It’s taking longer than we thought

About ten years ago, I was very taken withThe Straight Dope, and every now and then – and against my better judgment – I go back and read it for old times’ sake.

The same things about the style of debate there that used to enchant me still enchant me – where else can you read well-argued positions both for and and against Objectivism, Free Will, Thomas Aquinas and why we should cut off the baby boomers?- and the things that frustrated me still frustrate the hell out of me.

My frustration this time revolves around how many atheists say that no amount of evidence would persuade them of the existence of God. Me? I’d be persuaded by even the slightest evidence.

On the enchanting side of the ledger, this thread about 25 reasons to not believe in God brings out the best in some Christian apologists.

Cecil himself is, of course, the master:

Also, do animals ever do it for fun?

As for your second question, we must point out that, scientifically speaking, animals always do it for fun. The only critters who do it because they have to are Catholics. Take it from your Unca Cecil.

oogedy-boogedy

The blogosphere is positively throbbing with indignation over Kathleen Parker’s column in the post where she coined a lively new phrase for the branch of the Republican party that most troubles the rest of us:

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.

A lot of type has moved over what exactly she meant by oogedy-boogedy. Those looking to be offended thought she was just being rude about religious beliefs and superstition but I think Publius explained her best:

Personally, I think the oogedy-boogedyness stems from fear – on some level, liberals are simply afraid of social conservatives. Fairly or no, liberals perceive them as a direct and credible threat to their own personal liberties.

Interestingly, this same fear is precisely why social conservatives loathe liberals – on some level, they are afraid of us.

[…]

Social conservatives aren’t merely a group with which liberals disagree – they’re a group perceived to threaten our lives in tangible ways.

[…]

This perceived sense of attack is especially strong on sexual privacy issues. It’s not so much the substantive disagreement that is driving liberals’ loathing. It’s the perception that the Christian Right would intrude on – and dictate – the most intimate decisions of people’s lives. For many women (and men), the idea of forced pregnancy and contraception bans aren’t abstract arguments – they’re pretty terrifying.

Same deal with Terri Schiavo. Again, what was so oogedy about l’affaire Schiavo is not the abstract philosophical debate about “life.” It was that a group of frenzied social conservatives decided to intrude on the Schiavos’ privacy, publicizing and overruling a private and wrenching family decision. Even worse, they actually convinced Congress – in the midst of two wars – to intervene.

[…]

Anyway, the larger point is that there actually are substantive explanations for people’s hostility to social conservatives. It’s not that people are snobs or bigots. It’s that they see the social conservative agenda as a direct threat to some of their most cherished and intimate rights.

Cancer – something to laugh at

PJ O’Rourke has cancer. And he laughs in its face.

I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it — as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound — my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.


I have, of all the inglorious things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that? And where does one wear it? And what slogan is apropos? Perhaps that slogan can be sewn in needlepoint around the ruffle on a cover for my embarrassing little doughnut buttocks pillow.

Furthermore, I am a logical, sensible, pragmatic Republican, and my diagnosis came just weeks after Teddy Kennedy’s. That he should have cancer of the brain, and I should have cancer of the ass … well, I’ll say a rosary for him and hope he has a laugh at me. After all, what would I do, ask God for a more dignified cancer? Pancreatic? Liver? Lung?

Mysterious God

In the newspaper that Americans like to call The Times of London, my favourite Rabbi writes a rather thoughtful article about how The Argument from Design was never a very good argument anyway. So, while Darwin’s marvellous idea may have dealt a death blow to believers in a literal creation, thoughtful believers, like Britain’s Chief Rabbi, who think of those first verses of Genesis as allegorical had nothing to wonder about.

The Rabbi’s belief is founded on the mysteries that are safe from science’s searching eye.

In fact none of the most important truths can be proved: that right is sovereign over might, that it is better to be loved than feared, that every human being however poor or powerless is worthy of respect, that peace is nobler than war, forgiveness greater than revenge, and hope a higher virtue than resignation to blind fate. Lives have been lived and civilisations built in defiance of these truths, yet they remain true.

The believer might mention other mysteries, such as how did life evolve from non-life? How did sentience emerge? How was the uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness born? How did life evolve at such speed that even Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, was forced to suggest that it came from Mars? And the ultimate ontological question: why is there something rather than nothing?

We might refer to the arguments that persuaded the philosopher Antony Flew, late in life, to abandon his atheism. She might cite the curious paradox, noted by Richard Dawkins, that selfish genes get together and produce selfless people. We might wonder at the fact that Homo sapiens is the only known life form in the Universe capable of asking “Why?” And we might add, in the spirit of Godel’s Theorem, that there are truths within the system that cannot be proved within the system.

