Arizona SB1062: By Bigots for Bigots, Part One

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Introduction

Arizona made a big splash in political news with the introduction of its Senate Bill 1062. The bill is targeted to allow people with strongly held religious views to refuse trade with individuals who offend the holders sensibilities. Predictably, the LGBT community immediately mobilized against the bill because that community is frequently marginalized, but there is no evidence that the bill is aimed specifically at that community. Here is the title (SB1062):

SENATE BILL 1062

AN ACT

AMENDING SECTIONS 41‑1493 AND 41‑1493.01, ARIZONA REVISED STATUTES; RELATING TO THE FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION.

Since this bill is founded on the idea of religious freedom, it is instructive to understand what religion and more importantly, the exercise of religion means in the context of the bill. Here is definition 2 from the bill (SB1062):

2. “Exercise of religion” means the PRACTICE OR OBSERVANCE OF RELIGION, INCLUDING THE ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.

Please read the previous definition again and take thirty seconds to ponder it in its fulness. Of particular interest are the words “ability to act or refusal to act”, “substantially motivated by a religious belief”, and “whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief”. Distilled, this allows any religious conviction by any person.

Of course, a person is an individual and one person’s individual freedom may not be allowed to harm another’s freedom, right? Here is the definition of “Person” from the bill (SB1062):

5. “Person” ANY INDIVIDUAL, ASSOCIATION, PARTNERSHIP, CORPORATION, CHURCH, RELIGIOUS ASSEMBLY OR INSTITUTION OR OTHER BUSINESS ORGANIZATION.

At this point one might suspect that this is simply jargon carried over from prior legislation, and that in an operational circumstance such as a court action, the language would be viewed differently. Maybe there is some glimmer of hope that this bill does not say what it seems to say. The fact sheet for the bill includes (Fact Sheet):

Purpose

Modifies the definition of exercise of religion and allows a person to assert a free exercise claim or defense in a judicial proceeding regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.

In the previous definition the word “person” is used. Don’t forget the definition of “person” from above. A “person’ can be an individual of course, but a “person” can also be almost any legal entity. The fine print would stop the government from exercising a religious claim, but there are few if any other restrictions. With this, the “person” has grounds, by virtue of the “free exercise claim”, to do business or refuse business to any other “person”.

Simple Questions

With the foundation firmly laid, let us consider these questions. If the proprietor of a restaurant is a practicing naturalist with religious convictions about green energy, can the proprietor refuse service to an individual who drives an SUV, uses unfair amounts of electricity, and otherwise disregards the environment? In this case, further suppose that the proprietor and the individual know each other; thus, the proprietor has adequate knowledge of the others habits upon which to found a refusal of service on religious grounds?

Now consider two mormons. One believes in polygamy and the other does not. The individual that does not believe in polygamy owns a restaurant. The individual that believes in polygamy is vocal about the belief but practices monogamy and wishes to patronize the restaurant. Is the mere vocal belief in polygamy valid grounds upon which to refuse service?

The previous two scenarios consider practice and belief. Finally, consider suspicion. A christian proprietor of a restaurant sees two young men around town and knows that the two own a home together. Thus, the proprietor suspects homosexuality. Is the suspicion enough grounds upon which to refuse service?

Arguments asserting the right of the individual in any of the three preceding cases can be made, but clearly each becomes more outrageous. In part, the bill attempts to defend the “person” refusing service using the following portion of the first amendment, subsequently reinforced by Arizona state law (Fact Sheet:

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in relevant part that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The latter portion of the provision is known as the Free Exercise Clause. In 1990, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which instructed courts to apply strict scrutiny when government substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a law of general applicability. However, the United States Supreme Court has since held that the federal RFRA may not be extended to the states and local governments (City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997)).

In response to City of Boerne v. Flores, Arizona enacted state-level protection from the government substantially burdening the free exercise of religion using the strict scrutiny compelling interest test (Laws 1999, Chapter 332). Accordingly, government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is both in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest (A.R.S. § 41-1493.01).

Conclusion

On the surface, it would appear that the legislators who approved the bill are defending the First Amendment. However, it is incongruous to suggest that support of the First Amendment allows one group to discriminate against another. Further, regulations are intended to promote level play. It is difficult to see how this legislation can have that effect.

Part Two of this series will examine, in greater detail, what practices will be protected. While waiting, take the two question Bigot Survey. Would you as a business owner refuse service to an individual or group and use this legislation as a defense? If the individual or group you refused in the previous question owned a business, would you refuse to be a customer, regardless of legislation? If so, you are a bigot. Here is the definition:

Someone having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one’s own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others.

— Andrew —

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Death of a snake handler: when religion bites back

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These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes with their hands, and whatever poison they drink will not harm them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will be well.” Mark 16:17-18

The death of Jamie Coots: the star of reality show, “Snake Salvation” is all over the news. Need I bother mentioning what he died from? Yes, he died from snake bite. ABC did a piece on snake handling featuring Coots and others. It is about 10 minutes long. It is well worth viewing:

There is a lot to unpack, and I will not get to it all. Before we get to the civic issues, I want to take a closer look at the religious angle. The bible is clearer on this subject than most. The passage with which I opened this post makes it clear that those who believe in the name of Jesus will pick up snakes with their hands and be safe from poison. Before continuing, let us consider a scale of religious lunacy: 5 being as nutty as it gets, 0 being not at all crazy. I would put snake handling at a 4.2. It is not the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. We might give the act of speaking in tongues a 3, and healing the sick by laying on hands, a 2.5. Driving out demons gets the same score from me. Yet, all of these things are promised in the same verse, and given equal billing. If you believe in any one of those things, you should also accept snake handling.

The liberal Christian who prays to their god for various and sundry magical interventions has no right to roll their eyes at the snake handler. Believing that one will survive the bite of a poisonous snake requires less magic, and has more validity than believing that your telepathic pleadings are being transmitted and received by a person who lives beyond space, and that the person can and will, as a result of those transmissions, intervene in the course of nature to make your life a little better. Now that’s crazy. Mainstream Christians who try to distance themselves from the insanity of snake handling are so far down the rabbit hole, they are no longer capable of recognizing irony.

Things are just as interesting from the civic point of view. The religious practice of snake handling has been outlawed in much of the US. Southern states seem to have laws on the books specifically dealing with religious snake handling. As you might imagine, the practice is most prevalent in the South. Lawmakers have had to deal with the issue in that region where people are more likely to stick their hand in a basket of rattle snakes in the name of the Lord. Some of these laws make a point to call out religious snake handling as opposed to just handling snakes for other purposes. At least one seems to outlaw the handling of even non-poisonous snakes in a religious setting.

