Tag Archives: religion

Book Review: The Fire Seekers

The Fire Seekers, by Richard Farr

When his father discovers ancient tablets in the Mediterranean, Daniel Calder’s life slowly unravels. His mother dies under suspicious circumstances on a mountain; his father’s former intern becomes a powerful cult leader; hundreds are disappearing worldwide. The teenager, with the help of his brilliant friend Morag and the powerful Rosko, tries to figure out mysteries in both the past and the present. The characters aren’t particularly interesting or boring; this is about the plot more than anything. The ultimate question is whether the supernatural Architects are real, a myth, or something else entirely.

There are two real parts to this story: the historical puzzles surrounding the origins of civilization, and the present-day mysterious disappearances. The former is significantly more interesting than the latter, with old documents and real-life unexplained phenomena woven into mostly satisfying explanations. (It helps to enjoy ancient history.) The present-day story is less well developed, and moves along in fits and starts, leading up to a final, somewhat muddy showdown.

Most aspects of this book are characterized with the same pattern: occasional brilliance punctuating a lot of average. There are some very insightful or funny lines here:

“[my father] wants to feel close to me, wants to understand me, and wants the easy road to that results, which is me being more like him than I am.”

“I am an Armenian, and therefore I hate everybody. I am also a Christian, and therefore I love everybody. Life is complicated.”

Rather than including more gems of this kind, Farr spends much of the time describing the action scenes (Daniel suffers lots of pain and describes all of it every time) in excruciating, though fortunately skippable, detail.

I haven’t decided if I’ll keep reading the trilogy. If you like books like The Rule of Four or Dan Brown’s work, you might like this.

SCOTUS Follow-Up

As predicted, it begins:

Following Friday’s Supreme Court decision, two of Texas’ top officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton, issued opinions directing state agencies to “respect and preserve Texans’ religious liberties,” in essence encouraging county clerks to refuse to issue licenses to gay couples if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

While the comments don’t quite say what the USA Today says they mean, let’s assume that some states will permit certain government officials to refuse to perform certain acts on behalf of the government due to their religious objections. How does this shake out?

Practically, it’s easily avoidable. The state has an obligation to comply with the law, so as long as a clerk’s office performs marriage, someone in that office must be available to perform same sex marriages. If that’s the accommodation, that’s fine with me and not particularly intrusive.

The legal question is a bit thornier than it appears. The hypothesized clerk isn’t acting on his own behalf; he’s an agent of the state. The state is obligated to perform this task. By giving the clerk an out (and not providing an immediately available alternative) the state can effectively opt out from complying with the law. That’s ultimately untenable. Further, agents of the government, as a general rule, must be able to perform those actions that the state must perform. It’s an essential requirement of employment. If I had to pick the next legal battle in the culture war, I may well pick a clerk refusing to perform same sex marriages, being fired, and suing for infringement of his religious freedoms under the First Amendment and the various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

Words Have (Politically Convenient) Meanings, Part 1

It gives me no small pleasure that in the past few weeks the headlines have included several separate nationwide discussions about what words mean. As I’ve always maintained, words have meanings and we need to keep those meanings clear and stable as much as possible.  A couple of related questions have recently arisen that bear that out:

1. Is the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” Islamic?
2. Is Barack Obama a Christian?

The answer to both questions, of course, is yes and no.

Is ISIS Islamic? No, in the sense that across the world of Islam, from Indonesia to West Africa, ISIS is a huge and clear outlier – hell, al-Qaeda found them too extreme! That said, ISIS considers themselves Islamic, and with enough creative interpretation of Islamic writings, they could probably find some legitimation. There’s obviously a limit to this – if ISIS claimed they were Islamic minus the part where “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” it’d be difficult to still concede their claim.

Similarly, it’s likely that Obama believes himself to be a Christian, though he’s vastly more secular than the median person who so claims. And if you’re one of these less secular Christians who strongly disagrees that Obama’s actions are consistent with being a Christian, you would not consider him one.

Islam and Christianity are such broad terms encompassing a multitude of concepts that a variety of behaviors and beliefs are covered, and you’re not going to get a clear answer when you ask a yes-or-no question about them. What you’ll get is a politically convenient answer, as we usually do in the cases above.

