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Feb. 12th, 2014 @ 01:30 pm Volume 4, Number 2
THE LATEST NEWS

I’m happy to report that Galápagos Regained, my eccentric historical novel about the coming of the Darwinian worldview, is finally in production. The road was long and tortuous, paved by forces not under my control—my beloved agent, Wendy Weil, passed away in October of 2012—but this past autumn my new representative, the estimable Emma Patterson, found a home for my efforts at St. Martin’s Press.

Galápagos Regained centers on the fictional Chloe Bathurst, an unemployed Victorian actress who finds work on Charles Darwin’s estate, nurturing the strange birds, exotic lizards, and giant tortoises he brought back from his trip around the world. (The fine print on my poetic license allows me to imagine such a menagerie.) When Chloe gets wind of the Great God Contest, sponsored by the Percy Bysshe Shelley Society—£10,000 to the first petitioner who can prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being—she decides that Mr. Darwin’s materialist theory of speciation might just turn the trick. (If Nature gave God nothing to do, maybe He was never around in the first place.) Before she knows it, my heroine’s ambitions send her off on a wild adventure—a voyage by brigantine to Brazil, a steamboat trip up the Amazon, a hot-air balloon flight across the Andes—bound for the Galápagos archipelago, where she intends to collect the live specimens through which she hopes to demonstrate evolutionary theory to the contest judges.

The book contains lots of other stuff, too. I don’t have time to recapitulate it all here. I guess you’ll just have to read the thing.


DOMESTICATING MOBY DICK

At one level Galápagos Regained is an homage to what is probably my favorite novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like the Ahab-enthralled crew of the Pequod, my characters have undertaken a demented quest: a journey that pits the cozy universe of received teleological wisdom against a wild and wordless—but awesomely palpable—natural phenomenon. In Galápagos Regained, the discomfiting correlative is not, of course, an immense aquatic mammal. It is the Darwinian “tree of life,” a magisterial yet wholly materialist construct that requires my heroine and her companions to consider the world’s flora and fauna from an unaccustomed and emphatically nonteleological perspective.

So protective do I feel towards Moby Dick that occasionally I am moved to tilt with those who would domesticate the beast, turning this endlessly complex novel into a neat political allegory. (Animal Farm is a puissant satire, but it isn’t Moby Dick.) Such a reductionist project was recently undertaken by the remarkable Chris Hedges, winner the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. According to the website Truthdig, Hedges delivered the address in question, “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies,” last year on October the 13th in Santa Monica.

Let me state at the outset that Chris Hedges’s diagnosis of the malaise of our post-industrial civilization corresponds to my own. I am no less horrified than he by the corporate octopus that is strangling our planet, that multi-tentacled beast bent on devouring Earth’s finite resources, even as it draws additional sustenance from the gargantuan lie that this exploitation should continue unchecked, for such is the system’s manifest destiny. (Although not exactly a red-diaper baby, I came of age in a family that ranked Norman Thomas next to God, and I’m always pleased to recall that my maternal grandfather, Charles Develin, once ran for governor of Maryland on the Socialist ticket.) So I’m delighted that Hedges made this astute and impassioned speech, and I have no doubt the world would be a better place if every English-speaking adult read it by sundown. I just wish he’d left the White Whale alone.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/chris_hedges_jan_27_column_transcript_collapse_of_complex_societies_2014012

When it comes to the species of fiction called allegory, I stand with SF author Ursula K. Le Guin. In a 1976 essay called “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction,” she chides literary critics who confuse that invaluable aesthetic device known as the symbol, “an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically,” with the one-to-one mapping that characterizes allegory, a technique Le Guin calls “dead equivalence.” As Hedges’s speech proceeds, he offers us what amounts to the following table of alleged equivalences in Moby Dick.

   Pequod = America
   Pequod’s thirty-man company = thirty states of the republic in 1851
   Pequod’s ontological status = namesake of exterminated tribe
      Captain Ahab = prototype of ruthless 20th and 21st century capitalists
      Officers = privileged white European males
      Harpooners = exploited dark-skinned minions
      Crew = subjugated masses
      Blazing try-pots = Melville’s anticipation of oil refineries
      Ahab transfixing the harpooners = profane eucharist

And so forth, and so on. Everyone is entitled to his or her own Moby Dick, of course, and I should note that several passages in Hedges’s speech capture the flavor of Melville’s grand achievement. But I found myself mystified by Hedges’s seeming indifference to the novel’s white-hot philosophical and humanistic core—Ahab’s Job-like obsession with an apparently malevolent universe animated by an unknowable but evidently malign creator. (Even the conservative Catholic novelist-physician-philosopher Walker Percy concedes that this is the zone in which Melville is operating.) Upon completing his masterpiece, Melville famously remarked to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” And it is the bedrock wickedness of Moby Dick, its audacious playfulness in the face of humorless conventional piety, that draws me back to its incandescent pages again and again. Yet one searches Hedges’ speech in vain for any sense that, beneath the manifest destructiveness of Ahab’s lust for vengeance, there may very well lie a vital strain of Jobian rebellion, a salutary human wrath against the cosmic status quo.


OH, THOSE UPPITY ATHEISTS

After a protracted trip to the Internet, I decided I’d partially solved the mystery. Melvillean wickedness is simply not Hedges’s cup of tea. Evidently he passes up no opportunity to denounce what he regards as the baleful phenomenon of outspoken atheism. In 2008 Hedges gave us I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Fundamentalism. A couple of years later we got When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists. (I gather these are largely the same book.) Rather like the Terry Eagleton of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Hedges is apparently the sort of quasi-believing Marxist intellectual who prides himself on his talent for empathizing with the sensibility of churchgoers. While such thinkers would never dream of complaining about—to use some ugly designators—“shrill feminists” or “strident blacks,” they are nevertheless perfectly happy to excoriate uppity atheists who refuse to know their place.

Diatribes such as Hedges's and Eagleton’s always leave me wondering how deeply into the swelling ranks of contemporary unbelievers the authors are willing to swing their swords. Naturally Hedges and Eagleton have only contempt for the mischievous quartet of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, but are they equally eager to cut down Jonathan Miller? André Comte-Sponville? Julia Sweeney? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein? William Lobdell? Penn Gillette? Steven Pinker? The author of Galápagos Regained? What about the late Gore Vidal? The sorely missed Kurt Vonnegut Jr.? I wish I knew exactly where the hunt for allegedly rigid and dogmatic atheists ends and some sort of inclusiveness begins. Perhaps Hedges and Eagleton will tell us in their next books.

