Tish Harrison Warren hangs it up at the NYT

August 6, 2023 • 1:00 pm

It’s been a year since the NYT has been publishing Sunday columns on religion by the Anglican minister Tish Harrison Warren. She seems like a nice person, and is a compassionate rather than a hard-line Christian, but still, week after week, I was forced to read her lucubrations about what I see as society’s religious delusions. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t ignore them: it’s the laws of physics.) A column on God each week is like a column on Bigfoot: we’re supposed to take seriously something that doesn’t exist.  Sure, you can draw moral lessons from God if you want, but too often Warren’s moral lessons tallied more with secular humanism than with Christianity.

She says her farewells, none too soon, in the piece below (click to read):

At first I thought she’d signed on for a year—as it’s been about that long—and her contract had expired. But she says instead that she decided to stop writing, and gives her reasons. Did the Times gently nudge her out the door? Who knows, but I won’t miss her. Now can we have a secular humanist or an atheist for the next year?


For this and many other reasons, it was a tough decision to leave. And as with any tough decision, my reasons are varied and complex, but one is that writing publicly about God each week can do a number on one’s soul. Thomas Wingfold, a character in a novel by the Scottish minister and poet George MacDonald, said, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” Holy things, sacred topics, spiritual ideas, I believe, have power. Dealing with them is a privilege and a joy, but habitually dealing with the outside of them is inherently dangerous.

The “outsides” of holy things, to me, describes the difference between speaking about divine or sacred things and encountering the divine or the sacred directly. To be sure, we need more and better religious discourse in America. In my very first newsletter for The Times, I wrote that “we need to start talking about God,” and I still believe that. I believe that religion and, more broadly, the biggest questions in life are the driving forces behind much that is beautiful, divisive, unifying, controversial and perplexing about our culture and society.

And also behind much that is divisive and bad!  But why talk about the good of religion when you can’t even prove that God exists? Why not just talk about ethics? The thing is, Warren’s columns, without her dragging in her deity, were often mawkish laden with bromides. She was the Krista Tippett of the New York Times. Nobody would be given such a column unless there was a religious angle to it (Tippett also got her start on an NPR show called “On Faith”).

In her peroration she once again tries to imbue us with the power of faith:

We become like Linus in the old “Peanuts” cartoons who famously said: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” True community, however, is made of real people with names, of friends with true faults, of congregations with faces, of the local, the small. Don’t get me wrong: Global and national news is important and I will continue to read news and opinion pieces nearly every day. But for me, as for most of us, the places we meet God — the places we become human — are not primarily in abstract debates about culture wars or the role of religion in society, but in worship on a Sunday morning or in dropping off soup for a grieving friend, in a vulnerable conversation or in making breakfast at the homeless shelter down the street, in celebration with a neighbor or in the drowsy prayers uttered while rocking a feverish toddler in the middle of the night.

I used to work in a soup kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, but I never met God. But I did meet Milton, a 90-year-old man who told me, over Thanksgiving dinner, how he used to wait to see Billie Holiday outside the jazz clubs that used to line the area. And that’s what kindled my investigation of jazz that became a passion. I’d say that’s better than meeting God any day, for at least Milton was real.

Dawkins replies to two challenges from Jordan Peterson

August 4, 2023 • 10:46 am

According to this post on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, Jordan Peterson challenged him on Twitter to answer two questions.  Dawkins decided to answer both because, as he said below, he respects Peterson:

A colleague sent two challenges to me, posted by Jordan Peterson, suggesting I should respond. I’m happy to do so because I greatly respect Dr Peterson’s courageous stance against a bossy, intolerant thought-police whose Orwellian newspeak threatens enlightened rationalism. The hero of 1984, Winston Smith, was eventually persuaded by O’Brien that, if the Party wills it, 2+2 = 5. Winston had earlier found it necessary to stake out his credo. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”.

Yes, Peterson is gutsy enough to say what isn’t popular but often worth saying, though he’s also vociferous about some stuff that isn’t admirable—like his admiration of religion.  But you have to give him credit for not really caring whether his beliefs make him demonized. Click below to Read Richard’s answers.

The first question:

Richard begins his answer with a caveat:

My answer to the question is no if you include supernaturalism in your definition of a religion, and a dear colleague takes her stand on this distinction.  But the following three similarities are enough for me to justify a yes answer to Jordan’s question. The first of the three is characteristic of religions in general. The other two are kin to Christianity in particular.

The similarities are Heresy Hunting, Hereditary Guilt, and Transubstantiation. This is his example of the last one:

Similarly, in the cult of woke, a man speaks the magic incantation, “I am a woman”, and thereby becomes a woman in true substance, while “her” intact penis and hairy chest are mere Aristotelian accidentals.  Transsexuals have transubstantiated genitals. One thing to be said in favour of (today’s) Catholics: at least they don’t (nowadays) insist that everybody else must go along with their beliefs.

Hemant Mehta, who has long gone down the Woke Rabbit Hole, will be sharpening his knives when he reads that.

