Category Archives: Religion

Christian video games, where Jesus is the resurrection, the life, and the 1-up.

Via Pharyngula, here’s a slightly alarmist article about a video game based on the Left Behind novels.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City — 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).
Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, “Praise the Lord,” as they blow infidels away.

The article focuses on the disturbing eliminationist elements in the game, but I think any game that lets you play as the Antichrist can’t be all bad. I can just imagine playing this game as Team Evil, cackling madly as I unleash my demonic horde. Sounds like fun!
More seriously, I’m never quite sure how I feel about games like this (or the similar jihadi video games that show up in the Middle East). The usual worry is that the eliminationist scenario and dehumanized opponents will make the player more inclined to real-world violence. But the counter-argument is that video games provide an outlet for political frustration and revenge fantasies, and hence reduce the amount of real-world violence. I’m not thoroughly convinced by either argument: really this is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric in the conservative Christian subculture that comprises Left Behind‘s target audience, and thus is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

The problem of evil strikes back

We’ve probably had enough discussion of the problem of evil on this blog, but I can’t help pointing out it’s appearance in the news. Apparently one world leader, upon visiting Auschwitz, had the following reaction:

“In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God — Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?
“Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?”

Indeed, these are questions any religious skeptic might ask, but it’s surprising to hear them from Pope Benedict. It seems like the sort of thing a guy in his position should have the answer to. (Via Majikthise.)
In a slightly parallel story, Mark at Cosmic Variance watches as Billy Graham comes very close to endorsing a skeptical outlook on religious claims. I must say this is a promising trend among major religious figures toward inquiry and empiricism, but somehow I don’t see it lasting very long.

Yet more religion blogging: Genocidal gods

I don’t mean to be obsessed with religion lately, but I keep seeing opportunities to blog about it. Blogger Mark Kleiman sometimes posts notes from his Tanakh study group; I usually skip these posts, but the latest was of interest. It discusses one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible, 1 Samuel 15. I’m particularly interested in this passage because it’s the first place I go if I want to argue that the Bible should not be regarded as having any moral authority.
The Samuel of the book’s title is a Hebrew prophet, and this chapter occurs during Saul’s reign as king of Israel. Now, God is pissed off at another tribe, the Amalekites, for how they treated the Israelites during their escape from Egypt, which was hundreds of years prior at this point in the Bible. So he has Samuel instruct Saul to do the only thing consistent with a just, moral God: kill every man, woman, and child in the Amalekite tribe. Also, Saul is to kill all the livestock to show they mean business and aren’t just after spoils. So, Saul takes the Israelite army and commits divinely mandated genocide, wiping out the tribe—except that they spare the Amalekite king and some of the livestock. Naturally God gets angry with Saul and strips him of his kingship, because his genocidal instructions were not followed to the letter. Samuel’s so angry he personally grabs a sword and messily executes the Amalekite king.
So, you see the problem here. No god that orders such an atrocity is worthy of worship; in fact, basic morality requires that one actively oppose such a god, even if this results in being smited into ash. I was curious to see what Kleiman’s notes would say in regards to this passage; he seems disturbed by it and looks for some justification in the text, but finds little:

We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel’s final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn’t say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.

