Category Archives: Religion

Rise (and kneeling) of the machines

Via Tyler Cowen, this looks like a good way to scam people who subscribe to a very odd theology:

Information Age Prayer is a site that charges you a monthly fee to say prayers for you. A typical charge is $4.95 per month to say three prayers specified by you each day.
“We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying,” the company states. “Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen.”
Prices, however, are dictated by the length of the prayer. As noted in the Information Age Prayer FAQ, “A discounted prayer will cost less than other prayers of similar length.”

The scam is not that they don’t provide any value: presumably they supply some kind of peace of mind to the sort of person who goes for this, although I’m not sure it’s $4.95/mo worth of peace of mind. The actual potential for scamming here is there’s no way of verifying that they’ve performed the promised service at all, short of visiting their physical location (if it even exists). Then again, verifiability is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for someone credulous enough to find this idea attractive. It seems to hinge on some unusual assumptions about prayer, specifically that it’s a kind of magic spell that needs to be vocalized, but having a machine vocalize it is a valid alternative to doing it yourself. (On the other hand, to hear Fred Clark tell it, the notion of prayer-as-magic-spell is a prevalent feature in the bestselling Left Behind series, so maybe this isn’t such an unusual assumption after all.)
Entertainingly, the Yahoo News article goes from reporting on this service to cataloging occurrences of praying robots in science fiction, naturally including the Cylon religion in the recent Battlestar Galactica. However, Information Age Prayer seems to be less akin to the frakkin’ toasters than it is to, well, ordinary toasters.

Historical precedents

Perhaps the silliest part of this article about aggressive Christian proselytizing by the U.S. Olympic archery coach is this near the end:

To be an effective archer, Lee said, athletes must learn to clear their heads and focus. “If you are Christian,” he said, “then people can have that kind of empty mind.”
Asked if people of other faiths could learn to focus in the same way, Lee said he was not sure.

He’s not sure? Is he really unaware that Zen Buddhists used this very technique for centuries in Japan? It seems like an Olympic archery coach should know this.
Anyway, it’s hard to get too worked up about archery, but clearly this guy should be fired—his faith-based coaching described in the article is completely inappropriate and unquestionably could drive away talented athletes who aren’t Christian. And even if those archers don’t leave the team, I can’t imagine that it helps them focus.

Frank Tipler {TECH}s up the Bible

When I was in high school, a physicist named Frank Tipler published a book called The Physics of Immortality. The book purported to show that modern cosmology was not only compatible with Christianity, but predicted something like Christian theology including the concept of an afterlife. At the time I was still a believer, and was becoming interested in physics, so I was curious to see what the book had to say.
It was bad—really bad. So much so that even with only a high school knowledge of physics, and a predisposition to accept its conclusions, I found it ridiculously implausible. It wouldn’t even have made it as bad science fiction (although Charlie Stross borrowed the concept in a more interesting way in Iron Sunrise). Years later, taking Caltech’s intro astronomy course, I had the pleasure of hearing the professor deliver a very unflattering digression on Frank Tipler.
I was reminded of all this when I found out (via Sean Carroll) that Tipler has a new book out: The Physics of Christianity. And it sounds even sillier, if possible. It seems that Tipler is now interested in explaining various Biblical miracles though physics, for example: (from Victor Stenger’s review)

In the case of Jesus walking on water, protons and electrons in the normal matter in a layer of water under his feet are annihilated. The neutrinos produced go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.

This is actually similar to what you see in other The Physics of… books, such as in The Physics of Harry Potter‘s explanation of how the Sorting Hat could be implemented with SQUID sensors. But those books are, as Sean Carroll points out, just fun exercises in comparing fictional worlds to the real world. On the other hand, Frank Tipler is trying to explain supposed actual historical events, and it’s hard to see what the point is of making up some story about a hypothetical decay process underpinning various miracles. Does it really change anyone’s understanding, believer or not, to go from “Jesus could walk on water because he’s omnipotent” to “Jesus could walk on water because he could annihilate protons with electrons on demand, because he’s omnipotent”? It doesn’t do any explanatory work.
And so what all this suggests to me is that Frank Tipler thinks the Bible should be more like Star Trek. A while back I found this post on an RPG-related blog, which explains how technical language gets inserted into Star Trek scripts:

