What I’m Reading: The Darkening Age

For those interested in reading along with me, I’ve just started Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I’ll likely discuss it in some detail during a future podcast, so if you want to add your thoughts here, please feel free.

Apparently Christians didn’t just take over the Roman empire; they destroyed its cultural essence as well. According to the publisher, this book is “a bold new history of the rise of Christianity, showing how its radical followers ravaged vast swathes of classical culture, plunging the world into an era of dogma and intellectual darkness.”

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Podcast #267 – Dan Barker (Mere Morality)

I interview Dan Barker (co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and co-host of the weekly show Freethought Radio) about his new book Mere Morality.

What’s the minimum requirement to be considered a decent human being? Can morality be boiled down to a single core principle? Dan has some interesting insights.

To listen to this episode click here.

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The Last Hangover

If you’ve got 45 minutes to spare and want to bolster your chances of going straight to hell, you could do worse than watching the new Netflix-distributed comedy short “The Last Hangover.” This Brazilian production (in Portuguese–I assume–with English subtitles) is a cross between The Hangover and every overly serious Biblical epic you’ve ever seen.

In this reimagining of the Last Supper, Jesus’ final meal is less a Passover celebration and more a going away party. (One of the running gags is that the Disciples are too busy partying to pay much attention to what Jesus is trying to tell them, so that every time Jesus reminds the Disciples he’s going to die, it comes as a surprise to one or another of them. At one point somebody quips, “Never mind. We’ll write it down later.”)

The jokes come fast and furious, alternatively sly and painfully corny. In any event, it’s blasphemously goofy fun, and guaranteed to give your granny a heart attack.

Heck, make it a double feature! You can watch this and the hilarious “Fist of Jesus” (a Spanish short in which Jesus half-asses the raising of Lazarus and unwittingly starts a zombie apocalypse) in a single evening.

 

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What I’m Reading: Seven Types of Atheism

For those interested in reading along with me, I’ve just started John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism. I’ll likely discuss it in some detail during a future podcast, so if you want to add your thoughts here, please feel free.

From the publisher:

When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions—secular or religious—are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thought.

For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often vaguely understood “science.” John Gray’s stimulating and enjoyable new book, Seven Types of Atheism, describes the complex, dynamic world of older atheisms, a tradition that is, he writes, in many ways intertwined with and as rich as religion itself.

Along a spectrum that ranges from the convictions of “God-haters” like the Marquis de Sade to the mysticism of Arthur Schopenhauer, from Bertrand Russell’s search for truth in mathematics to secular political religions like Jacobinism and Nazism, Gray explores the various ways great minds have attempted to understand the questions of salvation, purpose, progress, and evil. The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary light on what it is to be human.

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Podcast #266 – RESURRECTION

The American Freethought Podcast is back to continue the fight for separation of church and state, reason-based living and secular culture!

Find out why we’re back and what to expect in the coming weeks.

To listen to this episode click here.

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Earthrise: 50 Years Later

On this day 50 years ago, the Apollo 8 crew–the first human beings to orbit the moon!–took the now iconic photo dubbed “Earthrise,” in which the gleaming, jewel-like earth is seen rising over the gray, barren horizon of the moon.

Inspired by this photo (probably from a spread in LIFE magazine), my late grandfather, Raymond E. Snider, Sr., created the painting you see on the right. In a flight of fancy, he added a mysterious earth-god or -goddess, emerging from earth’s swirling clouds, holding a torch aloft, perhaps to help the lonely astronauts find their way home.

I’m not sure exactly when my grandfather painted this painting; likely sometime in the Seventies. I remember seeing this in my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. I do know when he gave this painting to me: May 28, 1985, in the brief period between my graduation from college and my moving from Kentucky to Georgia.  (I know because he wrote the presentation date on the back!)

Somehow I forgot all about this painting, but I retrieved it from storage a few weeks ago, and I’m thinking of having it nicely framed. It’s a reminder of my grandfather and our shared interest in science and the world.

 

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The Most Dangerous Branch

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been obsessed with the current struggle in the Senate over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the US Supreme Court. (In fact, things are moving so swiftly that his nomination may be resolved, one way or another, by the time you read this!)

