January 25, 2007

Why do they Call it Islamophobia?

"Islamophobia" implies that one is afraid of Islam, although it's usually conflated into fear of Muslims, because what's really being talked about is usually being against the tenets of Islam. Clearly, they cannot use "islamist" the way they use "racist", because "islamist" is taken. In fact, it's taken by the very people who inspire what is usually called "islamophobia", but is really anti-islamism.

And I am, frankly and proudly, anti-islamist, the same way and with the same pride that I am anti-fascist and anti-communist: I am against any systematic state control of private lives, and I am particularly against any state control of religion (which in a sense is a tenet of islamism, fascism and communism all.

Why, yes, I have been listening to NPR. Why do you ask?

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September 5, 2006

The Paradox of Civilization and The Morality of the Killer

Grim has a must-read post on what killing something, yourself, teaches you about morality. This is something that has been half-formed or so in my mind ever since my first son was born, and when each of my sons turns 13, we are going into the wild for a week, and we are going to hunt, and my sons are going to be blooded. I've tried to explain this to my wife, and finally just concluded that this is one of the male mysteries than women are not able to understand in the visceral way that men do: it's at a level of soul that is beyond their grasp, as much as there are women's mysteries beyond men's grasp.

For me, the primary three lessons of killing are understanding our place in nature as both predator and prey; understanding that we are all capable of killing in the depths of our soul, and we all enjoy it and are all repulsed by it at that level; and to understand how to construct a moral and social structure that allows us to kill in defense, and makes killing unjustly beyond our ability to do. The reason for civilization and much of religious moraltiy is, fundamentally, to mask our nature as killers, to prevent predation upon other humans by taboo and custom, to teach us how to live non-violently in a world where violence is easy. The paradox of civilization that it is designed to allow people to live who would otherwise die — the recklessly violent, the insufficiently careful, the diseased or malformed, the moral invalid and the idiot — but that it does so by moral strictures that increase reckless violence, carelessness, weakness, immorality and idiocy. Civilization, in saving us from our worst natures, magnifies the prevalence of the worst of our natures.

Learning to kill, learning the morality associated with killing and dying, was once a personal requirement for all except a very, very few, lest they would die. With advances over the last few centuries, that is no longer true in the advanced industrialized countries. There is an illusion of no blood on our hands from our food, our defense, our mere living. And so it is possible, perhaps even likely, that we have transferred that individual learning to a societal level. Perhaps now, we do not risk death through wrong action or immorality as individuals, but as an entire society. If so, a great deal of education will be required before we can be worthy of survival as a culture. That illusion will be washed away, or we will die; the only questions are how much blood will be required, and who will pay that price?

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August 24, 2006

Eppur si Muove

The Pope has sacked the Vatican astronomer, apparently because of his vigorous support of evolution against intelligent design.

(hat tip: Glenn Reynolds)

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February 14, 2006

Playing the Numbers

If there were more Muslims like this than this, there would be no essential problem between the West and Islam. Sadly, the "tiny minority" we keep being assured are the Islamists and jihadis appear to have numbers on their side.

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February 11, 2006

What if the Enemy Really Is Islam?

I think that it is fair to say that, however one defines the enemy in the long war, it is not "all Muslims". Certainly, I've known many good and decent Muslims. And the cases of liberal Muslims (of which there are quite few, though they often end up leaving Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has done) certainly would tend to argue against identifying those people as enemies. For that matter, most truly moderate Muslims (including many that I've worked with or for or who have worked for me) — and by that I don't mean Islamists who haven't quite gone from incitement to violence into actual violence, or from rioting over cartoons to terrorism — can't be called enemies in any meaningful sense. Even if all Muslims were the enemy, for that matter, can anyone with any moral center advocate the necessary consequence, the killing or subjugation of 1.2 billion people?

But what if the enemy is Islam, the religion, in addition to its more deranged followers? Certainly, it is true that Islam has not produced the kind of prosperity we see in the West, and has not produced much even in the way of art (its supposed strong point) in centuries. What advances in science have come from the Arab world since the Middle Ages? What has Islam produced other than misery in the past decades? Even the oil the Arabs provide is largely from installations built, and often run, by foreigners and with foreign investment. So what if the enemy is Islam? How do you beat a religion?

(Note: I'm not really trying to discuss whether Islam is the enemy. You can take it up with Fran Porretto, who is an eloquent advocate of the point. What I am trying to discuss is what it would take to destroy Islam itself as a hostile ideology.)

There are, it turns out, examples of how to kill a religion. Ask the Pagans of pre-Christian Europe how it works. Essentially, what it takes is convincing the adherents of the religion that its doctrines are bankrupt (and possibly immoral) and that the religions promises cannot be delivered to its adherents. In the case of the pre-Christian European Pagans, their many religions basically offered protection from their enemies and prosperity. When faced with a prosperous Christianized Roman Empire, conversion was frequently both swift and relatively non-violent. But there were significant holdouts, particularly beyond the Empire's boundaries; yet they converted too. Why? Well, there is significant evidence of desecrated temples and violently killed priests to indicate that, in at least some cases, the Christians ended up proving that their religions did not offer protection. But more often than not, it seems to be the case that Christianity just offered a more compelling message to its new adherents than did their old tribal religions.

