Tag Archives: Religion

Faithless

Ta-Nehisi Coates has some sharp words for Battlestar Galactica, Gaius Baltar, and Number Six:

There are many things wrong with this first season–the hokey court-drama during that “tribunal” episode, the long extended nothing of the Helo/Boomer arc (I like Helo, but goddamn, can something actually happen please), the hamfisted War on Terror parallelism. But unquestionably the worst aspect of the show is the acting of Tricia Helfer as “Number Six.” My God. Helfer mistake cooing and grinding for sexiness, the way Karl Rove mistakes reading a book a week for wisdom. Here is an actor who has all the externals of her character down, but none of the internals.

I think this is basically correct, although axing Six would have left James Callis without the opportunity to exercise his considerable gifts for physical comedy. I also think it would have been difficult to develop Baltar’s neuroses absent some sort of internal monologue, so perhaps fantasy was a necessary expedient.

What really bothered me about the Six-Baltar relationship, however, was its shallow treatment of religious faith. Many observers (Joe Carter of Culture11 comes to mind) have praised Ronald Moore and Co. for their treatment of organized religion. Barring an amazingly well-thought out finale, I think the show’s approach owes more to convoluted mysticism than deep religious introspection, and the Six-Baltar dialogues were a particularly bad example of this tendency.

Baltar’s religious inclinations are a bit like my own circa 7th grade: we both pray for instant gratification – avoiding detention in my case, not getting exposed for crimes against humanity in his – and then take the result as conclusive evidence of God’s existence (my religious enthusiasm was highly dependent on the clemency of various teachers). Real faith, of course, is nothing like this, which is why religious belief is such an ambiguous, trying experience. Baltar and Six’s interaction suggests that personalized, made-to-order miracles are a prerequisite for faith, which is a bit insulting to people who pray and go to church without ever encountering Tricia Helfer.

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Neutral Zones

Here’s an intemperate comment from Peter Hitchens:

“If I never again had to read or write a word about homosexuals, I would be very happy. I really don’t want to know what other people do in their bedrooms. But these days they really, really want us all to know. And, more important, they insist that we approve. No longer are we allowed to keep our thoughts to ourselves, while being polite and kind . . .”

Which brings to mind Chris Dierkes’  interesting post on religion and metaphysical neutrality. To Hitchens, letting gays be and never speaking another word on the matter is a perfectly neutral position. To Andrew Sullivan, real neutrality demands gay couples’ inclusion in heterosexual institutions (ie marriage). Who’s right? I’m not really sure, but I think this spat says something about the elusiveness of a truly neutral political arrangement. People who don’t share Andrew Sullivan’s assumptions about governance aren’t going to be convinced to support gay marriage because it’s “fair.” They’re going to be convinced when you make a case for gay marriage that emphasizes positive social goods.

I think this is why conservative critics of gay marriage are more concerned with social breakdown than social equality. If you’re convinced that the other side’s definition of fairness is not – despite all their protestations to the contrary – value-neutral, procedural appeals are always going to fall upon deaf ears.

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Shorter Al Sharpton

My ethical framework is the only legitimate arbiter of church-based political activism.

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Apocalypse Now

Wendy Sullivan thinks society’s impending collapse is self-evident. This isn’t an uncommon sentiment among social conservatives, but I think it’s worth noting that things are never quite as bad as they seem. Here, for example, is a good summary of a Contentions article from a few years back on so-called “leading social indicators” – crime, divorce, and abortion rates, among others – and their prognosis for American society. Money quote:

But a strange thing has happened. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. And now, a decade and a half after these dire warnings, improvements are visible in the vast majority of social indicators; in some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea change.

According to the National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent and property crime fell sharply between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which data is available). Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 per cent. In welfare, since the high-water mark of 1994, the national caseload has declined by over 60 per cent. Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6m in 1990, the number of abortions each year in the US has dropped to fewer than 1.3m, a level not seen since the supreme court’s 1973 decision to legalise the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is at its lowest level since 1970. The high school dropout rate, under 10 per cent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993.