I must hasten to add that I have severe problems with the late Mr. Hitchens’s bellicose stance toward the Muslim world, and I am equally unhappy with Mr. Harris’s facile torture calculus. And yet I would argue that God-sponsored homophobes and misogynists have never known two more tireless and eloquent opponents than Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett aren’t far behind. Is the unexpected ascent of lippy secularists who speak for the causalities of religion really such an ominous turn of events? Are such men and women truly “dangerous”? Are they in fact “fundamentalists”? Fundamentalism should be made of sterner stuff.

As I read recent American history, our republic’s crusade against its Islamic enemies, real and imagined, was hardly the work of upstart unbelievers. The whole disaster was engineered by the extravagantly Christianized administration of George W. Bush. I’m guessing Hedges believes that, by balancing his distress over the menace of impertinent atheism with a critique of faith-based certainty—I speak now of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, which sounds like a very fine book indeed—he has placed himself unequivocally in the camp of the open-minded. But the problems with religion, I feel, cannot be so neatly circumscribed. Are pedophile priests and those who drive their getaway cars “American fascists”? I think not. Is the obliquely homophobic, arguably misogynist, and (until the great revelation of June 8, 1978) manifestly racist Mormon Church populated by “American fascists”? Well, no. The wages of faith, I feel, are far more subtle and complex than Hedges’s clever term might lead us to believe.

Being only superficially familiar with Hedges’s book, I am now obligated to shut up about it. Shall I ever peruse those pages in full? I don’t know. Tempted as I am to negotiate the whole of When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists, I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. The title alone betrays a disinclination to think seriously about the question. Philosophically, at least, “atheist fundamentalism” is an incoherent concept. (To put the argument as succinctly as I can: a reasoned decision not to buy into somebody else’s supernatural revelation is not itself a supernatural revelation.) According to Booklist, Hedges deplores “the notion, which many atheists and liberal churchgoers share, that as a species humanity can progress morally.” After reading that sentence, I thought I finally understood the morbid and deterministic—indeed, Calvinistic—mood that suffuses “The Myth of Human Progress.” The same Booklist review promises that Hedges will explicate “the dark sides” of the Enlightenment and Darwinism for us. Although I believe I’ve pondered the shadowy facets of those two worldviews as much as anyone I know, my Spidey sense tells me that Hedges will not contribute substantively to my intramural conversation. I’m out of there.


SPELUNKING WITH NIETZSCHE

There is perhaps a second answer to the mystery of Hedges’s disengagement from Moby Dick’s wickedness. “The Myth of Human Progress” is shot through with a febrile, apocalyptic, scorched-earth religiosity quite at odds with Melville’s joyful irreverence and buoyant blasphemy. (Among its many dimensions, Moby Dick is a funny novel.) Hedges is keen on those who, along with Nietzsche, “venture down into the bowels of the molten pit,” getting “as close as they can before the flames and heat drive them back,” ultimately turning themselves into “eternal orphans in empires of illusion.” (Despite Nietzsche’s famous disdain for compassion, I get the impression that Hedges sees himself as one of these romantic Überspelunkers.) He joins theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in celebrating something called “a sublime madness of the soul,” a condition enjoyed by “the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.” In scorning conventional progressive ideals, Hedges again turns to Niebuhr, who taught his disciples that liberalism “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”

Well, maybe. But crucial questions remain. Is there not already a sufficient quantity of fanaticism in the world? Does not political liberalism, with its boring and non-apocalyptic commitment to social and economic justice, actually have a lot more to show for itself than all of Nietzsche’s flaming pits placed end to end? Should we not disenthrall ourselves of the Ralph Nader party line—which for all I know is cultivated by Hedges, a Nader speech writer—that contemporary liberalism and conservatism are essentially the same thing? (It occurs to me that if Nader had behaved honorably and modestly in 2000, throwing his support to the Democratic ticket and thus quite possibly securing Al Gore’s election, the United States might not today be the climate-change-denial capital of the world.) How are we to distinguish a life-affirming “sublime madness” from the insane and murderous agendas of God-besotted Bible heroes such as Abraham and Moses? (Presumably they are not among those lovably crazy Hebrew prophets Hedges so admires.) How do we avoid confusing benignly inspired madmen and madwomen with bloody-minded postmodern Marxist radicals? (See, for example, the ideology on display in Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.) As a child of the dreaded Enlightenment, I must confess that, concerning “sublime madness,” I much prefer the sublime reason of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine (another uppity atheist). I shall leave all this hip Calvinism, this Fall-of-Man bravado, this self-congratulatory Nietzschean strutting, to less timid souls than I.

“Our hope lies in the human imagination,” Hedges tell us. Well, yes, I suppose so. So far, so good. But it soon develops that Hedges’s notion of creativity turns largely on the understandable theistic convulsions of people facing an abyss. “It was the human imagination that permitted African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era to transcend their physical condition,” Hedges argues. He goes on to recount the famous anecdote of the rabbis at Auschwitz who, having arraigned God and found him guilty, promptly returned to their prayers.

For secularists such as myself, it is difficult to see anything creative in acts of pious desperation. Indeed, I would suggest that such impotent gestures are precisely what jailers want their prisoners to be doing. Though completely intelligible, especially in the context of the Holocaust or the concentration camps of the antebellum South, entreating Yahweh or Jesus is high on the list of unimaginative human behaviors (even when you resign yourself to knowing your prayers will be answered only in “God’s eschatological future”). Moby Dick is a work of the imagination, and so are the gods themselves—but appealing to deities is among the most conventional and predictable of those traits that characterize Homo sapiens. And to join Hedges in rhapsodizing about such devotions is, I feel, to view the petitioning victims through a lens of sentimentality and condescension.

Piety per se guarantees nothing. I believe it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who, at the height of the Salman Rushdie affair, reminded us that most of the justifications for American chattel slavery appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries were penned by clerics. To be sure, the campaign for abolition eventually found many allies within the Christian community, and it is impossible to imagine the civil rights movement apart from the initiatives of black churches (and some white ones as well)—two facts we atheists would do well to keep in mind. My point is not that religion is inherently reactionary but that it is unfailingly capricious. Unlike Moby Dick, the beast of faith must be continually domesticated, as it largely was in the West during and after the Enlightenment, or we shall all perish like the crew of the Pequod.

