Clinton vs. Bush, or Why you should have Multiple Children

Original

As the only heir of the immensely wealthy and powerful Clinton family, Chelsea has been thrust into the public spotlight following her mother’s electoral defeat.

Unfortunately for the Blue Tribe she is supposed to lead, Mrs. Chelsea isn’t too bright. Her Twitter comment was intended as a critique of the claim that Confederate statues and monuments should not be torn down because they symbolize part of America’s history.

Milan Cathedral

This statement depends entirely on churches Chelsea has personally visited. “I have not personally seen this” is a bad argument. All it takes is a few churches she hasn’t attended that happen to have Lucifer statues to disprove her whole point.

And if you know anything about churches, you know that some of them have an awful lot of statues. The Milan Cathedral has 3,400 of them! They cover these things with gargoyles–do you really want to make a political argument that hinges on whether or not there’s a Lucifer in there somewhere?

The Vatican’s new statue

But you don’t have to travel to famous Italian cathedrals to hunt for the Devil; I have a statuette of Satan defeated by Michel the Archangel about ten feet away on my mantle. Do you know how many statues there are of this guy? Both Popes got together in 2013 to consecrate a new statue of him–complete with Lucifer–in the middle of the holy Vatican City.

Satan also shows up in Christian art and iconography in a variety of disguises, such as a Dragon (defeated by St. George) and a serpent (trod upon by the Virgin Mary.)

If we expand our search to include paintings and stained glass, we find almost endless examples, such as the famous Sistine Chapel frescoes (Michelangelo put the Mouth of Hell right over the Pope’s chair, I hear.)

But even if we limit ourselves to freestanding statues solely of Lucifer himself–not of him being defeated or crushed, not in symbolic form nor painted on the walls, we still have this rather cute little Devil seated outside Marienkirche church in Lübeck, Germany; this large and creepy statue of Lucifer tangled in power lines in the Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone, Westminster; a frightening devil from the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Rennes-le-Château; Satan pushing the damned into the Leviathan’s mouth, a 12th century Romanesque Carving from the Church Sainte Foy, France; Satan again; carving of Satan being cast out of Heaven from Pisa, Italy; the Devil weighing souls and leading away the damned, Notre Dame, France; another from Notre Dame; devils carved into a church in Lincolnshire, England; a little devil in St. Severin, France; Satan on a pillar, Chatellerault, France; statue of the Devil at the Grotto of St. Anthony, Belgium; and for that matter, there are a lot of frankly obscene carvings in older churches.

We could do this all day, but I think you get the point: there are a lot of depictions of the Devil in Christian churches. Having been raised Methodist is no excuse; somewhere between attending Sidwell Friends, Stanford, Oxford, Columbia, etc., Chelsea has surely learned something about European art.

Considering Chelsea’s level of worldliness–one of the privileged glitterati who get to spend their lives drifting from board to board of different companies and exclusive soirees for the rich and famous–you’d expect her to have at least noticed the carvings on a European cathedral or two.

Even Chelsea’s writing career shows few signs of brilliance: she’s written two books for kids (one of those a picture book) and co-authored one for adults, which has–wow–absolutely rock-bottom reviews. Considering her kids’ books got good reviews, I don’t think this is a troll campaign–it looks like her book is actually terrible.

Unfortunately for the increasingly old and decrepit senior Clintons, lack-luster Chelsea is the only egg in their basket: they have no other kids to prop her up or take the limelight for her.

The Bush family in the Red Room of the White House (January 2005).

By contrast, President and first lady George H. W. and Barbara Bush had 6 children–George Walker Bush, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush (1949–1953, died of leukemia), John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, Neil Mallon Pierce Bush, Marvin Pierce Bush, and Dorothy Bush Koch.[9] George “W” Bush, although not noted for intellectual excellence, managed to follow in his father’s footsteps and also become President; his brother Jeb was governor of Florida; and Neil and Marvin are doing well for themselves in business.

According to Wikipedia, George and Barbara’s five surviving children have produced 14 grand children (including two adoptees) and 7 great-grandchildren, for a total of 24 living descendants. Chelsea Clinton, while obviously younger, has only 2 children.

Having one child is an effective way to concentrate wealth, but the Bush family, by putting its eggs into more baskets, has given itself more opportunities for exceptional children to rise to prominence and make alliances (marriages, friendships) with other wealthy and powerful families.

The Clintons, by contrast, now have only Chelsea to lead them.

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Book Review: Aphrodite and the Rabbis

When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.

Visotzky’s Aphrodite and The Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it explores the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on the subject, it’s a good place to start. (It doesn’t go into the differences between major modern-day Jewish groups, though. If you’re looking for that, Judaism for Dummies or something along those lines will probably do.)

I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.

Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.)  The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)

Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.

It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.

Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.

Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:

The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …

To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.

Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …

All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …

Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.

Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:

Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.

The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.

On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?

The Talmud and the Constitution

This post is about similarities between the development of Jewish law and American law.

A story is recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly for clarity:

Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav (Abba Aricha) said, “When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, up to the heavens, to receive the Biblical law, he found God sitting and adding calligraphic flourishes (crowns) to the letters.

Moses said,”Master of the Universe! Why are you going so slowly? Why aren’t you finished?”

God said to him, “Many generations from now, Akiva the son of Yosef will expound on every calligraphic detail to teach piles and piles of laws.”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe! Show him to me,” so God told him to turn around, and a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching his students appeared. Moses went and sat in the back row, but the teaching style was so intellectual that he did not understand what they were talking about and got upset.

Then one of the students asked Rabbi Akiva, “Our teacher, where did you learn this law?”

Akiva replied, “It is from a law that was taught to Moses at Sinai.”

So Moses calmed down. He returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him, “Master of the Universe! If you have a man like this, why are you are giving the Torah through me?”

But God only replied, “Be silent. This is what I have decided.”””

2,000 years ago, when Yeshua of the house of David still walked the Earth, rabbinic Judaism–the Judaism you’ll find if you walk into any synagogue–did not fully exist.* The Judaism of Roman Judea was a temple cult, centered on the great Temple in Jerusalem (though there were others, in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and of course, Samaria.) Ordinary Jews went about their business–raising crops, tending goats, building tables, etc–and every so often they visited the Temple, bought or brought an offering, and had the priest sacrifice it.

*Note: See the comments for a discussion of continuity between Pharisaic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. I am not arguing that Rabbinic Judaism was invented whole cloth.

69 AD, also known as the Year of the Four Emperors, was particularly bad for the Roman Empire. Galba seized power after Nero‘s suicide, only to be murdered on January 15 in coup led by Otho. Emperor Otho committed suicide on April 16 after losing Battle of Bedriacum to Vitellius. Vitellius was murdered on December 20 by Vespasian‘s troops.

Meanwhile, Judea was in revolt. In 70 AD, Vespasian’s son (and successor) Titus besieged Jerusalem, crushed the rebellion, and razed the Temple.

Without the Temple–and worse, scattered to the winds–what was an ordinary Jew supposed to do? Where could he take his sacrifices? How was he supposed to live in this new land? Could he visit a bath house that had a statue of Aphrodite? Could he eat food that had been sold beside non-kosher meat?

The Bible has 613 laws for Jews to follow, but do you know how many laws you live under?

I once did a research project on the subject. I found that no one knows how many laws there are in the US. We have federal, state, county, and city laws. We have the code of federal regulations, containing thousands of rules created by unelected bureaucrats within dozens of agencies like the EPA, which is enforced exactly like laws. We have thousands of pages of case law handed down by the Supreme Court.

It’s one thing to live in an organic community, following the traditions handed down by your ancestors. Then perhaps 613 laws are enough. But with the destruction of the Temple, Judaism had to adapt. Somehow they had to get a full body of laws out of those measly 613.

Enter the Rabbi Akiva (also spelled Akiba or Aqiba) and his calligraphic flourishes. By examining and re-examining the text, comparing a verse from one section to a similar verse to another, groups of rabbis (teachers) and their students gradually built up a body of laws, first passed down orally (the Oral Torah,) and then written: the Talmud.

For example, the 5th Commandment says to Remember the Sabbath Day, but how, exactly, are you supposed to do it? The Bible says not to “work” (or so we translate it,) but isn’t a rabbi preaching his sermon on Saturday working? To clarify, they look to the next verse, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) and declare that “work” here refers to creative work: building, writing, sewing, sowing, reaping, carrying (materials for creative work), building fires, or inversely, putting out fires, knocking down buildings, etc. Merely giving a speech–even if you get paid for it–is not work. (Though you can’t accept the payment on Saturday.)

The word for “work” in the Bible, transliterated as “melachah,” is further interpreted as related to “melekh,” king, relating it back to God (the King)’s work. Melachah is not found very often in the Bible, but shows up again in Exodus 31, during a discussion of the work done to build the Ark of the Covenant [which is not actually a boat] and various related tents–a discussion which is suddenly interrupted for a reminder about the Sabbath. From this, it was reasoned that work specifically mentioned in the first part of the passage was what was prohibited in the second part, and therefore these were among the specific varieties of work forbidden on Shabbat.

If a suitably similar verse could not be found elsewhere in the text to explicate an inadequate passage, rabbis found other ways of decoding God’s “original intent,” including gematria and the aforementioned calligraphic flourishes. Hey, if God wrote it, then God can encode messages in it.

Which gets us back to the story at the beginning of the post. Note how it begins: The Talmud says that Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said… ‘Moses said…'” This is a written account of an oral account passed from teacher to student, about a conversation between Moses (recipient of the Torah or first five books of the Bible from God and recipient of the Oral Torah, which was just how everyone lived,) about the transformation from Mosaic Judaism, centered on the Temple and lived tradition, to Rabbinic Judaism, centered on repeated reading and interpretation of the holy text, which contains in it all of the things that used to just be part of everyone’s traditions.