Kavanaugh represents an opportunity for conservatives to solidify a hold on the Court, with the ultimate goal of overturning the much-hated Roe v Wade, which has kept abortion legal nationwide since 1973. Indeed, it is widely believed that the endgame for American conservatives consists solely in opposition to Roe, and that the Republican Party has been willing to accept any moral compromise and excuse any outrage in the service of achieving the goal of eliminating abortion from the American landscape.

Republican duplicity in this goal includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s nefarious refusal to consider Merrick Garland (Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Court), holding the seat open for an unprecedented 422 days, enough time for the election of Donald Trump, a fool and a dupe willing to nominate whatever name extreme conservatives whisper in his ear. And they’ve been whispering–nay, shouting–for Brett Kavanaugh.

But how the hell did we get to this place? The Supreme Court has always had political implications, but until 30 years ago, the replacement of a retiring or deceased Justice was largely an uncontroversial affair. Now, Senate hearings are witness to weeping and gnashing of teeth, shouting and bitter tirades. Perhaps even more unsettling is the Court’s increasing tendency in recent years to step into the political arena and try to resolve issues that would have been better left to other processes.

To help understand the personalities on the current Court, and the historical backdrop that led to the Court’s current roster, I highly recommend David Kaplan’s new book The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution. In it, Kaplan traces the confirmation processes of all nine current Justices, and looks at the most influential rulings in recent years (including Bush v Gore, Citizens United and Obergefell v Hodges).

While Kaplan devotes time to the increasing insistence by both the Left and the Right for presidents to nominate ideologues (people say they want Justices who will correctly interpret the Constitution, but let’s face it, what they really want is Justices who will rule based on political desires).

But what really keeps Kaplan up at night is the more-and-more frequent inclination of the Court to step in and decide things before, in his view, the regular legislative or electoral processes have had a chance to resolve them. Kaplan argues that Court rulings can be seen as activist, elitist, and overbearing; whereas outcomes arrived at (albeit belatedly) due to legislative processes have more democratic and societal legitimacy. It’s a compelling idea. Had the Court, for example, stayed out of Bush v Gore and allowed the election to go to the House of Representatives (as prescribed by the Constitution), perhaps fewer people who complain that Bush was “selected” by five robed judges. Perhaps a delayed recount would have found enough votes to put Al Gore over the top. Who knows? On the flip side, it’s hard to imagine that religious conservatives would be less rabid about abortion if the Court had demurred in Roe v Wade and allowed the status of state-by-state abortion to become a patchwork of experimentation, with some states outlawing it outright, and others even providing taxpayer dollars to provide abortion on demand to lower income women.

In any event, the danger we face in 2018 is that the Court is becoming more politicized, both internally and externally, with every open seat viewed as an existential crisis by all sides, and with the Court becoming increasingly willing to tinker where previously it feared to tread. What used to be a brake on the republic’s worst tendencies might become a chamber of elites who rule by fiat, with less and less concern about the “technicalities” of the Constitution. Indeed, the Court might well become our government’s “most dangerous branch.”

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John McCain’s Legacy

RIP Senator John McCain, who has died after a long battle with brain cancer. There’s no doubt that McCain was a patriot. He lived a life of service, from his time in the US Navy (including 5 1/2 brutal years in a North Vietnamese prison during the Vietnam War) to his long tenure as a Congressman and Senator.

McCain was outspoken and brash, often going against the Republican party line. He had his clashes with Donald Trump (Trump having infamously poopooed McCain’s wartime service by saying that he liked “heroes who didn’t get captured”), and word is that McCain requested that Cadet Bone Spurs be banned from his upcoming funeral.

Despite his long record of patriotism and service, McCain’s most enduring legacy will be–sadly–his brief but tragic embrace of the crazytown wing of the Republican Party, which led ultimately to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Back in 2000, during his first presidential run, McCain publicly and rightly criticized Christian conservatives like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance,” incensing the Republican base and handing George W. Bush the perfect bat with which to beat him. McCain dialed back his rhetoric, but it was too late, and Bush went on to serve two disastrous terms as president.

