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Operation Underground Railroad’s Carefully Crafted Public Image Is Falling Apart

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The report by Anna Merian and Tim Marchman in Vice is amazing (and, unfortunately, credible). It begins:

im Caviezel appeared onscreen in Oklahoma on a Friday night, his digital visage bathed in the hot lights of Rhema Bible College’s amphitheater and the adulation of his audience, and proceeded to make a real mess. 

“You can do something now. You can end this,” he told the audience. “If we let our little ones continue to be slaughtered, boy, there’s gonna be a judgment on this world, and especially our country.” 

Caviezel, an actor known for playing Jesus Christ and for his passionate commitment to Christianity, was appearing at the Health & Freedom conference, a dizzying multi-day event devoted to election conspiracy theories and COVID denialism headlined by people like pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, who frequently and enthusiastically promotes conspiracy theories associated with QAnon. (The event was, in fact, ostensibly two conferences, one devoted to business and the other to health. They were indistinguishable.) Caviezel was there to promote his newest role, in which he plays Tim Ballard, the founder and most recognizable face of the famed anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR. The film, Sound of Freedom, has been in the works—and its release beset with mysterious delays—for several years. (You can, however, view a trailer here.)

Ballard couldn’t appear in person in Oklahoma, Caviezel explained. “He’s down there saving children as we speak. They’re pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell,” he said. “All kinds of places, the adrenochroming of children.” 

 

“You said adrenochrome?” host Clay Clark, an Oklahoma personality who bills himself as a “growth consultant” and business guru, asked a moment later.  “We need to discuss that.” 

“Essentially, you have adrenaline in your body … and when you are scared, you produce adrenaline,” Caviezel explained. “If a child knows he’s going to die, his body will secrete this adrenaline. And they have a lot of terms that they use that he takes me through, but it’s the worst horror I’ve seen. It’s screaming alone. Even if I never, ever, ever saw it, it’s beyond. And these people that do it, there will be no mercy for them.” The audience applauded, solemnly.

Caviezel, whose agents and managers did not reply to several requests for comment, had just promoted one of the more extreme and lurid conspiracy theories out there, and one central to the cosmology of QAnon—the utterly false idea that a cabal of elites is torturing and killing children to obtain a fictionalized biological substance—and he’d done it in the same breath that he promoted OUR. (Adrenochrome is a real chemical compound, but the idea that it can only be harvested from terrified torture victims was purely the stuff of horror movies before Q came along. For QAnon believers, however, it has a much larger significance. The concept that evil elites are harvesting the substance from murdered children is a central facet of their belief system; they believe those elites take the substance to maintain their youthful appearances or life force.) 

All of this was awkward at best for OUR, which has spent the better part of a year insisting that it “does not condone conspiracy theories and is not affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, like QAnon, in any way, shape, or form,” as it says on its website. Caviezel’s comments generated a minor tsunami of headlines linking him, the film, Ballard, and the organization to a poisonous conspiracy theory and a stunningly fringe conference, the highlight of which was Lin Wood, who claimed in November that associating him with QAnon is a “smear,” making the shape of a Q in the air for an adoring crowd. (Wood has more recently claimed to be confused about QAnon even is, writing on Telegram on June 2: “I have been repeatedly attacked for being a ‘Qanon conspiracy theorist. Why? I can do research to educate myself on Q. I can do research to educate myself on Anons. My question is: What is QAnon???”) 

In response to a request for comment from VICE World News, a spokesperson for OUR wrote, “Operation Underground Railroad does not condone child trafficking conspiracy theories, such as the harvesting of adrenochrome, nor is the organization affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, including QAnon. OUR has clearly stated that the effort to knock out child exploitation and human trafficking is being harmed [by] a number of conspiracy theory groups who have chosen to latch onto child exploitation and human trafficking and used a variety of conspiracy theories as a vehicle to deceptively bolster their causes.” The spokesperson also said that Ballard “participated in the conference out of respect to, and at the invitation of, Jim Caviezel to help promote the upcoming movie Sound of Freedom in which Caviezel plays the lead role.” In response to a specific question about Caviezel’s use of the phrase “he takes me through,” a second spokesperson said that Ballard had never explained the process of adrenochrome harvesting to Caviezel.

Before the blowback and the cleanup came, though, Caviezel and Ballard had a movie to promote. 

 

“This is one of the best films I’ve ever done in my life,” Caviezel said. He drew a parallel between it and The Passion of the Christ, an independently-financed film that was, he suggested, successful despite unnamed forces in Hollywood working against it because of people just like those in the audience. “Whether it ever gets seen in this industry is up to your prayers.” 

A moment before that, Ballard had appeared from what looked very much like a recording booth in an undisclosed location where he was, according to Clark, “actually rescuing kids, tonight.”

“I’m here doing an operation overseas which I hope to be able to tell you about soon,” he said. “It’s involving the rescue of children as young as 12 years old … that’s the only reason I’m not there with you.” The movie in which an actor best known for playing Christ portrayed him was, he said, “an opportunity for the world to understand what’s happening.” It would, he suggested, do nothing less than “save the lives of children.” 

This was classic Ballard: Urgent, heroic, a little bombastic, and deeply self-serving. The narrative of a small organization fighting desperately to shine a light on the darkness of children being trafficked and sexually abused also served to paper over another, truer narrative. In this one, OUR is rife with internal divisions, losing key employees who are starting up rival anti-trafficking groups, and under a serious and widening criminal investigation, which VICE World News has confirmed now involves federal authorities and focuses not just on OUR, but on for-profit companies connected to it.

 

After years of success—tens of millions of dollars of donations, flattering stories in the national press, high-profile partnerships with celebrities across the political spectrum, and seats for its founder before Congress and at Donald Trump’s right hand—OUR has reached a new stage. Its carefully-crafted image is coming undone.

OUR remains under investigation by a county attorney in Utah, Troy Rawlings of Davis County, as it has been since last fall. “The investigation is still very active and fruitful,” Rawlings told VICE World News in early June.

The scope of that investigation appears to have widened beyond what VICE World News and FOX 13 have previously reported, which was that Rawlings’ office was looking into whether OUR has made misleading claims in fundraising appeals. VICE World News has confirmed that several people have been interviewed about their dealings with OUR not just by investigators from Rawlings’ office, but by the FBI. Investigators from the IRS and Homeland Security are also said to be involved, according to people familiar with the scope of the investigation. (A spokesperson for OUR declined to say whether Ballard or other OUR staffers had spoken to the FBI, IRS, or DHS, writing, “We can’t comment specifically on your speculative inquiry.” In response to detailed inquiries about the investigation, the same spokesperson wrote, “OUR has complied with all laws that regulate nonprofits and intends to cooperate fully with any official inquiry, if asked.” The FBI and DHS declined to comment, citing policies of not confirming or denying ongoing investigations; the IRS did not respond to a request for comment.) . . .

Continue reading. There’s much much more, including links to other reports on the organization:

A Famed Anti-Sex Trafficking Group Has a Problem With the Truth

Inside a Massive Anti-Trafficking Charity’s Blundering Overseas Missions

Also, this video of Caviezel’s interview:

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2021 at 6:00 pm

Southern Baptist leaders mishandled sex abuse claims

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The Southern Baptist organization provides a good example of how a memeplex’s immune system springing into action. Thinking of such cultural entities as multi-meme “organisms” often allows accurate predictions of behavior. Sarah Pullman Bailey reports in the Washington Post:

New allegations about the mishandling of sex abuse claims at the highest levels of the Southern Baptist Convention were made public in a recent letter between two high-profile leaders that was obtained Friday by The Washington Post.

While such allegations have been made by several women in the past, the letter includes new details from internal conversations, alleging that some institutional leaders bullied a sexual abuse victim, who was called a “whore,” and described in detail how many leaders resisted sexual abuse reforms.

Later this month, more than 14,000 Southern Baptists are expected to meet in Nashville for the convention’s annual meeting, which is intended to inspire unity among Baptists. But the June 15-16 meeting will take place in the midst of intense debates over issues such as sex abuse, racism and the role of women, as well as significant Southern Baptist support for former president Donald Trump, topics that have caused fissures in recent years and caused many high-profile departures from the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

In a dramatic turn of events this week, two letters written by Russell Moore, who recently left his position as head of the SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, have been made public. The new allegations are contained in a May 31 letter Moore sent to the current president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, that appeared on Friday on the site the Baptist Blogger, which has published other internal documents and recordings from Southern Baptist leaders in the past.

“You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of ‘Potiphar’s wife’ and other spurious biblical analogies,” Moore wrote to Greear. “The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew — or the outside world could report.”

In the ancient biblical story, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph and falsely accuses him of having assaulted her.

On his last day as a Southern Baptist professional, Moore, who has served as one of the highest-profile leaders in the convention, decided to reveal specific names of key individual leaders involved in what he described as intimidation tactics.

Moore’s letter took direct aim at several members of the SBC’s Executive Committee, the group based in Nashville that runs the business of the convention and handles its finances. He described the “spiritual and psychological abuse of sexual abuse survivors by the Executive Committee itself,” as well as “a pattern of attempted intimidation of those who speak on such matters.”

Moore and Greear did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

Russell Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership prompts questions over its future

Three employees who work in SBC institutions, who said they needed to remain anonymous to keep their current jobs, corroborated several of the factual details of the letter. Details in the letter were also confirmed by a former employee, an abuse survivor and a prominent abuse advocate.

