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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mmm, Now With Even More Propagandaey Goodness!


January 12th 2010

I have to be one of the most disconnected writers I have ever heard of. Disconnected from my creations, I mean. I have mentioned before (though I suppose it bears repeating, since people apparently cannot be troubled to read any of the older weblogs on this site), but I write these entries as a first draft. I then send them out, replete with errors, to be posted. I like them to exist in this flawed state. It’s nice and ugly and raw, which comes nearer to my actual state than my words could ever manage. I write mainly for posterity, I think, which is probably why I don’t mind not getting much of a response from people, whether that be positive or negative. (Probably a good thing I don’t get as much negative response as a real writer, considering some of the insane vitriol that occasionally does grace my inbox.) Imagine my surprise, then, when several guards quietly congratulated me recently on my “truth” entry. I guess I always figured some of them were reading this tripe, but I don’t think I had any idea as to the extent. Thanks for the thumbs-up, guys. There was some information in that entry which was long, long overdue, and I’m sorry for dwelling so long on the negative.

A few weeks ago, I had a minister visit with Major Katherine Cox, whom I have mentioned before. One of the escort officers gave me a funny look when I passed him my bible. This is a relatively new officer, and seems to be a pretty decent guy, though ridiculously overqualified. I don’t think I could ever fathom why anyone would choose to work here, but that is his business. When I asked him what the raised eyebrows were for he looked around to see if he could be overheard, and mumbled, “I thought you were an atheist. That’s what I took from some of your recent journals, anyway.” (This comment has been paraphrased to remove any identifying verbal fingerprints, so forgive me for that. I don’t want to see this guy fired by using a phrase that might be identifiable.)

I had to smile. First, let me point out that even if I were the standard bearer for the Army of the Godless Legion, how does this preclude me from having an honest discussion about God? It might surprise you to know that most hermeneutical scholars today aren’t believers at all. Atheists are people, too, searching for answers, just like you. More importantly, I’ve never claimed I was an unbeliever. I would like to think of my stance as being a little more nuanced than what any single label could offer me. I have merely stressed the importance of textual scrutiny, and the role skepticism has played in making your life better.

I may one day describe my true personal stance on what I believe about God. Maybe I wont. In any case, it’s a thing in flux, constantly. I don’t think it is my place to tell you what to believe. I am no guru. I will leave it to the zealots to try to shove dogma down your throat. (In any case, adducing authority is not intellect, but rather memory, as Da Vinci noted.) I wont pretend to have the audacity to claim I have the Creator in my Fave Five. (And, never mind the contradiction between the arrogance required to say one knows exactly what God wants from you on any specific issue, and the humility one is supposed to embody when one follows Christ. What vanity must be (poorly) concealed to make such a statement!) I would hope that you understand that my comments on this matter are not designed to tell you what to think, but rather how to think. This is infinitely more important, in my view. I had to come to prison to learn how to think, and I know it’s not easy. You basically have to unlearn everything you think you know about the world. You would be amazed at just how little of the Bronze Age you invite back into your life, once you are free from it.

How many times have I said the following: you don’t know what you think you do. None of us do, myself included. I am constantly learning just how wrong I have been on major points. How does one know something is true? You make a hypothesis, and then you test it. If the results surprise you, keep testing the hypothesis. You may have to alter your views some, given the results. This may be uncomfortable, but you should take some solace in recognizing that your life is now aligned a little closer to the veridical ideal.

I am, of course, oversimplifying. Someone could very easily ask something horribly cliché, like: “What is truth?” In philosophy, they call the theory of knowledge “epistemology,” and one of the core questions within this field is the search for, and definition of, truth. It can be both subjective and objective, depending on the viewpoint and perspective of the questioner. The Sophists had their physis and their nomos, way back in the 5th century BCE, and the question still stands. I certainly have a view on this matter, as I am sure you do, and I would be foolish to think that this is definitive and final. But, I think we can agree on the statement that while defining truth may be nearly impossible, identifying a lie is somewhat easier. It wasn’t always like this. These same Sophists had some remarkably modern ideas about relativism, which would be echoed much later by modern thinkers. For example, the historian Herodotus remarked:

“Everyone without exception believes in his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best…”

There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of ones country. One might recall, in particular, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not so it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it “king of all.”


