If you like Philosophy, Zombies and Ghosts

This is perhaps one of the best comics, ever, of all time, plus one.  Read first before the philosophy commences.

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Privilege: Seeing the Invisible

A comment by PortlyDyke responding to the Marcotte Book Imagery issue got me thinking (emphasis mine):

I honestly cannot believe the number of people here who have claimed that the use of racist imagery was some form of intentional irony, and who have chided others for not getting “the joke”, or to “lighten up”.

In order for something to be intentionally ironic/satirical, you have to consciously use a hyperbolic image or concept to point out an absurdity. That is not the case here. Seal Press has already said that they missed the racism — that they “were not thinking”. Amanda has said that she didn’t “catch it”.

That’s not ironic/satiric use of racist imagery.

It is blindness to racist imagery, which is based in white privilege — and blindness to white privilege has been precisely at the heart of all the issues about the cover, appropriation, and now, the artwork.

As I’ve watched this thread evolve over the past few days, the demonstrations of white defensiveness in the face of confrontation have actually surprised me (although I suppose they should not have) — it is simply astounding to me that progressives or feminists would defend these images in any way, much less in the ways that they have.

(Note: I myself defended Amanda specifically, not the images).  What’s interesting is the practical problem faced when discussing any sort of privilege.  Take male privilege.  A fairly blatant example comes mind.  In college there was a pathway through the woods between two dorms.  The path was narrow, poorly lighted, and filled with bushes and trees.  It was known colloquially as “The Rape Trail”.  While people generally walked across it in groups, I’d traverse it at night, by myself.  While at times I do confess to getting a sudden start from a quick movement in my periphery, by and large I did so with confidence.  Contrast that to worrying about walking home alone across a well-lit campus.  That stark difference in perception is one many men are not aware of.  Further, the socialization that produces that fear is one that is outside the realm of experience for most males.  Hence we might say their privilege blinds them.

On the flip side, its something I’ve experienced as a non-Christian.  I was raised as a conservative Jew (note: conservative Judaism is, intensity wise, in between reform and orthodox, and has nothing to do with politics).  So singing songs about Jesus in elementary school might seem normal to most other kids, while to me I was worrying about whether I could fake singing, or if I needed to abstain entirely.  A music teacher insisting I sing along did so blind to the idea that forcing someone to sing Christmas songs might slightly problematic.  The same might be said for the district in New Hampshire that scheduled school picture day on Yom Kippur (I like to think that was blindness).

In any case, if the problem of privilege is blindness, the natural question becomes, how do we find sight?  Generally there are a number of barriers to overcome to even get anyone with privilege to accept the concept, let alone that it applies to them and they need to make an effort to begin to see how it does.  The thing is, privilege is simply the natural mask of perception mixed with societal norms.  We live in a society that elevates rich, white, christian males.  Thus there is a corresponding privilege for each group, a sense in which their perceptual blind spot is supported by society.  Some of the outrage at the racist imagery in Amanda’s book came from the response.  The publication of the images was one thing, but the automatic defense of the images themselves was a textbook outbreak of privilege.

So if privilege consists of the uniqueness of individual perception combined with the support of society for the resulting blind spots, then both provide potential break points in the chain.

We are ultimately lucky to find privilege at work in a community that is, essentially, a community of allies.  Lucky because we have the most receptive audience possible outside of people who already understand and agree.  Therefore we ought to take care in bridging the gap within the feminist community.  Not only to engage in a rhetorical style that invites and empowers (and learning about privilege, especially your own biases and blindness, is an empowering experience), but to take notes.  Because the larger task facing us all is to address the societal support for privilege, and that means we’ll have to find a way to make the same case to people who are openly hostile to everything we stand for.

Let’s start with our friends.

