Sunday, September 30, 2007

Theistic Athiests

I am looking at this ad for an upcoming event sponsored by the Students for Free Thought titled Ask an Atheist. The ad goes as follows.
Ask an Atheist
Why not believe in God?
Do Athiests have morals?
Does life have a purpose?
Isn’t life without belief in God just dreadful?
Do you know someone who is an atheist?
Want to know what atheists REALLY believe? Ask questions and get answers from our panel of five friendly atheists. It might not be what you expect.
What am I not supposed to expect. Yes one can make a rational case that God does not exist. Yes there are atheists who are extremely moral people. Yes one can still find purpose in life without believing in God, it is called Existentialism. As your life can still have meaning even without God, no life will not become just dreadful without God. And now for the big shocker Atheists Can Be Friendly. You can even see five of them on display.
Is it just me or do these atheists sound a lot like Christian missionaries? I am quite certain I have seen ads for Christian groups amounting to the same thing.
Ask a Christian
Why believe in God?
Can Christianity Help Me Lead a More Moral Life?
Does Life Have a Purpose?
Doesn’t believing in God make life dreadful?
Want to know what Christians REALLY believe? Ask questions and get answers from our panel of five friendly Christians. It might not be what you expect.
Take a look at the Mormon Church’s website and this is almost exactly what you will find.
If atheists really want to claim intellectual superiority over theists then why are they offering the same sort of sentimentalist claptrap that that theists tend to offer? Why do the Students for Free Thought not offer weekly study groups on David Hume or Nietzsche? Instead what we have is the traditional appeal to emotions as opposed to reason. Come to our group. Our people are friendly. We offer you a belief system to give order to your life and will help you become a more moral person. Why should we care if atheists are friendly or that they are moral? Either there is a good case against God’s existence or there is not. If we do not have any reason to assume that God exists then we are obligated to give a good Richard Dawkins style stiff upper lip and accept the fact that God does not exist. If atheists were a pack of murderous Huns out to use your scalp as a loin-cloth that would still not make God any more real. If, on the other hand, we were to decide that there is a good case for assuming that God exists then we would have to keep that same stiff upper lip and accept that he exists. Being a believer in God gives you an advantage here because you can still declare yourself in opposition to him. If God were simply an immoral Mafia Don threatening to destroy anyone who did not serve him then we could take the moral stance and reject his rule.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

And Now a Taste of Something Whigish

A friend of mine, who works as an archivist and has an interest in the history of science, sent this to me before Yom Kippur. It is from the introduction to a book published in 1883 titled: Zoological sketches: a contribution to the outdoor study of natural history. The name of the author was Felix Leopold Oswald

"The tendencies of our realistic civilization make it evident that the study of natural science is destined to supersede the mystic scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and I believe that the standards of entertaining literature will undergo a corresponding change. The Spirit of Naturalism has awakened after its long slumber..."
"...Whatever is natural is wrong, was the keystonedogma of the mediaeval schoolmen...The worship of joy yielded to a worship of sorrow, the study of living nature to the study of dead languages and barrensophisms...The moralists that had suppressed the Olympic festivals compensated the public with autos-da-fe. The whole history of the Middle Ages is, indeed, the history of a long war against nature.
[Note that he doesn't blame religion or even Catholicism but the scholastics for everything wrong in Western thought! Safer in England and America to do that]
"But nature has at last prevailed. Delusions are clouds, and the storm of the Thirty Years' War has cleared our sky...Ghost-stories are going out of fashion...And, moreover, the progress of natural science tends to supersede fiction by making it superfluous-even for romantic purposes."

What I find interesting about this piece, besides for its total distortion of the Middle Ages, is its assumption that modern civilization would have no need for fantasy. As we know so well, stories about boy wizards do not sell over 300 million copies in our modern civilization. This does raise an interesting question though as to what is the relationship between the writing of fantasy fiction and belief in the supernatural? It would seem to be reasonable to classify fantasy as a genre for religious people and science fiction as a genre for secularists. Religious people, who put their hopes in a supernatural world, should find it very easy to suspend their disbelief when confronted with fantasy supernatural. Secularists, who place their hopes in science should be open to suspending their disbelief at the scientific fantasies of science fiction. Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia were written by Tolkien and Lewis, who were both deeply religious individuals. On the other hand science fiction was pioneered by the likes of H.G Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, all quite hostile to organized religion. The only problem with this theory is that it does not pan out in reality. Orson Scott Card is one of the greatest science fiction writers today and he is a Mormon. Not only that but his science fiction has very explicit religious overtones. One of the greatest fantasy writers today, Philip Pullman, is militant atheist. His Dark Materials, besides for turning Paradise Lost on its head, is an atheist allegory written to open children up to the idea of overthrowing God and all those who claim to speak in his name. (Its a brilliant series of book, so please do not let any religious qualms you may have get in the way of reading it.) Furthermore, as we saw with Harry Potter, fantasy, even when it is not explicitly hostile to religion, can still raise its ire.
I happen to be a fan of both science fiction and fantasy. I believe that these forms of fiction have an important role to play in society in that they force us to think outside of the normal box of our reality. They tyranny of everyday expectations and of the society around us is one of the hardest things to fight against. It is only by being able to break outside of the box of what our own preconceptions of reality that we can truly become free thinkers.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Derrida, Forgiveness and the Peace Process

This is a paper that I wrote a few years ago dealing with forgiveness within the context of politics. As we are about to enter Yom Kippur and as I am in the ongoing process of writing about the underlying philosophies of America's and Israel's war against terrorism I thought that this peace is appropiate.

