Friday, February 22, 2008

Blogging Is Dangerous

What will you do when you want to express what you're really thinking, without much self-censorship?

Is it wise to do so on a blog?

Probably not.

If anyone knows the blog is yours, then potentially everyone does. That which you say can come back to haunt you.

So...which is the most troublesome, most immoderate, thing I've blogged?

I suppose one day I'll find out.

UPDATE: I just (3/18) said something fairly immoderate on the Wright controversy...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Turnabout Is Fair Play (re: the Qur'an)

Turnabout Is Fair Play.

Having criticized the content/meaning of the Qur'an (while allowing for the possibility that its content is delivered with excellence from a literary/artistic perspective), it is only reasonable that my own sacred cow be subjected to the meat-grinder:

"What about Christian Scriptures? Are they superior to the Qur'an with regard to message? Are they just as bad? Are they not, in fact, inferior, saying all the same things with regard to content, but lacking any comparable attempt at artistry?"

To that, my response is: Christian Scriptures do not, in one way, compete on the same playing-field as the Qur'an, and are not subject to the same requirements. But in another way, they do compete directly with the Qur'an, and come out vastly superior.

Christian Scriptures simply do not claim to be dictated by God. Various types of claims of inspiration are made by different Christians. The term "Word of God" is applied to Christian Scriptures, and this results in such great confusion in the minds of non-Christians and of less-informed Christians alike that these less-informed Christians begin to treat the Bible (for the purposes of hermeneutics) in much the same way that Muslims treat the Qur'an, and the non-Christians, looking on, understandably take this mistreatment of the Christian canon as canonical Christianity!

But the two stances differ, and the difference may be summed up as follows:

Any time that the Qur'an asserts/assumes Fact X and exhorts/approves Behavior Y, it must be assumed that the assertion/assumption and the exhortation/approval are from the mouth of God Himself. If the assertion or assumption turn out to be objectively incorrect, it can only be because (a.) God made a mistake, or (b.) the Qur'an is not authored by God. If the behavior being exhorted or approved turns out to be less than entirely moral, it can only be because (a.) God is not perfectly good, or (b.) the Qur'an is not authored by God.

Now Christian Scripture does not experience anywhere close to the same threat of self-nullification. For the Christian Bible is a collection of writings, selected on the basis of their ability to edify people on spiritual matters, given special authority by the doctrine that the writers were inspired by God during the writing process (to a degree sufficient to avoid spiritual error), and that those responsible for "editorial selection" were similarly inspired by God (to a degree sufficient to avoid spiritual error).

In such circumstances, what can a Christian conclude if a Biblical Author says that, say, there were exactly 23 years between Historical Event X and Historical Event Y, but archeology or other methods conclusively prove otherwise? Is the Christian in the same bind that the Muslim would be? The answer is: No. He can assert that the Biblical Author was incorrect, and repeating the belief of his time, but that this has no bearing on spiritual lessons and says nothing at all about the infallibility of God.

Ah, but what about moral teachings? Can St. Paul engage in what appears to be sexism ("women should be silent in church") without thereby suggesting that either God is a sexist, or the Bible is faulty? Answer: Yes, he can. The Christian can (and in the aforementioned case, does) assert that some teachings of St. Paul, while not erroneous at the time, were intended for that time and circumstance, and are not necessarily universal in application. (Christians are helped in this by the fact that St. Paul sometimes says specifically that a teaching is solely his idea, and that on other occasions he asserts divine teachings with the phrase "Thus saith the Lord.")

In any case, while there are parts of Christian scripture which, if proven false from a factual or moral standpoint, would thereby undermine Christianity altogether, they are a far more narrow set than in Islam, where "the set of all verses able to invalidate the entire religion through the tiniest error" is identical to "the set of all verses in the Qur'an." So, because Christian Scripture does not make precisely the same claim as the Qur'an, it is on a more secure footing. The claim of the Qur'an is not merely dubious because of the flaws in Qur'anic teaching; it is dubious because of the claim itself.

Let me now address my second point: That in some ways, Christian Scripture does compete directly with the Qur'an, and when it does, comes out the better of the two.