When it comes to fighting the good fight against capitalist rapacity, I am particularly sympathetic to an argument articulated many years ago by Michael Harrington in The Politics at God’s Funeral. Religionists and non-religionists, this great socialist thinker argued, should make common cause against their mutual enemy: the cynical and uncompromising nihilism of the ruling order. Will atheist-averse radicals ever welcome intemperate unbelievers into their fellowship? I suspect they eventually will. And when that day dawns, I shall call it progress.
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Dec. 20th, 2012 @ 07:49 pm Volume 4, Number 1

A FOOTNOTE TO THE SECOND AMENDMENT

It is a little known fact of American history that Ezekiel Isaiah Huckabee, venerable forefather of erstwhile Arkansas governor and eternal Christian gun aficionado Michael Dale Huckabee, attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Acting in his capacity as a nascent white-male voter residing in the dawning republic, Ezekiel Huckabee submitted to James Madison the following proposed component of the hotly debated and highly controversial Bill of Rights:

The periodic slaughter of school children being necessary to the appeasement of Moloch,
the right of the individual citizen to keep and bear weapons of mass murder shall not be infringed.

For reasons not difficult to imagine, Citizen Huckabee’s draft of the Second Amendment proved unacceptable to Mr. Madison, even after Huckabee replaced the pagan appellation “Moloch” with the more acceptable term “Jesus Christ.”  As we all  know, Madison countered Huckabee’s opening bid with a markedly different version of the prerogative in question.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,
the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Needless to say, Huckabee was outraged, as we can infer from the following colloquy, faithfully transcribed from the Federalist Papers, that famous collection of essays arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution.


CITIZEN HUCKABEE: A “FEDERALIST PAPERS” PLAY IN ONE ACT

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: “A well regulated militia”? Nothing doing, Mr. Madison. The phrase conjures up images of rational men banding together and temporarily employing firearms to fend off a common foe.

JAMES MADISON: Collective action is precisely what I had in mind, Mr. Huckabee. Hence my locution “the right of the people,” as opposed to your “right of the individual citizen.”

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: There’s no such thing as “the people,” sir. On these shores we have pantywaist freethinkers, pacifist Quaker loons, armed Christians, chained black chattel from West Africa—the list goes on and on—but no entity called “the people.” At least make it “well regulated militias,” not “a well regulated militia.”

JOHN JAY: In my view a nebulous network of private gun-toting fraternities would be, by definition, ill-regulated.

JAMES MADISON: Our new country will need a standing army. No doubt about that. But in a future invasion by the embittered British, a well regulated militia or two—working in tandem with Federal troops—might prove essential.

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: Don’t you understand, sir? The real menace emanates from the sort of strong Federal Government you’re so hell-bent on promoting! I’m talking about tax collectors pounding on our doors in the dead of night! Bureaucrats and functionaries confiscating our rifles in broad daylight! Publically funded atheist schoolmasters poisoning young minds with Thomas Paine!

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Stop your damn whining, sir. You’re fortunate that a Bill of Rights is even on the table. If it were up to me, I’d tie Mr. Madison’s proposed amendments to a rock and drop it in the Delaware River.

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: “Well regulated militia.” “The right of the people.” Rubbish. We can’t allow the camel of gun control to get its nose under the tent of our sacred freedoms! I won’t stand for it!

JAMES MADISON: Bite me, Huckabee.

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: At the very least, let’s add this sentence. “An arms-bearing citizen who stands his ground and fires his weapon at an aggressor or aggressors shall not be prosecuted.”

JOHN JAY: “Aggressor or aggressors”? I pray you, sir, who do you have in mind?

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: Have you never confronted a Negro boy armed with a cloth hood? Absolutely terrifying! Have you never been surrounded by twenty screeching, chattering, highly excited school children? It’s overwhelming!

JOHN JAY: This colloquy has outrun its usefulness.

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: Very well, but I mean to have the last word!

JOHN JAY: Put down that pistol, Huckabee!

JAMES MADISON: Don’t shoot!

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: Go gunning for Burr instead! You’ll save me a heap of trouble!

JAMES MADISON: Look! Out the window! Jesus Christ himself, coming on a cloud!

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: Splut! Splut! What the hey?

JAMES MADISON: Gotcha!

EZEKIEL HUCKABEE: To blazes with you, Madison! You grabbed my gun away!

JAMES MADISON: I’ve had lots of practice lately, snatching sharp knives from the hands of my two-year-old stepson. And now, Mr. Huckabee, sir, I’d say you’re due for a time out.

Curtain


J’ACCUSE, NRA! J’ACCUSE!

Every time I glimpse the cover of Dalton Trumbo’s astonishing antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, I marvel at the deadpan audacity of the title. The source, of course, is George M. Cohan’s quintessential patriotic song about the Great War, “Over There.”

Johnny, get your gun,
Get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run,
On the run, on the run.
Hear them calling you and me,
Every son of liberty.
Hurry right away,
No delay, go today,
Make your Daddy glad
To have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line.

Flash forward from Flanders Field to Newtown, Connecticut. At the risk of doing a disservice to the victims of the Columbine, Capitol Hill, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson Supermarket, Oak Creek, and Colorado Movie Theater massacres, I would argue that recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have presented us with a whole new order of the outrageous.

As far as I can tell, Adam, Nancy, and Peter Lanza were a kind of National Rifle Association poster family. Okay, sure, Mom and Dad had recently split up (the NRA is into paranoia, not divorce), but beyond that anomaly the Lanza family did everything the organization told them to do, the better to protect their God-given freedoms.

“Come on, Adam, honey! Mama’s takin’ you to the range!”

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there,
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming
Everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware,
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over
Over there.

Tool around the NRA website, and you’ll encounter the ethos that evidently held the Lanza family in its thrall—though perhaps the content will be modified in days to come. It’s a simple message, really. America is a nation under siege. We are encircled not by a foreign power but by a penumbral enemy not easily distinguishable from the Federal Government itself, especially now that Barack Obama occupies the White House. (Note the Obama Alert 2012 newsletter.) The only logical response to this state of affairs is to purchase a great many pistols, rifles, and assault weapons, learn how to use them, fill your house to the rafters with ammunition, and make ready to stand your ground. (Be sure to visit the NRA Women’s Network, complete with a lovely little feminist featurette called “Packing Pretty & Girls Guide Weekend.”)