“What do we call forgiveness? What calls for forgiveness? Who calls for, who calls upon forgiveness?” (pg 27) In his essay “On Forgiveness,” Jacques Derrida argues that true forgiveness is to forgive the unforgivable. Derrida defines forgiveness as the willingness to allow the injustice that has already been done to oneself by another to stand. Once a wrong has been made up for it does not make any sense to speak of forgiveness. If someone owed a debt and paid it back then neither of the parties owes the other anything; it would be foolish of the lender to say that after receiving his money back that he forgives the borrower. It only makes sense to talk about forgiveness when that debt cannot be paid back, such as in situations of persecution and particularly mass murder.
Derrida sees the act of asking for and of granting forgiveness as one of the key underlying foundations of modern international politics; the Abrahamic notion of forgiveness has been internationalized[1] and secularized in order to serve the needs of the modern state and society. The main actors in this new politic of forgiveness are not individuals but states. There are two reasons for this. Firstly by focusing upon the state we can avoid the question of: is the apology or forgiveness really meant or is it just feigned? By keeping forgiveness within the dominion of the state we are able to avoid prying into this “secret” and as such we do not interfere with the process of national memory. The second reason is that “all Nation-States are born and found themselves in violence.”(pg. 57) The state itself, in order to justify its own legitimacy, needs to be able to get everyone else to agree to take its own sins off of the table. Since all states have some guilt everyone is agreeing to allow everyone else’s guilt to be covered up in exchange for their guilt also covered over and kept a secret.
Derrida’s theory of forgiveness offers an interesting angle as what the peace-process means and as to why it has so far failed so miserably? The peace-process, in the schematic of forgiveness, can be seen matter of both the Israelis and the Palestinians agreeing to ask and, in return, grant forgiveness for past “misdeeds.” With Oslo, the Israelis were agreeing to renounce their claims over the West Bank and Gaza and forgive the Palestinian Authority for its acts of terrorism. The Palestinian Authority was agreeing to renounce terrorism along with any claim over the pre-1967 Israel and forgive Israel for having occupied “their” land. The reasoning behind both side’s actions was not moral contrition but simple political expediency. Israel wanted an end to Palestinian violence and the Palestinian Authority wants a state. Furthermore each side felt that it needed the support of the European Community and the United States and coul not afford to be seen as being the ones holding back peace.
The peace-process failed because the whole mechanics of forgiveness broke down. Neither side was capable of asking for forgiveness or granting it because doing so would undermine the legitimacy of either side and run counter to the politics of memory from which they have built an edifice to justify their own existence. In discussing the failures of Oslo there has been a lot of emphasis on the religious problems. I think this aspect has been overemphasized. Remember, it has been Israelis, who are by and large secular Jews, and Palestinians, who are by and large secular Muslims, if not Christians, who have failed at the negotiation table.[2] As to why there has been such an emphasis on the role played by religious extremists in bringing about the current crisis, I would suggest that the religious want the credit and the secular want to give them the blame. Most of the religious factions opposed the peace-process, so the narrative that their actions have stopped the peace-process appeals to them. As for the Western secular media, the narrative that they want to tell is of a Middle-East caught in an endless cycle of medieval religious wars, to which the only hope is for there to be a spirit of “Enlightenment,” “tolerance” and “understanding,” i.e. secularism.
The problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that which distinguishes it from almost any other conflict in history is the fact that the legitimacy of each side’s claims is almost totally mutually exclusive. If it was legitimate for the state of Israel to have been created in 1947 and for Israel to have fought its various wars with the neighboring Arab states, then the Palestinian Authority becomes a terrorist organization and can therefore claim no legitimacy. If the Arab states were the aggressors in 1948 then it is their fault that so many Palestinians became refugees and the onus for solving the problem would lie with them and not with Israel. If on the other hand the Palestinian cause is legitimate and the PLO can be considered to be freedom fighters then by necessity the state of Israel is an imperialist state, imposed upon the Arab peoples by the West, with no right to exist and as such the Jewish people have no right to the land of Israel.
In most conflicts what is at stake is not the inherent legitimacy of a state. More importantly most conflicts do not involve the legitimacy of the claims of private individuals to their property. It is possible for the French and the Germans to be at peace with one another despite their conflicts over Alsace and Lorraine because the ownership of Alsace and Lorraine does not affect the intrinsic integrity of either France or Germany. It is possible for Germany to declare that it forgives France for its “wars of aggression,” (the Thirty Years War and World War I) and is willing to let bygones be bygones. Germany can even say that it was wrong of them to have fought the war of 1870 and World War II in order to regain control over Alsace and Lorraine and admit that these were “criminal wars of imperialist aggression.” It would be possible for the German people to ask the French people to forgive them for this without affecting the legitimacy of the governments in Berlin and Paris. It would it destroy the concept of being a Frenchman or a German. More importantly neither of these claims would affect the German or the French citizen’s claim to their homes whither they are in Alsace or Lorraine or Berlin or Paris.
Much of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians can be seen in terms of finding a compromise on what and who is to be forgiven. In signing the Oslo accords Israel was in essence agreeing to forgive Yassir Arafat and the PLO. By accepting him as a partner in peace and by agreeing to transfer specific tracts of land to the Palestinian Authority, Israel was agreeing to wash away Arafat’s actions as if they never happened. In exchange Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were agreeing to forgive the state of Israel for the occupation of Arab land and ask forgiveness for their own acts of terrorism. The genius of Oslo was that it was able to give both sides a diplomatic victory and it did not require either side to make any hard sacrifices; all issues such as a Palestinian state, refugees and Jerusalem were pushed off for later “final status negations.” Meanwhile both sides were able to make the case to their own people that Oslo did not mark a surrender on their part. Rabin and Peres were able to make the case to the Israelis that with Oslo they were buying off Arafat; they were getting him to turn on his fellow Palestinian terrorists in exchange for nominal control over Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Even Peres, in those years, was adamant; there was going to be no Palestinian state, no partitioning of Jerusalem and no return of refugees. Arafat on the other hand was able to interpret Oslo as a cease fire in the struggle against Israel to be ended if Israel did not deliver on his demands for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol along with the return of the refugees.
The failed Camp David accords, with its offer of a state compromising the Gaza Strip along with almost all of the West Bank, was, in the language of forgiveness, an agreement to say that Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel along with the war in ’67 were legitimate and the Palestinians must ask forgiveness for their attempts to destroy Israel. But that it was wrong for Israel to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza, so Israel must ask forgiveness from the Palestinians for that. Barak and the Labor party was willing to accept this line and the Likud could probably have been forced to go along with it as a matter of practicality. In truth the Camp David accords was not even asking the Labor party to ask for forgiveness for any of their actions. The settler movement was by and large a creation of the right so Barak, was in essence, offering to ask for forgiveness for the sins of his political opponents. (Imagine a President Kerry, after having won the 2004 election, pulling American troops out of Iraq and apologizing for America’s, i.e. Bush’s, war of aggression) Arafat could not accept Barak’s offer of post ’67 in exchange for pre ’67 because to do so would still undermine the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the source of Arafat’s legitimacy, was founded in 1964, before Israel had the West Bank and Gaza, and its purpose was the destruction of a state of Israel which did not then occupy the West Bank and Gaza. To accept Camp David would have meant that Arafat himself would have had to admit to being a terrorist.
What the Palestinian Authority needed to be able to do was get Israel to accept that there is a right of return for all Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian Authority claims to represent all the Palestinian people, not just in Gaza and the West Bank but also the Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia etc. If the Palestinian Authority were to make a peace agreement that left all the refugees stranded then they would be admitting that there really is no such thing as a Palestinian people, it was just a scam to get sympathy from the West. Israel though is unable to allow the refugees to come back. If all or most of the refugees were to come back to Israel then Israel could of course be destroyed by democratic means. Even if not a single refugee were to accept the offer to come back to Israel the Palestinian Authority would still de facto be gaining its victory over Israel. By agreeing in principle to allow the refugees back into Israel, Israel would be accepting at least a partial blame for having caused the refugee problem back in 1948. This in turn would in turn undermine the founding of the state of Israel; it would show that having a Jewish state was inherently a detrimental act to the Arab natives and so therefore there existed legitimate reasons for the Arab states to reject the formation of a state of Israel.
For the Israelis the notion of forgiving Palestinian terrorism is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for the right. Such an action requires turning ones back on all the blood spilt and put it out of ones political mind and memory.[3] This goes against the ideology of the Holocaust. The slogans associated with the Holocaust are zachor, we will remember, and “never again.” Crucial to the Israeli self image is the notion that we are dealing with the new Jew. The new Jew, created by Zionism is not supposed to be the Jew of Eastern Europe, who meekly allowed himself to be led to the camps and slaughtered.[4] Instead our new Jew remembers[5] what happened, refuses to follow in that path and will not allow Jewish blood to be spilt unanswered.
The Palestinians have, in regards to forgiveness, even less room to work with then the Israelis. The Palestinians have an even greater need for a collective memory because they do not, as yet, have a country which they could claim as their own and because they have a very ambiguous status as a people. Palestine never existed as an Arab country; it was part of greater Syria, which itself for hundreds of years was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinians are trying to create a country that has never existed before.[6] To further complicate matters the Palestinians have to carry around two national memories. They are claiming to be their own separate group and a part of the greater Arab front. They claim that “Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and [that] the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”[7] Are the Palestinians their own separate group or are they a part of Pan-Arabism? They need to be both. If the Palestinians are their own separate group then why should the various Arab states help, or even tolerate them? If the Palestinians are just an element of the greater Arab peoples the why should the West help them? The West could say: let the Arabs take in and integrate the Palestinians, since they are the same people. If the Palestinian Authority were to cut a deal with Israel, give up the struggle and recognize Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority would be cutting themselves off from the Pan-Arab cause. If the Palestinian Authority does this then what reason do the other Arab states have for giving it support? The Palestinian Authority needs the Arab support much more then it needs Western support. If the French feel betrayed by the Palestinian Authority they still will not massacre Palestinians by the thousands, as the Jordanians did thirty years ago.
The end result of all this was the Intifadah, which cost thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives. At a tactical level very little has changed these past few years. Israel still has the military advantage; it is capable of hitting any Palestinian target any time and any place. It is only limited by its moral commitment to keep the actions of its military within the bounds of the Western ethical framework and by how far America is willing to allow it to go. The Palestinians are still capable of carrying out act of terrorism. While not all, or even most, of these attacks will succeed, the Palestinians can still take out dozens of Israeli citizens from time to time.
Sharon’s disengagement plan brought to the forefront a deep fracture within Israeli society. Within the language of the schemata of forgiveness, Sharon and the majority of the country agreed to not just unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but also to unilaterally disassociate the state of Israel from the settler movement. Sharon in affect announced to the world that Israel viewed the settlements not just as a failure but as a mistake that needed to be corrected. Sharon forced Israel to actually swallow the pill that Barak had been willing to accept. Sharon, because he was on the right, was in a better position to do this. He isolated the settler movement and the far right from the rest of the country. This left the settlers pretty much to themselves to fight this issue. It ceased to be an issue of whither or not Israel should take the blame or if even the Israel right should take the blame. Rather it has become an issue of whither or not the settlers should bear the blame and for the vast majority of Israelis the answer is yes. At a fundamental level the settlers were betrayed. They were left as the scapegoats, the stains on Zionism that needed to be expunged. They came to the territories as an extension of the Zionist dream. They were then written off from the Zionist movement not even as failures, for failures are still allowed their martyrs, but as sins for which one has to ask forgiveness for.
From the perspective of the schemata of forgiveness, what is necessary for the peace-process to work is for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza to come to view themselves as a separate entity from the Palestinians in refugee camps and from the Pan-Arab cause. This would make it possible for them to accept some version of the Camp David accords. The reconstructed Palestinian people, through their new leadership, would be able to give up on the cause of the refugees and ask Israel for forgiveness for having tried to destroy it. Israel would in turn be able to ask this new Palestinian people to forgive them for the occupation and the settlements.[8] This would create a situation were both sides would be capable of allowing themselves to back down from the politics of hate and vengeance and enter into the politics of peace and forgiveness.