Christian Scripture, like Muslim Scripture, produces doctrine and behavior. No doctrine may be Christian if it is utterly contradictory to Christian Scripture; nor can a doctrine be Islamic if it contradicts the Qur'an. And while both Christians and Muslims (being men, not angels) behave in ways which are contrary to their religious teachings without thereby necessarily invalidating those teachings, it is fair to compare their behavior when they are being good Christians and good Muslims, and ask whether "good Muslim behavior" is inferior, equal, or superior to "good Christian behavior" (however rarely either is practiced).

This, of course, brings up the question of whether, for example, suicide bombings of Israeli pedestrians are in fact "good Muslim behavior." My own rough guess is that 80% of Muslims 'round the world hold that they are not. The Qur'an, however, leads me to put Muhammad himself among the 20%, not among the 80%. The occidentalized Muslim is a benefit to his society, I think: But I do not think he is an orthodox Muslim.

If Muhammad's teachings include such notions as "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, but unto God that which is God's" they are extremely well-hidden. The notion that conversion by the sword is a theological impossibility because "God looketh at the heart" may be present in the Qur'an, but if so, the corollary that one should therefore never attempt conversion by the sword can only be pried out by some allusion or figure of speech which is completely opaque to both myself and to the vast majority of all the Muslims who have lived at all times in history. For, two hundred years ago, the founding fathers of the United States found, in dealing with the Barbary Pirates, that they were jihadists; and centuries before that, the defenders of Vienna nearly lost their city twice to jihadists, and a long while before that, all southern Spain fell to jihadists and France would have fallen too except for Charles the Hammer, and in still earlier centuries Alexandria and Constantinople and Jerusalem fell to jihadists, and at the start of it all Muhammad was saying, echoing every comparable warlord from every other epoch in every other continent, that those unbelievers who did not convert should be destroyed or enslaved. It is not the jihadist whom Islam calls "heretic."

Meanwhile from Christianity comes that liberty of the soul which culminates in the liberty of the ballot-box. The Christian scriptures begin by announcing that man is made in God's image: relational and free-willed. The former means "able to love" and the latter means "able to choose to love, or not." The message of Christian scripture from that point forward is: God pursues man with his love; man may accept it or reject it. The prophets of Israel show Yahweh as the lover scorned by his beloved; the husband cuckolded by his bride: For man may either choose to love God, or not. The climax of the Christian story is: God gives his life for man out of love; man may accept it or reject it; God defeats death and offers victory over death as a gift to all; but man may accept the gift or decline. The final pages of the book predict a glorious new heaven and new earth, sealing the free choice of all souls with a profound finality: Any who wish heaven may have it; but it is not forced upon those who would rather "reign in hell than serve in heaven."

From this I surmise that while Christianity can survive under any form of government; when Christians construct governments they are apt to be more liberal (in the now-antiquated sense which means "free") than that which preceded them or would otherwise have been formed. History, I think, bears this out: Notions which otherwise would never have arisen in Europe did arise under the influence of Christian teaching; they did not arise where Christian teaching did not prevail, and liberal representative democracy, that manner of government which is worst in the world save all the others, was the result.

And where Islam was taught day and night? Well, so long as the Caliphate could continue to conquer, it could enrich itself with the intellectual and material and cultural treasures of those outside its borders. Once its advance was stymied, it had to rely on its own intellectual capital. The result: slavery, genocide, corruption, despotism, illiteracy, poverty, decay, resentment, stupefaction.

Now, the generalizations made above are so vast and vague as to be worthy of derision were they not, in the main, plainly true. For every cry of "what about injustices during the Crusades?" or "what about the Spanish Inquisition?" or "what about witch-trials?" or "what about the more moderate Muslim states?" or "what about Voltaire?" or "what about Galileo?" there are responses which can be given: A hundred admissions of Christian guilt limited only to certain individuals, a hundred qualifications that the events are misremembered in popular imagination, a hundred notations of worse things happening under similar circumstances when the perpetrators were anything other than Christians, all of which sound evasive and mealy-mouthed and worthy of scorn.

So the Christian apologist is obligated to hang his head and exhibit remorse on behalf of his unwise or corruptible co-religionists of previous centuries, and to agree with both his God and his accuser that, yes, all those things were perfectly horrible, and yes, there are occasions of Jews getting better treatment by Muslims than by Christians, and yes, there have been Atheists who weren't such utter scoundrels as some of the Christians whom they opposed. After this admission the argument is assumed to have been won by those who hold that Christianity isn't so great a thing after all.