Moore drew national attention in 2016 when he openly criticized Trump and his evangelical supporters, and Trump responded on Twitter that Moore was “a nasty guy with no heart!”

Moore describes enormous rifts behind the scenes over the issue of how to handle sex abuse within SBC institutions. He wrote in his letter that during the last few years, he tried to smile and pretend everything was all right through his experiences.

“What [people involved] want is for us to remain silent and to live in psychological terror, to protect them by covering up what they do in darkness, while asking our constituencies to come in and to stay in the SBC,” Moore wrote.

In the letter, he refers to a “disastrous move” by some leaders to “exonerate” churches with credible allegations of negligence and mistreatment of sexual abuse survivors. “You and I were critical of such moves, believing that they jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but also the lives of vulnerable children and others in Southern Baptist churches.”

Moore also spoke of a sexual abuse survivor whose words, he alleges, were altered by the Executive Committee staff to make it seem as though her abuse was a consensual affair. The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent, but the woman, Jennifer Lyell, a former vice president at the SBC’s Lifeway Christian Resources and once the highest-paid female executive at the SBC, said in a text message that she agreed to be identified.

Instead of reporting that she had been abused, Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.

Lyell, who says she has lost her job, her reputation and her health, confirmed Moore’s account of “bullying and intimidation” by the Executive Committee.

In his letter, Moore wrote that he heard someone refer to Lyell as a “whore” in a corridor at the SBC. The Executive Committee paid her a financial settlement but refused to apologize, he said.

A spokesman for the Executive Committee did not return requests for comment.

Moore’s account of Lyell’s experience was confirmed by Rachael Denhollander, a former USA gymnast who outed team doctor Larry Nassar’s serial sexual assault and has since been a prominent advocate for church abuse survivors and has helped bring attention to Lyell’s case.

“It shows the level of corruption and vile behavior that comes from the leaders in the SBC, the ones who really have the power,” said Denhollander, whose husband is a PhD student at the flagship SBC seminary Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

On Friday evening, The Post reached out to the individuals named in the letter, most of whom declined to comment or did not respond by Saturday late morning. Rolland Slade, chairman of the Executive Committee, wrote in a text message his support for Moore. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

6 June 2021 at 7:42 am

Why an Entire Field of Psychology Is in Trouble

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Science makes many hypotheses, and it decides which are correct by comparing the idea to reality, either through experiments (chemistry, for example, and terrestrial physics) or observation (astrophysics, for example, or botany and zoology).

Having a way to test ideas to see whether they fit reality is a great benefit, which is obvious when you compare scientific ideas to (say) religious ideas. To decide whether a religious idea is “correct” — for example, whether the substance of the consecrated bread and wine in the Catholic mass becomes the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation) or the substance of the bread and wine coexist with the body and blood of Christ (consubstantiation) — one cannot do an experiment to settle the matter — and thus we have religious schisms and even religious wars, since there is no way to decide the issue.

This is not to say that science gets everything right. It doesn’t — nor does religion, at least from the point of view of other religions. But when science gets something wrong, testing the idea against reality will eventually settle the matter, though it may take some time and many experiment (or much observation). Thus science is always changing as it drops ideas that have disproven by reality or turn out to be special cases of a more general theory.

This brief video discusses a course-correction now underway in psychology. Notice that no combat is required (or used): just testing the ideas against reality is sufficient.

Written by Leisureguy

3 June 2021 at 11:42 am

America Has a Drinking Problem

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I have gradually come to recognize that alcohol undermines constancy of purpose. A recovering alcoholic warned me when I was still in college, “Alcohol is sneaky.” He meant that you can think things are going well, but if alcohol is part of one’s daily diet, I would say that person is at serious risk. In recent years my consumption of alcohol has been minimal. I am not a teetotaler, but I drink very little and most weeks not at all.

Kate Julian writes in the Atlantic:

Few things are more American than drinking heavily. But worrying about how heavily other Americans are drinking is one of them.

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because, the crew feared, the Pilgrims were going through the beer too quickly. The ship had been headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, until its sailors (who, like most Europeans of that time, preferred beer to water) panicked at the possibility of running out before they got home, and threatened mutiny. And so the Pilgrims were kicked ashore, short of their intended destination and beerless. William Bradford complained bitterly about the latter in his diary that winter, which is really saying something when you consider what trouble the group was in. (Barely half would survive until spring.) Before long, they were not only making their own beer but also importing wine and liquor. Still, within a couple of generations, Puritans like Cotton Mather were warning that a “flood of RUM” could “overwhelm all good Order among us.”

George Washington first won elected office, in 1758, by getting voters soused. (He is said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win him 307 votes and a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.) During the Revolutionary War, he used the same tactic to keep troops happy, and he later became one of the country’s leading whiskey distillers. But he nonetheless took to moralizing when it came to other people’s drinking, which in 1789 he called “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country.

Hypocritical though he was, Washington had a point. The new country was on a bender, and its drinking would only increase in the years that followed. By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

[Hypocrisy is a serious accusation that should not be lightly made. If an automobile manufacturer — or a typical driver — made a statement opposing speeding or reckless driving, I would not see that as hypocrisy. For a brewer or distiller to state that drinking excessively is bad does not seem hypocritical to me, any more than a restaurateur or grocer stating that gluttony is bad. It seems to me that the author did not think through that accusation. – LG  Postscript: It occurs to me that perhaps people nowadays do not understand how bad hypocrisy is. Perhaps the term has weakened through being used too frequently and/or inappropriately. But hypocrisy is a serious failing indeed, and a hypocrite weakens the social fabric though a basic dishonesty.]

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain.

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

Actual bars have decreased in number, but drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol. Moms carry coffee mugs that say things like this might be wine, though for discreet day-drinking, the better move may be one of the new hard seltzers, a watered-down malt liquor dressed up—for precisely this purpose—as a natural soda.

Even before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the consequences of all this were catching up with us. From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy. These numbers are likely to get worse: During the pandemic, frequency of drinking rose, as did sales of hard liquor. By this February, nearly a quarter of Americans said they’d drunk more over the past year as a means of coping with stress.

Explaining these trends is hard; they defy so many recent expectations. Not long ago, Millennials were touted as the driest generation—they didn’t drink much as teenagers, they were “sober curious,” they were so admirably focused on being well—and yet here they are day-drinking White Claw and dying of cirrhosis at record rates. Nor does any of this appear to be an inevitable response to 21st-century life: Other countries with deeply entrenched drinking problems, among them Britain and Russia, have seen alcohol use drop in recent years.

Media coverage, meanwhile, has swung from cheerfully overselling the (now disputed) health benefits of wine to screeching that no amount of alcohol is safe, ever; it might give you cancer and it will certainly make you die before your time. But even those who are listening appear to be responding in erratic and contradictory ways. Some of my own friends—mostly 30- or 40-something women, a group with a particularly sharp uptick in drinking—regularly declare that they’re taking an extended break from drinking, only to fall off the wagon immediately. One went from extolling the benefits of Dry January in one breath to telling me a funny story about hangover-cure IV bags in the next. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physicals, we compare notes about the ever nudgier questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save wine for the weekend?” she suggests with a cheer so forced she might as well be saying, “Maybe you don’t need to drive nails into your skull every day?”

What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad?

The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.

Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.

This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.

Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

Slingerland is a professor at the University of British Columbia who, for most of his career, has specialized in ancient Chinese religion and philosophy. In a conversation this spring, I remarked that it seemed odd that he had just devoted several years of his life to a subject so far outside his wheelhouse. He replied that alcohol isn’t quite the departure from his specialty that it might seem; as he has recently come to see things, intoxication and religion are parallel puzzles, interesting for very similar reasons. As far back as his graduate work at Stanford in the 1990s, he’d found it bizarre that across all cultures and time periods, humans went to such extraordinary (and frequently painful and expensive) lengths to please invisible beings.

In 2012, Slingerland and several scholars in other fields won a big grant to study religion from an evolutionary perspective. In the years since, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

2 June 2021 at 12:29 pm

America is in deep trouble: QAnon is spreading in churches. These pastors are trying to stop it

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Written by Leisureguy

21 May 2021 at 5:46 pm

Arabian cult may have built 1000 monuments older than Stonehenge

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Ibrahim Sawal writes in New Scientist:

A vast site in north-west Saudi Arabia is home to 1000 structures that date back more than 7000 years, making them older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge in the UK.

Named after the Arabic word for rectangle, mustatil structures were first discovered in the 1970s, but received little attention from researchers at the time. Hugh Thomas at the University of Western Australia in Perth and his team wanted to learn more about them, and embarked on the largest investigation of the structures to date.

Using helicopters to fly over north-west Saudi Arabia and then following up with ground explorations, the researchers found more than 1000 mustatils across 200,000 square kilometres – twice as many as were previously thought to exist in this area. “You don’t get a full understanding of the scale of the structures until you’re there,” says Thomas.

Made from piled-up blocks of sandstone, some of which weighed more than 500 kilograms, mustatils ranged from 20 metres to more than 600 metres in length, but their walls stood only 1.2 metres high. “It’s not designed to keep anything in, but to demarcate the space that is clearly an area that needs to be isolated,” says Thomas.

In a typical mustatil, long walls surround a central courtyard, with a distinctive rubble platform, or “head”, at one end and entryways at the opposite end. Some entrances were blocked by stones, suggesting they could have been decommissioned after use.