[1] Even the Japanese, who are not part of the Abrahamic cultural tradition, have been putting the politic of forgiveness into practice. For example the Japanese Prime Minister made a formal request of the people of Korea to forgive the Japanese for the horrendous crimes against humanity that the Japanese had perpetrated against them.
[2] One could object to this by pointing to all the terrorist attacks that have been carried by Islamic fundamentalists. I would counter by reminding you that such acts, for the most part, only happened because Arafat, a man who by all accounts was a secularist, allowed them to do it. Why did Arafat allow this? To simply say that he was an irrational maniac is a cope out; Arafat survived on the international stage for forty years, longer then anyone else besides for Fidel Castro. You do not manage to do that simply by being an irrational maniac.
[3] I am not saying that one has to forget what happened; one just has to be willing to take the event off the table and make it not an issue. For all intents and purposes then, it is as if the even has been forgotten.
[4] This is a myth not historical fact.
[5] Because of the image of Jews allowing themselves to be led to their deaths the Holocaust represented a problem for the early Israelis, who wished to distance themselves from that image. During the forties and fifties even survivors kept mum about what had happened. The day that was chosen as Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorates the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, an image acceptable to Israeli ideology.
[6] This does not undermine their right to create a country Palestine. There are several million Palestinians and it is their right to try to create a state for themselves by all legal means.
[7] Article 1 of the Palestinian National Charter passed June 17th, 1968.
[8] As I mentioned earlier, no one actually has to mean what they say they just have to be willing to accept the implications, political, historical or otherwise, of what they say.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why I Reject the Whole Notion of International Law