I am told that the writers of Star Trek scripts do not usually come up with all of the jargon that the characters use. Instead, they just make the notation {TECH} wherever the characters should say something technical, and someone else will come along to fill in each such instance with some chunk of technobabble. This has an important story consequence: since the science is completely arbitrary, it’s necessarily the case that the plot can’t really hinge, in a compelling way, on the technical and scientific choices the characters face. It’s all just {TECH}, and at best technobabble can provides sci-fi color, and at worst it’s an excuse for a deus ex machina resolution.

So I imagine that Frank Tipler reads the Bible and sees a bunch of {TECH} notations that he feels compelled to fill in himself. And the last sentence of that quote describes the effect pretty well, which is why even as a believer I found Tipler’s book unsatisfying.

The parable of the priest at the atheists’ group

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an excessively long post on religion, but I was inspired today. Normally I would put most of it below the fold, but I haven’t posted in like a week, so I’ll just let it fill the empty space on the front page.
Fred Clark has a couple of interesting posts at Slacktivist: the first one about what he calls “Biblical illiteralists”—fundamentalist Christians who don’t understand literary device and insist that obviously metaphorical stories from the Bible are historical fact—and the second post about the same tendency among some atheists—those who claim that, because some stories in the Bible are risible when interpreted as historical accounts, this casts doubt on the entire religious enterprise. This latter struck me as a bit straw-man-ish at first, but when I thought about it I realized that I do hear these kinds of simplistic arguments for atheism at times. In fact, it reminded me of an experience I had when I first came to Berkeley.
During my first semester here I didn’t know very many people, so I sampled some of the student groups in the hopes of meeting some friends. One group that looked interesting was a kind of weekly discussion group for atheists with topics centered around morality, metaphysics, and religion (as a societal institution). Hoping perhaps for a continuation of the classic late-night dorm room bullshit sessions, I showed up for a few meetings.
Inevitably, the group contained a number of what Fred Clark calls “sectarian atheists”, which is partly why I was reminded of this. I was also surprised and amused to see an older man with a priest’s collar at each meeting. He was in fact a priest, ordained in the Anglican church, and attended the meetings not just to tweak us atheists (although he did seem a bit mischievous) but to participate in the dialogue, and generally made positive contributions to the discussion.
The standard format called for an invited speaker each week who would get the discussion started by talking on some topic of interest. One week the priest himself was invited to give his side of the story. He talked about his view of religion and his role as a priest, and some of his comments were strikingly similar to what Fred Clark says in the posts I linked above. He discussed literary devices, metaphor in particular, and emphasized that metaphor is a natural mode of communication for humans, employed heavily by the Bible, and it’s a mistake to try to read metaphorical passages as historical accounts. Of course he was talking not only about religious fundamentalists but about atheists who insist on this very naive reading of religious texts, some of whom were in the audience.
Two things struck me as I listened to his talk: first, that the priest was making a lot of sense even if I didn’t see things the same way, and second, that many of the people in the room simply didn’t understand what he was saying. Judging from the picayune and tangential objections they were raising, they had entirely missed the point and were convinced he had to be wrong simply because he was religious. When Fred Clark talks about sectarian atheists, these are the people I think of. That was the last meeting I attended; I was unimpressed by an atheists’ group where the most sensible person in the room was a priest.
Going back to Fred Clark, in the first of his two posts he points out that (for example) the Noah’s Ark story has precisely the form of a just-so story (in the original Kipling sense), where the point of the story is not an accurate recounting of facts but to pass on some more abstract principle. Whether one is religious or not, to read it as something other than a parable is crazy or obtuse. But because of the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy in some circles, people on both sides get hung up on whether Noah’s Ark happened exactly as it says. I agree with Clark that this is extremely silly.
But it seems to me that this silliness is not limited to the “Biblical literalism” crowd; in fact, it extends to almost all Christians. I imagine one can get a sizable fraction of Christians to agree that Noah’s Ark is just a parable, and likewise the creation story, and Jonah-in-the-whale and the story of Job and so forth. But what about the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection? My sense (I don’t have polling data) is that the historical truth of the resurrection is a core Christian belief, and almost all Christians believe it. And yet, if Noah’s Ark has all the trappings of metaphor (and it does), so does the resurrection story. Journeys to the underworld and returning from the dead were extremely common tropes in ancient mythology, with clear metaphorical connotations. There’s no reason to read this particular instance as a historical account, but almost all Christians do.
Indeed, many will argue that someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a Christian at all. Reading the obviously-metaphorical parts of the Gospel as metaphor removes the divinity of Jesus, makes him perhaps a notable quasi-historical figure like Socrates or Buddha, about whom some tall tales were told to illustrate his teachings. And the same could be said about the Bible as a whole. Once we view the book as a collection of fantasical morality tales, God becomes a fictional character, a narrative conceit that links the stories together. And so it’s very strange indeed to turn around and say, well, this was all just metaphor but this one character in the story really exists!
So I don’t see why a sophisticated reading of the Bible, recognizing metaphorical passages as such, doesn’t lead directly to atheism. Probably in a lot of cases people set apart the sections corresponding to core beliefs, like the resurrection, and refrain from analyzing them in this manner, while freely interpreting more disposable stories (like Noah) as parable.
Can someone be a Christian and yet interpret the Bible consistently as metaphor? I once met such a person—the priest who spoke at the atheism group. As he explained his beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus was an illustrative story and God was a metaphor for a kind of collective property of humankind, not a distinct metaphysical entity. His Christianity was then based around his belief that this metaphorical structure was extremely valuable for understanding human nature. (This would be the part I didn’t agree with.) Nevertheless, if the word atheist has any meaning, it means someone who doesn’t believe in any gods as actual metaphysical entities, and so to my mind, this man was an atheist—one of us! Unfortunately the more dogmatic atheists in the room couldn’t see past his collar, and never grasped what he was trying to say.
And that’s the parable of the priest at the atheists’ group. Although this one did really happen.

