The Standardized Red Herrings of Homophobia

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If you have gay-hating friends or relatives (and who doesn’t) or if you’ve been exposed to the mindless prattling of media cesspools like Fox “News” (and if there’s any way to avoid it, please let us know), then it’s almost certain that at some time or other (and probably more than once) you’ve heard something very similar to this:

I’m sickandtired of gays ramming their lifestyle down my throat. They’re a small minority, and they’ve chosen to be the way they are. They shouldn’t have any special rights.

This is a very standardized comment, as if those using it had learned it at some kind of special school or seminar. It consists of four separate red herrings, which may be used separately or in combination. Let’s look at each of them.

1. Ramming down my throat

Gay haters are invariably a bit vague about exactly how homosexuality is being rammed down their throats. They can’t seem to cite a single instance of someone trying to force them to marry or even sleep with a person of the same sex. What they really seem to mean by gays ramming their lifestyle down their throats is gays existing in their direction.

But suppose gays indeed were interested in ramming their “lifestyle” down people’s throats. What kind of behavior might that entail? We don’t have to search very far to answer that. There happens to be a superb illustration in the conduct of the very people who so often persecute and malign gays.

Christians have a long history of ramming down throats. Sometimes quite literally — one of the many delightful medieval treatments for “heresy” was to pour hot lead down the heretic’s throat. There, that’ll teach ’em the proper way to love God. (Heresy, by the way, wasn’t unbelief; it was belief in a slightly unapproved fashion.) But things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they? Well, sure. We have laws now against barbaric tortures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that religious fanatics are any nicer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that religion no longer has the world — or the nation — in its grip.

Church membership, or other religious affiliation, is still the default mode, and religion is often presumed to be a yardstick for morality. Ministers perform weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage.  The official (and probably unconstitutional) motto of The United States is “In God We Trust”, which glares at us from our currency every time we make a financial transaction. Officials are sworn into office on a Bible. Witnesses in court place their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth “so help you God”.

The words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance, which school children are compelled to parrot every day. Christian activists tirelessly spread the blatant lie that prayer was banned from public schools, and work overtime to turn voluntary school prayer back into mandatory school prayer — which we had when I was in school not so very long ago. Religious crusaders stick the so-called Ten Commandments under people’s noses, including on government property when they can get away with it. They also vigorously (and successfully) campaign to get fundamentalist dogma inserted into science textbooks.

Christianity is promoted on billboards, on window signs, in TV spots, in Internet advertising. Proselytizers preach on TV or in the streets in an effort to convert people to the one true faith — namely their own. Sometimes they even go from door to door soul-hunting. There are entire TV networks — quite a few of them — devoted to devotion.

Prayer is injected into as many public and private events as humanly possible. When was the last time you heard of someone asking if anyone objected before praying at the dinner table? When have you ever heard of parents asking their children if they really want to go to church? Children are dragged along because it is supposed to be “good for them”, whether they have any beliefs of their own, or even understand what religion is all about. They are baptized into their parents’ religion as infants.

But enough about religion. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Christian culture provides a textbook model of what throat-ramming really looks like. The question is, what exactly about gay culture is any any way, shape or form comparable to any of the above?

The only possible answer is that, just as Christians have churches to assemble in, gays have certain bars. But it’s a very weak parallel. Gay bartenders don’t aggressively recruit new drinkers, telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t come in and have a stiff belt. And they don’t ring their damn chimes at odd hours when people are trying to sleep.

2. They’re a small minority

Roughly 3 percent of the American population is either gay or bi. That’s certainly a minority, but’s it’s by no means the smallest of minorities. It’s about 6 times the number of American adults who are legally blind, for instance. So if numbers were really what mattered, then gays should be treated with 6 times as much respect as the blind.

But it isn’t really about numbers. It’s about the fact that the wielders of this red herring are confusing (deliberately?) majority rule with majority tyranny.

I happen to be part of a 10-percent minority myself: I’m left-handed. That has resulted in more forms of awkwardness than most right-handers would ever think about. Not only are most baseball gloves, guitars and books designed for right-hand dominance, but so are most pianos, scissors, can openers, and even — no fooling — kitchen knives.  No problem. I understand perfectly that in a world dominated by right-handers, most things are going to be designed for their convenience. I even realize that there is a good reason why in the game of baseball southpaws are totally barred from four positions. I’m okay with it now and I was okay with it even as a kid when I had to contend with right-handed school desks and pencil sharpeners.

What I was not okay with then and am still not okay with now is the way I was relentlessly coerced and badgered into trying to be “normal”. There is a big difference between the majority determining what the norm is and the majority trying to compel everyone to conform to it. The line between the two is not the least bit fine.

3. They chose to be the way they are

This is an all-too-common form of Christian arrogance: the presumption that cherry picking an out-of-context biblical passage that seems to support your prejudices makes you an instant expert, more knowledgeable on a particular topic than people who have studied it professionally for years –even in highly technical fields like biology, climate science and evolution.

Experts say homosexuality is NOT a choice, based on extensive biological and psychological research — though we might have come to that conclusion a lot sooner if more people had been willing to just ask gays themselves. Just about any of them will tell you that they didn’t choose it, and quite a few will tell you that they would have chosen otherwise if they could have. But of course the gay-bashers know better. They know the gays are lying. They know that they absolutely wanted to be rejected by their families, marginalized by society and harassed and beaten, sometimes to death.

Aside from being drastically wrong, the “choice” belief is drastically irrelevant. In a sense, saying that gays choose to be “the way they are” is simply saying the same thing that gays themselves say: they do choose whether or not to acknowledge their predilection, but that doesn’t mean they deliberately created it.

But does it really matter? Suppose it were true that homosexuality is chosen with as much utter volition as deciding what kind of car to drive or what flavor ice cream to eat. Whether you realize it or not, there are factors beyond your control, and probably even beyond your comprehension, that cause you to prefer a red Chevrolet to a black Ford, or strawberry to chocolate. And even if that were not the case, should people who drive red Chevrolets and eat strawberry ice cream have to live in the closet?