“The range, darling! That’s how much Mama loves you! I’m packin’ pretty, Adam!”

Johnny, get your gun,
Get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the Hun
Who’s a son of a gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly.
Yankee Doodle do or die.
Pack your little kit,
Show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks,
From the towns and the tanks.
Make your Mother proud of you,
And the old Red, White, and Blue.

The subtext of the NRA website is not difficult to decipher. Guns are absolutely the coolest things on the planet, bar none. Guns make better friends than Golden Retrievers. Guns are more fun than the world’s most elaborate HO model train layout. Guns are more thrilling that drawing to an inside straight-flush and getting the exact card you needed. Guns are more gratifying than the entire run of Playboy enterfolds published between 1953 and last month. Guns are more awesome than all the Hubble Space Telescope images put together. Guns are everything The Phantom Menace should have been but wasn’t. Guns make you feel like Clint Eastwood just rang you up and offered you a speaking part in his next movie. Guns should be discussed in hushed tones of veneration, or they should not be discussed at all.

“Let’s go, Adam, honey! If you’re very, very good, Mama will let you fire the Bushmaster!”

In his first statement to the press, Peter Lanza asserted that he was “struggling to make sense” of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Sorry, Mr. Lanza. The whole thing makes perfect sense. There’s nothing to figure out. Your family picked the wrong religion. The church of the NRA was never your friend—and now you know why.

“That’s right, Adam, sweetheart, the Bushmaster! The one that does all the work for you!”

True, Adam Lanza apparently had some sort of cognitive disorder. (He may have been on the segment of the autism spectrum once called Asperger’s syndrome.) But so do tens of thousands of other young men. The difference is that many of them are lucky enough not be to growing up in NRA households.

“The range, Adam! The range!”

So Johnny got his gun.

And Adam went to the range.

And the rest is history.

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May. 24th, 2011 @ 03:52 pm Volume 3, Number 4
RAPTURE LITE

I recently picked up a copy of the New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real (Thomas Nelson, $16.99), in which Nebraska cleric Todd Burpo recounts his preschool son’s life-threatening peritonitis and subsequent surgeries, an ordeal during which young Colton allegedly enjoyed an audience with the God of Christian revelation.

Sensing an opportunity to hone my inveterate skepticism and critique the theistic worldview, I plunged into the book with a combination of morbid curiosity and mischievous glee. And, of course, there was always a chance that this presumably heartfelt memoir would inspire me to re-examine my own axiomatically fallible notions of how the universe works. You never know.

Even before I cracked the spine, my inner Voltaire was placed on alert. The front cover discloses that Mr. Burpo composed Heaven Is for Real in collaboration with Lynn Vincent, the professional journalist responsible for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life. Now. Deep breath. Sarah Palin. My initial thought: if Palin is allowed to accuse President Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” am I allowed to accuse Lynn Vincent of palling around with pathological liars?

I quickly realized that the question is irrelevant. Heaven Is for Real, I decided, must stand or fall on its own internal logic and intrinsic merits, not on the résumé of Burpo’s holy ghostwriter.


JESUS-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK

The author’s—and Ms. Vincent’s—credibility goes off the rails as early as Chapter Two, when Burpo recounts his own medical tribulation: a 2002 mastectomy following what turned out to be a misdiagnosis of male breast cancer. Speaking of his initial needle biopsy, Burpo says, “The results that came back shocked me: hyperplasia. Translation: the precursor to breast cancer.” But that simply isn’t true. In the words of Dr. Susan Love, author of the famous Breast Book, “A diagnosis of hyperplasia does not put you at any increased risk for developing breast cancer.”

A few sentences later, we learn that the biblical Book of Job (a character with whom Burpo intensely identifies) is all about a man “who was struck with a series of increasingly bizarre symptoms.” Only it isn’t. Job’s misfortunes are not “symptoms”—they’re not Augustinian indices of inherent depravity—but rather God-induced traumas and afflictions. What’s going on here? I wondered. Undoubtedly Burpo and Vincent have a personal relationship with Jesus, but what sort of personal relationship do they have with the far less congenial universe of facts?

Shortly before the midpoint, in Chapter Eleven, Heaven Is for Real turns ugly and stays that way. Not long after his son’s release from the hospital, Pastor Burpo is asked to preside over the funeral of a man who “wasn’t a member of our congregation.” When Colton gets wind of this, he blurts out, ”He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!” Bewildered by his son’s tirade—our pastor hasn’t yet tumbled to the fact that Jesus recently dandled the boy on his knee—Burpo tries to comfort him, saying, “I talked to some of the family members, and they told me he did.” The kid doesn’t buy it. “He had to! He had to! ... He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”

At this juncture I found myself hoping that the late Fred Rogers, a minister I can respect, would come fluttering down from the clouds and declare, “Now wait a minute, Colton—do you have any idea what you’re saying? Jesus is not in the business of consigning non-Christians to hell. Jesus likes all decent people just the way they are.” But if any such intervention occurred, Burpo and Vincent declined to record it.

In Chapter Twelve we finally get to heaven, which is evidently a kind of ongoing Sunday School pageant staged by Julie Taymor, complete with winged grandparents and haloed angels. What makes Colton’s journey so implausible is not the parochialism of it all, but the contrived incredulity with which Dad greets each new revelation from his son. Every time our sixty-pound prophet wafts out yet another theological insight or scriptural paraphrase, Burpo maddeningly insists that the gem in question couldn’t possibly trace to Colton’s upbringing, but only to a close encounter of the infinite kind.

That is an extremely silly argument. My twin grandsons are being raised in a household that delights in musical comedy. When they started spontaneously warbling the lyrics to “Make ’Em Laugh” at age two, miming the concomitant choreography, my daughter and son-in-law never once imagined that their kids had been magically transported across time and space to a Hollywood sound stage during the filming of Singin’ in the Rain.


APOCALYPSE WHENEVER

Although Burpo and Vincent lace their text with ostensibly killer details, few of them withstand scrutiny. Consider the matter of Colton noticing “markers” on Jesus’ palms—which, of course, turn out to be the wounds he suffered during his execution. Alas, this cannot be the case. The Roman method of crucifixion involved driving a nail into the wrist (between the two sturdy bones—the radius and the ulna—that extend through the forearm from the elbow to the carpals) and into the wood beyond. A nail through the palm would have quickly torn through the adjacent flesh.