Applying something similar to Islam, it would take some or all of the following:

  • A new faith could arise that promises to supersede Islam the way that Islam superseded Christianity: by offering a more compelling prophet of Abraham's god.
  • UPDATE: As Dave points out in the comments, internal reinterpretation, where a new understanding of the existing texts and forms changes the religion's behavior, also works.
  • Older faiths, particularly Christianity, could send forth missionaries to convert the Muslims. This would generate a large number of Christian martyrs, and in practical terms could only be done in combination with the next technique:
  • proscription. Essentially, this means that we would have to compel Muslims to not practice their religion openly, the way that many Muslim nations currently punish or forbid the practice of Christianity. Or we could go all the way and simply kill Muslims who would not convert, which is a time-honored practice among Muslims, Christians and many other religions, though only in broad use now by the Muslims. Of course, this would require a conquest of the areas where the religion was proscribed, because there is no way that a Muslim nation would tolerate such activities. For areas already under non-Muslim control, such as Europe or the United States, this would be far more practical, not involving actual invasions.
  • Destroying the ideological underpinnings of the religion is also an option. For example, Islam promises that any land once Muslim is always Muslim "until Judgement Day", that Muslims who believe sufficiently fervently and act in a certain way will have victory over their enemies, and that Islam will eventually conquer the world.
  • While conquering Muslim nations would certainly daunt any such beliefs, there is another way that doesn't require actual conquest, though it does involve acts of war: destroy Islam's holy sites. Not just Mecca and Medina and the al Aqsa mosque, though of course those would have to be utterly levelled; but every single mosque of any branch of Islam. And while we're at it, it would probably be a good idea to kill every imam and ayatollah and mullah and any other spiritual leaders of Islam we can get to, whether that means judicial killings, or assassination, or simply dropping smart bombs on their houses. Any new places of worship, including houses where people gather, would also need to be destroyed. The idea here is to show that their god either doesn't exist or has no ability to protect them.

That's a pretty brutal list of options, and none of them are particularly appealing to me, personally. So how far would we go, as a society rather than as individuals, if Islam is truly the enemy, towards our own destruction before we undertook such measures? Would we be willing to give up free speech? That question is being tested now in Europe. What about free assembly? What about freedom of religion itself? Where is the line that says we can go no further without submission, and we are unwilling to submit? Is there such a line?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but Islamists and jihadis keep pushing at every boundary, weak point and doubt in the West, which makes me fear I might well know the answer before I die.

UPDATE: Speaking of Francis Porretto making the case of all Muslims as the enemy...

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January 31, 2006


I AM shocked, stunned even, to find that some people are offended that AOL is using the words I AM to market their product, AIM. (hat tip: Classical Values)

In fact, I AM as stunned by this as I AM by Muslims offended by an ice cream cone lid that had a stylized swirl on it. Or at Muslims who rioted after (false) reports of American military guards at Guantanamo defacing a Koran. In fact, I AM convinced that it is time for me to start being deliberately offensive to anyone who is so easily offended. I AM hoping people will get a bit of a grip. In the interest of gratuitous offense, I AM posting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed, courtesy of di2.nu.

Annette Carlsen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Arne Soerensen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Bob Katzennelson cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Claus Seidel cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Erik Abild Soerensen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Franz Fuchsel cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Jens Julius Hansen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Kurt Westergaard caroon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Lars Refn cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Peder Bundgaard cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Poul Erik Poulsen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Rasmus Sand Hoyer cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten

So there.

I should note that some Muslim countries are trying to get the UN to ban "attacks on religious beliefs". Presumably, any such ban would include these and this and this? Somehow, I doubt it.

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January 16, 2006


They could, you know, establish their own school instead.

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January 13, 2006

Oh, Grow Up

OK, this I don't need. You know, the one thing that annoys me more than holier-than-thou One True Way Abrahamites (Christians, Muslims and Jews)1 is the unholier-than-thou types that don't realize that they are Christian. This guy is a Satanist. Satanism is a Christian heresy, not a Pagan religion, and it has nothing to do with Witches.

Following Anton LeVey, modern Satanists have been more or less shock-seeking hedonists than anything else, and it really, really bugs me to see this guy claiming to represent Witches, and for that matter Pagans in general. Just like it must really bug many Christians to see Pat Robertson say, well, anything really. I mean, this Jonathan Sharkey guy wants to be a 42 year old Goth who can't get over his attempts to shock his parents' sensibilities, or a Darth Maul wannabe, that's fine. But it doesn't make him cool, or mature, or particularly useful.

1I should note that I do not mean all Christians, Muslims and Jews. I mean the ones who think that anyone not following their religion exactly means that you will be punished by God, and hey, as a believer in God, they should take it into their own hands to punish you here and now. You know, the real theocrats, not the imagined ones of the Left.

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January 4, 2006

Sympathetic Magic and a Slow News Day

From the AP. (link via Democracy Project)

Before you write off the sympathetic magic as silly, ask yourself if praying for a snow day is any sillier. What made me laugh about the article was that the people involved were trying to do magic, but obviously have no theory of how magic works. As a result, they've rediscovered the most primitive level of magical practice: sympathetic magic. An ice cube is cold; snow is cold. Snow looks like shaved ice. Shave an ice cube, or flush it down the toilet (not sure where that even comes from) to bring snow. It's more or less the same as whistling up a wind, or beating drums to bring the rain (and associated thunderstorms).

