates and heathens. Society, they argue, would subsequently break down.

Of course, the sensible’s person rejoinder to this is that the truth of a belief is independent of its consequences. And anyway we don’t need an absolute morality, we just need a set of rules to help us get along. We don’t want to be murdered, and we don’t want our friends and neighbors to be murdered, so we outlaw murder and we punish murderers. We (ideally) enact new rules if they seem necessary and (ideally) repeal them if they seem counterproductive. There’s no need to embarrass ourselves by dragging philosophy into things and trying to make metaphysical statements about murder in the abstract.

It’s disappointing, then, that Harris’s klugy response is to advocate for a “science” of morality. Science is (among other things) a spirit of inquiry. If you’re serious about using science to solve a problem, then you’re committing to accepting science’s answer whatever it turns out to be.

If you believe that science can make a statement that (say) child abuse is wrong in some absolute sense, then you’re tacitly accepting that new evidence might reveal that child abuse is not actually wrong. If you’re not open to that possibility, then you’re not doing science. You can call it science, but it’s not science.

Maybe he doesn’t care. (Or maybe he’s open to the possibility that child abuse might be “moral,” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.) Maybe he’s only interested in the name:

But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet?

I’m not sure whether economics is a “true science.” But most honest economists are forthright that the scientific part of what they do is only the positive part. Economics can tell you which allocation rules satisfy certain “fairness” criteria. But it can’t tell you which criteria are the correct ones.

Look, I think murder is awful. But I don’t pretend that this is some sort of scientific judgment. It’s my opinion, and luckily most everyone else agrees with me.

You know what else is awful? Putting people in jail because they like to use drugs. It’s wicked, it’s evil, it’s barbaric, it’s disgusting, it’s shameful, it’s every bad adjective you could apply to it. This is as plainly obvious to me as is my feeling that murder is awful. And I’m not just talking marijuana. I’m talking heroin, cocaine, opium, you name it. Somehow, though, most people disagree with me. Most scientific people disagree with me. Of course, I’m right and they’re wrong. But science is powerless to settle this dispute. Science tells you what drugs do and what happens when you mix them and how to get a better high. Science tells you the likely consequences of your policy of throwing drug users in prison. But science doesn’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you how to find “peaks” on a “moral landscape” because there’s no such thing as a “moral landscape.”

This isn’t a problem unless you decide to start worrying about the bizarrely abstract:

Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life.

I’ve puzzled over this section for a long time, and I can’t make the slightest sense of it. Whether you’re evaluating “efforts to prevent a catastrophe” or “the most important questions in human life,” you ought to be concerned with practical things like “whether they’ll work” and “what side effects they’ll have” and “how much they’ll cost.” Worrying which ones are “valid in principle” (whatever on earth that means) is a perfect way to waste time and not solve anything. Not unlike the new Harris book, I suspect.

Converts Are the Worst

The other day I was in the midst of killing a party by talking about my book when someone asked me for my favorite religious joke. It is, of course, Emo Philips’s funniest religious joke of all time, and off the top of my head I did it very poor justice.

One of my other favorite religious jokes involves the Jew whose father sends him to college with a warning not to marry a shiksa:

Sure enough, his senior year at school he falls in love with a non-Jewish girl. She loves him too, but he tells her he can’t marry her because she’s not Jewish.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll convert.” After serious study, the girl converts. They marry and go off on their honeymoon in Monaco.

Four weeks later, back at home, Saturday morning at 8:00, the phone rings at their house. It’s the boy’s father. He’s livid. “You know the last Saturday of every month we go over the books at the office. Why aren’t you here?”

“I can’t come,” the boy says. “My wife says it’s forbidden. It’s Shabbat. We’re heading off to shul.”

“I told you not to marry a [fucking] shiksa,” the father screams.

On the internet this joke seems to get referenced a lot in discussions of intermarriage, which is odd, because it’s doesn’t really say anything about intermarriage. It’s about religious conversion, and in particular about how converts are the worst.

It seems like they always end up as true believers who never understand stuff that everyone knows, like how Jesus’s hatred of premarital sex contained an exception for “petting to climax,” and how the dietary laws outlined in scripture were never intended to apply to meals at Fuddrucker’s, and how commandments like “Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Footwear” are really just suggestions.

So it’s no surprise that it’s a convert who got Converse to stop selling their Jimi Hendrix “Axis: Bold as Love” sneakers because the album art depicts Jimi as some sort of Hindu god. (Notwithstanding the fact that your local Indian grocery sells all sorts of bric-a-brac and posters depicting basically the exact same thing, minus Jimi, of course).