The result, of course, was the Talmud–or rather multiple Talmuds, though the Babylonian is the most commonly cited. The Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Tamud runs 37 volumes, and looks like this:

The inner section is a passage from the original Talmud. The inner margin is Rashi (a famous rabbi)’s commentary, the outer margin is additional commentary from other famous rabbis, and around the edges you can see marginalia from even more rabbis.

Like an onion, it is layer upon layer upon layer.

But what authority do the rabbis have to make pronouncements about the law?

The Talmud recounts an amusing argument about whether an oven could be purified:

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits.

The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction.

They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall.

Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute?

The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it.

A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context?

Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion.

The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration?

Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

So say the rabbis!

(you might be thinking, “Didn’t Elijah live a long time before the rabbis?” But since Elijah was taken up in whirlwind he never died, and thus may still be encountered.)

The importance of this little bit of Talmudism–in my opinion–is it lets the rabbis modify practice to avoid parts of the Bible that people don’t like anymore, like stoning adulterers. Sure, they do so by legalistically telling God to buzz off, they’re interpreting the law now, but hey, “Israel” means “wrestled with God“:

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. … Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” …

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32: 24-28)

Arguing with God. It’s a Jew thing.

The downside to all of this is that the Talmud is SUPER LONG and gets bogged down in boring legal debates about EVERYTHING.

Every so often, a group of Jews decides that all of this Talmud stuff is really too much and tries to sweep it away, starting fresh with just the Laws of Moses. Karaite Jews, for example, reject the Talmud, claiming instead to derive all of their laws directly from the Bible. They have therefore written several hundred books of their own interpreting Biblical law.

Hasidic Judaism was founded by the Baal Shem Tov, a rabbi who (according to his followers) emphasized the importance of having a “spiritual connection” to God (which even poor Jews could do) over legalistic arguing about texts, (which a rich atheist could do but not a poor man.) Today, Hasidic Jews are prominent among the Orthodox Jews who actually care about extensive, strict interpretation and implementation of Jewish law.

It’s not that reform is worthless–it’s just that the Bible doesn’t contain enough details to use as a complete legal code to govern the lives of people who no longer live in the organic, traditional community that originally produced it. When people lived in that community, they didn’t need explicit instructions about how to build a sukkah or honor the Sabbath day, because their parents taught them how. Illiterate shepherds didn’t need a long book of legal opinions to tell them how to treat their guests or what to do with a lost wallet–they already learned those lessons from their community.

It’s only with the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Judea that there comes a need for a written legal code explaining how, exactly, everything in the culture is supposed to be done.

Okay, but what does all of this have to do with the Constitution?

As legal documents go, the Constitution is pretty short. Since page size can vary, we’ll look at words: including all of the amendments and signatures, the Constitution is 7,591 words long.

The Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare,) clocks in at a whopping 363,086 words, of which 234,812 actually have to do with the law; the rest are headers, tables of contents, and the like. (For comparison, The Fellowship of the Ring only has 177,227 words.)

Interestingly, the US Constitution is both the oldest and shortest constitution of any major government in the world. This is not a coincidence. By contrast, the Indian Constitution, passed in 1949, is 145,000 words long–the longest in the world, but still shorter than the ACA.

People often blame the increasing complexity of US law on Talmudic scholars, but I think we’re actually looking at a case of convergent evolution–the process by which two different, not closely related species develop similar traits in response to similar environments or selective pressures. Aardvarks and echidnas, for example, are not closely related–aardvarks are placental mammals while echidnas lay eggs–but both creatures eat ants, and so have evolved similar looking noses. (Echidnas also look a lot like hedgehogs.)

US law has become more complex for the same reasons Jewish law did: because we no longer live in organic communities where tradition serves as a major guide to proper behavior, for both social and technical reasons. Groups of people whose ancestors were separated by thousands of miles of ocean or desert now interact on a daily basis; new technologies our ancestors could have never imagined are now commonplace. Even homeless people can go to the library, enjoy the air conditioning, log onto a computer, and post something on Facebook that can be read, in turn, by a smartphone-toting Afghan shepherd on the other side of the world.

The result is a confused morass. Groups of people who don’t know how to talk to each other have degenerated into toxic “call-out culture” and draconian speech codes. (Need I remind you that some poor sod just lost his job at Google for expressing views backed by mountains of scientific evidence, just because it offended a bunch of SJWs?) Campus speech codes (which infringe on First Amendment rights) are now so draconian that people are discussing ways to use a different set of laws–the Americans with Disabilities Act–to challenge them.

Even the entry of large numbers of women into colleges and the paid workforce (as opposed to unpaid labor women formerly carried out in homes and farms) has simultaneously removed them from the protective company of male relatives while bringing them into constant contact with male strangers. This has forced a massive shift both in social norms and an increase in legal protections afforded to women, whom the state now protects from harassment, “hostile work environments,” rape, assault, discrimination, etc.

Without tradition to guide us, we try to extrapolate from some common, agreed upon principles–such as those codified in the Constitution. But the Constitution is short; it doesn’t even remotely cover all of the cases we are now trying to use it to justify. What would the founding fathers say about machine guns, nuclear missiles, or international copyright law? The responsibilities of universities toward people with medical disabilities? Medications that induce abortions or unionized factory workers?

The Constitution allows Congress to grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal–that is, to officially commission pirates as privateers, a la Sir Francis Drake, private citizens allowed to attack the boats of (certain) foreign nations. But Letters of Marque and Reprisal haven’t actually been granted since 1815, and the practice has been out of favor among European governments since 1856. Like stoning, privateering just isn’t done anymore, even though it is technically still right there in the Constitution.

By contrast, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution says that the states have to issue gay marriage licenses. Whether you agree with gay marriage or not, this is some Rabbi Yehoshua, “It is not in heaven,” level reasoning. I’m pretty sure if you raised the Founding Fathers or the authors of the 14th Amendment from the dead and ask their ghosts whether the Constitution mandates gay marriage, they’d look at you like you’d just grown a second head and then call you crazy. Gay sex wasn’t just illegal in every state, it was punishable by execution in several and Thomas Jefferson himself wrote a bill for the state of Virginia which penalized it via castration.

But “living constitution” and all that. A majority of modern Americans think gay marriage should be legal and don’t want to execute or dismember homosexuals, so society finds a way.

It’d be more honest to say, “Hey, we don’t really care what people thought about gay marriage 200+ years ago; we’re going to make a new law that suits our modern interests,” but since the legitimacy of the whole legal edifice is built on authority derived from the Constitution, people feel they must find some way to discover legal novelties in the text.

Like a man trying to fix a broken fence by piling up more wood on it, so American law has become an enormous, burdensome pile of regulation after regulation. Where traditions can be flexible–changing depending on human judgment or in response to new conditions–laws, by nature, are inflexible. Changing them requires passing more laws.

The Talmud may be long, but at least I can eat a bacon cheeseburger on leavened bread on a Saturday during Passover with no fear of going to jail. Even Israelis aren’t significantly restricted by Talmudic law unless they want to be.

By contrast, I can be put in prison for violating the endlessly complex US law. I could spend the next ten pages recounting stories of people fined or imprisoned for absurd and trivial things–bakers fined out of business for declining to bake a gay wedding cake, children’s lemonade stands shut down for lack of proper permits, teenagers imprisoned and branded “sex offenders” for life for having consensual sex with each other. Then there’s the corporate side: 42% of multi-million dollar patent litigation suits that actually go to court (instead of the parties just settling) result in the court declaring that the patent involved should have never been granted in the first place! Corporate law is so complex and lawsuits so easy to bring that it now functions primarily as a way for corporations to try to drive their competitors out of business. Lawsuits are no longer a sign that a company has acted badly or unethically, but merely a “cost of doing business.”

How many businesses never get started because the costs of regulation compliance are too high? How many people never get jobs as a result? How many hours of our lives are sucked away while we fill out tax forms or muddle through insurance paperwork?

Eventually we have to stop piling up wood and start tearing out rotten posts.

 

PS: For more information on the development of Rabbinic Judaism, I recommend Visotzky’s Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it.

Notes on the Muslim Brotherhood

(I’m pretty much starting from scratch)

Sayyid Qutb lived from 1906 – 1966. He was an Egyptian writer, thinker, and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966 for plotting to assassinate the Egyptian president, Nasser.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded back in 1928 by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. Its goal is to instill the Quran and the Sunnah as the “sole reference point for … ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state”;[13] mottos include “Believers are but Brothers”, “Islam is the Solution”, and “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish”.[14][15]

As of 2015, the MB was considered a terrorist organization by Bahrain,[7][8] Egypt, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.[9][10][11][12]

The MB’s philosophy is pan-Islamist and it wields power in several countries:

323/354 seats in the Sudanese National Assembly,
74/132 seats in the Palestian Legislature,
69/217 seats in the Tunisian assembly,
39/249 seats in the Afghan House,
46/301 seats in Yemen,
16/146 seats in Mauritania,
40/560 seats in Indonesia
2/40 seats in Bahrain
and 4/325 and 1/128 in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively

In 2012, the MB sponsored the elected political party in Egypt (following the January Revolution in 2011,) but has had some trouble in Egypt since then.

The MB also does charity work, runs hospitals, etc., and is clearly using democratic means to to assemble power.

According to Wikipedia:

As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood has become traditionalist and conservative, “being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation”.[37] Al-Banna believed the Quran and Sunnah constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by its founder al-Banna was to drive out British colonial and other Western influences, reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny—an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia.[38] The Brotherhood preaches that Islam will bring social justice, the eradication of poverty, corruption and sinful behavior, and political freedom (to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam).

