Category Archives: Daily Devolutions

From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.


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Unholy Trinities

The superstitious say that bad things come in threes, though this is probably due to the clustering illusion, cognitive bias, and an emphasis on trinities in western culture. We can only hope, pathetically, that all the blood shed over Arianism was not for nothing. I am feeling superstitious today because it has been a gloaming week here in America. It began (first) with Duck Dynasty “star” Phil Robertson giving a gruesome speech, to applause from Christians at a prayer breakfast, about the rape, killing, and torture of a hypothetical atheist family:

Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at [the atheist father-husband] and say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it [sic] dude?” Then [they] take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say: “Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.”

Who exactly is sick in the head? Is it the Christians in the audience who applauded this hate speech or the Christians who are now defending it? Ironically, I am glad that these people — who clearly suffer from an absolute failure of moral imagination — believe in a “moral” God. Without such beliefs, they might feel free to act out these sorts of sick fantasies. This is the kind of thing that plays well in large parts of camouflage-wearing Christian America. God may yet save the South, but it has not happened yet.

Moving north to Indiana, where things are supposedly more sober, we find (second bad thing) that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has been enacted. For those who did not know that religious liberty was under siege in Indiana, this may seem a bit strange. It would indeed be odd if Hoosiers, protected in their religious beliefs by the Constitution and favored in those beliefs by tax-exempt status, were being prevented from worshiping as they see fit. Needless to say, nothing of the sort was happening. What did happen is that Indiana’s ban on gay marriage was overturned last year, so horrified lawmakers in the state needed to strike back. They apparently were having nightmares about “religious” bakers, florists, and photographers being forced to do gay wedding business.

Let’s be clear about this: when we are talking about “religion” in Indiana, we are talking about Christianity. Eighty percent of all Hoosiers are Christian.* So while Christian proponents of this law talk loftily about “religious liberty,” it really has nothing to do with imperiled beliefs. For the non-sophists among us, the intent and purpose of the law is clear: it enables Indiana business owners to refuse anyone service if it would offend their Christian religious sensibilities. While Indiana’s governor appeared on national television today to assure us that the law won’t be used that way because Hoosiers are “nice” and “don’t discriminate,” this is hardly assuring. Having just given religionists a legal weapon that can be wielded, are we now to believe this will not happen? This is an especially pertinent question for Indiana, which has a history of not being nice.

Let us not forget that during the 1920s, Indiana was the national epicenter for the Ku Klux Klan. In 1925, thirty percent of Indiana’s white males were members and the Indiana KKK had over 250,000 members (largest of any state). That same year, over half the elected members of the Indiana General Assembly were Klan members, as was the Governor and many other high ranking state-local officials. While some may wish to say this is long past and best forgotten, the Indiana Magazine of History instructs otherwise in its lesson plan on the subject:

As a political influence, the Klan faded quickly in Indiana, but its social and cultural influence dovetailed more subtly into Hoosier life. Klan literature capitalized on American racism, nativism, patriotism, and traditional moral and family values. Klan members targeted blacks, Catholics, and Jews, but also immigrants, political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, gamblers, bootleggers, thrill-seeking teenagers, and motion picture producers. In one sense, Indiana’s Klan was a populist organization: it engaged community interests, presented a program of action, and promised political changes.

The Klan’s message of patriotism, American superiority, and Protestant Christianity united native-born Hoosiers across many lines — gender, geography (north and south), class (white and blue collar), religious (many denominations of Protestants), and residential (urban and rural). But this populist club also propagated a negative and wicked influence. Historians have found no documentary evidence to directly link Hoosier Klan members to lynchings in Indiana, but their marches, burned crosses, brazen publications, and boycotts of community businesses evoked fear, intimidation, and lifelong trauma. Historian James Madison has observed that Indiana’s Klan “cannot be dismissed as either an aberration or as simply the insidious appeal of a fanatical few. Nor should the Klan be seen as thoroughly dominating the state and accurately reflecting racist, violent, or provincial beliefs shared for all time by all Hoosiers” (The Indiana Way, 291). Somewhere in the middle we find the meaning of the Klan in Indiana history.

Given this sordid history, with its lingering cultural legacy now making an appearance in the form of a Christian “religious freedom” law, we should justly be suspicious. One way to evaluate a law is to ask if it stands the test of different times. We should thus consider whether Indiana’s new RFRA would have been a good law during the 1920s, when the Protestant KKK was dominant in the state. How might white-Christian Hoosiers have used RFRA back then? Would they have been nice? Would they have used it to discriminate? These are of course just rhetorical questions. Hoosiers should be ashamed.