The Psychological Victims of Fundamentalist Christianity

This is incredibly fucked, but it is a topic of some interest for me, and one I plan on revisiting.  As Amanda notes, this stuff is “fucking frightening”.  Matt Taibi writes in Rolling Stone about his experiences at a three day intensive convert-a-thon.  He starts things off by discussing the contrast between the soon-to-be-converted and the Pastor.  This kind of Predator Christianity singles out the weak and exploits their insecurities to rope them into the flock.  This isn’t St. Augustine struggling with his sense of morality or identity and choosing his faith consciously.  This is psychological assault:

There were almost no breaks or interruptions; it was a physically exhausting schedule of confession, catharsis, bad music and relentless, muscular instruction. The Saturday program began at 7:45 a.m. and did not end until ten at night; we went around the confess-sing-learn cycle five full times in one day.

The organizers got an in by going straight to their victim’s soft spots:

True, I could see some other angles to what was going on as well. Virtually all of the participants of the Encounter identified either one or both of their parents as their “offender,” and much of what Fortenberry was talking about in his instructional sessions was how to replace the godless atmosphere of abuse or neglect that the offenders had provided us with God and the church. He was taking broken people and giving them a road map to a new set of parents, a new family — your basic cultist bait-and-switch formula for cutting old emotional ties and redirecting that psychic energy toward the desired new destination. That connection would become more overt later in the weekend, but early on, this ur-father propaganda was the only thing I could see that separated Encounter Weekend from the typical self-help dreck of the secular world.

From there it swiftly descends into language thick with religion and guilt (emphasis mine):

We were unhappy because of earthly troubles from our childhoods, but those troubles were the work of a generational curse, inflicted upon us by devils and demons — probably for unbelief, bad behavior, disobedience, worship of the wrong gods and so on.

This little bit of semantic gymnastics helped transform all of us at the retreat from being merely fucked up to being accursed carriers of demons. Having ridden an almost entirely secular program to get our biographies out in the open in a group setting, Fortenberry could now switch his focus to the real meat and potatoes of the weekend: Satan and the devils inside us.

Thats the substance, but Pastor Philip drops his cards and lets slip the goals of the unfolding manipulation:

Fortenberry then started in on a rant against science and against scientific explanations for cycles of sin. “Take homosexuals,” he said. “Every single homosexual is a sexual-abuse victim. They are not born. They are created — by pedophiles.”

Here is where things get fucking scary (emphasis mine):

The crowd swallowed that one whole. One thing about this world: Once a preacher says it, it’s true. No one is going to look up anything the preacher says, cross-check his facts, raise an eyebrow at something that might sound a little off. Some weeks later, I would be at a Sunday service in which Pastor John Hagee himself would assert that the Bible predicts that Jesus Christ is going to return to Earth bearing a “rod of iron” to discipline the ACLU. It goes without saying that the ACLU was not mentioned in the passage in Ezekiel he was citing — but the audience ate it up anyway. When they’re away from the cameras, the preachers feel even less obligated to shackle themselves to facts of any kind. That’s because they know that their audience doesn’t give a shit. So long as you’re telling them what they want to hear, there’s no danger; your crowd will angrily dismiss any alternative explanations anyway as demonic subversion.

And there we have our problem.  A sizable proportion of Americans being brainwashed to the point that discussion with them is impossible.

“In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, I cast out the demon of the intellect!” Fortenberry continued. “In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of anal fissures!”

Cough, cough!

The minutes raced by. Wayne Williams was now fully prostrate, held up only by a trio of coaches, each of whom took part of his writhing body and propped it up. Another bald man in the front of the chapel was now freaking out in Linda Blair fashion, roaring and making horrific demon noises.

Rum-balakasha-oom!” shouted Fortenberry in tongues, waving a hand in front of Linda Blair Man. “Cooom-balakasha-froom! In the name of Jesus Christ, I cast out the demon of philosophy!”

Philosophy?

This kind of movement is more than simply anti-science.  It is anti-intelligence, anti-self-determination.  Can you really own your own choices when the very idea of making a decision without “consulting Jesus” is thrown out?  When intellect and philosophy are seen as evils?