A quick Google search reveals that the chief complainer is an elderly white woman who converted to Hinduism “perhaps [by] Karmic destiny” and who (back in 2000) was president of her local chapter of VHP, a bunch of crazy Hindu nationalists whose agenda includes demolishing mosques in order to build temples to Ram, and treating cow slaughter as murder, and various other sorts of Hindu fanaticism.

(“I told you not to marry a fucking non-Hindu!”)

Meanwhile, some Hindus are patting themselves on the back that their people choose “the democratic way of protesting” (i.e. writing angry letters) and forwent the “we’ll get violent if you use our gods as shoe decoration” reactions that seem to be in vogue. One could, I suppose, point out that if not for the current “make fun of my god[s] and I’ll kill you” zeitgeist, companies might be more inclined to dismiss the cranks and whiners of the world as cranks and whiners.

Nonetheless, good for them standing up to a big wicked company who wanted to put pictures on shoes that might have hurt people’s delicate feelings. If they don’t have any future plans, might I suggest taking on Babar, whose existence is an obvious disrepect to Lord Ganesh?

Blasphemy and Forced Reverence

On Facebook I list my Religious Views as “irreverence,” which is pretty perfectly descriptive. This means that you can believe any crazy thing you want, but I’m allowed to make fun of you for it if I like. Basically, I’m under no obligation to “respect” your beliefs just because they’re your beliefs. I’ll respect them if they strike me as, well, respectworthy, and I won’t if they don’t.

(Curiously, this makes me a dick, while the infinitely more grotesque “you believe what you want, but if it’s different from what I believe then Jesus is going to torture you forever” is considered in perfectly good taste. Go figure.)

In areas other than religion this approach to respect is totally non-controversial. No one demands that you respect your neighbor’s furry lifestyle, your parents’ musical tastes, or your ex-girlfriend’s body-art aesthetics.

But as soon as someone calls those beliefs “religion,” your lack of respect instantly becomes the awful crime of blasphemy:

Blasphemy is irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.

Now, blasphemy itself represents a proud religious tradition. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, blasphemed against the gods of his day (although eventually his followers decided that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact a capital offense). Jesus blasphemed against the Jewish faith (although eventually his followers declared that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact the one unforgiveable sin.) Muhammad blasphemed against the polytheistic Meccans (although eventually his followers decided that the penalty for blasphemy against their beliefs might include flogging, amputation, or beheading).

In every case there was a tension between

* what those in power wanted, and
* what the little guy thought was true

Abraham was the “little guy” standing up to the much more powerful idolators. Jesus was the “little guy” standing up to the Jewish establishment. Mohammed was the “little guy” standing up to the Meccans. In the unlikely event that any of their stories actually happened, then most surely they were attacked at the time for being “un-Meccan” or “contrary to Judean values” or “dangerous to our troops in Afghanistan.”

In fact, the whole concept of “blasphemy” boils down to the position “I’m more powerful than you are, and I’ll punish you if you don’t revere all the arbitrary things I say you should.” Contra Obama, if anything is “contrary to what this country stands for,” it’s that. In North Korea, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Afghanistan, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Soviet Russia, you revere whatever they tell you to. (Alternatively, “In Soviet Russia, Quran burns you.”)

In America, you revere whatever the fuck you want. If you want to draw a cartoon, you draw that cartoon. If you want to set a flag on fire, you set that flag on fire. If you want to put a skit on national TV that makes fun of the President, you put that skit on TV. If you want to make a musical that mocks the Book of Mormon, you make that musical. And, yes, if you want to set a “holy” book on fire, then you set that book on fire. The fact that the only people willing to take a stand on this are right-for-the-wrong-reasons lunatics like Terry Jones and Fred Phelps is so disturbing that it keeps me up at night.

Book Burnings and “Americanism”

You have, I’m sure, heard the news that a church in Florida plans to acquire multiple copies of the Quran and burn them. The reaction I’ve seen from the “Muslim world” ranges from “that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so knock yourself out” to “I’m going to kill you.” Possibly there’s a middle ground (“that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so I’m going to kill you”?) but I’m not terribly interested in finding it.

The reaction from the “American world” is far more interesting, encompassing everything from “that’s how you dispose of them anyway, so knock yourself out,” to “you’ll just make the people who are already trying to kill our troops in Afghanistan want to kill our troops in Afghanistan,” to “someone ought to write a Bradburyesque novel about book-burnings,” to “can’t we get the EPA to do something, like maybe make them buy carbon offsets?” to “we tried that with the Beatles and it didn’t work,” to “burning books is ‘un-American’.”