4. Special rights

What special rights exactly have they asked for? Do you hear gays demand to be exempt from traffic fines, or be allowed to shop half price at any store, or be allowed to vote twice, or to be bowed down to every Thursday morning?

What they want is to be able to marry whom they choose — like anyone else. They want to enjoy the full legal benefits of such unions — like anyone else. They want to be able to partake of the services of government agencies and private businesses without discrimination — like anyone else. They want to be able to live openly wherever they choose without fear — like anyone else. It is the gay-haters who are special, not the gays themselves.

When I was a child, some adults suggested that I used my left hand in order to stand out and gain attention; in reality, what I wanted was just the opposite. That’s true of most gays as well. They may attend a Pride parade to combat the years of stigma thrust upon them, but at the end of the day they want to be thought of as friends and neighbors rather than oddballs and outcasts.

It’s quite interesting — and more than a little amusing — that at the same time they’ve been insisting that homosexuality is a choice, the gay haters have also tried (successfully) to portray it as a disease, a mental disorder. Is that supposed to mean that people consciously choose their mental illnesses?  But recent research (not to mention an overwhelming weight of anecdotal evidence) strongly suggests that it is in fact homophobia and not homosexuality that is connected to mental dysfunction.

A popular quote on the topic, falsely attributed to actor Morgan Freeman, is a bit more blunt:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

That’s true enough in some cases, but not always. Not all homophobes — and there is indeed a fear factor at work — are candidates for the Westboro Baptist Church. Many are, despite their virulent homophobia and perhaps other forms of bigotry, otherwise decent folks who would make good friends and neighbors to gays and transgenders, as long as they don’t know those people are gays and transgender.

But they are still folks who fall prey to ridiculous knee-jerk soundbites odiferously loaded with red herrings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transgenders and Restrooms: Myths, Ironies and Insanities

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Every now and then — and with increasing frequency these days, it seems — Americans totally lose their minds and make a towering Mount Everest out of the tiniest of molehills. At the moment, the nutcake cause du jour is spreading panic about transgender-friendly restrooms.

A firestorm erupted in the media –and social media — after an announcement from Target stores that it would make its restrooms accessible to transgender persons. This was by no means a radical shift in direction; it was just a reaffirmation of the same policy that Target, and many other retail chains, have followed for years without incident.

But all of a sudden, reactionaries proclaimed that the sky was falling. Facebook exploded with comments like this:

For those unaware: Target will be allowing men in the girls’ restrooms of its stores, and will also allow women in the boys restrooms of its stores — all to support queerism and confusion.

This utterance of righteous indignation was posted by two Ohio men who later were arrested because for the past  year they’d been protecting a girl in their family from “queerism and confusion” by keeping her chained up in the basement. Which is something I’m pretty sure the CEO of Target has never done.

Meanwhile, a man in Illinois was arrested for causing a disturbance when he showed up at a Target store to protest the chain’s supposed lack of family values and its supposed endangerment of children. Two days later, he was arrested again when his wife reported him for being violent toward her and their 8-year-old son. And so on.

Many have made the declaration that Target was caving in to pressure from LGBT activist groups (nope) and even from President Obama (double nope). The president did later issue a letter to school districts nationwide reminding them that discriminatory practices are as unconstitutional in the bathroom as they are elsewhere. This shouldn’t have come as a great shock; it’s sort of included in his job description.

Yet many proclaimed that he was trying to be a dictator, “shredding the constitution”. Evangelist James Dobson flew into a frothy-mouthed, holier-than-thou fury, which he justified by citing (I kid you not) his own mortification as a child when he wandered into the girls’ restroom by mistake:

Who is it that is warping our children? It is Barack Obama, one of the worst presidents in American history, and it is time we stood up and said so!…Obama, acting like a king, is wielding dictatorial powers never envisioned in the law. He is determined to change the way males and females relate to one another, and worse, how children perceive themselves…The president has already maneuvered the courts to undermine a 5,000-year-old definition of marriage, after experiencing his infamous epiphany. Now he is determined to change Western civilization forever. He becomes more reckless and defiant as his second term comes to an end. Never has an American president been so absorbed with the use and abuse of power…The bottom line is that [“feminists and LGBT activists”] want to destroy human sexuality and take with it the foundation of the family. That is their goal, and they have a president in office who is willing to use his executive authority to force this nonsense on us all.

Don’t mince words, James; how do you really feel about the president? Yep, Obama must be the worst president ever if he defends the rights of people you hate. As refreshing as it may be to hear a fundamentalist demagogue rally to the defense of “human sexuality”, Dobson’s  unhinged rant is as irresponsible as it is delusional. Sure Obama wants to destroy the American family; after all, he’s never had one of his own, has he?

While it’s unfortunately not surprising that this issue has been so intensely politicized and polarized — isn’t there an ironclad rule that Americans have to politicize and polarize every frigging little thing to the nth degree?– the reactionaries have gone overboard even by their usual standards. They’ve also been exceptionally errant in assigning blame.

Here’s a popular little Internet meme of the day:

James Woods

 

Aside from the straw man about “men peeing in the ladies’ room” and the absurd implication that a person can fight for only one cause at a time (in fact, people who fight terrorism, starvation and disease are likely to fight social injustice as well), the venerable Mr. Woods misses a crucial little detail: it is by no means Democrats alone, or even primarily, who have pushed this issue center stage.

President Obama, like Target, was responding to drives by the legislatures of several states to pass laws that discriminate in a constitutionally questionable fashion. Foremost among them is North Carolina, which succeeded in enacting such a bill. The legislature of North Carolina is 62 percent Republican. Furthermore, of the 9 states in which such laws have been proposed, the GOP dominates the legislatures in 8. It is they if anyone who are obsessed with regulating who can use what bathroom, and ignoring other pressing issues in the process. (And incidentally, Dobson above seems to be unaware that the Supreme Court decision “redefining” marriage was passed down by a court dominated by right-wingers who defy Obama at every turn.)