Forget that philosophy has played a central role in every major religious tradition in the world, and Christianity is well represented with a host of excellent philosophers and theologians.  Aside from offering a misrepresentation of the religion it claims to espouse, fundamentalist Christianity gums up the gears of free will, outsourcing intellectual judgment to Christ.  (No wonder some Christians believe morality disappears without God.)

These effects are dangerous and lasting (emphasis mine):

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to “be rational” or “set aside your religion” about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you’ve made a journey like this — once you’ve gone this far — you are beyond suggestible. It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place, you’ve left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you’re thinking with muscles, not neurons.

By the end of that weekend, Phil Fortenberry could have told us that John Kerry was a demon with clawed feet, and not one person would have so much as blinked. Because none of that politics stuff matters anyway, once you’ve gotten this far. All that matters is being full of the Lord and empty of demons. And since everything that is not of God is demonic, asking these people to be objective about anything else is just absurd. There is no “anything else.” All alternative points of view are nonstarters. There is this “our thing,” a sort of Cosa Nostra of the soul, and then there are the fires of Hell. And that’s all.

This is a major problem.  These people vote.  They run for office.  They win office.  They set policy and write laws while fondly recalling the social sophistication of the dark ages.  And they cannot be argued with.

I highly recommend Cracks in the Wall over at Orcinus (Pt 1, Pt 2, Pt 3), about efforts to break through and help the people trapped behind the wall of Predatory Christianity.  That’s a start.

Finding Happiness: Do You Love Your Job?

Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine):

Mr. Magness’s parents say they no longer ask when he’s coming to visit or about his plans. “You can’t buy him the things you might buy a normal kid, since he doesn’t live in one place,” says his mother, Linda Magness. Mr. Magness’s father, Mark Magness, a retired Air Force lawyer, says he spent 23 years in a job he couldn’t stand. So he avoids pressuring Mr. Magness to find traditional work. He admires his son’s resourcefulness and spirit, but says he still struggles to accept that Mr. Magness lives in a van. “It pushes all these buttons,” he says. “There was part of me that said, ‘You need to be secure; security is important, happiness can wait.’ Though watching him, that’s become less obvious to me.”

Happiness can be esoteric. It encompasses such a wide range of quality and intensity that the word is only the briefest introduction to the experience itself. Finding happiness in what you do for a living is an integral part of the art of living. It delights in the unexpected.

Just over a year ago, I was fired from the first real job I ever had. I had been there for just over two years. Two years in which I poured myself into my work, and struggled to survive and then excel in a job I would have been barely qualified for had it made only normal demands of my ability and energy. One would have expected this to have been a jarring and painful experience. Yet it was deeply liberating, joyful, and ultimately very satisfying. I found myself able to compete for positions that offered far more flexibility and pay, with healthy work environments.

The one year anniversary of this would have been enough to have reminded me of this. But my friend Brad recently left the same company, and his experience echoed my own in many ways:

Thursday marked a major event in my life. Not only was it the day that I quit my first job, but it is also the day that I learned how awesome it feels to know you don’t have to go back to a place that was sucking the life out of you.

I should have this sadness about me because this was three years of my life. This was three years that I poured myself into my work. Three years that I gave everything I had and then even more to do my part to make this company kick butt in the IT space. Three years that I sacrificed sleep, vacation, health, friends, family, and everything else imaginable to do a job. But aside from missing a handful of people there, I don’t have any sadness at all. You know why? Because after these three years, this company refused to even acknowledge my 2 week notice, refused to pay me out upon leaving, and refused to even acknowledge that me not being there might have a slight impact on them.

There is, of course, more to both of our stories. But the essence is that when we are able to free ourselves of negative attachments, the experience of that is not a wrenching sadness, but rather a mix of calm and happiness. Which brings me back to the story of Jason Magness. His life isn’t perfect by any means (he himself worries about how to balance his urge to be with people and to be free to explore). But that freedom he experiences goes beyond feeling and escapes into a kind of conviction, a way of approaching life.