Even the most pious scholars acknowledge this historical fact, noting that the occurrence of Jesus’ perforated “hands” in John 20:25 and 27 represents a poor translation. Colton’s account would be more convincing if Jesus had said something like, “You’re probably wondering about my misplaced wounds. Well, laddie buck, in my case the Romans deviated from their normal practice, and God, being God, saw to it that I didn’t go flopping off the cross.”

Then there’s the business of Colton’s meeting his unborn sister in heaven—Burpo’s wife evidently suffered a miscarriage in 1998—and missing her terribly after he returns to planet Earth. For evangelicals this is doubtless an appealing episode, but it contradicts Colton’s subsequent disclosure that, once a dead Christian attains eternity, his essence is transplanted into a perpetually youthful, but eminently recognizable, adult body. In the case of the canceled sister, however, the rules were apparently suspended, and the fetus was required to mature in tandem with Colton, so they could enjoy a tearful quasi-reunion during his near-death experience.

In the final chapters, Burpo and Vincent completely lose it, abandoning all pretense to plausibility, and the whole thing turns into an infomercial for the bloody Book of Revelation—a text that, true to form, the authors inaccurately ascribe to “the apostle John.” Arrows are nocked. Swords come out. (All God’s angels pack heat, lest the Devil and his demons breach the pearly gates.) Standing to one side with the women and other children, Colton is accorded a sneak preview of Armageddon. “There’s going to be a war and it’s going to destroy the world,” he subsequently reports to his father. “Jesus and the angels and the good people are going to fight against Satan and the monsters and the bad people ... And, Dad, I watched you. You have to fight too.”

And who are the “bad people” in this Tim LaHaye wet dream? The little sock puppet doesn’t say, and I’m just as glad. I wouldn’t want to hear his answer.


SAINT PAUL’S FOLLY

By the evidence of Heaven Is for Real, Burpo and his coauthor boast between them the intellectual curiosity of a charcoal briquette. Take, for example, the radical disjuncture between Colton’s dispatches and the venerable Christian notion of Judgment Day. By Colton’s account, heaven is happening right now, on a plane parallel to our world. And yet, for millions of Christians, salvation is something that occurs only in an indeterminate future, after time has run its course—a doctrine routinely stamped with the imprimatur of First Corinthians 15:5: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” For whatever reason, Colton’s father makes nothing of the astonishing news that, concerning the nontrivial matter of personal redemption, Saint Paul got it wrong and Bil Keane’s The Family Circus gets it right.

Burpo is equally unmoved when it develops that Colton left Jehovah’s throne room in possession of a radically deviant version of Christianity. As every schoolboy knows and every schoolgirl understands, throughout its formative years the gentile Church was obliged to deal with the rogue theology of Bishop Arius, who held that, though surely divine, Jesus exists on a lower plane than the King of the Universe, having been created by God much as a father begets a son or daughter. At the first Council of Nicaea, Arianism was roundly repudiated, and yet in Heaven Is for Real it makes a triumphant return—an astonishing development on which Burpo and Vincent mysteriously decline to remark.

A few examples will suffice. When Colton’s mother asks him whether his miscarried sister was adopted by Jesus, he replies, “No, Mommy. His Dad did.” Recalling the holy throne room, Colton remarks, “Jesus’ chair is right next to his Dad’s!” Articulating the essence of his chat with the Nazarene, Colton explains, “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” For reasons I cannot fathom, Burpo and Vincent evidently failed to notice that Colton went to heaven a Methodist and came back a heretic.

From the first page to the last, the authors of Heaven Is for Real fail to raise the most obvious questions concerning Colton’s mini-rapture. Why doesn’t Jesus vouchsafe these eschatological day trips to children more benighted than Colton—kids growing up in a Buddhist households, say, or youngsters afflicted with atheist parents, or preschoolers in Tehran? Why was Colton Burpo and only Colton Burpo elected to be the New York Times messiah? And how is it that Jesus happens to be such a four-square fundamentalist, continually implying to his pint-sized visitor that smart money rides on biblical literalism, when generations of honorable—and frequently believing—scholars have flushed out scores of contradictions and inaccuracies in scripture?

The reader searches in vain for a single moment in Colton’s excursion that partakes of the noble, the puzzling, the irreducible, the uplifting, or the unexpected. If only Burpo and Vincent had summoned the courage to have Colton say something like “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really upchuck when rich people have to pay proportionally higher taxes?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus is simply crazy about Darwin’s theory of natural selection?” or “Did you know, Dad, that Jesus doesn’t really care when a man’s wee-wee takes an inordinate interest in another man’s wee-wee?” Throughout my reading experience, I kept hearing the sound of Lynn Vincent biting her tongue. Oh, how desperately she must have wanted to make her mouthpiece report that Jesus detests universal health care, gun control, gay marriage, gay anything else, environmental regulations, the Democratic party, and the separation of church and state. Somehow she resisted this temptation, which I suppose speaks well of the woman, or at least of her professional acumen. Thank God for small favors.


LIES, HALF-LIES, AND REDEMPTION

To state my case succinctly, Heaven Is for Real is a hoax. Whether by accident or design, Burpo, Vincent, and young Colton have given us as ignoble and cynical a memoir as might be imagined, right up there with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the oeuvre of Carlos Castaneda.

Having made that harsh accusation, I suppose I should now recuse myself from the conversation. After all, the book in question was manifestly not written for atheists like myself. It was concocted by devout believers for devout believers. The author of Towing Jehovah must be the last person Burpo and Vincent imagined picking up Heaven Is for Real and—in his own impertinent fashion—taking it seriously.

And yet I’m not quite ready to leave Todd, Lynn, and Colton to their folie à trois. I like to believe that Burpo-debunking blog-posts like mine will open up a space in which all of us—the trio in question, their many critics, their countless admirers—might find some sort of mutual and ecumenical redemption. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but it seems to me that, for all my disgruntlement, I’m not the one building barriers here. That’s Burpo and Vincent’s game. I’m not the person erecting ramparts of hellfire and Manichaean dualism and apocalyptic fantasy. That’s all coming from master Colton, aided by his injudicious father and Sarah Palin’s ventriloquist. I didn’t write this violent, obscene, and mendacious book. They did.