Back to Qutb:

In the early 1940s, he encountered the work of Nobel Prize-winner FrencheugenicistAlexis Carrel, who would have a seminal and lasting influence on his criticism of Western civilization, as “instead of liberating man, as the post-Enlightenment narrative claimed, he believed that Western modernity enmeshed people in spiritually numbing networks of control and discipline, and that rather than build caring communities, it cultivated attitudes of selfish individualism. Qutb regarded Carrel as a rare sort of Western thinker, one who understood that his civilization “depreciated humanity” by honouring the “machine” over the “spirit and soul” (al-nafs wa al-ruh). He saw Carrel’s critique, coming as it did from within the enemy camp, as providing his discourse with an added measure of legitimacy.”[24]

From 1948 to 1950, he went to the United States on a scholarship to study its educational system, spending several months at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, Colorado. …

Over two years, he worked and studied at Wilson Teachers’ College in Washington, D.C. (one of the precursors to today’s University of the District of Columbia), Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, and Stanford University.[30] He visited the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on his journey home. …

On his return to Egypt, Qutb published “The America that I Have Seen”, where he became explicitly critical of things he had observed in the United States, eventually encapsulating the West more generally: its materialism, individual freedoms, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, “poor” haircuts,[5] superficiality in conversations and friendships,[32] restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, lack of artistic feeling,[32] “animal-like” mixing of the sexes (which “went on even in churches”),[33] and strong support for the new Israeli state.[34] Hisham Sabrin, noted that:

“As a brown person in Greeley, Colorado in the late 1940’s studying English he came across much prejudice. He was appalled by what he perceived as loose sexual openness of American men and women (a far cry from his home of Musha, Asyut). This American experience was for him a fine-tuning of his Islamic identity.”…

Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were primitive and “shocking”, a people who were “numb to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether”. His experience in the U.S. is believed to have formed in part the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards Islamism upon returning to Egypt.

The man has a point. American art has a lot of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol schtick.

In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy–which was pro-western–was overthrown by nationalists (?) like Nasser. At first Nasser and Qutb worked together, but there was something of a power struggle and Qutb didn’t approve of Nasser organizing the new Egypt along essentially secular lines instead of Islamic ideology, at which point Qutb tried to have Nasser assassinated and Nasser had Qutb arrested, tortured, and eventually hung.

Aside from the fact that Qutb is Egyptian and Muslim, he and the alt-right have a fair amount in common. (Read his Wikipedia Page if you don’t see what I mean.) The basic critique that the West is immoral, degenerate, has bad art, bad manners, and that capitalism has created a “spiritually numbing” network of control (your boss, office dress codes, the HOA, paperwork), and a return to spirituality (not rejecting science, but enhancing it,) can fix these things.

Unfortunately, the ideology has some bad side effects. His brother, Muhammad Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia after his release from Egyptian prison and became a professor of Islamic Studies,[96][97] where he promoted Sayyid Qutb’s work. One of Muhammad Qutb’s students/followers was Ayman Zawahiri, who become a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad[98] and mentor of Osama bin Laden.

Soraya, empress of Iran, (1953) has no interest in Islamic veiling rules

My impression–Muslim monarchs tend to be secular modernists. They see the tech other countries have (especially bombs) and want it. They see the GDPs other countries have, and want that, too. They’re not that interested in religion (which would limit their behavior) and not that interested in nationalism (as they tend to rule over a variety of different “nations.”) Many monarchs are (or were) quite friendly to the West. The King of Jordan and Shah of Iran come immediately to mind.

(I once met the Director of the CIA. He had a photograph of the King of Jordan in his office. Motioning to the photo, he told me the King was one of America’s friends.)

But modernization isn’t easy. People who have hundreds or thousands of years’ experience living a particular lifestyle are suddenly told to go live a different lifestyle, and aren’t sure how to react. The traditional lifestyle gave people meaning, but the modern lifestyle gives people TV and low infant mortality.

That’s the situation we’re all facing, really.

So what’s a society to do? Sometimes they keep their kings. Sometimes they overthrow them. Then what? You can go nationalist–like Nasser. Communist–like South Yemen. (Though I’m not sure Yemen had a king.) Or Islamic, like Iran. (As far as I can tell, the Iranian revolution had a significant communist element, but the Islamic won out.) The Iranian revolution is in no danger of spreading, though, because the Iranians practice a variety of Islam that’s a rare minority everywhere else in the world.

I hear the Saudis and certain other monarchs have stayed in power so far by using their oil money to keep everyone comfortable (staving off the stresses of modernization) and enforcing Islamic law (keeping the social system familiar.) We’ll see how long this lasts.

So one of the oddities of the Middle East is that while other parts of the world have become more liberal, it appears to have become less. You can find many Before-and-After pictures of places like Iran, where women used to mingle with men, unveiled, in Western-style dress. (In fact, I think the veil was illegal in Iran in the 50s.) War-torn Afghanistan is an even sadder case.

Mohammad Zahir Shah was king of Afghanistan from 1933 through 1973. According to Wikipedia:

“After the end of the Second World War, Zahir Shah recognised the need for the modernisation of Afghanistan and recruited a number of foreign advisers to assist with the process.[12] During this period Afghanistan’s first modern university was founded.[12]… despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced during 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.[12]

Mohammad Zahir Shah and his wife, Queen Humaira Begum, visiting JFK at the White House, 1963
credit “Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

While he was in Italy (undergoing eye surgery and treatment for lumbago,) his cousin executed a coup and instituted a republican government. As we all know, Afghanistan has gone nowhere but up since then.

Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the US drove out the Taliban, where he received the title “Father of the Nation” but did not resume duties as monarch. He died in 2007.

His eldest daughter (Princess of Afghanistan?) is Bilqis Begum–Bilqis is the Queen of Sheba’s Islamic name–but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. The heir apparent is Ahmad Shah Khan, if you’re looking for someone to crown.

Back to the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the big differences between elites and commoners is that commoners tend to be far more conservatives than elites. Elites think a world in which they can jet off to Italy for medical treatment sounds awesome, while commoners think this is going to put the local village medic out of a job. Or as the world learned last November, America’s upper and lower classes have very different ideas about borders, globalization, and who should be president.

Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood seems perfectly happy to use democratic means to come to power where it can.

(The MB apparently does a lot of charity work, which is part of why it is popular.)

The relationship between the MB an Saudi Arabia is interesting. After Egypt cracked down on the MB, thousands of members went to Saudi Arabia. SA needed teachers, and many of the MB were teachers, so it seemed mutually beneficial. The MB thus took over the Saudi educational system, and probably large chunks of their bureaucracy.

Relations soured between SA and the MB due to SA’s decision to let the US base troops there for its war against Iraq, and due to the MB’s involvement in the Arab Spring and active role in Egypt’s democracy–Saudi monarchs aren’t too keen on democracy. In 2014, SA declared the MB a “terrorist organization.”

Lots of people say the MB is a terrorist org, but I’m not sure how that distinguishes them from a whole bunch of other groups in the Middle East. I can’t tell what links the MB has (if any) to ISIS. (While both groups have similar-sounding goals, it’s entirely possible for two different groups to both want to establish an Islamic Caliphate.)

The MB reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on returning to the Bible as the sole sources of religious wisdom, the establishment of Puritan theocracies, and a couple hundred years of Catholic/Protestant warfare. I blame the Protestant Revolution on the spread of the printing press in Europe, without which the whole idea of reading the Bible for yourself would have been nonsense. I wager something similar happened recently in the Middle East, with cheap copies of the Quran and other religious (and political) texts becoming widely available.

I’ll have to read up on the spread of (cheap) printing in the Islamic world, but a quick search turns up Ami Ayalon’s The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership:

so that looks like a yes.

Democracy is America’s Religion

So I was thinking the other day–Why are Westerners (particularly Americans) so introverted about their religious beliefs? I have on occasion posted “Convert Me” open threads in which I invite people to give me their best arguments for following their religion, and gotten very few enthusiastic responses. Even the Jehovah’s Witness who visited my thread only made a half-effort just to humor me, not because she actually wanted to convert me.

(I can already hear you asking: Why would I post such a thread? To which I reply, Why not? I enjoy discussing religion. If the religious are correct and I am convinced to join them, then I gain something good. If I am not convinced, then I lose nothing, for I am already an atheist. I have no reason to fear discussion with a theist.)

Mormon missionaries occasionally ring my bell. I always make an effort to be polite and listen, and even they really just want to hand me a pamphlet and hurry on to the next house.

The only people who have ever really, seriously tried to convert me are Muslims (and I must note that they did so in an entirely friendly manner.) Where the Christians ask, “Why would you want us to convert you?” and the Mormons say, “Well, I think there are lots of religions because God gave each group of people their own religion best suited to themselves,” (actual quote from a Mormon missionary, I am serious) the Muslims will happily pester you with a whole slew of websites about why Islam is correct, how the Qu’ran is full of good science, how lovely the Qu’ranic poetry is, etc.

(Of course, you’re not going to get a Jew to try to convert you unless you tell him your mother was a Jew and you really wan to return to your Jewish roots.)

Frankly, I think Americans find the whole idea of being devoutly religious–much less discussing religion with the non-devout–vaguely embarrassing. Sure, maybe that elderly lady down the block who hands out Chick Tracts instead of Halloween candy would like to talk about Jesus with you, but can’t the rest of us please just talk about football?

This blog was practically kicked off with the observation that devout Christianity is low class, while a kind of vague, multi-faith “spirituality” is the religion–if you must have one–of the upper class. A quick look at some demographic data makes the picture:

From Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/income-distribution-within-us-religious-groups/
From Pew Research Center

Not a whole lot of surprises, though I will note that it does matter how you break down the groups, and I think I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere for Muslim-Americans.

Of course the flipside of Muslims being really keen on spreading their religion is that sometimes things go quite badly and violently.

And if you’re an American (or French, or Swedish, or German, or whatever,) this feels awfully unfair, because after all, when have we ever blown anything up in Mecca in the name of Jesus?

But then I got to thinking: obviously we have bombed Muslim countries. We dropped quite a few on Iraq–and for what? For Freedom? For Democracy?

We didn’t want to convert Iraq to Christianity (not the vast majority of us, anyway.) We wanted to convert Iraq to democracy.