But the argument is entirely separate from the admission of sin and the repentance toward righteousness. If we are in the business of confessing and repenting, then of course Torquemada was an evil sadist and so far as our reputations are sullied by his distant and heretical behavior, we loudly deplore it, offering no excuse for it.

But when we are in the business of arguing whether Christianity, founded in her Scriptures, has produced better behavior overall and that the bad behavior is exhibitive not of orthodoxy, but of heresy, then all those qualifications apply. In that context they are not a weasely shirking of responsibility but a sober evaluation of historical detail. And in that context, the history of Christendom, for all its (admitted! repented!) outrages and disappointments, shows itself superior not only to Islam but to every other tradition in the world.

Embryos as Living Human Organisms

A Link to a debate in mid-stream:

Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, authors of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, reply in National Review Online to William Saletan's critique of their arguments.

The topic merits further review at a later time.

Amazed by the Qur'an

I've been keeping up with Robert Spencer's "Blogging the Qur'an" on a semi-regular basis.

As the weeks have gone by, and sura after sura has been considered, I have formed an overall reaction to the Qur'an as scripture:

The Qur'an is Amazingly Bad.

More specifically:

I am amazed at how shallow and ill-considered it is. I am amazed at how repetitive it is. I am amazed at how decidedly uninspired and uninspring it is. I am amazed that anyone could think it authored by God, and can only conclude it is through lack of imagination (or actual exposure) which would allow them to perceive how much higher the cognitive quality of genuine divine revelation would be.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Qur'an apparently changed over time and is not, in its current form, identical to its original form, I believe that the greatest argument against its divine authorship is in its content.

If the Qur'an were, as claimed by Muslims, the result of divine dictation, then apparently God had nothing better to say to man than:

(1.) You all lack free will, but I'll punish you for rejecting me anyway;

(2.) My followers should use force and connivance against all non-followers, with only a fig-leaf's worth of limitations;

(3.) I hereby endorse some of the sillier superstitions of the average 6th-century unlettered Arab tribesman; e.g., wash out your nose so the devil can't crawl up in there;

(4.) This book is perfect and you shouldn't question it;

(5.) Muhammad is the highest example of human behavior, and don't you dare question that;

(6.) Non-believers are icky and bad and merit only contempt and emnity;

(7.) Did I mention don't question this book? Or Muhammad?

(8.) Non-believers are really very icky;

(9.) So are women, but at least they aren't non-believers;

(10.) Don't forget: You can't question this book or Muhammad!

(11.) Correct moral behavior consists of mindless ritualism, so long as it is the particular ritualism described in this book;

(12.) Ain't this book great? (Don't question it!)

Muslim apologists offer the inimitability of the Qur'an as miraculous evidence of its divine authorship. The book itself endorses this view, challenging the reader to find anything comparable, any "sura like it."

Now that I see what it is actually like, my reaction to these challenges is: Who'd waste his time trying to generate an imitation of such a flawed and distasteful original? An art forger might copy a Monet, but he won't waste his time and skill copying a five-year-old's stick-figure.

Indeed all these challenges strike me as little more than the smack-talking that goes on in a rap competition or a game of "street hoops." Muhammad has depicted a God who busts out with, "I'm the biggest baddest m********** on the block, and you can't top my rhymes -- uh, that is, my suras -- so don't get all up in m'face, or I'll beat ya' down."

I will however qualify my judgment of the Qur'an with the following caveat: I cannot read Qur'anic Arabic. Muslim scholars put huge emphasis on the literary perfection of the Qur'an when rendered in the original Arabic. I will grant, therefore, that as regards poetic style, it may be exceptional.

But even then, I find it impossible to regard excellent literary qualities alone as a plausible argument for divine authorship. The Book of Kells, on the strength of its extraordinary artistry, was described by one observer as seemingly (if you didn't already know better) not the work of a man, but of an angel. But had the Book of Kells' actual meaning been as mind-numbing and insipid as that of the Qur'an, I gather this observation would have been made in an ironic tone instead of a reverent one.

If indeed the linguistic style of the Qur'an is superior, then, having learned more of its content, I can only say: What a waste of an artist's skill!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ideas Have Consequences

Ben Stein's complaint, expressed in this film, and the ongoing efforts of FIRE against this kind of thing, and the desire of the global warming crowd for a technocracy, all come as no surprise.