Of course, you might counter that North Carolina was (over)reacting to an ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte. But use of restroom facilities within city limits is a perfectly appropriate matter for municipal governments to concern themselves with. The state, however, imposed a heavy-handed edict over restrooms throughout all cities and towns in the state –a law that ultimately can be enforced only by requiring people to show their birth certificates before they can go take a whizz. Did we mention that the GOP prides itself on being the party of “limited government”?

The Dobson/ Woods mentality holds that you are born either male or female and that’s that. Even if that were perfectly true, it wouldn’t begin to account for the malicious campaign of hatred, misinformation, and defamation being waged against transgenders. But it’s not perfectly true.

Some individuals are born with one of a variety of genital anomalies that prevent them from being easily classified as either male or female. So how do they fit into a Dobsonian black-and-white universe? Which bathroom should they use? Should they just cross their legs and wait for their state to deliver a ruling? And if external and internal physiological gender can be so muddled, why is it so hard to accept that psychological gender can too?

The James Dobsons of the world would have you believe that transgenderism is a very recent development, a contemporary subversive plot concocted by the Evil Obama and the rest of them librulz to destroy the family, destroy American society, convert everyone to Islam and leave Americans powerless against an impending invasion by the lizard people from outer space. In fact, there is nothing at all new about transgenders.

Better duck! Here comes a history lesson…

The first sex reassignment surgeries were performed in Europe in the early 1930s. Which is a rather short time ago in the grand scheme of world history. But long before modern surgical advances made such a process possible, there were individuals who made the decision to live as a gender other than the one they had been assigned in early life. This extends back into ancient history. Some Native American tribes, before the arrival of white settlers, recognized transgender or third gender members. Hundreds of female-born persons secretly fought in the Civil War  passing as men, and at least a couple of them continued living as men after the war was over — there were probably many others that have not been documented.

In short,  transgenders have lived among us for ages — probably from the very beginning. In some cases, they have even (shudder) used the same facilities as the rest of us. There is little if any evidence that they have caused problems; at least the family unit and civilization have still survived. But now, because they can live in somewhat less secrecy than previously, we’re supposed to believe that suddenly they’re going to turn violent. We’re supposed to believe that, because James Dobson is as morally confused as an adult as he was directionally confused as a kid, individuals who have struggled long and hard to establish identities as women are suddenly going to develop an interest in molesting little girls in public restrooms.

Sorry, but it just hasn’t happened. What has happened is that transgenders themselves have been the victims of harassment and violence. What has happened is that yahoos have attacked individuals they wrongly suspected of being transgender. What has happened is that transgenders have been falsely blamed for invasive bathroom incidents, even if they do not involve transgenders, children, or transgender-friendly bathrooms. What has happened is that “Christian” agitators have dressed in drag so they could sneak into women’s restrooms. Hey guys, if that’s really how you get your jollies, you don’t need Target’s permission.

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It’s especially ironic and hypocritical that so much of the fear and loathing directed toward transgenders should come from the religious culture. Not just because Christianity (so it is rumored) was intended to be a path of love and compassion rather than bigotry and hate. Nothing new there; Christians (or “Christians”) have been spitting in the face of their own avowed values for centuries. But what makes the pious protestations of concern for the safety of children especially jaw-dropping is that children are more likely to be molested in a church setting than in a public restroom. Far, far, far more likely. Infinitely more likely.

Quick, how many known cases have there been of children being molested by transgenders in a public restroom? Answer: a grand total of zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. And how many known cases have there been (Are you paying attention, Mr. Dobson?) of children being molested by church leaders? Thousands upon thousands. And those are just the known cases, which are surely just the tip of the iceberg; experts agree that this phenomenon is vastly underreported. Nor is it just a matter of Catholic priests abusing choirboys. Churches of all flavors provide a perfect haven for predators, giving them a goody-goody persona and ready access to many vulnerable young lives they can ruin forever, children who look up to them with respect, trust and loyalty.

Meanwhile, many of their fellow congregants (and in some cases the predators themselves) are scrambling to cherry pick biblical passages they can brandish in support of their prejudices and their declaration that because President Obama defends constitutional protections for all citizens, America has surely turned its back on God.

Fueled by this ironic, hypocritical, bigoted Bible-thumping zealotry, state governments are wasting time and resources that could be wasted more entertainingly elsewhere. Even worse, they’re wasting time and resources in pursuit of a problem that doesn’t even exist. Insanity indeed, Mr. Woods.

By all means, let’s protect our children. Which might mean, among other things, that it’s not a good idea to send them unescorted into a public restroom of any kind. But hysteria and scapegoating benefit no one. And when it comes to laws regulating bathroom usage, it would make much more sense to check church affiliation at the privy door than birth certificates.

 

 

Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy

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In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Silly Narratives About the Gay Marriage Ruling and the Confederate Flag Flap

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What, the world is still standing? After the Confederate flag started coming down and the rainbow flag started popping up in a single week, the word on the street was that The Final Days were at hand. Although the two developments had little if anything in common, the same reactionaries tended to react to both, and in a similar fashion. And they did their damnedest to squeeze both into a cohesive narrative of degeneration, persecution, oppression, and ominousness.

If you thought the cultural purge over the Confederate flag was breathtaking — wait until you see what LGBT activists do with Christians.  (Todd Starnes of Fox “News”)

Talk show host Bryan Fischer, who evidently can get better drugs than you can, commented about the Court’s ruling, “I saw Satan dancing with delight”. And of the backlash against the Confederate flag he said:

If we are going to remove symbols of oppression from our culture, if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.

Fischer is a one-person Bartlett’s of loony right-wing soundbites. As is this guy:

This could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – that camel being the up till now silent, passive Americans who have been cowed into “tolerating” societal changes that go counter to their fundamental beliefs (Allen West)

These people have been silent and passive up until now??? Heaven knows what kind of earplugs we’re going to need if they ever decide to start mouthing off. West and Fischer didn’t go it alone, of course, but had plenty of other people echoing their inflammatory rhetoric.

“Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”, lamented Ted Cruz to Sean Hannity of fairandbalanced Fox “News”, who promptly agreed, “I couldn’t have said it more eloquently”. (All too true, alas.) Which presumably puts this ruling right up there with Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and the same court’s hijacking of the presidential election in 2000.

Some individuals mused about what would happen if a gay couple wanted to put a Confederate flag on their wedding cake — would the baker have to oblige? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. This is a simple conflation of a hypothetical refusal to portray a certain image on a cake with a hypothetical refusal to serve an entire class of citizens.

Other responses to these disparate events didn’t necessarily try deliberately to bundle them together, but did often place them on parallel tracks. Here are six of the most frequent narratives.

Silly Narrative #1: It’s an anti-American thing

Many Americans responded joyously to the news of the Supreme Court’s decision by decking out their Facebook pages with the rainbow flag. Not to be outdone, many right-wing reactionaries responded in protest by draping their pages with the American flag. Huh??? How exactly is that supposed to be a protest? Is it intended to suggest that gays aren’t really Americans? Not even James Buchanan, a gay U.S. president who was elected more than 150 years ago? If they are Americans, how can it be un-American for them to get married?

The reactionaries also denounced it as un-American that some people aren’t in love with the Confederate battle banner. Just try wrapping your head around that one for a moment.  The Confederacy, lest we forget, was a treasonous faction that fought  an extremely bloody war against the United States Of America, brandishing this very flag – a battle fought primarily (contrary to revisionist spin) for the “right” to enslave and oppress an entire race. (Note that the iconic X-flag so often displayed was not the official national flag of the Confederacy itself, but a flag specifically designed for military forces.) Yet now, many self-proclaimed “patriots” proudly celebrate their Dixie “heritage” by exhibiting this symbol of bigotry, tyranny, insurrection and violence alongside the Stars and Stripes they claim to revere.

Silly Narrative #2. It’s a government overstepping thing

How dare the government try to dictate to us what flags we can and cannot fly? Well, don’t look now, but the big bad guvmint has done no such thing. What did happen was that the government of South Carolina, via due democratic  process, resolved to stop rubbing its “proud tradition” of insurrection and oppression in the public’s face, and no longer fly the Dixie rag on government property. And a few retail chains decided, of their own volition, to stop selling such emblems, at a loss in profits to themselves – the free enterprise system at its finest. But nobody is trying to tell you that you can’t fly that flag in your own yard or stick it under the gun rack on the back of your pickup or even tattoo the damn thing on your scrotum if you choose to.

And the Supreme Court decision? Though reactionaries have almost unanimously bemoaned that the Court has “redefined” marriage, it has done no such thing; what it has done is extend the right to get married to all Americans. Don’t look now, but governments at various levels have been dictating for a long time who can and can’t get married. The Supreme Court just put an end to that. You’d think that anti-guvmint fanatics would be out dancing in the streets along with Satan rather than bitching and wringing their hands over the impending End Of The World As We Know It.

Silly Narrative # 3: It’s a political correctness/ liberal tyranny thing

Ah yes, political correctness. It’s been the source of many wretched excesses, hasn’t it? Actually, it would be very hard to find a single example of supposed “political correctness” or “liberal hypocrisy” that pans out to be anything like it’s portrayed by right-wing reactionaries – who never bother to define what political correctness is really supposed to be. We just gather that it’s something often perpetrated by them librulz – who are never really defined either. But apparently both are identified with progressives and the Democratic Party, which sometimes at least makes a pretense of being progressive.  And that makes the reactions to recent events very curious indeed.

Right-wing reactionaries are very fond of reminding us, when it suits their purposes, that it was the “Democrat” Party that was on the wrong side of slavery and the Civil War – and pretending that the two parties haven’t changed a whit in the interim.  The governor of South Carolina who spearheaded the movement to remove the Confederate flag form the capitol, Nikki Haley, is herself a Republican. (She’s also a native of her state, contrary to assertions by the eternally clueless Ann Coulter.) As is a solid majority of the state legislature that voted to back her up.

Meanwhile, many of these reactionaries would prefer to forget that there are a good many gay Republicans (though it’s hard to fathom why), and even an official organization for them, the Log Cabin Republicans. Furthermore, the Supreme Court justice who cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize gay marriage was appointed by none other than St. Ronald himself.

Silly Narrative # 4: It’s a First Amendment/ religious freedom thing

Even though nobody is saying that you can’t buy or fly a flag (see above), some people see the recent reactions to its presence as, somehow or other, an incursion against freedom of expression. Evidently, that freedom is supposed to apply only to people who love the Rebel banner, not to those who don’t.

If you think that’s batty, try this: many of them also believe that the court’s ruling damages, somehow or other , “religious freedom”.  Both reactions seem to be predicated on the notion that freedom is a finite commodity; and whatever you grant to one person, you must take from someone else. They see no irony in proclaiming that gay marriage tramples their First Amendment rights because their religious beliefs should dictate the actions of everyone; and they forget, if they ever knew, that not so terribly long ago, Good Christians believed that God gave them the right to fly their Confederate flags over their slave shacks.

Okay, we get it:  many fundamentalists hate “Sodomites”. No, wait, we mustn’t put it that way. It’s really all God’s fault – He’s the one who’s declared that they’re “sinners”, and so the fundies are just following His wishes by condemning them. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And while they can’t prove it by quoting Jesus, who never seems to have gotten around to mentioning homosexuality at all, they can pull up an out-of-context injunction from the Bronze Age code laid out in the Old Testament that seems to support their cause –while ignoring even more draconian passages from the same book, including one that instructs them to sell their daughters into slavery.

Well, guess what? If hating fags – oops, mustn’t use that word – if condemning fags unto hellfire is part of your religious bag, you’re under no obligation to stop it just on account of 9 guys and gals in black robes.  You don’t have to like gays or gaydom. You don’t have to perform or attend gay weddings. You don’t have to enter into a gay marriage yourself. You don’t even have to give up your own marriage.