Excavations at one mustatil showed that the centre of the head contained a chamber within which there were fragments of cattle horns and skulls. The cattle fragments may have been presented as offerings, suggesting mustatils may have been used for rituals.

Radiocarbon dating of the skulls shows that they date to between 5300 and 5000 BC, indicating that this was when this particular mustatil was built – and maybe the others too. If so, the monuments would together form the earliest large-scale, ritual landscape anywhere in the world, predating Stonehenge by more than 2500 years.

“This could completely rewrite our understanding of cults in this area at this time,” says team member Melissa Kennedy, also at the University of Western Australia. She says that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2021 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Religion, Science

A good question (on a T-shirt)

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Written by Leisureguy

5 May 2021 at 9:17 am

The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?

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More and more I question the degree to which animals (and plants) have free will. Oliver Burkman in the Guardian summarizes some recent thinking on the issue.

Towards the end of a conversation dwelling on some of the deepest metaphysical puzzles regarding the nature of human existence, the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.

It isn’t unheard of for philosophers to receive death threats. The Australian ethicist Peter Singer, for example, has received many, in response to his argument that, in highly exceptional circumstances, it might be morally justifiable to kill newborn babies with severe disabilities. But Strawson, like others on the receiving end of this particular wave of abuse, had merely expressed a longstanding position in an ancient debate that strikes many as the ultimate in “armchair philosophy”, wholly detached from the emotive entanglements of real life. They all deny that human beings possess free will. They argue that our choices are determined by forces beyond our ultimate control – perhaps even predetermined all the way back to the big bang – and that therefore nobody is ever wholly responsible for their actions. Reading back over the emails, Strawson, who gives the impression of someone far more forgiving of other people’s flaws than of his own, found himself empathising with his harassers’ distress. “I think for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe,” he said. “And I think I can see why.”

The difficulty in explaining the enigma of free will to those unfamiliar with the subject isn’t that it’s complex or obscure. It’s that the experience of possessing free will – the feeling that we are the authors of our choices – is so utterly basic to everyone’s existence that it can be hard to get enough mental distance to see what’s going on. Suppose you find yourself feeling moderately hungry one afternoon, so you walk to the fruit bowl in your kitchen, where you see one apple and one banana. As it happens, you choose the banana. But it seems absolutely obvious that you were free to choose the apple – or neither, or both – instead. That’s free will: were you to rewind the tape of world history, to the instant just before you made your decision, with everything in the universe exactly the same, you’d have been able to make a different one.

Nothing could be more self-evident. And yet according to a growing chorus of philosophers and scientists, who have a variety of different reasons for their view, it also can’t possibly be the case. “This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics,” says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Leading psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom agree, as apparently did the late Stephen Hawking, along with numerous prominent neuroscientists, including VS Ramachandran, who called free will “an inherently flawed and incoherent concept” in his endorsement of Sam Harris’s bestselling 2012 book Free Will, which also makes that argument. According to the public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, free will is an anachronistic myth – useful in the past, perhaps, as a way of motivating people to fight against tyrants or oppressive ideologies, but rendered obsolete by the power of modern data science to know us better than we know ourselves, and thus to predict and manipulate our choices.

Arguments against free will go back millennia, but the latest resurgence of scepticism has been driven by advances in neuroscience during the past few decades. Now that it’s possible to observe – thanks to neuroimaging – the physical brain activity associated with our decisions, it’s easier to think of those decisions as just another part of the mechanics of the material universe, in which “free will” plays no role. And from the 1980s onwards, various specific neuroscientific findings have offered troubling clues that our so-called free choices might actually originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking of them.

Despite the criticism that this is all just armchair philosophy, the truth is that the stakes could hardly be higher. Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.

Peer over the precipice of the free will debate for a while, and you begin to appreciate how an already psychologically vulnerable person might be nudged into a breakdown, as was apparently the case with Strawson’s email correspondents. Harris has taken to prefacing his podcasts on free will with disclaimers, urging those who find the topic emotionally distressing to give them a miss. And Saul Smilansky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, who believes the popular notion of free will is a mistake, told me that if a graduate student who was prone to depression sought to study the subject with him, he would try to dissuade them. “Look, I’m naturally a buoyant person,” he said. “I have the mentality of a village idiot: it’s easy to make me happy. Nevertheless, the free will problem is really depressing if you take it seriously. It hasn’t made me happy, and in retrospect, if I were at graduate school again, maybe a different topic would have been preferable.”

Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls “illusionism”, the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous. (Twenty years ago, he said, he might have refused to speak to me, but these days free will scepticism was so widely discussed that “the horse has left the barn”.) “On the deepest level, if people really understood what’s going on – and I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years – it’s just too frightening and difficult,” Smilansky said. “For anyone who’s morally and emotionally deep, it’s really depressing and destructive. It would really threaten our sense of self, our sense of personal value. The truth is just too awful here.”


The conviction that nobody ever truly chooses freely to do anything – that we’re the puppets of forces beyond our control – often seems to strike its adherents early in their intellectual careers, in a sudden flash of insight. “I was sitting in a carrel in Wolfson College [in Oxford] in 1975, and I had no idea what I was going to write my DPhil thesis about,” Strawson recalled. “I was reading something about Kant’s views on free will, and I was just electrified. That was it.” The logic, once glimpsed, seems coldly inexorable. Start with what seems like an obvious truth: anything that happens in the world, ever, must have been completely caused by things that happened before it. And those things must have been caused by things that happened before them – and so on, backwards to the dawn of time: cause after cause after cause, all of them following the predictable laws of nature, even if we haven’t figured all of those laws out yet. It’s easy enough to grasp this in the context of the straightforwardly physical world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely “one thing leads to another” in the world of decisions and intentions, too. Our decisions and intentions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

So in the fruit bowl example, there are physiological reasons for your feeling hungry in the first place, and there are causes – in your genes, your upbringing, or your current environment – for your choosing to address your hunger with fruit, rather than a box of doughnuts. And your preference for the banana over the apple, at the moment of supposed choice, must have been caused by what went before, presumably including the pattern of neurons firing in your brain, which was itself caused – and so on back in an unbroken chain to your birth, the meeting of your parents, their births and, eventually, the birth of the cosmos.

But if all that’s true, there’s simply no room for the kind of free will you might imagine yourself to have when you see the apple and banana and wonder which one you’ll choose. To have what’s known in the scholarly jargon as “contra-causal” free will – so that if you rewound the tape of history back to the moment of choice, you could make a different choice – you’d somehow have to slip outside physical reality. To make a choice that wasn’t merely the next link in the unbroken chain of causes, you’d have to be able to stand apart from the whole thing, a ghostly presence separate from the material world yet mysteriously still able to influence it. But of course you can’t actually get to this supposed place that’s external to the universe, separate from all the atoms that comprise it and the laws that govern them. You just are some of the atoms in the universe, governed by the same predictable laws as all the rest.

It was the French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace, writing in 1814, who most succinctly expressed the puzzle here: how can there be free will, in a universe where events just crank forwards like clockwork? His thought experiment is known as Laplace’s demon, and his argument went as follows: if some hypothetical ultra-intelligent being – or demon – could somehow know the position of every atom in the universe at a single point in time, along with all the laws that governed their interactions, it could predict the future in its entirety. There would be nothing it couldn’t know about the world 100 or 1,000 years hence, down to the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing. You might think you made a free choice to marry your partner, or choose a salad with your meal rather than chips; but in fact Laplace’s demon would have known it all along, by extrapolating out along the endless chain of causes. “For such an intellect,” Laplace said, “nothing could be uncertain, and the future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes.”

It’s true that since Laplace’s day, findings in quantum physics have indicated that some events, at the level of atoms and electrons, are genuinely random, which means they would be impossible to predict in advance, even by some hypothetical megabrain. But few people involved in the free will debate think that makes a critical difference. Those tiny fluctuations probably have little relevant impact on life at the scale we live it, as human beings. And in any case, there’s no more freedom in being subject to the random behaviours of electrons than there is in being the slave of predetermined causal laws. Either way, something other than your own free will seems to be pulling your strings.


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B
y far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.” Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other – and especially the way we treat criminals – might change beyond recognition. [No, it wouldn’t: we don’t have free will to make other choices, remember? – LG]

Consider the case of Charles Whitman. Just after midnight on 1 August 1966, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2021 at 5:48 pm

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: He botched it.

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Teju Ravilochan wrote a piece for GatherFor: on Medium. The thrust reflects the priorities and purposes of the group, which is based in New York City and works to develop and network small community groups to build community belonging and resilience. The piece begins:

Some months ago, I was catching up with my dear friend and board member, Roberto Rivera. As an entrepreneur and community organizer with a doctorate and Lin-Manuel-Miranda-level freestyle abilities, he is a teacher to me in many ways. I was sharing with him that for a long time, I’ve struggled with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The traditional interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is that humans need to fulfill their needs at one level before we can advance to higher levels.

Maslow’s idea emerged and was informed by his work with the Blackfeet Nation through conversations with elders and inspiration from the shape and meaning of the Blackfoot tipi. Maslow’s idea has been criticized for misrepresenting the Blackfoot worldview, which instead places self-actualization as a basis for community-actualization and community-actualization as a basis for cultural perpetuity, the latter of which exists at the top of the tipi in Blackfoot philosophy.

The Blackfoot Tipi

This is a slide from a presentation by Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation and University of Alberta Professor, shared in Karen Lincoln Michel’s blog. She describes Maslow’s theory as “a rip off of the Blackfoot nation.”