One of the main charges against the Israeli settlements is that they violate international law and are hence illegal. This raises the question of what is international law and what is the basis of its authority. In this matter, I must admit to being rather perplexed. I understand the notion of sovereign states making laws, that individuals who violate the laws of the nation in which they reside have done something illegal. I understand the concept that countries themselves and in particular their leaders, are said to have done something illegal when they violate their own laws. Even laws themselves can be illegal if they violate the constitution of the State. If President Bush would tomorrow declare himself President for Life and make Methodism the official religion of the United States then he would stop being the president and would have to be viewed as a criminal and a traitor to this country.

What does it mean when we say that countries have violated international law? Why should countries even be bound by international law? It would seem to me that every country should have the right to make its own laws within its own borders and be able to live by them without any outside interference particularly when this outside interference does not have any firm basis as to justify its own authority. Who makes international law? The United Nations, what legal power does it have over any given nation. The same thing goes for the Haig court. Besides for the fact that it is simply a political tool, why should any country have to give it any heed, particularly a country like the United States, which never agreed to accept such a court in the first place? To make matters worse, what people usually mean when they appeal to the notion of international law is simply their own personal moral judgment. Not that I have anything against people having moral values or acting upon them as long as they are willing to acknowledge that they are acting according to their values and that other people may have different ones.

