Doubt – Andre Gide

I made this using the larger picture I just posted. It’s a good quote, but I feel like the picture looks a bit weird cropped like this, but I wanted to get the guy looking at the quote because it felt like he should.
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Thucydides – Truth

“Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.” – Thucydides I made this picture with GIMP over the course of a couple days. I made the picture with the intent of putting a quote on it, but couldn’t decide what quote to use. After sitting around staring at the picture for a couple days, and scrolling through thousands of quotes on my phone, I found this one. I think it works alright. There are a few flaws that I’ve noticed and it doesn’t seem to entirely hold as a single piece, but I think it’s pretty good. Resolution: 2560×1440.

The only working alternative is wild bursts of madness

Just a Hunter Thompson quote that I liked, so I put this thing together.d

An Atheist’s Critique of Atheists

crescent-200The following is a response to the tendency of atheists to argue Islam is worse than any other religion. I’m specifically thinking of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher, but many other atheists espouse the same line of argument.

I’m tired of people defending their ignorant bigotry with, ‘it’s a fact.’ Yeah, it might be, but it’s about the presentation, focus, and judgment drawn from the fact than truth of a statement. Even if more, let’s say Muslims, are violent, backward, etcetera you have to consider the reasons why and make judgments based on the explanation more-so than the fact. First, you have to avoid drawing undue attention to a fact. Just because something is at face-value true, doesn’t mean you’re presenting the appropriate context of that truth. You also need draw some judgment from the fact, which relies more on the explanation of the fact than the fact in itself. It’s lazy, at best, to assume a fact is true because of someone’s race or religion. That completely ignores the complexity of the world and generalizes more than most facts allow. Similarly, just because people believe in a religion, Islam let’s say, doesn’t inherently say much of anything about them. Sure, you might be able to draw some reasonably fair inferences, say they believe in the five pillars, but that completely ignores the interpretation individuals make about the tenets of their belief. Context, while impossible to provide for every individual, enables better inferences. So, to say all Muslims are backwards and violent, beyond being obviously untrue, is lazy and ignorant.

Similarly, to say that Islam promotes, or is, a religion of violence or is inherently backwards is ignorant. Let me put it this way, Muslims throughout history have interpreted their religion in a multitude of ways. You already know this, what else could Shia and Sunni Muslims be? Beyond those, there’s the Muslim mystics, Sufis, and there are multiple sects of Shi’ism, and that’s a shallow analysis of Islamic sects. Everyone in the West acknowledges Christians interpret their religion, essential everyone interprets it in their own way. You don’t think the same think is true of Islam? Really? This is where my criticism of popular atheists comes from. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris just sound ignorant when they talk about Islam, history in general really. Christopher Hitchens went full neo-con over his hate of Islam, even after writing a book that absolutely slams Henry Kissinger from the left for being a neo-con. He probably died agreeing with Kissinger on foreign policy, sad. The mighty surely fall. They always fall back on the same shallow analysis of Islamic history and supposed geo-politcial ‘truths.’ Islam started as a religion of war, they say, before concluding that Islam must be a religion of war now too. Islam also started as religion that unified the Arabian tribes, is doesn’t do that now. Beyond that, Islam technically started as a minority persecuted religion. You know the Islamic calendar begins when they fled persecution in Mecca to Medina right? Then they quote passages from the Koran. I don’t know why so many atheists think this proves anything. Words and books are always open to interpretation, in fact, they have to be interpreted, that’s literally how words work. They usually have multiple meanings, so combinations of words have tons of meanings. I’d just add, quoting the Bible is equally pointless. Just because it’s in a book they believe God authored or inspired doesn’t mean they read it the same way you do. Examining the history of anything and drawing modern judgments is seriously flawed historiography. History can be presented to prove almost anything, it’s more about the biases of the ‘historian’ than the truth. History is always a fiction. That doesn’t mean history isn’t true, it means that history is always a story. Stories always miss details, judge what facts are important, and are used to make a point. Even if that point is the truth, you’re still missing details and nuance. I recommend that atheists either spend more time studying history or leave history to the experts. They don’t like it when non-scientists make silly scientific arguments, I don’t like it when they make silly arguments about history. There are plenty of historians, atheists should leave the historical judgments to them; just like non-scientists should leave the science to the scientists.