And the second question:

Part of Dawkins’s answer:

I see this accusation again and again in graffiti scribbled on the lavatory wall that is Twitter. Peterson’s tone is more civilised, of course, but the message is the same. We who have spoken out against the irrationality of religion are to blame for the rise of the irrationality of woke.

. . . I get the point, but I love truth too much to go along with it. I, along with Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and others, are against all religions without exception. And that includes the cult of woke. To oppose one irrational dogma by promoting another irrational dogma would be a betrayal of everything I love and stand for.

Whatever else there is to admire about Peterson, his affection for religion, which may be of the “Little People” variety (e.g., “I am no believer, but religion is essential for everyone else as a social glue”), is not only an acceptance of the unevidenced, but a false belief that superstition is necessary for a good society (viz. Scandinavia). It’s also patronizing.

But it may be that Peterson really believes in, say, Christianity. I’d love to sit him down and ask him questions about whether he believes in the Resurrection, heaven, and so on, but I’m 100% sure that his answers would be so tortuous that you wouldn’t get an intelligible answer.

NYT touts religion again: this time it’s Judaism

July 3, 2023 • 9:15 am

Every Sunday we get a paean to Christianity by Tish Harrison Warren, and yesterday we read Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe touting the advantages of Judaism—and of religion in general.  Wolpe isn’t as irritating as the  smarmy Warren, who provides only bromides. Wolpe seems like a nice and caring guy, and I’m sure he’s brought solace to many in his rabbinical duties. He’s also had his own tribulations: two surgeries for a brain tumor as well as lymphoma.  But can’t the NYT occasionally produce columns in praise of atheism and humanism? After all, there’s no good evidence for a God, and yet that viewpoint is resolutely ignored by the paper, which publishes piece after piece by people who think not only that there is a God, but a specific kind of God, like the Christian one (e.g., Warren).

According to Wikipedia, Wolpe is infamous among conservative Jews for questioning the historicity of the Old Testament:

On Passover 2001, Wolpe told his congregation that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Casting doubt on the historicity of the Exodus during the holiday that commemorates it brought condemnation from congregants and several rabbis (especially Orthodox Rabbis). The ensuing theological debate included whole issues of Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and editorials in The Jerusalem Post, as well as an article in the Los Angeles Times. Critics asserted that Wolpe was attacking Jewish oral history, the significance of Passover and even the First Commandment. Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hier wrote that “Rabbi Wolpe has chosen Aristotle over Maimonides, theories and scientific method over facts”. Wolpe, on the other hand, was defended by Reform Rabbi Steven Leder from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who argued that “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

Wolpe asserted that he was arguing that the historicity of the events should not matter, since he believes faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. Wolpe argues that his views are based on the fact that no archeological digs have produced evidence of the Jews wandering the Sinai Desert for forty years, and that excavations in Israel consistently show settlement patterns at variance with the Biblical account of a sudden influx of Jews from Egypt.

In March 2010, Wolpe expounded on his views saying that it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites with their traditions. This opinion is, in fact, shared by the majority of historians and biblical scholars. He added that the controversy of 2001 stemmed from the fact that Conservative Jewish congregations have been slow to accept and embrace biblical criticism. Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, are taught biblical criticism in rabbinical school.

It’s to Wolpe’s credit that he accepts the historical and archaeological evidence against the Exodus. As he says below, he thinks that religion isn’t really about “a set of beliefs to one assents.” He’s wrong, of course. Maybe that’s true for Wolpe, but why would there have been a controversy about the Exodus if some people didn’t adhere to the Old Testament claims? But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ll just add that you may know Wolpe from  his several debates about religion with Christopher Hitchens. Here’s one about the existence of God. (Note: it’s 90 minutes long.)

Click on the headline below to read, and you can find the piece archived here

This column seems to serve as Wolpe’s swan song: his retirement thoughts on the human condition and how it’s ameliorated by religion, which to him serves as a kind of social glue. (Wolpe’s statements are indented.)

For over a quarter century now, I have listened to people’s stories, sat by their bedsides as life slipped away, buried their parents, spouses and sometimes their children. Marriages have ended in my office, as have engagements.

I have watched families as they say cruel, cutting things to one another or, just as devastating, refuse to say anything at all. I have seen the iron claw of grief scrape out the insides of mourners, grip their windpipes, blind their eyes so that they cannot accept the mercy of people or of God.

After 26 years in the rabbinate, as I approach retirement, I have come to several realizations. All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize it in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through the brokenness.

This is what binds together a faith community. No religious tradition, certainly not my own, looks at an individual and says: “There. You are perfect.” It is humility and sadness and striving that raises us, doing good that proves the tractability of the world and its openness to improvement, and faith that allows us to continue through the shared valleys.

