13 June 2008


"Imagine there's no religion," John Lennon's Imagine famously invites. What if we went further? What if we imagined there had never been religion at all? That's probably too extreme of a hypothetical. The nature of the human species, mainly our inclination toward pattern recognition, seems to make the development of religion, at least in our infancy as a species, inevitable. But what if we imagine what the world would be like without one specific religion? Say, Christianity?

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most gifted stylist of the German language and a fascinating philosopher, believed Christianity to be a profound betrayal of the natural order. Born from Judaism, the originator of slave morality (see The Genealogy of Morals), Christianity inverts the natural moral order, replacing the correct dichotomy of good/bad (strength/weakness) with good/evil, changing the moral focus from results to intention. Christianity, after all, famously advances submission, meekness, nonviolence, caring for the poor, etc., all things that run counter to survival of the fittest. Nietzsche hated the religion so much he devoted the first fourth of his planned magnum opus, The Will To Power, to refuting it. This first part, The Antichrist, was all he ever wrote of the planned four books.

So what if Christianity had never existed? Would the western world be in a better state now? There's no way to know for certain, obviously. Chaos theory makes it clear that any change in starting conditions will dramatically and unpredictably alter the final result.

Perhaps a more useful question is will the human race be better off ten, one hundred, one thousand years from now if Christianity goes away? Plenty of thinkers have believed so--Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Ingersoll, Asimov, Clarke, Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, etc. Moreover, all those men believed the condition of the human race would be much improved if all religion went away. And I think I'd have to add my name to that list.

An interesting question to mull over, regardless of one's beliefs on the subject.

03 June 2008

If You Want To Understand Bullshit, Study Rhetoric

I first found the following video through PZ Myers' excellent blog. In this excerpt from a message by Louie Giglio, Mr. Giglio makes a case for God's greatness by pointing to a protein molecule called Laminin that looks like a cross. He then ties this to Colossians, which says "In Him [Christ] all things hold together." The audience and the commentors on the YouTube video, eat this shit up.

Now, for the truth of the matter. In his post on the video Dr. Myers rightly points out that Laminin is a "floppy" molecule, capable of folding into many different patterns (notice, when Giglio shows the electron microscope picture of laminin, it doesn't look much like a cross anymore), and the cross shape is by no means rare in the natural world. One might argue that since intersections hold the highway system together and are cross-shaped, therefore Jesus holds the highway system together. A fun addition: a reader asked Dr. Myers if any molecules in the cell are swastika-shaped. Potassium Channel fits the bill pretty well.

My point in sharing this is not (only) to give us all a good laugh at silly creationists. I share this because while most people either watch Giglio's video and praise Jesus or laugh, I watched in rapt appall at its manipulative aspirations and achievements.

I've studied enough rhetoric to recognize these tricks. I've studied enough history to know that Giglio, like many religious apologists and speakers, employs the same rhetorical devices as all the best demagogues in history. The piano in the background is an especially nice touch. Evangelicals aren't Hitlerian in their oratory--that's more the cup of tea for black liberation theologians like Jeremiah Wright--but they're still manipulative, still disingenuous, still false. Giglio manages to make utter lunacy--this protein looks like a cross, therefore Jesus holds the world together--look legitimate. Any rational, clear-thinking immediately spots the flaw of this logic. Why Jesus? Why not one of the many, many others who died on Roman crosses? Further still, there are so many cruciform objects in the world. Notice in this Holocaust Memorial several of the bodies are arrange across each other...just like crosses. Jesus was part of the Holocaust! Oh.

Language is a wonderful thing. It's ability to move our spirits, to send our emotions soaring or plummeting, stands unmatched in its efficacy. Used well, this is a boon to our species. Used to promote unashamed idiocy, it tears us apart at the seems. Divorced from truth, rhetoric kills. Just take it from the words of one of the greatest demagogues of all time.
All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.

The art of leadership. . . consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention. . . . The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.

From millions of men . . . one man must step forward who with apodictic force will form granite principles from the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness, until from the shifting waves of a fre thought-world there will arise a brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will.

--Adolph Hitler