A place for new ideas to settle.

17 September 2012

“Let no man deceive you by any means…”

or, the Protection Racket Behind “America’s Moral Decline,” Part the First

You might remember my previous two posts regarding a seminar about Biblical prophecy and the End Times. “Incredible Prophecies”—their emphasis on Prophecies, mine on Incredible—continues, and I went back to learn about America’s “moral decline.” It wasn’t as bizarre as I expected (no talk of “demonic principalities” puppeteering American elites, nor of the loss of the “Seven Mountains of Culture” out of true Christian control), but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t nuts.

The lecture got off to a rollicking start with the assertion that America was founded on Biblical principles, including the Ten Commandments. I got a bit excited, and thought maybe this would be an extended fever-dream of Christian historical revisionism. It was more of a David Barton Lite treatment. Dan Bentzinger (the presenter, for those who didn’t click through to my previous posts) cycled through (cherry-picked) quotes from a few Founding Fathers—the most devout, arguably, and certainly Jefferson and Madison were right out—and their personal writings, to boot. The cheapest rebuttal to this mess of quote-mining is simply “Where are the references?” If the Ten Commandments really are the foundation of American democracy and law, why aren’t they (or God, or Jesus, or the Christian religion) ever mentioned in the Constitution? The Constitution is very carefully, very explicitly a secular document. Some of the Founders were quite devout; some weren’t. And the document they created transcends the muck and mire of their religion-soaked contemporary culture. That’s its strength.

Bentzinger also drew a couple quotes from later politicians like President Truman, to show that America used to be guided on Christian principles. Well, so what? That’s just Christian hegemony at work. Move on.

09 September 2012

Looking Forwards, Getting it Backwards

or, Concerning a Lecture Concerning Biblical Prophecy Concerning the End of Days and the Second Coming, Part the Second (Coming)

In the last post, I looked at the religious quirks of the “Incredible Prophecies”—their emphasis on Prophecies, mine on Incredible—lecture, entitled “…And the Time of the End.” Check it out, then check back here.

After bemoaning the lack of “true” Christians (though not as much as you might think; more on that in a bit!), speaker Dan Bentzinger unfurled a body of what he called evidence: various facts, figures, and events from recent history that prove Beyond a shadow of a doubt! that these are indeed well and truly the Last Days.

Never mind that he had just read some verses from Scripture condemning false prophets. Never mind that he had used Rapture-guy Harold Camping as an example of a latter-day false prophet. Never mind that 7DA itself is the product of a failed Rapture prophecy (called the Great Disappointment, of all things). Shhhh. Let’s just examine the “evidence.”

A Marriage of Heaven and Hucksterism

or, Concerning a Lecture Concerning Biblical Prophecy Concerning the End of Days and the Second Coming, Part the First

This evening at 7:00pm I attended one of a series of lectures on Biblical prophecy.

Those of you who know me or even those who have just read some of my blog posts might ascertain that I am neither religious nor that big into prophecy. But what you may not have guessed is that I still really like that stuff. I’ve come to understand that some of humanity’s best cultural output is in it’s weird things. The odd; the absurd; the cartoonish; the nonsense, especially nonsense that some people take very, very seriously. In the funhouse mirror of our kooks and crazy talk, certain fascinating features of the human psyche bulge out.

So there I was, at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on North Forest Street in Bellingham.

I was an outlier.

30 July 2012

Traveling as a Consciousness-Raiser

My friend Quinn at The Passport Epilogues writes about using travel as a means of self-improvement. And maybe becoming a superhero. The merits of traveling abroad can be quite profound, especially when approached with an attitude of humility and mindfulness. We can't shy away from the unknown, especially if it might be a bit challenging:
When you travel, you throw yourself into unfamiliar territory. The rules you used to play by at home might no longer apply. When a society values a different set of skills and attitudes than the ones you have carefully fostered over the years, you learn the hard way that in other areas you are severely lacking. Travel exposes your weaknesses, and most of us aren’t comfortable having our faults laid out on the table. But at the end of the day that’s the only way we can really work on them and make ourselves better. Throw yourself into a truly challenging situation, and after you crash and burn a few times you will emerge that much stronger. So don’t think of it as a weakness so much as a challenge.
This is exactly right. Perhaps just as good as exposing weaknesses, though, unfamiliarity can also reveal hidden strengths. For example, I planned and went on a month-long tour of Europe in the summer of 2008, fresh out of high school, with at most two friends and no "adults." Once there, I discovered I had a sort of affinity for the various transit systems. My friends, meanwhile, were hopelessly confused.