While this direct attack on religion makes me chuckle, it also leaves me baffled. In some places, it is illegal to keep certain types of animals as pets. Poisonous snakes are among those forbidden animals, along with lions, tigers, and bears. In those states, forbidding snake handling makes more sense. But on a practical level, snake handling is extremely common and not illegal. People do it all the time. I have been associated with a number of church camps. Though I do not have the skill, I’ve known lots of people who routinely handle poisonous snakes, mostly to remove them from the camp site where kids are likely to be. In fact, I’ve known kids who could do it. In some parts of the country, it is a rather practical skill to have. I wish I had it. If a camp counselor grabs a snake and says a prayer while handling it, is he snake handling? Where I grew up, he would not be doing anything illegal, immoral, or weird. It only gets weird when it is done in a church building while dancing to Christian music and speaking in tongues. The wannabe attorney in me is inclined to defend the snake handlers.

Just the other day, I went on a tirade about the Arizona law that allows business owners to practice open discrimination just as long as it is religiously motivated. This is a stupid and dangerous exercise of religious freedom that will adversely effect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of millions of people. Snake handling as a religious practice effects a few cultists that represent an evolutionary dead end. Yet the law comes down on them as if they mattered to society. They don’t. The more practitioners of snake handling who die from snake bite, the less attractive the religion becomes… and that’s a good thing.

In the end, that might be the reason why snake handling has been outlawed in the Southern states. Those kooks give conservative religion a black eye. Religionists have no reasonable way to distance themselves from the more obvious nut jobs. They all will be lumped together. However, outlaw and marginalize the snake handlers, and the fundamentalist message is less diluted. I don’t know how much sense that theory makes. But it makes more sense than the laws currently on the books. Religion is making fools of us all.

David Johnson

…Except for religion

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No, their not bigots! Just because they refuse to serve you due to your race, gender, religion, or sexual preference does not mean they are racists pig, slime-sucking dogs. They are protected from these charges because of religion. That’s right. In Arizona, there is legislation that gives business owners the right to refuse service, or discriminate in any way on the bases that doing otherwise would offend their religious sensibilities. Yes, that same discrimination would be considered illegal and immoral in every situation except for religion. Add God into the mix, and Arizona is willing to bless your righteous bigotry. This is a role imaginary gods have played many times in the past.

Religion-Based Discrimination in Arizona: Serving Up Bigotry

On Thursday Arizona state legislature approved a bill allowing business owners to discriminate against customers whom they feel would violate owners’ personal religious beliefs. SB 1062 does not specifically mention who would be excluded, although across the U.S., state legislatures are taking action to prevent potential lawsuits for refusal of service based on sexual orientation.

Think about what this means: There are enough people in Arizona to elect the kind of representatives who feel perfectly comfortable drafting and passing this kind of thing into law. Arizona is hopelessly lost. As a state, they should be marginalized and beaten back into the stone age where they belong. They have lost the right to be taken seriously as a state. If you are a decent person living in Arizona, leave! Though it is possible this law will be reversed by the courts when challenged, the damage is already done. Arizonans have been unmasked for what they really are. After this, Arizona legislators shouldn’t be able to get a job as a dog catcher.

But let’s not act as if Arizonans are the only ones at fault. There is plenty of blame to go around. This is what comes of giving a national stage to the fake god of the bible. The American government pays homage to this god. The legislative bodies pray to this god before each session. No president can be elected without at least pretending to have faith in this god. The imaginary god’s fake book is on display in every court of law. Justice seeking citizens are required to swear on it if they wish to be heard. We all bare a part.

I reserve a large portion of the blame to religious liberals who provide the cover of false intellectualism to the crazies holding up the fundamentalist end. You need to get a handle on your nut job brethren. You need to be the ones loudly decrying the tenets of fundamentalist religion. You are the ones who need to be leading the charge against the abuses of the bible. You are the ones who need to be shouting down the kooks. Since you won’t do it, radical atheists will. I will gladly throw my hat into the ring. Consider me officially at war with your god.

I have known discrimination personally. And I come from a long line of those who have been caged, chained, dragged, and lynched all in the name of religious sensibilities. To hell with your god, your sensibilities, and your moral cowardice that would see me drinking from a separate fountain. I claim brotherhood and solidarity with the LGBT of this world. It is not a matter of condoning a lifestyle. To condone a lifestyle is to presume the right to judge. I don’t have it, and neither do you. I support humans and equality. Though I practice it imperfectly, I still hold it up as a, dare I say, sacred aspiration. Those who do not are my enemy. I offer no quarter or comfort to enemies of humanity and equality. If you are such a person, then to hell with you too!

Don’t bother trying to talk me down. I’m angry, and I am going to go on being angry until the issue is resolved, or I run out of steam. What harm is religion? at this point, to even ask the question is dishonest. This cannot be allowed to pass quietly. People of conscience, make some noise! Like, retweet, borrow, steal, plagiarize this post. Comment, agree, disagree, make a better argument for or against. Stand up! Be counted! Be heard! Make a difference! The time for silent agnosticism has past. There are plenty of states that can out-crazy Arizona. It is only a matter of time before such legislation spreads like fungus throughout the Southeast. I call for all my readers to grow a spine, pick a worldview and stand! What side will you be on when they com for the sons of Ham?

David Johnson

Those darned camels

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Israel, we have a problem! Those darned camels aren’t supposed to be there. Have you ever watched a movie and noticed little things that shouldn’t exist in that setting? It would be like seeing a modern wrist watch on the hero in a King Author movie. Oops! Well, it happens, and a lot more often than you think. When it happens, you just laugh it off and continue to suspend disbelief as best you can. After all, it is only a movie. Abraham’s camels are like King Author’s wrist watch. According to the latest archeological discoveries, they are not supposed to be there until much, much later. Unfortunately, the biblical religionist does not have the option to simply laugh it off. It is not just a story. It is the basis of all biblical religion.

Study: Despite biblical records, camels didn’t exist in Israel until centuries later

Although camels are mentioned over 20 times in the Bible, the patriarchs apparently didn’t have much to do with them, according to a new archaeological study that calls the historicity of the Bible into question.

“Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels,” (Genesis 31:17) is just one of several instances where domesticated camels are used in the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Jacob. However, archeologists Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University have found that camels weren’t domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the patriarchs lived, providing direct proof that the Bible was compiled well after the events it describes.

Read the linked article for more details on the findings.

The reason this is such a problem for adherents of biblical religion is that it undermines the authority of all bible-based religion. The authority for such religion is based on Moses being the author of the Pentateuch. Moses was to have gotten the information directly from the mouth of God. For these stories to be historically true, they could not have been produced any other way. No one was there when God supposedly created the earth. There were no witnesses to the deeds and internal conversations recorded in the bible. There was no chronicler of the events in the Garden, during the flood, or at Babel. No biographer followed Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. Moses would not have been privy to conversations held within the Egyptian court during the plagues. Knowledge of miraculous events, and God’s conversations between key figures could have only come directly from God. That is how the Pentateuch, itself, claims to have been written. If it was done any other way, by any other person, at any other time, then it has no authority or validity.

The details matter because the details were given to Moses directly from God. This is not a situation where we can write off incongruities as insignificant. A merely human story is not completely derailed by getting a few details wrong. In fact, we expect writers to get a few minor details wrong. That does not mean that the bulk of the story is incorrect. But this is the bible. More than that, this is the bible as dictated by God. Moses would not have been the one to insert camels into the patriarchal story. That detail would have come directly from God. Either God was lying, or the details of the stories were made up. If we cannot depend on the accuracy of the details of a story directly dictated by God, then on what basis do we depend on the extraordinary claims from the same story?

