Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bursting Bubbles

I am more than halfway through reading Letter from a Christian Citizen, by Douglas Wilson -- a point-by-point rebuttal of Sam Harris' atheist manifesto, Letter to a Christian Nation.

So far, Wilson is mopping the floor with Harris.

Wilson also mopped the floor with Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything earlier this year in an online debate (in six installments).

The tactical problem Messrs. Harris and Hitchens ran into with Wilson, a Reformed theologian who is pastor at the Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a member of the faculty at New St. Andrews College, is that Wilson happens to be a classically-educated scholar who is well-versed in philosophy and familiar with the arguments that have been put forth by atheists from day one. In other words, he knows sophistry when it poses as argument. One gets the impression, so sloppy were many of Harris's arguments, that he didn't think there would be any Christians who were capable of understanding them and hitting back effectively with logic and reason.

However, the even worse strategic blunder made by both Harris and Hitchens is that their rhetoric betrays a strong sense of "ought". They appear genuinely outraged at what they perceive to be injustice in several of its forms. Yet, as Wilson patiently (and entertainingly) points out, moral indignation does not follow from the premises of atheism. Wilson is not saying that an atheist is necessarily less moral than a Christian; he cheerfully concedes there are moral atheists. What Wilson is saying is that atheists, if they are consistent with their beliefs, have no compelling reason to behave morally, or to believe in morality at all.

For morality to be compelling, it must be transcendent -- it must somehow be greater than man. But how can it be greater than man if it was invented by man? It follows from atheism that all things that exist must have had causes that were strictly material. This means that what you and I may exalt as "ideals", "thoughts", "feelings", and "moral values" are nothing more than chemical and electrical impulses in the little cauldrons of protoplasm which we refer to as "brains". If true, this renders morality into nothing more than an illusion, a conceit. It is easy enough to posit that these conceits must have arisen through evolutionary mechanisms -- that somehow, meaningless though they may be in any transcendent sense, the illusion itself may have contributed to the survival of the human species. But once we see the illusion for what it is -- once Oz is spotted hiding behind the curtain -- it loses its ability to command our allegiance and respect. If morality is an illusion, nothing more than bubbles in a brainpan, we must acknowledge it is not greater than we are; on the contrary, we are, if anything, greater than it. The consistent atheist must face the inevitable conclusion, based on his own premises, that morals are nothing more than agreed-upon preferences.

So what do we say to those who don't agree with them? It follows that there can only be practical reasons for compliance. If I were to reject the consensus, I might, for example, still decide I should not rob a bank, not because it's wrong to steal (what does 'wrong' mean in a materialist world?) but because I'm afraid I'll be caught and spend the next twenty years in jail. Or I might simply have an aversion to physical danger. Or I might still harbor within me the wholly irrational detritus of a Christian upbringing and carry a mistaken but nevertheless ingrained sense that it is "wrong" -- at least, for me. But all of these are mere preferences. I would have nothing morally compelling to say to another man who is skilled at robbing banks, has no fear of being caught, and feels no inappropriate loyalty to notions of morality. For such a fellow, there would be no right or wrong to consider, only a cold assessment of the rewards of success vs. the risks of failure, within the context of his own preferences.

This is where atheism leads us. But it is not where Harris and Hitchens wish to take us. Their rhetoric is marbled with an aggrieved and inflamed sense of justice. E.g., Harris writes, "The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism." That sounds like an accusation. By what moral standard is intolerance or murder wrong? A Christian who is true to his faith might be embarrassed to see such hypocrisy in some of his fellow Christians, but all an atheist ought to see are blobs of protoplasm gurgling in reaction to the gurgling emanating from another blob of protoplasm that we know as Harris. Why ought we to honor Harris' indignation?

E.g., Harris: "An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl -- even once in a million years -- casts doubt on the ideal of a benevolent God." I'll let Wilson field this one: "Atheism not only casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God (which it certainly does), but it also destroys the very concept of benevolence itself. Benevolence is simply a chemical reaction that some organisms experience in their bone box. Other organisms (like the criminal organism that rapes and kills the little girl organism) don't have very much of it. But this is all just time and chance acting on matter. When you reject the triune God (in the name of benevolence!) I want to know what this all-authoritative benevolence actually is, on your accounting.... There is no soundtrack to consistent atheism. No swelling violins in the background but rather stark, everlasting silence."