Well, I’ve never been a member of a “faith community,” even a Jewish one, but it seems to me that what binds a faith community together is a desire to belong to a tribe which whose members care for each other. That, plus the factors that make a tribe a tribe: shared beliefs.  Jews can never be members of a Christian faith community because they don’t think the Messiah ever came back. Nor can Muslims be members of either community because they think the Qur’an is the final and correct faith, and Muhammad is the prophet.  And that brings us to Wolpe’s misguided claim about religion not being about a “set of beliefs”:

I have had a privileged view of the human condition, and the essential place of religion on that hard road. Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?

Yes, religion is about the solace of being a member of a community. But, for most, it’s also about shared beliefs, something I discuss in Faith versus Fact.  Does a Christian community have any meaning if the members don’t accept the fact that Jesus came to earth as God/son of God, was crucified, and thereby gave us the possibility of eternal life?  Are Muslims not a community because they all accept the tenets of the Qur’an, dictated to Mohamed by an angel? In fact, Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life—a way of life based on shared beliefs about empirical circumstances. And so it goes for many religions: without accepting at least the existence of a divine being, most religions—and all Abrahamic religions—center largely on “a set of beliefs to one assents.”

Now as a heterodox rabbi Wolpe may indeed reject a conventional god. As he says in the debate below, he defines his god as something quite nebulous:

“God is the source of everything that exists, and God is someone, something, with whom a human being can have a relationship, and that you can live your life in alignment with a godly purpose. That any definition that is greater than that is in some ways to traduce God.”

But he has no right to pronounce on what religion is about for everyone else! And there’s ample evidence that he’s wrong.

In some ways, Wolpe’s claims are a final defense against the increasing secularization of America, which he mentions twice. Pushing back against that, he sees religion as, without question, a net good:

I know the percentage of those who not only call themselves religious but also find themselves in religious communities declines each year. The cost of this ebbing of social cohesion is multifaceted. At the most basic, it tears away at the social fabric. Many charities rely solely on religious institutions. People in churches and synagogues and mosques reliably contribute more to charities — religious and nonreligious — than their secular counterparts do. The disunity that plagues us in each political cycle is also partly because of a loss of shared moral purpose which people once found each week in the pews.

If lack of religion “tears away at the social fabric,” especially because religions promote charities, then you’d expect that atheistic countries would have a badly torn social fabric.  The evidence is against that—at least the evidence from Scandinavia, where government has simply taken over the care of sick people, old people, disabled people, and poor people. There is no lack of charity in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or other countries. (And virtually every European country has government-provided health care.)

Of course Wolpe doesn’t mention the bad things that religion does—things that Hitchens eloquently mentions in the debate above. Why are Jews demonized by many in the U.S., something mentioned by Wolpe in this article? It’s because they’ve inherited the legacy of being “Christ killers.” Why do Muslims and Jews battle each other to the death? Religion. Why did Hindus and Muslims kill each other during India’s partition in 1947, and continue to do so today? Religion, of course.  Now you can say that without religion people would find other reasons to kill each other and form tribes. That may be true, but religion is perhaps the greatest cause of tribalism in the history of the world, and I’m pretty sure that, had it never arisen, the world would be a better place.

Wolpe paints the Old Testament, even if it be fictitious, as a source of solace:

I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that patterns of life that might escape us become clear. Sibling rivalries and their costs are clear in the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The consequences of kindness emanate from the book of Ruth. We share unanswerable questions with Job and passion with the Song of Songs. The Torah acts as a spur and a salve.

But so do many other nonreligious works! If the Torah is more efficacious than these works, it’s because people believe those stories, something Wolpe says they don’t do. Otherwise, sibling rivalries, kindness, and questioning can be found in gazillions of nonreligious works of fiction and nonfiction. And, as reader Leo (who sent me this link) noted, “I guess he wants us to ignore the Bible stories about slavery, war, genocide, etc.”

In his last paragraph, Wolpe again claims that religion is a bulwark against creeping secularism and the social damage it apparently causes:

Religion may be on the decline in this country and in the West, but if you wish to see the full panoply of a human life, moments of ecstatic joy and deepest sorrow, the summit of hopes and the connections of community, they exist concentrated in one place: your local house of worship.

Well, they also exist concentrated in a better place: your local library.

Does the ubiquity of prayer prove the existence of God?

January 10, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Adam Rutherford reminded me that it was the now-demonized Francis Galton who did statistical tests on the efficacy of prayer. His most famous is finding out that British Royals, who are prayed for constantly, didn’t live any longer than non-royals at a similar level of well being. Galton did related studies of the success of sea voyages accompanied by prayer versus those with no prayer. Again, no effect. And, more recently, I’ve written about the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer that found no effect of such prayer on the rate of recovery from cardiac surgery (in fact, those who were prayed for did marginally but not significantly worse).  This constitutes direct evidence against Brown’s implicit thesis. (But read the last paragraph of the NYT story I’ve linked to so you can see how the faith try to rescue God.)


Of course not! The ubiquity of a belief doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of that belief.  Several hundred years ago the whole world believed that infectious diseases were caused by things like God’s will, or miasmas, or the Jews.

They were wrong.

