Sunday, March 28, 2010

Great God Debates: Part II

Generalizations and labels are tricksy for me. While I can see the value in generalized scientific claims like “an alkyl halide reacts with an alcohol in an Sn2 reaction” or “copper is an efficient conductor of electricity,” claims like “tomatoes are good” are markedly more problematic. Are all tomatoes good? What exactly does “good” even mean? Isn’t context important, especially in matters of taste?

I should have known that my attention to nuance and definitions would have caused problems in a debate over whether God exists or not, or whether religion is good for the world and its followers or not. All too frequently, the actual theme of the debate wouldn’t come up until the third or fourth speech. The debates were interesting, but they fundamentally fail when no specific questions can be asked or answered, since no position or thesis has to be defended.

The atheists did a horrible job of pinning down Dinesh D’Souza to a particular belief and then hammering him on it. When they mocked Jehovah as a bronze-age genocidal tyrant, D’Souza smoothly told them to talk to a rabbi about it, not him, since the Old Testament is a Jewish, not a Christian holy book. When they criticized the Catholic conception of the pope, D’Souza calmly explained that he, along with most Catholics, does not really believe in papal infallibility. Time after time, the atheists would criticize a common belief and put it to scorn, only to find that D’Souza was unwilling to stand by that belief himself.

While I was listening to the debates on God, I was endlessly impressed with Dinesh D’Souza’s style, skill, and charm. His debate tactics were first-rate; he had a way of convincing you he was answering the charges against him, even when he was utterly ignoring them. After every speech he gave, I felt like he was under control and would have my vote, even when I disagreed with some of his points.

The drawback of such a style, however, is that it leaves me cold once the charisma is forgotten. While I felt at the time that D’Souza won all but one of his debates hands down (the exception being Peter Singer’s), his message has none of the staying power that the atheist’s did because he never clearly staked his ground and defended it. I know what brands of Christianity D’Souza doesn’t believe in, but not which ones he does. He is agnostic about whether a resurrection will take place (and rightly demands that the atheists take the same position), he admits that a belief in Christ is not absolutely necessary for salvation, and he acknowledges that liberal humanism can serve as a basis for pro-social behavior (though he doubts it will ultimately last, and asserts that it owes its origins to religion). This moderate world view has the advantage of being, in all likelihood, true. It also avoids the polemic absurdities of his opponents who claimed that religion has always done far more bad than it has good. What it does not do, however, is justify or defend the type of religion that most religious people actually follow. I mentally voted for D’Souza after almost every debate. In so doing, however, I was silently agreeing that religion really should occupy only a peripheral place in daily and societal life. In refusing to argue with the often justified barbs of his adversaries, D’Souza retreated to an amorphous position where God, even if He or She does exist, is essentially worthless. He may have won the battles, but Dinesh D’Souza definitely lost the war.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Great God Debates: Part I

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sick of debating politics. Although I’ve been trying to quell the false notion that Americans are somehow universally opposed to the health care bill that passed, that we’re living in a socialist police state, or that the second coming is only hours away, Nate Silver has pretty much already said everything I’ve been wanting to say better than I can.

Instead, I want to discuss some of the arguments I’ve been thinking about since listening to around a dozen hours of debates between D’Souza and various atheists. I’ve waited about a week since I listened to the debates before writing any of my thoughts down. Rather than be bogged down in the procedural minutia of the debates or even my impressions of who won, I wanted to focus my responses to the broad focus of the questions being discussed and those arguments that have stuck with me.

The adversarial system of debate has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, these debates avoided what I call the Colmes problem; both sides were represented by equally intelligent, prepared, and devoted debaters. Additionally, both sides also avoided the easy-out option of agreeing to disagree or finding an ecumenical peace. While such an agreement may be the ultimate goal of watching such a debate, I believe that moderatism should be borne of a fair consideration of good arguments from both sides, not the contention-is-of-the-devil-so-we-shouldn’t-talk-about-controversial-things intellectual laziness that I’ve seen so much.

The major drawback of the debate model is that both sides have incentive to make arguments they don’t necessarily believe are true, simply because they are effective. In debate, making arguments which are untrue, but which take a long time to debunk, is called “spreading.” I saw far too much of this coming from both the Atheists and D’Souza. What’s worse, however, there were debates where some of these arguments went unaddressed, meaning that an argument that the debater knew was untrue (as shown by the fact that in other debates he acknowledged that it was misleading) stood out in the audience’s mind as being accurate.