I don’t buy this bit about “HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions”. For one thing, it’s humans that are actually carrying out the genocide on God’s orders. And furthermore, it’s not clear why I should hold God to a lower moral standard than I hold mortals. Now, one approach is to say that God is the one who gets to define morality—after all, he’s the one handing down the stone tablets—so by definition nothing God does can be immoral. If that’s the case, then fuck morality; I am going to adhere to a different system of ethics, which I call “schmorality”, that holds (among other things) that genocide is always wrong. Come on, this one doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Another important point, and this is sort of a Humean argument, is that even if it’s ok to commit genocide when God commands it, one should never obey apparent commands from God to commit genocide. After all, if I hear a voice claiming to be God and instructing me to murder a bunch of people, I am going to consider several possibilities. Maybe it’s actually God, or maybe I’ve gone crazy and am hearing voices in my head, or maybe it’s a malevolent being impersonating God. This goes double if it’s not a voice in my head, but some dude named Samuel. Then I’ll consider how probable it is that it’s really God and not one of the other possibilities, and weigh this against the enormity of the crime I am going to commit. Probably it’s not God, and even if it is, the worst that can happen from disobeying is that he smites me and tries to get someone else to do it. Whereas if I’m wrong about it being God, I’ve just killed a bunch of people for no reason. So basic morality demands that one disobey these sorts of commands.
A different defense one can take regarding 1 Samuel 15 is to say that it’s not an accurate description of events, but is fiction. If one still wants to preserve the rest of the Bible as a moral authority, one then has to decide if it was rightfully included as a kind of metaphorical tale or parable meant to teach a lesson, or if it was mistakenly included and is merely Bronze Age tribal propaganda. If I were religious, I would reject the former possibility out of hand. It would seem to me the foulest of blasphemies to ascribe such behavior to God. Whatever lesson this is supposed to impart, it’s the wrong one, since one should actually disobey these commands from God. On the other hand, if it was wrongfully included, the judgement of the mortal editors compiling the Old Testament or Tanakh is therefore suspect. Clearly these guys had no moral or spiritual authority themselves, or they would have recognized that this passage did not belong with the other books. And this in turn undermines the authority of the rest of the Bible: if you can’t trust the inclusion of this book, why trust any of the others? And so I think this chapter is a huge problem for any religion that claims the Old Testament as a holy text.

The true spirit of Easter

Warning: this post is profane and blasphemous. Well, more so than usual.
I rarely promote a religious message on this blog, but today I would like you all to consider the spirit of Easter. No, not Jesus and brightly colored candy; the true spirit of Easter: fucking. After all, it is commonly thought that the Christian Easter was an assimilation of pagan fertility rites, which undoubtedly entailed lots of wild pagan sex. Now, my exhaustive research based on one or two Wikipedia pages indicates that the fertility goddess Eostre was actually invented by some dudes well after the fact. But this just puts it at the same epistemological status as Jesus coming back from the dead, so I don’t see any problem.
So let’s bring Easter back to its apocryphal orgiastic origins, and put the erection back in resurrection. I’d like to encourage everyone to celebrate the day by grabbing a hot specimen of your preferred gender and screwing like (Easter) bunnies. You’re single? No problem, this isn’t goddamn Valentine’s Day. Just go out and find a willing participant for some casual, no-strings-attached sacred springtime rituals. Lots of people will be hanging around churches today so you might start there.
Just don’t take the “fertility” part too literally—if I end up on a plane with a screaming baby as a result of this post, I won’t be pleased. Besides, you can annoy many sects of Christianity even more by using birth control.
And what will I be doing to celebrate the holiday, you so weren’t going to ask? Well, actually… I’ll probably be in the lab. But in the spirit of Easter, I’ll be measuring a pair of coupled qubits. And you know qubit sex is pretty hot, when they can take on all possible positions simultaneously. Don’t think of me as a physicist, think of me as a quantum porn photographer.

Thoughts on neurotheology

I don’t mean to repost all of Pharyngula’s links, but here’s an article about neuroscience experiments into religious experience. One scientist claims to be able to produce religious sensations in 80% of subjects by applying magnetic fields to their brains. This doesn’t surprise me very much; more amusing is that he gave the test to hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins and it had no effect. The article speculates that this might be evidence of a kind of “talent for religion”, but I wonder if it could be the opposite: since Dawkins never goes to church, he doesn’t exercise that part of his brain so it becomes less sensitive. I know I’ve seen experiments that show that certain types of mental exercise will have a measureable effect on brain physiology. But you neuroscience people can correct me if I’m just making this up.
One issue that I haven’t seen raised is that, at least in my experience, the sensations one has in a religious context aren’t unique to religion. Back when I was a believer and a regular churchgoer, I would have feelings of oneness and a kind of glowing happiness that I thought at the time came from the presence of God. But I also get these feelings while out running, or at a good rock concert, or when I have some new insight about physics (either through my own experiments or hearing about some new and interesting result). So is this the kind of feeling that the neuroscience experiments are inducing? The article also mentions a “sensed presence”, which I’ve never had in church or elsewhere (except for sleep paralysis experiences, but I think that’s a bit different). So do most people get the sensed presence in church, and I’m just insensitive to it like Dawkins? It’s an interesting thought, that the experiences of most religious people might be qualitatively different from those I had when I was religious.

The Gospel of Gazebo

I had a bit of writer’s block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it’s been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it’s interesting to see some of the reactions.
Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:

If you don’t read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.