Somehow, some way, I want to reach out to these souls. I want to take them by the lapels and insist, lovingly but firmly, that it’s a bad thing, an ungodly thing, for Christians to deceive other Christians, even in the name of a presumed greater good. I want to tell them that, if the observable counts for anything, then Homo sapiens is not really on a package tour to eternity—in fact, we’re already where we belong: fellow citizens of planet Earth, bound together by shared genetic ligaments, reveling in the gift of life and our common status as risen apes. And given this condition, our first order of business must be, if such a thing is possible, to cut the crap.

One of my favorite moments in movie history occurs when Claude Rains as the diplomat Dryden turns to Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence and says, “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

Like my hero Voltaire, I’m a meliorist, perhaps even an optimist. I like to think that, sooner or later, the creators of Heaven Is for Real will seize the moral high ground. “We deeply regret our actions,” Todd, Lynn, and Colton will tell the world. “We embellished, we exaggerated, we made stuff up, we left stuff out, we fibbed prolifically—indeed, we perpetrated an egregious and unconscionable swindle. In Jesus’ name, we pray that we might do better in the years that remain to us.”

Yes, quite so, such is my fractured faith in humanity, such is my confidence that Todd, Lynn, and Colton are far better people than their book, I can actually imagine them stepping forward one day with a promise to begin telling the truth.

But first they will have to remember where they put it.
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May. 12th, 2011 @ 10:52 pm Signing "Shambling" at Nebula Awards
Along with forty of my colleagues, I shall be autographing at the Washington Hilton on Friday, May 20th, from 5:30 to 7:00 PM, in conjunction with the Nebula Awards Weekend (1919 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington DC). The signing event is open to the public. Many copies of “Shambling Towards Hiroshima,” one of last year’s losers in the novella category, will be on hand.
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Oct. 29th, 2010 @ 05:41 pm Volume 3, Number 3

THE MANICHEAN EXORCIST

As part of our annual Halloween film festival, my wife and I screened the recently released Blu-Ray transfer of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. I hadn’t see the thing since its premiere, and I’d forgotten what a nightmare it is—not in the Gothic sense, but in the sense that the movie seems engineered to give bad dreams to anyone who appreciates the virtues of Western rationality.

From the first frame to the last, The Exorcist serves up a feckless Manichean attack on the Enlightenment, rigging the discourse at every turn. On one side we have the forces of darkness: clueless physicians in lab coats, blinded by their materialism, blithely torturing a demonically possessed child with their diagnostic instruments. (Okay, perhaps Torquemada went a bit too far, but when it comes to violating innocent flesh, the Inquisition can’t hold a candle to modern scientific medicine.) On the other side we have the avatars of the angels: Father Karras (an anguished Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (a bored Max Von Sydow), correctly interpreting Regan’s lurid symptoms, setting her mother—and the audience—straight about how the universe really works, and rehabilitating the child through consecrated inanities. Can the “Roman Ritual” really be that vapid? I can’t imagine it curing an upper respiratory infection, much less exorcising a demon.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this is Glenn Beck’s favorite film. We already know it occupies a warm place in Clarence Thomas’s heart—more on that in a moment.


THE BANALITY OF BLATTY’S EVIL

What I find most exasperating about this movie, and the novel before it, is Blatty and Friedkin’s stupefyingly unimaginative notion of radical evil. You know, radical evil, that phenomenon we secular humanists are continually told we fail to appreciate. In the world of The Exorcist, the Devil’s agenda comes down to one thing and one thing only: the sex act. For Friedkin and Blatty, human reproductive organs are the sine qua non of chaos, depravity, and filth.

You might think that a self-respecting demon would have something on his mind besides cocks and cunts. But no. Not one of the “obscene” utterances spewed forth by Pazuzu touches on historical or social evils. Pazuzu files no briefs on behalf of war, slavery, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, or pedophilia. Can it be a coincidence that, at certain points in its ragged history, the Catholic Church has acquiesced to all six of those institutions? I only ask. I do not know.

My wife noticed that the movie is devoid of even one satisfying sexual relationship: straight, gay, lesbian, or bi. (I cannot speak for Pazuzu’s bloody bond with the child’s crucifix.) Regan’s mother is divorced and not remotely interested in romance. The two principal male characters are Catholic priests. The wife of the police inspector, played by Lee C. Cobb, no longer enjoys watching movies with him—get it? When The Exorcist isn’t busy wagging its index finger at secular reason, it gives its middle digit to anyone who would presume to find redemption in the erotic.


OF SUPREME COURT JUSTICES AND PUBIC HAIRS

In recent weeks The Exorcist has made an oblique return to the headlines—the connection being a memoir penned by Judge Lillian McEwen, who seems to be emerging as a worthy thorn in the side of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Recall, if you will, Thomas’s notorious 1991 Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings. As a connoisseur of pornography, a misogynist prince of lies, and a past master of sexual harassment, Thomas can evidently give Pazuzu a run for his money—a fact that the courageous Anita Hill logically decided to share with the U.S. Senate.

For her trouble, Ms. Hill was excoriated by the self-righteous likes of Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter. According to her testimony, among the many unsavory particulars of Thomas’s modus operandi was the following great pick-up line: “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” When Senator Hatch, sly littérateur that he is, recognized this bit of pseudo-wit as a paraphrase of a remark made by the movie director in Blatty’s The Exorcist—“There seems to be an alien pubic hair in my gin”—he leaped to the unwarranted assumption that Hill was lying. (The speech can also be heard in the screen adaptation, indifferently articulated by a soused Jack MacGowran.) The far more plausible explanation, of course, was that Thomas had taken time out from Debbie Does Dallas to read Blatty’s novel—or watch a VHS transfer of the Friedkin movie—and, being a man of sophisticated taste, recognized a line worth appropriating. Far from being a liar, Hill’s only failing in this case was insufficient familiarity with a dubious piece of popular culture.

Judge McEwen’s memoir evidently provides about as much corroboration of Anita Hill’s testimony as one might wish. I hope she finds a good publisher posthaste, sells a million copies, and—hey, Christmas is coming, so allow me to wish on a large scale—triggers the long-overdue impeachment of Clarence Thomas.
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Jul. 7th, 2010 @ 01:54 pm Our Post-Theistic World
I recently had the opportunity to hold forth in cyberspace, the occasion being my interview with the estimable Eric Mays on his internet series called “The Author Speaks.” Being the sort of person who is of almost continual interest to himself, I was struck by some my answers – ideas I didn’t know I had until I attempted to articulate them – and I wanted to share these with you.