Men oppress other men. It is a result of man's natural attitude toward other men. (Christians call it original sin, but as this is often inexplicably confused, in non-Christian sources, with something about sex, I'll avoid the term in this post.)

Man in his natural state tends toward oppression because he wants what he wants, and the differing opinions and contrarian activities of other men stand in his way.

A man who, to any degree, views other men as intrinsically valuable, meriting every bit as much expression of their free wills as he does of his, will naturally be willing, to the same degree, to curtail his insistence on getting his own way in favor of other individuals being able to simultaneously get theirs. Free societies result from this stance.

But a man who lacks any reason to view other men (and the expression of their free will) as intrinsically valuable will take a different approach, striving for the maximum expression of his own will, and hoping to enlist or subdue the activity of all other men in support of his own ideas or desires. Oppressive societies are the result of this attitude. In such societies, whether Khomenist or Maoist, every man struggles for that position within the mechanism of the state which will most effectively allow him to pursue his agenda while using force to prevent any other man from interfering with his agenda. When possible, he will make himself dictator; where that is not possible, he will maneuver himself into a cadre of ruling elites (sometimes clerics, sometimes bureaucrats).

The attitude toward other men which produces oppression is the natural outgrowth of any philosophy which views man as essentially mechanistic and without free will. (For, if men are merely machines influenced by external reward/punishment stimuli, why shouldn't I alter those stimuli to nudge society in the direction of serving my own goals?)

This is not to say that persons who accept the view that men are purely mechanisms without free will will always support oppression. If they have been raised in a society which has only recently adopted the mechanistic view, then they will likely have been taught at their mother's knee to respect the free will of others, and they will continue to be influenced by this view even when their own philosophy undercuts it.

But by the third or fourth generation of a society in which men are universally viewed as mechanisms to be shoved about according to our own designs, this anachronistic view will be forgotten, and oppression will emerge, or begin to emerge. For ideas have consequences and when they are sufficiently widespread they always are reflected in the behavior of society's institutions.

Meanwhile, free societies, and such declarations as "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with...inalienable rights" are the result of a philosophy which holds that men are more than biological machines, and that their Creator, while hoping for them to freely choose that which is good and true, values their free will so much that He will risk them choosing that which is evil and false, so long as their freedom of choice is at least partly preserved.

It is notable that not all Theistic creeds hold the view that free will is valued by God, or even exists. Certain philosophical threads in Islam are quite amenable to the man-as-machine-sans-free-will view. That Iran and Saudi Arabia are as oppressive as Mao's China is expressive of their particular philosophical approach to Theism, not of Theism per se.

And it is also true that men can sometimes make decisions which are contrary to their own philosophies, if they would only examine their philosophies closely enough to see it. For just as philosophical Materialists who view men as machines will sometimes behave morally even when their own self-interest is not thereby served, so too will Theists who view free-will as among the greatest gifts of God to humanity still sometimes use force or fraud to override the free-will of their fellow men in pursuit of their own interests.

But, again, ideas have consequences, and exceptions to the rule will ultimately have less power to shape society than the rule itself. Even a Christian culture which sometimes produces Inquisitions will eventually produce the Magna Carta, and the Declaration of Independence, as a consequence of ideas. Even a political movement undertaken with the intent of building a "worker's paradise" will produce poverty and slavery when the individual workers are viewed as mere cogs in the great socialist machine.

And even an academy founded on freedom of inquiry will forcibly silence all critics and dissenters, both the wise and the foolish, if it holds that these critics and dissenters are made purely of mud with no spark of the divine. Ideas have consequences.

So, again, Ben Stein's complaint, expressed in this film, and the ongoing efforts of FIRE against this kind of thing, and the desire of the global warming crowd for a technocracy, all come as no surprise.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Is "calling a spade a spade" Christlike?

So, here's the news article:

Lawmaker apologizes for calling unmarried pregnant teens "sluts."

Words have meanings. They also have cadence, nuance, emotional and ideological overtones: An adjective tells us not only about the noun which it modifies, but about the speaker who uses it.

What, then, to say about a lawmaker who refers to unmarried, pregnant teens as "sluts?"