Fast forward to the presidential race of 2008: McCain, struggling to catch up to his opponent, then-fellow-Senator Barack Obama, made a fateful decision to select the obscure Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin (which shored up his support with the redneck demographic) rather than go with conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman (a truly maverick move that would have touted McCain as a statesman determined to buck the trend of increasing partisanship in Washington). McCain’s gambit worked in the short term: his poll numbers rose, but he ultimately lost the race (he would have lost no matter which way he went). There’s no doubt Palin–a photogenic conservative Christian with plenty of charisma–energized the base in a way the staid, low-energy Lieberman never could have.

And here’s where the tragedy of John McCain begins. Depending on which narrative you believe, either McCain’s campaign managers hastily selected the magnetic, folksy Palin, only to discover too late her brand of smug know-nothingism, dangerous jingoism, and (eventually) her delusional conviction that she and only she knew what was best for the campaign, OR McCain knew full-well what kind of running mate he was getting, and through some sort of Machiavellian calculus, figured he could control the rabid factions of the Republican base long enough to get their vote, after which he could do what Republican presidents since Reagan had done: give lip service to Christian conservatives, but deliver little of substance that mattered to them. Where were they going to go, over to the Democrats?

McCain fully realized his error even during the campaign. He struggled to put the genie back in the bottle, but it was too late. And it was a low point in McCain’s political career, from his cringeworthy encounter with a Republican voter who insisted that Obama was “an Arab” by which she meant a Muslim) to the embarrassing boos and hisses of his election night supporters when he tried to deliver a dignified concession speech that called for unity across party lines and support for the new Democratic, African-American president.

Since then, the various insane factions of the Republican Party have been on the rise. Call them the Moral Majority, call them the Tea Party, call them the alt-right, call them Trumpsters, call them whatever you want, the deplorable base of the GOP is in full control of the party, and no amount of logic, evidence, or pleas for reason will dissuade them from the notion that Donald Trump is America’s savior, and that his profound ignorance, rampant corruption, anti-diplomacy, infatuation with murderous dictators, and inability to control his basest urges, are all worth it if conservatives can reclaim the Supreme Court, guarantee guns on demand of any type for any reason, make life miserable for Mexicans and Muslims and blacks and gays, and console themselves with the lies that global warming is a hoax, that the country can progress without levying taxes, and that if only we could say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays we would all be happy and prosperous again.

Now, John McCain didn’t make all that happen. It almost certianly would have happened without his help. But McCain made a devil’s bargain in 2008 that the country has been paying for ever since. Although he quickly realized his error, and has since expressed regret for it, he elevated and validated the Sarah Palins of the world, and accelerated the rise of the dangerously fascistic core of the GOP, and this is something Americans will have to contend with for decades, if not generations to come. There’s hope that we can begin to claw our way back to sanity in the 2018 midterms, and perhaps also during the 2020 election cycle, and I find it very sad that John McCain won’t live to see any of that happen.

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The Triumph of Christianity

Are you an atheist wanting to up your game when debating with Christians about the inerrancy of the Bible? You need to read Bart Ehrman.

Are you a devout Christian wanting to understand how anyone could NOT believe that the Bible is the complete, inerrant, historically accurate word of God? You need to read Bart Ehrman.

Are you just a history buff interested in learning more about the early Christian era and/or how we know what we know about the Bible? You need to read Bart Ehrman.

Dr. Bart Ehrman, in case you don’t know, is a New Testament scholar, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was, as he has told countless times, a devout evangelical fundamentalist Christian until he went to college and starting learning the truth about the Bible and its history. (He now describes himself as agnostic.) Dr. Ehrman earned his PhD at Princeton and for many years, in addition to his regular academic duties, has written books for the lay audience about the Bible and the early Christian history.

[For those interested in a deeper dive, we interviewed Dr. Ehrman three times on the American Freethought Podcast (in April 2008, May 2014 and March 2016). Also, see my review of Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.]