Some things really are innate to the human soul.

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December 2, 2005

Get a Frickin' Grip, People!

The Jawa Report has a horrible point that I'm not even sure they realize: everyone needs to get a frickin' grip on the whole Christmas/holiday thing. Let's take it from the top.

This time of the year coincides with several actual holidays involving the giving of presents and the celebration of rebirth. These include not only Christmas, but Chanukah and Yule. In addition, Christmas is also celebrated secularly by many atheists and other non-Christians. (And, for the matter, the racial "holiday" of Kwanzaa, which I still don't get the point of.) Now, it turns out that the religious holidays and the secular celebration of Christmas have a certain number of core similarities, and it is perfectly reasonable for retailers not to want to annoy their non-Christian customers.

So the people who are getting annoyed about calling it a holiday tree in the store, or holiday ornaments, or what have you, need to get a frickin' grip: it's not going to kill you to realize that not everyone is a Christian, and many of those people celebrate holidays at this time of the year as well. Hey, while we're at it, let's take a look at the celebration of Christmas:

  • Christmas tree: Pagan (N. European, to be exact, and the ornaments evolved from hanging apples on the tree to encourage the trees to bear fruit again)
  • festival of lights: Pagan (Scandinavian, IIRC) and Jewish
  • Deck the Halls, and holly/ivy in general: Pagan (Celtic, to be precise)
  • sacrificial god born in the dead of Winter to save his people: Pagan (Mithraism, which was commonly practiced by Roman soldiers, and others; it's a pretty common Pagan theme)
  • eating ham to relieve the mid-Winter fast that happened before we had year-round availability of fresh food: Pagan (Norse, to be precise; go listen to the Boar's Head Carol)

But it's also perfectly reasonable for stores to recognize that 70% or more of Americans are Christians, and most of the rest were raised as Christians. (This includes both my wife and I, who were raised as formless and somewhat non-observant Christians, and who are now Pagans.) Even a lot of non-Christians celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. (This includes us; we celebrate Yule as a religious holiday, with stories and activities talking about the changing of the seasons and the cycle of the Wheel of the Year, and celebrate Christmas with gift-giving and gathering with family and friends.) So people who get all bent out of shape when they see Christmas trees advertised as such in stores need to get a frickin' grip. Let's take a look at the secular celebration of Christmas:

  • Santa Claus: a take on Saint Nicolas, a Christian (priest, if I recall) that did great works of charity in mid-Winter, like feeding those who didn't have enough food (the lumps of coal were fuel, people)
  • gift-giving: related to the idea of Christian charity expressed by Santa Clause, and to laud the coming sacrifice of the Christian god for his people

So let's all show a little Christian charity, Pagan reverence, Jewish joy at simple survival for another year, and secular tolerance. And while we're at it, let's grow up a bit, okay? Surely, that will make everyone more satisfied, no matter how they celebrate (or don't) the mid-Winter festivals, holidays and holy days.

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September 19, 2005

A Kind of Surrender

So Burger King is changing the design of their ice cream cone lids because the design vaguely resembles an Arabic inscription for Allah. (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) Better go get the breakfast biscuits with sausage now, if you like them, because it's only a matter of time that any serving of pork so offends some Muslims that further "sensitive and prompt action" will be needed.

Look, there are some things that we've forgotten in our haste to over-democratize everything. One of these is that the freedom to speak, to express an idea, is indeed a prerequisite for political freedom, but this does not imply that all ideas are equally worthy of respect once expressed. We have entire branches of knowledge designed to winnow the useful ideas from the crappy ideas. (Sadly, they often produce more bad ideas than they dismiss.) We must begin to defend our ideas, traditions and ways of thought against those who would tell us what we may and may not express, even if doing so offends them. Otherwise, we will find our range of "allowed" expression even more narrowed than it already has been from the decades of PC overreach. And eventually, newspeak won't even be necessary to ensure that we cannot express anything more complex than "nice weather today".

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July 11, 2005

There is no God but God

Francis Porretto has a rumination on the Christian commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." It's worth a read, but there's a place in it where he loses me:

The ancient Hebrews, liberated from bondage in Egypt by a series of miracles and the leadership of Moses, entertained no fantasies about consciousness preceding reality, or reality as the creation of the mind itself. They faced a different temptation, albeit equally deadly. In their time, the delimitation of gods, most notably their instantiation as physical objects -- idols -- was commonplace. The mind likes to have tangible, perceptible things it can fasten on, even during contemplation of the numinous. But such reductions of the nature of the Divine to delimited physical forms, or alternately, to areas of authority, are anathematic to monotheism. More, they beg the regress question: Who created and empowered these deities, and maintains the order in the Universe despite the divisions and tensions among them? And if there's a God above all gods, why would He tolerate lesser deities, whose participation in the ordering of the Universe would be rendered unnecessary by the very fact of His existence?

It is defensible, in a rather joyless and fatalistic way, to suppose that there is no God. It is equally defensible to maintain that there is One. But higher numbers are beyond all rationales.