Our species has grown up since then, because science, and science alone, has told us why those earlier beliefs were wrong. The problem is that science can’t disprove an equally unfounded belief in a deity. God is slippery, and smart theologians are paid to make him slippery, because they’d be out of a job if everyone was an atheist.

But that’s what the evidence says, so far as it exists, for we can make plenty of arguments against certain conceptions of God. The Abrahamic omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving deity, for instance, is disproven by the many innocent people who die of physical factors like earthquakes or cancer.  (Theologians have a number of magic tricks to get out of that argument.) As the late Victor Stenger said, “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if the evidence should be there.”  And certainly any god worthy of its name, who wanted people to obey and worship him, would make his presence unequivocally known. The evidence should be there.

It isn’t.  Using Bayesian analysis, the priors for an Abrahamic god are low.

But forget that. This article, from the conservative site WND, tries to argue that because most people pray (even atheists, they say!), it’s evidence for God’s existence, and atheists are out of luck. Click to read:

Michael Brown uses injured football player Damar Hamlin, who is recovering (though I doubt he’ll play ball again) as an example of the ubiquity of prayer. I saw this many times on television, even with news anchors on local news who send out “thoughts and prayers”:

Around the nation, in response to the life-threatening injury to Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin, people prayed. Hamlin’s teammates and coaches prayed. Millions of fans joined in prayer, tweeting their support. Even on live TV, sports commentators stopped in the middle of their broadcast to pray.

But this is only natural. During times of crisis, especially life and death crisis, people turn to God.

We know the situation is grave, we know we cannot change things ourselves, and we know that only God – an all-powerful being who cares – can turn the tide.

That’s why, at such times, people do not turn to atheism. They turn to God.

Even non-religious people pray. In fact, many agnostics and soft atheists even turn to prayer.

It continues, showing that the God they are talking about is, of course, the God of Christianity:

As expressed by Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, “It is interesting to me as a person of faith that we tend to go to that core place [at moments of tragedy], that we start talking to God and talking about talking to God.”

He added, “I just find that rather refreshing in an affluent culture that has so much that we tend to ignore God that something like this happens and it reminds us of our own mortality, and we begin to talk about praying and talking about God. … It speaks to the yearning deep inside of us.”

But to ask again, what about Orlovsky’s sports and media colleagues? Were they also happy with him praying on live sports TV?

Yes, many of them were positive on this as well. As one headline announced, “Dan Orlovsky Praised After ‘Beautiful’ Prayer for Damar Hamlin Live on Air.”

Among those quoted in the article were ESPN presenter Ashley Brewer and Super Bowl champion Ryan Clark.

In Brewer’s words, “This is amazing, I teared up watching this in my living room today. Proud to call you my teammate & brother in Christ.”

This is what happens when, as a nation, we are drawn into a life-and-death crisis.

This is what happens when, suddenly and unexpectedly, in front of our eyes on TV, the health and well-being of a relative stranger now becomes our personal concern.

This is what happens when we realize that we need help outside of ourselves.

People pray, and prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed.

It’s not all that welcome on this website, because, being an atheist, I think prayer is useless. If it makes you feel better, or helps you meditate, go for it. But don’t think that anybody up there is listening and will help you. For if he was and did, there wouldn’t be kids dying of cancer all the time.

Now I don’t think author Brown is trying to convince himself of anything; he’s already lost to the delusion. Nor is he trying to convince his fellow religionists, who have also drunk the Kool-Aid.  I think he’s making fun of atheists by showing that we’re trumped by the ubiquity of prayer. And that wouldn’t bother us, he thinks, unless he thought that prayer’s ubiquity was evidence for God. People wouldn’t be praying all the time if they didn’t think there was really a god to pray to! Checkmate, you heathens!:

The reality is that we always need God. It’s just that, when all is well, we often forget about Him, putting our trust in ourselves and leaving Him out of our thoughts entirely. Many of us even become hostile to faith, doing our best to keep it excluded from public life. And then a crisis wakes us up as we recognize our own frailty and remember that death could be near at any time.

May we not forget these realities as life gets back to normal and, we hope and pray, Damar Hamlin makes a full and even miraculous recovery.

And may those who ignore or even scorn the idea of God think again. Eternity is always just one step away. Then what?

If the Bible is true – which I am 100% sure it is, personally – one day we will actually give account of our lives to God.

That is a sobering thought.

The sobering thought is that people who can actually think can be so deluded that they give their lives up to a belief that is totally lacking in evidence. (Brown even has a Ph.D.!) Another sobering thought is that people like Brown think that somehow the fact that lots of people pray means that God is up there listening. A third sobering thought is that Brown has not a scintilla of evidence that the God he’s so sure we’ll meet is the God of the Bible rather than the God of the Qur’an—or any other god. As for the possibility that there are no gods, well, fuggedaboutit!

h/t: Steve

Conservative religious organization refused restaurant service in Virginia: does this violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

December 7, 2022 • 9:15 am

This incident is relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent hearings about whether a Colorado web designer could refuse service by refusing to create a wedding website for a gay couple. That was a First Amendment case, but this refusal to service, in Virginia, may constitute a civil rights case. You decide:

Reader Williams Garcia sent me a link to an article from ABC 8 News serving the Richmond, Virginia area.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited, among other things, discrimination in public places against certain “protected classes”: to wit:

Note that it says nothing about “politics”, so I suppose a restaurant could deny service to a group or person on political grounds, though I’m not 100% sure. Could a restaurant refuse to serve Mitch McConnell because he’s a Republican servant of Beelzebub?