In those days, truth was pretty much what you could convince someone it was. Point of view, and tradition (what G.K. Chesterton accurately called the “democracy of the dead”) go a long way to defining what we believe. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, knew this quite well when he proclaimed: “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Thankfully, the days when tradition guided the cart are passed. We -finally- have science to give us some stable ground upon which to build our belief structures. This shouldn’t require any mention, but I have found that it needs to be said, probably in all caps: when hard empirical science collides with soft theological belief, science wins. Tradition gets no automatic advantages with the modern man, the child of the Enlightenment; no preordained victories by fiat. Humanity lived for thousands of years under the tyranny and yoke of such oppression, and you should (and do, albeit unconsciously) fall upon your knees and thank all of these skeptics that created the relatively non-violent life that you now live.

More people live full and rewarding lives today than in any other time in history, thanks to reason and science. We are not entirely enslaved to the whims of nature. We do not have to watch scores of our children succumb to the vagaries of illness. No longer must we live short and brutal lives, bereft of direction. And yet, we still may end up killing our collective selves before the next century dawns. That is why I (and many others) are harping about this. In his work Gedanken Und Einfalle, Heinrich Heine wrote; “In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.”

Believe what you want, but, as Paul wrote, have reasons for what you believe. With the exception of the subclass of Christians known as the Apologetics (from the Green apologia, which means a “speech in ones own defense,” not the apology you are thinking of), the naiveté of modern Christendom is absolutely appalling. I am convinced that many of these otherwise intelligent people are faux naifs, pretending ignorance out of fear of the truth, but much of this attitude is quite fearfully genuine. This aversion to science and reason is the greatest turnoff imaginable for the millennial generation. Check the polls: every single major recent survey on religion in the US shows formalized church groups experiencing steep declines in their ranks. The Pew Center has coined the trend towards agnosticism and atheism “the Rise of the Nones,” a reference to the 16 to 20 percent of Americans who no longer identify themselves with any religious doctrine or club. Look behind the numbers, and you will see many of these “Nones” are young people. Think this is a blip? An error? Bury your head in the sand, if you like, but this group isn’t going anywhere. Ignore the data at your peril.

Most of us keep an open mind. This is why I still chat with Major Cox, and why she loves me, I think. No senile old bat: she does give one a lively discussion, and graciously admits the flaws in the bible. (She has even pointed out some that I missed.) This is why I still pay attention to some Christian philosophers. Honest discussion on this is vital. So is a little humility, and love for people who we cant agree with. Religiously dogmatic people have a terrible track records in doing this, thought it should be noted that if a sociopathic loser like me can manage it, so should you be able to. I recently had another remarkable visit with a religious friend, named Tina (holdingouthope.org). In a few weeks, I hope to have her write something for Minutes, describing the conversation. We both challenged each other, on many topics pertaining to the reason v faith argument. For her, I asked her to try to step beyond the massive amounts of propaganda that exist within the Christian community. She agreed to educate herself on a few issues, especially the subject of evolution. Because by denying the truth of Darwin’s theory, you only shoot yourselves in the foot. My generation isn’t having any of your creationist rot. It should be noted that this is an old tactic for believers. Fear is the weapon the church has always used to keep the flock in line. Are you ruled by fear? Then you are a slave.