A world of atheists

There’s a really interesting post by Matthew Yglesias from last week that I only got around to reading today. The topic is the argument one sometimes hears that the widespread nature of religious experience is somehow evidence of the supernatural. The whole post is worth reading, but here’s the punchline:

There’s clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts — in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. — but there’s no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don’t believe that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don’t believe that Muhammed was Allah’s greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don’t believe that you’ll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

I’m reminded of the famous quote from Stephen F. Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Religion at its most disturbing

Could Christian fundamentalism get any more creepy? (Without whispering?)
Exhibit A: “Purity Balls”. Kind of like proms, except your date is your dad, and you pledge to be sexually abstinent until your dad gives you away in marriage. There’s no equivalent for boys, of course. You can watch a squicky promo video, but you might wish you hadn’t. Subtexts: misogyny, incest.
Exhibit B: “Quiverfull”. As detailed here, the Quiverfull movement is based on the idea that women should reject all forms of birth control and become baby factories building an army for Jesus. Quiverfull devotees often have upwards of ten children, and the number of kids even becomes a status symbol. What’s really sad about this is that many of these families can’t afford to raise so many children, and get stuck in crushing poverty. Much of this movement is driven by paranoia about higher birth rates among Muslims or minorities in general. Subtexts: misogyny, racism.
Exhibit C: Ted Haggard’s “Spiritual Restoration”. This article quotes a Focus on the Family spokesman explaining what this might involve. One gets a certain mental picture from quotes like this:

“I see success approximately 50 percent of the time,” said H.B. London, vice president for church and clergy at Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian ministry in Colorado Springs. “Guys just wear out and they can no longer subject themselves to the process.”

“It will have to become almost a confrontational relationship,” he said. “You’ve got to confess your sins and you’ve got to have a group of people around you who will not let you whitewash the issue.”