Who created the Christian god? There are two possibilities for the origin of gods: either they exist outside of time, that is, always were and always will be; or they exist within time, and thus must have come into being either by creation by another entity, or as an emergent phenomenon. While Fran denies the possibility of a god creating gods (for example, the way the Greek mythos posits the gods to have come into being), he does put his finger on a problem with this idea of deigenesis: who created the first god. At some point, it's just turtles all the way down, or you adopt the Christian solution: the first god exists outside of time, and was the genesis of both the Universe and the other gods.

(As to why a god would create other gods, the same question applies to why a god would create a sentient inferior species. And I suppose the answer is the same: no one wants to be lonely. Though with a god creating gods, at least the god was creating his intellectual equals, rather than mere playthings for his amusement, which is how the Christian mythos strikes me.)

The Christian god is tripartite: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In any non-monotheistic framework, these entities would be seen as distinct gods, as would Satan, the Christian evil god (note: actually evil, as opposed to the dark god/desses like Kali, who are cruel and vicious, but not necessarily evil). In fact, all of the angels, given their claimed powers, would be at least demigods in most polytheistic views. For that matter, the veneration shown to the saints by Catholics, and their claimed powers, put them into the category of demigods, as well.

Given the above, I'd like to focus on Fran's claim that "higher numbers [of gods than one] are beyond all rationales." From a polytheistic view, the Catholics already have a multitude of gods, and all Christian sects have at least four. (One of the Jewish criticisms of Christianity, in fact, is that the Bible says there is one god, but Christians created several and semantically call them one to avoid conflict with the text.) But even discarding that, and even assuming that Fran's contention that a god would not create or tolerate gods (and thus, Fran's implicit dismissal of many religions that claim just that), there is a method of deigenesis that Fran neglects completely: Deity as an emergent phenomenon.

Let us start with a few simple facts, on which few would disagree (and I'm prepared to ignore most of those who would as simply insane):

  1. The Universe exists.
  2. The Universe is constituted of numerous objects or entities of various types, but in the end these constituent parts are either matter or energy or some combination of both. (In fact, matter and energy are convertible, per Einstein and numerous follow-on discoveries.)
  3. These entities interact.
  4. The human mind is constituted of numerous objects or entities, primarily neurons, certain chemicals, and the electrical discharges that neurons create.
  5. These entities interact.
  6. Thoughts and memories appear, given the best evidence available to us today, to be the result of the interactions among the entities of the brain; that is, our cognitive ability, self-awareness, emotions and other higher brain functions appear to be an emergent phenomena of the interactions between the constituent parts of our brains

Given this as a starting point, I reason thusly: Since the constituent parts of the Universe are numerous and diverse, and communicate (perhaps interact would be a better word?) with each other constantly, it is reasonable to conclude that higher functions would have arisen in the Universe analogous to those which have arisen in the human mind. If such functions included self-awareness, a distinct singular entity would be formed, so far beyond human and mortal that the only proper term for it is Deity. (This term is also appropriate in that such an entity, comprising everything in the Universe, would literally be the Prime Mover - everything would be, by definition, a result or a genesis of the thoughts of the entity. Moreover, all that exists would be the creation of that entity as well as a part of the entity.)

But what would these higher functions be like? The scale in both time and space is, literally, inconceivable to the human mind: we just can't grasp it. The analogue of a thought that, in the miniscule distances inside the human mind, is effectively instantaneous, might instead take millenia to form, and eons more to express. But the mere fact that such scales are beyond are comprehension does not mean that their effects are beyond our awareness. We constantly sense in the world around us the twitchings of local interactions, and sometimes can sense the end point of the processes of the Universe.

So we can sense Deity's existence, dimly, and we can sense its activity, dimly, and we can put two and two together and figure out that this creative and destructive force, this vibrant and patient entity, is monumentally important to all that we are and all that we have and all that we know. We feel a need to connect with this Deity, yet we cannot approach the Deity directly, because the scale is too vast.

In order to approach the Deity, it is necessary to conceive of the Deity in constituent parts: the gods. In Wicca, the gods are polar opposite forces, most important (and, apparently, utterly sufficient for most Wiccans) male/female. Other polar opposites that are useful for working include creation/destruction, light/dark, day/night, infant/elder, wise/foolish and so on.

The male and female division is generally called the God and the Goddess, but even this is too vast to directly approach, and so it is necessary to further focus our view of Deity onto the aspects or characteristics of the God and the Goddess. For example, a primitive tribe might need help most with the cycles of fertility that keep the tribe alive as a corporate entity, and the individuals within the tribe alive physically. Thus, the God would be approached as the Horned One, the god of the forest, of the hunt. And the Goddess would be approached as the Venus, goddess of the fields, of the crops. The God would also have a warrior aspect in protecting the tribe, which grows from the hunt, and the Goddess would have a fertility aspect in propagating the tribe, that grows from her role in the fertility of crops.

In the Greek and Roman and Egyptian societies, the problems to be solved were multiplied by their civilization, and thus their need for gods became greater and the gods themselves became more sophisticated. There were gods for industry and goddesses of aesthetics, and gods and goddesses for the different types of social relationships.