In the interest of keeping close to my 500-word goal for each post, I will not address my most serious concerns with the debates now; those merit their own posts. There are a few quick judgements worth noting, however:

Hitler may have been a closet atheist, but the outward religious message he used to sell his philosophy deserves at least part of the credit for the Third Reich, Mr. D’Souza.

The USSR, on the other hand, was actively antithetical to religion, even though it tolerated it. Atheists: do not try and dispute that Stalin is yours. It only makes you less credible when you correctly disown Hitler.

Faith, as it is defined by D’Souza, is actually a useful category. He is right that science is based upon it, and he lays a fine theoretical foundation for the value of faith in a god. I disagree with his specific application of his faith into Pascal's wager, but I think he gets the first half of his argument exactly right.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Every time I pass a group of tweens I am filled with a deep sense of shame and sorrow. For all of my attempts to deny that I, myself, used to be eleven years old, emotional, awkward, and embarrassing in public, my memories always convict me in my conscience. I was there, after all.

In my calmer moments I realize that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being eleven. Sure, I was a dweeb in the early nineties. There's no reason to feel particularly guilty at having acted my age, is there? When I got a little older, I put most drama behind me. I grew up.

For me, drama is any time we give more emotional importance to a situation than is helpful or warranted. Billy just broke up with you? Crying about it some or eating a whole pan of brownies is a commensurate response to the emotional pain. Claiming that the world is going to end because you were dumped, slitting your wrists, or drinking an entire fifth of vodka would be overly-dramatic. You can find another boyfriend, but only if you don’t die from alcohol poisoning.

For as much as I profoundly love having conversations with people about politics, the drama is reaching epic, almost middle-school proportions. I'd like us all to try this simple breathing exercise.

Breathe in slowly over the course of five seconds. Hold your breath for two full seconds. Breathe out over the course of five seconds. Repeat.

While you're doing that, please allow me to clarify a few basic facts about democratic government. For those of you who suffered from Bush Derangement Syndrome (believing that Bush personally planned 9/11, that Cheney literally comes from Hell, or that Rove is an evil-genius), this applies equally to you. I will copy and paste this post next time the Republicans are in power.

1) We live in a democratic republic. We elect congresspeople, senators, and the president. These men and women ultimately make laws.
2) America has been like this for a long time. This system is not new.
3) There are always disagreements on almost every issue. Although you may think that you have the 100% absolute and indisputable truth about something, I guarantee that an equally intelligent, upstanding, and articulate American citizen fundamentally disagrees with you on that point.
4) That person has as much of a right to believe their opinion as you do yours.
5) That person is not horrible for disagreeing with you, nor does he or she deserve to be unfairly slandered.
6) You deserve that same protection when your party is back in power.
7) In case you didn't notice, about half the country was disappointed with your side being in power last time.
8) America, democracy, and apple pie didn’t come to an end when Bush made mistakes. It won’t now either.
9) This isn't your country any more than it is mine. It's ours. Equally. Any intimation otherwise is just offensive.

Now I understand that many people hate Obama's health care plan. I understand that almost all of us hate Congress. We're all justifiably worried that things aren't quite right with the world or with our government.

But for goodness sakes, get some perspective. This isn’t a nuclear holocaust. This isn't the end of democracy. Obama isn’t the anti-Christ. The sky isn't falling. You'll get another boyfriend.

Now go make yourself a plate of brownies.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

you're to blame for making me mad

A thought experiment:

My religion insists that nobody should ever wear yellow clothes. One day, I see you wearing a yellow shirt. In my religious fervor, I demand that you burn your yellow clothes, join my church, and give my god all your money. You refuse, so I kill your family.

Who is to blame for the death of your family members?

Obviously, there is a distinction between reason and a responsibility. The reason I killed your family is because you were wearing yellow. I, however, am responsible for my actions, even if you could have theoretically prevented it by acceding to my demands. You had no way of knowing how I would enforce my god's rules. Furthermore, you like the color yellow, and you rightly place significant value on your freedom to wear whatever color shirts you like, regardless of what crazy people like me demand you wear.

My previous post addressed D'Souza's claim that liberals are more to blame than conservatives for 9/11. I argued that conservatives, since they equally participate in activities like pornography use and divorce, wear just as many yellow shirts, as it were, as liberals do.

For the purposes of today's post, I don't really care which political wing in America angers crazies more. If you believe that all conservatives honor their marital vows and are all heaven bound and that all liberals are heroine-using pornographers, it won't make a difference for today's arguments.