The only sort of international law that I would recognize as having some sort of meaningful authority would be formal treaties and agreements signed by a country and the informal codes of conduct, such as how to treat prisoners of war, that countries operate under. Both of these things are very different from international law as we usually think of it. A country is bound to keep the agreements it signs not because of any international law but simply in terms of its own laws. A treaty signed by a government could be viewed as a law which it signs. A government that violates a treaty would be in the same category as a government that violates its own laws. In both cases these are internal affairs outside of the jurisdiction of any world community. Codes of conduct need not be regulated by any formal laws but simply through the threat of retaliation. If a country does not keep to generally accepted norms of behavior then other countries will react in kind. For example, if a country at war decides to start executing captured enemy soldiers then the other side will also start executing captured soldiers. This is not in a country’s best interests so countries can be counted on to treat prisoners with a basic level of humanity.

There are two possible objections that people might wish to challenge me with. I supported the invasion of Iraq, which was done in the name of international law and I continue to support the use of armed force against regimes that systematically violate the human rights of its own citizens. Another possible challenge is how would someone like me, who rejects the concept of international law, justify the Nuremberg trials. As a Jew and as someone who has grandparents who are Holocaust survivors clearly I should support the prosecution of Nazi war-criminals.

One of the major problems with President Bush’s approach to Iraq from the very beginning was that he framed the issue in terms of Iraq’s violation of UN sanctions and of international law. By appealing to the authority of international law, the UN and the world community, Bush left himself open to the charge that he himself was going against international law, the UN, and the world community. The left pounced and with mind-boggling efficiency labeled Bush the World’s Greatest War Criminal. This could have all been easily avoided if Bush from the very beginning had been willing to justify his actions solely in terms of national authority. America as a sovereign nation has the right to go to war against its enemies. America has the right to go after what it sees as it own self interest. It also has the right to act according to its own moral values even to the extent of invading countries that act against them. It is the old scenario of the Indians burning widows. Yes they have the right to engage in their traditional customs, but the British have the right to retaliate by practicing their own traditional custom of hanging people who commit murder.

This may sound strange to some people, but Nuremberg was a complete legal farce, which violated some of the most basic rules legal jurisprudence. The defendants at Nuremberg were being prosecuted by countries that they were not citizens of, by a court that had no jurisdiction over them and for the violation of laws that were not on the books when their actions were committed. Furthermore, the laws, which they were accused of violating, conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, conspiracy to commit war crimes, crimes against peace and war crimes, were written to the best of my knowledge, with the sole intention of having something to charge them with.
As a trial, Nuremberg was completely illegal. That being said, I believe that it was right thing to do. The Allies had every right to simply execute the leaders of Nazi Germany, without charging them or putting them on trial, simply as part of the war effort. More importantly, the Nuremberg court served to create a historical record of Nazi atrocities. The Allies had a moral responsibility to put things down for the record and in this they did an admirable job. Instead of calling it a trial, though, they should have called it a fact finding commission. It would have made things much easier for us.
By tolerating the legal fiction of international law, we created a monster for ourselves. Anyone can lay claim to it and use it as they will. The same logic that allows one to go after Saddam Husain or Nazi war criminals allows Arabs to go after Israeli generals and politicians. In the end, international law becomes a weapon to protect those who seek to violate human rights.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Making Peace With God's Liberal Warriors

From the perspective of international opinion, one of the biggest weaknesses in Israel’s case is the existence of the settlements. Since 1967, the Israeli government has placed or has allowed over 250,000 of its own citizens to move into the West Bank and Gaza, which it had captured from Egypt and Jordon during the Six-Day War. The United Nations and the international community have dubbed these areas as occupied territory and have insisted that Israel withdraw from them. Even worse we repeatedly see, within the western media, subtle and not so subtle attempts to equate the Israeli occupation of these lands with Arab terrorism. Witness, for example, the recent CNN program, God’s Warriors. (If you have not seen the program you can find it in its entirety on Youtube.)
It is easy to deal with the direct moral equation. Anyone who claims to not be able to see the difference between living on disputed territory, or even illegally living on land that belongs to others, and blowing up civilians is wicked, insane, or lying. The difficult thing is to deal with this moral equivocation when it is done through innuendo. How many times have we seen this: Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are being pushed by radicals in their own camps or that the radicals on both sides do not want peace. As if words like hawkish, extreme, fundamentalist, or radical meant the same thing in both the Israeli and Arab contexts. Now, of course, Christina Amanpour has enriched our political vocabulary with the terms God’s Jewish Warriors, God’s Muslim Warriors, and God’s Christian Warriors. God’s warriors you know those crazy people, who are responsible for all the trouble in the world. Those people who take their religion more seriously than one should in polite company. They want to enforce their views on others, (i.e. do things that make more civilized people uncomfortable) and even resort to violence. Whether or not this is fair, the settler movement is a weapon with which serves to muddy the moral waters.

