Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Emma Goldman on Atheism

Emma Goldman was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, a passionate anarchist and atheist, as well as an advocate for the rights of women. While she was critical of some of the aims of first-wave feminism, she was also a vocal defender of contraception, free love, and homosexuality. Goldman was jailed several times for handing out information on birth control. "I demand the independence of woman," she wrote in 1897*, "her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood."

In her eyes, anarchism was as much about liberating the individual from religion as it was about liberating her from the control of the state. Capitalism leads to exploitation and suffering, she believed, rather than to the social order and economic opportunities she found in her vision of anarchism. In 1923, she would publish My Disillusionment in Russia in reaction to her firsthand experiences with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Goldman's atheism, like that of Nietzsche or Marx, was focused on this mortal life here on Earth, and tended to view religion as an impediment to human development. Her short essay, The Philosophy of Atheism, published in 1916, shares many of her thoughts on this subject. "The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind," according to Goldman. "The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed... Atheism has its root in the earth, in this life; its aim is the emancipation of the human race from all God-heads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not... Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth."

The concept of God has changed substantially over time, she notes, but it originated from our fear of the unknown. As we discover ourselves and learn to shape our own destinies, theism becomes increasingly superfluous, the gods being transformed into something ever more indefinite, obscure, and nebulous. Goldman prematurely celebrates the decline of religion and the rise of atheism, though some of her observations here may sound all too familiar to us today, over a century later.
More and more, the various concepts "of the only true God, the only pure spirit, the only true religion" are tolerantly glossed over in the frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the "pernicious" influence of atheistic ideas. It is characteristic of theistic "tolerance" that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe.
Noting the injustice in the world, and the inaction of a supposedly loving deity, Goldman says that humankind alone can undertake the task of achieving justice on the earth. However, under the promises of an everlasting heaven and an omnipotent god, the human being has become "a will-less creature". "Again and again," she writes, "the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms - though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence." The triumph of atheism is its resistance to the paralyzing effects of religion.

For Goldman, atheism is not only the negation of gods, but the affirmation of man and woman, and in this it is the affirmation of life.



 *Cited in Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, p. 94.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Trump Administration and Plato's Prophetic Critique of Democracy

In the run up to the presidential election last year, it felt like it became commonplace at some point to hear Trump referred to as a demagogue. Arguably, there is no better word for it, with the way he appealed to fear and patriotic bravado to mobilize his supporters, while neglecting to give the slightest semblance of an argument in defense of the vast majority of his views. Even for months prior to November 9th, you could find references to Trump's demagoguery being made by Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and others. Now that Kellyanne Conway has introduced the much criticized concept of "alternative facts", there hardly seems room left to hide from this accusation. Particularly if, as we suspect, these are facts in the same sense that the Bowling Green massacre is a fact.

What's interesting is that Plato kind of warned us this would happen. In The Republic, he critiques the direct democracy that existed in his time, and although this form of government differs in some ways from what we have in America today (or what we had in the past), we may nevertheless find a number of the criticisms are still quite relevant. Democracy understood as the rule of free people governing themselves in their own interests leads, in Plato's view, to demagogues and tyrants. In their emphasis on freedom and equality, democracies face the problem of corruptibility, and can fall either into anarchy or despotism.

Of course, Plato doesn't hold much regard for equality, probably in part because his favored form of society is class-based. On this we might rightly fault him, but we need not follow his lead here into abandoning ideals of economic or political equality, for instance. We can instead understand his criticisms in a manner like Robert Kane articulates them in his book Through the Moral Maze.

1. Democracies encourage mediocre leadership

Elected officials have to keep courting the favor of the people in order to maintain their place in positions of power. This tends to be a popularity contest more than any kind of election based on qualifications, experience, or intelligence. Pandering thus becomes a commonality as those in power try to stay in power the best way they know how: not by applying their own expertise or by doing what they think is right, but by appealing to the desires (and worries) of the masses. Unfortunately, one thing this can often mean is that our elected officials may be as ordinary and unexceptional as those that put them into office.

Considering how much attention has been devoted to the incredible lack of qualifications and experience in the Trump cabinet nominations, this critique looks to be pretty dead on. However, we can find further support in the very reasons Trump voters gave for why they voted as they did. "I feel like I know where I stand with Trump," says Rachel, in an article for The Guardian. "Trump is exactly what you get," Paul, another Trump voter, states. Most telling, perhaps, is Arlene's comment, who says that "Donald Trump might not have political experience but I truly believe he has the American people’s interest at heart."

Trump's win has also heralded what some consider to be the return of populism. Whether or not this is an entirely accurate characterization, it does speak to Plato's criticism. On the one hand, we may want our representatives to be "people like us" because those are generally the people we trust the most to make decisions on our behalf, but on the other hand, it is very likely true that most of us are not people especially capable of running branches, institutions, and systems of government. If we elect "people like us", we could well be electing people just as uninformed as us.

2. Democracies tend to focus on the short term rather than the long term

Because of how our leaders are elected, pandering to the wishes of the electorate typically means planning for the present and not for the future. Kane astutely notes that this problem is "at the expense of the long-term needs of society." It isn't always the case that taking no thought for the morrow is harmless. Sometimes failing to plan for the future has significant and long-lasting consequences. Along with this comes the all-too-familiar habit of giving the people what they want now, and passing the financial burden on to future generations.

What can't we say about this criticism? Let's just start with the foreboding moves the Trump administration has been making with respect to the EPA and climate change. Altering the EPA's climate website, suspending contracts, and teasing a case-by-case review of climate science work are fairly concerning signs of denial. Betsy DeVos' nomination as Secretary of Education raises additional worries, not just about science education specifically, but also about the seriousness with which the new administration takes the issue of providing an affordable, effective education to future generations.

Then we have the Wall as an example of a potential financial burden for American taxpayers, when Mexico predictably refuses for the last time to be bullied into building it. The immigration ban has been estimated as posing a cost of $700 million to U.S. colleges. Repealing Obamacare fully is being said to come at a price of a whopping $350 billion, not to mention all the jobs that stand to be lost as well. 

Getting people to understand the value of holding out for something better is notoriously difficult, particularly in a nation that prides itself on individualism, the myth of the self-made man, and instant gratification. By no means is Trump's administration unique in this, but we may see things as more pronounced here than they have been in many other administrations.

3. Image politics comes to dominate the electorate

The rulers in Plato's ideal society function in part to safeguard the values at the heart of society. Such an important task could not be trusted to the average person, Plato thought, but had to be something specially reserved for those who could be trained and educated in the proper ways. Democracy, he argued, usually devolves into politics focusing on appearances rather than on the things that really matter. How a candidate looks and sounds comes to be more important to people than what they say.

Again, we need not look far to see this criticism alive and well within the present administration. Trump has said some simply awful things and behaved in reprehensible ways toward women, yet his supporters haven't seemed all that perturbed by any of it. The Guardian article referred to above has the opinions of several Trump voters who state how impressive Trump's confidence, forthrightness, and business savvy are to them. We could indeed view this as an image issue, oddly winning out over even the moral concerns of some Americans.