Ehrman’s most recent work is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The question Ehrman is trying to answer here is, “How did a tiny offshoot of Roman-era Judaism become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire (and therefore, of the entire Western world)?” The subtitle of the book is definitely misleading (and, I’d be willing to bet, not chosen by Ehrman), since one of the main points he makes is that, counter to the standard Christian narrative of the nascent religion resisting and eventually triumphing over broad-ranging, persistent and vicious suppression by Roman authorities, early Christianity instead grew slowly but steadily and was never really subject to any kind of seriously implemented empire-wide ban. Were Christians martyred by the Romans? Yes, but as Ehrman points out, the number of documented executions of Christians for being Christian numbers in the hundreds (perhaps only a few thousand), spread out over three or four centuries. Roman persecutions were piecemeal, and often consisted of little more than an imperial decree subsequently ignored across most of the vast territory controlled by Rome.

How Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and how it finally extinquished the pagan system that had thrived for millennia, is complicated and certainly open to interpretation. And not to spoil Ehrman’s book (which is absolutely worth your time), but the “triumph” of Christianity can be attributed to a number of factors:

Christianity was evangelical; i.e. gaining new converts was baked into the religion from its earliest days. The pagans of the ancient Mediterranean generally had no interest in gaining converts for whatever gods they worshipped; indeed, the Roman world is notable for its impressively diverse, and generally tolerated, set of religious beliefs.

Christianity, unlike pagan religions, was supported by scriptures, which provided a transmittable foundation of belief.

Christianity was exclusive. Nobody in the Roman world (except for Judaism) cared if you worshipped, for example, both Artemis and Neptune, or stopped worshipping Artemis to take up with another god, etc. (Although, it’s true the Romans insisted that everyone observe certain periodic, minimal religious sacrifices at the behest of the state, which is where Christians usually ran afoul of the authorities.) So…once someone accepted Christ they (more or less) automatically stopped worshipping other gods.

Christianity coupled morality with religion in a way that paganism did not. In the Roman world, morality was a matter for philosophers, not priests. The gods of Greece and Roman were personalities with good and bad traits, little different than the humans who invented them. Christianity insisted on a moral system that was (supposedly) dictated from on high.

Christianity upped the ante in terms of the afterlife. Most Roman citizens thought appeasing the gods was done for the purpose of gaining their favor in earthly life, with little consideration for an afterlife. Christianity, on the other hand, offered an eternal life of bliss in Heaven, or conversely threatened an eternity of torture for rejecting Christ.

After Christianity gained a foothold among the elites–particularly the emperors–it wielded the power of the state for the benefit of the church in a way that paganism had almost never done. Christian emperors, as well as governors and local magistrates, eventually used the sword to suppress competing religions and ultimately spelled the doom of religious practices that had persisted for a thousand years.

Ehrman also points to a general belief in miracles in the ancient world, and how this made the populace susceptible to a new religion that made extraordinary (but unsupported) claims of miraculous events.

Finally, Ehrman explains how Christianity “exploded” mostly through a steady trickle of conversions that build–like compound interest–until, within a matter of a few decades, followers of Jesus increased from mere dozens in the first century to millions by the end of the fourth.

Those are the broad strokes. Ehrman, as usual, provides a narrative readily comprehended by a lay reader, peppered with interesting anecdotes, historical asides, and dry humor.

Highly recommended.

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TRUMP and SCOTUS: How bad could it get?

At 9:00 tonight, President Trump will announce his pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. This replacement is almost guaranteed to be approved by the Republican dominated Senate, barring some unforeseen and shocking revelation. This replacement is also guaranteed to be a partisan instrument for conservatives who have (brilliantly, in retrospect) played a long game for the last 40 years or so to win Congress, a majority of state legislatures, a majority of governor’s seats, and now the Presidency, and thereby stack state and federal courts with conservative judges.

All for the purpose of ending abortion rights.

This new justice means that Kennedy’s swing-vote will no longer be in play. For the first time in a long time, SCOTUS will have a solid majority of conservatives. (Thanks, it has to be pointed out, to voters who bizarrely thought that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was somehow MORE corrupt than Trump and a LESSER choice.)

So now SCOTUS will no longer be the godsend (pun intended) to progressive causes it has been over the last few decades. SCOTUS has been responsible for safeguarding abortion rights, LGBT rights, equal protection under the law, etc.–a great many Constitutional causes in which the legislative branch has failed us. But no longer. Progressive organizations would be foolish to challenge things in court for years to come.

Until the tide turns, how bad could it get? Pretty bad, it turns out. Grab a stiff drink and/or your favorite plush toy, because I’m about to depress you.