Take a quick view of history: once, conservatism stood for the mother church, which in turn told which monarchs they could rule. It stood for the theocracy. The liberals in this case were “heretics,” nearly all of whom were also Christians, only they believed in pesky little notions like reading the bible in their own language, rather than hearing it (and not understanding it) in Latin. (It should be noted, also, that “liberal” merely means a person who is open to new behavior or opinions and is willing to discard the old and broken. God save us from such forward-thinkers!) In the sixteenth century the biblical scholar William Tyndale had the testicular fortitude to attempt to translate the Vulgate into English. Heaven forbid people form their own independent opinions on the Bible! (Like, say, noting that the words “Pope” and “Purgatory” are found nowhere in canonized scripture.) Tyndale was chased all over Europe, eventually garroted, and then burned at the stake for good measure. (His bible eventually became the basis of the King James Bible, which is remarkable, though he really should have used the Septuagint, because the Vulgate has more errors than Sarah Palin’s memoir.) Conservatism, in other words, used to mean that Christians should defend Christianity by preventing others from knowing the words of Christ. Nice.

Think, then, of the millions of “witches” that were burnt in the flames of the auto-de-fe, for deviating from the views of the mother church. We’ve all heard the stories. Rather than crying over spilled milk, I will simply repeat the rolls of those executed in the single German city of Wurtzburg in the single year of 1598:

“The steward of the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailors fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wurtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child the most beautiful girl in Wurtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minister, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at hach…”


And on and on. Some were given special humane attention, such as: “the little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” Don’t tell me religion can’t be dangerous. Tell it to them.

Fast forward to the days of the American Civil War. The conservative case in this conflict is easy to explain: they believed the bible gave them license to treat a particular race of human beings as chattel. Why? Because it helped the bottom line. This, also, shouldn’t need to be said: God is not a capitalist. God is not a capitalist. God is not a capitalist. It is true that there were Christians on the side of abolition. Liberal Christians, such as the Quakers. But the southern states were entirely ruled by the same people they are now: conservative Christians. Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, had this to say about religion in the South:

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slave-holders find the strongest protection. Were I to again be reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious mater the greatest calamity that could befall me…I…hate the corrupt, slaveholding, woman-wipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”


Now, neither side really acquitted itself nobly in this contest. People – including our current president – genuflect upon the altar of Abraham Lincoln even today. He did some fine things, no doubt. But here we can see the propaganda machine of history in high gear. I will simply let Mr. Lincoln do the talking to prove my point that none of us really have any idea about what we think we know:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white man.”


Clearly, of the two men, Darwin was the far greater Emancipator.

Hell, it took Mormons, clearly the last horse to cross the finish line in any religious intelligence test, until June 8th, 1978 (thirteen years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act) to recognize that black people are, what do you know, human after all. There has never been a more destructive force on our planet than religious conservatism.

I’m not done. This shit continues today, though I will admit the right has gotten more crafty. In Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World” (which I have read so often that I sometimes quote his thoughts as my own…sorry Carl), Sagan discusses Rebecca Brown’s spiritual warfare manual, entitled: “Prepare For War.” Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage “will almost always result in demonic infestation”; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshipping demons; and that “rock music didn’t ‘just happen,’ it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself.”

Any of that sound familiar? Go click on AM radio. Most any station will do. Go watch Fox News. This is everywhere. Stop. Taking. Things. At. Face. Value. Testing the world doesn’t make you a heretic. Those days are over. THIS MAKES YOU HUMAN. And it’s the only way we are going to survive ourselves.

When I was younger, the Baptist churches in suburban Houston, much like today, railed against the encroachment of leftists as an amalgamation of the Huns and the Nazis. These liberals would rape our women and transform our neighborhoods into ghettoes. This always made me uncomfortable, as any brief glance at any history book ever written of any time period will show you that the evils done in the name of liberalism are minute when compared to those of conservatism. The list is endless: wives in Africa who are currently being told they are to become martyrs, and not use the condoms necessary to protect themselves from the HIV which has infected their husbands; religious morons blowing themselves (and countless others) into pieces all though the middle east; Orthodox and Catholic forces slaughtering each other (and the Muslims) is Bosnia; etc, etc. So much of this misery could be halted if we would just learn to be a little more skeptical of the stuff which is shoved down our throats.

