Tag Archives: christianity

How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce

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Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

November EV (and FCV) musings

It’s been a busy month — busy enough that though one in seven Canadians crossed the border for Black Friday, I wasn’t one of them. (Like a further one in three Canadians, I did my shopping online. Bought me some books — and by books, I mean books so nerdy Aya will despair for Leo’s future social skills.  ;)  )

Seriously, more Canadians expected to participate in Black Friday, than voted in the last federal election. This is how dark ages begin!!  ;)

On the EV side, I wrote a few pieces for GreenCarReports, though I wasn’t able to write something on BMW’s i3, which made me rethink fuel cell vehicles.

Basically, the i3 is an electric car with a 30-horsepower (25 kW) motorcycle engine strapped to it, to provide a bit more range.

If someone were to design a fuel cell car with a big enough battery to soak up all the relevant incentives, and strap on a 25 kW fuel cell stack for extra range, I wonder if that would be a way to drive FCV adoption?

You’d save money because the stack would be a lot smaller, and you could use one hydrogen fuel tank instead of two. (Since the super-high-pressure fuel tank is about the only component that isn’t used in other fuel cell applications, I’m guessing it’s a cost barrier.) Better still, the stack wouldn’t have to last nearly as long (maybe 2000 hours instead of 5000 hours) because it’d only be in use part of the time, which allows it to become cheaper still. (Adding durability costs money.)

The fact that you’d run 50%+ of the time on electricity would also circumvent the hydrogen infrastructure issue. If there are only a handful of hydrogen stations in town, and you know you’d have to refuel every couple weeks, you might be reluctant to buy a fuel cell car because of the inconvenience.

But if you mainly run off electricity, you might only need to refuel your hydrogen tank every couple months — and taking an occasional detour to refuel six times a year, probably isn’t that big of a deal for most people. That’s once per season, and maybe the dealership tops you up when you go in for your twice-yearly checkup.

So, in a word, I think a fuel-cell based i3 type vehicle (mainly electric, but using the fuel cell as a range extender) would accelerate adoption. As it turns out, the French postal service is investigating just such a fuel cell “range extender” solution.

Ah, it’s nice to be able to muse about these things, now that I’m not in danger of spilling any confidential info. Heck, I can even poke around patent records in exactly the way I was discouraged from doing!  ;)

As for my GreenCarReports contributions:

– I had a chance to practise my French a bit (and practise using Google Translate a lot more) when summarizing how the Quebec government really raised the bar in support of electric vehicles. Nice what you can achieve with minority governments who’re rather desperate to stay in power. ;)

– I did a boilerplate Canadian sales stats piece, and a more interesting one on WWF Canada’s take on the country’s electric vehicle progress.

– I also had a chance to write up some nifty apps — one from a cool Waterloo company — which can help people save money on gas, and/or choose more fuel efficient cars. Next time any of you buy a new car, ask if the dealership has the MyCarma dongle!

Note: they didn’t pay me to say that, but on the subject of getting paid, the Paypal transaction for my articles ran into the… double digits. Yep, there’re a lot more zeroes in engineering paycheques…  :)

Lastly, I saw my first reference to Fox News’ annual post-Thanksgiving “War on Christmas” coverage the other day, so put together a little post explaining how the first people to write Christmas as Xmas were, well, medieval Christians. And they did so because in Greek, Christ is spelled with an “X” (it provides the “Ch” sound). If anything, the use of Xmas points that faith’s faithful back to those first Greek-speaking communities who heard the Christian gospel preached — and I would imagine that would be a positive, not a negative thing. *

It all reminds me of a time in the mists of fuel cell years past, when I asked a colleague to give me a refresher on a particular piece of equipment. He was strangely reluctant, so I popped back to my desk and printed up the work instructions — only to find that I’d actually written them, years before.  :)

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* amusingly enough, abbreviations are actually a key tool for establishing that, while it took about 350 years for Christians to agree on what books went into the New Testament, the eventual winners of the battle-royal between Christian sects pretty much used the same edition after about 150 AD. (The ecumentically curious can go here for further reading.)

The person who composed this edition used a very particular set of abbreviations for key words — God, Jesus, etc. — which were faithfully copied in pretty much every orthodox text thereafter. These abbreviations don’t appear in the scraps of heretical texts we’ve found, so we know those texts belonged to different groups of worshippers.

Sadly, we only have scraps of those texts, because soon after the canon was officially settled, disapproved writings were put to use as kindling, as they so often are. And while that represents a literary / philosophical / theological loss, as an engineer who really loves curating and standardizing documentation sets, a very, very small part of me kind of knows where those book-burners were coming from…  ;)

Lana Wachowski, Joe Simpson and our evolving social mores

The recent release of Cloud Atlas, piqued my interest in writing some thoughts about sexual identity.  As has been fairly well publicized leading to the movie’s opening, Lana Wachowski (born Larry) underwent a gender transition (“sex change”) a few years ago; and from all accounts, seems the happier for it.

The even-more-recent allegations that Joe Simpson (Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s father) came out to his family as gay, mean I’m going to scratch that itch, even if it might mean this blog gets permanently filtered for “sexual content”.

So, first off, congratulations to these two for being able to affirm their identities; one hopes that they didn’t endure too much suffering before taking a big leap of faith and entrusting in their friends’ and family’s acceptance and love.  And if anyone didn’t accept them for acknowledging who they happened to have been all along, well, jeers to those folks.