This is important because a “conservative advocacy group” mentioned in the article (click on screenshot) was refused service on grounds that seem to involve both the group’s politics and their religious foundation:

Here’s the skinny (my bolding):

A Virginia-based conservative Christian advocacy group was turned away from a local restaurant just an hour before their reservation last week.

A representative of the Family Foundation said he was frustrated after the group was turned away from Metzger Bar and Butchery last Wednesday. The group claims the refusal had to do with their religious beliefs.

According to Todd Gathje, Director of Government Relations for the Family Foundation, one of the owners of Metzger called a representative of the Family Foundation about an hour before the reservation time, saying that the group would not be dining in the restaurant.

“We’ve had events at restaurants all over the city and never encountered a situation like this,” Gathje said. “It’s no secret that we are very much engaged in the public policy debate on a number of controversial issues. But we never expected that we would be denied service at a restaurant based on our religious values or political beliefs.”

For businesses like restaurants, federal and state laws do not allow discrimination based on protected classes such as race, religion, sex and more, as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s not yet clear if this incident falls under one of those protected classes.

The question, then, is whether the Family Foundation of Virginia (FFV) was refused service because it’s politically conservative or because it was religious. In fact, the two are connected. Wikipedia says this about the organization:

Family Foundation of Virginia is a socially conservative and Christian fundamentalist lobbying organization headquartered in the US city of Richmond, Virginia. It was focused originally on opposition to sex education. It has expanded to opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, nondiscrimination policies, and same-sex marriage. The organization supports legal conversion therapy for minors and increased legal restriction on abortion.

(By the way, it was the FFV that, it says, lobbied so hard against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia that it failed to be ratified by the state, and that was the end of the line for the ERA).

And on their own page, under “Who we are,” the FFV says this:

The Family Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan, faith-based organization. We believe there is no square inch in all the universe over which God has not claimed “Mine,” and that includes the arenas of civil government and public policy where we spend much of our time. We advocate for policies based on Biblical principles that enable families to flourish at the state and local level. We are uniquely positioned at the center of a national, state, and local coalition, which includes being associated with Focus on the Family.

Well, that sounds pretty religious to me, and on their own site they beef about being reused service at Metzger’s.

The question, then, is whether they were refuse service on religious grounds or on political grounds (i.e., Metzger’s just didn’t like the organization as a whole, and wasn’t refusing service because they were religious). I don’t think it matters whether they were refused service because Metzger’s itself had a religious belief that prevented them from serving the FFV, or whether the FFV was refused service because of its religious beliefs; the law above implies that the latter is enough to constitute a civil rights violation.

Here’s what the site says about being refused service:

The restaurant noted that many staff members were LGBTQ or women and that it believed the Family Foundation “seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic rights in Virginia.”

Gathje has previously written for the Family Foundation about a stalled effort in 2021 to remove an unenforceable provision of the Virginia Constitution — invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 — that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, saying that removing it would open the door to “polygamous, incestuous, kinship or even child marriages.”

Gathje said he thought it was unfair of the restaurant to deny service over the group’s religious beliefs.

“It was a very intolerant message being conveyed,” Gathje said.

Well, of course they were refused service either because they were political or religious in a way that the LGBTQ staff didn’t like, but in this case it’s impossible, I think, to separate the politics and the religion, since the former comes from the latter. And the reasons given for refusing service are ambiguous. While the FFV has offered to sit down with the restaurant’s owners to try to avoid situations like this, it could institute a lawsuit. If they were refused service because they were, say, black or Jewish, and that would be a valid lawsuit. But because the FFV doesn’t favor “basic rights” of LGBTQ+ people, does that count? Here are the “core principles” of the organization, which seem based on religion:

  1. Human life, from fertilization until natural death, is sacred, and the right to life is fundamental to all other rights.

  2. Marriage, as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, is an institution of God and a foundation for civil society.

  3. Gender, beautifully expressed as either male or female according to God’s immutable design, is an important biological and social reality that must be respected by all.

  4. Parents are ultimately responsible for the care and well-being of their children and should therefore be free from intrusive government involvement.

  5. The right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal convictions are sacred and should not be denied or infringed.

  6. The role and jurisdiction of government is clearly prescribed by our Constitution and consequently should be restrained from excessive involvement in the lives of citizens.

  7. Human exploitation, in its various forms, is wrong, and governments have a legitimate and important role in curbing these abuses.