You know, we destroyed a perfectly innocent country–killed thousands of people–and we barely feel a pang of remorse. Why? Because we did it to help them? We though they’d be happier if they just lived in a democracy, just like your office mate with the Chick Tracts thinks you’ll be happier if you just accept Jesus as your savior and Muslims think you’ll be happier if you become a Muslim.

Christianity and Islam (or certain branches of Islam) are not at war. They can’t be at war because Christianity isn’t fighting. Not in the West, anyway. Maybe in the Philippines or South America or somewhere, but certainly not in the West.

Now here I should stop to note that several Islamic countries are democracies, more or less, and many Muslims also believe in Democracy. So this is a conflict within Islam as well as without. But this post isn’t about Islam–I am not an Islamic expert and don’t feel comfortable writing about Islamic issues.

However, this is a post about the West, and how Democracy has become our chief religion, taking the place Christianity once occupied.

(I am sure my readers are split between “Well that is nothing new; Moldbug said that ages ago,” and “What a stupid idea. Democracy can’t be a religion.”)

Anthropology Friday: Emile Durkheim’s The Origin and Development of Religion:

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 – November 15, 1917), Karl Marx, and Max Weber are the fathers of modern social science and sociology, so I decided to read Durkheim’s essay, The Origin and Development of Religion.
According to Wikipedia,

Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity; an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. His first major sociological work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893). … Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, pioneered modern social research and served to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. …

Durkheim noted there are several possible pathologies that could lead to a breakdown of social integration and disintegration of the society: the two most important ones are anomie and forced division of labour; lesser ones include the lack of coordination and suicide.[61] By anomie Durkheim means a state when too rapid population growth reduces the amount of interaction between various groups, which in turn leads a breakdown of understanding (norms, values, and so on).[62] By forced division of labour Durkheim means a situation where power holders, driven by their desire for profit (greed), results in people doing the work they are unsuited for.[63] Such people are unhappy, and their desire to change the system can destabilize the society.[63] …

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim’s first purpose was to identify the social origin and function of religion as he felt that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity.[44]

Durkheim saw religion as the most fundamental social institution of humankind, and one that gave rise to other social forms.[60][76] It was the religion that gave humanity the strongest sense of collective consciousness.[81]

His work on Suicide is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page:

Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, [in Germany] arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. …Durkheim concluded that:

  • Suicide rates are higher in men than women (although married women who remained childless for a number of years ended up with a high suicide rate).
  • Suicide rates are higher for those who are single than those who are in a sexual relationship.
  • Suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children.
  • Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics and Jews.
  • Suicide rates are higher among soldiers than civilians.
  • Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of war (the suicide rate in France fell after the coup d’etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, for example. War also reduced the suicide rate: after war broke out in 1866 between Austria and Italy, the suicide rate fell by 14% in both countries.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in Scandinavian countries.
  • The higher the education level, the more likely it was that an individual would choose suicide. However, Durkheim established that there is more correlation between an individual’s religion and suicide rate than an individual’s education level.

Well, that is enough introduction. Let’s get on to the essay. (As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for Durkheim’s work.) I have excerpted what strikes me as the core of Durkheim’s argument:

“The really religious beliefs are always common to a determined group, which make profession of adhering to them and of practicing the rites connected with them. They are not merely received individually by all the members of this groups; they are something belonging to the group, and they make its unity. The individuals which compose it feel themselves united to each other by the simple fact that they have a common faith. A society whose members are united by the fact that they think the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relation with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practice, is what is called a “Church.””

EvX: Note that Durkheim is not limiting his use of “Church” to Christian denominations.

“In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church. Sometimes the Church is strictly national, sometimes it passes frontiers; sometimes it embraces an entire people (Rome, Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes it embrace only part of them (the Christian societies since the advent of Protestantism), sometimes it is directed by a corps of priests, sometimes it is almost completely devoid of any official directing body. But wherever we observe the religious life, we find that it has a definite group as its foundation. …

“It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, the belief in magic is always more or less general; it is very frequently diffused in large masses of the population, and there are even peoples where it has as many adherents as the real religion. But it does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, as between these individuals themselves, there are no lasting bods which make them members of the same moral community, comparable to that formed by the believers int he same god or the observers of the same cult. The magician has a clientele and not a Church, and it is very possible that his clients have no relations between each other, or even do not know each other; even the relations which they have with him are generally accidental and transient, they are just like those of a sick man with his physician. …

“Thus we arrive at the following definition: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. … by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it make it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.”

EvX: I find it interesting that all of the “social sciences”–anthropology, sociology, political economy, psychology, and possibly economics–became prominent at about the same time (compared to, say, History, which got its start with Herodotus in the 5th century BC.) As we’ve been discussing, the late 1800s was a time of great social turmoil due to the economic dislocations and changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and mass movement of millions of peasants from their traditional homes in the countryside to ghettos and tenements of the cities.

Communism–most notably in its Marxist form–was one reaction to this dislocation.

Durkheim, while a socialist, was not an internationalist, and he seems to disagree pretty strongly with Karl “religion is the opiate of the masses” Marx on the importance of religion to society. To Durkheim, religion (as opposed to magic) was absolutely foundational to a functioning society, and believed that despite the increasing atheism of his age, nothing functionally similar to religion existed.

But–from an anthropological perspective–is Durkheim correct? Do the members of a “Church”–and note here the implication that for people to have this collective identity, there must be some homogenous thing that they all believe, not some hodgepodge of “individual interpretation–see themselves as a collective group, and do the believers in “magic,” inversely, fail to see themselves as similarly collective?

My personal experience with NeoPagans and the like suggests that they do see themselves as a collective thing, similar to other religions. So do, from what I have read, practitioners of Voodoo and perhaps other related animist religions. But these are modern (even “neo”!) beliefs, so perhaps these belief systems have been influenced by their practitioners’ familiarity with other “Churches.”

Wikipedia also notes:

Durkheim’s work on religion was criticized on both empirical and theoretical grounds by specialists in the field. The most important critique came from Durkheim’s contemporary, Arnold van Gennep, an expert on religion and ritual, and also on Australian belief systems. Van Gennep argued that Durkheim’s views of primitive peoples and simple societies were “entirely erroneous”. Van Gennep further argued that Durkheim demonstrated a lack of critical stance towards his sources, collected by traders and priests, naively accepting their veracity, and that Durkheim interpreted freely from dubious data. At the conceptual level, van Gennep pointed out Durkheim’s tendency to press ethnography into a prefabricated theoretical scheme.[84]

But perhaps we should let Durkheim defend his points.

Durkheim then runs through in the essay a couple of the more popular (atheistic) theories of his day on the origins of religion, such as “primitive man was amazed by nature and assumed therefore that natural phenomena must be the work of divine creatures,” and dismisses them on the grounds that they are inadequate to explain the fervency of people’s religious devotion. The fact that rain falls from the sky may be amazing, but even primitive man was not particularly wowed by this fairly regular and ultimately mundane occurrence.

(Personally, while I admire Durkheim’s quest for something deeper than “wow,” I think it might be adequate, at least when I look at the stars on a truly dark night. [Actually, I find being outside in true darkness with no lights and no other people pretty terrifying.])

Durkheim turns to Aboriginal “totemism,” deeming it the most “elementary religion,” from which animism and naturistic religions are derived:

“Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find. … Not only is their civilization the most rudimentary–the house and even the hut are still unknown–but also their organization is the most primitive and simple which is actually known; it is that which we have elsewhere called organization on basis of clans. …

“At the basis of nearly all the Australian tribes we find a group which holds a preponderating place in the collective life: this is the clan. … the individuals who compose it consider themselves united by a band of kinship, but one which is of a very special nature. … This relationship does not come from the fact that they have definite blood connections with one another; they are relatives from the mere fact that they have the same name. … When we say that they regard themselves as a single family, we do so because they recognize duties toward each other which are identical with those which have always been incumbent upon kindred: such duties as aid, vengeance, mourning, the obligations not to marry  among themselves, etc.

“The species of things which serves to designate the clan collectively is its totem. The totem of the clan is also that of each of its members.”

So Durkheim goes on about totems for a while. Whether or not he is accurate I must leave to the experts–here is one take:

chyedaqwsaaiadw

I note that as we discussed in Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Folklore, William Ramsay Smith’s book  Aborigine Myths and Legends, published 1930 (that is, after Durkheim,) also discusses totems:

This totemism plays an important part in the social life of the aboriginals. If, for example, a person has committed an offense, or has broken tribal law, he becomes a fugitive. He may travel to some distant part of the country. … He creeps along stealthily, listening intently for any sound, peering through the dense foliage in every bay or cove to see whether his path is clear, noticing every footprint on the way, reading every mark on the tree-trunks and on the surface of rocks, and scanning every mark to see whether there is hope of protection and friendship. To be seen would mean death to him. By and by the keen eye of the fugitive catches sight of the figure of his mother’s totem. Casting aside all fear, he walks boldly along the beaten track that leads to the camp, and presents himself to the chief. He produces a string of kangaroo teeth, made in bead fashion, and a bunch of emu feathers… . This is a sign that he belongs to the Kangaroo totem tribe, and that his mother belongs to the Emu totem tribe. He is received into either of these tribes, and becomes one with them, and participates in all their privileges.

Ramsay recounts a number of folktales in which tribal membership (symbolized by the tribal totem) is important, including a number of tricksters tales in which a character cheats members of another tribe by claiming to be a member of their tribe via some ancient union between their peoples.

Totemism of some form was likely therefore important to at least some of the Aborigines. The totem itself operates, in my opinion a kind of flag (or mascot.) The totem represents the tribe and is carved on things to show that they belong to the tribe or to mark the tribe’s territory, just as a flag represents a country and marks the country’s territory. Likewise, just as tribes award their totem animals a kind of “sacred” status that makes eating (or breaking objects inscribed with their image) them taboo, so do most Americans abstain from eating bald eagles or destroying American flags (indeed, some people think that burning the American flag should be illegal!)