And just to show that neither the South nor Indiana are alone in their Christian foibles, here in Colorado we find our third event to complete the cluster. Some may have heard about the young woman in Longmont whose 34-week-old fetus was cut from her stomach by a lunatic who wanted a baby of her own. Fortunately the expectant mother survived but unfortunately the developing child did not. One of Colorado’s state legislators, Republican Gordon Klingenschmitt, linked this tragedy to biblical prophecy and claims that the crime was committed because God is punishing America for legal abortion. Klingenshmitt, a former Navy chaplain and current Christian minister, here lays out his logic:

God Bless and/or Curse America, but please only in clusters of threes. This was quite enough for one week.

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Super Ruminations

Later today over 100 million Americans will be mesmerized by that late-capitalist orgy of excess and jingoism known as the Super Bowl. It has to be the most loathsome, overproduced, over-hyped spectacle on earth. But if Katy Perry is your thing, then by all means do not miss the half-time show. In another world, one not beholden to fantasy and scripts, I would consider the Super Bowl a near perfect caricature of the larger culture, something like NASCAR but for a much bigger audience and cross-section of America. But in the “real” world, or the simulacra, the beat of commerce pounds without ironic distance or awareness. The play must go on and damn the critiques.

With this bit of cathartic cultural misanthropy out of the way, let’s look at some news nuggets from last week. The Guardian reported that one of the American evangelical kids (there are several) who purportedly “died,” went to the Christian version of heaven (no virgins unless they tragically died young), and wrote a best-selling book about it, has come clean and admitted that he lied about everything. His name, perfectly, is Alex Malarkey. Although well-founded rumors of Malarkey’s lie have been around for years, the millions of evangelicals who bought the book, and the bullshit, have steadfastly defended Malarkey and his story. Some of them continue to defend it and claim that Malarkey’s original story is true and his recent confession a lie. While I have never thought Freud’s wish-fulfillment theory of religion is particularly persuasive, it’s at times like these that I think it is the best explanatory theory going.

With Malarkey’s confession of lying out of the way, we might hope that Colton Burpo is next. But this seems unlikely given that his “died and went to heaven” book has sold over ten million copies (there are 13,200 reviews on Amazon). I’m guessing that all ten million of those hope-filled buyers will be religiously watching the Super Bowl today.

Over in Denmark, nothing is rotten and Shakespeare was wrong. This is the country, mind you, that usually ranks first in worldwide scores of health and happiness. I would have added liberty to this list, but as a red-blooded American I’m constitutionally unable to equate high taxes and social welfare with that sacred concept. So the liberty thing aside, Denmark is a great place to live. Or is it? As the Atlantic reports, some Danes have doubts:

A surprising number of Danes agree with me, though: They also think their homeland is stultifyingly dull. Newspaper columnist Anne Sophia Hermansen, of the broadsheet Berlingske, caused a small kerfuffle recently when she expressed her feelings about what she saw as Denmark’s suffocating monoculture: “It is so boring in Denmark. We wear the same clothes, shop in the same places, see the same TV, and struggle to know who to vote for because the parties are so alike. We are so alike it makes me weep.”

Another prominent newspaper commentator, Jyllands-Posten’s Niels Lillelund, pinpointed a more serious side effect of the Danes’ Jante Law mentality: “In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding; we create hopelessness, helplessness, and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity.”

Even the usually ebullient Ove Kaj Perdsen, an economist at the Copenhagen Business School, was open to this line of criticism: “I like Denmark, but I like to work abroad. I pay my taxes with great honor because I know for a fact that whenever I need something it will be there … Every day I conclude the best place to live is Denmark, but for me this kind of social cohesion, these middle-class-oriented societies, do not present the kind of challenges I am looking for. I want to be in the best places, and you don’t find the best places in Denmark when it comes to elite research and education.

This is fascinating, even if it is insidiously preaching to the American choir. If those secular Danes would just get right with God, they’d be like us.

While I would like to share more cynicism for this Super Sunday, I’m in charge of the beer, wings, and pizza, so these good things, like all good things, must come to an end. Be well, my friends, and stay thirsty.