Expect, in the immediate future, to see an avalanche of blatantly anti-abortion legislation to pop up in dozens of states, for the purpose of triggering lawsuits that will percolate up to the new conservative-dominated SCOTUS. Up to this point, Republican lawmakers have mostly satisfied themselves with petty, disingenuous, so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. These are laws that on the surface claim to increase medical safety, but are really intended to bankrupt abortion providers or harass them into going out of business. The need for such nibbling aroung the edges of Roe v Wade is over. State legislatures will now try to ban abortions outright, hoping that they will win at SCOTUS. And again, progressive organizations should think twice about bringing challenges they are likely to lose and thereby generate precedents that could haunt us in the future.

(Of course, I should point out that overturning Roe v Wade does NOT mean that abortion will be illegal nationwide. If SCOTUS overturns Roe, the right to an abortion will simply devolve to the States, in which case the US will become a patchwork with respect to the right to choose. A disaster, yes, but not as bad as it could be.)

And it’s not just abortion. Expect legislatures to begin passing radically conservative regulation on a number of issues near and dear to conservative hearts.

We should also not assume that this is the end of Trump’s imprint on the Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old. Sad to say, her health cannot last much longer, and in the event that she dies or becomes unable to continue in her duties, that’s a THIRD seat that Cadet Bone Spurs will get to fill.

There have also been rumors that Justice Clarence “Chatterbox” Thomas, currently 70 years old, is considering retiring. There have been reports for years that Thomas just flat-out hates being a Justice, and it would not surprise me if he decides to retire in the near future, especially if he thinks Trump won’t win re-election. Thomas could retire from his misery while consoling himself with the knowledge that his replacement will be a fellow arch-conservative.

Finally, Justice Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee), is 79. If–perish the thought–Trump wins re-election in 2020, he could have the unprecedented opportunity to name FIVE justices to the Supreme Court. (Of course, Trump himself is 72 and not exactly known for a healthy lifestyle. All this speculation could go out the window if Trump himself dies or becomes incapacitated.)

So, yeah, if Trump continues as President, and especially if he wins re-election, things will get pretty fucking bad for the Supreme Court. A conservative supermajority, held by a relatively young cadre of justices, will mean that for the next THIRTY YEARS the Supreme Court might as well not exist if you’re hoping to use it as a safeguard for liberal democracy and progressive causes.

Meanwhile, what can we do to hasten the turn of the tide? Plenty, it turns out.

  1. Encourage your Senators and congressthings (even if they’re Republican) to OPPOSE any judicial appointments by Trump. Period. This may be futile in the short-run, but it is important to make your political voice heard, early and often. Lawmakers do occasionally pay attention to their constituents.
  2. Vote Democratic. Not Libertarian. Not Green. And not “Well, I don’t like any of the candidates, so I’m not voting.” That’s bullshit. Democrats have warts, but right now the character of this nation is under existential threat, and that threat appears on the ballot with “(R)” after its name. Oh, and give money to the Democrats to the extent you can afford it. And volunteer. And participate in protests.
  3. Become conversationally intolerant. I’m not saying shoot your mouth off at work and get fired. But if you find yourself at a dinner party, or a family gathering, or standing in line at the grocery store, whatever, and someone spouts Republican/Trumpian talking points in your direction, bring the conversation to a halt until you’ve made it clear that you disagree, and why. The conservatives around you need to know the truth, and they also need to know that not everyone shares their misguided opinions. Too often, bullies think that because nobody ever says anything in opposition to them, they must be right. Disabuse them of that notion.
  4. Vote with your wallet. Do not knowingly patronize any business associated with Trump, with Republicans, or with retrograde causes. You can’t know this about every person or business you come into contact with, but if they’ve made their positions clear, they’ve made it easier for you to know where to, and where not to, spend your money.

There’s lots more to be said, but this essay has gone on long enough. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are in a crisis, one that’s not likely to end until at least January 2021. But we can (hopefully) claw back the House of Representatives in November, with a teensy weensy chance we could claw back enough seats in the Senate to effectively challenge dangerous judicial nominations and cripple Trump for his last two years in office. We’re not dead yet.

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