I must caution against overuse of the word “sacred.” For while we might not approve of hunting bald eagles for sport, we wouldn’t typically call bald eagles “sacred” in the religious sense.

Anyway, back to Durkheim:

“Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what?

“… it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. … if it is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one? … The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and presented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem. …

“In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. … the worshiper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence. … It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation, and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. …

“Since religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and since this can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body of the god. …

“We are now able to explain the origin of the ambiguity of religious forces as they appear in history… They are moral powers because they are made up entirely of the impressions this moral being, the group, arouses in those other moral beings, its individual members; they do not translate the manner in which physical thing affect our senses, but the way in which the collective consciousness acts upon individual consciousnesses. Their authority is only one from of the moral ascendancy of society over its members. … It is this double nature which has enabled religion to be like the womb from which come all the leading germs of human civilization.”

Evx: So, to summarize: the collective moral force of the community gives rise to the idea of the sacred, which creates religion, which in turn creates society, civilization, and all of the good things.

Which is circular, but so is gene-culture-co-evolution, so I suppose I can’t fault him on that count. The obvious critique here comes from religion: believers would likely object that their religion hails from an actual, real encounter between men and God(s). This explanation, though, runs into the difficulty of explaining all religions besides one’s own. Durkheim is attempting to create an explanation that applies equally to all religions, without appealing to any actual divine agents.

Leaving aside the reality of divinity, does Durkheim’s theory ring true? I am not convinced that he understands totemism, nor am I wholly convinced on the matter of magic, either. However, I his basic theory about the importance of religion underlying society, and possibly the importance of society underlying religion, seems on the correct track. Some form of common belief in the unity of the people of a society seems important to an actual society.

Let us suppose, for a moment, a society in which there are many ethnic groups, but they all believe in the same religion. This seems like a reasonably workable society where people can see themselves as having enough in common to work together. For example, Israel is a nation composed of many different ethnic groups which, nonetheless, all believe in Judaism and share an identity of themselves as “Jewish.” This works for them.

Let us also suppose a society with one ethnic group, but many religions. Since people prefer to marry within their own religion, creating the conditions for ethnic differentiation, we must suppose that the religions involved are sufficiently similar that people are still willing to inter-marry. This also seems like a reasonably workable society.

According to Pew, Taiwan and Vietnam are among the world’s most religiously diverse countries, but they are (as far as I know) ethnically quite homogenous. I confess that I don’t know much about civic life in Taiwan or Vietnam, but they seem to be holding together.

But suppose a third society, in which people belong to many different ethnic and religious groups: this seems in danger of becoming several different societies living in close proximity to each other.

The US is an interesting mix of forms. The initial founding stock consisted largely of Christians from northwest Europe and animists from Sub-Saharan Africa who quickly converted to Christianity. Most immigrants to the US have been Caucasian and/or Christian of some variety, eg, Mexicans, Quakers, Italians, Ashkenazim, Irish, Poles, and Puritans.

By contrast, when Malcolm X decided to convert to Islam, this was–at least symbolically–a way of breaking from the religious continuity of American Christianity. As a black separatist, he was no longer linked to white American society.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal for a country to have small groups of disparate peoples within their borders. A few Buddhists or followers of traditional Native American religions aren’t hurting me. But large groups of people who see themselves as having nothing in common with each other seem problematic to the large-scale functioning of civic life in a nation, especially a democracy. (Might be just fine in an empire.)

 

 

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyful Christmukkah?

merry_menorah(Well, Christmas and Chanukkah actually are falling on the same day this year, so those of you who like mashing up your holidays have the perfect opportunity.)

Having searched and failed to find a good map of the expansion of Christianity (most maps focus on only Christianity’s westward expansion, completely neglecting the fact that early Christianity was tri-continental,) I wanted to gift you with one. But Photoshop is not my friend today, so this may take a while.

T-O style Medieval map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, showing Christ's dominance in the "four corners" of the world.
T-O style Medieval map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, showing Christ’s triumph in the “four corners” of the world.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to writeup my research notes on the spread of Christianity:

One of the things people tend to forget (or else never realize,) is that Christianity was once common throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. These regions are now heavily Muslim, but of course Islam didn’t exist prior to the early 600s. So for about 500 years–half a millennium–Christianity was the hot new monotheism in town.

(Indeed, while we moderns tend to think of “religions” as well-defined, distinct belief systems, I have no reason to think that 7th century Middle Eastern peasants saw it that way. Islam built and expanded upon existing Jewish and Christian beliefs/rituals/texts, and could be reasonably thought, like Mormonism, as an offshoot of them. But for better or worse, Islam has left the Christian family tree, and so will not be considered here.)

spread-of-christianity33 or so AD: Crucifixion, resurrection

Christianity began, of course, among Jewish people of Judah–modern Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It spread easily among Semitic-speaking peoples, across major trade routes and through local empires, such as Assyria, Rome, and Phoenicia. It spread quickly to Iraq, Turkey, Persia, Malta, Greece, Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, the Caucasus, Balkans, India, North Africa, Italy, Ethiopia, Sudan, Arabia, etc.

christianity_html_29c0e5dcWithin the 1st century:

In 44 AD, legend has it that St. James was preaching in Spain.

45 AD, mission of Barnabas and Paul to Cyprus and modern Turkey

47 AD, The Church of the East, aka the Nestorian Church, is created by Saint Thomas. It spreads throughout the Sasanian (aka Iranian) empire, eventually reaching Mongolia. Genghis Khan’s own family were Nestorian Christians.

50-53 AD, Paul’s mission to Greece, Macedonia, etc.

In 52 AD, legend states that St. Thomas reached India.

59, Paul in Malta

60 Paul in Rome

72 Martyrdom of St. Thomas in Mylapore, India

christianity_html_2dc762f1By the end of the first century, we have the beginnings of the Western (Roman) church; the Orthodox Church (I think); the Syrian church with its offshoot the Nestorians, who spread through the Middle East and central Asia; the Coptic church in Egypt; the Ethiopian church; and the St. Thomas Christians in India. Some notes:

Coptic history is part of history of Egypt that begins with the introduction of Christianity in Egypt in the 1st century AD during the Roman period, and covers the history of the Copts to the present day.

The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the Church of Alexandria was founded by Saint Mark [2] during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.

Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.

The Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in 639. Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a mainly Christian land, although the gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries changed Egypt from a mainly Christian to a mainly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century.[9]

Ethiopia and Armenia apparently compete for the title of “first nation to accept Christianity.” Wikipedia notes:

Pinpointing a date as to when Christianity emerged in Ethiopia is uncertain. The earliest and best known reference to the introduction of Christianity is in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-38[5]) when Philip the Evangelist converted an Ethiopian court official in the 1st Century AD. … Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia long before Christianity arrived and the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible contains numerous Jewish Aramaic words. The Old Testament in Ethiopia may be a translation of the Hebrew with possible assistance from Jews. …

Although Christianity existed long before the rule of King Ezana the Great of the Kingdom of Axum, the religion took a strong foothold when it was declared a state religion in 330 AD. …

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, Ethiopia’s Christians became isolated from the rest of the Christian world. The head of the Ethiopian church has been appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks had certain rights in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Ethiopia was the only region of Africa to survive the expansion of Islam as a Christian state.[10]

Christianity may have reached India in 52 AD. Wikipedia states:

The Saint Thomas Christians or Thomas Christians, also called Syrian Christians or Nasrani, are a community of Christians from Kerala, India, who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century.[4][5]

According to tradition, St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, came to Muziris on the Kerala coast in AD 52[4] which is in the present day Pattanam, Kerala.[14] … The Cochin Jews are known to have existed in Kerala in the 1st century AD,[17][18][19] and it was possible for an Aramaic-speaking Jew such as St. Thomas from Galilee to make a trip to Kerala in the 1st century; however, there is no contemporary evidence for this incident. The earliest known source connecting the apostle to India is the Acts of Thomas, likely written in the early 3rd century, perhaps in Edessa.[20][21][22]

An organised Christian presence in India dates to the arrival of East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of what would become the Church of the East, in around the 3rd century.[37]

Some contact and transmission of knowledge of the Saint Thomas Christians managed to reach the Christian West, even after the rise of the Islamic empires.[43] During the Crusades, distorted accounts of the Saint Thomas Christians and the Nestorian Church gave rise to the European legend of Prester John.[45]

1273px-syriac_christianity-svg-1Anyway, you’ve probably heard of the Copts and maybe the Ethiopians, but the Nestorians are really the big story.

The Church of the East… also known as the Nestorian Church,[note 1] is a Christian church within the Syriac tradition of Eastern Christianity. It was the Christian church of the Sasanian Empire, and quickly spread widely through Asia. …

Christians were already forming communities in Assyria (Athura) as early as the first century, when it was part of the Parthian Empire. By the third century, the area had been conquered by the Persian Sasanian Empire (becoming the province of Assuristan), and there were significant Christian communities in northern Mesopotamia, Elam, and Fars.[14]

By the end of the 5th century and the middle of the 6th, the area occupied by Nestorians included “all the countries to the east and those immediately to the west of the Euphrates”, including Persia, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Socotra, Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia), Media, Bactria, Hyrcania, and India; and possibly also to places called Calliana, Male, and Sielediva (Ceylon).[18] Beneath the Patriarch in the hierarchy were nine metropolitans, and clergy were recorded among the Huns, in Persarmenia, Media, and the island of Dioscoris in the Indian Ocean.[18] …

In the 13th and 14th centuries the church experienced a final period of expansion under the Mongol Empire, where influential Nestorian Christians sat in the Mongol court….