Maslow’s Failure to Elevate the Blackfoot Model

Continue reading. There’s much more.

It does strike me that in the US today the prevailing view of individuality above all — one’s own individual desires and needs being paramount, with community needs much less in the picture — has resulted in some bad outcomes for all.

Written by Leisureguy

26 April 2021 at 11:01 am

Justin Bieber today is stunning

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Just read Zach Baron’s interview of him in GQ:

Justin Bieber and I have just met when I ask him something and he talks and talks—for 10 illuminating and uninterrupted minutes he talks. He talks about God and faith and castles in Ireland, about shame and drugs and marriage. He talks about what it is to feel empty inside, and what it is to feel full. At one point he says, “I’m going to wrap it up here,” but he doesn’t, he just keeps going, and that is what it is like to talk to Justin Bieber now. Like you’re in the confessional booth with him. Like whatever rules about “privacy” or the thick opaque wall of massive celebrity that people like Bieber are supposed to follow don’t apply.

He has lived a well-documented life—maybe among the more well-documented lives in the history of this decaying planet. But to my knowledge, there is not one example of him speaking this way—in a moving but unprompted, unselfconscious torrent of words—in public prior to this moment. I will admit to being disoriented. If I’m being honest, I had been expecting someone else entirely—someone more monosyllabic; someone more distracted, more unhappy; someone more like the guy I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber was not all that long ago—and now I am so thrown that the best I can do is stammer out some tortured version of… How did you become this person? By which I mean: seemingly guileless. Bursting with the desire to connect, to tell his own story, in case it might be of use to anyone else.

It’s a question that’s not even a question, really. But what Bieber gently says in response is: “That’s okay.”

He knows approximately what I’m asking—how he got from wherever he was to here, to becoming the man in front of me, clear-eyed on a computer screen from an undisclosed location in Los Angeles. His hair, under a Vetements hat, is long in the back; he is in no particular hurry. He is married to a woman—Hailey Baldwin Bieber—who cares for him like no one has ever cared for him, he says. He is happy. He is currently renovating the house in which he will live happily with his wife. He’s spent the past several months piecing together a new record, Justice, which is dense with love songs and ’80s-style anthems—interspersed with some well-intentioned, if not totally well-advised, interludes featuring the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.—that are bluntly honest about his bad past and equally optimistic about his future. (“Everybody saw me sick, and it felt like no one gave a shit,” he sings on the cathartic last song on the record, “Lonely.”) He’s still so overflowing with music that he puts out Freedom, a meditative, postscript of an EP about faith, just a few weeks after Justice. He is, if anything, the empathetic professional in this interaction too as he goes about trying to help me understand how he’s arrived at where he’s arrived. . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing. He does explain well how he arrived and where he arrived.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2021 at 3:24 pm

How an Abstinence Pledge in the ’90s Shamed a Generation of Evangelicals

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Clyde Haberman reports in the NY Times:

To the uninitiated, Christianity’s evangelical movement can seem like a monolith that brooks no dissent on certain core issues: Same-sex relationships are sinful, men’s spiritual dominance over women is divinely ordained and, on the political front, Donald J. Trump was an improbable but nonetheless valued protector of the faith.

Not everything is what it appears to be. The movement is in fact rife with division, a reality reinforced last month when Beth Moore, an evangelical writer and teacher with a huge following, formally ended her long affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, principally because of its tight embrace of the licentious, truth-challenged Mr. Trump.

It was a rupture several years in the making. As Ms. Moore told Religion News Service, disenchantment took hold when Mr. Trump became “the banner, the poster child for the great white hope of evangelicalism, the salvation of the church in America.” But the former president’s behavior is not the only issue buffeting the evangelical movement. White supremacy, male subjugation of women, a spate of sexual abuse cases, scandals involving prominent figures like Jerry Falwell Jr. — all have combined to undermine the authority of religious leaders and prompt members like Ms. Moore to abandon the Southern Baptist Convention.

Retro Report, which examines through video how the past shapes the present, turns attention to an artifact of religious conservatism from the movement. This is the so-called purity pledge, taken in the main by teenagers who pledged to abstain from sex until they married. Some swore to not so much as kiss another person or even go on a date, for fear of putting themselves on the road to moral failure.

Devotion to this concept took hold in the early ’90s, when fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases bolstered the evangelical movement’s gospel of teen abstinence. It was a view put forth as God-commanded and had the support of like-minded political leaders, from the White House of Ronald Reagan to that of Mr. Trump.

Many people certainly found lifelong contentment because of having waited for the right mate. But for others, as the Retro Report video shows, the dictates of the purity movement were so emotionally onerous that their adulthoods have been filled with apprehension and, in some instances, physical pain. They are people like Linda Kay Klein, who embraced the movement in her teens but left it in disenchantment at 21, two decades ago.

She described the trauma and the shame she felt this way: “I would find myself in tears and in a ball in the corner of a bed, crying, my eczema coming out, which it does when I’m stressed, and scratching myself till I bled, and having a deep shame reaction.” Ms. Klein found she was far from alone. She collected tales of enduring anxiety in a book, “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” (Touchstone, 2018). “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies and our own sexual natures,” she wrote, “all under the strict commandment of the church.”

It was under the aegis of the Southern Baptist Convention that the vow of virginity took distinct form, in True Love Waits, a program begun in 1993. As the movement grew in the ’90s, estimates of teenage adherents reached as high as 2.5 million worldwide. Youngsters wore purity rings, signed purity pledge cards and attended purity balls, with girls dressed in white and escorted by their fathers.

The fundamental message, inspired by a verse from Paul the Apostle’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, was this: “I am making a commitment to myself, my family and my Creator that I will abstain from sexual activity of any kind before marriage. I will keep my body and my thoughts pure as I trust in God’s perfect plan for my life.”

Separate from religious imperatives, American teenagers in general have become warier of premarital relations — and certainly of unprotected sex. According to the federal government, there were 61.8 births in 1991 for every 1,000 young women in the 15-to-19 age group. By 2018, that figure had dwindled to 17.4, a decline that cut across racial and ethnic lines.

Among those who regarded purity in terms of spiritual enlightenment, few in the ’90s came to be more celebrated than Joshua Harris, a young man who preached that even sex-free dating was a dangerous first step on the slippery slope of a compromised life. His 1997 book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” sold roughly a million copies. In his writings and speeches, Mr. Harris advocated courtship under the watchful eyes of a couple’s parents.

His message back then, he recalled for Retro Report, was that one should avoid conventional dating just as an alcoholic ought to steer clear of a bar. “It was, like, if you don’t want to have sex,” he said, “then don’t get into these sorts of short-term romantic relationships where there is an expectation to become intimate.”

Controlling teenage hormones, however, is easier said than done. Mr. Harris, who lives in Vancouver, eventually pulled his book from circulation, and has apologized for the role he played in causing anyone feelings of shame, fear and guilt. Today, he no longer considers himself a Christian.

Part of the problem for some critics of the movement is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 April 2021 at 7:49 pm

The decline in religious affiliation and its impact

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Eric Levitz has a very interesting column in New York, which begins (and charts are omitted):

For the first time on record, a majority of U.S. adults do not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque.

Since 1939, Gallup has been surveying Americans on their religious affiliations. From that year until the turn of the millennium, church membership in the U.S. never dipped below 68 percent. But over the past two decades, that figure has steadily declined — and now, the emerging churchless majority has arrived.

[chart]

This is not a story about the rise of “remote worship.” Declining church membership has been driven primarily by rising godlessness. On the eve of the 21st century, 8 percent of Americans identified with no religion in Gallup’s polling. Today, that figure is 21 percent.

Pew Research believes the ranks of the “nones” are even larger. In its polling, 26 percent of the U.S. public prostrates itself before no deity.

In assigning culpability for this trend, one could assemble a long list of plausible co-conspirators. The ascendance of the Evangelical right likely damaged Christianity’s brand with social liberals by associating the faith with theocratic politics, while pedophilic priests and their enablers surely drove no small number of American Catholics from the pews. In Gallup’s polling, the decline in church membership has been especially steep among self-identified Catholics, falling 18 points since 2000, compared to 9 points among Protestants.

But in all likelihood, these contingent developments only expedited America’s atheistic drift. Secularization is a secular trend. In both Gallup and Pew’s data, the main engine of ascendant faithlessness is generational churn. Two-thirds of Americans born before 1946 belong to a religious institution, according to Gallup. That drops to 58 percent among baby boomers, 50 percent among Generation X, and 36 percent among millennials (the pollster’s limited data from zoomers indicates that they are roughly as irreligious as their cooler, wiser immediate predecessors).

Pew shows a similar pattern on the question of religious identification: Each new generation is less religious than the last, while the drop-off between Gen X and millennials is especially sharp:

To be sure, one might attribute American millennials’ disaffection with religion to the fact that the Christian right (and/or Catholic church sex abuse scandal) loomed especially large during their formative years. But declining religiosity is not limited to the United States. Rates of religious-service attendance are falling in nearly every Western country. And the United Kingdom — whose Conservative Party endorsed same-sex marriage before Barack Obama did — has witnessed a remarkably similar trend to the U.S. in religious identification, with the percentage of Britons who subscribe to no religion rising 12 points since 2000.