Beyond the snippets I’m offering in this blog entry, you can read the entire interview here

Asked by Eric whether we have “plunged int a post-theistic world,” I replied as follows:

“I believe our world is post-theistic in the sense that these days almost everybody in the political-cultural sphere feels empowered to speak for God. There’s a palpable sense in which Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, Benedict XVI, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and other such scoundrels are indulging in an essentially atheistic discourse. When you are privy to God’s opinions concerning any and all matters of consequence, you really have no personal need of Him – do you? – except as a bully to call upon whenever your own bullying fails. So He might as well not even exist, right?

“But in another sense, of course, we are living through a plague of theism such as the world hasn’t seen since the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. I shudder to imagine where it will lead. At least we have 9/11 to remind us that a belief in God guarantees nothing, and I mean nothing, desirable in the moral realm.”

When Eric asked me my thoughts about “the Good Book,” this is what sprang into my head:

“I suppose I should be grateful for the Bible. Were it not for Holy Writ, I’d be out of a job.

“That said, I think we’d be better off if all the world’s Bibles turned to vanilla milkshakes tomorrow. Over the centuries, humans have devised all sorts of diabolical institutions – genocide, slavery, misogyny, child abuse, homophobia, heretic hunts, witch cleansings, anti-Semitism – and you’ll find each and every one of them endorsed in Scripture, and almost no unequivocal denunciations of these evils.

“If it’s really the case that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent entity exists somewhere out there, I would have to conclude that the Bible is the Word of God the way The Iliad is the autobiography of Cole Porter.”
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May. 19th, 2010 @ 01:14 pm News from Cocoa Beach
This year’s Nebula Award for Best Novella went to The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, a triumph that obviously meant a great deal to the family and agent of the late and much lamented Kage Baker.

For the past two months, Kate Milford’s blog, The Clockwork Foundry, has featured a series of posts called “The Informed Nebula Voter Project.” Here’s an excerpt from Kate’s review of Kage’s book: “The women in question constitute an elite group of information gatherers for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society – they are whores only incidentally. When four European power brokers are invited to the house of Lord Basmond, a noble offering a levitating technology at auction, Lady Beatrice and three of her cohorts are dispatched as the entertainment ... Then Lord Basmond is murdered ... and the girls suddenly have ... a murder to solve ... This story is an adventure with very, very cool detailing: the chain of events that brings Lady Beatrice to Nell Gwynne’s, for instance, and Mr. Felmouth, the Society’s ‘Q,’ who invents marvelous gadgets. And there’s a pretty seriously cool twist at the end – this story turns out to be not exactly the story you think it is. I love when that happens.”

Had Shambling Towards Hiroshima won the award, my acceptance speech would have begun like this: “The day before Kathy and I boarded the train for Orlando, I received a letter from an attorney in Tokyo representing ToHo Productions. The company is claiming that, in writing Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I plagiarized some obscure ToHo character named Godzilla. The attorney insisted that all copies of the novella be immediately destroyed, and I must cease and desist from using the character in my fiction.

“My fellow SFWA members, tonight I stand before you to attest that, until the letter arrived from Tokyo, I’d never had any knowledge of a monster called Godzilla. I’d never heard of that radioactive behemoth. I never had sex with that lizard.”

I would have gone on to dedicate the award to “my lovely and brilliant wife, Kathy,” and also to “a late, great writer named William Tenn, my comrade in satire, who lived an admirable human life under the pseudonym Phil Klass.”

My gratitude would also have gone to Tachyon editor Jacob Weisman, managing editor Jill Roberts, publicist Matt Staggs, long-range-planner Bernie Goodman, better-angel-of-Jacob’s-nature Rina Weisman, and Gorgantis fanzine creators Fred Ramsey and Bill Spangler.

As a final gesture, I would have noted that, while it’s wonderful to receive a Nebula, I’ve always wanted to win a Hugo, “so indulge me while I employ my Nebula-to-Hugo Conversion Kit.” The packet in question comprises a roll of Scotch tape and a Styrofoam coffee cup. When turned upside down and affixed to the top of a Nebula, such a cup has the immediate effect – when the lighting is sufficiently poor – of transforming the Lucite block into a rocket ship.
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Feb. 26th, 2010 @ 01:53 pm Blogging for Voltaire
A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a curator at the New York Public Library, Alice Boone, who is conducting a fascinating cyber-experiment in conjunction with the NYPL exhibition Candide at 250: Scandal and Success.

A Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Columbia, Ms. Boone has gathered together a community of scholars and artists and invited them to adorn Voltaire’s text with footnotes, observations, clarifications, musings, and riffs, the aim being to produce a blog equivalent to Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice or Isaac Asimov’s Gulliver’s Travels.

As the author of The Last Witchfinder, which attempts to dramatize the birth of the Enlightenment, and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, which arguably dramatizes the death of the Enlightenment, I struck Ms. Boone as the sort of person who might enjoy such an assignment – which indeed I did.

My Talmudic commentary on Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Candide has was posted earlier this week. Feel free to join the conversation.

http://candide.nypl.org/text
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Jan. 25th, 2010 @ 03:49 pm The Book of Genocide
I wanted to share an audacious Washington Post piece from Richard Dawkins, in which he makes an interesting point concerning the Reverend Pat Robertson’s recent attribution of Haiti’s pain to an alleged ancestral Satanism. Dawkins avers that, throughout this eschatological donnybrook, it is actually Robertson who has behaved as the legitimate Christian thinker, while the mainstream believers who denounce him are little better than hypocrites. In short, our notorious Darwinist has once again mounted an outrageous and offensive argument, one I would urge my readers to dismiss out of hand if it did not enjoy the annoying virtue of being true.

Now, I suppose Dawkins could be accused of being too ready to place some of the more lurid moments from Genesis – the worldwide flood, the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah – at the center of Christian theology. And yet he is well within his rights to do so. For hundreds of years the Old Testament was the sine qua non of Christian apologetics. The desert fathers, the medieval scholastics, and the Reformation theologians were absolutely obsessed with finding intimations of Jesus in Hebrew scripture – as well they should have been. Unless one reads Adam’s lapse from grace, the rainbow covenant, and other such episodes as actual events, no less historical than the Battle of Hastings, the very idea of an Incarnate Redeemer arriving in the fullness of time becomes incoherent – a capricious act by a fickle Creator. Only at our peril do we forget that today’s “fundamentalists” were yesterday’s respected Christian intellectuals.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and read Dawkins’s piece. And then, if you can stomach it, read the Book of Genesis – which I have recently taken to calling the Book of Genocide.