In other words, for atheists to denounce anything from a moral perspective, they have to borrow from the theistic worldview. They have to pretend, at least for the duration of their dudgeon, that morality is real and has some sort of authority over human actions. When atheists wax indignant, it is like the mistletoe you see clinging to trees in the winter time. It may look like part of the tree, but it is only a parasite, feeding on nourishment provided by the tree. You can kiss under it all day long if like, but it has no roots, and can only project vicariously any authority possessed by its imposing host.

Incidentally, not all atheists are such pushovers. Wilson cites Oliver Wendell Holmes as someone willing to go where Harris and Hitchens fear to tread. In the world according to Holmes, moral preferences are "more or less arbitrary." "Do you like sugar in your coffee, or don't you?.... So as to truth." Truth itself is "the majority view of the nation that can lick all the others." And civil rights? "What a given crowd will fight for." And this gem: "I wonder if cosmically an idea is any more important than the bowels." The Christian might think to inquire of Holmes, "Including the idea you just expressed?" An atheist who clings to illusions of morality, on the other hand, is left with the task of explaining why bubbles in the brain have greater moral weight than bubbles in the bowels.

Christians are barraged in the media and academia with propaganda that tries to convince them their ideas are antiquated and based on fairy tales. This is one of the reasons it's such a pleasure to watch a Christian who is well-educated and skilled in argument dismantle the rationalists on their own terms. I recommend Wilson's book and also his web site, BLOG andMABLOG.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007

Merry Christmas 2007 from the Reformed Trombonist

While Al Gore is off in Europe collecting his Nobel Prize money, we have been left on our own to anticipate the tell-tale signs of global warming. As our house is situated only two hundred yards north of the Great Pungo Swamp, as the mosquito flies, one has to admit that the horseflies and water moccasins seem a little peppier than normal for December. Rainfall has been a bit below normal the entire year, and default mode for the local journalists is to fret about the harm done to the tourist trade by all the sandstorms and Gila monsters brought here by the drought. Seems a little silly to me. Virginia Beach is one of the wettest places this side of Bangla Desh, and designed to stay that way. If the Allegheny Mountains were a toilet, Virginia Beach would be the drain. That’s actually closer to the truth than one would like to think, and hits close to home -- or floats languorously nearby.

One of the highlights for this past year was attending the Eastern Trombone Workshop in March, at Fort Myer in Arlington, VA -- the U.S. Army Band hosts the workshop every year. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s low brass section was there, with their newest addition -- a twenty-year-old girl who is their new tuba player, a petite, slender, wholesome-looking blonde. When you’ve been hanging around the trombone world for thirty-five years, it seems sacrilegious to meet a tuba player who is not an overweight, beer-swilling man, who also serves as an encyclopedia of classic bathroom humor. The decline of Western civilization continues apace. Also, the Penn State Trombone Choir performed – sometime since I left Penn State (in 1975), their trombone players have gotten good. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. It was good to see my old high school band buddy Kurt, his father Merle, and son Danny, who just happened to be sight-seeing in D.C. that week. Danny is majoring in music as a freshman in college this year, and I got to hear some of the music compositions he has been working on.

Also, in another music-related road trip, I accompanied our French horn-playing buddy Ray (from South Carolina) on a little trip to Boston. Like most of us, Ray is looking for the perfect horn -- in this case, something called a Schmid. (Slogan: “Schmid! It’s more than just a pretty name!”) We left Virginia Beach at 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon, and within twelve hours discovered that the favorite pastime in New Jersey is to drive one’s car to I-95 and then park it. We ate genuine Irish food at a genuine Irish pub in South Boston, served by a genuine Irish waitress named Caitlin, and at the last minute thought better of raising our beer mugs to toast the Queen. Ray decided not to buy the Schmid, even though it was a relative bargain at (gulp!) $8 grand. If that sounds expensive to you, then you must play trombone, too. The trombone attracts the world’s cheapest musicians. Thousands for beer, but not one penny for a trill key.