The founding of the Jewish nation through Abraham is the cornerstone of all bible-based religion. That information could only have been transmitted directly from God to Moses. If Moses did not write down that history as directly dictated by God, then we have no basis for considering the story valid. If those camels are a true indicator of the time when those books were written, then they are the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back with regard to biblical religion. What is the person of faith to do?

As I see it, they have three options: They can accept science and abandon their religion. They can be intellectually honest about the fact that Moses did not write the first five books of the bible, and that the details of those books were not dictated by God, but are mere human stories. A second option is that they engage in pseudo-science. They can pretend that they have competing data, or that the current data can be interpreted in ways that justify their beliefs. This is the “science” of young earth creationism. Finally, they can just do what they mostly do to great effect: They can ignore the science altogether, as it has no bearing on their beliefs. The can just vilify science as the enemy of faith, and continue to undermine science education throughout the world. That is how we get a world populated by people who, to this day, believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

David Johnson

The ghost of Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo visit America

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One had his life’s work denounced. One was burned at the stake. And the other was imprisoned after being forced to recant is teachings. All shared the unfortunate scientific insight that the sun did not revolve around the earth, but the other way around. The church of that day understood the implications of that knowledge better than we do today. It meant that the earth was not the center of  the universe, but just a part of it, and possibly an insignificant part at that. It meant that humans were a part of nature and not the point of it. Science be damned! …And anyone who spoke out in favor of it. We have come a long ways since then, but apparently not long enough.

One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun

The survey included more than 2,200 people in the United States and was conducted by the National Science Foundation.
Ten questions about physical and biological science were on the quiz, and the average score—6.5 correct—was barely a passing grade.
Just 74 percent of respondents knew that the Earth revolved around the Sun, according to the results released at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.
Fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals.
The result of the survey, which is conducted every two years, will be included in a National Science Foundation report to President Barack Obama and US lawmakers.
One in three respondents said science should get more funding from the government.
Nearly 90 percent said the benefits of science outweigh any dangers, and about the same number expressed interest in learning about medical discoveries.

400 years later, and religion’s war against science is still claiming 25% of Americans as victims. It is even higher when evolution is the subject. In this country, that many people believe that science is the discipline that should be viewed with suspicion. What’s the harm in religion? We can vote the people into office who have the power to launch nuclear weapons. And one in four of us continue to denounce Copernicus. This madness must end.

David Johnson

Liberal Christianity: a grab bag of contradictions

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Arguing against conservative, fundamentalist literalism is easy. Their belief structure is relatively simplistic. It has to be simple for less educated, unsophisticated people to grasp it. Simplicity is a good thing in a world view, because simplicity equals accessibility. The more accessible it is, the more people that will be able to participate. Simple theology is also an easier target. You know what it is and where it is at all times. For such theology, change comes seldom and slow. Liberal theology is none of the above. It is neither simple nor static. It is overly broad and inclusive. It defies easy categorization. As a target, it is constantly moving. It is not purely theology, and cannot be theologically pigeonholed. Up until now, I have mostly concentrated my attention on conservative religion. It is time for the liberal variety to take its turn under the microscope.

What liberals believe

From: http://www.jesusisaliberal.org/Liberal_Christian.html

No matter your Christian denomination, Jesus Is A Liberal welcomes all Liberal Christians. So what does the term “liberal Christian” mean? Liberal Christian is an umbrella term for any liberal member of the many Protestant denominations, or churches within denominations, who view the Bible as the witness of God rather than the word of God, to be interpreted in its historical context through critical analysis, and with a focus on Jesus’ statements on peace, justice, fairness, compassion and love.

In this one paragraph, there is a concerted effort to differentiate and distance liberal Christianity from the conservative variety. The people behind jesusisaliberal.org want to make sure you do not lump them in with the simpletons of conservatism. Simple religion presents the bible as the literal word of God. It defies human interpretation, context, or analysis. Viewed through such a lens, the focus of the bible is sin and redemption.

Liberal Christianity rejects the bible as the literal word of God, and demotes it to a general human witness of god through the ages. Though not divine, the bible gives us a glimpse into divinity. It is a semi-historical record of how people have experienced God. It is reliable in its overall theme, but not the details. As such, it is subject to the same intellectual scrutiny as any human document of antiquity. Such is the domain of those capable of more complex patterns of thought, and higher education. It takes a lot more work to decipher the liberal bible than the conservative bible.

Rather than focus on sin and redemption with the whole bible in view, liberal Christianity focuses on issues of love and justice, narrowly focused on the teachings of Jesus. This is not a subtile difference. These are not merely different, but opposite takes on the central message of Christianity. In conservative religion, it is all about eternity. Sin is important, not because of any earthly, temporal consequences. Often, there are no such consequences. Rather, sin is that which breaks our right standing with God, and leads us to an eternal life of torment in the literal fires of Hell. Redemption puts us in right standing with God, and guarantees us an eternity with him in the paradise of Heaven.

Liberal religion offers no such rewards and consequences. Eternity does not factor into liberal religion, only our temporal existence. While conservative religion expects and celebrates hardship and unfair treatment in the name of God, Liberal religion works to end injustice, and promotes a peaceful and equitable life on earth in the time we have. Conservatives preach repentance and obedience so that we can experience Heaven in the hereafter. Liberals preach equality and social justice so that we can experience paradise in the here and now.

Here is more from the site:

For example, beliefs vary from the literal to the symbolic belief in Jesus Christ as God’s incarnation. Most believe that the Bible’s account is primarily symbolic, that God created the scientific laws and the very fundamental processes of the universe and of all life (e.g. Evolution), which are continually being revealed by modern science. We believe in God, faith, science and evolution.

Most of us do not believe that humanity inherited original sin from Adam and Eve or that Satan actually exists. But, we do believe that God is good and made people inherently good – and in that vein, we believe in free will and recognize our imperfect nature, which leads some people to chose immoral, illegal and even evil behavior. While we may disagree with individuals’ choices regarding abortion, homosexuality and so forth, we are tolerant of other’s choices and personal life decisions.

Liberal Christians tend to be more educated, and more intellectual in their approach. They eschew simplistic literalism. They want to avoid the appearance of superstition and simplemindedness. They are far more likely to side with science over faith claims. They are less emotionally invested in stories of the supernatural. While enjoying miracle stories, they tend to look for practical messages hidden within the fanciful tales. They have no interest in debating esoteric notions of sin agains God. Rather, their attention is on man’s inhumanity towards man. Sin and righteousness is all about how humans relate to one another, not about how they relate to God. In this worldview, there is little room for a devil.