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/richard_dawkins/2010/01/haiti_and_the_hypocrisy_of_christian_theology.html?hpid=talkbox1
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Dec. 18th, 2009 @ 02:53 pm Volume 3, Number 2
THE INVENTION OF THE INVENTION OF LYING

For the past several months I’ve been receiving e-mails from fans of my novella, City of Truth, asking how I feel about the recent Ricky Gervais comedy, The Invention of Lying.

The parallels between my novella and Gervais’ movie are many. Both posit societies in which mendacity is unknown. Both sport plot devices that turn on terminal illness. Both exploit their central conceits to spin out jokes ranging from the restrained to the obvious. In City of Truth, a prominent clinic is called the Center for the Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Disease. In The Invention of Lying, a retirement home is labeled A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.

Is there something unsavory afoot here? City of Truth first appeared nineteen years ago in England, Gervais’s native country. Since 1993 the American trade paperback edition has been in print, and several independent film producers have optioned the property over the years.

That said, I honestly don’t believe that any conscious or overt plagiarism has occurred, and I’ve been advised by several Hollywood insiders that I would be wasting my time to take my case to court. Moreover, as a secular humanist, I must admit that I’m glad The Invention of Lying got made. While I found most of Gervais’s movie tedious and unfunny, I thought the second act did a marvelous job of articulating the “Emperor’s New Clothes” essence of the God hypothesis.

I'll conclude these meditations by thanking those bloggers who’ve compared The Invention of Lying with City of Truth and judged my novella the more resonant effort.


SCOUNDREL OF THE YEAR

So there I was, all set to convert to Judaism, my war with God having finally ended, and then along comes the imperially pious Senator Joseph Lieberman. Sorry, Yahweh. Tough darts, Adoni. The deal is off. If You cannot be bothered to inform Mr. Lieberman that You are personally revolted by his gelding of health-care reform in the United States, then I’m going back to worshipping trees.

“I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as health-care reform,” Lieberman told the congressional newspaper The Hill, explaining why, on a recent Saturday – that is, Sabbath – afternoon, he subjected himself to a four-mile, snowy walk to the Capitol from his Georgetown synagogue.

Translation: “I have a responsibility to the numerous insurance companies of Connecticut to guarantee that this bill will maximize the profits they reap from human suffering, and while I was once vociferously in favor of a Medicare buy-in, there was ultimately no way I could reconcile that position with my inveterate narcissism.”

To their eternal credit, several Connecticut rabbis have stepped forward to remind the senator that his faith does not necessarily countenance such cruelty. Alas, these worthies are of the Reform and Conservative persuasions, and so their pleas failed to penetrate Lieberman’s deaf Orthodox ears. It occurs to me that the sort of Judaism observed by Lieberman is depressingly consistent with the practices recommended by the God of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, that fiend who seems to have no particular problem with child sacrifice but who in His dubious generosity is willing to let the Israelites “ransom” their first-born with cattle and shekels.

Now and forever, Senator Lieberman, the blood of innocents is on your hands. But, sad to say, apparently not on your conscience.


SPEAKING OF SCOUNDRELS

I cannot wrap up The Passionate Rationalist for 2009 without mentioning the visit that Michael Behe, avatar of Intelligent Design, made to Penn State in March. He arrived under the auspices of an undergraduate organization called the Science and the Bible Club, whose “main purpose” is to “research connections and relationships between science and scripture.” Although their website doesn’t say so, I would infer that the Science and Bible Club is a branch of the nationwide Lewis Carroll Cabbages and Kings Society, whose main purpose is to research connections and relationships between paired entities that have no conceivable connection or relationship to each other.

Behe’s presentation was open to the public, and so I gritted my teeth, girded my loins, left the house, and, accompanied by son Chris, walked to the Thomas Building. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I thought perhaps Behe would attempt to wow the crowd with the more technical aspects of his “argument” for Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology, discoursing on certain biological puzzles that he believes cannot be addressed except in reference to the supernatural. But no. Instead Behe chose to waste everyone’s time with a smug PowerPoint presentation trashing Richard Dawkins, dissing Charles Darwin, celebrating the irreducible complexity of mousetraps, and setting us straight about Mount Rushmore: if you believe this second-rate piece of sculpture didn’t happen by accident, then you are tacitly assenting to theism.

In short, an embarrassing, disingenuous, and self-serving performance, topped off with Behe whining about Judge Jones’s landmark decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the case that put the lie to IDIOT and dealt Behe such a humiliating personal defeat. Evidently Jones’s 139-page opinion included certain rhetorical flourishes that he failed to attribute to their original author, a scientist who testified on evolution’s behalf. If that’s the sourest grape Behe can find in Jones’s magnificent essay, I would say that, as a device for impoverishing the minds of school children, IDIOT has reached its apex and has nowhere to go but down.


ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

The evening ended on a happy note. During the Q & A session, a handful of students – presumably not members of the Science and Bible Club – stepped forward to challenge the presenter. I would paraphrase their wonderfully impertinent questions as follows: “Why are you lying to us, Dr. Behe?” “Why are you attacking a caricature of Darwin’s idea, as opposed to the idea itself?” “Why do you deliberately misrepresent the intentions behind recent laboratory experiments keyed to evolutionary theory?”

Evidently the biology courses taught at my local university are something to write home about. These young men and women had their facts straight. I personally don’t care whether we ever win another damn football game, but I was proud of Penn State that night. Bless you, kids. You brought a tear to my eye.

I didn’t get to ask my own question of Behe, but I did approach him at the lectern afterwards. “Doesn’t the natural history of the AIDS virus suggest that Darwinian evolution is more than the inconsequential sideshow you make it out to be?” I inquired. Behe proceeded to best me with the Argument from Because I Said So. I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, you got me, God created AIDS – though that fact makes me wonder about His alleged benevolence.”

Whereupon a student, presumably a member of the Science and Bible Club, turned to me and said, helpfully, “It’s a fallen world. Of course there’s an AIDS virus. How could it be otherwise?”

Foolishly, I decided to pursue the conversation. “Does that mean that the scientists working on an AIDS vaccine are blasphemers? Are they miscreants arrogantly tempting to undo the sin of Adam?”

The student said nothing but instead marched merrily away, eager to lend her deaf ears to Joseph Lieberman.

Merry Solstice, everyone!
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