We had to say goodbye to a friend this year. In March of 2005, we had acquired a Siamese male cat to be a companion to our Siamese female, Gabby. Debbie named him Gizmo, but we should have named him Niles, or Barney -- picture a dainty little guy with a piercing voice and lots of male bravado, far more than his scrawny musculature could support, or Gabby would respect. Not much of an “alpha male” -- more like a post card -- but each altercation with the eighteen-pound Nymph of Naptime would only demonstrate that sumo always beats karate. Gizmo would stand over her and pop her a few times, finally provoking her enough to accomplish the improbable and get her to actually stand up. And as that usually took, all the way from planning to execution, roughly five minutes to accomplish, Gizmo would have plenty of time to beat feet in retreat. Truth is, he loved Gabby and worshiped the rug she slept on, while she ignored him and only had eyes for her beloved Purina. You could tell he had been mistreated in a previous life, because he would always flinch when you reached out to pet him. But he loved us, Debbie most of all, and was always around whenever there was a warm lap to occupy. He got sick last March, and lost a lot of weight he couldn’t afford to lose. It hasn’t been the same around here, and I still see a shadow of him once in a while, rubbing up against the wall, waiting for one of us to offer him a lap.

Debbie is now a six-year survivor of cancer, and her surgeon tells her he no longer needs to see her. She teaches strings this year at four different elementary schools, and is even now deep into the Christmas concert season. She’s also still the music director at our church, displaying organizational skills I can only marvel at. (I can almost manage to bring gin and vermouth together without spilling half of it, and if you insist on an olive, all bets are off.) She arranges all of the church music and somehow finds the time to take piano lessons. When she’s not working in music, she is dabbling at home improvement. She managed to sneak an entire bathroom remodeling behind my back. I just came home from work one day and walked into someone else’s bathroom. I was almost afraid to look in the shower.

Wasn’t a great year for traveling together, but we did see some of the local sights, e.g., an instructive trip to a local winery. As it turns out, I had already sampled their wares earlier this year, when we happened to be visiting our good friends Sam and Aileen (Sam is our broker and they belong to our church). Sam -- a connoisseur of good wine – had a sly grin on his face and said, “I have something you need to try.” He brought back a glass of muscatel, accent on “musk,” which combined the delicate bouquet of a New Orleans back street with the subtle tanginess of Georgia turpentine. Try to hide tasting all that behind a neutral, appreciative facial expression. Sam oozed, “What do you think?” It’s so hard to communicate, “That’s awful, but in a really interesting way.” Then he busted out laughing. Good to find out he’s sane -- this guy’s handling my retirement. Well, our little winery sold this stuff with a perfectly straight face for about $12 a bottle. We know soil and climate is important to wine-making – Sam and I also wondered about the contribution of dead fiddler crabs and assorted sea gull residues.

Debbie and I have been fortunate to belong to a church that is dedicated to helping us grow spiritually, and it’s impossible now for us to look at our lives and think to ourselves, “We are the ones who made all these great things happen.” Life gets better and better, but every bit of that is a blessing from the One who is the architect of all blessings. He can bless us, because two thousand years ago a child was born. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lyle M. Smith -- A Tribute

We were the Warwick High School Farmers -- I know, not much of a school moniker. Pirates carry a sword and glare at you with their one good eye. Lions, Tigers, or Bears can eat you. But a Farmer chews a piece of grass and leans on his hoe. That was our school mascot. Our school symbol was a plow. The official school pie was cow. Just kidding about that last bit.

But the band was not the "Marching Farmers." We were the Grenadier Band -- guys and girls in tall black fur hats and red coats having no apparent relation to that kadiddlehopper with the straw in his hair. This was the vision of the band director, a man named Lyle M. Smith, who had a profound fondness for all things British, and at some point in his career decided to emulate the great British military band tradition.

He could have picked a worse tradition. British military bands are among the finest bands in the world. British orchestral and band music is some of the greatest music of all time, and their band repertoire is peerless. Plus, the uniforms were cool. Whenever our band marched onto the football field, the opposing school's band would make those "OH-EEE-OH! EE-OOOOHHHH-UMM!" sounds from the Wicked Witch of the West's marching goons in the "Wizard of Oz".  They were just jealous.