It might be an understatement to say political debate has become superficial in the era of Trump. From remarks about penises during the campaign to the constant allegations of "fake news" that are being thrown at legitimate news outlets (and at almost any reporting the new administration merely seems to dislike), there is little question that this election and its aftermath have taken political discourse to another level. It may not be entirely new or entirely unprecedented, but what would previously have been roundly criticized as grossly immature has appeared to survive and elude such immediate hostility in today's political environment.

A society that focuses on images instead of issues is easy prey for manipulative personalities.

4. Democracies are prone to factionalism of special interests

Lobbyists, special interest groups, and money politics have been problems in the U.S. for a good while now, and they are certainly not limited to the current administration. But Trump's accusations against Hillary Clinton, as being controlled by special interests, can strike one as an instance of telling your neighbor to remove a splinter from her eye while you have a plank lodged in your own. Trump once said he'd disavow all Super PACs, shortly before he reversed his decision as soon as his party nomination was in the bag. His plan to "drain the swamp" apparently did not extend to keeping lobbyists out of his transition, either.

Plato believed that democracies lead to factionalism, as certain groups try to influence leaders for their own private interests. Because of this, democracies are also in danger of becoming a tyranny of the majority. As Plato saw it, the three worst forms of government participate in a sort of natural evolution: oligarchy gives rise to democracy, democracy gives rise to tyranny. Yet the tyrant won't be campaigning on a platform of dictatorship. Instead, he'll present himself as the champion of the people. It is "the insatiable desire" for freedom, Socrates says, "and the neglect of other things [that] introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny."

Tyranny of the majority was a significant concern of some of the Founding Fathers, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In his classic 1840 text Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed this same worry:
When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. To the police? The police are nothing other than the majority under arms. To the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to deliver judgments.
While some might argue that Obama, Big Business, or another culprit is behind the true tyranny of the majority, an important aspect here is the role and rhetoric of populism. I think we have seen this manifested in Trump's campaign and presidency in ways that simply dwarf most other comparable examples. This attitude of giving back the power to the people is what Trump ran on and what his supporters continue to call for today, above and beyond many other issues and concerns.

5. A loss of shared values

Democracies that emphasize freedom and liberty make the individual the focus of value. This produces a gradual dissolution of common values, since people think more about themselves and their desire to do their own thing than they think of others. So responsibility to others and the common good are sacrificed to the right to do as you please, according to Plato. This in turn creates distrust of authority, social disorder, and rising crime rates. Another consequence, Kane writes, is a large generation gap, due to the fact that the young do not necessarily share their parents' values, and want the same right to do their own thing that everyone else has.

It's worth starting with that last point, because one interesting statistic that emerged from the 2016 election was the factor of age difference. "Young adults preferred Clinton over Trump by a wide 55%-37% margin," the Pew Research Center notes, while "Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%." Distrust of authority and social disorder might be more than familiar to us, too, considering how both featured in the presidential debates. The crime rate is a somewhat thornier issue, though, since there is evidence showing an increase in violent crime from 2014-2015, for example, but this figure is still lower than it was in 2011 or 2006.

What ought to stand out most, however, is the theme of division. Trump supporters like those mentioned above in The Guardian article have voiced their opinion that our nation is fractured, hurting, and headed in the wrong direction. After the election, it seems that very many of those who voted against Trump likely feel the same way. Even before the presidential race, though, social conflict and domestic tensions were not at all outside the field of worries for Americans, as subjects such as immigration and Black Lives Matter would highlight.

It almost seems undeniable that there has indeed been a loss of shared values. How we should respond to this problem is what remains a matter of intense debate.

Is this the end of democracy?

A.N. Whitehead famously described the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato. This may appear as only the most minor of exaggeration to those familiar with Anglo-European philosophy. Plato's take on democracy, as we've seen, levies some fairly powerful criticisms that we are still wrestling with over 1600 years later.

Does this mean that democracy is hopeless? I have heard many declare its death in the wake of the election, but the meaning of this death, and how we move forward, are challenging questions to answer. I don't pretend to have the solution, and it's pretty clear that Plato didn't have it, either. We might be reminded of Winston Churchill's comment on how democracy is the worst form government except for all those other forms. One thing I think could be a promising start would be a revival of the sort of understanding of democracy held by someone like John Dewey, where there is vital emphasis on the social nature of democracy, as it consists of shared common interests and cooperative interaction among a plurality of groups.

On the other hand, this revival may be too unlikely to be a practical hope. The next four, eight, or however many years will tell. My point in this post has not been to spell out the doom of democracy. Plato's criticisms speak to the flaws of democracy, and I believe we are seeing these loud and clear now in 2017, although they have actually been present for a long time. This doesn't have to mean that democratic governments are inevitable failures, but it should cause us to recognize the problems that do exist, and it should motivate us to seek out solutions.

Some Americans probably think this is what they've done in electing the man that now sits in the White House. But we have seen how the Trump administration, in just its first month in power, has aligned itself more clearly with the flawed side of democracy - where it is much closer to descending into tyranny, as Plato explained. It's hard to understand how the tendencies discussed here could set us back on the right track, though there are strong arguments, made by one of the greatest philosophers to have lived, that we are heading for serious trouble.

This may not be the end of democracy full stop, but it just might be the end of democracy as we know it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

10 Things to Talk About This Thanksgiving Other Than the Election

Ah, Thanksgiving. It's that time of year to come together with friends and family to share good food and good company. Or at least that's how popular culture likes to think of it. I can remember enjoying watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a child with my own family, and getting to connect with loved ones we hadn't seen in a while, but then there are also those times that live on reminiscently in rolling eyes and head-shaking laughter. There is some charm and value to that mixture of both in the holidays, of course - in many ways it perfectly illustrates the precarious dynamic of familial relationships. Yet it may also be beneficial to remember, as they say, moderation in all things.

Every four years in this country, Thanksgiving winds up happening shortly after an election. No matter who wins, it almost always turns out that someone at the dinner table will be unhappy. If it's not the immediate family, it's the more distant relatives; if it's not the distant relatives, it's the romantic partners of family or relatives; if it's not the romantic partners of family or relatives, it could be the friends invited to join. Inevitably, it seems, there will be those who are thrilled about the outcome and wanting to gloat, those who are frustrated by the outcome and wanting to protest, or those who voted third party (or not at all) and want to rant about the system. Sometimes, if one is lucky, you may have the perfect singularity of all the above.

It's well known that this election in particular has been contentious, and that it has pitted many families against each other. Already some responses have been concerning, whether we're talking about racist reactions to Trump's win, or the nationwide protests that have broken out, sometimes blocking off sections of major highways. For reasons too obvious and omnipresent to be worth mentioning here, a great number of Americans may prefer to steer clear of political talk this Thanksgiving. With that purpose in mind, I have created this list of 10 things to talk about this Thanksgiving other than the election.