These were not just created entities, but actually different ways of looking at the Deity we sense around us; different divisions and slices. Christianity, too, divides its god into parts: judgement and creation and intellect (God), forgiveness and growth and wisdom (Jesus), empathy and sustenance and passion (the Holy Spirit), vengeance and destruction and fury (Satan). And the Catholics, in an almost Pagan way divides further into saints for every occasion: travel, health and so on, that are semi-divine. (Perhaps this is a consequence of the sainthood of so many Pagan god/desses, like Brigid.)

It's no more unreasonable to imagine the gods and goddesses as our limited human view of a Deity emergent from and imminent in the Universe than it is to imagine a single, transcendent god.

UPDATE: Thanks to Steph, for catching my repeated spelling error.

I should note, here, that the above represent my thoughts and beliefs alone. Most Wiccans would probably disagree with my reasoning: though we end up coming to the same point, the path I take to get there is decidedly different from what most branches of Wicca postulate.

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July 1, 2005

Who Knew?

Steph points to a truly revealing story of pure Idiotarianism. If a homeschooling support group advertised themselves as "welcom[ing] all educators regardless of religion, race, teaching style, politics, marital status, age or sexual orientation", what would be your first reaction? Would you describe that statement as "Christian bashing"? How about the thought occurring to you that "not discriminating on sexual orientation basically means discriminating against most major religions, since the two are mutually exclusive"? Nope, me neither.

It is not uncommon to find homeschooling support groups that do not allow members who are not of a particular religion, or race, or economic background, or teaching style, or political or sexual orientation. That is a result of the homeschooling movement largely arising in the 1980s among radical Christian fundamentalists. It's getting easier all the time to find groups, resources and curricula that are secular or non-fundie, but it is still the case that some of the best homeschooling material is explicitly Christian and sometimes rabidly so, necessitating (in our case) considerable editing to be useful. But it is also, sadly, still easy to find jerks like the Prides.

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June 13, 2005

The Rede

David Piper has an excellent essay at the Pagan Library on the Wiccan Rede and its meaning and consequences. Too often in the Wiccan community, misinterpretation of the Rede is a symptom of badly-constructed logical (and ethical) thought in general, and this often leads to the "fluffy bunny" kind of Wicca. There are two problems with "fluffy bunny" Wicca: it turns off people who can think and who are willing to embrace personal responsibility, and it attracts those who cannot think through or accept the consequences of their actions. Consider: beginning with the statement "Here is our one primary guidance, and we know that it is completely impossible to live up to in real life", what ethical system can you build which is internally self-consistent and does not permit any act to be justified no matter how horrific?

Our High Priest when we were with a coven formulated the Rede as "Do what thou wilt, an harm none", which is a formulation discussed in the essay. His reasoning (not discussed in the essay) was that there are two parts to the Rede: Truth and Love. Truth must come before Love, because failure to adhere to Truth leads to failure to accept responsibility, which in turn leads to ill-considered actions - ostensibly done for Love - that cause real and lasting harm.

One thing I wish David Piper's essay would have discussed in more detail is the role of "will" as opposed to "want". Piper conflates them in its translation into modern English, as do many Wiccans I've met. But the two are different words: will implies an effort, a striving to attain, while want simply implies a desire. This is a reinforcement of the counsel towards personal responsibility: only you can obtain your desires, and only by active effort. What you want does not simply come to you, but must be brought about by your effort. And this is logically consistent with the injunction to least harm, because what comes to you without effort is generally what is taken from another's effort. If that is not a gift, freely given, then the person whose effort created that which you have taken is harmed by your taking. If you do what you want, without regards to the others' conflicting desires, it is all too easy to cause harm.

(Thanks to Wicca News International for the link.)

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May 25, 2005

It's Turtles All the Way Down

Reason has an article on the evolution v. intelligent design debate in Kansas. (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) I'll skip the quotes from the article (isn't that what the links are for?) and get straight to the heart of the problem: if you have to redefine the term "science" in order to make your belief "scientific", your belief is not scientific.

The intelligent design proponents argue that evolution is unproven - "just a theory". Let's just face it: intelligent design is not a theory; it's a critique. Intelligent design is not falsifiable (and thus not scientific, unless you redefine "science"), is based on its proponents' a priori beliefs rather than any form of methodological or emperical research, and amounts to an attempt to dress up particular religious beliefs sufficiently to get past the ban on teaching specific religious beliefs in government schools as if they were factual (as opposed to comparative surveys of religions, analysis of religious texts as literature, and other allowed means for explaining religious beliefs).

I don't have a problem with intelligent design, per se, though I cannot accept their arguments or evidence from what I've so far seen. But I do have a problem with teaching this as science. That's like teaching science as a religion - Scientism. (Hmm, maybe the secular humanists have brought some of this down on their own heads. How many of the supposedly scientific studies whose results you believe could you reproduce, or even explain?)

Besides, everyone knows it's turtles all the way down.

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May 18, 2005

Casual Heresy

So, my kids watched Scooby Doo this morning - bad enough in and of itself. But what really got me riled was the content of the movie, "Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost". To show why, I'll summarize it, and in the process give a gloss.