Basically, Mr. Smith was a caster of fine pearls, and we, the students, by and large were the swine being pelted with them. Most of us, self included, did not appreciate how good our repertoire was. In fact, if you had spent a month following our band around, you would probably have found very few clues that we cared at all about music, one way or the other. What did we care about? Avoiding the bullying upperclassmen was number one on my agenda. Some preferred nice cars. Or dating. In any event, I highly doubt that appreciating the bucolic charm of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Song Suite" was high up on the list for too many of us.

Unlike a lot of successful conductors, Mr. Smith wasn't a wildly charismatic sort of guy.  He was neither a great inspiration like a Frederick Fennell, nor an absolute tyrant like a William Revelli.  But he was the kind of teacher who had loads of sincerity and what they call gravitas -- we were proud to play for him.  He did seem to be pretty much in his own little world, hardly noticing the students at all. Well, okay, he did yell a lot when we cut up or marched poorly; but given what he had to work with, I suppose it's a wonder he wasn't a poster child for apoplexy. He had a big megaphone with which he would chase us around on the football field, and if you went up to him and asked him a question, he would aim the megaphone at you and yell into it even though you were only two feet away.  He was a tireless worker, and had us playing for every parade in Virginia (it was years later in the military that I finally decided the only good parade is a dead parade).  I think he really dug being a band conductor.  That's important.  I've had quite a number of band conductors who didn't.

The one area I think he could have been more involved in was discipline. All kids need discipline. Mr. Smith allowed the upperclassmen to handle it -- with predicatable results. P. J. O'Rourke once remarked that giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. Something else you don't want to give teenage boys is power over other teenage boys. By the time I was fifteen, I had already met the most pernicious bullies I would ever meet. The band had initiation rituals which during time of war are generally referred to as "atrocities." Yet Mr. Smith did not seem even dimly aware of what was going on. That would be in character for him -- as long as things ran smoothly in rehearsal, he didn't seem to take much notice of what was going on under his nose. I prefer to think that, had he been aware, he would have been interested in putting a stop to it.

But Mr. Smith loved good music, and to me that was his legacy. Our band wasn't always great when I was in it (the initiations had chased away a lot of students), but we played -- or rather, played at -- some great stuff. Not that we necessarily appreciated it at the time.  I remember how much we hated trying to play "English Dances" by Malcolm Arnold -- but it really is a delightful piece, just very ambitious for a high school band, way over our heads. We played Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst, and hosts of those glorious British regimental marches. Each year we put on a British-style military "Tattoo", and really, it was quite a splendid production. I grew up in a household musically dominated by Hank Williams and Montana Slim. Much of what I know about great music was a result of Mr. Smith having piqued my interest.  When he found out that I liked listening to Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov, he took an interest and recommended a lot of composers that got me hooked on attempting a career in music.

I don't know much about his personal life. He was close to retirement age when I was in high school, and I think he retired the year after I graduated high school in 1972. I seem to recall that he was a Michigan State grad -- one of the better music schools in the country -- and had studied with Leonard Falcone. I wish I could remember for sure.  He conducted the Newport News Municipal Band for many years. Away from his day gig, he was a cordial man, very pleasant, and I remember he drove a Mercedes diesel years before it became cool. I heard that he passed away sometime in the mid-1990s. I never saw him again after I graduated.

Thank you, Mr. Smith, for introducing me to the great music that has been my companion all these years. May you rest in peace

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Being Cautious

Jonah Goldberg over at National Review posted an email from a reader regarding a comment made by atheist author and champion Sam Harris, as quoted by Theodore Dalrymple in an article for City Journal. Harris' comment is a bit, well, breathtaking. Here is Dalrymple's take on it:

"Harris tells us, for example, that 'we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.' I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

"It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”

Harris' book, The End of Faith, was on the NY Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks, according to Wikipedia. Somewhat ironically, Wikipedia says,
"After coming under intense criticism in response to his attacks on dogmatic religious belief, Harris is cautious about revealing details of his personal life and history ."
This is ironic because I have yet to read or hear about any Christian hinting in a best-seller that it may be ethical to kill atheists for their beliefs. If Harris' ideas catch on, religious believers may be the ones who need to exhibit caution. (And by the way, those who believe Wikipedia is without bias may want to explain the presence of the adjective "dogmatic" in the above quote.)