Several Mongol tribes had already been converted by Nestorian missionaries in the 7th century, and Christianity was therefore a major influence in the Mongol Empire.[31]Genghis Khan was a shamanist, but his sons took Christian wives from the powerful Kerait clan, as did their sons in turn. During the rule of Genghis’s grandson, the Great Khan Mongke, Nestorian Christianity was the primary religious influence in the Empire, and this also carried over to Mongol-conquered China, during the Yuan Dynasty. It was at this point, in the late 13th century, that the Church of the East reached its greatest geographical extent. But Mongol power was already waning, as the Empire dissolved into civil war, and it reached a turning point in 1295, when Ghazan, the Mongol ruler of the Ilkhanate, made a formal conversion to Islam when he took the throne. …

From its peak of geographical extent, the church experienced a rapid period of decline starting in the 14th century, due in large part to outside influences. The Mongol Empire dissolved into civil war, the Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols (1368) and ejected Christians and other foreign influences from China, and many Mongols in Central Asia converted to Islam. The Muslim Mongol leader Timur (1336–1405) nearly eradicated the remaining Christians in Persia; thereafter, Nestorian Christianity remained largely confined to Upper Mesopotamia and to the Malabar Coast of India.

644px-christianitybranches-svg

2nd Century:

177 AD: Persecution in Lyon, France

detailed-timeline-of-monotheism33rd Century:

Manichaeism is an interesting digression in this tale. It was a religious movement founded by the Iranian prophet Mani, who lived c. 216-276. Like Islam, Manichaeism argued that earlier religions (ie, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism) were incomplete. Wikipedia states:

Manichaeism was quickly successful and spread far through the AramaicSyriac speaking regions.[6] It thrived between the third and seventh centuries, and at its height was one of the most widespread religions in the world. Manichaean churches and scriptures existed as far east as China and as far west as the Roman Empire.[7] It was briefly the main rival to Christianity in the competition to replace classical paganism. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in southern China[8] contemporary to the decline in China of the Church of the East during the Ming Dynasty. While most of Manichaeism’s original writings have been lost, numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived. …

Mani began preaching at an early age and was possibly influenced by contemporary Babylonian-Aramaic movements such as Mandaeanism, and Aramaic translations of Jewish apocalyptic writings similar to those found at Qumran (such as the book of Enoch literature), and by the Syriac dualist-gnostic writer Bardaisan (who lived a generation before Mani). With the discovery of the Mani-Codex, it also became clear that he was raised in a Jewish-Christian baptism sect, the Elcesaites, and was influenced by their writings as well. …

Manichaeism spread with extraordinary speed through both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by a.d. 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. It was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades.

In 291, persecution arose in the Persian empire with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, and the slaughter of many Manichaeans. In 296, Diocletian decreed against the Manichaeans: “We order that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures”, resulting in martyrdom for many in Egypt and North Africa (see Diocletian Persecution). By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern Gaul. In 381 Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, in the year 387. This was shortly after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had issued a decree of death for all Manichaean monks in 382 and shortly before he declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire in 391. Due to the heavy persecution, the religion almost disappeared from western Europe in the 5th century and from the eastern portion of the empire in the 6th century.[27] According to his Confessions, after nine or ten years of adhering to the Manichaean faith as a member of the group of “hearers”, Augustine became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism …

Some modern scholars have suggested that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine’s ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.[29]

tumblr_n1bwsx4tkr1t0u74to1_12804th Century:

301 AD, Christianity becomes state religion of Armenia

319: State religion of Georgia

325: State religion of Aksumite Empire

330: State religion of Axum, (Ethiopia)

354 – 430 AD, life of St. Augustine of Hippo, modern day Algeria (Augustine was ethnically Berber, but spoke Latin and of course a member of the Roman empire.)

380: official religion of Rome

Later:

596 AD: Gregorian Mission to Britain

7th-9th centuries: Conversion of the Germanic tribes

(Ethiopia seems to be missing from this map)
(Ethiopia seems to be missing from this map)

In the 7th century the Nestorians reached China, but in 9th century, the Tang Emperor persecuted all foreign religions, including Buddhists, Manichaens, and Nestorians.

740 AD: Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism;

927: Conversion of Bulgaria to Christianity

965: Conversion of the Khazars to Islam

988: Conversion of the Kievan Rus (Russia) to Christianity

 

Well, I hope you have a lovely Christmas/ Channukkah / whatever you celebrate.

Cathedral Round-Up #16: Infiltration of the Church?

Disclaimer: I am an atheist, so I am in no position to tell Christians how to run their religion.

That said, it seems pretty obvious even to me that mainstream Christianity has launched itself off the deep end and bears little resemblance to “Christianity” as it has been practiced for most of its 2000 or so years.

The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian
The Pope is a really nice guy, from the Guardian

The thing we have now is Niceianity. Let me emphasize that “nice.” Most of the folks involved are, as far as I can tell, very kind-hearted people. Take Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. Oliveto lead Glide Memorial, which I am familiar with because they serve nearly a million free meals to the homeless every year. (SF has a lot of homeless people.) That’s really nice.

Thing is, I’m not convinced that God is “nice.” The God of the Old Testament routinely acts in ways that the average modern person would probably describe as “not nice,” like killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians or pretty much the entire Book of Job.

As a parent, I always have my kids’ best interests at heart, but I am often not “nice” from their perspective: I make them go to bed when they want to play; I make them do their homework when they want to play; I even make them go to the grocery store when they want to play, because I’m an evil person who wants to get food so I can cook dinner.

Parenting cannot be understood through a child’s understanding of “nice.”

And if there is such a thing as God, I don’t think it (he, whatever) can be understood via our particular current concept of “nice.” (Obviously I am not saying you should go out and be mean. Obey your notions of good behavior.)

One of the interesting things about Christianity is its history of schisms. For example, back in the late 1700s, the Shakers split off from the Quakers:

[Shakers] looked to women for leadership, believing that the second coming of Christ would be through a woman. In 1770, [Shaker leader] Ann Lee was revealed in “manifestation of Divine light” to be the second coming of Christ and was called Mother Ann.[6]

(More about the Shakers.)

Shakers, what with their communal lifestyle, female equality, female preachers, female incarnation of god, and near zero fertility obviously bear much in common with today’s feminists. The difference is that Shakers did not pretend to be Anglicans or Catholics or Methodists: they were just fine with being their own thing.

Let’s talk about infiltration.

Podesta email 6293, calling for a "Catholic Spring"
Podesta email 6293, calling for a “Catholic Spring”

According to Wikipedia:

Dr. Bella Visono Dodd (1904[1] – 29 April 1969[2]) was a member of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) in the 1930s and 1940s who later became a vocal anti-communist. After her defection from the Communist Party in 1949, she testified that one of her jobs, as a Communist agent, was to encourage young radicals to enter Roman Catholic Seminaries.[3] …

Dodd testified before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She said: “In the 1930s we put eleven hundred men into the priesthood in order to destroy the Church from within. The idea was for these men to be ordained, and then climb the ladder of influence and authority as Monsignors and Bishops”

Dodd told Alice von Hildebrand that:

“When she was an active party member, she had dealt with no fewer than four cardinals within the Vatican who were working for us, [i.e. the Communist Party]”(Christian Order magazine, “The Church in Crisis”, reprinted from The Latin Mass magazine).[7]

Dodd made a public affidavit which was witnessed by a number of people, including Paul and Johnine Leininger.

In her public affidavit, among other things, Dodd stated:
“In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, directives were sent from Moscow to all Communist Party organizations. In order to destroy the [Roman] Catholic Church from within, party members were to be planted in seminaries and within diocesan organizations… I, myself, put some 1,200 men in [Roman] Catholic seminaries”.

von Hildebrand confirmed that Dodd had publicly stated the same things to which she attested in her public affidavit.

(I don’t know anything about this lady. Maybe she was just a crazy person trying to get attention by crying “Communist ploooot!” But see also Operation Spectrum, Singapore.)

"The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers." (Swedes.)
“The Bishop of Stockholm has proposed a church in her diocese remove all signs of the cross and put down markings showing the direction to Mecca for the benefit of Muslim worshippers.” (Swedes.)

About a year and a half ago, I posted excerpts from an article about Stanford University’s new Dean of Religious life, Jane Shaw, who is notable for being both the first woman and the first gay person to hold the position:

“Q. At Grace Cathedral and at Oxford, you led programs far afield from what might be considered religious: Hosting forums with politicians, activists and authors; bringing in atheists and believers; and commissioning artists-in-residence to create plays and installations. What’s your guiding light?

A. I don’t think I am a very churchy person, if that makes sense. I have always been interested in how you engage people in discussing questions of ultimate meaning, really—values, ethics, spirituality, all that stuff. …

Q. What new directions will you bring to Stanford?

A. …It is certainly my desire to make sure that Memorial Church is a place for extremely lively intellectual engagement, a place where possibly difficult issues can be discussed, a place where ethical and spiritual issues can be discussed. I am hoping we’ll have different sorts of people preaching here as guest preachers, not just clergy.”

That same issue of Stanford Magazine had another article focused on insulting people who believe in Hell. As I concluded back then:

According to Stanford, a gay woman who isn’t very “churchy” but likes discussing ethics is one of the country’s best religious leaders, and the 60% of Americans who believe in Hell are literally insane and make trouble for everyone else. …

Now, let’s try to imagine a contemporary article from any sort of respectable college or university… that conveys the inverse: respect for people who believe in hell; disrespect for gays, women, and people whose faith isn’t based on Biblical inerrancy.

Can you? Maybe Harvard? Yale? Oberlin? CalTech? Reed? Fine, how about BYU? No, probably not even them.

I can’t imagine it. A hundred years ago, maybe. Today, no. Such notions are completely incompatible with the beliefs of modern, upper-class people.

I know many perfectly decent folks who believe in hell, and think they should be respected, but “be decent to people who hold denigrated religious beliefs” is not actually my point. My point is that the American upper class, academia, and the people with a great deal of power and influence over the beliefs of others clearly agrees with Pastor Shaw’s religious beliefs (when it is not outright atheist). Upper-class liberals in America are their own ethnic group with their own religion, culture, morality, and endogamous breeding habits. Conservatives are the out-group, their religious views openly mocked by the upper class and banned from the halls of academic thought.

