7 things @ 11 o’clock (7.18)

1. Let me echo Rob TsinaiJim Burroway and many others in offering my hopes, prayers and best wishes for Thomas Peters, and in soliciting yours for him as well. Peters, the communications director of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, sustained a major neck injury in a swimming accident. As Burroway wrote:

We all hope and pray for Peters’s epiphany on the central questions surrounding our families. More so, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery so that epiphany can occur. But in any case, whether that epiphany will ever occur or not, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery.

2.Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales.” This seems appropriate.

3. After the dismal experience of watching Doc Gooden struggling through his appearance on Celebrity Rehab, I’m happy to learn that Darryl Strawberry is doing well. Make that the Rev. Darryl Strawberry. The 12 steps, I think, are excellent preparation for pastoral ministry and an education in the theology of grace. Here’s hoping he abides in that grace. I’d hate to see him wind up on Dr. Drew’s couch.

4. My initial reaction to Russell D. Moore replacing Richard Land as the Southern Baptist Convention’s new “ethics” spokesperson was that we were in for just more of the same, but with a younger, smiling face and bit more media savvy. But it’s impossible to imagine Richard Land ever saying something like this. Granted, a measure of skepticism is reasonable here, and Moore’s comments may in part be a savvy response to Land’s earlier, awful comments on the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Yet for all that, it’s a surprisingly apt response from an unexpected source. (I was also pleasantly surprised by the empathy expressed by Moore’s mentor, Al Mohler.) The SBC has a long way to go, but these are small steps in a better direction.

5. Rep. Michele Bachmann continues to astonish. Earlier this week there was her interview with the right-wing website WorldNetDaily in which she said, of President Obama, “He has a perpetual magic wand and no one’s given him a spanking yet and taken it out of his hand.” That’s the sort of thing one can only say if one is too innocent to realize one is not innocent at all. Marcus Bachmann is a clinical psychologist. He’s studied Freud, so he knows that sometimes a magic wand is just a magic wand — but sometimes it isn’t.

Which brings us to the second Michele Bachmann story this week, courtesy of Buzzfeed: “Documents Detail Implosion at Leading Conservative Christian Political Firm.” That’s not the fun part. The fun part is in the subhed: “Strategy Group for Media CEO Rex Elsass lost the faith of his employees and the control of his office. Also, he may have accidentally mailed a vibrator to Michele Bachmann.”

An email thread from May 29 … featured Strategy Group’s former voter-contact consultant P.J. Wenzel making reference to Elsass sending “female pleasure machines” to Bachmann. … One person familiar with the story told BuzzFeed that Elsass had intended to give Bachmann a vibrating head massager to help alleviate her migraines, and that the employee he sent to buy the gift accidentally purchased something that more closely resembled a sex toy — and sent it to her office.

Now go back and re-read Bachmann’s comment on Obama. OK, then.

(Oh, and speaking of politicians and their wands — Bob Filner, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, needs to step down. I don’t think every politician who gets caught having an affair necessarily needs to resign, but affairs are consensual. This isn’t. He should go away now.)

6. In an odd coincidence, shortly after I posted this yesterday, MaryAnn McKibben Dana posted her own musings about religion, improv, and a magician. She tussles with a quote from Penn Jillette — one that I think means both more and less than he thinks. Wholly apart from the tired theist/atheist sparring, though, I think there’s something in that quote that could be fruitfully mined by all kinds of storytellers, Here’s what Jillette said:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

There, I think, we have the set-up for at least two — but probably many more — speculative novels. His point about science is narrowly true, but there’s no reason to assume that scientific discovery must always follow the same precise path at the same pace. There’s all manner of world-building fun to be had by toying with that history and making it unspool in a different order — accelerating some discoveries or postponing others. And set aside the silliness of thinking that because religion is rooted in the context of human experience and human history it must be nonsense and instead just focus on the delightful storytelling possibilities of the hypothetical scenario Jillette provides.

Science fiction writers have been doing both of these things for a long time, of course, creating alien worlds with wholly different scientific and religious histories, but Jillette’s remark, it seems to me, neatly frames the challenge and the possibilities.

7. The photo for yesterday’s 7 things post was of former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett. He was holding up seven fingers because he had just set a new Major League record with seven hits in a nine-inning game (a 22-0 rout of the Cubs). Stennett’s record is one of several that I think will never be broken — the others are held by Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Vander Meer, Fernando Tatis, and Chan Ho Park. Of all of those, Park’s is probably the most secure. No one would ever want to break Park’s record, but I doubt they’d ever get the chance, since if you’ve given up two grand slams to the same batter in one inning, there’s no way you’ll be allowed to pitch to him again if he comes up a third time with the bases loaded.