Hobby Lobby Fallout

Since I wrote about my views on corporate personhood when this case was argued before the the Supreme Court, I won’t rehash those arguments here. (Summary: corporate personhood is useful legal fiction that creates some problems.) I will address a few things now that the Hobby Lobby case has been decided, using the popular bullet point format:

  • As a friend frequently points out, the social media response to any major court case, especially a 5-4 case like this, is abominable. As a first approximation, anything posted about a case in 140 characters is wrong on every level.
  • Specifically, the wisdom of any given policy has almost zero bearing on any legal case. In this case, whether employer subsidy of certain contraception is a good idea is unrelated to the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • If someone mentions constitutional rights, remember that the case was decided under an act of congress (the RFRA) that passed the senate 97-3.
  • Specifically, the law permits people to ask to be exempt from general laws if such a law places a large burden on a sincerely held religious belief. Such exemption doesn’t have to be granted if the government shows that it’s necessary to a compelling government interest. (Most of these terms, while vague to you, are well-defined in constitutional law.)
  • In the Hobby Lobby case, the owners of Hobby Lobby believe that some contraceptives (not all, mind you) go against their beliefs and don’t want to provide health insurance that pays for such contraceptives. Failing to do so incurs large monetary fines, and the court rightly finds that this burdens their religious freedom.
  • Hobby Lobby employees can, of course, get whatever contraceptives aren’t covered using pieces of paper that Hobby Lobby provides to them. (Money.)
  • Since the Obama administration has given waivers and exemptions Oprah-style (“You get a waiver! And you get a waiver! Everybody gets a waiver!”) they couldn’t very well argue that this clause serves a compelling interest in this case but not others. Note that this part of the law also cuts off any attempt to use religion to circumvent safety or discrimination laws: they are compelling government interests from which exemptions are never made.
  • You can debate the merits of the RFRA (I’m ambivalent myself), but it’s hard to argue that the two-step analysis is incorrect.
  • The core question then becomes this: the for-profit corporation is the legal entity that provides the health insurance, while the religious faith of its owners (a family) would be burdened. Should they be treated differently? It’s easy to say yes, a legal fiction can’t exercise religion, but a legal fiction can’t do anything unless humans do it. A legal fiction also can’t own property or have privacy, but I think you’re all glad that your employer can claim the Fourth Amendment over your workplace. Worse, in cases strongly supported by the liberal dissent today, businesses have been permitted to “have” race and gender and bring lawsuits for discrimination. If a corporation can have a race and gender, why can’t it have a religious belief?

Basically, I can’t really bring myself to care about this topic very much, but on balance this is probably a loss-loss-loss situation anyway. Conservatives get a victory in court, liberals get a fundraising talking point, and social media is unreadable for a day.

In other news, Harris v. Quinn was decided correctly.

Book Review: The End Of Faith

Finally got around to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith on a flight this weekend. It’s a quick-moving polemic that is at time the pinnacle of clarity and at others glosses over items worthy of much more attention. Faith is a problem, but Harris muddles the analysis several times, often going from precise thought experiments to skipping over necessary discussion.

Perhaps the best guidance to the book is the subtitle: Religion, Terror, And The Future Of Reason. The first two combine form Harris’ most powerful argument: religious dogma is exempt from rational analysis, which has enabled some terrible ideas to survive into the present day. Among these are people who reject medical intervention on religious grounds, rejection of stem cell research, and the religious contributions to the spread of AIDS. The worst of these ideas mix in Islamic terrorism, which is close to combining an afterlife-focused religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction. Thundering away at the danger of those whose irrational thought makes them devalue the real world in favor of another is Harris at his best and most focused. The most powerful passages here focus on the bad choices we may well have to face in our lifetimes. (Start thinking how many innocent lives may be taken in order to prevent the destruction of a major city.) He also has to be given credit for predicting, correctly, that democracy in the Middle East will come with plenty of strong religious rule. (To be fair, Harris condemns most religions, but isolates Islam as the most important current threat.)

Of course, the contrast to the other points he makes is noticeable, and the drop-off in both rigor of thought and quality of writing is jarring. His attempts to go over “alternative approaches” is particularly misguided, with little coherence I could discern. Sure, I side with Harris regarding the virtues of science, but his discussion thereof in the book is oddly meandering and pointless. The last chapter on mysticism and spirituality is particularly confusing – something Harris seems to notice and blame on the reader.

I can’t really recommend the entirety of this book, but Harris makes some excellent point about choices the world will have to make in the near future. It’s a shame that this discussion comes back with some much less interesting stuff.