Please note, however, that this does not mean you always can use religion as a shield against the responsibilities of doing your job; most employers either want you to do your duties, quit, or be dismissed. This is particularly true if your employer happens to be a government entity, because government entities in the U.S. are committed, officially at least, to non-discrimination.  You have the option to comply with that commitment or step aside and make room for someone who will. But it’s entirely your choice, not an assault on your “religious freedom”.

Here’s a helpful tip, free of charge. If you really and truly believe that gay weddings somehow infringe on your religious freedom, then maybe it’s really, really time you started shopping around for a new religion.

Silly Narrative # 5: It’s a slippery slope thing

The “slippery slope” is one of the favorite tropes of the reactionary crowd to just about anything they don’t approve of.  Rarely do any of those things actually involve a bona fide slippery slope – don’t hold your breath until wingers get their thongs in a bunch over environmental desecration, for instance. But the decision to remove the Rebel banner from government property and certain retail outlets? Totally different thing, doncha know. After all, let THEM, whoever they are, snatch away the Confederate flag, however exactly they’re doing that, and they’re certain to do the same to the flag of the Confederacy’s enemy number one. Makes sense in a very nonsensical sort of way.

The pants-pissing over gay marriage is even more intensely Jeremiah-ish. For a long time, the reactionaries have been warning that if gays are allowed the same rights and rites as us unperverted folk, it well lead to all sorts of sexual aberration: polygamy (you know, like certain right-wing Mormons), bestiality, pedophilia, marrying your sofa, etc, etc.

Some people in the Alex Jones/Glenn Beck brigade are even warning, with cobbled evidence too scant to even qualify as tenuous, that pedophiles already have been inspired to make a drive toward legitimizing their thing under the same logic that gays have legitimized theirs. Well hey, it wouldn’t be unheard of for fringe groups to try to capitalize on a court case; but it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll succeed in that laughable endeavor.  They’d have to make it past the courts. And courts, however radical, will surely understand that there is a big difference between matrimony involving two consenting adults and predatory behavior toward minors. Almost everybody understands that. Even right-wing reactionaries understand that. Don’t they?

Silly Narrative # 6: It’s a (insert inappropriate analogy) thing

Naturally, one way to convince people how terrible these two events were was to compare them to other things that people already know are terrible. We’ve already seen how some commentators suggested that “banning” the Confederate flag (which Bill O’Reilly said stands for “bravery”) will almost certainly lead to “banning” the U.S. flag. Chairman of the South Carolina League of the South Pat Hines, meanwhile, characterized the movement to remove the flag from his state’s capitol as “cultural genocide”, while a certain perennially pompous radio talk show host declared it was all about “destroying the South as a political force”.

When it comes to excoriating court rulings they don’t like, wingers have a favorite whipping boy that they frequently juxtapose with Roe V. Wade:

What if no one had acted in disobedience to the Dred Scott decision of 1857? What if the entire country had capitulated to judicial tyranny and we just said that because the Supreme Court said in 1857 said that a black person wasn’t fully human… (Mike Huckabee)

It hardly could be a worse comparison. The Dred Scott ruling limited the freedom of an entire class of people while the current ruling expands the freedom of an entire class of people.

And there was a whole truckload of other inappropriate comparisons, including these:

Next we’ll get the arena and the lions, get the arena and the lions and bring them in from Tunisia.  (Michael Savage)

Essentially, this is gay Sharia … “Love” has won; now it’s time to shoot the prisoners– (columnist John Zmirak)

I fear for our country, quite frankly, because this is a spiritual 9/11. (Tim Wildmon, American Family Association)

I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch.  (Mike Huckabeeagain)

June 26, 2015: a date which will live in infamy. (Bryan Fischer, yet again)

What’s next? What’s next is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is just a question of how soon the wrath of God is going to come on this land. (Pat Robertson)

And of course when all else fails, there’s always a certain short dictator with a funny mustache:

…the parallels to Germany in the Thirties… when German people had no idea where this was really going to end up… (talk show host Eric Metaxas

Are you okay with a baker saying that he’s not going to make any goods for a Nazi party rally? (Bill O’Reilly)

Another obligatory tactic is to suggest that rejection of intolerance constitutes intolerance itself, at least as intolerant as the intolerance it isn’t tolerating. Forty percent of the American public still disapproves of gay marriage, the reactionaries say, so why shouldn’t their wishes be respected too? Would they say the same if forty percent disapproved of interracial or interfaith marriage? Besides, who says their wishes aren’t being respected? Nobody’s forcing them into a gay marriage. (See above.)

Well, here we are two months later, and Obama’s storm troopers still haven’t raided anyone’s house to search for Dixie flags or hetero marriage licenses. Nobody has married their alpaca or DVD player. And God hasn’t unleashed a plague of locusts on America. In fact, the results of these two actions have been overwhelmingly positive; while there have been zero negative consequences. Get back to me in 20 years if any of that changes.

Crusading for the Crusades: How Revisionists Are Whitewashing a Bloodbath

crusades

As you may have noticed, the Crusades have become something of a sacred cow in the U.S. As President Obama discovered, anyone who dares point out how brutal they were is in danger of being branded as anti-Christian and anti-American.  In recent years, a spate of revisionist books have tried to paint the Crusades as a noble and just endeavor; one of the most egregious of these volumes, for instance, is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Crusades (“politically incorrect” being a euphemism for ideologically tilted and/or historically inaccurate).

There are basically four flimsy defenses that the Crusades Crusaders offer for their pet cause:

Flimsy Defense # 1: It was a long time ago

Because a millennium has passed, some crusaders suggest, it’s no longer cricket to express horror and outrage — at the same time, however, they see no problem with reaching back into the past nearly half a millennium in order to find some grounds for defending the Crusades (which we’ll get to in a moment). The implication is that because the Crusades are so deeply buried in the vaults of history, Christian violence is too.

Wrong.

These folks are overlooking the Inquisition. They’re overlooking the witch trials. And they’re overlooking events in modern times as well. For example, violence between factions in Ireland (a centuries-old tradition carried over into recent years), though officially pegged as politically rooted, was in fact largely occasioned by differences in religion. This conflict gave rise, among other things, to The Shankill Butchers, a band of Protestant fanatics who abducted, tortured and murdered Catholics (as well as a few fellow Protestants who pissed them off).