Morality is not based on a set of arbitrary rules of personal conduct. They have no interest in regulating such things as your sexual preferences and reproductive choices. What they want for you is that you be treated with respect, equality, and fairness. What they want from you is that you do the same to others. You should not refrain from stealing because it breaks one of the commandments. You should not steal because it is a crime against another human being. By the same reasoning, you would not be considered a wrong doer for engaging in the responsible use of recreational drugs. True morality is affirming and protecting the rights of others. Sin is the denial of human rights and equality.

From the website:

As liberal Christians, we hold as sacred the core and unchanging teachings of Christ – as portrayed in His Sermon on the Mount – as the primary, central, true, sufficient and compelling basis of all right understanding and right conduct for liberal Christians. This means that what is most important is how we show our faith and conduct our lives here and now on earth. Many of us believe that our salvation lies in doing good works and no harm to others, regardless of faith

We affirm a liberal, compassionate, forgiving, just and loving Jesus.

As you can see in this last quotation, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is considered the longest, structured speech of Jesus. By many, it is considered to be the philosophical underpinnings of every important, human teaching. This view of Jesus tends to elevate the teachings of the man above the personhood of the man. Liberal Christians are not particularly interested in the origin, life, ministry, or even death of Jesus. They are concerned little about historical details or inconsistencies about the man Jesus. They care only about his teachings, and only a subset of those. He is seen as the embodiment of compassion, forgiveness, and justice. Those are the only details that seem to matter.

Now that I have introduced you to the liberal Christian, let’s take a look at the contradictions that make her so difficult to analyze:

The Good Book

There are many things that the liberal holds in common with the conservative. One of those things is a dependence on the bible as the founding document of their religion. Regardless of how differently the two groups interpret the bible, they both require it. There can be no Christian religion without the bible. Extra-biblical sources, alone, simply do not contain enough material to foster and sustain a religion based on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. Just as the conservative has to concede that some of the literal word of God is symbolic, the liberal must concede that some of the symbolic witness of God is literal. For both sides, drawing that line is a somewhat arbitrary exercise, and is rife with inconsistencies.

For example, there is no basis for accepting the teachings of Jesus as presented in the bible, while rejecting the teachings about jesus as presented in that same bible. Yet liberal Christians take as literal that there was a Sermon on a Mount, and that what they find in the bible is a faithful rendering of what was said. They have no confidence in the bible as the word of God, but they do consider it a reliable witness. On what basis this distinction is made, I have no idea.

As quick as they are to accept the Sermon on the Mount, they are just as quick to reject everything about Jesus that makes him interesting to conservative Christians. They reject his miraculous birth, his life and ministry of miracles, his divinity, his crucifixion orchestrated by the Jews, his resurrection, his post resurrection appearances, and his ascension. They reject as reliable or literal, the vast majority of what is written about Jesus. Yet they hold a subset of teachings attributed to him as gospel. There is no amount of scholarship that can explain this.

To be clear, only a portion of the teachings attributed to Jesus are held in high regard by liberal Christians. Not even all of the Sermon on the Mount is considered sacred. Liberal Christians are not likely to quote Jesus in the matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. On that subject and many others, Jesus was decidedly conservative by today’s standards. He even brings up the specter of Hell fire in that very sermon: a subject liberal Christians tend to actively ignore.

If you are a student of the teachings of Jesus, Hell cannot be ignored. So fixated was Jesus on end times theology, he is considered an apocalyptic teacher. He spoke of a new world order where the Son of Man would reign as king over his subjects. There is some debate about whether or not Jesus was referring to himself. Most Christians think he was. The problem is that the kingdom to which Jesus referred invoked resurrection and an afterlife. Jesus’ afterlife most certainly including the torture chamber known as Hell.

While the god of the Hebrew scriptures was monstrous in unthinkable ways, he never sent anyone to Hell. It never came up in the Hebrew texts. Jesus was the first to mention it, and condemn people to it for all eternity. Yes, that happened on his watch. We are also not introduced to demons and demon possessions until Jesus entered the picture. The activities, teachings, and warnings of Jesus were filled with the devil, demon possession, and the fire of Hell. You cannot separate that from the Jesus of the bible and still have the Jesus of the bible.

The Jesus worshiped by liberal Christians can neither be found in history nor the bible. It is more like a Jesus buffet. They take a little turn the other cheek, and do unto others, but pass on the supernatural bits and the fire and brimstone. By picking and choosing in that manner, they are creating their own Jesus as a sort of mascot. Their Jesus is the beneficent one bathed in peace and love and justice. The Jesus of the bible was on board with the fires of Hell. There is no way to spin Hell as a just punishment for anyone. We debate the justice of using the death penalty. Jesus gives us the Hell penalty: a fate far worse than death. No god who provides Hell as a punishment can ever be said to be just or righteous or loving.

Man in the sky

The conceit of liberal religion is that it is substantively different than conservative religion. Liberal Christians do not want to be lumped in the same stew as the superstitious simpletons they associate with conservatism. They also want to be seen as compassionate and inclusive, unlike the hateful, exclusive and judgmental conservatives. Liberals can only achieve this inclusiveness by ignoring the Jesus of the bible who was convinced that he alone was the way, the truth, and the life. He was the only way anyone could gain access to the father. That excludes that vast majority of people in the world who have chosen another way to peace. But when you make your own Jesus, you can make one that doesn’t say those kinds of things.

Despite their efforts to distance themselves from conservatives, liberal Christians share the trait of magical thinking with their conservative counterparts. All Christians believe in some universal power that I call the man in the sky. We know this because liberal Christians still pray. They pray to something they call god. They pray the same prayers as the conservative, in the same way, and with the same hope of supernatural intervention. They talk to whatever they call god as if he were actually there, and hanging on their every word. They still pray for their sick to be healed, and for protection from the elements. They might call it something different like, communing with the universal life force. But it is a life force that is conscious and aware of them, and able to respond in some way. By any other name it is still the man in the sky.

Liberal Christians still invest in church buildings and holy men. They still practice rituals that are steeped in superstition and mysticism. Liberal religion is still religion. As such, it is subject to the same types of critiques as conservative religion. It does not matter if you accept science in most matters, but appeal to some type of man in the sky. A little magical thinking is not substantively different from a lot of magical thinking. It is just a difference of amount. In an asylum, being less crazy than the other guy doesn’t buy you much.

David Johnson

Automaton: slavery without guilt

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This is a piece that I’ve wanted to write since the first time I saw Bicentennial Man. I thought it was some of Robin Williams’ best work. The premise of the story made me uncomfortable. It helped crystalize my thoughts and feelings I had on robotics that had been percolating since the first time I saw the Jetson’s robot maid. I watched the progress of robotics with excitement and trepidation. I saw us employ robots to build cars, vacuum our floors, wash our dishes, and entertain us. The entertainment category spans from robotic pets to the fighting variety on shows like Robot Wars. A very long time ago, it struck me that what we were really after was a servant class, a slave class that provided all the benefits of slavery without the guilt associated with the practice.