This brings us to the essential weakness of the settler’s case, one that it has ignored. In justifying their continued presence in the territories, they have focused on defending their actions on biblical, moral, and security grounds. They step around the diplomatic and public relations issues. When confronted with these issues, defenders of the settler movement argue that the negative view of the settler movement is simply due to anti-Semitism and that it is simply an excuse to attack Israel; if it was not the settlements, it would be something else. To me, this simply becomes a Jewish version of the leftist a tyrant is someone who checks up on what library books people check out argument. In both cases, the line of thinking demonstrates a failure of the imagination. If the Devil is anyone who disagrees with you then what word do you use to describe a man with goat hooves, horns, and a trident? It is bad enough when liberals seem to be unable to see a moral difference between President George W. Bush and Osama bin Ladin. Jews, in this case, have even less of an excuse. The anti-Semites really are at our gate. Hamas is in power in the Palestinian authority. Ahmadinejad, that lunatic whose name I cannot pronounce for the life of me, is in power in Iran, free to host Holocaust denial conferences. Amanpour may be a lot of things, including an incompetent liberal (I do believe that there is such a thing as competent liberals) and absolutely ignorant about religion. I do not think she is an anti-Semite. She sees the world through the framework of modern-day liberalism. She accepts its models and tries to fit everything into its narrative. In the liberal narrative, religious fundamentalists are intolerant and seek to impose their beliefs on others even through the use of violence. Wars are fought because both sides failed to understand each other; hence both sides are automatically guilty. All that is needed for peace is for all sides in a conflict to embrace tolerance. I may reject this way of thinking, you might also. The fact remains that this is the narrative through which the vast majority of the West sees the world. Until there is major intellectual sift we are going to be stuck with this worldview. I am trying to do my part to bring about such an intellectual sift, it is one of the reasons why I write this blog, but I do not expect things to change anytime soon. This means that if we want to get public opinion on our side then we are going to have to make our case within the context of the liberal narrative. If this means dismantling settlements then so be it.

I admit that there are people who are going to hate us no matter what we do. I accept that no matter what we will be faced with a full-scale Arab propaganda assault that will attempt to demonize us. That should not blind us to the fact that there are millions of well-meaning liberals out there who would be willing to support us if we played by their rules. That means paying a price, such as the painful pullout from Gaza. Even today, I am not sure if Israel made the right decision or not but this action has benefited Israel. Do you think that it is a coincidence that even the European Union is not supporting Hamas and that Israel was allowed to wage its war in Lebanon for as long as it did without the world jumping in? Israel gained a level of moral credibility from its actions. The world saw Israel make an incredible sacrifice and that Palestinians responded by electing Hamas. Israel was willing to play by the liberal rulebook. It went after its own “extremists” and embraced the “path of peace.” Hamas has refused to even pretend to play by the liberal playbook. It refused to even acknowledge Israel. This type of moral reasoning may make me sick and it may not be fair, but this is the world that we live in and these are the rules that we have to play by.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hogwarts School of Force Studies and Pantheistic Heresies

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins are in the habit of accusing religion of promoting superstition. As a theist and as a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism, I have to admit that there is some truth to these charges. I regularly find myself embarrassed by what seems to pass as religious doctrine these days. As fans of the recently completed Harry Potter series know so well, many religious fundamentalists, in both the Christian and Jewish flavors, have, for years, been waging a campaign against Potter claiming that it promotes witchcraft. As offensive as I find this perspective to be, I believe that it highlights certain trends within even fundamentalist strains of religious thought that run counter to the usual religion promotes superstition narrative so beloved by Dawkins and company.

What we have here are religious fundamentalists who not only are not supportive of a work that supports belief in the supernatural but actively seek to suppress the work. For some strange reason, religious fundamentalists are scared that if their children read Harry Potter they will come to believe in the supernatural. Why are religious fundamentalists not lining up behind Harry Potter as a tool to get children to open their minds to non-naturalistic perspectives? The answer is that fundamentalists are concerned that if children get turned onto the supernatural it will be the wrong sort of supernatural, one that lies outside of their established religion. I would see this attack on Potter as symptomatic of two things within religious fundamentalist thought. That the established religious authority must be protected, not just from the claims of scientists, but also from claims of the supernatural variety. Also that the religious beliefs of fundamentalists have nothing to do with theology but are mere adherence to a given established religious authority.

C.S Lewis was someone who was genuinely comfortable living in the shadow of the supernatural. One of the reasons why he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia was to make children comfortable with the idea of the supernatural. As the professor explains to Peter and Susan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whether or not Lucy had really entered another world, there is nothing about such a claim that goes against reason. Logically speaking there are three possibilities. Either Lucy made up Narnia, imagined it or she is telling the truth. Since Lucy is known to be an honest person and has not been known to be delusional the only rational conclusion is that she is telling the truth and Narnia does in fact exist. Lewis was responding to David Hume’s argument against miracles. According to Hume, one should assume that since the vast majority of miraculous claims are false one should simply take as an operational assumption that even those miraculous claims which have not been disproven are also false. Unlike our fundamentalists, Lewis was more concerned with convincing people that naturalism was irrational and that only by assuming the existence of a deity, could the authority of reason be defended, then he was with establishing the authority of one particular church or text as being unchallengeable.

As much as this may sound counterintuitive, organized religions and in particular members of religious hierarchies serve to limit and even suppress, popular superstitions. While all religions are built around supernatural claims, which supposedly happened sometime in the past, the existence of present-day miracles, and in particular present day miracle workers, present a direct challenge to established religious authorities. Think of miracles as power structures from which authority can be established. The moment someone comes along and establishes their own line of miracles they have established their own rival power structure. Religious authorities claim that their power structure was established by God through the hand of a miracle worker, such as Moses, Jesus or Mohammed, who demonstrated his authority by performing miracles. The religious power structure, through the medium of tradition, claims to be the inheritor of the authority of these miracles. If I lay claim to having performed a miracle then I can claim to be acting on God’s authority and challenge the authority of the given religious power structure. I can claim to be the true inheritor of the authority of the original miracle or I can start a brand new religious power structure.