The next criticism atheists lay at the feet is Islam is Sharia law, which, to them, proves that Islam can’t be compatible with Western, Enlightenment inspired social democracies. Ignoring, of course, the fact that plenty of Muslims live in these countries and they seem to be doing alright; other than the bigotry they face. Sharia law, while in some aspects political, isn’t really all that different from the law of Moses in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Christians quickly learned to ignore those laws, even though it seems pretty clear Jesus didn’t mean for them to be ignored, but let’s just consider Jews who have always believed in the law. Is modern Israel following a strict interpretation of the law? No. Sharia law plays a similar role in many Islamic countries. They have mostly been dominated by secular dictators for close to fifty years. Dictators that have been propped up by Western democracies for economic reasons; modern imperialism if you will, the definitive form of American imperialism.

That brings us to final ‘true’ criticism of Islam, terrorism. Terrorism, they argue, clearly demonstrates Islam is particularly bad. Consider first, most Muslims aren’t terrorists nor do they support terrorism. Do you judge all Christians and Christianity on the extremists that bomb abortion clinics? Those are terrorists that clearly demonstrate terrorism isn’t uniquely Islamic. They also don’t define the image of Christianity for most people in the West. We all know about the bombings and murders of abortion doctors, but we also all know Christians personally. So we can tell that many Christians are decent people. Therefore, we know Christianity isn’t entirely bad. How many Muslims do you know? I doubt it’s even close to the number of Christians you know. So, consider that before ascribing the barbarities of terrorism to all of Islam. Some atheists will concede these points, but, they’ll argue, the Koran is uniquely positioned to support violence and terrorism. I’d remind them of the point I made about the meaning of words above and add that, even if the texts they quote mean what they say they mean, they aren’t particularly damning. The Bible says and implies equally terrible things. No one follows those now, they say, but no one has to follow the ones in the Koran nor do most Muslims. This is where the perception comes in, a higher percentage of atheists knowledge of Islam comes from critical reports compared to Christianity, so they have a warped view of what a typical Muslim is. It’s really that simple, but context matters too if you’re trying to explain Islamic terrorism.

Muslim regions, specifically the Middle East, have been dominated by economic or American imperialism for close to fifty years. As part of our quest for oil. Were we wrong to throw off British imperial rule? Hell, the British invested more in America than America ever gave to the people living in Muslim countries. We’ve preferred to create a small class of wealthy elites to rule over them. The Boston Tea Party, something we all learn to celebrate, surely was a terrorist attack. They we’re trying to stop the importation of tea, well more the tax, by throwing some tea off a boat. Does dressing up as Indians, and I use that word to imply the level of racism required to do that, and throwing the tea into the bay one night do that? No, unless the British react to the terror, or the implied implication of the attack; that colonial Americans wouldn’t receive British tea. I’ll admit it’s a light terror, but it still required a political reaction to throwing the tea in the water. Similarly, some Muslims, we’ve already established it’s only a small portion, wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. Mostly because, they argued, foreign troops infringed on the sanctity of the holy cities. Even if the reasoning is not something we agree with, I think we all can understand why someone wouldn’t want foreign soldiers in their country. They also had problems with Israel existing, for complex political reasons as much as religious motivations. So they acted in a way that would have an impact. Is killing innocent people acceptable? No, it’s not, but plenty of innocent people have died in every revolution and every attempt to throw off the chains of imperialism; from the American revolution to the French revolution to the Russian revolution. People die, either we don’t believe in throwing off the shackles of imperialism or we have to accept that some people will die. I realize Gandhi showed the world a different example, but then you have to consider the violence that occurred while dividing imperial India into modern India and Pakistan; the consequence being a massive forced migration and war. Imperialists don’t want to lose power, or the wealth the power brings, so in order to free yourself you must struggle. This is a relatively simplistic explanation of terror, but it shows there’s more to it than the tenets of Islam.