Wikipedia has an article on R. Guy Erwin:

R. Guy Erwin is a U.S. Lutheran clergyman. … He is also the first openly-gay bishop in the ELCA, and has lived in a committed same-sex relationship for 20 years. He and Rob Flynn were married in August, 2013.[2]

Bishop Erwin received the B.A.degree from Harvard College in 1980. He holds the M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University. From 1993–1999 he was Lecturer in Church History in the Yale Divinity School (YDS) where he taught History of Western Christianity as well as courses on Martin Luther, the Pietists and other specialities. During the 2006–2007 academic year he was Visiting Professor at YDS while on sabbatical from California Lutheran University where he has taught since 2000.[3]

And then there's this...
And then there’s this.

Note: I don’t actually think there is anything “wrong” with being gay–there might be, there might not be, I am agnostic on the issue. I favor letting gay people get married and am pissed that we’ve spent so many decades fighting over the issue when we could be dealing with real problems, like the heroin epidemic.

But I also respect the rights of religious people to think homosexuality is a sin to believe what they believe without me interfering or telling them not to.

500 Clergy support gay United Methodist Clergy who Came Out:

A letter from 500 openly LGBTQ clergy, future pastors and faith leader in a number of different denominations offered “much love and light” to the 111 United Methodist clergy and candidates who came out as gay on May 9.

“Though we come from different traditions, you are our family in Christ and our siblings in the common struggle to live fully and authentically into our God-given identities and callings,” states the letter posted on the website Believe Out Loud, an online community that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) equality. …

“We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised,” the 111 United Methodists write in what they call “A Love Letter to Our Church.” The signers come from across the United States, and one signer is from the Philippines. They identify themselves as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex” in the letter. …

[Matt Berryman] is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for the church to be more inclusive. The network has coordinated publicity of this and other challenges to church law as part of the group’s “It’s Time” campaign.

“Since 2012, we’ve decided we would be the church no matter what,” Berryman told United Methodist News Service. The majority of delegates at the 2012 General Conference voted against a proposal to say United Methodists disagree whether homosexuality is against God’s will.

“Jesus came preaching a way that is narrow, and the way we live out that narrow way is to disrupt systemic injustice.”

Basically, official Methodist doctrine teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Disagree? Join a church that doesn’t tech that. For goodness’s sake, there are about 2,000 different Christian denominations. Surely you can find one that agrees with you. Or start your own church, and invite all of the gay people to come and worship with you.

But don’t go infiltrating a church whose doctrines you explicitly disagree with.

As Justin Martyr wrote in his First Apology: “No one is allowed to partake (of the Eucharist) but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

Meanwhile the United Church of Canada is actually struggling to remove a pastor who has outright declared herself an atheist:

One Sunday in 2001, she stood up in front of her congregation, as usual. But instead of a normal sermon, she declared that she no longer believed in God. …

Much to her surprise, neither the congregation nor the church board were bothered by this. Many even confessed that they, too, had their doubts. And so they carried on, without God.

But now, the church’s top brass say they’ve received too many complaints about Vosper and have launched an unprecedented investigation to determine whether she’s fit to keep her job. …

“I won’t bow out. Because if I leave, that ruling stands and my colleagues are at risk. It’s like I’d be running to safety, and everyone else gets blown up,” she said.

Vosper’s saga couldn’t have come at a worse time for the United Church, which is already hemorrhaging devotees. Its membership has shrunk more than 60 percent since 1965, when it included more than one million. 

Maybe there’s some kind of connection here between your church being run by atheists and hemorrhaging members?

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

More liberal Christian groups are hemorrhaging faster than the more conservative groups. Mainline Protestants, like Methodists, have lost half their members from the Silent Generation to Millenials.

Why exactly so many people are becoming atheists remains a mystery to me–I tend to blame it on electricity, but maybe I’m reaching. At any rate, I think that if you’re going to be religious, there has to be something that you actually believe. A doctrine. A theology. Just saying something like, “I believe in my heart in believiness and love and unicorns,” doesn’t seem to work.

In my personal experience, a lot of churches over the past few decades have been trying to take the Kumbaya approach, by which I mean stripping out all of the unpleasant-seeming parts of religion in order to attract new members. Latin mass? Gone! Fasting? Not necessary! Penitence? Hey, let’s sing about Jesus instead!

Ironically, I loved Sunday School as a kid, but was pretty meh on Youth Group. Sunday School was appropriately geared to a 5 yr old kid who found “Jesus Loves Me” comforting. Youth Group was an intellectual, moral, and religious wasteland. I wanted to read the Bible and discuss theology. Instead, we listened to “Christian rock” and ate pizza. There’s nothing wrong with pizza or Christian rock, but they alone don’t lead to god.

Had I received something resembling an intellectual religious guidance, I might have kept believing.

Anyway, back to schisming vs. combining, according to Wikipedia, the following groups of churches have arrangements for:

  • mutual recognition of members
  • joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist (these churches practice open communion)
  • mutual recognition of ordained ministers
  • mutual recognition of sacraments
  • a common commitment to mission.
  1. The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India, and the Philippine Independent Church.[23]
  2. The Churches of the Porvoo Communion.[25]
  3. The Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada[23]
  4. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and each of the following: the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,[23] the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church[26] and the Moravian Church in America.
  5. The Leuenberg Agreement, concluded in 1973 and adopted by 105 European Protestant churches, since renamed the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.[27]
  6. The Moravian Church and each of the following: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church USA.[23]
  7. The United Methodist Church with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.
  8. The United Church of Christ and each of the following: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America.
  9. The United Episcopal Church of North America and each of the following: the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of Christ the King, and the Diocese of the Great Lakes.
  10. The Anglican Province of America has intercommunion with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Church of Nigeria.
  11. The Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland have established full communion and are working toward interchangeability of ministry.[28]

Meanwhile most American Christians are, by their own admission, heretics:

Seven out of ten respondents in LifeWay’s survey affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons but one God, and six in ten agreed that Jesus is both human and divine. Their orthodoxy—and consistency—ended there. More than half went on to indicate that Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God,” a heresy known as Arianism, which the Council of Nicaea condemned in 325 A.D. …

Rather, bizarre contradictions like this illustrate how many Americans don’t understand or even care what the Trinity means (although they say they believe in it, likely out of habits learned growing up in church).

The responses to other questions were no less heterodox or headache-inducing. Seventy percent of participants—who ranged across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—agreed there’s only one true God. Yet sixty-four percent also thought this God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods. …

Over half said it’s fair for God to exercise his wrath against sin, but seemed to waffle about which sins deserved wrath (not theirs!). Seventy-four percent said the “smallest sins” don’t warrant eternal damnation, in contrast to Jesus’ brother, who when writing at the Holy Spirit’s inspiration taught that even one infraction of God’s law is enough to sink someone. But really, what did he know?

A full 60 percent agreed that “everyone eventually goes to heaven,” but half of those surveyed also checked the box saying that “only those who believe in Jesus will be saved.” So either these folks are saying everyone will eventually believe in Jesus, or they hired a monkey to take the survey for them.

13 Religious Women to watch in 2012 –most of these women are notable only for their secular endeavors (some of which are significant,) not for their theological, religious, or otherwise doctrinal work.

In many ways, I think Niceanity has been a central part of Christianity from the beginning. It is a reasonable interpretation of Christian theology (I am not really in a position to declare any Christian a heretic–that’s God’s job.) But I can’t escape the sense that mainstream Christianity is trying to shed entirely the notion of a Biblical God, of any kind of doctrine or belief beyond a vague belief that belief is good. And even if they’re right, I just don’t think religion works that way.

 

Re: Why does my fridge have a “Sabbath Mode?”

source
From the Geek Guide to Kosher Machines

So I got this letter from a reader: “I just got a new refrigerator, and it comes with a “Sabbath mode”–if Jews aren’t supposed to use electricity on Saturday, why don’t they just turn off the fridge? Isn’t this cheating?”

I may not be the most appropriate expert for this question, being not a Jewish lawyer, but it’s just too funny not to answer–but please consult with a real rabbi before making any important halakhic decisions about your fridge.

First, as you probably already know, there are basically 3 varieties of Jews: Atheist Jews, moderately religious Jews, and Orthodox Jews. About 2% of Americans are Jewish, of them, 10% are Orthodox–and as far as I know, only the Orthodox care about following all of the little Jewish laws and whether or not their fridges are sabbath compliant.

Noam Chomsky may be Jewish, but he probably doesn’t care what his fridge does unless it can prove the existence of universal grammar.

The Orthodox Jews are the ones who tend to dress most identifiably Jewish, with black hats, curly sidelocks, black suits, and beards. For this reason, I think people sometimes confuse them with the Amish.

Orthodox Jewish family
Orthodox Jewish family
Amish family
Amish family

Yes, they both wear beards, but there’s an obvious difference: the Amish live in PA and Jews live in NY.

From Time, "This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg's Closet is Ridiculous"-- I remember when Time was a respectable magazine and not just clickbait trash.
From Time, “This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg’s Closet is Ridiculous” (ugh clickbait titles)

(I do wonder if there is a connection between the Orthodox Jewish tendency toward identical clothes has something to do with Zuckerberg’s preference for only wearing gray shirts–but please note that many Orthodox Jews do not, in my experience, dress in the stereotypical way. Most I have met, while they dress modestly, are pretty much indistinguishable from everyone else.)

That business you’ve heard about Jews not using electricity is wrong. The Amish are the ones who don’t use electricity. Jews use electricity, even on Saturday.

However, some Jews (mostly Orthodox) try to refrain from turning electrical things on or off on Saturday. It’s just fine for an electrical thing to be on and stay on all day. It’s fine for an electrical thing to be off and stay off all day. It’s the flipping light switches on and off that’s a problem.

6df93d0c2319e0324710f55dcfcc5446But isn’t this cheating? Aren’t they supposed to not use electricity?