As you see from #2 and #3, they do favor things that violate the legal rights of LGBTA+ people. But does that count?

Perhaps lawyers could weigh in here. Would this refusal of service be illegal? If not now, would it be later if the Supreme Court, as is likely, decides for the web designer, and whether it does so purely on First Amendment grounds (“a website is an expression”) or whether it issues a broader ruling allowing any discrimination because of a businessperson’s religious beliefs?

Two religions collide: Cambridge student preacher causes row by suggesting that Jesus was a transsexual male

November 27, 2022 • 12:00 pm

You can thank reader Pyers for the links to two—count them, two—articles about how a student at Cambridge claims that Jesus was a transsexual male, which of course caused a huge fracas. Pyers added this to his links:

And this one must be for the 5* treatment as being idiotic on just so so many levels.  When I read it I just, to use a piece of internet shorthand, PML. [JAC: inquiry reveals that this stands for “pissed myself laughing”]. It is the craziest of the crazy, looniest of loons …Just do what I was tempted to do and bash your head against a wall. It is at moments like this that you thank God you are an atheist! (Big grin for that one.)

It’s widely reported in the UK media:

The first article’s from the Torygraph:

A quote and picture (bolding is mine):

Jesus could have been transgender, according to a University of Cambridge dean.

Dr Michael Banner, the dean of Trinity College, said such a view was “legitimate” after a row over a sermon by a Cambridge research student that claimed Christ had a “trans body”, The Telegraph can disclose.

The “truly shocking” address at last Sunday’s evensong at Trinity College chapel, saw Joshua Heath, a junior research fellow, display Renaissance and Medieval paintings of the crucifixion that depicted a side wound that the guest preacher likened to a vagina.

Worshippers told The Telegraph they were left “in tears” and felt excluded from the church, with one shouting “heresy” at the Dean upon leaving.

The sermon displayed three paintings, including Jean Malouel’s 1400 work Pietà, with Mr Heath pointing out Jesus’s side wound and blood flowing to the groin. The order of service also showed French artist Henri Maccheroni’s 1990 work “Christs”.

Heath, whose PhD was supervised by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, also told worshippers that in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, from the 14th century, this side wound was isolated and “takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance”.

Heath also drew on non-erotic depictions of Christ’s penis in historical art, which “urge a welcoming rather than hostile response towards the raised voices of trans people”.

“In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body,” the sermon concluded.

A congregation member, who wished to remain anonymous, told Dr Banner in a complaint letter: “I left the service in tears. You offered to speak with me afterwards, but I was too distressed. I am contemptuous of the idea that by cutting a hole in a man, through which he can be penetrated, he can become a woman.

“I am especially contemptuous of such imagery when it is applied to our Lord, from the pulpit, at Evensong. I am contemptuous of the notion that we should be invited to contemplate the martyrdom of a ‘trans Christ’, a new heresy for our age.”

Here is PROOF—one of the pictures shown during Heath’s sermon. You have to do a really logical stretch to see that as a vagina. It’s not even in the right place!

And here’s how Dean Banner defended the claim. Note that he often gives BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”, which is usually a religious homily. Dawkins did it once, and that was the last time they used an atheist!

Dr Banner’s response to the complaint, seen by The Telegraph, defended how the sermon “suggested that we might think about these images of Christ’s male/female body as providing us with ways of thinking about issues around transgender questions today”.

“For myself, I think that speculation was legitimate, whether or not you or I or anyone else disagrees with the interpretation, says something else about that artistic tradition, or resists its application to contemporary questions around transsexualism,” Dr Banner added.

Dr Banner, who frequents BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, said that while the views were the speaker’s own, he “would not issue an invitation to someone who I thought would deliberately seek to shock or offend a congregation or who could be expected to speak against the Christian faith”.

Click to read the more heated piece from the Daily Fail:

The Fail doesn’t add much to the above, but does give an official quote form the Uni:

A spokesperson for Trinity College said: The College would like to make clear the following:

‘Neither the Dean of Trinity College nor the researcher giving the sermon suggested Jesus was transgender.

‘The sermon addressed the image of Christ depicted in art and various interpretations of those artistic portrayals.

‘The sermon’s exploration of the nature of religious art, in the spirit of thought-provoking academic inquiry, was in keeping with open debate and dialogue at the University of Cambridge.’

Now it’s barely possible that some randy medieval artist deliberately painted Jesus’s wound to resemble a vagina. But since I’m not convinced that Jesus really existed as any real person, much less as a divine human/son of God/part of God, I can’t be bothered worrying about his gender. The whole fracas is simply hilarious, instantiating what happens when one religion, Christianity, collides with another—wokeness.