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  • Nick Gotts

    It’s hard to judge religiosity in a society where expressing scepticism could get you killed; and states with high levels of inequality (very high in the Gulf states) tend to generate high levels of insecurity and social pathologies (on this see Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level).

    I’d count as a universal a feature dependent on specific brain structures existing across all human populations, and produced andor maintained by selection. So language certainly counts, as does sexuality.

    I’d agree with you w.r.t. what Jillette was saying, if you’ve got that right – I think the direction of causation is more from other features of societies to levels of religiosity, not the other way round. But wasn’t he saying that the current forms of religion would not reappear, rather than that religion itself wouldn’t?

  • Daniel

    Also “marital aids” suggests a dildo will actually help your marriage overall- as though when you’re having problems paying the bills, or you’ve had a row about the in-laws or you need to decide on a punishment for the kid you pick up a dildo like a magic eight ball and it might just give you an answer.

  • brulio2415

    I agree with you in spirit, but I think you have to acknowledge that those are all pretty broad statements. The terms within them are very flexible (define “self” “eternal” “good and evil” “love”). These are all important concepts, but the breadth of their importance throughout many cultures and faiths is undeniable, but the nature of that breadth has as much to do with their malleability as terms.

    Science gives us stuff like “Light moves this many units of distance in this many units of time” and “gravity exerts this much force on objects this close to a body this size”. Those terms are a bit firmer, to say the least.

    Moreover, it’s hardly as though evangelical atheists are the only ones talking up the mythology.

  • Carstonio

    My understanding is that those emirates are oligarchies. Perhaps the effects of the welfare systems are undermined by not just the religious repression but also the lack of true representative government.

  • aunursa

    Are you referring to Jillette? If yes, can you provide a link?

  • aunursa

    Here is a recent interview in which Jillette discusses his journey to atheism and how his views on a couple of issues have changed since they were aired on his show.

  • plectrophenax

    Most religions also contain the idea of ego-death, leading to a higher Self or Brahman, or whatever you want to call it. I think this is rooted in human experience, that of self-annihilation, leading to a sense of the numinous, a holistic identity, as opposed to a fragmentary one, non-dualism, and so on. Of course, the terminology varies a lot, but you can see these elements all round the world.

  • Nick Gotts

    Reproduction is not a putative universal capacity; at least I’ve never seen it described as such.The desire to reproduce might be, but I’d take the fact that many people now choose to be child-free as evidence that it isn’t one: sexuality is, and in the absence of contraception, that sufficed to keep rates of reproduction up.

    It rather looks as if there is no conceivable empirical evidence that could change your mind about whether there is an innate religious drive. Can you specify anything that would?

    What definition of religiosity would you suggest for such studies?

  • AnonaMiss

    I hate it when I agree with Penn Jilette because he adopts such a smug, self-satisfied manner, and invites the viewer to come be smug and self-satisfied and shit on everyone who disagrees.

    He’s often right, but he – or his public persona, anyway – is never cordial.

    Which is something of a tone argument, I guess, but I’m not saying it to imply that he’s wrong – just that I’d rather change the channel than watch someone make such a shit-eating spectacle of how right they are.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    The fast food episode drove me nuts even though I agreed with a core point Penn was trying to make, that many people knowingly choose fast food because they want a cheap source of lots of calories. But he had to create this false equivalence by showng the cost and how many calories are in a meal at a French restaurant, including (if I remember right) a rich dessert, as if that’s how people who don’t eat fast food eat every night! He also showed some anti-fast food people guessing wrong on which item at Wendy’s or somewhere had the most calories. But why would they know the answer to that? And isn’t the point that fast food is misleading about what is and isn’t healthy?

  • AnonaMiss

    While that’s a good story, proto-horses died out in the Americas during prehistory. American wild horses in human memory were all descended from horses brought by Europeans.

    I thought you were moving to full-size riding dogs, which would have been awesome; or bison, which would also have been awesome.

  • That was the Walmart episode. I equate sweatshop conditions with slavery — the amount being paid doesn’t come close to justifying the work conditions, and such businesses have ways of recouping the loss so that they’re effectively paying no wages at all (easy one: charge the worker for a mandatory uniform and the cleaning and repair associated with keeping it in a certain condition, just deduct it from their wages and take the choices out of their hands entirely) and in fact putting the worker in debt to the company so that they can’t ever stop working.

  • I’m curious: what is an “atheist Pagan”?

  • chrisalgoo

    Rituals might stick around, just because rituals can be really fun/calming/other good things.

  • histrogeek

    I agree. I think that an empowered people producing a welfare state out of their government (emphasis on the their) leads to the contentment described, not just an efficient welfare state. Those systems also leads to a strong sense of community and less alienation from the government.

    The communist systems were sort of the same problem as the emirates, basic material needs more or less met through a welfare system, but one that was imposed from above causing it to be alienating and repressive .