The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.
But it’s easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that’s not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they’ve addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.
This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he’s all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he’s suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven’t changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I’d convert to this instantly.
So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn’t mean it’ll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it’s all a bunch of made-up stories doesn’t seem to be very popular in this country.

Is there hope for Arkansas?

Doesn’t look like it:

“Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts.
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.”
In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

It’s just insane that in the 21st century, young earth creationists are de facto deciding the curriculum in some parts of this country. In this case we should just refer to the Kung Fu Monkey motto: “Everybody who wants to live in the 21st Century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800’s over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that.”

Are the dolphins embarrassed too?

Via alicublog, Peggy Noonan has a hilariously crazy column up in which she asserts that (a) she is such a delicate flower that she feels violated by the fact that modern culture does not adhere to Victorian standards of propriety, and (b) for Lent, she is giving up not being an obnoxious prude. One might wonder how we would know the difference, but fortunately she’s come up with a catchphrase:

Lent began yesterday, and I mean to give up a great deal, as you would too if you were me. One of the things I mean to give up is the habit of thinking it and not saying it. A lady has some rights, and this happens to be one I can assert.
“You are embarrassing the angels.” This is what I intend to say for the next 40 days whenever I see someone who is hurting the culture, hurting human dignity, denying the stature of a human being. I mean to say it with belief, with an eye to instruction, but also pointedly, uncompromisingly. As a lady would. All invited to join in.

Can you believe that someone wrote that, and it was published in The Wall Street Journal? Peggy, you are embarrassing the humans. Anyway, I for one look forward to seeing her quoted on Overheard in New York trying out her new slogan.

ID Whack-a-mole: Nevada

Shellock sends along this story about a guy trying to get anti-evolution provisions into the Nevada constitution. Fortunately, he seems to be one of the less organized species of crackpot:

Las Vegas masonry contractor Steve Brown filed his initiative petition with the secretary of state’s office, and must collect 83,184 signatures by June 20 to get the plan on the November ballot. To amend the Nevada Constitution, he’d have to win voter approval this year and again in the 2008 elections.
Brown said Tuesday that he hopes that volunteers will help him collect the signatures, but at this point has no name-gathering organization set up. A Democrat and member of a nondenominational church, he said he hoped for broad support from people who share his views.

(Emphasis mine.) Presumably some creationist lobbying group could step in and help gather the signatures, but I don’t think even the Discovery Institute is that dumb. I know it’s a bad idea to bet against the stupidity of the American people, but I expect this particular proposal to fizzle out. Actually, given that the movement here consists of one dude, I wonder why it’s getting any press coverage at all. There are plenty of crazy guys on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose theories and legal proposals are equally newsworthy.
(I see Pharyngula also has this story.)

Fasting and Religious Markets

The Catholicism Cafeteria is getting so popular that even Protestants are dining there. Or not dining, rather: as this Slate piece explains, some Protestant churches are taking up fasting for Lent and other traditionally Catholic rituals of the season.

Over the last few years, more Protestant churches have begun daubing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity (March 1 this year). Fasting, long familiar to Catholics as a Lenten fact of life, is increasingly popular with evangelical Christians striving for spiritual awakening. A few mainline Protestant churches even conduct foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday—the traditional commemoration of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples—that takes place on the Thursday before Easter.

It seems sort of silly at first glance—wasn’t the whole point of the Reformation to get rid of all the arbitrary rules and rituals?—but thinking about it, it makes some sense. Most major religions have an element of asceticism, clearly people find it spiritually appealing, so it’s not surprising that fasting would cross denominational lines. Fasting for Lent has the advantage of being a particularly temporary and limited form of asceticism, so it’s not too much of a sacrifice to adopt.
More interesting was the statistic that one-third of believers change churches at least once in their lifetimes. This number is almost certainly much higher than it once was, as historically people have tended to remain in the sect they were born into. One might expect churches to become more market-driven under these circumstances, and then mixing and matching of rituals like this is a natural consequence. (I suspect one can also attribute the rise of megachurches to the increasing importance of market forces in religion, sort of a Wal-Martization of churches. Or is the Catholic Church the Wal-Mart of churches?)
One more thing—John Calvin deserves some kind of unintentional irony award for this:

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance.”

Right. As opposed to the empirical science that is Calvinism.