A reader’s essay on why religion is at best superfluous

November 6, 2022 • 11:00 am

Reader Daniel Sharp, a student in Edinburgh (I’m informed that he’s now graduated), sent me a link to a very nice essay he wrote for his Substack. As you can see, it was intended for Quillette but fell through the cracks. His intro:

I just wanted to share with you a little piece I just published on my Substack. I was commissioned by Quillette to contribute to one of their ’roundtables’, where various people answer a particular question, either positively, negatively, or, if you like, agnostically. In this case, the question was about religion, and I had fun donning my ‘New Atheist’ hat. Alas, the feature wasn’t published because they couldn’t find anyone to take the middling position, so I published it on my Substack instead.

Click to read:

A couple of quotes (indented):

As a good old-fashioned New Atheist type, I have long been of the view that religion is most certainly not good for humanity. At best, it is irrelevant to the task of creating happy, free, and prosperous societies. At worst, it is an enemy of truth and a driver of hatred and conflict.

Let’s take truth first. The question at hand isn’t really about the veracity or otherwise of religion, but I think most people would consider truth, all else being equal, to be a good thing for humanity, as I do. This is by no means a given, I concede, and we shall have to skate over difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions about what exactly we mean by ‘truth’. But if we believe that truth (meaning, broadly, the accurate understanding of reality) is good, then religion, almost by definition, cannot be good for us.

I’m not one of those milquetoast atheists who hedges their bets, let alone a respectably stuffy agnostic. No, I think one can say, with great confidence, that Christianity, Islam, and the rest are utterly false. We know, and even believers have had to admit, that all the holy books are riddled with.

As for the idea that religion acts as a social glue, well, perhaps it does for members of a congregation or faith, but surely not for humanity as a whole. I can’t imaging a more divisive force save nationalism.

Questions of truth and knowledge aside, what of the social effects of religion? We live in a generally secular age, in which religion (or at least some religious sects, and mostly in the West) has been mostly defanged. I think this explains why so many people have a hard time understanding that genuinely held delusional beliefs can be a powerful motivator to action. This is why we find it hard to comprehend the cruelty of medieval inquisitors and the murderousness of modern jihadists. We rationalize their evils as being rooted in grievances or economics. But make no mistake: religion is an extraordinarily effective engine of evil.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that one could pick almost any conflict at random, historical or contemporary, and quickly see the poisonous influence of religion. Putin’s war on Ukraine, for example, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin sees himself as the restorer of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For him, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.

To head off another likely response: I am not saying that religion is the sole cause of every conflict. But it appears, one way or another, as motivation or motivator, in most of them, and makes them even harder to resolve. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his 2007 broadside against religion, god is not Great, “Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”

After Jordan Peterson’s  quasi-religious spiel at the academic freedom conference yesterday, I was discussing with a friend the notion that “wokeness” is a form of religion—the claim of John McWhorter in his antiracism book.  Yes, I agree there are many parallels, but I couldn’t say that wokeness is a replacement for religion: filling the “God-shaped hole” that many are supposed to have.

I think the parallel is largely on the basis of similarities in some tenets of wokeism and of religion (e.g. “original sin”, authoritarianism, and moral purity), but the parallel goes only so far. There is nothing supernatural about wokeness; it’s a purely human phenomenon. This makes wokeness “religinoid” rather than “religious”. Moreover, when you look at countries outside the U.S.— countries that used to be religious but are now largely atheistic (e.g., Germany, Scandinavia, etc.), they are neither particularly “woke” nor do their inhabitants feel the need to replace religion with something similar.  The disappearance of religion doesn’t seem to have left a God-shaped hole. (What did Danes or Icelanders fill their God-shaped hole with?). Nor is Britain particularly religious compared to the U.S., though it is woke.

Rather, the tenets of “progressive leftism” that we consider illiberal come from tribalism, not religion. That may be a distinction without a difference, but I get queasy when I hear about that “God-shaped hole”. I see religion as something that arose when we didn’t understand the world, and because we were (and still are) afraid to die. Wokeness doesn’t fill either of those needs; science and reality do.

One could, I suppose, test the “GSH” hypotehsis by seeing if the woke, compared to, say, centrist liberals, used to be more religious but gave it up: they are more likely to be “nones.”

This is just a digression having nothing to do with Daniel’s fine review. But I put it out there because I’m sitting at the SF airport with nothing to do but write.

Daniel’s peroration:

In the end, I can make weaker and stronger versions of my argument. At its strongest, I can say that religion is not just harmless but harmful. At its weakest, I can say that religion is irrelevant. Either way, religion is not positively good for us. We have no need of it. Humanity is weak and foolish, yes, but it also contains what Saul Bellow in his great novel The Adventures of Augie March so beautifully called the “universal eligibility to be noble”.

I submit, finally, then, that the highest, noblest path that humanity can pursue is one without religion. We must face the uncaring universe with our chins up. . . .

Remember, when you’re arguing about whether the phenomenon of religion itself is now (or was in the past) a net good or net bad for the world, you have to consider all of humanity, not just the United States. If Northern Europe can survive perfectly well without either religion or a religion-resembling replacement, then so can we all.