No. There is nothing in the Bible about not using electricity–not even in the Apocrypha. Nothing in the Talmud, either. I guarantee it.

The Bible does say, in the 10 Commandments, to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In the Genesis account, God created the world for 6 days and then rested on the 7th, so traditional Jewish law proclaimed the Sabbath (aka Shabbat, aka Saturday,) a day of rest, when people went to synagogue or studied the Torah and didn’t do any work. “Work” is defined here in terms relevant to people in Biblical times, not today: agricultural activities like planting, plowing, reaping, and threshing; cooking: kneading dough and baking; clothes production: shearing, carding wool, spinning, weaving; animal-products: trapping, slaughtering, skinning, preserving; “creative” activities: writing, erasing, building, demolishing, kindling a fire or putting it out; and carrying around heavy stuff.

Yes, the law goes into A LOT more detail than this, like “Is it okay to trap a fly that’s buzzing around in your cupboard?” “What about a poisonous scorpion that’s in my shoe?” “What about a snail?” (IIRC, maybe, yes, and yes, respectively,) but this is the big picture.

Note that while there is a prohibition against lighting a fire (and against putting it out,) as this is considered a “creative” act and often involved carrying around large bundles of heavy wood, there is no prohibition against sitting near a fire and staying warm. Traditional Russian Jews would have gotten awfully cold in the winter if there had been. Instead they just built up a big fire on Friday afternoon and hoped it lasted until Saturday evening. There was never a requirement that they had to put out the fire and sit around and be cold.

The same holds for candles.

When electricity was first introduced, some folks decided that lightbulbs were an awful lot like candles and electricity like fire, especially electric sparks. So some Jews decided that turning lights on and off was analogous to lighting (or dousing) a fire, and thus shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

220px-refrigerator_sabbath_modeMost Jews who are concerned about the fridge light just take the easy route and unscrew it a little on Friday afternoon, but some people are now buying refrigerators with built-in display panels that let you program the ice maker or something. And these panels let you set the fridge to “Sabbath mode,” where the light and fan won’t turn on when you open the door.

(“Sabbath mode” is also available on ovens and other appliances.)

Note that, just as it is fine to leave the fire going overnight from Friday to Saturday so long as you don’t mess with it, it’s also fine to leave on an electric appliance. In fact, if the lights happen to be left on when the Sabbath starts, you’re not supposed to turn them off–you have to just leave them, even if you’re trying to sleep and they’re really annoying. Likewise, you are not required to turn off your refrigerator.

(Hey, don’t tell me I’m getting all Talmudic when the question was literally about Jewish law.)

I think you put the stylus in the holes and somehow it dials
I think you put the stylus in the holes and it dials.

Now, some people object that it seems like Jews are “cheating” by finding creative ways to circumvent the law instead of just obeying it. As someone who would never even bother about fridge lights, I don’t see how it’s “cheating” to turn it off by computer instead of unscrewing it. But perhaps more questionable is the old practice of hiring a non-Jew to show up on Saturday morning and make sure the fire is nice and warm or waiting for a neighbor to push the elevator buttons so you don’t have to walk up a bunch of stairs to your apartment. Or this telephone:

But the whole notion that Orthodox Jews aren’t being strict enough because they’ve developed funny work-arounds strikes me as trying to interpret Judaism as though it were a branch of Protestantism. Personally, I think they’re already over-thinking things and really don’t need to be encouraged to be stricter.

My impression of Judaism–and I could be wrong, because I’m mostly going off material on the internet–is that their attitude toward “the law” is quite different from the Christian attitude.

Christian theology teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s “original sin,” all humans are inherently sinful and destined for Hell–except that through Jesus’ sacrifice, they have been redeemed and can go to Heaven. (There are some variations on this throughout the many branches of Christianity, but this is pretty basic.)

Judaism–as far as I can tell–lacks this teaching entirely. Yes, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from the Garden of Eden, but this does not translate into “original sin” inherited by all humans. Humans are not inherently sinful and are not destined for Hell–in fact, Judaism doesn’t really have the concepts of “sin,” “Hell,” or “Heaven.” There is kind of a vague, nebulous belief that there might be an afterlife and something similar to Purgatory for sinners. The have a belief that the “messiah” (or “moshiach”) is going to come someday, but I don’t think they think of him the same way that Christians do.

In short: Christianity teaches that breaking God’s law is sinning and sinning => Hell. Jews don’t believe in sin or Hell, and so do not believe that turning on the lights on Saturday => Hell. Following the law is supposed to make you happy because God made the laws in order to show you the way to a nice life, (hence why it would be really stupid for God to require you to put out your fire and spend Saturday shivering,) but it’s not required.

Again, this is my impression; I am not an expert.

So why even debate matters like whether one is permitted to trap a fly on Saturday? To be honest, I think they enjoy the debate. The same for all of these silly work-arounds: I think they just do it because they find it amusing to think about their laws this way.

(That said, I get the impression that some of the stricter Hasidic sects take a much more hardline view and can be real kill-joys.)

How exactly a sect originally founded on the idea that unlearned peasant piety and mystical connection to God is superior to the Talmudic study of wealthy Jews became so devoted to strict halakhic observance remains a mystery for another day.

Sticky Brains and Forgiveness

(Warning: this post is based on personal, entirely anecdotal observations of other humans.)

I interact, on a fairly regular basis, with people from a wide range of backgounds: folks who’ve spent decades living on the streets; emotionally disabled folks and folks who were emotionally traumatized but recovered; working, middle, and upper class folks.

“Functionality” may not be the easiest term to define, but you know it when you see it: people who manage to pick up the pieces when bad shit happens and continue on with their lives. Non-functionality does not automatically make you poor, (nor does functionality make you rich,) but it is often a major contributing factor.

I’m not going to claim that we all go through equal amounts of trauma; certainly some of us, like infants who were dropped on their heads, have truly shitty lives. Still, almost all of us endure at least some trauma, and there is great variation in our responses to the tragedies we endure.

Among the people I know personally, I’ve noticed that the less-functional tend to have “sticky brains.” When trauma happens, they gloom onto it and get stuck. Years, sometimes decades later, you hear these people still talking about things other people did to them.

For example: two people I know (we’ll call them Foxtrot and Golf, following my alias convention,) had rough childhoods.  Foxtrot is still quite bitter over things that happened over 50 years ago, committed by relatives who are long dead. He’s is also bitter about things that happened recently; I often hear about very minor conflicts that normal people would just be angry about for a day or two that Foxtrot is still losing sleep over a month later. Unsurprisingly, he is an unstable emotional wreck with no job, a string of divorces, and virtually no contact with his family.

Golf’s childhood was, by all objective measures, far worse than Foxtrot’s. But Golf doesn’t talk much about his childhood and is today a functional person. When bad things happen to Golf, he deals with them, he might get angry, and then he finishes with them and puts them aside. He has his bad spells–times when things are going badly and he gets really depressed. He also has his good times. But he has managed to keep himself together well enough, even through these bad times, to stay married and employed (to the same person and at the same job, for decades,) is in contact with most of his family, and enjoys a decent reputation in the community.

The homeless people I interact with also have “sticky brains.” When bad things happen to them (and, yes, being homeless is like a permanent bad thing happening to you,) they get really focused on that bad thing. For example, one homeless woman I know has worried for decades about a possible indiscretion she might have committed back in highschool–it is a very minor thing of less importance than copying a few answers on a math test, but she is still worried that she is a cheater and dishonest member of society. Another is fixated on a bad interaction with an aid worker that happened over a year ago. Most people would say, “yeah, that guy was a jerk,” and then stop worrying about it after a week or so; in this case, the hurt is reviewed and re-felt almost every day.

And, of course, I have many personal friends who’ve endured or dealt with traumas in their own more or less useful ways. (Not to mention the various ups and downs of my own life.)

Because trauma is common–some, like the death of a loved one, strike almost everyone who makes it to adulthood–societies tend to adopt guidelines for trauma response, such as a funeral for the dead followed by a six-month mourning period for widows, official days of mourning or remembrance for people who died in wars, therapy and anti-depressants, confession and forgiveness, head-hunting (among head-hunters), or sympathy cards among the less violently inclined. My own family has a tradition of visiting the graveyard where many of our older relatives are buried once a year and cleaning the gravestones. (The children have a tradition of pretending to be zombies.)

Anthropologists like to call these things “rituals” and “customs.” Different societies have different customs, but all of the ones listed exist for the purpose of helping people cope with trauma and grief. (Or at least, that’s what the head-hunters claimed.)

Watching people attempt to cope with life has made me appreciate (most of) these customs. “Six months of mourning,” may seem arbitrary, but it is also pretty useful: it dictates that yes, it is very normal to feel terrible for a while and everyone will be understanding of that, but now the time has passed and it is time to get on with life.

Christianity and Judaism (and probably other religions) command forgiveness:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19: 18

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” — Matthew 18: 21-22

This is ostensibly for practical reasons:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15

On Yom Kippur, Jews observe a tradition of forgiving others and asking forgiveness for themselves. (It is not surprising that forgiveness should be handled similarly in two religions that share much of their scriptures; Christianity seems to differ primarily in making the institution of forgiveness a more personal matter rather than an annual ritual.)

I’m pretty sure forgiveness is a big deal in Buddhism, as well, but I don’t know much about Hinduism and other belief systems, so I can’t comment on them.

But why should God require forgiveness? It seems rather unfair to say to someone who was raped as a child and has done nothing worse than tell a few lies in their life, “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you for lying.”

But this assumes that forgiveness exists for the forgiven. In some cases, of course, it does. But forgiveness also serves a function for the forgiver. I shall leave the concept of spiritual purity to the spiritual; as a practical matter, forgiveness allows the hurt party to stop focusing on their pain and resume life. Most people do this fairly naturally, but some of us need a bit of encouragement–and perhaps ritual focus and faith–to heal.

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5: 3-12

I don’t think the point of this is that it is morally superior to be insulted or hurt or poor, but reassure and comfort those who have been.