Now we all know what questions we can ask the people in our lives to spark conversation. How is so-and-so? Are you still working there? How are the kids liking their new school? Over the years we become trained in the art of acting like we care with our friends and family, so I won't be mentioning that stuff here. What I will give are some contemporary conversation ideas going beyond what you may already know for engaging with the people you already know. And let's face it, there are just those times where you want to minimize that engagement and get through the day. Here are some great time-killers.

10. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Peace Prize

Back in October it was announced that the famed American musician Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Salman Rushdie praised the decision, with the latter referring to Dylan as the "the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition." Others, however, have been more critical, suggesting the choice blurs the lines between artistic mediums a bit too much. Do Dylan's lyrics really serve as poetry, or should we think of them more in terms of songwriting?

It's notable that this win is a somewhat contentious one, too, but it may nonetheless be appealing subject matter, especially if the aim is to soak up some mileage in conversation that isn't election-related. On the other hand, some conservatives may hear "Nobel prize" and try to use this as an opportunity to bash Obama's acceptance of a Nobel prize in 2009. The trick here may be to keep the discussion light and keep it focused on art, or on history. Dylan's music is loved by many Americans, whatever side of the political aisle they sit on, and he has become a staple of Americana, not to mention a significant influence on a wide variety of different bands and musicians to this day.

Another useful strategy behind this topic is that you don't actually need to defend the prize itself. This could be a great chance to just talk about music, about the impact it had on the 1960s, and maybe, if you're sly enough, the importance of peace in our public discourse.

9. Pokemon Go

While the above may be thin ice to skate on in some respects, this one shouldn't be. Pokemon Go was released in July this year and quickly exploded in popularity. The app has crossed boundaries of age, gender, race, and nationality, and has been responsible for vast numbers of people getting outside and getting more active. It has also helped people connect in a social manner that isn't restricted to being online, but brings players together in person, who might otherwise never have met.

You don't have to love or play Pokemon Go to find this a topic worth taking on, though. We've all seen the controversial news reports involving the app, such as Pokemon hunters at a holocaust museum, players getting into accidents while playing the game, and incidents of sexual assault. Whether or not your relatives are Pokemon Go addicts themselves, they have likely heard about the game and some of the stories surrounding it. This is a subject, unlike Dylan's music, that could provoke conversation among possibly everyone at the table, including even the kids.

It's difficult to imagine this turning into a political debate, either. Pokemon Go was referenced by both Trump and Clinton during their campaigns, but this type of very specific pandering is unlikely to be something that stuck out to a lot of people, except perhaps as an amusing sign of the times. If you like to be topical and want to avoid yelling and shouting and arguing over the 2016 election, Pokemon Go would make a great go-to conversation.

8. The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen

Death may not be the cheeriest subject, but a meaningful part of discussing the death of someone is reflecting on the legacy they have left behind. In the case of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, each of these endlessly-talented musicians has left behind an extensive catalogue of exceptional songs and performances. Some at your dinner table may have had the unforgettable privilege of seeing one of these artists live in concert, or they may just be a really big fan. Even if you hit on the improbable scenario that there are no fans of any of these three at Thanksgiving, it can provide a bit of time to talk about the weird rise in celebrity deaths we've been seeing.

I chose Bowie, Prince, and Cohen, but you could substitute others here, too. Why I selected these guys in particular has to do with their popularity and impact, yet also with the fact that they are musicians. There is something we can appreciate about music that often transcends divisions of politics, religion, and the like. It can be easy to miss the movies of a talented actor, or to miss the books of a skilled author, but music is everywhere, bleeding into our daily lives in coffee shops, in retail stores, at movie theaters, in the dentist's office, on the internet, etc., etc.

The death of a celebrity gives us pause to think about the fragility of life, and it simultaneously reminds us of how a life can touch so many around us. Rather than a morbid topic for family time at Thanksgiving, this kind of discussion can be a powerful encouragement during a time of year when some are already contemplating their lives, the future, those who have passed on, and the end of another season. We value the humility, honesty, and vulnerability that come from these things much more than we sometimes realize.

7. Zootopia

Alright, so if you're uncomfortable bringing up heavy topics during the holidays, what could be lighter than a Disney kids' movie that's fun for the whole family? Zootopia is a computer-animated buddy-cop mystery-comedy that takes place in a city run by animals, and has a starring cast that includes Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, and many more. The film currently has first place on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the top 100 movies of 2016, with an average critics score of 98% and an average viewer score of 93%.

Having seen Zootopia myself, I have to agree that this was one of the best flicks of the year, partly because of its creative and well-handled social commentary, but also because it was funny and fairly original. Most of what else came out in 2016 tends to call the word "disaster" to mind (Zoolander 2, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence... shall I keep going?) But Zootopia is a genuinely good film that can be enjoyable for adults as well as kids.

Of course, the movie scoring topic is a common one around the holidays, so other things could be substituted here, too. You could even prosper from raving about the worst movies of the year, but this one is at least not a violent, vulgar, or obscure movie, so it would be a decent bet for viable conversation material.

6. SpaceX and its trouble with rockets

Technological developments are often a topic of discussion at holidays. With the growing talk about traveling to, and eventually colonizing, other planets, developments with Elon Musk's SpaceX company may make good fodder for conversation. Back in April, SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, after delivering a cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Though previous attempts at landing had failed, this achievement could mark the first step towards bigger things for SpaceX.

That is, if incidents like the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad in September are easily-addressed accidents. The explosion occurred during a static fire test, and has raised questions about the damage to the launch pad, as well as the possible delay of future launches. Later it was revealed that a breached helium system is the suspected cause of the problem. By October, rumors of sabotage had begun to spread, with Musk calling the September incident the "most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years."

It remains to be seen how this will affect SpaceX in the long term, particularly with its plans to send NASA astronauts into space by 2017/2018. Even if you wouldn't consider yourself the most technologically literate, tackling the interesting subject of space travel and its privatization in businesses like SpaceX and Blue Origin could certainly provide for some thought-provoking conversation. After all, who isn't fascinated by explosions?

5. Self-driving cars

Many have declared that driverless cars are the future of travel here on planet Earth. It is often argued that they will end up being significantly safer than the manually-driven vehicles we use now. However, this year we have already witnessed a couple of fatal accidents involving the Tesla Model S that occurred while in its Autopilot mode, as well as numerous non-fatal accidents. 2016 hasn't been particularly kind to Elon Musk, it seems, who is also the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors.

Even so, these incidents, tragic as they are, are fairly isolated among the estimated 25,000 Model S cars in use. Tesla has alleged that some drivers have neglected to follow the safety procedures and warnings as instructed during the engagement of Autopilot. On the other hand, though, the Model S has only had the Autopilot feature since December 2014, and statisticians have pointed out flaws in safety estimates made by the company. Tom Simonite quotes a report from RAND Corporation explaining that it could take "as many as hundreds of billions of miles before [the vehicle's] performance could be fairly compared with statistics from the much larger population of human drivers."