Philomena takes the mickey out of religion

October 10, 2022 • 1:00 pm

You must watch “Faith Off,” the second episode of the BBC’s five-part “Cunk on Earth” series. After watching two of the episodes, I’ve concluded that while they have their funny moments (one of them noted by reader Barry below), the Philomena trope has trouble sustaining a long series. The bit about “Philomena’s castle” at the end is a weird and unamusing digression.

Moreover, now clearly some (but not all) of the academics and scholars she interviews are in on the fact that it’s a spoof .

Barry, who sent me this link, noted a bon mot from La Cunk:

In case you haven’t seen her latest: “When Christ was born he had a magic flaming circle on his head, which would have set fire to all the hay and pubes as he came out.”

The treatment of Islam is pretty funny, what with the blackouts, but note that there are two ads that interrupt in the show.

I’ll post the other three half-hour segments in the coming days.

Thursday reading

October 6, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I haven’t yet subscribed to Freddie deBoer’s Substack site, but I get emails when he posts, and you can read this one for free. And you should (click on screenshot):

First deBoer attacks “belief in belief” (a term I believe was coined by Dan Dennett): the “little people” argument adduced by nonbelievers who claim that religion is good because it’s a form of social glue, and also because it fills the need to believe in something: the “god-shaped hole” that we supposedly all have. He said this in an earlier post on Jon Haidt:

. . . belief in belief is belief in delusion – worse, in other people’s delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.

Now, however, deBoer sees the rise of another form of religion, one that has occasionally been adduced by Andrew Sullivan:

There’s a new wrinkle to all of this: nowadays I frequently encounter people online who not only say that postmodern religion (post-belief religion) is good, I regularly hear that there has never been another kind. That is, I am told that, according to an extremely tendentious and evidence-light perspective, pretty much nobody ever believed any of the supernatural claims in religious stories – not the burning bush, not water into wine, no splitting of the moon, no siddhis, none of the supernatural events common to Mahayana Buddhism. In this telling nobody, or almost nobody, has ever believed in transcendent extra-material deities or their magical works in the world of man. Do these people think Jesus’s apostles never really believed that he died and rose again – not metaphorically, but actually, in the physical and literal realm – but went out to spread his gospel anyway? Unclear! Haidt cited St. Augustine and Pascal as two people who spoke to his idea about the god-shaped hole. Neither of them professed any belief in belief as such, any belief in belief with no actual divine referent.

This is projection on a whole other level, to me. People find that they can’t summon belief in the supernatural, but they want what people who can summon that belief have.

This “projection” is of course pure bushwa, on the level of Andrew Sullivan instructing me that no Christian really ever took Genesis as literal truth—a claim that you could make only if you’re either completely ignorant of the history of Christianity or deliberately dissimulating.

If you think that Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine the Hippo (that’s a joke, folks) or Tertullian saw the Bible as pure metaphor, you don’t know your theology. (Yes, they saw the Bible as metaphorical in some bits, but also as literal truth as a whole.) I lay this out in Faith Versus Fact.

deBoer takes apart this idea of Relgion as Metaphorical Comfort:

If you want to say that belief in the supernatural elements of religion has always been complicated; if you want to say that at least some doubt in the existence of God is common to lived religious practice; if you want to say that it’s all more complicated than I’ve laid it out here – fine. But I continue to find belief-in-belief to be a dead end. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d engage in religious practice without any belief in the actual transcendent claims on which religion is based rather than simply participating in moral philosophy. It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong, but people have been working on it for a couple thousand years. I also understand the desire for the community and fraternity that religion can engender, but surely these are possible without religion, and our Bowling Alone present (the death of communal life in contemporary times) is a bigger and separate issue. The basic question remains: why bother with the bric a brac if you know that the crucifix you pray towards reflects only a deluded carpenter who tried and tried and finally got Rome’s attention? There are many pretty buildings in the world. You can eat your own bread and drink your own wine. You can burn your own incense. It’s all available to you.

The only way that such belief is justifiable is if you admit that you don’t accept any of the truth claims of the religion but simply like seeing the candles, hearing the choir, and smelling the incense—and think that it’s good for society to have such rituals. To me, the real believers that enable the incense-sniffers are a drag on society, though, and we always have books, soccer, and wine for entertainment. Why is smelling the incense when you lack all belief better than smelling the bouquet of a fine old Bordeaux?

A new theory which is not mine

September 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I found this directed to me on the Internet (original spelling preserved). It’s a new theory of how religion evolved.

I read your article on the war between religion and science as im trying to find an avenue to put my theory of the evolutionary basis of religion. It involves harmonic vibrations of the skull occuring as we speak (felt best on the top of your head). The vestibular system is located excellently to pick up the vibrations and cause a feedback loop with the parietal vestibular insular cortex located around the audiocortex and the muscular and sensory sections of the mouth to improve speech. I find the journal process to be too slow and haphazard as i have sincerely no patience with it. There are too many journals! if you know of an appropriate journal or any other location that might be interested i would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript.
I know of no journals that would be interested, but perhaps readers do. This is one of those things that’s best characterized as “I can’t even. . . “