For me, I’ve found that in a number of places. One is in cultivating a sense of detachment at work (which can be quite difficult at times). I find this allows me to see the situation I’m in with greater clarity, and to be able to respond appropriately.

I wish Brad the best of luck in his new job, although I know he won’t need it. Great skill comes from a mix of natural talent and hard work, and he possesses both virtues. I also wish for him the same thing I wish for myself. The chance and ability to better see what happiness truly is, and find more of it in how we spend our time in this life. To that end, while I am not quitting my own job by any means, I have taken the first steps towards reawakening the burning purpose that has been patiently simmering on low since I moved from Massachusetts down to Virginia. Perhaps I will post more on this later. It is a spark of an idea that seems impossible at first blush, and upon introduction finds a warmth, curiosity and interest that suggests a world of kindling.

And I seem to have meandered off a bit. So I’d like to pose my question again, but phrase it with a little more courtesy towards its meaning: Are you happy?

Natural Relations and Fear

Sush has posted a really thoughtful thread on what meanings one might find behind the phrase Unnatural Relations (emphasis mine):

In that way I’ve always thought of human sexuality as transcending “natural relations”, because we have made sex about more than fulfilling a lust or procreating. Sex, to me, is about two people learning to be one. It is about give and take, sacrifice and dominance, learning to be in control and out of it, giving of yourself and taking of another. That is far more than simply nature, it is a metaphor for all things real and spiritual. It is the dance of creation itself- not because it makes life but because it IS life.

So what is unnatural? Is it unnatural to have sex in a way that doesn’t lead to procreation? Is it a sin to use birth control? Is it a sin when a married and committed couple engage in mutual masturbation or anal sex? Where exactly is the line between natural and unnatural? Is the only holy sex that which is done in the dark with socks still on and both feeling a little embarrassed afterwards?

Shush has a really beautiful way of putting how we approach sex as a society.  In many ways we are socialized to feel shame about our bodies, and sex involves expressing our bodies a most intimate and messy way.  Breaking through that socially induced fear and experiencing sex as the “dance of creation” is, I think, a vital part of experiencing a full and healthy life.  It is also central to the worldview that validates rather than punishes the sexual act, and accepts different expressions of it between two consenting adults.

The spiritual path is one that teaches one to overcome and eventually eliminate fear.  It should never, ever instill new fears and anxieties.  As a society we might take a good hard look at what the politics of sexual fear and shame that crops up in organized religion does for us, and what it takes away.  Upon inspection we won’t find an equal trade.

God is Not Just

A random encounter on the metro yesterday turned into an unexpected debate.

Upon reflection, I realized that the evangelical mindset has a worrying impact on our justice system, and how we approach both crime and criminals. In other words, I had run smack into the premise of one of Amanda’s posts over at Pandagon.

During the course of our debate, we came to the question of Justice. I was taking the position that God would never commit murder, while my evangelical friend asked “what about justice?”. One particular story we sparred over was that of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Two points of contention arose. One was whether a perfect being can commit an imperfect action. If a person were to say, set off a bomb in a city, killing all of its inhabitants, this person would be rightly condemned to prison for life. The biblical god does it, and he is praised for his “justice”. This is a similar problem to the questions of God having emotions like anger and jealousy. Why would a perfect being possess imperfect, negative, human emotions? By the same token, one wonders why it is the biblical god gets away with murder.

Which leads into the second point of contention. “Do you suppose”, I asked, “that there were children under the age of two in Sodom?”. After this was affirmed, I asked whether such young children could be justly punished so violently and cruelly for their parents sins. The answer? “Its different because when God does it, it is just. The children would go to heaven, which is better than Earth.”.

This immediately raised a very worrying question. Was this evangelical suggesting that it was ok to kill children under 2? That sending them to heaven was somehow just, or even kind? What kind of a God was being worshiped, when his actions were cruel and evil enough that were they committed by a human being, they would be harshly condemned?