Are self-driving cars dangerous? Are they the answer to automobile accidents that we've been waiting for? This topic would be sure to spark some debate over the holidays, especially among those with an interest in cars and technology.

4. Have you seen ______ yet?

A popular tactic for generating dialogue at family dinners is talking about the latest TV shows and seasons. This is used a lot with movies, too, but with the ubiquity of Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and television in general, you're more likely these days to command attention by reference to TV shows than to movies. The best part about the "Have you seen" lead-in is that it doesn't require that anyone actually did see whatever it is you choose to mention. If no one has seen it, you still get to give a taste to those around, and describe what you like/love/hate/would-like-to-see in the show.

Obviously, specific examples here are endless. The Walking Dead is extremely well known, but perhaps a bit on the gory side for Thanksgiving. Orange is the New Black is another popular one, though it also has some graphic moments. Then there's Game of Thrones, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman, Black Mirror, and on and on. Most of these are more adult than family-friendly, yet if you don't mind censoring yourself somewhat (or don't have young kids coming to dinner), any of these may be perfect for discussion.

If you tire of hearing the boring life stories of your relatives, introduce the exciting life stories of some fictional TV characters into the mix. It can be a great way to talk about a variety of issues, depending on the show, without delving too deeply into things that are personal or aggravating. Probably just try and avoid any shows that deliberately incorporate a lot of politics into their stories.

3. Black Friday


This one really should be a given. You either love Black Friday or you hate it, and although I'd venture to guess that by this point most Americans likely hate the holiday, there are still those who dare to go out shopping. Except this year, some companies like Walmart are planning on digitizing their deals. Black Friday conversation need not involve an itinerary, just some remarks on a range of related fronts, including deals you've seen, what you hate about the rush, what you like about getting gifts on sale, or your past excursions into the wastes of Retail-land.

Businesses like JCPenney, Macy's, and Kmart have been extending their Black Friday hours to almost absurd lengths. When the sales start on Thanksgiving evening, it may spare us from some of the mayhem of going out at 5 AM on Black Friday, but then doesn't it make the whole tradition just seem kind of pointless? Frankly, a lot of what we assume about big holiday sales are myths, like when it comes to getting the cheapest prices on Black Friday, or about extended hours increasing sales. So maybe save yourself and your loved ones some of the madness of Black Friday this year by staying home and ordering online.

Alternatively, if you disagree, and you just adore the experience of surviving Black Friday, make your case at the dinner table. The dreaded day after Thanksgiving is always prime material for ranting and raving about the day before, whether you're a shopper or an anti-shopper.

2. How 'bout this weather?

Discussing the weather is a favorite past-time of the unenthusiastic participant in conversation. It feels like something safe and simple to talk about, and it's a universally familiar subject. Especially during the holidays, when a lot of folks have to do some traveling, the weather can be a good icebreaker or a good tool for switching topics. Hell, I remember my grandparents leaving the Weather Channel on the television half the time we would be over to visit, so you know it won't be dead air if you bring it up.

The weather has been in the news a lot this year, too. There has been substantial talk about how hot 2016 has been, and how we've seen a gradual warming trend in recent history. This may stir up arguments over climate change, but keeping things localized and personal might help navigate around that contentious issue, as could some mention of diverse weather phenomena, like the major floods that have hit Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas over the last year to two years. Knowing friends or relatives who live in places that have been under severe weather can also help make this topic a lively one.

"Do you mind if we don't invite your cousin to Thanksgiving this year?"

Weather conversation reminds us all how Nature doesn't really give a damn about us and our problems. This may be worth remembering when everyone at your house starts trying to piss off everyone else. Suddenly our little family conflicts can seem small and unimportant. Save that rage for Nature!

1. Scientology

I know what you're thinking, but this one is and isn't a joke. If people at your table are looking for something to rail against this Thanksgiving, Scientology is one subject everyone loves to hate. There have been many exposés, news stories, and so forth, so it's likely your friends and family will have learned some things about it. They may say you're not supposed to discuss religion in polite company, but unless you have Scientologists coming to celebrate with you (or scholars of new religions), it's probably a good bet that everyone will pretty much be on the same page.

Scientology is topical as well, with Ron Miscavige, the father of current Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, having published a controversial book back in the Summer that purports to give some insight into not just the modern church, but the man behind it. Actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini has also developed a documentary series that is set to begin airing on A&E on November 29th. Many in the West have such a fascination with Scientology, and enough objections to it, that this could make for just the kind of heated discussion that might channel frustrations into a less destructive avenue than arguing over the election would.

Coming together for Thanksgiving isn't only about being thankful, after all, it's about bonding, too. And sometimes bonding is accomplished in the oddest of environments, over the most unusual sorts of things. So if push comes to shove, you can give those subversive persons something to rant about that won't ruin the holiday for the whole family.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

To a Christian Nation in the Age of Trump

Hello, White Christian America. We need to talk.

I'll be up front and say that while I am not a Christian myself, there are a lot of things I respect and even admire about the convictions of many believers in this country. We may be at odds on some specific issues like abortion, contraception, or LGBT rights, but there is much I have learned from listening to the voices of America's evangelical and conservative Christians. Often times the underlying principles and values behind these concerns have either resonated with me or challenged me in my own views.

Church-state separation is a great example. Although there are believers like David Barton, who dismiss the general idea as a myth and seem to favor a return to a theocratic republic of sorts, I have heard a good number of American Christians express strong support for separation of church and state. Freedom of religion is an important part of our nation that has a long history. Yet the other side of separation, protecting the state from the church, can be a murky issue that invites a lot of misinterpretation. We want to protect religious liberty, and one way we do this is by defending the government against any religious coup that might try to overtake it. But when this gets confused with pushing faith out of the public square altogether, things get messy. The outspokenness of Christians on areas of church-state separation have helped to rethink and clarify where we as a society want the lines to be drawn, so that Americans are best suited to believe, or not believe, as they see fit.

There's no secret that a lot of Christians in our country are suspicious of government. For evangelicals and the Religious Right in particular, this suspicion comes from past experience with being disappointed by politicians who 'talk the talk, but don't walk the walk.' This is something I very much applaud American Christians for standing behind. Pandering has been a problem in U.S. politics for a good while now, and it only seems to be getting worse as money becomes an ever greater part of politics, too. We all should want representatives who actually represent our interests, not just when it helps their political career, but because they share those interests with us.

A ton of commentary has already emerged about how disaffection with the establishment has played a role in the election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president. Mike Dorning mentions this in an article for Bloomberg, where he notes Trump's various promises to "Make America Great Again", his lack of ties to Washington or to political correctness, and more. There's not much point to belaboring this observation, since I think it has been abundantly clear from the overall divisive tone of this election, and the resignation of so many Americans to either not vote, or to just vote for the candidate who isn't the other guy. Trump is certainly a change from the norm in rhetoric, if not in practice, too.