I’m not saying there aren’t any flaws in Islam, there are. Beyond it just not being true, there are plenty of points worth criticizing, but it’s not inherently worse than other religions. So suggesting it is borders of racism. This is where atheists respond, Islam isn’t a race. Agreed, but when you say Muslim almost all of the West conjures a single, ignorant image. So while Islam actually encompasses believers of all races, to the minds of the West saying Islam evokes a single race. Even if you don’t intend for it to be racist it seems like it might be, that’s why I used borders on. Islam, like Christianity and every religion, is flawed and worth critiquing, but atheists’ focus on Islam alone is ignorant. They deride the fundamentalist Christians, then you see them nodding their heads when the same ignorant, bigoted Christian talks about Islam. Atheists need to consider their biases, specifically the desire to worship Enlightenment liberalism as expressed in the West. Islam, I would argue, draws more ire because it is farther away from liberalism than Christianity, rather than due to it being inherently worse.

The Mormon Church: the Pitfalls of Faith & Orthodoxy in the Modern World

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One of the strongest points Daymon Smith makes in The Book of Mammon regards the danger of conflating corporate, bureaucratic interests with religious belief and orthodoxy. Two of the biggest weird and problematic outcomes of this confluence can be seen by examining correlation and corruption in the Church. Obviously corruption is an issue in most corporations, and some religious institutions, but most corporations can’t fall back on the faith and trust of their customers and most churches, mosques, and synagogues would lose reams of members if they were found to be corrupt. Correlation is an interesting, albeit normal, religious phenomenon, a renewed focus on orthodoxy. It’s something that happened in the early Christian Church, but it’s even more obvious and interesting in the Mormon Church. Presented from a semi-sociological perspective, I found The Book of Mammon to be incredibly thought-provoking and less damning than expected. Mormons, it seems, for the most part are genuine, nice people trying to do the best they can, but the pitfalls of bureaucracy reveal more about the church than is conducive for belief. The inculcation of deep trust in the leaders of the Mormon Church through the process of correlation allows significant abuse, financial and human, to be hidden and to go on unchecked.

One of the big topics Smith covers, correlation reveals the corporate nature of the church more than any other topic he discusses; even the slightly shady financial dealings and inter-departmental fights in the Church Office Building(cob), “There is a small handbook packed with statements uttered by presidents of the Church which are accepted as true by virtue of the office and title of the speaker… By these guides they speak and write ONLY true and pure doctrines.” (Smith kndl loc 3725-31). Stated this bluntly, that sounds pretty bad. Let’s go further back in time though and consider the early Christian Church, specifically the Nicene Creed and who controlled publication and preaching at the time. Various Councils of the prestigious Church leaders met from time to time and eventually established the creed at the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD. These are the official stances of the Church on basic things like the Trinity, creation, and the crucification. These doctrines were disputed in widely popular heresies. Some of these heresies included the claim that Jesus merely possessed a man while on earth to the wild polytheism of the Gnostics. The tenets of the Creed specify the official, therefore correct, stance on theses matters. Similarly, Harold B. Lee, former Mormon Prophet, realized there was a large amount of speculation concerning Mormon doctrine, especially considering the significant doctrinal changes regarding polygamy and Adam in the recent past. Both the Church Councils of early Christianity and the correlation committee created by Lee represent a orthodoxifying of religion after they’ve overcome years of turbulence and stabilized. If you examine other world religions, specifically of Islam, you can see a similar occurrence; the writing and codifying of the Koran and Hadith from the oral tradition. Even if the trend isn’t damning, it does fascinate me as someone who takes exceptional interest in religion. It’s gives the rare opportunity to see a religion stabilizing in real-time; though the internet alters the course.

