Entries in religion (4)


Is Mormonism crazier than other religions?

(The planet Kobol, as imagined on Battlestar Galactica)

Mormons have some pretty wacky ideas. For example, they believe that some of the native peoples of North America were followers of Jesus Christ hundreds of years before he was actually born. Mormon scripture refers to a planet called Kolob that is, or is near, the physical throne of God -- a belief that was the inspiration for the planet "Kobol" in the sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica (the show's creator was a Mormon). Craziest of all: Mormons refuse to consume alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco.

But is Mormonism wackier than other religions? Is all religious belief equally plausible, or implausible? Or, does plausibility fall on a continuum – a line running from the completely absurd to the thoroughly reasonable?

It would seem that as a rule, most of us -- believers and atheists alike --  instinctively seem to accept that there is a continuum. For example, consider the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who in recent years has made a name for himself as the leader of a new group of aggressive atheists, a group that also includes Sam Harris, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Last month, Dawkins went on a long twitter rant accusing Mitt Romney (who in addition to being the Republican nominee for president was also a Mormon bishop) of being a “massively gullible fool.”

The focus of Dawkins’ attack was Romney’s adherence to the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which is the sacred text of the Latter Day Saints religion. While the book was published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Mormons believe it contains the writings of prophets who lived in North America between 2200 BC and  AD 421.

“Bible & Koran genuinely old, written in the language of their time. Book of Mormon written by 19thC charlatan. Romney too stupid to see it,” Dawkins tweeted. When he was challenged by readers who pointed out that president Barack Obama was also a believing Christian, Dawkins responded: “Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, is substantially less ridiculous than Mormonism (and Obama, if he is Christian at all, is certainly not fundamentalist),” he explained. “The idea that Jesus visited America is preposterous, and the idea th[at] Adam and Eve did too is even worse (it is at least arguable that Jesus existed).”

Another example:  many Canadians will remember when Stockwell Day, an evangelical Christian who believes that the Earth is somewhere between 6000 and 10000 years old, was leader of the Canadian Alliance. During the 2000 federal election, Liberal operator Warren Kinsella mocked Day’s beliefs by brandishing a Barney the purple dinosaur doll on television, claiming "this was the only dinosaur ever to be on Earth with humans."

What makes this interesting is that Kinsella himself is a self-declared practicing Catholic. Yet as
Kinsella's mockery of Day and the glee with which the "Flintstones" theme of his campaign was picked up by the media makes clear, there is a widespread sense that Catholics are less brainlessly
credulous than Young Earth evangelicals.

So the idea would seem to be that the more a religious belief accords with generally accepted scientific views of the world and the universe, the more credible it is.  Let’s call this the Kinsella-Dawkins thesis.

According to this thesis, it is one thing to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent deity who, a few thousand years ago, impregnated a middle eastern woman named Mary with His only begotten Son, and then sacrificed that Son to atone for all the sins of Mankind (sins which were invented in the first place by said deity.) It is something else entirely to believe that 600 years before his son Jesus was born, that same deity led a people from Jerusalem to the Americas, where they grew and split into a pair of warring factions.

Or again: It is one thing to believe in the central doctrine of Christianity, namely, the literal resurrection of Jesus. It is something far stupider, though, to believe that the Earth is at most 10 000 years old, and that God put dinosaur bones and other artifacts in the historical record to test our faith (as many young-Earthers maintain.)

This thesis definitely has a lot of plausibility. It would help account for our folk hierarchy of belief, which seems to allow for degrees of respectability between childish fears of the supernatural, at one end, and the wisdom of millennia that we find in the more robust religious traditions, especially the monotheistic ones.

But for a committed atheist, the Dawkins-Kinsella thesis concedes too much. What it gives up in the name of superficial plausibility is the underlying principle at the heart of the atheistic worldview. To properly see why this is the case, it's useful to recall something that Dawkins himself wrote in his best book, the primer on evolutionary biology The Blind Watchmaker. As Dawkins points out, what we are trying to explain through religion is exactly how organized complexity came to exist in the universe. The theistic answer is: God created it.

The problem with this answer is that it presupposes exactly what we are trying to explain. Whatever else God may be, he is organized and complex. If we can simply posit organized complexity, then we haven't really explained anything.

That is why evolutionary theory is so unanswerably powerful. Only evolution by natural selection, or some similarly "blind" process, is capable of explaining how organized complexity came from disorganized chaos. Every explanation that relies on a consciousness, a higher power, or any sort of pre-existing organizing principle is simply assuming the problem away.

But if that's the game we're playing, then what difference is there between Catholicism and Mormonism, or Hinduism and Islam? It's all of a piece: an equally adolescent commitment to wishful thinking and to the supernatural. After all, once you have accepted that there are conscious, invisible and unknowable forces at work in the universe, does it really matter how many of them you buy into? If God can resurrect his son for a long weekend, surely he could also arrange things so that a 10000 year-old planet appears to be billions of years older. If there is an omniscient power in the universe, is it less plausible that he lives on a planet a few thousand light years away than that he resides in an unknowable realm where he hears our prayers and grants salvation according to whim?