More recently, there was the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, which might be more accurately characterized as religious “cleansing”.

And we’re certainly not out of the woods now. You’ve surely heard a great deal about Muslim terrorists these days, but chances are you’ve heard much less about the more common and more menacing Christian terrorists. Violence isn’t exclusive to any one age or country or religion. And somebody once said something important about those who can’t remember the past.

Flimsy Defense # 2: Everyone else was doing it too

Because the Crusades occurred so far in the past, some people imagine that there is a magical boundary between Then and Now; and that once humanity crossed that line, it was suddenly transformed into a different biological order. Back then, they want to believe, people were just more violent in general, so it’s understandable that Christians would have been too (though at the same time, Christians were supposed to be morally superior to everyone else).

I was having a discussion along these lines a few years ago with a friend — a highly intelligent friend who knows more about history than I do — when I brought up what a bloodthirsty sleazeball Columbus was. To which he replied, “Well, can we really judge a Fifteenth-Century man by modern standards?”

Yes, absolutely, we can.

One reason we know so much about the misdeeds of Columbus and other Christian conquerors in the New World is that a contemporary priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, recorded them with disgust. If he could feel compassion and respect for the Natives and revulsion over violence and exploitation, why couldn’t Columbus?

It isn’t human nature that has evolved. It’s the collective social order, to the point that most societies now frown on genocide, slavery and torture. On an individual level, though, some people still do it when they can get away with it. But just because some people do it is not, and has never been, ample cause for someone else to do it.

Flimsy Defense # 3: It was self-defense

This is the most popular of the flimsy defenses, the very heart and soul of Crusades revisionism. According to this tidy fairy tale, the Crusades were a just and holy undertaking, quite pleasing unto the will of God, because they were a defensive maneuver against those nasty Muslims who were picking on Christians. But this narrative is at best a gross oversimplification.

There were numerous crusades — the exact number is a matter of debate — over a period of a couple of centuries (some historians maintain they lasted as long as five centuries). Some were motivated by political and economic rather than, or in addition to, religious factors. Not all of these were directed toward Muslims; the Christians also targeted Jews, pagans and even their fellow Christians whose beliefs were considered “heresy” by those in power. And far from being uniformly defensive, these were often aggressive campaigns with the aim of not only conquest but eradication.

The mythos of  Crusades as defense has its roots, curiously enough, in what is generally taken to be the first major Crusade (1096-1099), which was organized ostensibly for the purpose of retaking Jerusalem, which had been conquered by Muslims.  Evidently God wanted Christians to have Jerusalem for themselves, because they consider it a holy place and all.  It is, for one thing, the site of the “Holy Sepulchre”, the reputed burial place of Jesus. The expedition, in other words, was at least as much about recovering control of a shrine as it was about protecting Christians from alleged abuses — arguably a campaign about conquering places and things rather than liberating the oppressed or defending ideals.

Furthermore, the Islamic sacking of Jerusalem occurred some 4 centuries earlier. If the Crusaders were following the calling of The Almighty, they certainly were taking their sweet time about it. One explanation for the delay is that the subjugated Christians in and around Jerusalem found life tolerable enough until the Seljuk Turks took over and began oppressing and persecuting them more heavily. But even if we grant this, they at least were allowed to live under Muslim rule. The conquering Christians did not return the favor, but systematically exterminated the Muslim men, women and children they encountered. They also slaughtered Jews living there, some of whom joined the Muslims in fighting off the Christian invaders — which just might provide a clue as to who the real bad guys were.

Flimsy Defense # 4: The numbers have been inflated

Of course they have. The Crusades, like the witch trials and the Wild West gunfights, have become the stuff of legend. And legend invariably lends itself to hyperbole.

So what’s the point here? That murdering 1000 people is more morally upright than murdering 10,000? This kind of argument might carry a bit more weight if the difference had been 10 or even 100 versus 1000.  But even though the numbers have been exaggerated, they are still quite extreme enough, numbering in the high thousands if not the millions.

Perhaps the purpose of playing the exaggeration card is to suggest that Christian atrocities like the Crusades were carried out by fringe elements, and thus do not represent “true” Christianity, whatever that may mean. In fact, the Crusades were carried out with the approval of, and even under the impetus of, the Pope.

Finally, we should mention that one of the most troubling things about Crusades revisionism is its Machiavellian implications. Which is to say, it suggests that many Christian apologists believe that if they can establish there was worthy reason to undertake the Crusades, then it excuses any and all actions undertaken by the Crusaders. That’s a similar line of reasoning to that exercised by guys who fly planes into buildings.

Let’s be very clear: these holy Crusaders ruthlessly butchered, tortured, beheaded, dismembered, impaled, burned, and even cannibalized innocent people of all ages. At times they literally waded in the blood of their victims, with which they were smeared from head to toe, and wore proudly as a token of their triumph as they exhibited the severed heads and limbs of the vanquished.

Is there really any cause sufficiently holy to justify all of that?

Obama Speaks Truth, Obama Haters Have Meltdown

fox_obama_prayer_bkfst_2015

They called it a shameful statement, an embarrassment, an act of self-destruction on the part of President Obama, a defense of terrorism,  and an out-and-out attack on Christianity. They said that he was equating terrorism with Christianity, a “moral equivalency” that was “stupid and dumb” (both??). They called it “moral stupidity” (at least it wasn’t immoral stupidity). They said the president was displaying his own closet Muslim faith, and his hatred of America itself. They even touted it as proof that “liberals” in general (of which they’re immovably convinced Obama is one) love terrorists and hate America. What horrific utterance did the president commit in order to earn this (self) righteous condemnation? It was a little statement he made at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an event sponsored by the ultra-right wing fundamentalist group known by the appropriately godfatherish name The Family. As usual, the president displayed chutzpah in venturing onto hostile turf and offering an olive branch. And as usual, he was eloquent and insightful. In fact, the more rational observers hailed his address as “brilliant”, “remarkable”, and “a powerful celebration of America’s religious tradition.” Naturally, then, the right-wing fanatics went absolutely apeshit, spewing out an avalanche of straw men, dopey insinuations, references to nutty rumors, and downright lies:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share. (Former VA Governor Jim Gilmore)

