Religion Rabbit-Holes

Using the holiday as an excuse for not doing something more productive, I spent the morning delving into the rabbit-hole that is The New Yorker‘s copious archive. The search term “religion” pulls up 177 pages with 10 links on each page, for a total of 1,770 articles (many of which are accessible to non-subscribers). After a few hours of perusing, I got only to page 15. In the past, I’ve done something similar in The Atlantic‘s archives, which returns 4,680 articles when searched for “religion.” Yet another rich resource is Harper’s, which generates 4,140 hits.

I got started with The New Yorker today while reading about Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL sniper with the most confirmed kills (160) in military history. A troubled vet, he was shot and killed by another troubled vet in February of this year. Kyle’s story resulted in a million-copy bestseller (American Sniper) that is being made into what I’m guessing will be a rah-rah movie. I’m also guessing that they’ll leave this part out:

Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism. He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross, wanting “everyone to know I was a Christian.” When he learned that insurgents had placed a bounty on his head and had named him al-Shaitan Ramadi—the Devil of Ramadi—he felt “proud.” He “hated the damn savages” he was fighting. In his book, he recounts telling an Army colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

This view is fairly common in the military, which may appall many Americans who haven’t been impacted by the wars and don’t have to fight them. While I’m tempted to say this is tragic (which it is), it may also be an othering coping mechanism: it takes one to kill one (or 160).

These clashes of individuals are occurring, of course, in the context of a larger clash which Bernard Lewis tried to make historical sense of in 2001 shortly after the World Trade Center attack. I recall reading this article back then and thinking how good it was, especially on issues of Islamic history, identity, and jihad. While some of Lewis’ fears have not been realized, others are justified. In light of the recent Boston bombing and London attack, the story remains fresh. There is a long and deep history here and these issues aren’t going away anytime soon.

From the depressing we move to the hilarious: God’s Blog. I’m not sure how I missed this or didn’t hear about it, but it is one for the ages. God opens his blog with an UPDATE:

Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome. God out.

Twenty-four clever comments follow, including these gems:

Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.

Not enough action. Needs more conflict. Maybe put in a whole bunch more people, limit the resources, and see if we can get some fights going. Give them different skin colors so they can tell each other apart.

Disagree with the haters out there who have a problem with man having dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, the cattle of the earth, and so on. However, I do think it’s worth considering giving the fowl of the air dominion over the cattle of the earth, because it would be really funny to see, like, a wildebeest or whatever getting bossed around by a baby duck.

The “herb yielding seed” is a hella fresh move. 4:20!

Why are the creatures more or less symmetrical on a vertical axis but completely asymmetrical on a horizontal axis? It’s almost like You had a great idea but You didn’t have the balls to go all the way with it.

Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.

If that doesn’t make you smile, nothing will.

In this 2006 review, H. Allen Orr does judiciously dissects Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Seven years ago, meme theory had few prospects; today it has none. The best part of the book is the section on theory of mind, which Dennett insists on rechristening as the “intentional stance.” But even this section falls short because it constitutes only a partial explanation of phenomena characterized as “religious.” Dennett’s conclusions are justified only because he uses a restricted definition of religion. His agent-centric ideas aren’t convincing using Marett’s broader definition.

These faults aside, Dennett’s book was more measured than several others which appeared in those heady new atheist years. A flurry by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens prompted this 2007 review from Anthony Gottlieb. The storm has thankfully passed, and except for some dedicated debaters, we’ve moved on to more substantive discussions.

In the following year, it was biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s turn to vent, which he did in God’s Problem (a better title would have been Ehrman’s Problem with God and Suffering). James Wood ably sketches the problem of evil (“theodicy”) in his review, which contains this nugget:

Ehrman rightly dislikes the philosophers of theodicy, calling their work obtuse and disconnected from life, but he also, in a revealing moment, distinguishes himself from “recent agnostic or atheist authors.” Unlike them, he says, “I do not think that every reasonable and reasonably intelligent person will in the end come to see things my way when it comes to the important issues in life.” He is too polite to say it, but one of the weaknesses of otherwise useful atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that, lacking nostalgia for lost belief, they also lack the power to imagine why anyone would ever have professed it.

I’m not sure we need nostalgia but we at least need to recognize the multifactorial sources of religion, and understand they are not simply “stupid” and “barbaric.”

Ironically, the new atheist scholars are all Darwinians yet they never mention the work or life of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection. In this moving portrait of Russel, Jonathen Rosen explains why:

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that Wallace was one of the world’s great men because he led a revolution and then a counter-revolution. Having done as much as anyone to overturn traditional religious assumptions, Wallace proceeded to horrify his fellow-evolutionists by concluding that natural selection could not in itself explain the uniqueness of man. He never renounced his evolutionary theory, but instead made it the cornerstone of a theistic explanation of the universe. No wonder a later scientific generation, newly professionalized, ignored him in favor of his more austere and single-minded colleagues. But the twin impulses in Wallace’s work make him compelling and oddly contemporary. He combines both halves of the debate over the meaning of evolution, coolly articulating the materialist mechanisms by which the simplest organisms morphed into human beings while arguing that our existence offers evidence of divine agency.

Wallace has a great life story and there is a moral in it, not least of which is that his atheist colleagues worked hard to bring him the recognition (and pension) he surely deserved. They certainly didn’t call him dumb and they did so despite their disagreement with his religious views.




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