The actions we ascribe to God as moral are those we ourselves aspire to. I cannot think of a theistic religion in which the practitioner does not attempt to be like God. So how does one interpret scripture that insists God killed the innocent? How does one read this and continue to believe that those words describe or even approach perfection?

What does such a mindset bring to practical questions of law and justice as practiced in our country?

Apparently Theists Can’t Argue

In a piece short on logic but long on bias, Simple Light attempts to present the killer arguments that support intelligent design.  The stage is set by presenting Christopher Hitchens as disoganized and cynical, and Jay Richards as rational and full of hope.  The painful illusion being cast over the debate becomes painfully clear early on, when the arguments show up to the party:

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented the most rational, well-thought out argument for theism that I’ve ever heard. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance)
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was
  4. Irreducible complexity – he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum, asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion but most people are uncomfortable with that
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate)

Let’s address this point by point.  For point #1, SimpleLight rushes to contradict his earlier statement:

His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

If God could potentially be incredibly unethical, as SL posits, then how would moral truth come from God?

A larger issue is why SL is ignoring a central point of atheism.  It is not a religion, not a system of beliefs.  It is simply the idea that God does not exist.  So the source of ethics would naturally fall outside of its purview.  Fortunately there are plenty of efforts in philosophy to discuss the nature of ethics, and even our motivations for being ethical.  Arguably atheistic religions such as Buddhism have a spiritual basis for ethics in our intrinsic connection to each other as sentient beings.  So no, one does not need God for ethics.  Nor, in my opinion as a theist, should we.  A parent’s desire is not for a lifelong fear of punishment, but rather the development of an intrinsic sense of right and wrong.  We shouldn’t be do good deeds because some deity says so, but rather, because it is the right way to live.

2.  The whole “by chance argument” is really a “this is so complicated it couldn’t possibly have happened!” piece of nonsense.  It devolves rapidly into circular logic.  How does one know that complex things are necessarily created things?  That is a question that never receives a satisfactory answer from creationists.

3.  How do we know the universe is finite?  Why must we infer that a finite universe is a created universe?  Again, no answer.  This is to be expected when people try and play dress up with faith.  The lab coat alone does not a scientist make.

The idea that atheism needs a foundation is ridiculous.  You don’t need a foundation for not believing in sentient pink unicorns.  You just start with, oh, a lack of evidence, and go from there.  But Simple Light is not a person who understands what atheism is:

Am I the only one who has lost patience with the atheists? Apart from the fact that the abolition of theism would leave them without a worldview, most of them spend their time carping from the sidelines but refuse to put together a credo for examination.

Atheism simply describes not believing in God, due to a lack of evidence.  I’m pretty sure without theists, that might survive.  Furthermore, there is no credo.  There is no obsessive need to explain nature with nature gods and dryads.  Simply a “ok, where’s the proof?  Don’t have any?  That’s nice, maybe come back when you do”.

4.  Irreducible complexity is a great sound for a hollow phrase.  Where is the substance?  Where is the ability to test?  What makes me a little bit sad is that, in metaphysics we can successfully reduce almost everything in life down to the most basic elements.  The only exception is consciousness (which really has a lot of people rightly baffled).

5.  How is “most people are uncomfortable with that” even an argument?  People aren’t comfortable with death or taxes.  You going to deny either exist next?  Also, atheism is not the same thing as materialism, even if the two often coincide in the same person.  And not all atheists or materialists believe consciousness is an illusion.

Each of these statements (especially the laughable remainder), simply show that the creationist argument is more about making declarative statements than presenting an argument.

The commentators on the blog (Lev and Inmate1972) agree that the last paragraph betrays the motivations behind the article:

Basically there were two messages: one of hope, redemption and eternal life; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against God. I guess people can bow their knee now or later.

That same bias is present beneath the surface of every attempt to force creationism into the mainstream, and choke science with its anti-intellectual flotsam.  The goal?  To get people to “bow their knee”.