There is a subtile difference between a servant and a slave. We are not after servants. We can have servants right now, and many do. The problem with servants is that they have to volunteer for the position, we have to pay them, and in some small way, we still have to treat them like people. If you have ever worked in the service industry, you know just how small that way can be. No! What we really want is a slave. We will never admit it. We will vociferously deny it. But what we want is a class of servant that we can conscript, never pay beyond routine maintenance, and never have to consider things like human dignity and egalitarianism. That is not a servant, but a slave.

If you are at all excited about robots and the future of robotics, ask yourself exactly what it is you want from future robots. What excites you about the possibility of owning your very own robot? As a child, I had some definite thoughts on the subject. Of course I wanted companionship, a friend who would always see things my way and always take my part in a dispute. It was the kind of human friend I seldom had. I also wanted him to do my homework for me. What would be the point of doing homework when you have a robot? I wanted him (as a child, it was always a him) to be my personal driver and assistant in all things. Naturally, he would complete all my chores and keep me safe from bullies.

Once I contracted the degenerative disease known as maturity, my vision of robots expanded to include matters of industry. I wanted my robots to be able to do difficult and dangerous work, entertain me with sporting prowess beyond the capabilities of humans, and look after my interests both personally and professionally. Oh, and I also considered the benefits of female robots, androids… you know what I mean.

Then it dawned upon me that I didn’t need to look to the future for this type of automaton when the past was lousy with examples. Slavery has been around for thousands, and probably millions of years. It has provided people of questionable character with all of the benefits for which I longed. That gave me reason for pause, and forced me to question my own character. For countless centuries, slaves have provided companionship, household and field servants, and entertainment, be it as a chess companion or a gladiator. They have served all roles from personal driver to accountant. They have built great monuments that soar above the earth, and been discarded in the rubble just beneath its surface. Oh, and there are the female slaves to consider.

It was a sobering thought to realize that my fantasy for a future automaton differed little from the avarice of former slavers. My obvious justification was that I would not be using humans to fulfill my goals, but machines. But our race to make machines more like humans somewhat puts the lie to that claim. We have dishwashers that scrub our dishes, but they look like boxes. We have vacuums that scrub our floors, but they look like circular rodents. What we want is Rosie the robot: something that looks and behaves like a human, but is still a machine.

Then I saw Commander Data, and Bicentennial Man, and Battlestar Galactica, and I knew we could do much better. Siri, the iPhone’s digital personal assistant is an eerie, first step. Apple is not building android bodies; they are programing an android personality. (By the way, Google is working on android bodies. They are into more than free operating systems.) The magic of Siri is that we can talk to her like we would a human assistant, and she responds in kind. I like that. The scary thing is how often I verbally abuse her in ways that I would never do to a human assistant who made a slight error. Is it possible that we like Siri’s humanity precisely because we can treat her with such inhumanity without repercussions? We can make her work for us, we don’t have to pay her, and we can interact with her without regard to dignity or respect. Cursing a Roomba isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Then, there is the matter of clones.

Automatons do not have to be mechanical. Clones represent the Holy Grail of automatons because they are not just like humans; they are humans. The difference is they are created outside of the natural processes. That gives us the right to think of them as something other than human. Religious people would think of them as humans without souls. With clones, we can do things without guilt, that would be war crimes if done to humans. We could harvest organs without conscience. We could put them in chains, use them as a free labor force… Oh, and there are the female clones to consider.

Clones are the ultimate expression of our desire to create a class of people that we don’t have to treat like people. What if we could staff factories with clone workers that we never had to pay? What if these workers has no rights and no unions, and no one to make us feel guilty for using them that way? What would you do with an android/clone that was built to order just for you? Would it bring out the nobility in you, or the savage? I fear that nobility would not be among the words chosen to describe my uses for such a creature.

I conclude with this troubling thought: What happens to us when we finally get what we’re after? Science fiction has explored this question, and it never turns out well. What does it mean to be a human when we are finally freed from scrubbing dishes and floors, when there is no more homework to do, and all the industrious labor is done? What is left for humanity once we have stables full of willing androids? Do we all become worthless poets and musicians? As a poet and musician, I can honestly say that I would not want to live in such a world.

If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, what will we do with our hands to keep them busy? What will we do that we will not decide later, is best done by an automaton? I believe there is something fundamentally broken in the human spirit when we see a task to be done, and decides that it would be better if someone, or something else would do it for us. In that way, I am fundamentally broken, and I am ashamed.

No, I am not going to get rid of my dishwasher. I don’t like scrubbing dishes. Yes, I would buy a robot that did all my chores. Yes, I want Siri to become even more human-like. But I am still uncomfortable with where we are headed. I am not worried about the feelings of our tools. They have no feelings. When I insult Siri, she does not cry. But what of me? Using our slave machines does not harm the machine. But what does it do to those of us who use them? Does it make us lazy and entitled? Does it teach us to enjoy treating human servants in inhuman ways? Do you regard the person serving up your fast burger the same as you regard your doctor?

In my opinion, humanity is not ready for a servant class of automatons. I believe our intense desire for it is evidence that we should not have it. I do not like the kind of human that owned other humans as slaves. And I don’t think I would like the kind of human that owned human-like automatons, even if that human is me.

David Johnson

Pat Robertson to biblical literalists: “Let’s not make a joke of ourselves”

1 minute, 41 seconds into this video, Pat Robertson tells his biblical literalist followers not to make a joke of themselves. If you are worried that I am taking Pat’s words out of context, feel free to watch the whole thing. The fuller context is more damning than my headline. In the video, Pat was responding to the Bill Nye, Ken Ham debate on creation vs. evolution. Robertson comes out swinging against Ken Ham. Robertson’t response is far more interesting and impactful than the debate, itself. While I am in full agreement with his position, it has an internal inconsistency that I feel certain he has not considered. Here are s few examples of what I mean:

Foolishness to the world

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.” And again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise; he knows they are worthless.” 1 Co. 3: 18 – 20

Throughout his writings, Paul promotes a sort of class warfare. He pits the educated against the uneducated. As we know, this divide usually runs along economic lines. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians. Paul has a very clear message for the poor and uneducated members of the nascent church: Don’t listen to the educated Jews and Greeks who are trying to confuse you with reason and evidence! Paul wanted his followers to know that no matter how little education they have, they are wise because they follow Christ, and that is all that matters. And no matter how much education a nonbeliever has, he is a fool. He only has the world’s wisdom which God will bring to nothing.

Rather than to try to gain knowledge, Paul wanted his followers to go ahead and embrace the foolishness of Christianity. If they wanted to be wise in the ways that mattered, then they had to become a fool to the world. Paul thought it was better to just be a fool and own it, than to try and debate truth on the world’s terms. I agree with Paul. The best strategy for Christians is to just proclaim whatever truth they want, evoke the name of Jesus, and stick their fingers in their ears, and their head in the sand. God said it. I believe it. And that out to settle it, should be the motto of bible literalists. Anything else is just a distraction.

According to Paul, the Christian should not care what the evidence suggests or how foolish they look to the world. However, Pat Robertson admonishes his followers not to make a joke of themselves. Uncle Pat can’t have it both ways. Either he sides with Paul and encourages his followers to make a joke of themselves by sticking to the truth, or he distances himself from all of the scientifically awkward claims of the bible so as not to make a joke of himself. Telling Christians not to make a joke of themselves is in direct opposition of the bible’s injunction to do just that.

