City of Lights

As the civilized world struggles to make sense over the senseless attacks of ISIS in Paris, the question of where to turn emerges. An attack has taken place. Innocent people have died. We are in mourning, and we want to analyze what happened to make the world feel a little less insane. As my wife pointed out an article on CNN, I was shocked by the terms in which the attacks were described. Here I read about ISIS extending its global reach. Top leaders, we’re told, planned the attack. And ISIS is “getting into the international terrorism business.” These phrases are common in just about every business meeting I’ve ever attended. This commodification of terror frightens me. The way we’ve chosen to handle terror is by making it into a business. These are human lives that have been lost—futures of the most promising kind. Not only are we the victims of blind terrorist groups, but we are victims of a world that can’t see beyond capitalism.

Terrorism is not a business. It is evil, but in a world where religious value is never invoked outside the few who still find meaning in matters of the soul, the vocabulary has been lost. How do we deal with ISIS? Just like you would any business. A hostile takeover bid? Gather your resources, make some deals, and if retaliation takes innocent lives, well, some bonds and chattels aren’t worth that much anyway. Have we lost the ability to describe the world in anything other than economic terms? Is humanity simply another business?

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I do not wish to downplay the horrible events that took place in Paris Friday night. At least 120 are dead for doing only the kinds of things people do on a Friday night. Yet there is a terror that has been creeping through the world that refuses to be named. When it feels threatened it clears out Zuccotti Park. It has taken over our institutions of higher education. It buys political offices and rewards those at the top until the rest of us become commodities. Yes, some goods are lost or damaged during shipping. We need to have a metric to measure that. And when our eyes are streaming with tears we grasp the nearest—the only way we have of describing what has happened. A new business has come to town. When terror becomes a business all hope is already lost.

To Whom It May Concern

Everything we do is an investment in the future. Some times it’s intentional, and other times it’s purely accidental. My wife sent me a CNN story about what might be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. It’s difficult to conceive an idea more romantic than the lonely castaway throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping for rescue. The size of the oceans make any such chance qualitatively smaller than the smallest possible needle in the largest possible haystack. The sheer volume of the oceans is among the most mind-boggling quantities on earth. The chances of finding a single bottle in the blue is practically nil. Still, the message in the bottle is an investment in the future. We hope it will be found, despite the odds.

This particular bottle, although of some scientific value, is the least of the romantic kind. George Parker Bidder III, a third-generation scientist, dropped about a thousand bottles into the sea to study deep ocean currents. This was more than a century ago. Those finding the bottles were instructed to send the message back to Bidder, now long dead, so that he might enter the data in his notes. Bidder died in 1954, and one of his bottles was just recently found in Germany. Here is a case of a man writing to himself beyond the grave. Could he ever have imagined that six decades after his death a sample of his work would be found? For those who’ve labored only to be forgotten in their own lifetimes, this is like finding a genie in a bottle. We want to believe our lives have made a difference. For most of us, we go through our daily chores never really sure that any more than a handful of people care, and most of them only care if it is earning something for the company. Others stand on the shore and throw bottles into the sea.

The Bible has positive words to say about casting your bread upon the waters. Indeed, it will come back to you, we’re told, in a time of need. This is a metaphor, of course. It is all about investing in the future. When it comes to money, this doesn’t often work. Some people are fortunate in their investments, but many are not. Bidder wanted to know about deep water currents. This bottle would have told him something about them, but he isn’t here to receive the news. Instead he is being heralded as someone who deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe not a scientist’s first choice of memorials, but an investment is an investment. More people will read about world records than will ever find a message in a bottle, no matter how metaphorical.

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Casting bread on the water, New York style

For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

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The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

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Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

Commandments by Committee

Something about the holiday season seems to bring out atheistic activism, or at least media interest in atheism. Now that we’re safely in 2015, I suspect things will quiet down a bit until the next major religious holiday comes along. Ironically, since I was a child I’ve heard about how secular Christmas, in particular, has become. Reactions to this have led to “Christmas wars” that give the lie to sleeping in heavenly peace. In any case, back in December CNN ran a story on the atheist ten commandments. This was just before the holidays, but just after the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, so it was a story sure to capture human interest. The atheist commandments were chosen by a committee, and, of course, have no binding value. Many of them are more precepts than commandments since, it seems, you need a deity to command all of humanity. Nevertheless, the number 7 commandment has a very biblical sound: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated.”

More interesting than the list, in my way of thinking, is the form of delivery. The ten commandment format is an obviously religious one. Atheists have long tried to make the case that non-belief is not the same as immorality, and there can be little doubt that this is correct. One need not believe in order to be a good person. Yet, the force of the symbolic ten commandments comes from a divine mandate. Committees, as efficient as they may be, don’t have the same kind of authority. You can hear it now—“Why should I listen to you? Who are you to tell me what to do?” With God there is always the threat of eternal damnation or the sending of plagues. Commandments by committee appeal to reason.

The ten commandments—here I mean the traditional ones—haven’t fared especially well among the faithful. Survey after survey shows many people don’t know all ten well enough to cite them. Some, such as the one against coveting, are hard to demonstrate or prove one way or the other. Honoring parents, in some extreme cases, seems sinful in itself. What doesn’t count as a graven image? So my question is, who has the authority in a post-Christian world to give commandments? The religious certainly won’t take advice from atheists, and religious leaders disagree among themselves about what the deity demands. No committee, it seems, can capture the true essence of divine demands. Perhaps it is a matter of boiling the ten down to one (similar to number 7 cited above) and getting our leaders to truly believe this before imposing it on all.

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Duck, Dynasty

The Fundamentalist mouth has no filter. I’m a bit surprised by the furor raised by Phil Robertson’s comments about race and sexuality. Did A&E not realize that it was dealing with a Fundamentalist family on Duck Dynasty? I’m frequently amazed at how Fundamentalism is exoticised by the media as some quaint, back-woodsy phenomenon. Do they not realize that similar views are held by several members of congress and the pre-Obama presidential incumbent? By the numbers, Fundamentalism is a powerful force, but, like our universities, the media can’t be bothered to try to understand religion until a large demographic is suddenly threatened. A&E supports equality across sexual orientations, and, as it should go without saying in the twenty-first century, races. Prejudices, however, run very deep. Perhaps it’s just not so surprising to me, having been raised in a Fundamentalist environment. There was nothing exotic about it. It was, as we understood it, simple survival.

Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own show for comments made off-air. Wealth does not necessarily make one a better person. In fact, the figures trend in the other direction all too often. If instead of just promoting books written by the stars of the anatine series, the studio executives read those books they might have foreseen something like this coming. The Fundamentalist mind, I know from experience, tends to see things as black or white. Despite the camo, gray is a loathed color. Rainbow is even worse. The Fundamentalist psyche is not encouraged to try to see things from the other’s point of view. There is only one perspective: the right one. And when asked a straightforward question, a straightforward, if misguided answer will be given. It’s the price of fame.

The Robertson family, according to CNN, has closed ranks with their founder, claiming he is a godly man. There’s no irony here, folks. Fundamentalism isn’t into irony or subtle possibilities. Religious rights and freedoms are being press-ganged to the aid of those who long to speak free. Not about ducks, or guns, or calls. But about the naturalness of white skin and heterosexual love. And the Bible as the only possible source of the truth. The media often treats Fundamentalism as if it were a game, turned on or off at a whim. In reality it is a comprehensive worldview in which the inmates are commanded to speak the truth. The filters are not on their mouths, but are in their minds. Until we can learn to take them seriously, no duck anywhere will be safe.

Even the Roman Empire didn't last forever...

Even the Roman Empire didn’t last forever…

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

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