Episode EventsGloss
The premise is that Ben Ravencroft, horror writer, invites the gang to visit him at his hotel in rural Massachusetts. A band called the Hex Girls are playing a concert, and there is a ghost of a witch, and his ancestor, named Sarah Ravencroft. The town disturbed her grave with construction, the ghost is haunting the town.I should note at this point, for those of you who don't know it, that I am Wiccan. A priest of the Wiccan religion is a Witch (male or female, same term).
Sarah is claimed by Ben Ravencroft, her descendent, to have been a natural healer, not a witch.Like there's a conflict between the two. Many Witches are in fact well-known natural healers. Oh, yeah, are evil....
Sarah, it turns out, was a Wiccan. A Wiccan in the 1640's.Um, Wicca came into existence in the 1950's, as a synthesis of remnant Celtic Pagan beliefs, Western mysticism and ceremonial magic, and bits of Buddhism (among other bits and pieces from miscellaneous religions and beliefs). Actually, they do talk about Wicca as an Earth-based religion, so I'll cut them a little slack here.
The ghost shows up, chasing Shaggy and Scooby.And yes, it's your stereotypical hag of a witch, with red eyes no less.
Various people act suspiciously in various ways. It is, after all, Scooby Doo. The Hex Girls turn out to be Goths - no, "eco-goths" - (and with fake vampire fangs, which must make singing pretty difficult).
Later, the Hex Girls looking at a picture of Sarah: "So she was a real Wiccan?" The Hex Girls note that they're not witches, but eco-Goths, which is "kind of like Wicca". Oh, and Thorn, one of the Hex Girls, is Wiccan.Except that, while some Wiccans are Goths (and vice-versa), the two have nothing in common except maybe some symbolism. Goth is all about the style and symbolism, while Wicca is a Pagan religion some of whose symbology has been adopted by Goths. And did I mention that Wiccans and Witches are the same thing?
Thorn is "1/16th Wiccan on her mother's side".Wicca is so not passed in the blood. Can you be 1/16th Christian?
It turns out that indeed Sarah's grave marker was recovered during the construction. Good thing, since the show's only half over and they've already solved the original mystery. (It was the mayor and some other townsfolk trying to drum up publicity for tourism.)
Now alerted to the real location of Sarah's grave, Scooby finds Sarah's spellbook. It "looks kind of evil to belong to a Wiccan healer." "You see, Sarah wasn't a Wiccan. She was indeed a Witch. And since Sarah's blood runs in my veins, I guess that makes me...a Warlock."Did I mention that Wiccans and Witches are the same thing? And, by the way, Warlock is not a male Witch (Bewitched was wrong? Who knew?) Instead, it means an oath breaker - a Witch who turned over their fellows to the witch hunters to save themselves. Thus, they were warded against and locked out from the covens. It's a very pejorative term.
Sarah is, it turns out, imprisoned in her spell book, and Ben is going to let her out to gain her power.Complete with lots of stereotypical "magic" effects, and a stereotypical evil laugh, and a really terrible incantation. Magic, as used by Witches, is a lot like prayer; it's not sorcery (which itself is a perversion of Earth-magic, claiming the energy of the world to be your own). Still, magic is not flashy, but transformative.
They do make a good point... raising demons: bad idea. The now-freed "witch" is busy destroying the world.Cause, you know, Witches are evil.
So Ben tries to re-imprison her. "Thinkest thou art a Wiccan?", says Sarah, "Only a virtuous soul can imprison me."Cause, you know, Witches are evil. I don't know, this one's open to interpretation. The logical meaning of the words is that Wiccans are virtuous, though that's 180 degrees from what they were trying to imply, that Ben wasn't powerful enough to imprison her, and that it requires virtue rather than power to imprison her anyway.
Fight; fight; fight.
The Hex Girls are freed. Two of the Hex Girls flee, because "That Witch is the real thing." Thorn needs to help the gang, though, because, remember, though she is "only 1/16th Wiccan", she "still ha[s] Wiccan blood."Gah! It's a religion! It's not passed by blood inheritance like, say, ethnicity is!
"The book is useless to a mere mortal." "But not to a Wiccan!"Um, dude, we're mortal. If we weren't, the whole reincarnation belief would be somewhat superfluous, yeah?
The gang wins. Yay.
"You did it! I guess you are a Witch after all." "A Wiccan, Daddy, a Wiccan."Have I mentioned yet that there isn't a difference?
OK, the lyrics aren't bad. They actually are the kind of thing that Wiccans would state. "We ride the wind; we feel the fire. To love the Earth is our one desire. Nature is a precious gift. It will make your spirits lift." And so on.

In other news, Wiccans failed to riot in response to the numerous casual heresies, fallacies and slanders in the episode.

UPDATE: The context of this post has gotten lost over time, so I will explain. After Newsweek published thinly-sourced, and later proved false, accusations of Koran desecration at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Muslims in Afghanistan rioted, killing several. (Later, long after this post, worse would happen in reaction to a publication of cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper.) My whole point was that every religion that is large enough to be noticeable gets these casual heresies, fallacies and slanders from people not of that religion. It's just part of life. But only the Muslims tend to riot when that happens, and demand that we convert to their religion or they will kill us. Yes, I realize it's just a TV show. That's my point.

Posted by jeff at 6:26 PM | Comments (50) | TrackBack

August 9, 2003

An it Harm None

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.