Given that religious identification has been declining continuously with each new generation, across a diverse array of national contexts, the fundamental cause of the phenomenon is likely structural (as opposed to contingent). I can’t tell you with much authority what this macrohistorical cause is. But I’m inclined to think that industrial development inherently undermines tradition and cultivates individualism, qualities that render it an adversary of faith-based, communitarian institutions. It also seems to me that late capitalism has robbed the church of its monopoly on a wide range of social functions: The welfare state provides social insurance; the universities, metaphysics; Marvel movies, community-binding myths (what are MCU Reddit forums but Bible studies persevering?). [Emphasis added – LG, and I’ll add that it strikes me that capitalism has gone too far toward individualism, and we need to develop some communitarian institutions that are not faith-based — perhaps an appeal to the importance to health of social relationships and contacts that are not moderated by money.]

Regardless, my point in emphasizing the deep-seated, structural nature of declining religiosity is simple: It suggests that this trend will not be drastically reversed, absent some kind of social cataclysm.

And that poses a major challenge to the Republican Party.

America’s loss of faith may have won Biden the presidency.

Everyone knows that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s thoughtfully written and offers many interesting insights.

I’ll add that Stephen Covey, interestingly enough, viewed “independence” merely as the prerequisite for the highest level of being, “interdependence.” See this post.

Later in the article:

Whatever its impact on the GOP, the implications of creeping secularism are more dire for social conservatives. The Republican Party can ultimately retain political power by bringing its policy commitments into slightly closer alignment with public opinion. That is not an option for the Christian right’s true believers. As a result, the movement is becoming forthrightly anti-democratic. On the one hand, the moral minority hopes to impose its will on the nation by judicial fiat. On the other, it aims to disenfranchise the heathen majority.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2021 at 4:27 pm

Fantasy and the Buffered Self

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Alan Jacobs writes in The New Atlantis:

When asked by the editors of the website The Immanent Frame to summarize the key concerns of his vastly ambitious book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor wrote,

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

As Taylor makes clear, the shift from a porous to a buffered self involves a complex series of exchanges. But to put that shift in simple terms, a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family. Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) specifies many of these dangers, along with the whole panoply of prayers, rites, amulets, potions, chants, spells, and the like, by which a person might seek protection from the otherwise irresistible. It is easy, then, to imagine why a person — or a whole culture — might, if it could, exchange this model of a self with highly permeable boundaries for one in which the self feels better protected, defended — impermeable, or nearly so.

The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).

In these circumstances, one might expect people to ask whether so difficult and costly an exchange is in fact necessary. Might it not be possible to experience the benefits, while avoiding the costs, of both the porous and the buffered self? I want to argue here that it is precisely this desire that accounts for the rise to cultural prominence, in late modernity, of the artistic genre of fantasy. Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self.

Before pursuing my argument, I must make two clarifications. First, fantasy itself is not a recent development but rather an ancient form (though not under its current name). What we now call “fantasy” is something closer to “realism” in the pagan world, which is populated by many powers capable of acting upon “porous” human selves. In the pagan world, success in life is largely a matter of navigating safely among those powers, which are unpredictable, beyond good and evil, and often indifferent to human needs. (Such indifference means that they can help as well as hurt, but also that their assistance can never be relied upon.) In this environment, fantastic creatures are at the very least personifications or embodiments of powers genuinely believed to exist. The realism is not strict, in that the writers and readers of earlier times did not necessarily believe in the existence of precisely such creatures as were described in their stories — perhaps not Apollo or Artemis any more than Dante’s Geryon or Spenser’s Blatant Beast, though such questions are necessarily and notoriously vexed. But at the very least the pre-modern world is one in which powers like those hold sway and cannot be safely neglected; a world in which what we would call the fantastic is an intrinsic element of the real.

Second, some of the most celebrated practitioners of modern fantasy share with their pre-modern predecessors this belief that the fictional apparatus of fantasy is a relatively close approximation to the way things really are for human beings. J. R. R. Tolkien may not have believed in Sauron, but he surely believed that there are in human history people who sell themselves to the Enemy and find themselves as a result of that decision first empowered and then destroyed. And when, at the beginning of Lewis’s Perelandra (1944), the protagonist Ransom’s progress toward a friend’s house is impeded by invisible forces who fill him with fear, Lewis was describing the work of spirits whom he truly believed to exist, though under a slightly different description, just as he probably believed that some forms of scientistic rationalism are the product of demonic influence. In short, these writers sought to present their readers with an image of an enchanted world, of selves fully porous to supernatural forces. But because they did so in genres (fantasy, science fiction) known for the imaginative portrayal of the wholly nonexistent, readers confident in their buffered condition can be delighted by those stories without ever for a moment considering the possibility that the forces portrayed therein might correspond to something real. Indeed, the delight of the stories for such readers consists primarily in their perceived unreality.

Concentrating Spiritual Power

The Judeo-Christian world is alien to the pagan one primarily in its concentration — in most of its versions — of all power in the hands of an omnipotent God, from whom everything else has only derivative strength, virtue, and indeed existence. People who do not accept this account of things commonly perceive it as comforting, though a reading of the first chapter of the book of Job — with its bland explanation that the Satanic torments of a righteous man occur at the explicit permission of the Almighty — should be enough to complicate that view. On the other hand, people fully shaped by this account of the world, with its emphasis on explaining why there is something rather than nothing, will necessarily find paganism insufficiently curious about where the powers that afflict human lives come from. After all, many pagan mythologies have no creation stories, or thin, minor ones. The powers of the pagan world just are: to reckon with them — to appease or evade them, to thwart them with some greater power, to swear fidelity to them — is a full-time job; there can be little energy left over to speculate about their origins.

So radical monotheism, though it does not alter the condition of porosity, and does not disenchant the world, forcefully concentrates charisma. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 March 2021 at 12:13 pm

Don’t Discount Evangelicalism as a Factor in Racist Murder of Asian Spa Workers in Georgia

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An article in Religion Dispatches is worth reading:

Today, America is still reeling from the news of the mass murder of eight people at massage parlors in Georgia. Many are rightly calling the shooting spree an act of white supremacist terrorism, as the victims targeted were Asian women. The moment I read that the man who confessed to the murders was the son of a youth pastor who told police he had a “sex addiction,” however, it struck me that we must not ignore the specifically evangelical Protestant contours of this story.

I want to be clear. As Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who has published research on religion and attitudes toward sex told RD, “Sex addiction is simply not a credible defense for mass murder.” One of the most significant conclusions Grubbs’ research points to, however, is that conservative Christian men are prone to believe that they have pornography or sex “addictions,” even when they do not. Before he was apprehended by police, Robert Aaron Long was reportedly on his way to target the porn industry in Florida for violence similar to what he perpetrated in Georgia.

According to Grubbs, “There’s a large and growing body of research that shows that conservative religious values are strongly linked to feelings of sex addiction. We find that men in particular are likely to interpret normal sexual urges as pathological and then act on them in ways that they find to be problematic.” As Grubbs told me in a previous interview, while some people do exhibit compulsive and dysregulated behavior with respect to pornography, “There are also quite a number of people who report feeling out of control even with minimal use.”

If Long is telling the truth about his desire to “eliminate” the “temptations”—that is, women—that he claims exacerbated his “sex addiction,” it’s likely that he learned to think of himself this way, and to objectify women, in church. In evangelical institutional environments such as churches and Christian schools, discussions of sex are usually steeped in purity culture, that is a complex of beliefs and practices associated with an unhealthy fear of sexuality and intense pressure to remain “pure”—that is, sexually inexperienced—before marriage. I am among the many ex-evangelicals who were essentially coerced into signing “purity pledges” in the 1990s, which is just one of the many manipulative practices associated with purity culture.

According to Grubbs, “Purity culture places heavy emphasis on temptation and evil. Pornography is considered evil and something to be eliminated. Given that framing, it’s not surprising that someone might view all sexual ‘temptations’ as evil and needing to be eliminated.” Speaking of Long, Grubbs elaborated, “I would not call this person a ‘victim’ of purity culture, but it is possible that he is a product of it.”

The flip side of more secular rape culture, purity culture teaches boys that they are “lust monsters” and girls that it’s their duty to protect their purity by being “modest.” In evangelical culture, youth pastors are among the primary purveyors of these messages, and thus key figures in socializing white evangelical youth in evangelicalism’s version of toxic masculinity. As a result, victims of child sex abuse and of sexual assault in evangelical communities are often blamed for “tempting” the perpetrators, while the latter, particularly if they’re white men with an important role in the church, are protected from what should be the full consequences of their crimes. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 March 2021 at 3:56 pm

Like Sheep: On Translating a Literary Plague in a Time of Pandemic

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This is probably a good time to read the literature of pandemics — surprisingly vast (or not so surprisingly, given that pandemics have plagued humanity (literally) from time immemorial (thus one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rides the pale horse of plague)). A.E. Stallings writes in the Hudson Review:

Plagues, real and imaginary, spread like viruses through literature. The Iliad starts with one. It’s right there in line 10, a disease sent by far-shooting Apollo, god of music and medicine, plague and archery, because Agamemnon has snatched the girl Chryseis from her father, Chryses, one of Apollo’s own priests. The god shoots his arrows of contagion, striking first at the mules and dogs (it is interesting that the poet seems to be aware of zoonosis, pathogens that jump from animals to people), and then at men, so that the funeral pyres are crowded and burn without ceasing. The first deaths of the poems are not from war, but disease. Agamemnon, compelled to give the girl back to her father, takes Achilles’ “spear-bride” Briseis instead, setting in motion all of the tragic events to follow.