Mr. D'Souza rejects political considerations like America's support of Israel as being the primary impetus for the 9/11 attacks. Although I disagree with him, I accept his premises while analyzing his argument.

There is a distinction between pragmatic ideas and categorical blame. The FAA could have implemented better security before 2001 which may have prevented the attacks of 9/11. THE FAA's failings were sins of omission, imperfections manifested by imperfect institutions and people.

The sin of commission on 9/11 was the wanton barbarity of 19 murderers and those who purposely helped them. They alone bear the guilt and responsibility for these heinous acts.

Passing blame from the hijackers to people who wear yellow shirts or who could have appeased unjust demands is an implicit forgiveness of those how actually committed the crimes.

It is only possible to forgive the 9/11 murderers if you empathize with their rationale for committing those acts.

If you believe that 9/11 was misguided vengeance for murdered Arabs, the actions are at least understandable; unforgivable, but understandable.

I refuse to empathize with the urge to kill someone else because they are wicked. We Americans owe the false god of these psychopathic men absolutely nothing. We will wear yellow shirts if we choose. We allow freedom of speech, even if such allows the creation and distribution of pornography on the internet. We reserve the right to believe in our own god, or none at all, if that is what we decide.

If you do not wish to have MTV or Hollywood pollute your youth, ban it in your own countries. If you do not wish to be corrupted by pornography, avoid it; I have done so my entire life, even though it is readily at hand.

You are not free to try to convert Americans to your particular beliefs through violence and terror. I do not care how strongly you believe that you are correct. I do not care what your god wants or expects from me. Let your god punish me directly, if he is displeased with me. I will not lie down and allow you to punish on his behalf, just because you believe it just.

I used to think that every American would stand behind these notions of freedom of religion 100%. It was, in my view, the very quintessential element of what it meant to be an American.

Mr. D'Souza has proven this hope wrong, however.

Shame on you, Mr. D'Souza, for trying to blame the horrors of 9/11 on Americans who use their God-given freedom to wear what they want.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Enemy at Home

I just finished listening to Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11. I downloaded it from Audible after my friend Jon, a self-described conservative whose opinions and fairness I trust, spoke highly of D'souza.

To put it mildly, I was underwhelmed by Mr. D'souza. Before I can even engage in most of the issues he raised in this work, I feel like I have to decode a number of rhetorical tricks he's trying to play, and even square basic definitional problems.

I take the task of being fair and balanced very seriously. While I intend on devoting at least one more post to Mr. D'souza's arguments, I am worried about coming off as overtly liberal in my criticisms. For my conservative friends, please be aware that I have also listened to Howard Zinn's History of the United States, and found it equally lacking. If you take issue with this series of book reviews, please know that I’m not attacking you. If I get riled up, it is because I thought I was engaging a respectful, careful theorist, and instead got half-baked talking points.

The most damning criticism I could give of this book would be to point out Mr. D'souza's failed attempt to define "cultural left." Although he gives numerous examples of ideas he takes issue with, as well as politically liberal politicians who champion those ideas, the essential root of cultural liberalism is what religious conservatives call "sin." Although the thesis of the book can be analyzed further by merely replacing all uses of the world "left" with "sin," the intent of the book evaporates if you do so. This book is not a universal call to religious and cultural repentance, it is an attempt to blame a political movement for the collective "sins" of the entire nation. Although he admits the glaring fact that political party is neither a cause, nor a predictor of sins like divorce--self-described liberals and self-described conservatives have similarly high rates--he attempts to blame the sins of conservatives on the cultural influence of liberals and their Godlessness. Since liberals are to blame for changing social gender roles, and since they continue to fight for a further decline in cultural patriarchy, THEY are to blame when conservatives cannot or will not live their own religions well.

Here's a dialogue between a conservative and God, as imagined by D'souza:
"You don't understand, God, I WOULD have kept the commandments, but my neighbors were always talking about how fun sinning was"
"You know, you're right! Even though you committed just as much sin as they did, you always talked a lot about how righteous you were, and how righteous all people SHOULD be. There has to be bonus points for drawing near to me with your lips, right? Come on, son, let’s go torture Hillary Clinton."

If you’re offended, I’m sorry to parody the final judgement like that. Given the wild illogicality of the idea I am critiquing, however, satire was the only tool strong enough to do the trick. Has anybody read this book? Am I being unfair? If any of you want to defend D’souza, we can probably find a way for you to log on to my audible account and listen to the book—not that I can recommend it.