But this is about where my understanding runs out.

My Christian friends, I can't make sense of where Trump fits in with your own values as you've described them. It was one thing when you supported candidates that were dogmatically against abortion or gay rights, because those candidates aligned their positions very closely with their religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and marriage. It was one thing when you backed a president who started a war under false pretenses of stopping a dictator from using weapons of mass destruction. Again, there was something at least potentially laudable in that pretense. This is something different.

Exit polls have shown that white evangelicals voted "overwhelmingly" for Trump, according to the Washington Post. This perplexes me for a number of reasons. It perplexes me because Trump is, by all accounts, yet another figure who has merely pandered to religious voters, except that he also lives and acts in ways that defy the kind of morality the Religious Right has advocated for decades. And this isn't like all the criticisms of so-called family values for inconsistently marginalizing certain groups and families. It isn't even like the Ted Haggards and Jimmy Swaggarts who were found to be leading double lives. Trump is quite possibly the worst standard for family values and Christian values that evangelicals and other conservative believers have ever endorsed.

It has been all over the media that Trump has attracted substantial support from white nationalist groups, including the Christian Identity movement and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK. While the Trump campaign publicly claimed it would denounce hatred and bigotry, the amount of white nationalist support behind the candidate has been staggering, as has the fact that most of these hate groups have not been disavowed by Trump (Duke may be the one exception). None of this is news, but it does suggest that Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is right when describing 'Trumpism' as fundamentally rooted in "contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc."

1 Corinthians 15:33 warns, "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character.'"(NIV) Many Trump supporters, many of them Christians, have simply shrugged in response to the white nationalist approval of Trump, questioning why it matters. The verse just cited gives us some idea. When your message merits a shining endorsement from militant racists, it really ought to give you serious pause for thought at the very least. Earlier, in 1 Corin. 5:11, Paul makes an even stronger statement about who Christians let among them: "you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler." If the company we keep is important, what does it say if we are in the company of white supremacists?

Sexual immorality stands out in that last passage. As well-known as the white nationalist support is, the numerous allegations of sexual assault by Mr. Trump have also been much discussed in the media. Along with this comes the leaked 2005 video of Trump expressing his feeling of entitlement to "grab [women] by the pussy." I am admittedly at a loss to understand how this sort of behavior can be condoned by Christians, especially those who are first to emphasize the immorality of any kind of sexual contact outside marriage. Although many evangelicals were horrified by these discoveries, there were those like John Zmirak, who appeared in an episode of the Christian podcast Unbelievable, who seem to feel that Trump's position on abortion overshadows sexual assault.

This approach of picking the lesser of two evils could warrant an entire post in itself. It is unfortunately a situation many Americans, be they Christian or not, say they find themselves in today. But the Bible challenges its readers on this in several places. "Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—'Let us do evil that good may result'? Their condemnation is just!" (Romans 3:8, NIV) Proverbs 17:15 additionally proclaims: "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord." (NAS) 

There is an uncomfortable problem with voting in the lesser of two evils if the elected authorities are instituted by God, as Romans 13:1 tells us. Is it moral for a believer to endorse a lesser evil into the seat of authority ordained by God? Or would it be better for them to abstain? Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gives a reminder that, 
When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse. The Bible tells us we will be held accountable not only for the evil deeds we do but also when we “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).
Of course, the concerns with Trump's morality don't end here. The white nationalism supporting him hasn't found just his immigration policies likeable, but probably was also influenced by the racist remarks and non-inclusive approach Trump has engaged in for a good while now. All this outpouring of white disaffection is made further interesting by the fact that it comes directly after the nation's first African American president. My fellow Americans, if you truly believe - as so many apologists have asserted - that Galatians 3:28 commends us to accept one another regardless of race or gender, can you please explain to me why Trump's track record on these issues has not upset you?

Another concern one might have is with what John Paul Rollert terms the "sociopathic capitalism" of Trump. Rather than a measured response to economic conditions, Trump's vision of capitalism is more along the lines of conquest or a game of high-stakes poker. There are clear winners and losers, and the United States must wage zero-sum combat to take that gold metal it (for some reason) deserves more than anyone else. This ruthless winner-takes-all attitude might come in handy in some businesses, but most companies these days are wise enough to know that the true art of the deal is at least as much about co-operation as it is about competition. When it comes to running the country, a cut-throat kind of capitalism not only seems archaic and dangerous, it seems remarkably un-Christian, too. 

James 1:27 states: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." The world of Wall Street is aptly characterized by many as a world of greed. Yet the world in which Trump lives is no different. Sometimes it isn't financial greed, sometimes it's greed for power, for status, and so forth. What is incredibly hard to imagine is just how Trump's vision of America could mesh in any meaningful sense with the kind of religious worldview depicted in this verse from the Epistle of James. Trump's religion seems to be a religion of the self, rather than one that is outward-looking and focused on compassionate caring for others.

Indeed, Christian leaders in our nation have been sounding alarm bells about Trump for some time. He has openly stated that he although he believes in God, he has never asked forgiveness. Either he must feel he has no need to ask, or he has been unwilling to ask, and in neither case would most Christians consider a person so described to be 'right with God'. As Eric Sapp at The Christian Post puts it, "Trump is a thrice-married adulterer who brags not only about cheating on his own wife but with the wives of other men." Even the gaffe about Two Corinthians suggests Trump is not as familiar with scripture as he may pretend. This all begs the question: is Trump going to be the president a lot of American Christians want him to be?

In some ways, that remains to be seen, but with respect to his religious views (or lack thereof), plenty of evangelicals have already said no. The Dallas News has an article expounding ten areas of conflict between voting for Trump and professing Christian faith. Among them is his lack of compassion, his appeals to fear and anger, his egotism, his lying, his treatment of women, and his disdain for his opponents. Jesus famously taught to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-48) - ideas that were astronomically far off from the kind of behavior that went on during the campaign. Christians like Michael Farris, a founder of the Christian homeschooling movement, may be on to something when they declare that this election "marks the end of the Christian Right."

My intent here is not to rejoice or be a doomsayer, please understand. As a student of religion and philosophy, I have an interest in the movements and changes that take place in our culture, and as a former evangelical, I have an interest in the development of the Religious Right in particular. But this is also more than a simple academic or casual interest for me. I do believe there are very important things at stake with a Trump presidency. Among them is the way we conceptualize our values in this country. Whether you are a Christian or not, the majority of America still claims to be, and Christian values continue to affect us. Yes, I recognize Christians are not a monolithic group, and there is no one set of established Christian values, but this is a big part of my point.

What happens next could well change the landscape as we know it. Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have been influential in American politics for several decades now. We have seen scandals and cases of dubious moral commitments, not to mention the surveys of religious illiteracy, but this is the clearest moment in recent history where a large proportion of American Christians have rallied behind violence, egotism, profanity, and racial and sexual bigotry. This can't be waved away as exaggeration when Liberty University, created by the father of the Moral Majority, even found itself so divided over the character of Donald Trump. So many news sources and sociologists are scrambling to understand the white evangelical majority behind Trump because something appears different on the landscape.