It is a plague too, this time in the city of Thebes, that sets Oedipus on the path to knowledge that will reveal the enigmatic and devastating truth of his birth and his marriage. When Oedipus asks the priest of Zeus what is wrong with his people, he answers (Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 25–30, translation by Sir Richard Jebb):

A blight has fallen on the fruitful blossoms of the land, the herds among the pastures, the barren pangs of women. And the flaming god, the malign plague, has swooped upon us, and ravages the town: he lays waste to the house of Cadmus, but enriches Hades with groans and tears. . . .

Notice it is the crops and the herds that are first affected. The priest concludes dryly with the sentiment, as Jebb has it, “Neither walled town nor ship is anything, if it is empty and no men dwell within.”

Mythological plagues are often indications that something is very wrong, an invitation to look more closely at assumptions and injustice, a judgment. It is worth remembering that Sophocles’ famous play debuted in 429 BC. The plague of Athens had broken out the previous year, and 429 saw a second wave. The references to a plague, in combination with a criticism of state leadership, would have been eerily topical and resonant for the audience in a time of war and pandemic, for all that the play is set in a legendary past and another city.

Thucydides’ prose account of the Athenian plague in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars describes not legend, but events Thucydides had experienced firsthand: the first outbreak of plague in 430 BC, when nearly one in three residents of Athens perished. (A mass grave of plague victims was excavated by archaeologists in 1994 in the Kerameikos, the potters’ quarter, of the city.) Thucydides is a survivor and describes the symptoms both as an eyewitness and a former sufferer. Even Pericles, the leader of Athens, will succumb to the disease. According to Thucydides, the contagion arose in northern Africa and entered Athens by the bustling port of Piraeus. The symptoms begin with fever and red eyes, a swollen and bloody tongue, but go on to include a cough, and an assortment of other effects: the genitals can be affected, and sometimes a sufferers lose their extremities, their eyesight or even their memory. In describing the horror of mass civilian deaths, Thucydides uses the phrase “dying like sheep.”

Thucydides’ plague has a moral dimension: some people are afraid to do the right thing by caring for the sick (it is the health workers, in fact, who are hardest hit); worship of the gods falls by the wayside as prayer proves ineffectual, and people immerse themselves in pleasures, vices and crimes, excesses of the moment, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and confident they will not be brought to justice. The proper disposal of the dead—religious observations as well as cremation—one of the most sacred aspects of ancient life, is abandoned. People toss a corpse on top of funeral pyres already in progress or set fire to a pyre painstakingly arranged by others to cremate their own dead. The plague becomes a symptom for a societal breakdown, a society with a weakened immune system that is slipping into decline and will lose the war as well as its hegemony and status.

Lucretius, the 1st century BC Roman poet who would be such an important model for Virgil in turn takes up Thucydides’ plague. In his didactic epic, De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things,” a poem about life, the universe, and everything, that lays out tenets of the atomic theory and Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius ends the poem—at least as the version of the poem has come down to us, supposedly edited by Cicero—on a Latin versification of Thucydides’ prose eyewitness account of the Athenian plague. Some of it is almost straight translation. Consider (translation mine):

At no time did the greedy disease let up. It caught and spread
From one man to another, as though they were so many head
Of fleecy sheep and cattle. . . .

Yet here as elsewhere Lucretius elaborates, inventing more lurid detail about the disease itself—not only are the genitals affected, for instance, but desperate victims even castrate themselves—and also expanding on the suffering of animals, such as noble dogs. In a 7,000-plus-line poem whose purpose is purportedly to free its readers from the fear of death, there is something counterintuitive about ending on this terrifying plague, on death coming alike to sinner and saint, weak and strong. The poem ends on the scene of people coming to bloodshed over funeral pyres, where others might try to throw random corpses:

Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
To drive men on to desperate deeds—so they’d place on a pyre
Constructed by another their own loved ones, and set fire
To with wails and loud lament. And often they would shed
Much blood in their struggle rather than desert their dead.

That is the poem’s unsettling conclusion. Because of the nature of Latin syntax, the whole poem ends, or perhaps is abandoned, on the verb “desererentur.”

***

Virgil’s Georgics is his poetic masterpiece (John Dryden famously called it “the best Poem of the best Poet”), composed between his debut Eclogues and his grand epic project, the Aeneid; Virgil would die before the last was finished, and supposedly ordered it to be burned. The Georgics hits a sweet spot in both effervescent accomplishment and achieved ambition, the poet at the apogee of his powers. In four “books,” it purports to be advice to the Italian farmer, with a chapter on ploughing and crops, a chapter on vines and orchards, a chapter on animal husbandry, and a chapter on apiculture; but these topics seem to be pretexts for a discursive poem of natural history, learned allusion, the beauties of Italy, philosophical explorations of man’s essential condition, and exploration of the nature of civilization. Somehow the section about tending bees culminates in an exquisite retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The plague section comes at the very end of Book Three, the one on animal husbandry. After elucidating how to deal with common ailments of sheep, the poem goes on to recount a plague from some previous era that wiped out cattle, sheep, and even wild animals. This is  . . .

Continue reading.

I found the essay quite interesting, and I hope you do as well.

Written by Leisureguy

2 March 2021 at 7:31 pm

How to be an Atheist in Medieval Europe

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While it’s unlikely that you will encounter that situation, the lecture itself is quite interesting. For one thing, it shows how cultural memes tend to remain inchoate until the currents of cultural evolution move them into a definite shape/voice/role. Moreover, this is one of a collection of interesting lectures from Gresham College, which has offered free public lectures for over 400 years. From Wikipedia:

Gresham College is an institution of higher learning located at Barnard’s Inn Hall off Holborn in Central LondonEngland. It does not enroll students or award degrees. It was founded in 1597 under the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, and hosts over 140 free public lectures every year. Since 2001, all lectures have also been made available online. . .

The seven original Gresham College Professorships that date back to the origins of the college are as follows:

Astronomy  
Divinity  
Geometry 
Law
Music  
Physic 
Rhetoric 

These original endowed chairs reflect the curriculum of a medieval university (the trivium and quadrivium); but as a place for the public and frequent voicing of new ideas, the college played an important role in the Enlightenment and in the formation of the Royal Society. Early distinguished Gresham College professors included Christopher Wren, who lectured on astronomy in the 17th century and Robert Hooke, who was Professor of Geometry from 1665 until 1704.[6]

The professors received £50 a year, and the terms of their position were very precise, for example:

The geometrician is to read as followeth, every Trinity term arithmetique, in Michaelmas and Hilary terms theoretical geometry, in Easter term practical geometry. The astronomy reader is to read in his solemn lectures, first the principles of the sphere, and the theory of the planets, and the use of the astrolabe and the staff, and other common instruments for the capacity of mariners.[7]

Today three further Professorships have been added to take account of areas not otherwise covered by the original Professorships:

Commerce, established in 1985.[8]
Environment, established in 2014.[9]
Information Technology, established in 2015.[10]

The great seal of my alma mater, St. John’s College, Annapolis MD, shows seven books, which represent the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic — the language arts) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music — the mathematical arts), along with a balance (representing the sciences), with the device “Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque.” (“I make free men from children by means of books and a balance,” though in fact the college has been co-ed since 1951.) The curriculum (which has no electives) centers on those disciplines, which students learn through reading closely and discussing the canonical works of the Western canon. (“Reading closely” becomes “listening thoughtfully” in the case of music, drama, the weekly Friday night lecture, and of course in the discussions.)

Written by Leisureguy

21 February 2021 at 10:21 am

‘This Crap Means More to Him Than My Life’: When QAnon Invades American Homes

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Anastasia Carrier reports in Politico:

For months, Emily has been married to a ghost. The trouble began last summer, when her husband Peter, the man who once showered her with affection and doted on their kids, started to spend all of his free time online, watching videos and reading message boards. He skipped the family activities they had once enjoyed, like watching football and playing outdoor sports. The couple, she recalled, stopped laughing together; everything suddenly turned serious with him. The pandemic had forced Peter to work from home, but it didn’t feel like he was there.

Before long, there were further turns. Peter started saying things that bordered on “bigoted and xenophobic,” Emily told me. Most shocking to her, Peter made her feel like an enemy for disagreeing with him. When she pushed back on his new strange ideas, like Tom Hanks being a pedophile, he answered her with disdain and treated her as if she were stupid.

“I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” said Emily, who shared her story under the condition of anonymity because she fears Peter’s retaliation and feels disloyal for speaking up. (Emily and Peter are not their real names.) Sometimes he undermined her this way in front of their kids.

Emily knew her husband was wrapped up in something called “QAnon.” She had heard the term before—Peter, prior to his conversion, had once dismissed it as “nuts”—but she didn’t fully grasp what QAnon was until early October, when she watched a few of the videos Peter kept talking about. That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses “deep state elites” of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.

That month, Emily read an article online about “QAnonCasualties”—a Reddit forum for people like her, whose loved ones had also been drawn in by the bogus conspiracy theory. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so alone. For the next four days she watched the forum closely until she gathered the courage to post about her husband. “It’s exhausting loving someone and watching them get sucked into this cycle you can’t break,” she wrote.

“Thank you all for responding. Just knowing others are going through this disaster is relieving,” Emily replied.

Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year, growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.