Atheists like to pretend that Christians are scary. Come back to me about the scariness of Christians when a best-selling Christian author writes that it may be ethical to kill people over what they believe. How do you think atheist or liberal circles would respond if Pat Robertson or James Dobson were to make identical remarks?

Harris responded to Dalymple, here. Harris says Dalrymple was dishonest and ripped his words out of context. Perhaps this is worth a future post, but at the moment it's hard to imagine a context in which his remarks seem normal and wholesome. Dalrymple gets the last word:

"Finally, with regard to Mr. Harris's statement that it may be ethical to kill people with certain (unspecified) ideas: for myself, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. I cannot help recalling the wise words of a great British judge, Lord Mansfield, who said in the eighteenth century that so long as an act remains in bare intention alone it is not punishable by our law. Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mormonism, Round Two

(I sent a letter to a conservative journal of opinion in response to a charge of bigotry leveled by one of their other correspondents toward those who do not consider Mormonism to be Christian. Some of it is a rehash of what I have already posted. They published it, and I will post any responses and attempt to answer them. -- Lee)

Does theology matter in a political campaign? I ask anyone who thinks it doesn't: would you vote for a Satanist? No? Not even if otherwise he were the perfect candidate, the second coming of Ronald Reagan himself?

If you would, then please disregard the rest of this letter, because you and I have nothing in common. But if you would not, then congratulations, we have just demonstrated that a candidate's theology is important. Now, it's only a question of where to draw the line. Regarding Mr. Romney specifically, the question becomes, is he on our side of the line, or not?

I disagree with your correspondent K. that it's an easy question to answer. He answered it by labeling the proposition that Mormonism is not Christian as an "ignorant, bigoted lie." Well, K., you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of voting for a Mormon, the fact remains that Christianity and Mormonism are two distinct religions.

There is more to being a Christian than sharing the nomenclature. What unites every Christian denomination, from high Roman Catholic to humble backwater Baptist, is a belief in the Holy Trinity -- One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Heresy, on the other hand, always reveals itself by denying the Trinity; Mormons simply do not believe in it (though they are not forthcoming about that fact). They believe God the Father and Jesus the Son are distinct and separate beings. Furthermore, Mormons believe there are many gods, perhaps millions of them -- every faithful Mormon some day hopes to become a God of his own world. Mormons teach, "As man is, God once was; as God is, man shall become." In the Mormon cosmos, our own local holder of the "God franchise" originated as a mortal man whose faithfulness was rewarded as he became lord of this planet. This contradicts not only the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but also the Judeo-Christian concept that God is eternal and unchanging.

What all this means is that when Mormons say they believe in God and in Jesus, they mean something completely different than what Christians mean.

Believe me, Mormons perceive the gulf between the two religions -- but it's generally considered rude when Christians notice the same thing. Well. If you think Christians are sometimes harsh toward Mormonism, you ought to read what Mormons think of Christianity. Please follow the link and read for yourself a passage from Joseph Smith's own writings, posted at the LDS website. Smith communicates quite clearly that all the other Christian sects are an "abomination," and that all those involved in preaching it are corrupt. Like K., they are certainly entitled to their opinion. But if Mormons think Christianity is an abomination, why can't Christians at least think Mormonism is mistaken? Is the distance between A and B somehow greater than the distance between B and A?

Religious conservatives like me aren't looking for an excuse to vote against Romney. It's the other way around; we're trying to figure out how we can vote for Romney, and we have to work this out. But don't bother coming at us and calling us names because we seem reluctant to park our consciences outside the voting booth. Conservative Christians have been more faithful to conservative policies and values than an awful lot of Republicans, including one George W. Bush -- who even now is concocting a harebrained scheme for ruining the mortgage market, in a move worthy to be included in any list of worst stupid liberal tricks.

The bottom line is that God is in charge, and the Republicans only want to be. The Old Testament makes it clear that the kings of Israel and Judea who pleased God were successful, while those who worshiped false gods brought curses upon their people. If we are faithful to God, He will not fail His people. Republicans, even the non-Mormon ones, have been known to do just that.