If by "slut" one means simply: "A person who engages in illicit sexual activity which, had it taken place between a married couple, would have been entirely appropriate" then the lawmaker has used the word correctly, given his assumptions about morality. Moreover, his use of the word tells us what those assumptions are: Persons should not have sex unless married.

Is that all there is to the subject? Should we endorse the lawmaker? He has apologized for the statement; should he instead have defended it as accurate?

I don't think so. He may not have known exactly why; in fact he may have been insincere, but his apology was appropriate. His statement was sinful and if he is a Christian he ought to recognize that. We must hope he has sought the forgiveness not only of unmarried pregnant teens and their sex partners, but also of his maker.

Why? Doesn't Christianity hold that sex outside marriage is a sin?

Why, yes, it does.

And if the correct definition of the word "slut" is that given above, then isn't using that word to describe unwed mothers and their sex partners merely an honest, accurate description? Isn't it merely "calling a spade a spade?"

No. It may be those things, but it is not "merely" those things. There is such a thing as being sensitive to both the "fundamental" and the "overtones."

In music, a vibrating string produces a recognizable note (the fundamental), but hidden in that sound is the same note, one octave higher, and another note, an octave and a fifth higher, and the original note two octaves higher, and more notes in still higher octaves displaced from the fundamental by intervals of a major 3rd and a minor 7th. The loudness of these overtones greatly influences the timbre of the instrument and, thereby, the role it can play in an ensemble.

The word "slut" is an abrupt expectoration of a word; it is like a pistol-shot, and its use in a sentence has overtones of verbal violence. It is difficult to use without sounding hateful.

I do not argue that a Christian should never express hatred in a sentence. Sometimes hatred has a proper object: Lies, Hypocrisy, Addiction, Cowardice, Foolishness are justly hated by the Christian. Aversion to such things is what hatred was made for. But Liars, Hypocrites, Addicts, Cowards, and Fools are not appropriate objects of hatred: They are children of God, made in his image, and we are exhorted to "hate the sin, but love the sinner."

The lawmaker, whose name I have not used here because he is far from alone in his error (I, at least, have made similar errors) and because the lesson is general in application, did not say that teens having sex out of wedlock are children of God behaving in a slutty manner. He said they were sluts.

The lawmaker, then, has made the error of describing a fellow human being as nothing more than the sum of his/her sin. This is a non-Christian attitude, and is itself a sin, requiring repentance and reconciliation to the injured, and to God.

I would add that other overtones are present in the use of the word "slut" here: The lawmaker sounds holier-than-thou, self-righteous. This is sadly the norm among American evangelical Christians in the public eye. (I do not say "among American evangelical Christians, generally" because the media have a habit of only reporting stories which fit a pre-existing narrative; their narrative about evangelicals is that they are self-righteous prigs; therefore, those are the only Christians who make it into the papers.)

If the lawmaker is actually a self-righteous prig, then of course that too is a sin and a particularly deadly one. If he is actually a humble sort who sounds like a prig through poor word choice, then he has accidentally contributed to the discrediting of the cause of Christ, but at least does not suffer from the soul-cancer of Spiritual Pride.

In either case, God forgives him and we must, also (else we have no promise that our own sins will be forgiven; see re: "The Lord's Prayer"). But where he has stumbled, we can hope to walk straight.

Unwed sex partners are behaving in a slutty fashion, male and female. Fair enough; let us say so, but in a way which shows compassion, which distinguishes between the sin and the sinner. If we've been prissy Pharisees, condemning those around us while our hearts are full of rot, then let us repent and learn humility, humbling ourselves before Our Lord sees fit to humble us! And as illicit sex is apparently a perennial symptom of human frailty in a fallen world, let us be seen adopting not only the children born of such mistakes but the children of God who made them, drawing them into our families and friendships for the sake of their own hearts' healing.

God, I'm fairly convinced what I just wrote was correct. If I have erred, show me how; if not, then give me the grace to live up to these ideals, which are so far above me. Amen.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Educating the Public: The Laffer Curve

Some concepts are so obviously correct, and so vital to the understanding and selection of public policy, that we should take every opportunity to educate our friends and neighbors about them.

One such concept is The Laffer Curve

Watch the video. If you don't, and are not already aware of its implications, the Doctor hereby revokes your authorization to vote in elections to national office.