This last I find the most curious, as “American” is a surprisingly slippery adjective. Of course when you use it the old-fashioned way like “American citizen” (a citizen of America) or “American Bandstand” (the best-loved bandstand in America) or “American Idol” (that one American we’ve agreed as a society to idolize this year) it’s clear what it means.

When we start describing actions or principles as “American” or “un-American,” it’s a little bit tougher. Nonetheless, most people agree that certain basic freedoms like “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” and “freedom to own a semi-automatic rifle” should be rightly understood as “American,” even if we disagree on other ancillary freedoms like “freedom to prohibit speech that offends me” and “freedom to prohibit journalism that offends me” and “freedom to bring my emotional support dog into the grocery store even though it reliably craps in the frozen food aisle.”

How about book-burning? Well, the principle that “if you buy something, then it’s yours” seems pretty “American,” as does the principle “if you own something, then you’re allowed to dispose of it.” No less an “American” body than the Supreme Court seems (or seemed) to believe that symbolically burning things you own is an exercise of your First Amendment rights. These would all seem to tip the scale toward “American.”

Surely there’s a good case for “un-American,” though. For instance, the State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley points out that “It doesn’t represent the vast majority of American views.” Of course, by this “vast majority rules” criterion, Islam itself would also count as “un-American,” so maybe it’s not the best example.

When pressed on the matter, Crowley further pointed out that the burning is “a divisive potential act of disrespect to one of the world’s great religions.”

It’s hard to know which is the “un-American” part. Perhaps it’s that it’s “divisive,” so that (for instance) a unifying act of disrespect would in fact be totally “American.” Or perhaps it’s that Islam is one of the world’s “great” religions, and that a divisive act of disrespect to a “lesser” religion would be “American.” But most likely it’s the “disrespect.”

Somewhere (but certainly not from me) people seem to have gotten the notion that treating all beliefs with respect is some sort of mark of well-manneredness or (I suppose) “American-ness.” To which I must protest. There’s nothing “American” about “respecting” beliefs you don’t find respectworthy. In fact, “South Park,” the most “American” (according to me) of all shows has as its raison d’etre mocking beliefs its creators don’t find respectworthy. If it were up to me, the First Amendment would be updated to include an explicit “Freedom to Mock,” which is one of the most important aspects of free speech but which routinely gets sacrificed on the altar of some spurious (and decidedly “un-American”) freedom from being offended.

Nonetheless, this Quran-burning debate has gotten extremely tiresome and is (in particular) distracting Drudge from covering more important topics like Al Sharpton’s insolvent nonprofit and how San Francisco street people are reacting to the elimination of the “dollar menu” at their favorite McDonalds.

So, Pastor Jones, I have a proposition for you. I know a book that’s even wickeder than the Quran, that burns quite well, and that’s available at Amazon with free super-saver shipping. Although I can’t imagine that our friends in the government would really get worked up about how “un-American” a Your Religion Is False burning is, my publisher would be totally stoked.

And if you really want to burn in bulk, I can offer you some volume discounts that are, if I may borrow your vernacular, pretty miraculous. You know how to contact me.

A Sky Daddy Is a Sky Daddy

Apparently a bunch of people want to build a new mosque somewhere or another, while a different bunch of people want them not to build it. This not only provides fuel for resuscitating our dwindling 24-hour news cycle, but also creates opportunities for feel-good speechifying, proclamations of “pride” in one’s country and admiration for one’s elected betters, and demonization of one’s political and/or religious opponents.

Insofar as pretty much everyone is my political and/or religious opponent, I find myself without an axe to grind, leaving me to fall back on my default position of blanket opposition to the opening of new religious facilities. As a good libertarian, of course, I default to letting people do whatever they want with their property; however, if you ask my opinion I’m happy to tell you that the world probably doesn’t need any more phony-baloney churches or synagogues or mosques or celebrity centres.

Let it not be said that I am without sympathy for the Muslims of Manhattan, who (I understand) lost their cherished World Trade Center Mosque when it was (along with the rest of the facility) destroyed by so-called “terrorists” with unknown motivations. I do feel a little bit churlish for not being more enthusiastic about their rebuilding plan.

Nonetheless, a sky daddy who insists that you live your life according to the dictates of a magical fairybook is a sky daddy who insists that you live your life according to the dictates of a magical fairybook. Couldn’t we build a Trader Joe’s instead?