As American politics scrambles to deal with this fringe ideology and its followers—a set of people seemingly impervious to facts, some committed enough to assault the U.S. Capitol—the country might learn a few things from the people who have to grapple with QAnon in their very homes, and who live with it every day. And what their stories tell us is unsettling. In post after post on r/QAnonCasualties, fathers and daughters, wives and husbands, best friends and colleagues describe their inability to get through to the people they are closest to. There are stories of marriages and friendships torn asunder, estranged siblings, parents and children severing ties. There are occasional accounts of success. But more often the stories end with people giving up trying to reach their radicalized loved ones. Sometimes, they walk away entirely.

After Emily found the board in October, the tone of her posts quickly went from hopeful to defeated. She began to accept that she might have to leave her husband. One day she wrote: “I would have never married this person, yet somehow, I am [married to him]. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

Peter has stopped treating the pandemic seriously, and Emily, who is in a high-risk group, can’t understand. They are both in their early 40s, and over the two decades that they’ve known each other Peter has always been protective of her fragile health. Now he thinks the pandemic is a hoax and doesn’t wear a mask, putting Emily in danger.

So Emily continues to avoid talking about politics and opts to do all of the house chores like groceries herself because she can’t trust Peter to be careful. As she wrote in one post: “This crap means more to him than my life.”

The QAnonCasualties subreddit came to life on July 4, 2019, when user Sqwakomodile shared a story about their mother being consumed by QAnon.

“The ignorance, bigotry, and refusal to question ‘the plan’ have only gotten worse over time,” Sqwakomodile wrote. The user barely talked to their mother anymore, but felt guilty about it. “It only seems to make me feel terrible and feeling like it’s my responsibility to try to lead her back to reality. Having a loved one involved in QAnon is an exhausting, sad, scary, demoralizing experience.”

At the time, QAnon had already made its way out of the far-right chat rooms where it was born and begun to spread via mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The conspiracy could be traced back to 2017, when  . . .

Continue reading. Needless to say, there’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

19 February 2021 at 7:18 pm

Dante: Our Medieval Contemporary

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Michael Glover writes at Hyperallergic:

Want a sure bet this year? Here’s one. That a medieval Florentine poet called Dante Alighieri (born 1265) will be news that stays news throughout 2021. Thanks to the sheer staying power of a great poem in three parts called The Divine Comedy, which he wrote in exile in the last years of his life, we will be commemorating the 700th anniversary of his death.

And this is in spite of the fact that so much about this work seems to work against him: a cosmology, a teleology, and an intricate belief system that, at first glance, seem as remote from us as the outer limits of our very own galaxy.

And yet Dante the Florentine is still present with us, this poet who has been translated again and again and again. Why?

Consider the storyline. The poem is a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each of its three books consists of 33 cantos. An introductory canto to the entire work brings the whole up to exactly 100. The poem abounds in intricate examples of such orderliness and symmetry.

Dante is at the fiery center of the work from first to last. It is he who tells its story; it is he who dramatizes and reflects, often quite obsessively, upon his own predicament as a lost pilgrim exactly halfway through his life, who, having gone astray in a dark wood, is seeking guidance. The poem’s time-frame is three days: from Good Friday to Easter Sunday of the year 1300.

Luckily, the ombra (“shade” in Italian, i.e., ghost or soul) of a second poet comes to his aid, the Imperial Roman maestro Virgil. Dante is in awe of Virgil, whose great work, The Aeneid, Dante has studied intimately. Virgil accompanies Dante on his journey down through the nine circles of Hell, where they witness the sufferings of different categories of sinner. He stiffens Dante’s resolve, chides him for his fears, gives him courage, backbone, hope.

The lower the circle, the greater the suffering. The final circle, the ninth, is the miserable domain of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 February 2021 at 2:52 pm

Combating Misinformation When A Loved One Is Caught In A Web Of Conspiracies

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Sarah McCammon reports at NPR (and there’s a 5-minute audio of the report at the link):

On Jan. 6, Hilary Izatt was watching TV when she began to worry.

“My husband and I are both political scientists; we’re kind of nerdy; we watch C-SPAN a lot,” Izatt says. “And when we were watching C-SPAN is when the rioters started breaking into the Capitol.”

Izatt, 39, is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan. She says her dad, who lives in Utah, had told her he was traveling to Washington, D.C., to join the massive pro-Trump rally planned for that day.

What she saw unfolding on the screen scared her.

A different — dangerous — reality

“I was mostly worried for his safety and I texted him and he got back to me and he just said, ‘Don’t believe everything you’re watching on TV,’ ” she says. “So I don’t believe like C-SPAN? I’m not sure what he meant by that.”

“But it was this realization that I think we’re coming from two very different realities.”

Izatt’s father declined to comment, but Izatt says she believes he was not among the group that stormed the Capitol. Still, she’s uncomfortable with the idea that he was there that day at all.

Like Izatt, many Americans are feeling like they’ve lost loved ones to a web of conspiracy theories and false information circulating online. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, for example, found that only 1 in 5 Republicans accept Biden’s victory.

Ideas have consequences

“Beliefs are real in their consequences,” says James Hawdon, director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

He says the widespread acceptance of disinformation is not only divisive but also dangerous for the country.

“We act on our beliefs. If you truly believe the country is under attack … if this, of course, is not true … obviously it poses a threat,” Hawdon says.

People often latch onto pieces of misinformation that align with their worldview and gradually begin to accept even bigger lies, he says.

“You can get people to step, take small steps off the path of truth or reality or whatever you want to call it, more easily than taking a big leap,” Hawdon says. “But once you’ve gone several yards off that path, then the big leap’s pretty easy to make.”

Those ideas often are appealing because they validate part of a person’s belief system or identity, Hawdon says, and they’re difficult to shake.

Lost in “La-La Land”

Dennis, a retiree from Maryland — who asked that we use only his first name for fear of his safety in the current climate — has grown increasingly worried about his daughter’s embrace of false ideas about the election.

“She’s talked about the election being stolen and I’ve pushed back on that — you know, the standard, ‘Where’s your proof? And how do you suppose this happened?’ ” Dennis says.

His daughter, Paula, lives near Baltimore and works as an office manager. In an interview with NPR, she says her father told her she was “in La-La Land, but I really don’t feel that I am.”

Paula says she has been a conservative all of her life. She says she distrusts elected officials and cannot believe Biden won — despite what many courts and elections have repeatedly confirmed — and regardless of what her dad said about her grasp of reality.

“I was a little bit irritated, but my response is, ‘Well, I’m there with 70 million other people, then,’ ” she says.

Getting to the root cause

Hawdon, the violence prevention researcher at Virginia Tech, says one long-term solution could involve better education in data literacy to help young people learn how to sort through fact and fiction. In the short term, if a loved one is spouting misinformation, he advises pushing back kindly — and trying to understand what led to that belief.

“I don’t really believe people started off believing that there are pedophile rings under a pizza place,” he says. “Something got them down that rabbit hole and you have to understand what that root cause is.”

Just as people often take small steps toward conspiracy theories, Hawdon says, they may need to gradually move away from them, too.

Deen Freelon, an associate journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializing in politics and digital media, says a heavier hand is necessary in some situations.

“People don’t understand that they have a problem,” Freelon says. “A light touch is really not going to do it here; we really have to pull out all the stops because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t.”

Freelon says that may mean withholding contact for a while or prohibiting grandparents who are condoning insurrection from spending time with grandchildren.

“People lost their lives,” he says. “So this is really serious.”

“Crazy ideas” with consequences

Hilary Izatt says she’s unsure how to talk to her dad, but she anticipates some tough conversations.

“I think a lot of Americans are. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 January 2021 at 12:42 pm

‘The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets.’

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Thomas Edsall writes in the NY Times:

It’s impossible to understand the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol without addressing the movement that has come to be known as Christian nationalism.

Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, professors of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Oklahoma, describe Christian Nationalism in their book “Taking America Back for God”:

It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.

In her recent book, “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” Katherine Stewart, a frequent contributor to these pages, does not mince words:

It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy, but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.

This, Stewart writes, “is not a ‘culture war.’ It is a political war over the future of democracy.”

While much of the focus of coverage of the attack on the halls of the House and Senate was on the violence, the religious dimension went largely unnoted (although my colleagues Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham made the connection).

I asked Perry about the role of the religious right, and he replied by email: “The Capitol insurrection was as Christian nationalist as it gets.”

Perry elaborated:

Obviously the best evidence would be the use of sacred symbols during the insurrection such as the cross, Christian flag, Jesus saves sign, etc. But also the language of the prayers offered by the insurrectionists both outside and within the Capitol indicates the views of white Americans who obviously thought Jesus not only wanted them to violently storm the Capitol in order to take it back from the socialists, globalists, etc., but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory.

Together, Perry continued, the evidence

reflects a mind-set that clearly merges national power and divine authority, believing God demands American leadership be wrested from godless usurpers and entrusted to true patriots who must be willing to shed blood (their own and others’) for God and country. Christian nationalism favors authoritarian control and what I call “good-guy violence” for the sake of maintaining a certain social order.

The conservative evangelical pastor Greg Locke, the founder of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn., epitomizes the mind-set Perry describes. In his Sept 2020 book, “This Means War” Locke writes, “We are one election away from losing everything we hold dear.” The battle, Locke continued, is “against everything evil and wicked in the world.” It is

a rallying of the troops of God’s holy army. This is our day. This is our time. This means something for the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, THIS MEANS WAR.

On Jan. 5, Locke tweeted:

May the fire of the Holy Spirit fall upon Washington DC today and tomorrow. May the Lamb of God be exalted. Let God arise and His enemies be brought low.

Along similar lines, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, was asked in a 2018 Politico interview, “What happened to turning the other cheek?”