— Cris


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Thick Books & Atheist TV

As I prepare for a long weekend excursion where I won’t physically go anywhere but will mentally go everywhere, this assessment of my travel companions strikes me as fundamentally correct:

[Books] are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess. By “thick” description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature, or blog, or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries – and the best of these are very good indeed  –  are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are “thin” descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.

This probably explains why I don’t do TV, dumb-phones, texts, social media, tablets, apps, news, streaming, and all that connected-cacophonous tech jazz. These so pale in comparison to deep immersion in thick books that I’ve come to see all of them as irritants and annoyances.

The irony of this assessment is that the author, Toby Mundy, is writing about tech-futurist predictions that books are doomed and Amazon is trying to kill the book business. As I read this, I was looking at a large stack of (mostly used) books that would have been hard or impossible to find and overly expensive to buy before Amazon. The book world has never been better for Luddites.

The television world, for its part, has long been doomed. I’m not sure if things are going to get better or worse with the new “Atheist TV” channel reported in the New York Times. The impetus for the new channel is reasonable disgust over what passes for “science” and “history” on channels ostensibly devoted to these subjects:

“The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” the president of American Atheists said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows. “The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

It would indeed be nice to have a channel that airs actual science, history,  anthropology, psychology, etc., and which interrogates “religion” through the lenses of evolution and cognitive science. But I seriously doubt, based on the following description, that we will get anything along these lines: “At first, Atheist TV will be limited, offering interviews with leading atheists, film from atheist conventions and other content from the Richard Dawkins Foundation and like-minded organizations.” How dreadful. It sounds like the New Atheist equivalent of digital chloroform and just another reason not to watch TV. Books will have to do.


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Slender Man & Christian Credulity

By now you have surely heard that two 12 year old girls in Wisconsin lured one of their friends into the woods where they stabbed the victim 19 times and left her for dead. And you have also surely heard that the girls did this because they wanted to curry favor with a fictional internet character known as Slenderman.

This horrific event has of course prompted all the usual hand-wringing about the ailments of American culture. For many pundits, this hand-wringing is better described as national soul-searching. I mean this literally and not figuratively. The Chicago Tribune asks: “What kind of culture produced those two 12-year old Wisconsin girls charged with stabbing a classmate 19 times?” The simple answer: “Our culture.” The Tribune describes this (Christian) culture as one beholden to fantasy but bereft of religion:

It is a culture that has fallen in love with magic and fantasy. It is a culture that takes fantasy symbols of evil — the vampire, the witch — and transforms them into heroes of great virtue. It is a culture where dark magic is celebrated, but religion is considered bothersome. We reap what we sow. Once, Dracula would take our immortal souls. These days, souls aren’t discussed much, perhaps because the mention of souls will offend somebody.

The Tribune then tells us, with no apparent sense of irony or dissonance, that those who can “distinguish between fantasy and reality” know that Slenderman is not real. Souls, however, are.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel similarly wonders “what went wrong.” Again, the diagnosis is cryptically framed in Christian terms:

“The bad part of me” for 12-year-old Anissa Weier allegedly erupted in violence and became headlines. Just weeks earlier, her friend, Morgan Geyser, is reported to have drawn a picture of the fictional online character Slender Man on a napkin at a restaurant, and her obsession seemed amusing. Frightening things happen to “the bad part” of us when our psyches confuse fantasy and reality.

There are dark parts of the soul in each and every one of us. This is the longstanding historic Christian view of human nature. Unpleasant but true. The darkness can be simple ignorance, solved by bringing more light into the situation. For some, darkness has become the living space for evil. Another kind of darkness is delusion, unpredictable and dangerous. If the allegations are true, the suspects seem to have been deluded in that they utterly confused reality and fantasy.

From this supremely unironic point of view, the problem is that some Americans (presumably the lapsed Christians and non-Christians) are “deluded” and unable to distinguish between “reality” and “fantasy.” For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the suggested fix is to tend to our “souls” and “take our spiritual lives seriously.”