The authors are also unable to identify a causal link between the erosion of traditional two-parent families and broader social problems:

Murray may well have been correct about the importance of illegitimacy. But he—and not he alone—seems to have been incorrect that it would drive everything else. Over the past 15 years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker—but almost every other social indicator has improved. Murray’s dictum could still be borne out; in time, the explosion of illegitimacy might undo the signs of healthy cultural revival we have charted. Or it may be that the broad improvement in cultural attitudes will in time cast its benefits upon the family as well, helping to curb the seemingly inexorable growth of illegitimacy.

This gets at something I tried to grapple with during the same-sex marriage debate a few days back. Due deference to tradition and culture is one thing, but society is both incredibly fluid and surprisingly resilient. Instead of fighting organic social change, conservatives should find ways to accomodate themselves to new circumstances. For some, this means embracing a “Benedict Option” and withdrawing from society altogether, but most should be able to adopt a workable modus vivendi within an increasingly diverse, tolerant community.

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More on Catholicism

Douglas Kmiec has penned a frustrating LA Times op-ed on abortion and Obama:

So can Catholics vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is yes, but as I found when I publicly endorsed Obama, you’ve then got “some ‘splain’n’ to do.” It’s a matter of conscience, but had Obama proclaimed himself to be pro-choice and said nothing more, it would have been problematic. But there are those additional words about appropriate education as well as adoption and assistance for mothers who choose to keep their baby.

This is not just debate posturing. It is consistent with Obama’s successful effort to add language to the Democratic platform affirming the choice of a mother to keep her child by pledging pre- and post-natal care, funded maternity leave and income support for poor women who, studies show, are four times more likely to pursue an abortion absent some tangible assistance.

Some might ask, isn’t John McCain, the self-proclaimed “pro-lifer,” still a morally superior choice for Catholics? Not necessarily. McCain’s commitment, as he stressed in the debate, is to try to reverse Roe vs. Wade. But Republicans have been after this for decades, and the effort has not saved a single child. Even if Roe were reversed — unlikely, in my judgment — it merely transfers the question to the states, most of which are not expected to ban abortion. A Catholic serious about preserving life could reasonably find Obama’s educational and material assistance to mothers the practical, stronger alternative.

What I find most interesting about the article is that Kmiec implicitly accepts Professor George’s formulation: for whatever reason, abortion as a political issue is considered separately from the economy, war, civil liberties, and social welfare. Not only does this put Kmiec at an argumentative disadvantage – he’s left attempting to convince us (himself?) that an Obama Administration will do more than McCain ever would to reduce abortions – it’s also surprisingly blinkered. Clearly, a more considered approach to war and peace says something about the value we assign human life. Why shouldn’t other moral issues weigh against the number of abortions each candidate is likely to condone?

It’s entirely possible that McCain, by virtue of his realist inclinations and high-profile opposition to torture, is a better across-the-board candidate for protecting the sanctity of human life. But I’m left wondering why Kmiec doesn’t endorse a more holistic assessment of the candidates. If nothing else, it would make his arguments a lot more persuasive.

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Biblical Literalism, Faith, and Sarah Palin

Via John Schwenkler, I see that Palin may be a “Young Earth Creationist.” Young Earth Creationists evidently believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed.

Leaving aside the accuracy of the report, this raises an interesting theological question. Can believers cherry-pick which verses are literally true and which are allegorical? For example, if you concede that the Biblical understanding of our planet’s origin is probably incorrect, doesn’t that implicate the accuracy of, say, the Ten Commandments?

Even if you are a believer, there are all sorts of plausible explanations for why the Bible isn’t 100% accurate. It is, after all, a human document that has gone through several different iterations. There’s a persuasive case to be made that the Bible isn’t the unadulterated Word of God, and therefore should be approached with circumspection and credulity rather than blind acceptance.

So how do you discern which Biblical injunctions are correct? For example, we no longer stone disobedient children, but that’s obviously the result of changing cultural norms, not a close reading of Deuteronomy’s theological legitimacy.

When viewed in this context, I actually think that biblical literalism is more logically consistent than the approach of “modern” Christian believers, who look down their noses at Young Earth Creationists while simultaneously accepting the legitimacy Christian morality. The Biblical literalists, at least, have a consistent approach to religious interpretation. Is the selective approach of modern Christians grounded in doctrine rather than cultural expediency? Is there a theological methodology in place for determining which Biblical passages are legitimate? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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