Do humans have the right to judge other the morality of other humans? If they do, do those sitting in judgement have the right to believe others should die for immoral acts or intents or beliefs or unknowing complicity or group affiliations, and by extension the right to celebrate the deaths of those others, or at least to not deplore the outright murder of those they feel are morally unforgivable?

There are no movements or philosophies or theologies that I am aware of that, as a practical matter, deny humans the power of moral judgement over others. Even among Christians, where there is a sound theological basis for such a view, there is no mainstream movement that I can find which argues that humans do not have the right to make moral judgements about others.

There are certainly those - I believe the Quakers qualify, for example - who believe that any deliberate taking of human life is morally wrong. Those people, I suspect, are few and far between, and can be separated out in that they would not - given a gun and an easy shot at Adolf Hitler, Iosef Stalin, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Bill Gates, J. Paul Getty, Richard Nixon, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Christopher Columbus, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan - kill any of them, and in fact would attempt to prevent others from doing so. There are very, very few people in that mold.

So the question becomes, if you believe that humans have a right to make moral judgements, and that some people are so beyond redemption that they must be killed, what makes it reasonable to kill another person? I suspect that most people would agree that the commission of sufficiently immoral acts - genocide, mass murder of political opponents, oppression of the masses, waging wars of aggression on other countries, murdering and eating children, killing people for fun, or whatever your personal moral code finds unforgivable - makes the killing of the actor reasonable.

There are a smaller number, but still a sizeable number, who believe that the intent to commit a morally unforgivable act is sufficient reason to work for the death of the one who so intends. For example, would you kill Hitler in 1937, to prevent the Holocaust, if you could? (For those who are fans of Hitler, insert any other name and intended future act.) I suspect most people would say that it is reasonable to kill another not as justice for a past act, but to prevent a future act.

The number of people, though, who would kill someone for their beliefs alone, is rather smaller. Certainly, some would say, merely being a Fascist, or a Communist, or an Islamist, or a Conservative or what have you, is sufficient reason to be killed. But not many would say that - or at least, not many would go so far as to say that belief alone is sufficient reason to be killed.

Very few would likely agree that unknowing complicity - indirect causation - is sufficient reason to kill. For example, even if you would kill Hitler in 1937, would you kill Hitler's father when he was a child? How many generations back would you go?

Most imcomprehensible to me, though, are those who would kill any Democrat, or Republican, or Muslim, or Jew, or American, or Catholic, or furrier, or meat plant operator, or Negro, or Caucasian, or rich person, or man, or woman, or homosexual, or UN worker, merely for their membership in that group. There is such a long line between saying, "some in group X act immorally ostensibly out of membership in the group, which reflects badly on the group," and saying "some in group X act immorally ostensibly out of membership in the group, and therefore any person in the group is culpable for those actions and is thus a legitimate target for killing."

That is why Trent Telenko and M. Simon (see the comments) have lost me over the UN bombing. I think that the UN is a deeply unprincipled organization - by design - and that in any such organization there are those who would take advantage of their opportunities for personal or political gain. Indeed, some in the UN and its associated NGOs have been complicit in acts which are beyond my moral limits of tolerance - genocide, tyranny, murder, rape, terrorism, slavery and more. That this is so, while the UN nevertheless fails in its primary mission (ensuring international peace) in the aftermath of the cold war, is a fine reason to withdraw from the UN, argue for its disbandment, and in every way refuse to support it. It is not a reason to cheer when a truck bomb demolishes a UN headquarters, killing a large number of people, most of whom probably had no connection to support for terrorism except for the extraordinarily tenuous bonds of membership in the class "UN workers."

If you argue that September 11, or the bombings in Israel, or similar acts are unforgivable, because the victims - or the majority of them - were innocent, then you cannot cheer for the death of innocent UN workers and be morally consistent.

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July 14, 2003

Separation of Church and State

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.

Chris Noble thinks it's OK for an Alabama judge to prominently display a monument of the ten commandments in his court's rotunda.

I believe that the appeals court decision is correct in a legal sense, but it's not good for the moral fabric of the nation.

But let's look a little deeper here. What is the real problem?

Is it the actual text of the Ten Commandments? If so, which one? I find it hard to believe that someone could possibly have a problem with "thou shalt not kill" or "thou shalt not steal."

The Ten Commandments aren't important because they are some special super secret Judeo-Christian bit of wisdom that no one else could ever possibly understand. No, the Ten Commandments are important because they are universal truths. They are the foundations of a civil society, of one based on laws.

So what is the problem with the monument in the courthouse?

I suppose that if you believe that this is an explicitly Christian nation, then the reasoning above is OK. The problem is, not all of us are Christians.

The ten commandments, while they include some statements I agree with, are explicitly religious and explicitly monotheistic. (I'll take them apart in a few moments, so that you don't have to take that statement "on faith," as it were.) As a result, displaying them in a place where they could provide license or inhibition is simply wrong on the part of the government, both Constitutionally and morally.

If such an explicitly religious monument is allowed in a place where jurors have to pass by before sitting for trial, isn't the government, in the person of the judge, saying to them that it's OK to use their religion - rather than the law - to make judgements? Isn't it saying to me, as a Pagan, that my chances of a fair trial are diminished in that courthouse? If so - and I believe that it is so - then the moral case is against the display.