It seems not to have occurred to these writers (and many more like them) that the problem here is that American culture, predominantly Christian, takes invisible agents or “spiritual lives” all too seriously. So seriously, in fact, that many Americans cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Is it any wonder that these 12 year old girls from Wisconsin believed that Slenderman is real? How does Slenderman differ from the Holy Ghost or Spirit? The difference, according to Pastor Robin Swope, is that Slenderman is a demon. In his book Slenderman: From Fiction to Fact, Pastor Swope tells us that Slenderman is not just fantasy or myth: he is an active demonic force. For those who think that Swope is a crackpot who can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, let’s consider his credentials:

Pastor Swope has been a Christian Minister for more than 20 years in both Mainline and Evangelical Denominations. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Nyack College and an M.Div. in Pastoral Ministry with an emphasis on Pastoral Counseling from Alliance Theological Seminary. He has served as a Missionary to Burkina Faso, and has Ministered to the homeless in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. He is currently the Pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Given that Pastor Swope and millions of other American Christians believe that Slenderman actually exists and is a spirit or demon, why should we expect two 12 year old girls from Wisconsin to believe any differently?

When the Chicago Tribune claimed that “our culture” was to blame for these girls’ inability to distinguish between “fantasy and reality,” it got things only partially right. The Tribune should have said: “our Christian culture.” It is a culture in which the majority of people believe that God, Satan, angels, and demons actually exist. America is a spirit-filled place, where invisible agents run rampant, making it difficult even for adults to distinguish between fantasy and reality. How, in this fantastic milieu, can we hold these 12 year old girls to a different standard (or call them “deluded” and “mentally ill”) for believing in Slenderman?

This is not, unfortunately, just a rhetorical question. The prosecutors, most probably Christians, have charged the 12 year old girls “as adults” for the attempted murder. Believing in Satan is one thing (for adults); believing in Slenderman (for children) is something else altogether. May ironies never cease.


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Establishment Catholic Court

Earlier this month, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Catholic Boys Club known as the United States Supreme Court held that local governments may preface public meetings with exclusively Christian prayers containing the following kinds of content:

“Lord, God of all creation, we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength from his resurrection at Easter. Jesus Christ, who took away the sins of the world, destroyed our death, through his dying and in his rising, he has restored our life. Blessed are you, who has raised up the Lord Jesus, you who will raise us, in our turn, and put us by His side. Amen.”

“Father, son, and Holy Spirit—it is with a due sense of reverence and awe that we come before you today seeking your blessing. You are a wise God, oh Lord, as evidenced even in the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We ask that you would give freely and abundantly wisdom to one and to all in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.”

It’s hardly surprising that the five justices in the majority are Roman Catholics who believe that what ails America is not enough God or Christian religion.

Once upon a time, I was taught (and credulously believed) that Supreme Court justices were guided in their decision-making by the dictum that personal biases and persuasions should be set aside. This dictum, along a portrayal of the decision-making process as constrained, deliberate, and objective, swaths Supreme Court opinions in a mystical aura which keeps legions of lawyers busy parsing their every word. If the Constitution is holy writ, then the justices are high priests who make canon law.

There was never any doubt that the Catholic justices, who take these ideas rather seriously, would hold that the Christian prayers and practices at issue in Town of Greece v. Galloway (pdf) did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Catholic justices decided this case on the basis of their faith (as they have previously done), and then justified the decision with page after page of impressive looking legal reasoning. It’s pure legal theater, or ex post facto casuistry. In more measured tones over at The Atlantic, my former law school classmate Garrett Epps has parsed the decision and is equally critical.

Given the majority-male Catholic makeup of the Court, every case involving or implicating religion (which in America means Christianity) has been and will be decided in favor of the majority faith. I find it amusing and ironic that one of the Catholic justices (there are six total) felt the need to specifically condemn Justice Kagan’s “troubling rhetoric” in her dissent. While Justice Kagan did not call a spade a spade and accuse the majority of deciding the case on the basis of their faith, she obviously struck some nerves sensitive to the charade.

The religion of these justices has long been a taboo subject, but that is belatedly changing. In this recent piece, Dahilia Lithwick takes aim at Justice Scalia’s hypocrisy on religious matters before the Court. Her piece was prompted by a new book which takes similar aim at Scalia:

In Scalia: A Court of One, Bruce Murphy painstakingly reviews the evidence, much of which lies in Scalia’s own writing and speeches over many decades, going back to his college commencement address at Georgetown University. Murphy does not shrink from adjudicating Scalia’s dueling public claims: that separating faith from public life is impossible and, at the same time, that he himself has done just that on the Court. Murphy’s conclusion—at once obvious and subversive—is that Justice Scalia is very much the product of his deeply held Catholic faith. The pristine border between faith and jurisprudence is largely myth and aspiration.


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