Mandatory Arizona State Law Post

Even though Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoes HB1062, I suppose I should comment on it. I tend to tune out most public discussion of proposed laws because most people don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to statutory law. The law has a language of its own, and reading a statute and knowing how it’s applied is a specialized skill.* The media tends to focus on the most extreme interpretation and on controversial hypotheticals, so the average news consumer only gets a distorted idea of what any proposed law is actually about.

*This is a different problem I won’t get into here, but it should worry you that the average citizen at this point probably cannot understand the average statute.

It turns out that was the case in Arizona as well. Doug Laycock explains:

SB1062 did not say that businesses can discriminate for religious reasons. It said that business people could assert a claim or defense under RFRA, in any kind of case (discrimination cases were not even mentioned, although they would have been included), that they would have to prove a substantial burden on a sincere religious practice, that the government or the person suing them would then have the burden of proof on compelling government interest, and that the state courts in Arizona would make the final decision.

So this law isn’t actually quite as extreme as your Facebook feed would have had you believe. (In Kansas, however…). The point is moot now as the governor has vetoed the bill, although it should tell us something that the bill was unacceptable to Jan Brewer, a woman nuts on other grounds.Meanwhile, Steven Landsburg debates whether the law would have been a good idea from a First Amendment absolutist’s point of view. He interprets the law to permit religious people to raise a particular defense but not people taking the same action for different reasons. I consider myself a First Amendment absolutist, too, but unlike Landsburg, I have no difficulty rejecting a law that treats some people differently from others. It’s not a clear-cut issue: in the extreme, if the entire population were enslaved by a totalitarian government, a law that frees some people (women, Asians, or gays) would increase freedom, even at the expense of equality before the law. In the case of the Arizona law, since I believe the actions should be justifiable on any grounds, I am strongly against a law that privileges the religious, even if I believe that freedom, on net, is increased.

More on Syria, and on World-Historical Contingency

I recently tweeted this:

I frequently use “I hope I don’t have to explain to a child” as a rhetorical device because it tends to crystallize moral issues in an intuitive way. It strips away much of the artifice that we’ve built up. International weapons conventions, national sovereignty, jurisdiction, and geopolitics suddenly seem quite silly when the issue is boiled down to “people are being killed.”

Of course, this simplification often does omit some important details. I don’t particularly care about international laws and national sovereignty, for example – if these “laws” permit for wanton murder of innocent civilians, we need new laws. More importantly, though, is that focusing on a single issue like that ignores the long-run effects of decisions. I’ve written previously in this very context that the goal of any action (proposed intervention vs not) should be to minimize long-run violence. Perhaps intervention would save X Syrian lives in the short run, but there are long-term consequences. For example, unilateral American intervention could make it more acceptable for Russia or China to intervene in other countries in the future, with likely less benevolent motives. Those potential future losses of life and freedom must be weighed against the lives saved today.

The biggest blowback of any intervention, of course, are terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. Religious fundamentalists create a particular problem here, as they act as if they have nothing to lose – considering that many are willing to commit suicide or die in battle, they don’t consider their own lives worth protecting. This makes them very dangerous: with no country, property, reputation, wealth, of life to protect, they are not vulnerable in ways that rational actors are. This makes intervention in conflicts where they have an interest even less likely to be beneficial in the long run: provoking fundamentalist terror can wreak havoc for decades (see, generally, the last 20 years). Of course, permitting mass slaughter to happen today to avoid uncertain future consequences is a trade-off that is and feels unpleasant. The arrogant response would be to intervene today, and then fight the terror that ensues, but that’s neither free nor easy. This is not an easy moral calculus, at least today and in the Middle East.

I specify the place and time because in many places, and for much of history, the blowback consideration would be far less important. For example, I consider Rwanda a huge moral failure by the international community, in that it could have been prevented at relatively low cost with low risk of major blowback – I doubt, and no one has argued, that the Hutu side would have started bombing European trains and American planes. The same is largely true of Bosnia, Kosovo, and the world’s biggest ongoing moral failure, North Korea – all places where blowback risk is low and potential benefits high. Someday, someone will have to explain to a child why these were permitted to happen, and I don’t think there will be an easy answer. But given that the world can’t even handle the easy cases,* I’m not surprised that the Middle East poses a much bigger challenge. And that would be difficult to explain to a child, or in a tweet.

* I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the international community has prevented tons of mass violence, since violence is on the decline and prevented events don’t make the news. Since it’s hard to prove a counterfactual in these cases, though, I’ll ignore this complication for now.