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins replied. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Robert Jones, the founder and C.E.O. of P.R.R.I., a nonprofit organization that conducts research on religion and politics, argues in his book “The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” that Christianity in America has a long history of serving as a cloak for a racist political agenda.

“The norms of white supremacy have become deeply and broadly integrated into white Christian identity, operating far below the level of consciousness,” Jones writes. “The story of just how intractably white supremacy has become embedded in the DNA of American Christianity.”

On Jan. 7, the mainstream Baptist News published comments from 21 Baptist leaders, including Steve Harmon, professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity:

Minister friends, we must confront directly the baseless conspiracy theories and allegations that our own church members are embracing and passing along. They are not just wrongheaded ideas; they have consequences, and to tie these falsehoods to the salvation of Jesus is nothing less than blasphemy.

Charles Kimball, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma-Norman, shares some of Jones’s concerns. In his 2002 book, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” Kimball wrote:

History clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed and these days more evil perpetuated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.

In an email, Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College, described a fundamental strategic shift among many on the religious right toward a more embattled, militantly conservative approach:

Today’s evangelical conservatives have given up on spiritual revival as a means of change. Even in the recent past, conversion — a change of heart and mind that is the fruit of repentance and spiritual regeneration — was thought to be the means by which America would become a morally upright nation: change enough individuals, and the change on a personal level would result in broad change on a collective level.

Marti contends that

the accumulated frustrations of not being able to ease their sense of religious decline, their continued legal struggles against abortion and gay marriage, and the overwhelming shifts in popular culture promoting much less religiously restrictive understandings of personal identity have prompted politically active religious actors to take a far more pragmatic stance.

As a result, Marti continues, revivalism has largely

been abandoned as a solution to changing society. Their goal is no longer to persuade the public of their religious and moral convictions; rather, their goal has become to authoritatively enforce behavioral guidelines through elected and nonelected officials who will shape policies and interpret laws such that they cannot be so easily altered or dismissed through the vagaries of popular elections. It is not piety but policy that matters most. The real triumph is when evangelical convictions become encoded into law.

I asked Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale and the author of the book “American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present,” if supporters of Christian nationalism were a dominant force in the Jan. 6 assault on Congress. He replied:

Many observers commented on the jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist and racist symbolism amongst the insurrectionists: there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags and American flags, fascist insignia and a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.

Gorski described the Christian nationalist movement as a loose confederation of people and institutions that share

a certain narrative about American history. In rough outline: America was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians; the Nation’s laws and founding documents were indirectly based on “biblical” principles, or even directly inspired by God, Himself. America’s power and prosperity are due to its piety and obedience.

The narrative is propagated through a network of channels, Gorski wrote:

The history curricula used by many Christian home-schoolers are organized around a Christian nationalist perspective. Christian Nationalist activists also seek to influence the history curricula used in public schools.

In addition, Gorski said,

Some evangelical pastors have made national reputations by preaching Christian Nationalism. Robert Jeffress of Dallas’ First Baptist Church is a well-known example. In recent years, some Christian Nationalist pastors have formed a network of so-called “Patriot Churches” as well.

It should be noted that Jeffress went out of his way on the afternoon of Jan. 6 to dissociate himself from the attack on the Capitol.

In a discussion of religion published at The Immanent Frame — a forum of the Social Science Research Council — Gorski drew a sharp distinction between Christian nationalism and traditional religion doctrine:

Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the Book of Revelation.

In contrast, according to Gorski, the American version of civil religion

draws on the social justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, on the one hand, and, on the other, the civic republican tradition that runs from Aristotle through Machiavelli to the American Founders. One of the distinctive things about this tradition in America is that it sees Christianity and democracy as potentially complementary, rather than inherently opposed.

Paul D. Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, reasons along parallel lines:

Christian nationalism is the pursuit of tribal power, not the common good; it is identity politics for right-wing (mostly white) Christians; it is the attempt to ‘own and operate the American brand,’ as someone else wrote; it is an attitude of entitlement among Christians that we have a presumptive right to define what America is. I oppose identity politics of all kinds, including the identity politics of my tribe.

Christian nationalism reveals what Benjamin Lynerd, a professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University and the author of “Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals,” calls “the tragedy of evangelical politics, a tragedy that the unrestrained loyalty to President Trump lays bare, but which stretches well beyond this moment in American history,” when “political theology serves merely as cover for the more pragmatic agenda of social empowerment.”

There is a difference, Lynerd writes,

between searching out the implications of the Christian gospel for politics and leveraging this gospel to advance the social position of American Christians. When evangelicals disguise the latter in the robes of the former, not only do they engage in dishonesty, but they also give fuel to the cynical view that there really is no difference — that the theological is nothing more than a cloak for the political.

Jones, the founder of P.R.R.I., made a related point in an email:

While many media outlets focused on decoding the myriad white supremacist signs and symbols, they too easily screened out the other most prominent displays: the numerous crosses, Bibles, and signs and flags with Christian symbols, such as the Jesus 2020 flag that was modeled on the Trump campaign flag.

Those religious symbols, Jones continued,

reveal an unsettling reality that has been with us throughout our history: The power of White supremacy in America has always been its ability to flourish within and be baptized by white Christianity.

Many of those I contacted for this column described Whitehead and Perry’s book, “Taking America Back For God,” as the most authoritative study of Christian Nationalism.

The two authors calculate that roughly 20 percent of adult Americans qualify, in Perry’s words, as “true believers in Christian nationalism.” They estimate that 36 percent of Republican voters qualify as Christian nationalists. In 2016, the turnout rate among these voters was an exceptionally high 87 percent. Whitehead wrote that “about 70 percent of those we identify as Christian nationalists are white.”

A small percentage of African-Americans qualify as Christian nationalists, but Perry pointed out that “it’s obvious Black and White Americans are thinking of something completely different when they think about the nation’s ‘Christian heritage.’ ”

To ask white Americans about restoring America’s Christian character, Perry continued,

is essentially to ask them how much they want to take the country back to the days when they (white, native-born, conservatives) were in power. To ask Black Americans about America’s Christian past is more likely to evoke thoughts of what we’ve traditionally thought of as “civil religion,” our sacred obligation to being a “just” nation, characterized by fairness, equality, and liberty.

Samuel P. Perry, a professor of communications at Baylor — and no relation to Samuel L. Perry — argued on Jan. 15 in an essay, “The Capitol siege recalls past acts of Christian nationalist violence,” that the confrontations with federal law enforcement officials at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 involving white supremacists and Waco, Texas in 1993 involving an extremist Christian sect, together marked a key turning point in uniting white militias with the hard core Christian right:

Christian fundamentalists and white supremacist militia groups both figured themselves as targeted by the government in the aftermath of the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. As scholar of religion Ann Burlein argues, “Both the Christian right and right-wing white supremacist groups aspire to overcome a culture they perceive as hostile to the white middle class, families, and heterosexuality.”

In an email, Perry followed up on this thought:

“The insurrection or assault on the Capitol involved unlikely coalitions of people in one way. You do not necessarily think of religious evangelicals and fundamentalists being in line with Three Percenters or Proud Boys,” but, he continued, the

narrative of chosenness and superiority made for broader group of support. I would not attribute Jan. 6 to Christian Nationalism alone, but I would not underestimate the involvement of the contingent of Christian Nationalists and the way the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism became a standard trope for Trump.

The emergence of Christian nationalism has in fact prompted the mobilization, in 2019, of a new group, Christians Against Christian Nationalism. The organization has lined up prominent religious leaders to serve as “endorsers,” including the Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK and Tony Campolo, founder and leader of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.

More than 16,000 ministers, pastors and parishioners have signed a statement that reads in part:

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy.

In contrast,

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

There is evidence, Robert Jones argues, that even though both Christian nationalists and, more broadly, white evangelicals, are in decline as a share of the electorate, the two constituencies may become more, not less, assertive. Jones noted that his data suggests that the more a group believes it is under siege from the larger culture, the more activated it becomes.

Some of the clearest evidence of this phenomenon lies in the continually rising level of Election Day turnout among white evangelicals, even as they decline as a share of the electorate.

Jones wrote:

The trend among white evangelicals Protestants — declining numbers in the general population but stability in the proportion of voters in the exit polls — is basically what we found over the last decade. Compared to 2008, white evangelical Protestants have declined from 21 percent of the population to 15 percent of the population. But the “white born again or evangelical” category has remained stable over this period at approximately one quarter (25 percent) of all voters.

Even more worrisome, in Jones’s view:

It’s also worth noting that even AFTER the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, PRRI’s final favorability poll showed white evangelical Protestant’s favorability toward Trump remained at 62 percent — double the level of Trump’s favorability rating among the public (31 percent).

Unsurprisingly, the assertiveness of white evangelicals, and especially of Christian nationalists, is activating their adversaries in the traditional moderate religious mainstream. The rise of the Christian right is also feeding a tide of secularization that steadily thins the ranks of the religiously observant.

David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame, further elaborates on Jones’s argument, writing in a June 2020 article, “The Perils of Politicized Religion, that

It is not just that the United States is becoming a more secular nation. It is that Americans’ secularization is, at least in part, a backlash to the employment of religion for partisan ends. The widely held perception that religion is partisan has contributed to the turn away from religious affiliation.

. . .

Continue reading. I have quoted the column liberally, since it makes liberal use of quotations.

Written by Leisureguy

28 January 2021 at 6:43 pm

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