Chasing the evidence

Why would believing in a six day creation be making a joke of one’s self? The implication is that the proposition has already been refuted by the evidence. That would make scientific, empirical evidence the final court of arbitration for Christian truth claims. That is an untenable position for Christians to take. If faith can be diminished by what evidence can prove or disprove, then faith is nothing more than a convenient retreat into ignorance. Your faith is only as strong as your ignorance.

What happens when the evidence shows that there was no flood? That seems like something easily proven in the fossil record. There should be piles upon piles of human bones showing lifespans of hundreds of years. If you jettison the six-day creation, don’t you also lose the Garden of Eden? Where does redemption stand without a fall? What of the great tower? What of the 90 year old Sarah giving birth to Isaac? Can we take any of Abraham’s story literally, or that there was even such a person? What is Judaism without Abraham? What is Christianity without Judaism? For that matter, What is Abraham without Noah, and Noah without Adam? What is Adam without the Garden, and the six-day creation?

I encourage you to play a little game: Name the first thing you come to in the bible that can be taken literally. How about naming the first thing that can be historically verified. Now, try figuring out the first thing in the bible that has to be literal in order for the rest of the story to hold together. If you do this on the basis of what the evidence proves or disproves, then you don’t have any bible-based religion. To be religious, you have to buck the evidence and make a joke of yourself.

Embracing the impossible

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Lewis Carroll

The cornerstone of all religion is the belief in impossible things. If your religion only asked you to believe in possible things, then it wouldn’t be religion; it would merely be a self-help program. Religious faith is about the acceptance of extraordinary claims. The more extraordinary the claim, the greater the appeal to faith. That also exposes the believer to a greater degree of ridicule. The only way to keep from making a joke of yourself is to limit your faith to the mundane and provable, or at least, to that which cannot be disproven.

The Christian must practice believing in no fewer than six impossible things before breakfast. He must believe in the magical man who lives in the sky,  that he can engage in two-way conversation, and that the man can bend time and space to make wishes come true. He must believe in the accuracy of a magic book, in immortality, and in the fact that dead people can rise up from graves. He must believe in virgin births, and demon possessions, and angels, and flying, flaming chariots, and talking animals, and, and, and… You get the idea. None of this makes sense. All of it is crazy foolish based on science, observation, and reason.

What Pat Robertson does not seem to understand is that it is not just a young earth creation that makes you a joke; it is the whole thing. Every important truth claim of Christianity is based on something that is proven to be untrue, or that is too far outside of the observable to be believed. There is no part of it that is not bonkers to the unbeliever. Just declaring yourself Christian is enough to make a joke of yourself. The declaration states that you worship someone you regard as the king of the whole world, who was killed as a common insurrectionist, and who came back to life again and went away to a hidden dimension, and who is still kind of here but invisible, and he wants you to give him money in care of your church. Sorry, that’s nutters.

Even if you wanted to take the liberal road and say that you are following the teachings and example of a good man and brilliant philosopher, you are not spared scorn. Such a person would not call themselves a Christian. Christ was not the name of Jesus, but was a mystical title awarded him by God. You simply cannot use the term and avoid the magical, worshipful implications. You cannot be any kind of Christian without nominally affirming the belief in some impossible things.

According to the bible

For most people, the bible is a very complicated book to read and understand. That is the beauty of biblical literalism. It allows people to pick up the bible, read some portion of it, and using the most basic tools of understanding, they can comprehend it. So many people believe that the world was created in six days because that understanding requires no mental exertion on our part. In plain language, it says the earth was created in six days. Therefore, the earth was created in six days. The bible provides genealogies that take us from Adam to Jesus. We can add up the time represented by those genealogies and come up with the age of the universe, give or take six days. That sort of simplicity is appealing and satisfying on a number of levels.

Thus says the Lord becomes the hermeneutic for the common person. Such people make a connection between the words in the bible and the words spoken by God. If it is in the bible, it was spoken by God. For extra clarity, many bibles have the words of Jesus printed in red. For most, there is no concept of textual criticism. The words are assumed to be actual sayings of the people to whom they are attributed. The times, places, and events also go unquestioned. The bible says that there was a man named Noah who built a boat that floated above a worldwide flood. So, that is exactly what happened. They would not understand any interpretive method that concluded with that exact thing not having actually happened.

This is Robertson’s problem. Biblical literalists never understood the 6-day creation to be a matter of empirical evidence. They only understood it as the truth as it was delivered by God. No other metric was ever employed. All of a sudden, the Christian is being asked to evaluate their understanding of scripture in light of science and evidence. How, then, are they to evaluate other biblical truth claims?

There is even more evidence against resurrection. We know from both science and experience that dead people do not come back to life and reintegrate into the world of the living. The bible claims that this has happened several times. But we know from all human experience that it does not. No one even bothers to try to pray a dead loved one back to life because we know it does not happen. If science and evidence is to be our guide, then abandon the fables of resection in the bible, and all hope of experiencing one for yourself. You will have to reinterpret all mentions of resurrection as figurative. That is intolerable for the literalist.

Even liberal Christians pray. That means that they take at least some portion of the impossible claims for the bible literally. Even for the liberal, it makes no sense to reject portions of the bible because the stories do not stand the test of science, while clinging to other aspects of Christianity that depend on things that do not stand the test of science. If the literal words and meanings are no longer enough, on what basis is a believer supposed to understand the bible? On what basis does one determine that this thing is literal and that thing is not?

Conclusion

When Pat Robertson looks into the camera and makes an impassioned plea for his followers to accept what science has presented as evidence and not to make a joke of themselves, the world of the biblical literalist becomes a whole lot smaller. There are fewer and fewer places to which they can retreat. Aid and comfort for the biblical literalist is not a given in the average conservative church. Expect more debates on other topics that once depended on a literal interpretation. We live in interesting times.

David Johnson

Why creation by evolution is a bad compromise for both sides

bill-nye-vs-ken-ham-evolution-vs-creationism-1090971-TwoByOne

Last week, the most interesting thing that happened besides the Seahawks spanking Peyton Manning, was the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on the subject of evolution vs. creation. The fact that this is being publicly debated is a major problem for creationists, and more broadly, fundamentalist Christians. Still more broadly, it has negative implications for all bible based religion. The reason is that it reveals a volatile fault line that runs through religion, and is the subject of much internal strife.

The basic Christian story depends on a literal interpretation of the bible, a subject I hope to spend more time with in a separate post. Today, however, Christians are split on the literal nature of the creation story. Walk into any conservative church and ask if the world was created in six days, and there is no telling what answer you will get. Statistically, it’s a toss-up. They are just as likely to promote evolution, albeit, in a way that was guided by God. That is still a major departure from the literal interpretation of the Genesis story.