An excellent illustration of this is the Talmud’s story of the debate between Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and the Sages over the purity of the ovens of Aknai:

Said he [R. Eliezer] to them [the Sages]: “if the halachah [law] agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place … ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere? … Again he [R. Eliezer] said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ (Deuteronomy 30:12) (Baba Mezia 59b, Soncino Talmud Nezikin I pg. 352-53)

The end of the story is that the Sages did not accept the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer and eventually excommunicated him for his refusal to back down. The point of this story is that Jewish law is based on rabbinic tradition and dialectic but not around miracles and prophecy. If we are going to allow miracles and prophecy to play a role then all you need is for someone to claim that he is a prophet who can perform miracles and that person and his followers would be able to justify holding out against the entire established rabbinate. This type of reasoning would be the end of rabbinic Judaism and for that matter any other established religion.

Side by side with the church’s history of attempting to suppress scientific thinking is their war against magic. For example, during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church went after Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) for his work on Hermeticism and Kabbalah despite the fact that Pico wished to use these things to defend Christian dogma. According to Pico, the most effective means of demonstrating the truth of Christianity was through the study of magic and Kabbalah. Even though Pico’s arguments for the use of magic and Kabbalah may have sounded pious, they contained a direct challenge to the Church. If magic and Kabbalah could teach all that one needed to know about Christianity then why would someone have any need for the New Testament, the church fathers or the entire church tradition for that matter? Once you have built Christianity around magic and Kabbalah, like Pico did, then it is not a very far jump to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who rejected traditional Christianity arguing that Hermeticism was the true Christianity and not the Gospels.

The 17th century false Messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi (1626-76), is another example of the sort of anti-rationalist thinking that can be nourished in the absence of an effective established religious structure. He claimed to be a prophet and a miracle worker, but he also, as the Messiah, claimed the authority to overturn Jewish law. Sabbatai Tzvi did not come out of mainstream rabbinic culture and one must him as a direct assault upon that culture. Early in his career, he was chased out of hometown of Smyrna and from other places as well. He eventually though was able to win or at least to silence the established rabbinate of the day. He did this not by insinuating himself with the established rabbinic culture, but by, with the help of Nathan of Gaza, creating a mass popular movement, outside of any sort of rabbinic control. Even after Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam and even after he died, the Sabbatean movement remained a powerful source of counter-rabbinic Jewish thought.

As Dr. Matt Goldish argues in his Book, Sabbatean Prophets, Sabbatai Tzvi arose during a time period that saw a growing acceptance of lay prophecy within both Christian and Jewish circles. The idea behind lay prophecy is that the individual can come to know God’s will by reading scripture or simply through the purity of his own heart and one does not need to go through the established religious structure. One can see this type of theology must clearly within Protestant circles, but this was also going on amongst Catholics as well. Unlike established religious power structures, lay prophetic movements rely on the miraculous claims of a religious leader living in the here and now.
Ultimately established religious authorities have as much to fear from miracle workers than they have to fear from the claims to science. As such they have no choice but to suppress them.

Not that I am excusing the actions of those who went after Potter or letting them off the hook. I have no illusions that they are acting out of any love of science or reason. There is something that I do find perplexing about the whole opposition. It would seem that Potter got into trouble not for the kind of things taught at Hogwarts but because it used the words magic and witchcraft. Let us imagine that instead of the words magic and witchcraft, Rowling had decided to use the words Force and Jedi. Hogwarts is a school for children who are sensitive to the Force. At Hogwarts, children learn to channel the Force and use it for such diverse activities as transfiguring objects and charming them. Students at Hogwarts take such classes as Defense against the Dark Side and Care of Force Sensitive Creatures. Upon graduation, students become Jedi Knights and work for the Ministry of Jedi.

To the best of my knowledge, George Lucas’ Star Wars films never aroused even a small fraction of the religious opposition that Potter has, neither for the original films nor for the more recent prequels. The case of the prequels is particularly relevant as they came out at the exact same time as the Potter books. Personally, if I were to cast my net for stories to corrupt little Jewish and Christian boys and girls, I would be far more concerned with Star Wars than with Harry Potter. Star Wars is blatant Pantheism. The Force, we are told, is within all things. It has a will but it does not seem to be a conscious being, nor does it seem to actually give commandments. This is a pantheist god, the world spirit that is within everything. This is the sort of deity that Spinoza or Hegel would have been comfortable with. For that matter, this is the sort of deity that even an atheist could believe in.
What does it say about the theological IQ of our religious fundamentalists when they are willing to fight over a semantic issue such as the use of the words magic and witchcraft but seem to be completely clueless when it comes to a real theological issue such as Pantheism? Clearly, these people do not have any genuine theological beliefs. All that they have is a religious power structure, whose authority they will defend to the end. They are as much of a threat to belief in God as any materialist.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

More on My Favorite Friendly Neighborhood Vampires: Alice Cullen and a Bit on Sin and Damnation.