  • The example I would have used for another “as good as universal” for humans would be marriage. Not everyone gets married or has the desire to do so, but almost every culture has had marriage in some form or other.

  • Or “adult novelties”.

  • histrogeek

    I can’t speak for Mary Kaye or her friends, but my understanding is that atheist Pagans view their ritual practice as having a value that is more psychological than effectually supernatural or that they view Pagan moral systems as ones to follow without believing the gods worshipped are anything but symbollic.

  • SisterCoyote

    This strikes me as disrespectful, in a world where classic slavery still exists. There are people currently being kidnapped from their homes and forced to work on plantations as kids for zero compensation and brutal punishment – I dunno that sweatshop is really comparable, though both are horrible.

  • If you want to get technical, a dildo is a more-or-less penis-shaped toy without any mechanical bits, while a vibrator may or may not be penis-shaped, but definitely has vibrating mechanical bits.

    I worked at two sex toy shops.

  • It’s an issue of labeling and accuracy.

    “Marital aids” is a nice marketing euphemism for “sex toys” in conservative areas, because it implies only married people are having sex, and that these items are used only as part of marital intercourse.

    The other thing to remember is that It’s a broad category that includes not just dildos, but vibrators, lubricants, and other items.

  • Lori

    In some places a “dildo” is illegal because dildo is all about the nasty, nasty S-E-X, but marital aids are not illegal because who could be against aiding marriage?

  • To be fair, sex toys can at least distract you and relieve stress. So there’s that.

  • When the workers in question can be as young as in the single digit age range and be working 80 hours a week, being forced to live in the factory and watching their family members get beaten if they protest the conditions, I honestly don’t see the slightest difference between “classic slavery” and “you work here until you die or we send someone to kill your parents.”

  • histrogeek

    That was sort of Durkheim’s point. And to a large extent I think he realized the dead end anthropological studies of religion was crashing into by concentrating on belief apart from communal practice. (This was the high point of imperialism and super-judgmental studies of indigenous people, not that M. “Elementary Forms”-read primitive- was immune.)

  • And sometimes the euphemisms are even sillier: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaUl6x1YXpg

  • Lori

    I miss Molly so much.

  • MaryKaye

    Most modern Western people tend to define “what religions are like” in Christian-centric terms: religions are primarily what you believe and secondarily what moral code you follow. This is not universally how religions are defined, and is not how the community I belonged to defined our Paganism; we were more ritual-centric: a Pagan is someone who participates in Pagan ritual and finds it of value.

    So our atheist Pagans were people who participated in ritual but did not believe in gods. (Some of them, I think, did believe in magic; others did not.) When it came up in discussion, they tended to treat the gods as symbols. We found that it was not necessary to have agreement on anything but ritual practice, and a good thing too, as even theistic Pagans are in wild disagreement over the nature of the gods. (For example, we had several adherents of “all the gods are One God”, several people who strongly disagreed, and several who were agnostic or conflicted or didn’t find the question meaningful.)

    There are tons of reasons someone might do this; for the psychological effects, for connection with the community, for enjoyment (ritual is fun for some people), for artistic expression, etc.

    Someone who attends Catholic Mass because they love the music and the pageantry is probably not Catholic, as that’s a belief-centered faith. Someone who performs Pagan rituals because they love the music and the pageantry might well be Pagan (I would ask if they define themselves that way).

    This is why I’m skeptical of surveys of “religiosity”. I can’t define religion very well myself but I do know that Western default definitions are *very* belief-centric and if that doesn’t capture my own practice well I don’t have much confidence in it capturing anything else (except Christianity).

  • aunursa

    I would think the point of comparing the French restaurant is to show that fast food is an easy target. I presume that few (or none) are protesting the number of calories in the coq a vin or the crème brûlée.

  • themunck

    *A shattering crack is heard as themunck’s jaw hits the floor at terminal velocity* But…that’s…what…how…why…gah?!
    That’s insane!

  • themunck

    But those restaurants are an entirely different market. Nobody* eats there as often and they don’t cater to children**. Fast food is an easy target precisely because it”s a big part of the problem. We don’t call the coal industry an easy target in climate change, we call them the actual problem.
    * Fine, if you must be pedantic, Almost nobody.
    ** See previous footnote.

  • Daniel

    Again my brain’s not functioning properly- I’ve got hay fever and have sneezed it so hard against the inside of my skull it’s pretty dazed. So reading that comment I’ve got an image of a couple sitting fretting over a table full of unpaid bills and a dildo doing a little dance to distract them and relieve their stress in a wholesome nineteen fifties sitcom setting. They smile happily “Oh Dildo!”

  • Lori

    That’s Texas politics.

  • aunursa

    As a libertarian Jillette would probably advise you that if you consider a particular restaurant or chain to be part of the problem, then don’t eat there.