Even the staunchest of my conservative readers would be considered liberals by the standards of even 100 years ago, (Women given the vote? Phaw! Blacks as Presidents? Never!) This bears noting: liberalism is an unstoppable force, altering the moral zeitgeist as it moves forward. Do you really believe that 100 years from now, gays wont have the right to marry? That your own government will still be killing its citizens to send a message? Global warming skeptics still spewing nonsense about the icecaps not melting? The people of tomorrow will look back on all of the Tea Partiers with the same revulsion that we hold for the plantation owners of the Confederacy. If we make it another 100 years. Which isn’t a given. It’s taken me a long time to get where I am. A lot of reading. A lot of introspection. Don’t like or believe any of this stuff? Great! That’s the point! But you have to do this, next: PROVE. ME. WRONG. Do the work. Do the research. Beware the Barnum Effect (the tendency to accept certain information as true, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless). Upgrade your bologna detection apparatus to detect the many logical and rhetorical fallacies common in the media today (ad hominems; non sequiturs; post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and the like). You are smarter than this. You are better than they think you are. Every one of you is. We all have the tools we need to make the world around us more perfect. If you do this, it wont matter to me what you eventually come to define as truth, because I will know that you did the work necessary to come to a learned position. Even if we disagree about the logical conclusions of a point, we will be brothers and sisters. And you will have proven my point. You will be better for it. We all will.

“Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”


Sigmund Freud “The Future of an Illusion”



Not Knowing When To Quit:

Good propaganda is so subtle it is rarely even noticed. THIS is just sad. And since I know such a redneckian paradise is hard to compute, HERE is some background information for you.



© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.

5 comments:

valhalladad said...

"There has never been a more destructive force on our planet than religious conservatism."

Previous entries could lead one to assume you already held this belief, but were struggling and consulted with 'insiders' for direction. Now that it has been stated in such a dazzling manner as this very well written entry, future smirks are unlikely.

trinnean said...

this came up in the paper today. this guy did something similar to you and was exceptionally good at it... have you heard of him? maybe he has some wisdom to pass along?


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/us/09bar.html?hpw

OutsiderLookingIn said...

The Christian conservatives of the southern states of America have much in common with the Taliban, although their all encompassing entity is the Christian God not Allah. They claim to be Christian and live their lives according to the bible – They claim to be pro-life, yet are pro-death penalty. They shout “an eye-for-an eye”, unless the murderer happens to have killed an abortion doctor, then they are doing God’s work.. That this demographic is given so much credence in the American political system is truly disturbing.

D Ruelas said...

I am a Christian, and I can tell you I am not the way you talk about Christians (conservative or not). I am TOTALLY AGAINST the death penalty. Christians as you describe are questionable as Christians. We call ourselves Christians because we are followers of Christ and His teachings which are Love, Forgiveness and Restoration. We have no right to take anybody's life (be it an unborn baby or a criminal).God does not "give us the job" of killing ANYONE. And there are not several Gods. God is God, and God instruct us to love, forgive and restore. This is a true Christian.

Jjul86 said...

Thomas,

I am pretty sure I've read 90-95% of the historical entries here over the course of a few weeks and I've got to tell you, I think this one is my favorite. You are amazingly effective in your writing. I'm an avid reader (albeit mostly fiction) and have read through your blog with the zeal and excitement of some of my favorite books. Which is actually pretty shitty considering this is your REAL life, but maybe that is what lends in part to the effectiveness of your writing. This is a solidly written, engaging-enraging, at times humorous, utterly haunting memoir. Thank you for giving us a birds eye view into a life free people are so far removed from that we can only stir up big screen images to impart some understanding. You are a smart dude and I hope you are able to find continued purpose, joy and fulfillment in your life.