My favorite character in the Twilight series is, without a doubt, Alice Cullen. She is small, dark-haired and is constantly described in the books as having pixie-like features. She is a high energy almost manic individual. Think of her as the very sweet but pushy rich girl, who is devoted to remaking other people’s lives, particularly Bella’s, and is convinced that she knows what is best for everyone else. In Alice’s case though she sort of really does know what is best for everyone else as she has the knack for seeing glimpses of the future. Amongst other things, this gives her quite a talent for picking stocks. Meyer does an effective job in handling Alice’s talent, focusing mostly on the holes in Alice’s sight and how things go wrong. Werewolves are completely outside of her line of vision. As the Cullens are living next door to a whole pack of werewolves this is a pretty serious limitation. Alice’s other limitation is that her sight is dependent upon choices that have already been made. Because of this, she cannot predict anyone making spur of the moment decisions. Anyone can avoid her sight as long as they do not make any actual plans, but simply shoot from the hip.
Alice’s background story is a sitting question mark which suggests that it is going to be an important plot point for later books. What we know about her is that she woke up in an insane asylum sometime during the 1920s as a vampire. She has no memories of having ever been human nor does she know how she ended up in the asylum or how she ended up as a vampire. The chief villain in the first book, James, indicates that he knows something about Alice’s background. Since Alice foresaw that she would one day meet the Cullens and join them, she was able from the very beginning to live in accordance with their lifestyle and never went after humans. While in search of the Cullens she found Jasper, whom she later married, and brought him along.
Of all the Cullens Jasper has the most blood-soaked history. He served as a sort of vampire “recruiting sergeant” during the nineteenth century, helping to create armies of newbie vampires which could then be used to go after rival groups. Jasper, on his own, came to reject the life that he was leading. He abandoned his comrades and tried to live cleanly. Despite the guilt that he felt over his actions he was never able to succeed at this until he met Alice and became one of the Cullens.
To analyze Meyer’s characters from the perspective of sin and salvation one could say that the vampires represent fallen mankind struggling within the grasp of sin. In this case, sin takes the form of attacking humans and drinking their blood. While the main characters in the story are all very flawed individuals, their flaws are also the flipsides of their strengths. Jasper is a man who recognizes that he is a sinner, hates sin, but is still unable to overcome his own desire for sin until he discovers law. Of all the Cullens he is the one at the greatest risk of falling away. There is an ambiguity to his personality. Do we see him as the redeemed penitent who more than any of the Cullens has overcome his nature or do we see him as a ticking bomb waiting to go off? Alice is the prophetess who, even though she did not possess the law, was still able to foresee its coming and live according to it. Carlisle is the lawgiver, who offers the others law as a way to salvation. He is the one Cullen who was able to overcome his thirst for human blood, by himself and through his own will power. Carlisle believes that vampires have souls and that they can therefore still be saved. (Because of Carlisle’s role as the teacher, lawgiver and because he is the father figure here, particularly for Edward, I strongly suspect that he is going to be killed off in the later books, leaving the others to live according to his example even though he is no longer with them.) In contrast to Carlisle, Edward does not believe that vampires have souls and assumes that they are all damned no matter how good they try to be. It is for this reason that Edward is so set on not making Bella a vampire; he wants to save her soul. From his perspective, allowing Bella to be turned into a vampire would be the most selfish thing that he could possibly do. The irony here is that in a sense, because of Edward’s “rejection” of salvation, his motives are purer than even Carlisle’s. Since Edward does not believe that there is any heaven waiting for him if he were to die at some point he has no motive for living as he does and for making the sort of sacrifices that are asked of him except sheer unselfish goodness. This is particularly poignant as he is faced with sacrificing Bella, who means everything in the world to him. Like Edward, the werewolf, Jacob Black is also out to save Bella’s soul. Ironically enough while Black is the character who is unfallen and outside of the threat of sin, of all the major characters he is the most flawed. His attempts at saving Bella’s soul come across as him trying to steal Bella from Edward for himself. Jacob is, on one hand, someone who selflessly gives of himself to others, but his very selflessness comes out as a form of selfishness. Despite all the effort being put into saving her soul, Bella is about to willingly become a vampire herself? She is Eve, willingly placing herself under the power of sin? The interesting thing is that she is doing it for all the right motives. She is acting out of her love for Edward and her desire to protect the Cullens. Whether she will fall or not still, of course, remains to be seen.
What is going to become of Carlisle’s law? This is very speculative on my part but I suspect it is meant to be a form of Old Testament law. It is built around thou shall not. It is able to stop people from sinning but is it truly able to bring salvation, as Carlisle believes? Despite all the Cullens considerable efforts they are still trapped by their vampire selves. Carlisle’s law offers no escape for that. What is needed is a new law that is built, not on though shall or shall not, but on love. Is Edward’s love for Bella meant to be this new redemptive law? To go out on a really big limb, what is behind Bella being impervious to almost all the various vampire knacks? Why are the Volturi so interested in having her made a vampire? By having her willingly join they believe they can corrupt her and use her power for their own benefit. Could it be that Bella is the pure soul who can transcend this fallen world and possibly even save it?