25 July 2012

“Weirdness” and the burdens of volunteerism

This is a response to Maddy Vonhoff’s  “Only WEIRD People Volunteer” post at The Passport Epilogues. If you haven’t read it already, do so now.

Growing up near Seattle, my impression of “volunteering abroad” was that of idealistic suburban upper-middle-class white kids going to a less well off country for a little bit, then coming back with a bunch of emotional stories of personal enrichment and maybe even a few more stars in their eyes. In short, it was a very “feel-good” activity, and I don’t remember hearing much about the reason for volunteering other than “they need X!” My own parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to join them in donating to charity, especially the Toys For Tots program that gives donated Christmas presents—toys, but also warm clothing—to needy local families at Christmastime.

Apparently this isn’t an isolated perception. Maddy points out that the overwhelming majority of volunteer workers in developing countries are “WEIRD”: White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratized. These factors often bias volunteers into misaiming their generosity, harming the cause or even becoming part of the problem. Inevitably, the topic of “privilege” comes up, and here I plan to deviate from Maddy’s analysis a bit. Using a slightly different lens to look at privilege, I want to weight each factor in the WEIRD scheme, and suggest how each might affect the perceptions of an eager Western volunteer.

26 April 2012

“Secular Religion”: prelude

A lot of beliefs have been labeled, pejoratively, “secular religions” by their critics. Those who believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution; atheists; liberals; capitalists. I’m going to level this description at two economic/political world-views over the course of two posts. The first will be “capital-S” Socialism as espoused by the Socialist Alternative. The second will be socialism’s nemesis, “capital-L” Libertarianism as espoused by the Libertarian Party and its allies.

I should point out that these are specific examples drawn from the vast constellations of belief called “socialism” and “libertarianism.” And in fact the two broad categories find at least some intersection! But, here in America, the political rhetoric places them at opposite ends of a spectrum, and tinged with the moral binary of good (libertarianism*) versus evil (socialism) no less!

Back to broad strokes. What do I mean when I say “secular religion”? Well, I take “secular” to mean that such a belief system does not concern itself with supernatural causes or effects. In fact, both Socialism and Libertarianism are decidedly materialist in their outlook. However, “religion” implies rituals, dogma, moral codes, mythologies. I want to focus specifically on the last three. Why? because dogma is a real danger, I think, to societal progress. Dogma, by definition, is held on faith and resists evidence-based criticism (well, all criticism). This can lead to warped moral codes, and both of these things may be reinforced by mythologies.

And this is a problem! Dogmatic calcification of ideas leads to wide, unbridgeable chasms between people. It leads to a fractured society. Oh, we can lacquer over everything with a veneer of “tolerance,” but it’s thin ice indeed, to be shattered in times of crisis. Adopting a consensus view of reality in no way abolishes difference in belief. Two people may agree on the way things are (as informed by the evidence) and might still wildly diverge in their assertions of how things ought to be! The important point, however, is that these people would use the same methods to test each claim, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it gives.

Why do I say this? Well, it’s because I myself hold beliefs from both “socialism” and “libertarianism”! In striving for a skeptical, rationalist approach to politics I try to pick the best ideas based on the evidence, without prejudice against what the ideas “smell” like. Smells like socialism? Fine! It only matters that this is the optimal solution to the problem. Smells like libertarianism? Sure! Again, this is what will work best.

Besides, hearing about the idealistic, paradise society envisioned by either socialists or libertarians, I don’t see much difference! Each person freed from want, empowered to make his or her own choices, so long as those choices don’t inflict harm on anyone else? Not much difference at all!

Neither, too, is there much difference in the quasi-religious nature of some of their more ridiculous assertions. But those require separate posts…

*: Most of the American right-wing self-identify as champions of “liberty”… but some are more serious about it than others.

P.S.: O-hisashiburi. It’s been a while since I last posted… Feels good to be back.