We all share the values that slavery and slaughter are desirable if done by the right people?

prayer breakfast 1

Guess I missed it. When exactly did he “blame the Crusades”?

prayer breakfast 2

“Nominal Christian”? Cute. Would you say the same about the pope? It was a pope who spearheaded the Crusades. How much more “true” does it need to be?

prayer breakfast 5

Guess I missed it. When exactly did he try to justify horrific acts of barbarism, Islamic or otherwise?  But somebody else missed the fact that he did NOT have to go back 1000 years.

prayer breakfast 6

Guess I missed it. When exactly did he insult Christians? And why would he do that when he is at least a “nominal Christian” himself?

So Barack Obama, leftwing community organizer and closet theologian, used the National Prayer Breakfast to throw a tu quoque at anyone critical of Islam while continuing to fancy himself as the Pope of Islam (Conservative News)

Gotta admit that “tu quoque” is a level of diction several notches above the Palinesque, but unfortunately we can’t say the same for the content.

Mr. President, you… are damning your reputation as a president and may never hold any regard or esteem of the American people. Then again, perhaps that was always your aim, as you fundamentally transform our beloved Constitutional Republic. (Allen West)

The ever-reliable Mr. West, who presumes to give the “Islamapologist In Chief” a history lesson, also claims that lynchings in America were supported by “Democrat (sic) Christians”.

One evil man had the audacity to attack Christianity and defend Islam in the midst of 3,500 Christians at the recent National Prayer Breakfast… Barack Obama and others like him have a direct connection to evil; whereas too often people serving God are not directly connected to truth. This is why Obama can lie and push his destructive agenda and mercilessly attack our freedoms and sacred institutions. (CNS)

This latter, hilariously enough, appears in a piece titled “Christians, It’s Time to  Get Over Your Illusions”.

In the midst of all this sound and fury and manufactured outrage, one little fact was a bit neglected: the president’s observations were absolutely on the mark. Horrific deeds have indeed been committed in the name of Christianity, and just about every other religion that ever has existed. He was right about slavery. He was right about Jim Crow. He was right about the Inquisition. And yes, despite the current tide of trendy historical revisionism, he was even right about the Crusades.

But these episodes are only a sampling of the violence that has been performed in the name of Christianity. We touched upon this in a recent discussion (“The Christian Persecution Complex, and the Myth of the School Prayer Ban”), though it really was just scratching the surface. During the interval of time between Christianity’s coming to power in the Fourth Century, and up to the modern age, there has been an average of one major episode of Christian barbarism every 15 to 20 years. And these are just the major episodes, most of which were massive campaigns that claimed the lives of many victims.

One of these was a campaign by England to “civilize” non-Christians in Ireland by slaughtering tens of thousands of them. One of the commanders of the forces, Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that

the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies… and should be laid on the ground by each side of the way … (to cause) great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends on the ground.

And if you’re a fan of Fox “News”, you might have been under the impression that ISIS invented beheading.

As for the beloved Crusades, one (Christian) chronicler of the noble exploits recorded that during one particular siege the noble Crusaders

did no other harm to the women found in [the enemy’s] tents—save that they ran their lances through their bellies

How very Christian of them to be such gentlemen. Makes you wonder what kind of harm they’d been doing to other females they’d encountered.

You might object that some of these episodes were not of a particularly religious nature, or that there were sometimes other motives in addition to religious ones. True, but the point is that these horrible deeds were committed by Christians. Or at least nominal Christians. Furthermore Christian beliefs were often cited as the justification for atrocities, even when they actually may have been committed for other reasons. The very fact that dogma can be considered a justification for savagery is itself a damning indictment of a social order dominated by religious fanaticism.

I’ve always been fond of Philip Roth’s short story Defender of the Faith, in which a Jewish army sergeant decides to crack down on one of his fellow Jewish soldiers because he realizes that defending his religion entails defending it not only from the outside but from the inside. That’s a lesson that many Christians don’t want to learn; but President Obama seems to understand perfectly. If you’re a Christian, perhaps you should ask yourself which sentiment you’d rather have expressing your religious values to the world: (a) “I’m appalled by the things some Christians have done, and I pledge to do better’; or (b) “Atrocities? You’re talking about history. You obviously hate Christianity and hate America.”

In writing for Time about the Bizarro Planet reaction to the the president’s speech, Eric Yoffie notes

One would think that both religious and political conservatives would have applauded the President’s remarks, which celebrated American religion and affirmed the centrality of religion in American society.

And he goes on to ask why such “self-evident” truths should be considered the least bit controversial. He chalks it up to Christian “denial”, and that probably is indeed one factor. But the reaction was probably at least as much political as religious. In other words, it was yet another manifestation of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the obsession with trying to make a scandal out of absolutely anything and everything the current president says or does.

It’s certainly not unheard of for presidents to spark controversy when they’re caught telling lies. But Barack Obama very well might be the first politician in history to possess the uncanny power to generate controversy and cause reactionary heads to explode just by telling the self-evident truth.

 

Pascal’s Wager, and the Overrated Question

Pascal

Of all the questions I hate being asked, few are as annoying as “Do you believe in God?” For one thing, it’s a very overrated question: what difference does it make whether any particular individual possesses such a conviction? Will God disappear in a whiff of smoke if He doesn’t maintain a quota of devotees?