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Animals’ sexual diversity has been exhaustively documented, and it’s no surprise that humans are like our distant kin.  To summarize in a sentence, one’s equipment comes at conception (depending on whether one has a Y-chromosome), but one’s inclinations come several weeks later, as hormones shape foetal development.

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If I remember correctly from years-ago readings in mythology, the pride community (homosexuals, transgender folks, and the like) dominate the religious ranks in some so-called “primitive” religious traditions: they are the shamans, the witch doctors, the priests, and so forth.   These societies have belief structures that these holy people are special, because most people are “only male” or “only female”, but the gods gave the holy people both male and female powers.  We might see these social mores as positive, and affirming of the diversity of the human experience.

This tendency may not be unique to “primitive” religious traditions, either.  If you were  gay in medieval Europe and didn’t want to fake your way through a lifelong marriage, there was only one place you could go to avoid suspicion: the clergy.  (I’m including monasteries and convents in this category.)  So overrepresentation of the pride community may not just be a feature of “primitive” religions.  Mind you, while primitive shamans celebrated their god-given identities, their counterparts in world religions would have suffered deep and unhealthy repression — and would probably have adopted a militantly homophobic tone, to throw suspicion off themselves!

Our own era is littered with cases of such “gay homophobes” so uncomfortable with themselves, that they verbally attacked their non-straight peers, perhaps to avoid being detected themselves (e.g. see here).  One of the most notorious was George W. Bush loyalist Ken Mehlman, who, naturally, opposed same-sex marriage until he came out.  He’s widely believed to have helped or masterminded a plan to jam the phone lines of a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation in 2002, to prevent them from reaching New Hampshire voters, enabling the Republican candidate (John “Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because he’s black” Sununu) to win a narrow victory.

[Addendum: as noted in the comments, Mehlman is now proving quite an ally for gender equality now, perhaps making up for lost time.  And for this, he should be commended at least as energetically as he should be criticized for his past transgressions against his community.  As much as I’d like to think I’d’ve done things more uprightly than him if I’d been in his place, I’m not in his place — and it’s dangerous to let oneself get seduced into a sense of self-righteousness.]

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If religious homophobia is perpetuated by troubled gay authorities who are trying to cover up their own sexuality, we might wonder whether this was a feature of the original religious teachings, or whether this was a later addition.

A famous later-addition many people will be familiar with, is the notion of Original Sin, which doesn’t appear in the Christian scriptures, was first conceived by Iraeneus in the 2nd century, was finally popularized by St. Augustine about four centuries after Jesus’ death, and finally confirmed as Christian doctrine in the year 529.  Sorry, make that Western Christian doctrine.  While it may be a central tenet to Catholics and Protestants, the idea is as alien to Eastern Orthodox Christians as it is to Jews, and as it would have been to the first few centuries of Christian converts.

So, let’s go down the rabbit-hole, shall we?

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Muslims in America and other hidden ethnic histories

Yves at Naked Capitalism cross-posted a wonderful Alternet piece by Lynn Parramore, eviscerating the idea that Islam is new or alien to America.  In truth, the Muslim faith has had a long (if lightly-populated) history in the United States.  Islam arrived in America so early, the Puritans hadn’t even burnt their first witch!!

While the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower is deeply mythologized in the American psyche, the 1630 arrival of devout Muslim Anthony Janszoon van Salee in the New Netherlands, gets a lot less attention.  Which is a pity, because he seems to’ve been a business magnate — he had the foresight to buy Manhattan real estate back when it was cheap!  (It seems he once owned the land on which Wall Street was built.)  On top of that, he winds up being an ancestor of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time.  Why is this Horatio Alger-style “self-made man” not already an American legend??

(For those of you keeping track, van Salee arrived a short ten years after The Mayflower.  According to Wiki, New England executed its first “witch” seventeen years later, in 1647.  And the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692/1693.)

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It’s deplorable that a fringe of American society wants to pretend the country is / should be Christian, on the flimsy and faulty premise that it was founded as such.  While the first pioneers in the 1600’s may have been passionately religious, by the late 1700’s the colonies were led by men whose intellect helped shape the Age of Enlightenment: or, as it was also known, the Age of Reason.  For many of them, the philosophy of choice was Deism — the atheism of its day, attacked by the righteous cacophony of religious conservatives.

One example is Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense may have done more than any other document to galvanize the independence movement.  He was ostracized later in life for his scathing criticism of Christianity, his funeral attended by a mere six people.  The more potent case is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who created his own Gospel — commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — by literally cutting-and-pasting the four gospels of the New Testament into one combined, miracle-free, Resurrection-less narrative.  (Definitely not the behaviour of the faithfully devout, or one considering the text holy.)  To quote from the Wiki article:

[It] begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.

With “Christians” like that, who needs atheists?

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Holding a mirror to country and community reveals hidden ethnic histories of our own — and not just of the Aboriginal peoples, who have suffered seemingly-interminable injustices over the centuries.  In my home province of British Columbia, Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs has seen an influx of east Asians in recent decades.  (My wife among them.)

As of the 2006 census, 45% of residents in the suburb of Richmond claimed Chinese heritage.  Given that the Chinese population grew by 20% in the five years from 2001 to 2006, it’s possible that as I write this (2012) Chinese-Canadians are the majority in Richmond.  Delving further, we see that “visible minorities” in Richmond have a formidable 2/3 majority!  Which makes for some exceptional cuisine.  :)

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Doubting “doubting” Thomas

(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)

Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…

I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*

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I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.

Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.

Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)

Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.

The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…!  (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)

So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.

For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).

As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.

The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…?  ;)

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It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.

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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…