And this:

“From the Christian perspective, we think in terms of prayer, we think in terms of what we call godly counsel, where godly men who are clean themselves insert themselves in the life of the one who is struggling,” London said.
The symbolic laying on of hands may also be a part of the recovery, London said.

…which suggests something other than a “spiritual restoration”. Subtexts: Spanish Inquisition, BDSM.
I recommend reading these articles while listening to The Thermals’ album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a pop-punk indictment of the religious right in America. (I happened to be listening to it when I found the Quiverfull article.)

Shouldn’t the companion be named Norton?

Via Dynamics of Cats, the “dwarf planet” whose discovery led to Pluto’s demotion has been named Eris, losing its previous informal name of Xena. Steinn responds with an appropriate “Hail Eris!”, but then wonders if dwarf planets should have dwarf names.
As a sometime-admirer of the Goddess (one of the patron deities of Kaos Alley), I am pleased to see her recognized here, even if it is a dinky little dwarf planet. (At least it has an appropriately eccentric orbit.) In her honor, I suggest going bowling, eating hotdogs (especially tomorrow), or generally doing something chaotic. Initiates can go here, and click randomly in the table of contents.
Via Pharyngula, the Bad Astronomy blog finds a wingnut who thinks that this naming choice is… a vicious liberal attack on George W. Bush. His argument is based on the fact that the Caltech is in California and therefore must be a major liberal enclave. I would like to propose a slightly more plausible theory, in which the game Illuminati is an accurate representation of world affairs, and the Discordian Society has just added the IAU to their power structure.

And I feel fine

I was pretty sure this was going on, but Harper’s actually mined some apocalypse-oriented message boards for quotes from crazy people who are ecstatic about the war in Lebanon, because it is apparently a clear sign that the Rapture is approaching. Not the band, which would be equally fearsome, but that peculiar item in some flavors of Christian eschatology where God kills off spirits away all the believers and children, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to endure the tribulations that follow. To prevent us from making smartass remarks about the potential upsides of all the hardcore conservative Christians vanishing from the Earth, this version of the end-times calls for demons and plagues and rivers of blood for the infidels. So you can see why it’s something to be joyful about.
But wait a minute, exactly what prophecy is being fulfilled here? Basically, the book of Revelation makes the bold statement that there will be violent conflict in the Middle East. So a war breaks out involving Israel, something which has happened approximately every fifteen minutes since the dawn of time—surely this is a sign of the apocalypse! Really, these guys should at least wait for Jesus to appear on a tortilla (or, um, God on an alligator) before they break out the Rapture champagne sparkling cider.

Putin and his robot army battle Cthulhu

When he’s not getting advice from Bush on how to emulate the free and stable democracy of Iraq, Vladimir Putin is addressing the important issues of the day:

Asked about the possible awakening of the giant mythical octopus Cthulhu, the fourth-most popular question among the more than 150,000 sent to Putin, he said that he believed something more serious was behind the question. Cthulhu was invented by novelist H.P. Lovecraft and was said to be sleeping beneath the Pacific Ocean.
Putin said he viewed mysterious forces with suspicion and advised those who took them seriously to read the Bible, Koran or other religious books.

[The original article seems to have gone behind a subscription wall; excerpt via Majikthise.] It’s good to see that some world leaders are concerned about this issue. Someone should ask Bush about his Cthulhu policy, although I suspect that he too would say, “Read the Bible.” (Or possibly, “I thought you were going to ask about the pig.”)

Eulogy by the Medium Lobster

It takes a true master of bullshit to out-do the quote in the previous post for sheer ridiculousness, so naturally it would be a reverend at the Ken Lay funeral who pulls it off:

The Reverend Dr. Bill Lawson compared Lay with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ, and said his name would eventually be cleared.

Words fail me. (Via Pharyngula.)
UPDATE: Via Lawyers, Guns, and Money I find that there’s more:

Lawson likened Lay to James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death in a racially motivated murder near Jasper eight years ago.
“Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, as James Byrd was, but I’m angry because Ken was the victim of a lynching,” said Lawson, who predicted that history will vindicate Lay.

As far as I can tell, the only thing Lay had in common with the other three is that they all died.