Silly Religious Beliefs Past and Present

OdinPick a religion — any religion! I mean it: a serious person can gain great insights from any one of them if they are so inclined. My experiences are mostly with Christians, and so that is what I will stick with. I’ve known a lot of serious thinkers who considered themselves Christians. There is nothing about following a particular religion that precludes depth. It’s kind of like being well read. I would have no problem with someone who appreciates Adam Bede, but chooses to read Pride and Prejudice each new year. But if she told me that Pride and Prejudice was the only true literature and that I should only read it, we would have words.

The specifics of any religion are, in general, rubbish. So I really do have a problem with religious literalists. I’ve been told by many Christians over the years that they know their religion is true because the Bible says right there in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Who’d have thought it would be so easy? I ought to have this printed up:

For Frank so loved the world, that he posted five articles every day, so that whosoever clicketh to his website should not be bored, but have eternal entertainment. And a 10% tithe to Frank for doing all this for you would be most appreciated!

What bothers me is just how silly it all is. By focusing on the literal truth of the Bible, people seem to lose sight of any of its spiritual teachings. It isn’t so important what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, but that it is literally true that he said it. Like in Life of Brian: “Judea AD 33. Saturday Afternoon. About Tea Time.” I just don’t see many Christians living as though they actually believed, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” In fact, some of them have threatened me with violence for suggesting that the Bible wasn’t literally true.

It makes me think of the Norse mythology. I don’t know much about it — basically just what I picked up from reading The Mighty Thor when I was a kid. But I do know this: it isn’t all that different from Christian mythology. As John Constantine says in the movie, “Impossible rules, endless regulations — who goes up, who goes down, and why.” But I’m sure that all those old stories were helpful to those Scandinavians. But it was just silly for any of them to really think they won the Battle of Lena because Odin was happy with the Swedes and unhappy with the Danes.

Assuming that humans manage to continue their cultural progress and not destroy themselves, in a couple of hundred years, I expect someone to be writing this same sentiment about the Christians of today. And that, I think, is where the theological rubber meets the road. These Christian literalists (the vast majority of American Christians) seem to harbor a fear that I’m right — that their religion is just the modern version of the Norse or Greek or whatever mythology past or present you want to point to.

I think this is why the beliefs of people like Denys Turner or Reginald Foster or Tenzin Gyatso seem so relaxed. They all get something deep from their faiths — something that pointing out obvious contradictions in holy texts can’t disturb. Compare this to a man like William Lane Craig who has wasted his whole life trying to prove the the Bible is literally true and defining anything God does — like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed roughly a quarter million people — as good.

But Craig and the hundreds of millions like him have not only wasted their lives, they’ve wasted their faith. The purpose of religion has always been to find insight. And the literalists use all their abilities to avoid insights. Because the truth is right there in English, which is after all, a pretty good translation of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. And those original sources were after all direct copies of direct copies of direct copies that were only mere hundreds of years after the original ones were written. And those copies only contain some 100,000 errors. But the truth is right there! And if it seems a little unclear, don’t worry, someone will tell you what it means — most likely that homosexuality is wrong and zygotes have souls.

But those Ravens really stomped on the Steelers today. I hear Odin is a big Ravens fan.

The Ballad of Gerald and Lizzie

Gerald and Lizzie - Derek

She worked in a shoe shop. It’s not there anymore. I went in to buy a pair of brogues and she served me. “Need any help?” I was hit right in the heart! Prettiest little thing I’ve ever seen. I said, “Shoes.” I couldn’t talk. Well, the next week, when I went in to buy my third pair, I asked her out, and we were married a year later.

No, she doesn’t always know me, but I look forward to seeing her every day. She’s still the same person. And every day, I introduce myself and we get to know each other all over again. I’m lucky. Who else gets to fall in love 365 times a year?

You see, here’s the thing. People see a couple of doddering old fools caught in a time warp, waiting to die. But I see a beautiful young girl from Dublin who wants to spend the rest of her life with me. I win. Don’t feel sorry for me or Lizzie. We had the best life we could ever have had, because we spent it together.

From the seventh episode of Derek


Yes, I know: it is sentimental. Don’t like it? Go over to Nice Atheist Girl!

Subconscious Racism

Sendhil MullainathanOver at The Upshot this morning, Sendhil Mullainathan wrote a very soothing article on a very difficult topic, The Measuring Sticks of Racial Bias. The basic idea is one that readers around here should be well aware of: the racism that we need to worry about is not the overt racism of Cliven Bundy. It is the subconscious racism like what Jesse Jackson spoke about, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved…” It’s our gut reactions — far less conscious than even what Jackson is referring to — that maintain our inequality and our racial segregation.

I think that Mullainathan is too gentle in his conclusion, but he is exactly right:

Ugly pockets of conscious bigotry remain in this country, but most discrimination is more insidious. The urge to find and call out the bigot is powerful, and doing so is satisfying. But it is also a way to let ourselves off the hook. Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small.

Over the past many years, I’ve been obsessed with my own racist baggage. Even among the stuff that I’m aware of — like the Jackson quote above — I feel largely helpless. It does get better over time, but that’s just the stuff that I’ve noticed. I often think that I’m sitting on an infinite pile of racism. In his article, Mullainathan lists a number of different studies that have demonstrated subconscious racism. I’d like to believe that I’d do better, but I cannot say that I would.