Were a judge to put up an equally universal religious principle that is non-Christian, would that be OK? Were I a judge, could I carve into the courthouse floor: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, Love under Will." Even if I agreed with the sentiment, it would still be wrong for me to do so, because it is the place of the government to set and preserve the conditions for a free and just society, not to determine the form and content of that society.

(see the More... link at the bottom for an offtopic discussion of the quote I used.)

If the judge wants to put up the commandments in his chambers, I have no problem with that. To do so in the public area of the courthouse, though, is to attempt moral suasion in a way inconsistent with the Constitution and the law.

I also cannot accept the premise, frequently stated, that the ten commandments are not specifically religious and specifically monotheistic, nor that there is not a valid way to view "Thou shalt not kill" as other than a religious (moral, in this case, rather than dogmatic) assertion.

Here are the commandments, from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, along with my gloss on the commandments as regards the American legal system.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:2-3 & Deutueronomy 5:6-7

This commandment compels worship of a particular god. This is explicitly forbidden the force of law by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6 & Deutueronomy 5:8-10

This not only falls into the category of requiring worship of a particular god, it also forbids certain forms of worship altogether. This violates both the establishment and the free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. There's also a logical flaw, just as a side note. If the first generation accepts, and the second generation rejects, what happens to the third generation, which falls into both descendent categories listed?

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not aquit anyone who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7 & Deutueronomy 5:11

I actually prefer this formulation to the more common "thou shalt not take My name in vain," because the more common formulation generally is interpreted as a ban on cursing. In actual fact, I've always read this as a ban on comparisons ("I'm better than God", for example).

In any case, this is a violation of both the free speech and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11 & Deutueronomy 5:12-15

Ignoring the justification of why one should not work on the Sabbath, there is still the problem that labor laws are not based on the Biblical injunction, but rather on the humanitarian arguement that overworking one's employees or one's self is cruel, and the utilitarian argument that it is counterproductive. To the extent that the law fixes a day where one is denied the ability to work altogether, in any form, it would arguably pose a violation of the takings clause, in that one's labor is generally held in the US to be one's property, available for sale. Therefore, to enact such a ban would likely be unconstitutional. (Though it would be constitutional to, for example, ban government offices from being open on certain days, whether or not that accorded with a particular religion's holy days.)

Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land of the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12 & Deutueronomy 5:16

This is certainly not a universal truth. In my view, a parent has to earn the respect of their children. Even disregarding that, though, I cannot see an argument for this as a basis of our legal tradition. Indeed, there are many situations under the law where such a sentiment is ignored, including the laws on compulsory public schooling, removal of children from an unfit parent, and more.

You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13 & Deutueronomy 5:17

This is certainly a key provision of the law, but not for moral reasons. The government, frankly, has no real interest in the life or death of any particular individual. What the laws against murder seek to do is establish a stable society. If you are under constant threat of harm, you will be constantly armed against it, and the societal disruption of murders is huge when no attempt is made to prevent them. The government has an interest in promoting a stable society; in fact, that's its main purpose.

As a Pagan, the argument I would make from a moral sense is that murder is causing harm, both to the victim and to the family and friends of the victim, and that as such it is immoral. I doubt that Chris would buy this reasoning any more than I would buy the reasoning that "murder is wrong because some god said so."

You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14 & Deutueronomy 5:18

This is obviously not universal. Indeed this commandment is more observed, as it were, in the breach. The government has no interest in the sexual behavior of individuals, as long as that behavior does not cause societal disruption. So, for example, the government outlaws rape and child molestation, but not (generally) incest. And as the recent SCOTUS decision on sodomy makes clear, such laws as were passed based on this reasoning will be struck down. There has to be a clear external effect in order for the government to regulate sexual activity.

You shall not steal. Exodus 20:15 & Deutueronomy 5:19

This is encoded in law certainly, but again not because "some god said so." Nor is it encoded on the Pagan view that stealing causes harm to the victim. Rather, the injunction against stealing has to do with the government's duty to protect the property rights of individuals against encroachments. If one can legally steal another's property, than the only way to protect one's property is through armed force, which is destructive to the good order of society.

You shall not bear false whitness [sic] against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16 & Deutueronomy 5:20

This basic principle is encoded both in perjury laws and in libel/slander laws. The reason, though, is not because "some god said so." Rather, the reason is utilitarian: perjury distorts the ability of the legal system to judge wisely, while libel and slander could easily result in duelling (and frequently did, before libel, slander and duelling were all outlawed).

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17 & Deutueronomy 5:21

Certainly, the government lacks any right to ban what someone thinks. Since there is a separate provision against stealing, this provision can only be read as banning the thought itself - the feeling of envy. While this may be an admirable sentiment, though again more often observed in the breach, it is hardly necessary to our system of laws.

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the Law, Love under Will" is from Aleister Crowley.

The formulation of Law (in the moral sense) that I use is "Do what thou wilt, an harm none", which is much more universal, being libertarian rather than hedonistic. Still, even this is not a true universal, given the existence of those who deny free will.

The more common formulation of this is "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." I prefer the way given in the last paragraph, because the two statements basically break down into Love and Truth, and I feel that Truth has more precedence than Love, but Love controls and moderates Truth. One must do what is right - even at a heavy cost - rather than counting the costs before determining what is right to do.

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