In the following clip, Pat Robertson delivered the most devastating blow to the traditional view:

I had to get jaw replacement surgery because mine just fell to the floor after watching this. Conservative Christians have been debating this internally for years. Now, their dirty little secret is out in the open for all to see. They are split over creation vs. evolution, and for good reason. The Genesis story is the very foundation of all Christian belief. If it falls, everything falls. However, the evidence refuting the story is now impossible to ignore. To salvage their position, they are flocking to the framework of creation by evolution. Unfortunately for both sides, this is a position of mutually assured destruction. Nobody wins.

Why evolution loses

There is a vast difference between undirected evolution and creation. With evolution, the beginning and end remain unwritten. We can make predictions on both ends through probability. With creation, the beginning and end have already been written. Predictions are made on the basis of revealed truth, not on the study of science. From the Christian perspective, nothing much changes. It is just a matter of going from young earth to old earth. If the universe baked for 13.75 billion years instead of 6,00 years, God is still the baker, and the end result is the same either way. Science has gained no ground. It is still overshadowed by the man in the sky. In fact, creation by evolution provides a more palatable story so that magical thinking becomes even more acceptable, not less. It gives people permission to believe in God without looking stupid in the face of scientific discovery.

Even if science cedes the unlikely possibility that a powerful alien from another dimension introduced the first matter and energy that led to the creation of this universe, that still leaves us a long ways from the god of the bible. Nonetheless, it would still be a major victory for creationists. It would still get them a magical first mover who resides beyond the boundaries of space and time. This gambit by creationists is nothing more than a trick, and should be rejected out of hand.

Why creation loses

The Genesis story is an embarrassment to liberal Christians, but cannot be so easily discarded. Remove Genesis, and you remove the foundation of bible-based religion. There can be no story of redemption without the story of the fall. Without a literal fall as described in Genesis, God’s efforts to restore the lost relationship is baseless and silly. What are the Jews if God did not literally call out Abraham to be the father of the nation? Everything about the Jews, including the sect of Christians, would be based on a lie.

If Christians accept the notion of a clock-winder god, then they lose the basis for religion. At best, such a got set things into motion according to his will, but thereafter, only watches the show as it unfolds. Like a spectator at a sporting event, he watches, but doesn’t run the plays. Worshipping such a god is pointless. You can pray to him all day long. But if he is allowing evolution to run its course, he will not be intervening in your affairs.

Christians who accept creation by evolution face a logical inconsistency. On the one hand, their god sets things in motion and lets the chips fall where they may. On the other hand, he is constantly barging in to tinker with things. This ensures that the course of things does not naturally evolve, but is constantly directed, and redirected to a fixed conclusion. Or, it may suggest a god who used evolution to get the universe to a certain point, then abandoned it for a more active, direct manipulation. Either way, the biblical account is damaged beyond repair. All bible based religion suffers when confidence in the bible erodes.

Conclusion

Avoiding an argument is not the same as resolving an argument. Two sides seek some mythical middle ground to avoid an argument, or end one. It is not motivated by the search for truth. Locating the mid-point between two positions is not truth; it is simply math. I say 2 + 2 is 4. You say it is 8. splitting the difference and calling it 6 is not a search for truth. It is moral cowardice. There is no middle ground between 0 and infinity. Ending the argument is not a laudable goal. It just means you are weary of the argument. Resolving the argument is a worthy goal. Integrity demands that we not concede the argument until all parties agree that 2 and 2 is 4. Accept no milk toast compromises.

If Christians really believe in the primacy of scripture, they should stick with it regardless of how baboonish it makes them look. Paul promoted the idea that Christianity does and should look foolish to the world of nonbelievers. Own it or abandon it. Science is not a discipline of compromise. It seeks no middle ground. It is only interested in discovering truth wherever that may lead. If scientists believe that the evidence suggests a universe fueled by indirected evolution, they should say so without compromise, and risk losing some of their funding. Many scientists use god language, or leave open the possibility of magic, not because they believe it, but to appease.

Creation by evolution is about appeasement. It is neither science nor religion, and does violence to both. Science and magic don’t mix! They are opposing views of how the universe works. It is a fence that cannot be straddled with intellectual integrity. I like Ken Ham, and think he is a great spokesman for the Christian position, not because he is right, but because he’s honest. His position is that regardless of the evidence, the conclusion is that the world was created instantly, as is. That is what the bible says. Any science that leads to a different conclusion is just plain wrong. He begins and ends his reasoning with biblical authority. Any science that may favor his position is just a bonus. If you are a creationist, be a creationist. If you are an evolutionist, be an evolutionist. Defend your position or switch sides. To be both at once is to be neither.

David Johnson

Christianity’s big problem: why the nut jobs can’t be distinguished from the orthodox

Half-and-Half-black-white

This picture is from an iconic episode of Star Trek, where the story revolved around the last two individuals from warring clans of a dead civilization. Neither the Enterprise crew nor the viewing audience could develop any empathy for one side or the other, due to the fact that there was no obvious distinction between the two sides of the conflict. Eventually, it was revealed that the real conflict was over an imperceptible matter of race. Clearly, one of them is half black on the left side. To them, that made all the difference. If only one of them was a nut job, the audience couldn’t tell. The inability to distinguish the nut jobs from the orthodox is also the big problem for Christians.

I know what Christianity looks like. I have seen it from more angles than the average person. I used to run a website devoted to providing insight into a wide variety of churches. I visited a different church every week to record the service and interview key people. I’ve experienced all kinds of churches and all kinds of worship practices. I have been bored to tears, and scared half to death, all in the name of the Lord. I know what a lot of the crazy stuff looks like first-hand. I have not seen snake handlers, or people swinging from light fixtures. I have not worshiped with Muslims or Mormons. Though i have toured a Mormon temple, and worshiped at a Jewish synagog. I have had hands laid on me, been prayed for in tongues, and have been heeled at least twice for the same thing. It didn’t take either time. I have been next to people who were brutally slain in the Spirit, and watched my fellow congregants roll on the floor in ecstasy. Animal noises were not forbidden.

My point is that I know the distinctions, both fine and gross, between various types of Christians. I have eaten the literal flesh of Jesus and drank his literal blood. Symbolic flesh and blood is for spiritual weaklings. The Catholics make no bones about it. I have also danced in the aisles without being scorned. I know more about denominational distinctions than most people who are loyal to their denomination. I am more than qualified to tell you that when it comes to the nut jobs and the orthodox, there is not a nickels worth of difference. Making a meaningful, non-arbitrary distinction simply can’t be done.

Crazy talk

It is impossible to segregate the crazy ones by how they worship. Might it be easier to make the distinction by what they say? Unfortunately, the answer is no. It is important not to confuse crazy talk with the lack of media savvy. I grew up in a denomination that believed some pretty far out things. But they seldom proclaimed them to the general public. The Mormons are perhaps the most media savvy group. They believe things that are just science fantasy stupid. But you will seldom hear about those things. In fact, only a fraction of Mormons ever hear about those teachings. The Mormons are very careful about not allowing their freak flag to fly in public.