Though they may not realize it, people who exalt this query to a position of prominence are indulging in a form of gambling. They are participating in what has come to be called Pascal’s Wager,  after a rumination by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

Pascal was a brilliant thinker who penned some very stimulating discussions of some very significant ideas. This is not one of them. It’s quite ironic that the one utterance for which such a great thinker is most often remembered is in fact one of the most inept oddities of illogic ever to creep into the textbooks. Treating the existence of God as a gambling proposition, he concludes:

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

This expresses what gamblers call an overlay, meaning that the potential gain for a positive outcome exceeds the sum of potential losses for all possible negative outcomes. Though such a situation is, as you might expect, difficult to find in the gambling world, Pascal is convinced he has a sure thing. But there are at least three major flaws to his proposition:

1. Belief is not a button.

The first problem is that, as Pascal himself observes only a couple of sentences later, faith isn’t exactly something that you can just turn on or off.

But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

How exactly should those who “cannot believe” try to “convince themselves”? If he’s going to urge people to attempt the impossible, he might at least offer a couple of pointers.

It’s conceivable that we ultimately have no choice in whether we are believers or skeptics, even when we convert from one to the other. It may be that such options are the inevitable product of how we process and react to information; and that those details are determined by biological/ biographical factors over which we have little or no volition.

From all appearances, however, we do have at least some control in the matter. And assuming that we do, the choice to believe is in some ways more of a voluntary commitment than the choice to doubt. If you decide to believe, for instance, that the earth is 6000 years old or that vaccines cause autism, you must exercise an ongoing effort to single out factoids that seem to support your conclusion and steer clear of the mountain of evidence that contradicts it.

A commitment to skepticism, on the other hand, is more general and open-minded. Even assuming that the decision to be skeptical (which I highly recommend, by the way) is made totally of your own free will, the thing is that it comprises a broad resolution to demand that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary proof.

Once you become entrenched in this mindset, skepticism comes naturally, and you’re quite receptive to all kinds of information, since you have no dogma to be threatened. You automatically challenge any extraordinary claim — of which the concept of a supreme being is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. (Note, however, that some avowed “skeptics” are not truly skeptical at all; climate science deniers, for instance, may peg themselves as skeptics but in reality they’ve simply chosen to believe that scientists are incompetent and/or dishonest — a premise that a true skeptic would question thoroughly.)

2. Bait and switch

Pascal begins by talking about God, and the next thing you know he’s talking about eternal happiness. How did he get from Point A to Point B? Clearly, in his mind there’s a link between the two. And that link unquestionably is Christian dogma. For those who believe the “right” things, dogmatists tell us, endless bliss awaits in the afterlife; for those who don’t, it’s an eternity of agony (at least as far as fundamentalists are concerned.)

Religion, by the way, is itself highly overrated; for many people it’s the most important thing in the whole world. For some, it’s just about the only thing that really matters.  For my own part, I can hardly think of anything I’d consider less important than religion. But it isn’t for personal reasons that I call it overrated; it’s because many religious people are quite oblivious to the fact that religion isn’t for everyone.

Whatever its degree of importance, it certainly has been injected into American public life to an excessive degree. More to the point, the supposed validity of religious doctrines is an entirely separate matter from the supposed existence of a divine being.

Pascal treats the two as if they were interchangeable, or at least inseparable.  But there are many people who believe in God, yet are not religious. For that matter, there are many religious people who consider themselves atheists – including some ministers. Of course, they are very discreet about it, because many of their flock consider atheism the ultimate evil.

3. Say what?

But the main reason I find the Overrated Question so annoying — and so overrated — is that it is in itself quite meaningless. If you tell me that you believe in God, what exactly have you told me? Nothing, without some clarification. I could tell you today that I do too, then tell you tomorrow that I don’t — and be perfectly accurate and honest in both instances. It all depends on how I happened to define my terms at the moment.

And this is where many great philosophers dropped the ball. They considered it important to “prove” the existence of God, sometimes with elaborate logical constructs modeled after geometric proofs. But they were rather negligent in explaining exactly what it was they were trying to prove the existence of. The word God means different things to different people, ranging from (to quote a humorous recording from the Sixties) “hairy thunderer” to “cosmic muffin”.

For some people God is literally an anthropomorphic entity up there somewhere over the rainbow, using the earth for a footstool. For others, He is a being of an unimaginable nature, with or without a humanoid personality. For others, He/ It is a more abstract spirit underlying all of nature. (“PANTHEISM, n. The doctrine that everything is God, in contradistinction to the doctrine that God is everything.” — Ambrose Bierce.)  Some think of God in a fashion quite similar to The Force from Star Wars.  Others might simply say that God is a name for that which has no other name or explanation. (This philosophy prompted one noted skeptic to observe that since we are learning more and more every day, God is shrinking every day.)

If that isn’t complicated enough, there are also different levels of belief. You can believe something literally or figuratively. You can believe something with all your heart, mind and soul to the point that you’re willing to stake your life (and afterlife) on it. You can believe that something is probably true, but hedge your bets. You can believe that something may be true, but be unwilling to commit to assuming it is. You can believe it’s reasonable for other people to believe that something is true, but not really believe it yourself.  You can believe that something is true on some planes of reality, but not the one you happen to inhabit. You can offer a tenet a kind of meta-belief, as one might believe in Santa Claus or Batman.

In short, The Overrated Question is one that cannot be adequately answered with a simple yes or no. But that is exactly the kind of response the questioners almost invariably expect, so they can pigeonhole you and — quite often — condemn you if you answer the wrong way.

A few years ago, I was having a stimulating conversation with a relative who was suffering from a terminal illness when he posed the question point blank. I was uncomfortable as I always am when somebody does that; knowing that his side of the family was fiercely Catholic, I didn’t think I could offer a response that he would find acceptable. But since he’d been straight with me, I was straight with him.

“Depends on what you mean by God”, I said. I figured this would throw him off balance and he’d drop it. But as it turns out, I was the one thrown off balance.

“The spirit of universal love”, he replied.

Now this is a rather nebulous concept itself, but it still narrows the field considerably in comparison to God. And it was not a concept that I felt I could reject.

I regret to say that since then, this relative has passed on to the next level, if there is one. Unlike most people, I don’t claim to know whether he really has had a chance to experience God at close range. But I do know that when it comes to figuring out what kind of God he was expecting to encounter, he was (unlike a great many people) on the right track.