Arguing over religous belief is like playing tennis without a net: almost any hit counts as good return. Under these circumstances, it is pointless to debate the question of who is the better player. The only
issue is why anyone finds it useful to play at all.


The church of organic

A number of people forwarded me an article by Stephanie Strom that was published in the New York Times over the weekend, about the ongoing battle between organic purists and the increasingly powerful forces of Big Organic. The main character in the story is a man named Michael J. Potter, the head of the independent organic foods producer and wholesaler Eden Foods. 

The spectre of Big Organic has been haunting the industry for most of the past decade, at least since Walmart started selling truckloads of the stuff eight years ago. The rise of industrial-scale organic is what spurred the locavore movement, just as the mass-marketing of local was the impetus for the artisanal craze. 

And so there's not much new to the story -- it's pretty much the boilerplate co-optation fable, where the energetic, ambitious, DIY upstarts have their scene taken over by corporate interests, who then sell a mass-marketed version to the masses, with all the value-laden authenticity bleached out of it. In this case, the word "organic" merely takes the place of "punk". Think of Eden Foods as Henry Rollins, while Wholesome & Hearty is more like Blink 182. 

At the core of the dispute here is the setting of standards for what constitutes organic food. The big food corporations like Heinz and Kellog have come to dominate the board that approves non-organic ingredients and additives and other inputs: "At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002."

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various "synthetics" should be allowed or not is entirely political.  That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It's clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term "sustainability" is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term "inequality".

Instead, the argument over what is properly "organic" is over whether some ingredient meets some mythological standard of purity, fine-graining the ideology in the manner that was perfected by Marxists, and before them, the deeply religious. Indeed, substitute "kosher" for "organic" in this article and you get a fairly healthy sense of how the debate is playing out. The difference of course is that for orthopraxic religions like Judaism, the following of the rules for their own sake is the entire point. The rules surrounding organic are -- in theory anyway -- directed at a more practical end, like environmental sustainability or better health outcomes. 

That's why the last line of the piece is so perfect:

“People keep telling me that all the work we’re doing with organic farming and agriculture and processing, some of that could be deemed charitable work,” Michael Potter says. “Maybe we should start a church.”

I submit that he already has.


Holy Hipsters, Brooklyn: Doubling down on the authenticity hoax

The NY Post has a remarkably un-snarky piece about the growth in attendance at a Hispanic Lutheran church in Williamsburg. The upsurge is the result of Jesus-loving hipsters as "Worshippers with full-sleeve tattoos, skinny jeans, stocking caps and square glasses pack the pews of Resurrection Presbyterian Church on South Fifth Street."

This doesn't really surprise me. In fact, it strikes me as the next logical step in the evolution of hipsterdom. After all, for all the talk about hipster "irony", what has always characterized the movement is the search for the authentic, and as the competitiveness in authenticity-seeking has steadily ratcheted up, it was inevitable that hipsters would eventually see it for what it has always been: a form of thinly-disguised status-seeking. 

And once you've come to that realization, there are really only two ways you can go: Either you accept that the search for the authentic is and always has been a hoax, or you double down on the only form of authenticity-seeking that avoids the hamster-wheel of conspicuous authenticity. That's why -- as I argued earlier -- the current craze for "cool Christianity" completely misses the point. Churches shouldn't be selling cool, they should be selling they one product  that isn't cool. Brett McCracken put it best when he wrote:

"As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real."


On Hitchens vs Blair

Thanks to a friend with more perseverance than I have, I've snared a ticket to the upcoming debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens in Toronto. It is part of the popular Munk debate series, and apparently they'll debating the question of whether or not religion is a force for good in the world (regardless of whether or not God "exists".)

I'm excited, but that excitement is tempered by mixed feelings. Blair was one of my political heroes when he was elected for his first term -- he always struck me as a more principled and engaged politician than his Canadian counterpart Jean Chretien, whom I had come to despise. But Blair was far too credulous of the claims of the Bush regime over Iraq, and at the end of his tenure he became a morally decadent money grubber.

As for Hitchens, I find it somewhat annoying that he's become a posterboy for atheism, and lumped in with the Dennett/Dawkins/Harris crew. It isn't that I disagree with that crew, not at all. It is just that I think it does a disservice to what Hitchens is on about. As someone put it about Hitchens, his anti-theism is less about belief, more about obedience -- what Hitchens has always railed against is the obedient mind.

That is why I'm bothered by the topic of the Blair-Hitchens debate. I pretty much know what each man's answer to the question is, and I don't expect to be much enlightened by it. Instead of the artificial schoolboy construct of the debate, I'd much rather see them talking about the Iraq war, its justification, its conduct, and its aftermath.