The Mormons really believe that you will become a god, and get to create and populate your own planets full of worshipers. They are one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Islam is another mainstream, world religion. The young men really do believe that heaven is the gift of 72 virgins. There is no word on whether the virgins consider that Hell. If pressed, mainline members of the Church of Christ will confidently tell you that only members of their denomination are going to Heaven. Everyone else is bound for the flaming pit. Catholics will tell you that they eat and drink the literal flesh and blood of their god. Charismatics will tell you all sorts of things you can’t understand, in words that sound a lot like gibberish. In more understandable words, many of them will inform you that unless you can do the same, you are unsaved. The list of crazy talk goes on, and it’s all mainstream orthodoxy.

When the Prime Minister of Israel was shot to death by a man who insisted that he was obeying the words spoken to him by God, mainstream Christians were quick to label him as mad. They insisted that their god: the true god, did not tell people to kill other people. This would be very convincing if the bible they thumped was not full of examples of God telling certain people to kill certain other people. The bible is lousy with such examples, and worse. The mainstream objection was that their god wouldn’t do that sort of thing. Yet, their sacred scriptures told a different story. It is indisputable that God would do such a thing. It is only a question of did he do such a thing on that particular occasion. It is well within the bounds of orthodoxy to suggest that God spoke to you, and that he told you to kill someone, up to and including your own child.

Whenever there is some sort of natural disaster  like a hurricane or tsunami that destroys the lives, or livelihoods of thousands, we call it an act of God. Many religious people take that label quite literally. Inevitably, one of the more prominent ones will say something to the effect that God took vengeance on that city due to the wickedness of its people. These tone deaf comments will often be shouted down by those who don’t want to be lumped in with that kind of crazy talk. Unfortunately, they don’t have a leg to stand on. God is well known for using weather to punish the wicked. You might want to reference the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Egyptian plagues. Compared to those, what are a few deaths in the sin city of New Orleans to one such as God?

Fred Phelps made a name for himself by showing up to a funeral of a gay man, heralding the message that “God hates fags!” Though not especially media savvy, it would hardly qualify as crazy talk. Though not stated in quite so crass a fashion, that is exactly the message I grew up hearing from my church, and most every other fundamentalist churches. It doesn’t sound like crazy talk at all. It sounds like one of the many “amen” lines that could be heard on any given Sunday. It is also a reasonable interpretation of what the bible has to say on the matter. In fact, it is rather tame by comparison. In the Holy Writ, homosexuality was an abomination that could not be allowed. the practitioners of such deviancy were to be put to death. God hates fags, is a fair summary of biblical teaching on the matter.

The bible, itself, is full of crazy talk that can’t be easily dismissed or excised. The first humans were placed in a garden with talking animals that had it out for them. In Egypt, the forecast was cloudy with a chance of frogs. King Saul consulted with an actual witch, who literally called up a dead person for further consultation. The fees for such services must have been astronomical. Donkeys speak, handwriting magically appears on walls, and a graveyard full of dead people empties its contents back into the world of the living. That last occurred in the space of two verses recorded by one person, with narry a mention anywhere else in history. The bible is full of crazy that even mainstream Christians try to avoid, or explain away. It even gives cover for the snake handlers. They are 100% on biblical ground. There is almost no crazy thing that a Christian can say that is not biblically supported. Crazy talk is not a reliable way of identifying religious nut jobs. It all sounds crazy.

A common DNA

From the outside, the differences between a black African male, and a Chinese female couldn’t be more obvious. However, if all we could see was the DNA of those two people, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. At that level, we would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a human and a pig. People not already steeped in religion have a very hard time seeing the difference between the various factions and flavors. To the outsider, a Baptist looks much the same as an Adventist. Even I would have to look up the difference between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian. There is no easy way for outsiders to understand the fine distinctions between the various religious groups. When one religious person says or does something crazy, it reflects on all religious people. That is because outsiders cannot tell the difference, and religious people cannot articulate a difference.

It all starts with a common story and a common authority. All Christian, and many non-Christian groups draw their story and authority from the bible. Both ultra conservative and ultra liberal Christians claim the bible as the ultimate authority. Even those who do not take the bible literally still take the bible as something. It is fair to say that if there was no bible, no form of Christianity would exist. With everyone quoting from the same authority, it is a big ask to expect outsiders to suss out the differences in interpretation.

Among Christians, there is a common belief in God. There is a real person who lives in the sky, or just outside of space/time, who created us, and who cares bout what happens to us and how we live. He communicates with us in some mystical way, and we can talk to him. He is inclined to occasionally give us things we ask for, and can control all natural processes to make things turn out in our favor. There is very little disagreement on this matter among Christians.

All Christians appeal to magic. It does not matter which miracles you choose to accept versus those you choose to reject. Any acceptance of magic is all acceptance of magic to the outside observer. I grew up in a denomination that didn’t believe in miraculous healing. Yet, every prayer included a request that God heal those people unfortunate enough to be on the sick list. I believed that God miraculously healed quietly and gradually. Other Christians believed that he healed with a flair for the dramatic, and instantly, as it was done in the bible. I have since come to realize that there is absolutely no difference between the two positions. Both start with the basic belief that God miraculously heals people. That is what the outsider sees. Any further parsing amounts to one alien being black on the left side.

All Christians believe God speaks to them, or guides them in some way. The bible supports a range of beliefs on the matter. Some believe the guidance to be only a matter of what is written in the magically inspired book. Others believe that the guidance is a voice that they, alone, can hear. Both beliefs are well supported by the common authority. The fact remains that, whether in spirit or in fact, God is talking to them, and guiding their actions. The outsider cares not a bit about the details over which the two sides disagree.

To the outsider, it is all magical nonsense. One believes the world was created in 6 days, another says it took billions of years. Who cares! Both agree the world was miracled  into existence by a miraculously infinite and all powerful being. When you start with such a being, the rest of the details just don’t matter. If he can speak the world into existence, maintain some form of two-way communication, and suspend the laws of physics to alter events whenever he likes, who the heck cares one bit about the details of how he does it? Certainly not a religious outsider. You may think there is a difference between the person who sits respectfully in a pew while wearing a suit and using a hymnal, and the person who rolls around on the floor speaking in tongues and making animal noises, but the outsider sees no such distinction. The DNA is exactly the same.

Conclusion

That is the Christian problem. From the inside, none can make a cogent argument for why one is crazy and another is sane. They all claim the same magic story from the same magic book, and bow down to the same magic man who magically intervenes in the world upon our magical request. Once you have accepted any part of that, you have lost any authority to say that anyone else is crazy. Mainline Christianity is broad enough to give comfort to the slaver and the slave, the hawk and the dove, the annihilationist and the utopeanist. Snake handlers and poison drinkers are no less biblical than the flesh eaters of Catholicism. No Christian can highlight the craziness of another without her own crazy ideas being exposed. Whenever I see this happen, it is like one striped alien calling another black on the left side. For Christians, either all are sane, or all are nutters. If one Christian could successfully make the case for why another was crazy, he would risk bringing down the entire house of cards.

David Johnson