For some, this is an exciting moment. After all, change is what a disaffected populace really wants. But whether or not this will be beneficial change is still an open question. What it does seem to already be doing is forcing a much needed conversation about the role of Christianity in U.S. politics. When Christian values relate to social structures and cultural values we as a people find praiseworthy, it has been easy for the two to covertly operate in tandem. But if Christian values lose those social and cultural supports, and take on a closer resemblance to fear, anger, oppression, and hatred, what will be the consequences? We might react by pulling back religion more from the political sphere, or we might react, as is sadly often the case, by reframing our narratives to accommodate an almost unrecognizable form of Christian belief.


In an example of the latter, Eric Metaxas has described Trump as being "kind of like your uncle who says stuff that makes you cringe, but you know that when push comes to shove, he's a decent guy." The question here is whether Americans, including American Christians, want just a "decent guy" (certainly disputable in the case of Trump) in the White House, or if perhaps we should hold the highest office in the land to a higher standard. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 makes an interesting prediction:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
All religions evolve and change, and there can come a point where we wonder how faithful our current version is to the original. The inexorable march of time forces us to adapt, but while we desperately pretend that nothing essential has changed, it can be notoriously difficult to gauge the truth of that belief from within our little corner of history. Often we see "through a glass, darkly" - appreciating in retrospect a fuller picture of what has transpired, while at the time much of the machinations of change can be largely undetectable and elusive.

This is where we find ourselves in 2016, in the age of Trump. Temptations are everywhere to panic, to romanticize, to overestimate, to underestimate, but there is nevertheless some writing on the wall that is getting hard to ignore. American Christianity wasn't the same after the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it may not be the same after the election of Donald Trump. Robert Jones, author of the recently published book The End of White Christian America, seems to feel the same. Trump's victory, he argues, against many other Republican candidates that aligned better with evangelical views, can be attributed to his successful conversion of "values voters" to "nostalgia voters." The promises made by the newly-elected president address not only an economic displacement felt by many Americans, but a sense of cultural displacement as well.

However, this move to nostalgia and an idealized past has value-implications, too. Progress - on marriage rights, on abortion, on immigration, etc. - becomes an erroneous move in the wrong direction, away from the return to the golden days. More recent political values like tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism also become problematic distractions from that perfect past-life. Instead, ideas like loyalty, authority, and purity become the important values. Jonathan Haidt has shown this in his research on the values of political conservatives and liberals in general, but whereas the Religious Right has typically defined such values in connection with religious traditions and religious documents, it looks as if Trump has turned that on its head to connect those values to a mythic American past rather to than any religious source.

If you are an American Christian, I would urge you to ask yourself a few questions as 2017 approaches.

1. Why do you consider yourself a Christian? This isn't asking just about what made you a Christian, but what you like about being Christian. What makes it meaningful and important to you?

2. Where do other human beings fit in with your Christian beliefs? Do you find your faith gives you more appreciation for life, including the lives of those who aren't Christian?

3. What do you believe it should mean to be a Christian? Are there things that seem out of sorts to you that someone who calls herself a Christian should not do?

4. Does Donald Trump match your understanding of all it means to be a Christian? If not, then how close does he come? If yes, then why do you think he ran his campaign as he did?

5. Do you believe the presidency carries any certain moral expectations with it? How does Donald Trump fit those expectations, and how do those expectations measure up to what a Christian should look like?

You may have already given some thought to a number of these, but I find it's never a bad idea to revisit and rethink our beliefs. We stand at a pivotal time right now that calls for wisdom, for reflection, for compassion, and for patience. These are things I have known many kind and devoted Christian Americans to hold in high regard, and I hope that we will continue to do so as the months and years move forward.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Privilege Was Not the Original Sin, Arrogance Was

The forbidden fruit taken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden certainly seems like it had a sour taste. For indulging in a little knowledge, the two brought sin and death into the world, got kicked out of paradise, and were each assigned their own specially frustrating labor projects. Bible commentators down through history have noted an obvious lesson here: sometimes what we learn through experience is pretty bitter. Thanks to the actions of Adam and Eve, we all have been corrupted and stand in need of salvation... or so the story goes.

Some right-leaning academics and activists have likened the concept of privilege to that of Original Sin. Both are things we are born into, that we cannot escape, and they are best dealt with by a confessional or penitent approach. James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian draw this comparison in their article, "Privilege: The Left's Original Sin," published at AllThink.com. There is no greater sin in the eyes of the left, they claim, than "having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn't deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs."1

Interesting similarities do exist between privilege and Original Sin, as noted. Yet concepts like apostasy, faith, and religion are frequently associated with secular ideas in ways that are more tenuous than they are convincing. The more the sacred retreats from the latter half of that equation, the weaker the analogy seems. If the mere association with religion is meant to be an indictment on talk of privilege, then Boghossian's unabashed borrowing from the evangelizing pages of Christian ministry in A Manual for Creating Atheists is no less guilty. Presumably, though, the main complaint is not the religious connection, but how privilege and Original Sin have both been used as shaming devices.

Certainly, privilege talk can be used to try and control or stop conversation. In that sense it is quite like Original Sin as it has been employed by brazen preachers spreading a message of hellfire and brimstone. But where many on the right have interpreted privilege in terms of personal attacks, many on the left have been endorsing it with the aim of calling attention to broader social issues. Mychal Denzel Smith, writing for The Nation, observes that when "people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, 'Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.' They hear, 'Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.'"2 Apology and repentance are not the goals for those who partake of the language of privilege – social reform is the goal.

Discrimination is offered in the article as a better alternative to privilege. This may be splitting hairs, but it may also underscore a valuable point. Discrimination has a history behind it, especially a legal one, and it has often been addressed on an isolated, individual-case basis. To suggest that there are more systemic problems in our courts, in our neighborhoods, and in our society, a bigger word seems necessary. Privilege stings. It evokes an air of elitism, of undeserved benefit, and it plays off the anti-magisterial sentiments that have long been a part of American culture. Privilege is less visible than we imagine discrimination to be. It saturates and it structures, as Maggie Nelson has written.

Granted, privilege has its conceptual flaws, too. It's been argued that it associates the advantages of privilege with luxuries rather than with rights. Others have suggested that it's not very conducive to understanding differences among various minority groups. Of course, these are conversations worth having civilly, and they have been ongoing in many areas of social justice for some time now. Boghossian and Lindsay are also willing to give a modest bit of credit to the term, conceding that it does describe something real and problematic. What they object to is how privilege helps to "glorify" the struggles of certain identities lucky enough to be born into the right group, while serving as a club to beat on those born into the wrong group. If social reform is what privilege talk is about, then these concerns are actually some of the focus for change.