The best know study was done by Mullainathan himself: resumes were sent out for job openings with randomized black (eg, Jamal) and white (eg, Brandon) names. Identical resumes with white names got interviews 50% more than those with black names. But the most disturbing study was this one:

When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.

You would think that doctors would be systematic about this kind of thing — almost like a computer: you enter the state of the patient and the treatment is spit back out. And I suspect that this is to a large extent true. This racial bias just shows how deep our racist tendencies lay and how powerfully they affect us.

At the same time, dealing with overt racism is difficult. On the one hand, it is repellent. I always wonder what is going on inside of people who are willing to say publicly, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the negro” — and say that blacks sit around waiting for their welfare checks and how much better off they were as slaves. One thing is for certain: they aren’t losing any sleep about their subconscious racist tendencies. So I think these people should be lambasted because we don’t want to live in a society in which such vile thoughts are acceptable.

Just the same, outrage about such horrible behavior is usually a bad thing. There is a certain triumphalism as though the fact that we don’t have wisdom to impart “about the negro” means that our less public racism isn’t a problem. Or, as I hear from conservatives, that it doesn’t even exist. And the problem isn’t just in the realm of racism. Remember when everyone got upset at Todd Akin for claiming the female body had ways to “shut that whole thing down” in cases of rape? But does that make Rand Paul — who believes in exactly the same policies — acceptable, just because he isn’t as stupid as Akin?

I will continue writing about the vile and stupid things people say — just as I write about movies and music and puppets. But the real thinking — the real work — about racism needs to be done on the inside. The fault, dear readers, is not in their words, but in ourselves.

California Gets Practical About Driver’s Licenses

Michael HiltzikThere are big happenings in California. The state has started issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. It is creating quite a stir. But this makes no sense to me. You see, I thought that California had been doing that for decades. I was kind of right. When I left California for Oregon back in 1990, the state did indeed issue driver’s licenses without people showing proof of citizenship. But that all ended in 1993 when I was involved in solving huge systems of differential equations. It never occurred to me that the state would stop doing this. But like most people, I tend to mistake my liberal home in the Bay Area for the not-so liberal state of California. This is, after all, the state that in 2008 simultaneously voted in Obama as president and voted to deny same sex couples the right to marry.

Michael Hiltzik did us the favor of running down the history that I missed, California’s Huge Blow Against Stupidity About Immigrant Driver’s Licenses. This was during the early 1990s when Californians had a collective freak out about unauthorized residents in the state. Let’s be clear: it was flat out racism. Just as Reagan’s “welfare queen” was clearly a black woman, California’s “illegals” were Mexicans. And this issue was aggressively demagogued by one of the worst people in the world, Pete Wilson.

This all led to Proposition 187 in 1994 — a ballot initiative that deprived non-citizens from things like healthcare and education. It was a vile law and it won the state by almost 18 percentage points. And typically, the only place the bill failed was in the Bay Area (along with Yolo County, which is almost in the Bay Area). The law was found unconstitutional, but the fight against the evil brown people continued.

The “no driver’s licenses for illegals” law stayed in effect under Wilson. After Gray Davis became governor, he reversed the law in 2003 (in a cynical and unsuccessful ploy to appeal to the Latino community). But after Arnold Schwarzenegger got in the governor’s mansion, he reversed that (in a cynical and successful ploy to appeal to the white community). So for a little more than a decade, non-citizens have not been able to get driver’s licenses. So it is good that yet again we are allowing driver’s licenses regardless of legal residency status.

People have their reasons for being against providing these licenses. And the law addresses these reasons. But the truth is that not providing licenses to undocumented residents is really just about getting “those people.” A lot of people are upset about this development. But why? It isn’t that undocumented residents won’t drive without a license. This new law is a practical measure that makes us all safer and save us money. But I suspect that it is much like the death penalty, which is also hugely popular in the “liberal” state of California. It doesn’t matter that the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t matter that it costs a lot more than the alternative. Practical concerns never matter when people are being ruled by fear and hate.

Thankfully, California has taken a step forward in terms of practical policy over the politics of division. We will see how long it lasts.

Sergio Leone

Sergio LeoneOn this day in 1929, the great film director Sergio Leone was born. It’s rare that a filmmaker like Leone comes along. I wouldn’t call him a complete filmmaker like Akira Kurosawa — from whom Leone learned a great deal. Leone was a highly idiosyncratic filmmaker. There are a lot of fetishistic elements to his films — and I’m not just talking about his vaguely creepy sexual interests. There is something extremely sensual about the way he told stories. His films have a fascination with point of view. I think that is where his interest in extreme close-ups and long takes comes from.

There is one thing that I think we really need to clarify, however. I’m very fond of A Fistful of Dollars. But it is nowhere near as good a film as Yojimbo. There simply isn’t a single thing that Leone did better in remaking the film. And mostly, he did worse. But given that Yojimbo is both a great and a perfect film, that maybe doesn’t say much. But if you have never seen Yojimbo, you really should.

The Leone film that I like best is A Fistful of Dynamite. Most of Leone’s films are more about style than about substance. But this one is about something. Set during the Mexican Revolution, it turns a very cynical eye toward revolution as a means of progress. War means death — whatever the cause. And usually, the cause is just an excuse. Of course, personally, I have mixed feelings about the Mexican Revolution. I certainly admire a lot of the people involved in it, but in the end it didn’t come to much. And even today when Mexico is nominally a democracy, look who leads the country.

Here is the whole movie online. Watch it while it is available:

Happy birthday Sergio Leone!