  • We Must Dissent

    Scientific trivia: Though it’s what gets taught in high school and basic college science, Newton didn’t describe his second law as F=ma. It’s actually F = d(mv)dt, i.e, the time derivative of momentum. It’s just that in most cases mass is constant so d(mv)/dt = m*dv/dt = m*a. It’s why that train in physics class still has to exert force with its engine if it’s moving while being filled, even on frictionless tracks with no air resistance.

  • Lee B.

    I assumed the story was taking place during the Pleistocene. In which case, why stop with horses when you could also have DOMESTICATED MASTODONS!

  • Freak

    6. If history had been different, I could imagine, say, jazz, impressionism or fair-play mysteries never being developed. On the other hand, science would converge on an inverse-square gravitational law, the same periodic table of the elements, and so on.

    This is fair since music, art, and literature are viewed as a cultural construct, while science is viewed as developing truths of the universe.

    If religion were only portrayed as cultural, then Penn’s observation would be nothing unexpected. When it’s portrayed as having a basis in fact, it’s a big problem if things can develop differently.

  • *snerk* I used to bill some vibrators as, “Does everything but your dishes…”

  • Freak

    Don’t most bald people have eyebrows, maybe a mustache or beard for men? (I think bald as a hair style would be more accurate.)

  • themunck

    But that’s…I mean, I knew stuff was bad, but at least I thought the discrimination and “moral legislation” was at least trying to be effective, but this…This calls for an official statement.

    Dear United States of America. It has been brought to my attention that your country has a law that forbids a full 8% of your entire population of buying a dildo, with said item being referred to -only- by name and not function, thereby making the law meaningless. I am sorry to say that this, especially combined with your refusal to abandon the first-past-the-post voting system, or the electoral count system that has resulted in 5%* of your presidents being elected despite more popular alternatives, is the final straw and has tipped the scales. I, and the people I represent** hereby consider the Unites States of America, to be more insane than the State of Japan. This state of affairs will continue until such a time that you’ve either fixed your electoral system, changed to the metric system, or banished Texas or Florida from the union. Other metrics may also once again tip the scales, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    -themunck, random internet commentator.
    * 1876, 1888 and 2000
    ** Absolutely nobody.

  • themunck

    Why do we have favorite colours, though? Are our favorite colours what they are because they’re aesthetically pleasing to us, because of what we associate them with, or a combination of both? And if it’s one of the two latter, then being blind doesn’t invalidate the question. What does this have to do with the actual point regarding atheism and religion? Nothing, I just wanted to be pedantic.*
    * And also, yes. This line of thought was indeed inspired by Lilly Satou’s path in Katawa Shoujo.

  • Lori

    Yes, most bald people have places other than the top of their heads. In most contexts were you’re asked to supply hair color on a form though they’re asking about the hair on the top of your head.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    I think that was the point, but it struck me as irrelevant to the actual issues raised by the other side. If I say (rightly or wrongly) that eating McDonalds every night is a bad idea, I don’t see how pointing out that I eat a particularly unhealthy meal every month or so is a meaningful response.

    Like I said above, I mostly agreed with Penn’s points in the episode; I just found his presentation of the opposing side so comically misleading (the French restaurant was just one example of many) that it soured me on the whole show and made me more critical of my positive responses to some of the others topics covered in previous episodes.

    Like Daniel Dennett says, “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”

  • themunck

    It’s often different, anyway. Case in point, my hair is brown-ish, while my beard is significantly closer to red.

  • aunursa

    Fair enough. But then the opposition should make clear that they oppose eating fast food on a regular basis, rather than the perception that they are opposed to fast food period.

  • Lori

    Yes, he would. And his response would fail to address the actual issue in exactly the same way the Libertarian response often fails to address the actual issue.

  • (Imagine a society where all famous people were secretly CGI or holograms.)

    1. That would be truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

    2. Fairly sure I saw that Macross sequel.

    3. Fairly sure I saw that early 90s NBC miniseries.

    4. Justin Bieber was created by man. He evolved. He rebelled. And he has a plan.

  • Lupus753

    Hundreds of years ago, China was the most scientifically advanced place on Earth. Then, it all came to a halt. Fewer discoveries were made, letting Europe and the Middle East surpass it. There are several possible reasons why, but it seems that it’s impossible to predict which paths scientific history will take and how far or fast it can go.

  • Lupus753

    An odd thing about religion is that even when it seems to go away, it comes back with huge fervency. It varies greatly between social classes – I believe that no one really took it seriously during most of the middle ages, even when “theologist” and “scientist” were essentially synonyms. In other words, I’m unwilling to ever say it has declined, or if such a decline is permanent.

  • Lupus753

    6. This sounds a lot like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Science has been almost completely destroyed and forgotten, but thankfully the Catholic Church has managed to preserve enough knowledge so that civilization could make a comeback. A very well written sci-fi book.