What if these common problems with Original Sin and privilege are actually due to a confrontational attitude rather than to any conceptual similarity? There are Christians for whom Original Sin is not a weapon with which to persecute unbelievers, but a reminder to be humble and forgiving towards others. In Romans 3, Paul considers the standing Jews and Gentiles have before God. "Do we have any advantage?" he asks. "Not at all!" No one is righteous, not even one, as he goes on to declare in verse ten. Could privilege not serve as a similar reminder to humility?

Oddly, after explaining that "everybody is privileged," and that Original Sin and privilege are identical except in that they inhabit different moral universes, Lindsay and Boghossian contend that a distinguishing difference between the two is that the label of privilege is even more contemptible because it's seen to be a hindrance to the less fortunate among us. But everybody is privileged, so who can rightly take the moral high ground? Some might still claim the moral high ground, though there's no real explanation for why this would be tolerated more in the case of privilege than in that of Original Sin. Fighting privilege doesn't mean forcing repentance.

Now, it's true that no analogy is perfect, but Boghossian and Lindsay are ambiguous enough in their use of the term privilege that it presents a problem for their argument. Let's take a definition of privilege by Sian Ferguson at Everyday Feminism. Ferguson says, "We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group."3 This doesn't tell us anything about most of what Lindsay and Boghossian attribute to privilege, such as its being an accident of birth, being inescapable, applying to everyone, or demanding atonement. That's because these are ancillary ideas about the function of privilege in society. Just as the concept of sin differs from the doctrine of Original Sin, the concept of privilege differs from the political and philosophical theorizing that has surrounded it.

The problem is that if we're going to bring in these ancillary ideas about privilege in drawing a connection to Original Sin, why stop there? Boghossian and Lindsay try to conceal the breakdown of their analogy with the line of qualification stating that Original Sin and privilege inhabit different moral universes. It allows them a little leeway to conveniently gloss over major incongruities like the importance of power systems for understanding privilege, or the supernatural nature of sin. Privilege functions between oppressors and the oppressed, whereas Original Sin doesn't really recognize anyone as being "in power," oppressing us sinners. Lindsay and Boghossian almost note this difference when remarking on how the labeling of another person as privileged is sometimes taken as a personal hindrance to us. Sin, on the other hand, isn't just a moral or interpersonal affliction, it's a spiritual one, and the "mechanism" by which it's passed down is frankly mysterious – not at all like the way that privilege persists through oppressive social structures. There is also the fact that, unlike sin, privilege actually represents a goal to aspire to. Sin can be viewed as a disease in need of healing, but the point of social justice is not to eliminate the privileges some people enjoy, it's to extend them to more people.

I'm not sure why we should feel persuaded by the criteria of similarity raised by Boghossian and Lindsay. They seem somewhat cherry picked, but their significance can be questioned, too. Death is something we have no say over, it cannot be escaped, and it's been said that all of us are dying from the moment we're born. Yet we might question the purpose of comparing death to Original Sin, or to privilege, on such grounds. It could be claimed that death isn't as comparable for some reason or other, but we have just seen a few ways in which privilege isn't as comparable, either.

It's admittedly somewhat amusing that privilege is denounced primarily when it's treated as a tool for shaming. Boghossian and Lindsay have both written in defense of ridicule when it suits their purposes, and they inhabit their own universe with other champions of ridicule like John Loftus and Jerry Coyne. They've advocated for shutting down academic studies like philosophy of religion and biblical scholarship when they dare to defend Christian beliefs, and they're quite fond of conceptualizing faith as a virus, not to mention defining it so as to be basically synonymous with irrationality. So why does privilege shaming catch their ire? One would think they'd be chomping at the bit for the chance to attack Christian privilege in such terms, which they more or less do in other language.

When it comes to our own privilege, we typically aren't exactly eager to own up to things. I can honestly admit that I still struggle with this. As Parul Sehgal eloquently observes: "It's easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves. It’s easy to point out how a word buckles and breaks; it's harder to notice how we do."4 The first sin wasn't being born into a certain class or identity. It wasn't being part of a majority group that benefits from the marginalization of others. The first sin was arrogance. It was selfish pride that motivated disobedience, as Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica.

I agree wholeheartedly with Boghossian and Lindsay that more perspective, kindness, and charity are needed. However, it seems to me that their critique of privilege has missed the mark in a number of ways. There is room for improvement, especially in how we talk to and treat the disadvantaged, but the encouragement given to "focus more on the positive qualities" you want to instill in others rings a bit hollow. It makes it sound once again like everyone else is the problem. Perhaps this is where the critic has more in common with religion than he likes to think. It would be an understatement to say that monotheistic religions haven't had very good track records of protesting privilege. On the contrary, they've often put in a great amount of effort defending their own privilege against so-called heretics and apostates.

Perspective, kindness, and charity seem mismatched to the disdain for what Lindsay and Boghossian call the religion of identity politics. It's telling where all the faith-based imagery is located in the picture painted by the two authors, and their contempt for religion is more than evident from their own writings, one of which bears the charitable title of Everybody is Wrong About God. "You don’t get to denounce identity politics," as Sincere Kirabo points out, "when your monomaniacal depreciation of all things religious is literally grounded in homage to the politics of your most treasured identity: atheism."5 Not everything religion has taught is worthy of derision – especially when it comes to the idea that change must begin with ourselves. There is likewise nothing patently religious about seeing ourselves as benefiting from certain social structures that disadvantage others. We should reject this claim just as we reject similar claims declaring morality to belong to the special domain of religion. Privilege talk that fails to recognize the need for humility and compassion is talk that is rightly criticized. At the same time, a critique of privilege that cloaks its main argument in anti-religious and politically conservative rhetoric is not doing anyone the favors its writers think it's doing.


References

1. James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, Privilege: The Left's Original Sin, AllThink.com (May 24, 2016).
2. Mychal Denzel Smith, No One Cares If You Never Apologize for Your White Male Privilege, The Nation (May 5, 2014).
3. Sian Ferguson, Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide, Everyday Feminism (Sept. 29, 2014).
4. Parul Sehgal, How 'Privilege' Became a Provocation, The New York Times (July 14, 2015).
5. Sincere Kirabo, Navigating Critical Thinking, Intersectionality, and Identity Politics in the Secular Movement, TheHumanist.com (July 6, 2016).

Thursday, August 4, 2016

5 Religious Controversies in Video Games

Aristotle famously thought that art imitates life. As video game technology has evolved beyond depicting simple shapes and movements, its ability to represent aspects of our world has increased exponentially. Game designers, like all artists, often draw inspiration from their environment, and thus a broad range of subjects and concepts find their way into many titles. Over the years, we have seen countless games comment on music, politics, cultural norms, ethics, science, art, literature, relationships, and much much more. Not surprisingly, religion is another real life influence that can appear in video games, although its ties to the medium are arguably the most strained of the lot.

Here are five examples, ranked in no particular order, of controversial religious content in video games.