Re-enforcing Orthodoxy generally seems to provide stability to the main institution and create a sharp distinction between the Church and heretics. It allows the membership to feel confident in their belief, in the Mormon example it means doctrines are stamped by God as true through his Prophet. This confidence, combined with the clarity provided by a book of true statements provides members surety in their orthodoxy and identity; both valuable elements of religious belief. Smith describes correlation, “distributed across Utah, Correlation Department reviewers… fact check,” against the handbook of true statements (kindl loc 3725-30). These reviewers are usually faculty at BYU or members serving in the Church Education System(CES). The primary motivation to correlate orthodoxy, it seems, is to concentrate the influence of the leadership. There are, of course, other consequences of correlation. There’s the money saved by thoroughly fact checking everything, there’s the stiffness and dullness of the doctrine, and there’s unquestioning reliance on the prophet. The money saved comes by not having to print hundreds of versions of things and economies of scale, which is something the very corporate Mormon Church thought of when starting correlation. The explanation for the stiffness of the doctrine is straightforward, but the dullness of the doctrine requires some explanation. The doctrine becomes dull because all of the writers for the church, employed at the COB, rely on completing assignments for their job, so they stick to the most basic, bland doctrines they know will get past correlation. If you need proof of this, watch Mormon General Conference, most of those talks have gone through correlation. Correlation ensures reliance on the Church, presumably the Prophet that personally talks to God, for materials and lessons. The Church decides what is worthy of consumption for many Mormons. One of the primary tenets of the correlated church requires relying on the teachings of the modern prophets before the old. Teaching respect and trust in the leadership is mostly inherent in religion, but when a corporate bureaucracy, like the modern Mormon Church, runs a religion there are bound to be some messes and inefficiencies that are hidden out of respect and faith in the leadership.

Smith provides the details for three such instances in the book, but I think one is sufficient to raise the important questions. In one instance the Church lost close to half a million dollars in an apparent scam. The Church paid an ‘independent’ contractor to hurry the process to get identifications for missionaries in Argentina. The person they hired to hurry the process was apparently bribing officials, but then Argentine police raided the house of a document forger and they found forged missionary IDs, The Church didn’t find out about any of this until the judge overseeing the case warned the Area Authority. What this case, and the others Smith documents, reveals is an interesting mix of bureaucratic inefficiency and pressure with faith in the leadership. The Church, in 1997, found itself in a scandal after the Argentinian government accused them of not having required IDs for missionaries. So the COB put pressure, through the corporate hierarchy, on the right spots and this scam ensued. The issue isn’t so much that there’s pressure to do illegal things, though that is an issue, it’s that the Church had no idea this was happening, even though the guy was arrested and arraigned. There isn’t sufficient oversight in place. It’s not there because the leaders and members have faith in the church employees, after all, they are working for God.

Examining correlation reveals a number of problems, but on its face it doesn’t necessarily impugn the truth claims of the church; though some would suggest the need for correlation is proof in itself. It reveals a concentration in the influence of the official church, which includes faith and trust in the leaders that empirical evidence doesn’t support. This faith is then abused to hide flaws and inefficiencies in the church leadership and Church Office Building. Though flawed, due to the corporate structure, which isn’t completely described here, but is in Smith’s book, there is a belief the actions of the Church come from divine inspiration and therefore must be true. Sure, there is the common refrain, ‘they’re just men.’ That’s the response when someone points to an error or to the surprising doctrinal history of the Church, but isn’t part of the expectations and judgments Mormon’s make of leadership decisions. This disconnect relies on the insulation of correlation to deflect hard questions. If the Church is asking to be trusted and viewed as inspired, literally speaking to God, then they should be open about problems in the leadership, doctrine, and history of the Church. The secrecy, in a modern, connected, and enlightened world, is not only a flaw, but is a serious problem for the Church. It’s hard to maintain high retention levels when everyone can Google the Church and find something damning. They can even stay within Church approved texts and websites, but still find damning evidence that is passed over due to its impropriety. The truth will set us free, they say, and people love freedom, so we’re going to find the truth out of an inherent drive to be free. The options are to present the truth, with all the ugliness, and explain it and contextualize it in a way the allows members to continue believing or let them find the ugly truth without context or explanation. The Church has mostly opted for the second, so it continues to lose members.
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A Note on the Fourth Paragraph: My kindle broke earlier today, so I couldn’t quote or provide the level of detail I wanted for that example. I think I got the point I was trying to make across reasonably well though. It would’ve been better and clearer if I had my kindle, but such is life.

Buy the book, you could probably find someone using Amazon affiliate links and support them, but I’m lazy and hate money, so I don’t have one.