We would then say: None of these is a proof. Each, rather, is a source of wonder. The Psalm does not say, “The heavens prove the existence of God”. It says, “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Darwin helped us to understand how the many emerged from one. The more we know about the intricacy and improbability of life, the more reason we have to wonder and give thanks.

On the spectrum of belief, this falls somewhere between Science can’t explain everything and God exists outside our comprehension.

click for bigger diagram
click for bigger diagram

I know, from reading Sack’s previous writings, that his God is the mysterious God that exists outside of our understanding and that’s the God that I am most interested in. It’s all too easy to dismiss the other Gods but this God is more powerful than the others because it does not really exist according to our usual understanding of ‘exist’. If the Koran had a name for it it would be The Undismissable One.

I enjoy a good paradox and I wish I understood what it means to believe in something that does not exist. I also wish I understood how Jonathon Sacks squares this belief with the stories in the Old Testament. [I wonder if Johnathon Sacks has a Google Alert on his name like Alan Kay has? (Hi, Alan!)]

In my Slippery Trinity, I called this kind of God The Mysterious God. PZ Myers calls it “Oom“.

Theologians play that one like a harp, though, turning it into a useful strategem. Toss the attractive, personal, loving or vengeful anthropomorphic tribal god to the hoi-polloi to keep them happy, no matter how ridiculous the idea is and how quickly it fails on casual inspection, while holding the abstract, useless, lofty god in reserve to lob at the uppity atheists when they dare to raise questions…It gets annoying. We need two names for these two concepts, I think. How about just plain “God” for the personal, loving, being that most Christians believe in, and “Oom” for the bloodless, fuzzy, impersonal abstraction of the theologians? Not that the theologians will ever go along with it; the last thing they want made obvious is the fact that they’re studying a completely different god from the creature most of the culture is worshipping.

Judas and Mary

When I was a lad, it was the law that every school had a religious assembly and, at my primary school especially, we used to sing 3 or 4 hymns every morning. In the assembly hall, we had two enormous (to a 10 year old) contraptions that dangled enormous hymn sheets from the ceiling.

One of the occasional duties of a 10 year old at my school was Hymn Sheet  monitor. There were two monitors to each hymn sheet contraption and, when the music teacher said ‘Hymn number 127’, one of the monitors would undo the rope from the cleat and lower the contraption from the ceiling. The other monitor would then rummage through the giant (to a 10 year old) sheets of paper looking for hymn number 127. After lots of searching and then hefting of hundreds of sheets – each bigger than a 10 year old hymn sheet monitor – the first monitor would heave on the rope to return the contraption to the ceiling and then hang on with all his strength while the other monitor belayed the rope to the cleat.

Then the singing would commence.

The singing was fantastic. I remember one time, we had a visit from the Mayor of Bexley in all his mayoral robes and he pronounced that “he would always remember this as the singing school”.

We sang every one of those hymns. There were the hymns that every one knows like What a Friend we have in Jesus and All Things Bright and Beautiful and Onward Christian Soldiers but there were also a few pop-songs-turned-hymns like Lord of the Dance, Morning has Broken and Any Dream Will Do from the latest (and first) Rice/Weber blockbuster and plenty of obscure songs that I have never heard before or since.

I was reminded of one of those obscure songs last week – my absolute favourite – when I read the most beautiful passage in the New Testament in Luke while camping at Sunset Beach.

36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. 37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, 38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

I loved that song. I wish I remembered all the words. I have the melody down on my harmonica but my memory, and Google fail me for the lyrics.

Here’s what I have:

Said Judas to Mary, “O what will you do
With your ointment so rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord
And I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”
She said.
“And I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”

Said Judas to Mary, “O think of the poor.
Think of all of the riches you can give to the poor
Something something something
If, your ointment, you sell it today.”
He said.
“If your ointment, you sell it today.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor.
Tomorrow.” she said. “Not today.
For today I must think of my only true Lord.
For my Lord who is going away.”
She said.
“For my Lord who is going away.”

It’s funny how memory works – for that song to spring back into my mind so nearly complete after 30 years. I wish I remembered the rest.

It’s funny too how our collective memory works. So many of the most vivid, rich scenes spring from throwaway one-liners like

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

and

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

The whole nativity is only 20 verses of Luke, less than that in Matthew and not covered at all in Mark and John. Matthew and Luke made those little bits up but, in 2000 years, we did the rest.