5. LittleBigPlanet and the Qur'an

 
In 2008, the puzzle platform game LittleBigPlanet had a delayed release after it was brought to Sony's attention that a song licensed in the game contained spoken verses from the Qur'an. Translated from the Arabic, the verses say: "Every soul shall have the taste of death" and "All that is on earth will perish." Admittedly, these are odd choices for a children's game, but are they offensive enough to merit their removal?
 
The original notice came from a poster on the PlayStation community forums, who explained: "We Muslims consider the mixing of music and words from our Holy Quran deeply offending," and asked that the song be removed. Sony complied and replaced the track in the game. However, some Muslims reacted against this, including The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, who criticized the censorship of the song in LittleBigPlanet. "Muslims cannot benefit from freedom of expression and religion," the group said, "and then turn around and ask that anytime their sensibilities are offended that the freedom of others be restricted."
 
The composer of the music in question, Toumani Diabaté, also considers himself a devout Muslim.

4. Brahmin in Fallout 3

One of the common inhabitants of the radiated post-apocalyptic Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 is the species of two-headed mutated cow known as Brahmin. These cuddly critters don't do much in the game aside from grazing, transporting goods, and occasionally attacking those who disturb their peaceful existence. Yet that existence is apparently so controversial that Fallout 3 was not released on any platform in India, citing "cultural sensitivities" as the reason why.

A detailed explanation was not provided, but it has generally been assumed that the Brahmin are the culprits. There is a caste of Hindu priests and scholars in India known as the Brahmin, and the name is also similar to Brahman and Brahma in Hinduism - the former which is considered the highest or ultimate reality, and the latter being a creator god. It has additionally been speculated that the belief in the sanctity of cows in India is a further reason for why the Brahmin of Fallout could be responsible for the game's cancellation there.

Of course, it's difficult to know what exactly motivated the decision. Interestingly, Fallout 4 did see a release in India, with the Brahmin remaining in, and at least one complaint about their presence in the game has since been made on a gaming forum. It seems that although war never changes, concern for cultural sensitivities does.
 
3. The Fire Temple in Zelda

The controversy surrounding the Fire Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the earliest examples of religious controversy in a video game that I can remember hearing. Well, aside from the general outrage over violent, evil, or allegedly un-Christian games that some religious groups used to love participating in. The Fire Temple thing wasn't just the usual "video games are corrupting the youth" nonsense. It was different and more surprising, given Nintendo's image of being family friendly and their longstanding policy of keeping religion out of their games.

Initial copies of Ocarina of Time featured music in the Fire Temple that was changed in later versions of the game. Nintendo has openly stated that the switch was due to an Islamic prayer chant being used in the original music (listen to the differences here). While no one had yet complained, the track was replaced to stay consistent with Nintendo's image. Allegedly, the chant was taken from a sound library, which was how it slipped under the radar.

Strangely, though, the Gerudo Symbol found on blocks, switches, and the Mirror Shield in Ocarina also looks quite like the crescent moon and star of Islam. In later releases, the design was altered drastically, but it's pretty curious how a Muslim prayer chant and a symbol very similar to an Islamic symbol could accidentally show up in the same game.

As a matter of fact, the Zelda games have a history of religious references that goes beyond Ocarina. The first game, Legend of Zelda for the NES, famously had a dungeon designed in the shape of a manji, the Buddhist symbol of good fortune. Link's shield bore the image of a cross as well, and the Book of Magic was even called the Bible in the Japanese version, complete with its own crucifix on the cover. Zelda II has the "Cross" as an item, which enables Link to see invisible enemies on his way through the Valley of Death. The Sanctuary in A Link to the Past is known as the Church in the Japanese original version, which makes sense of bizarre promotional artwork that shows Link praying before a cross in the place (prayer seems to likewise be how you enter the Desert Palace later in the game).

So if Link is a Christian crusader of sorts in the earliest Zelda games... how weird is it that Islam suddenly pops up in Ocarina?

2. Baptism in Bioshock Infinite 


During the beginning of Bioshock Infinite, you must undergo baptism in order to progress the story. This apparently upset one player enough to prompt them to request a refund, and the religious themes in the game reportedly even bothered some of the team members who worked on it. Unlike the other games on this list, Infinite intentionally comments on real world religion, especially the sort that gets wrapped up tightly with American exceptionalism. It isn't the main focus of the game, but with all the questions of free will, redemption, suffering, and so forth that it raises, bringing in politics and religion to the stage could almost be considered inevitable.

If religious sensibilities are why LittleBigPlanet, Ocarina of Time, and many other games have revised their content, then Infinite makes no apologies in directly confronting and challenging those sensibilities. The baptism scene at the start is not disrespectful or mocking, nor does it make light of the ritual. It plays a part in posing problems many Christians already ponder, about false prophets, going through the motions, the mundane nature of evil, the reach of salvation, and more. In some ways, the game is meant to be controversial, but what it draws attention to in the course of its beautiful tale of Booker and Elizabeth should be disturbing for plenty of reasons other than "blasphemy."

For those interested, I have written a longer review of religion in this game, exploring more of its ideas and controversy in greater depth.

1. Hitman 2 and the Sikh Temple

The Hitman games may just be some of the worst games to look to for any kind of religious deference. I mean, we're talking about games that simulate contracted murder, not games for kids or for generally sensitive folks. Even so, three missions in 2002's Hitman 2: Silent Assassin caught the ire of Sikhs who argued that they bear striking similarity to the tragic massacre that took place at Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, in 1984. The level description on the game's website (which has since been amended) spoke of an "ancient Gurdwara", or Sikh temple, and noted that an "uprising in this region in the mid 80's was ruthlessly cracked down on by government-issued troops, and many innocents were killed." A number of turban-wearing Sikh assassins are your enemies in the level, referred to at one point as "towelheads" by a contact you meet early on in the Temple City Ambush mission.

Eidos responded by removing offensive material from both its website and the game, but most of the changes seem to have been cosmetic, such as censoring or altering words and images. Considering that this game was released fairly shortly after September 11th, the controversy may appear very different now, looking back almost 14 years later. Still today, American Sikhs continue to experience violence and bigotry perpetrated by ignorant individuals who mistake them for Muslim-Americans. Hitman 2 didn't help by contributing to these misunderstandings in its depiction of Sikhs as "cult" members, assassins, and terrorists, regardless of whether the location in the missions is actually meant to be the Golden Temple.

Contra Aristotle, Oscar Wilde remarked that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Likely the concern of many who object to religious controversies is that they can provoke other, potentially more harmful forms of discrimination. There does seem to be something to this, and it's probably one reason why most avid gamers find games like Hatred and Ethnic Cleansing abhorrent. On the other hand, censorship is almost never the best solution, not only because it limits the free expression of others, but because it can also significantly impact the attention given to something troubling. 

As forms of artistic expression, video games should experiment in the provocative and controversial, and should largely be free to do so. But where we should draw the line and how we ought to respond to offensive material are also questions worth asking - ones that may be productively taken up by the various religious, political, philosophical, and social communities in our diverse world.