Friday, September 18, 2009

Crazy for God

With recent polling showing that more than a third of New Jersey conservatives consider Barack Obama to be either certainly or maybe the anti-Christ, it is high time to listen to former fundamentalist Christian Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God.

Very short version: American Christianists are unhinged from reality, and proudly so.

Short version: as linked above, the interview with Rachel Maddow.

The full version: Shaeffer's book; I can't claim to have read it yet, but on the strength of what I have heard so far, I would like to do so soon.

But back to New Jersey -- figuratively, thank goodness. Located well north of the Mason-Dixon, New Jersey is one of the bluest of states, and yet its self-labeled conservatives are, in numbers, in a state of bat-shit frenzy over President Obama, no doubt girding themselves for the moment of choice when he will command them to bear his mark as a condition of engaging in commerce.

That said, their enthusiasm for Biblical lore shows a curious blind spot for these words of the apostle Paul:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Their copy of the Bible evidently has a footnote to that passage saying "offer not valid in New Jersey" or something of the sort.

Being crazy for god is quite a way to be crazy. We delude ourselves about the seriousness and magnitude of this craziness at our peril.


Anonymous said...

pplr again

My guess is that comes with the provision that if your authority asks you to kill people (aka death camps) you can disagree with him and still be fine with God. Probably so for some less extreme situations.

That said I, wouldn't same "American Christians" are proudly unhinged. I'm one of the millions of American Christians that goes to church weekly and has little problem with the theory of evolution, the existence of multiple political parties (including ones I disagree with), and so on.

Just a point.

Dale said...

pplr, please note: "Christians" is not the same as the word I used, "Christianists." I am well aware that there are perfectly sane, reasonable, decent Christians.

Christianists, on the other hand ...

Here is more background on the term and what I mean by it.

I appreciate your comments and understand not wishing to give over a bunch of information unnecessarily. Adding 'pplr' to your comments in that way is clarifying enough for me and other commenters -- whatever works!

Anonymous said...

pplr again

Thank you for pointing out the subtly of what you mean and sorry for taking so long to when getting back to you.

I have a better idea of what you mean by "Christianist" now.

Though I read through Sam Harris's commentary and think it is flawed.

He readily agrees that religious moderates aren't harming other people and then argues that their beliefs are a problem.

A better description of what the is problem the willingness to use force in pushing ideologies/beliefs on people.

Most of the atheists I've met are reasonable people, and I think going after them because of the brutality of what communist atheists did is justifiable. And doing so could be argued on the similar grounds that atheism (like the various religions) has been involved in violence.

He attempts, inappropriately I feel, tries to shift concern over behavior to one of ideology when to 2 can be related but aren't necessarily.

Sort of like arguing people should be punished because they may commit a crime rather than they have (or are even likely to).

Also Dawkins (whose website you mentioned you visited) has the nonsensical notion (correct me if I'm wrong) that atheism cannot occur in an organized form. Atheist clubs & societies have existed for decades and that alone should serve as proof enough that organized atheism can readily occur.

Dawkins also, again correct me if I am wrong, subscribes to the notion that communists weren't atheists as part of an argument that atheism can basically do no wrong/harm. That argument seems to make about as much sense to me as claiming that Anglicans or Puritans (or any other group) weren't types/branches of Christianity. And then using that faulty argument to say that Christianity wasn't involved in witch hunts.

Anyway, thanks for being understanding about my posting as pplr/anonymous and I hope you read my last comment in spite of it taking almost a month for me to bring it up.

Anonymous said...

Sorry typo.

I meant to say "Most of the atheists I've met are reasonable people, and I think going after them because of the brutality of what communist atheists did is not justifiable."

The "not" is a pretty important part of the sentence.


Dale said...

pplr, thanks for the comments and for the correction -- yep! That's a big difference.

Anyhoo, I'm reluctant to re-fight all this, but the point Sam Harris makes about religious moderates really isn't exotic -- (a) religious moderates, basically by definition, don't do anything harmful with their religious practice or beliefs. They are the ones who are not pushy and who tend not to emphasize the nasty parts of god's supposed message. Fine. However, (b) though they neuter religion of its nasty bits, they still insist on keeping a foot in the faith-based mode of reasoning -- they still want to say, sooner or later, directly or indirectly, that [insert holy text] is a special book because it came from [insert god]. Moreover, they will, sooner or later, insist that their religious beliefs remain out of bounds for the kinds of everyday reasoned scrutiny & criticism that every other idea gets. So you can call someone on their view of politics or tastes in movies, etc., but somehow, if you question the validity of their religious beliefs, you've gone and done a "rude" thing.

The harm of this combination is that it propagates the taboo against criticizing religion, and that opens the door to the religious loonies -- the Osama bin Ladens, the Fred Phelps's. It opens the door to them because they are making exactly the same claims, and on equally valid grounds.

"New Atheism" is largely about shooting through this taboo against criticizing/scrutinizing religious claims. It says: yes, we all have the right to our beliefs, but that has to go along with a right to criticize faulty, unreasonable, evidence-free ideas, even if they are religious.

A significant problem with religious beliefs is not that they are extreme or not extreme -- it's that they're founded on air. Fred Phelps and the most tolerant, moderate Christian you can name commit the same fundamental error: they proceed as though the Bible is something more than just another book. They derive truths of the world based on conversations they think they have with divinities that most of the rest of the world can't see.

Anyhoo, despite my hope not to rattle on, I've rattled on.

lest I go on repeating myself still more, here are some things I've written on this general topic before:

As for the Dawkins thing you said, I'm going to politely decline to correct you. If you have a specific statement of his you'd like me to comment on, cite that and we'll go from there.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for replying quickly.

And thanks for trying to boil down Harris from 3 pages to a paragraph. A problem I see there is the opposition to people who neither sympathize with nor condone the "loonies". It makes little point to oppose people for an event, ideology, and so on that they themselves oppose.

In addition to that there are plenty of "loonies" who do not get their craziness from a religious texts so focusing on these texts in even a very broad way fails to address them. So a large number of non-troublemakers are opposed and some troublemakers not at all. Such a situation could lead to/invite its own kind of nastiness.

About taboos and that moderate religious people "still want to say, sooner or later, directly or indirectly, that [insert holy text] is a special book because it came from [insert god]. Moreover, they will, sooner or later, insist that their religious beliefs remain out of bounds for the kinds of everyday reasoned scrutiny & criticism that every other idea gets."

I'll disagree there as one of the things multiple religious people (I've spoken with) do not detest is a discussion of religion, discussion of the Bible can readily be part of such a discussion (and already has been at times for me).

In a discussion with a Catholic priest a relative of mine asked why beer and pizza couldn't be used for communion. If a question like that can be leveled discussion of the Bible is hardly placed off limits.

I don't know who you were talking with but there is hardly a taboo where I'm from.

Also scrutiny is hardly something that should be limited to one side of a multi-group discussion. It is hardly unreasonable to check the soundness of arguments made from different parties.

As someone who appeared to be familiar with some of the things Dawkins wrote about it wouldn't be difficult for you to affirm that ____ is a point he made. If you don't know that'll work for me, but that would be different avoiding scrutiny (which I wouldn't oppose it you want to apply it to something I type).

A specific comment I do have as it relates to Dawkins is that he claimed that God wanted Jephthah to kill his daughter. If you want I may be able to dig up the video where I saw Dawkins speaking when he said this. It is a specific claim that seemed flawed to me when I looked into it. I read the whole chapter where Jephthah made the vow and couldn't find a single point where it said God approved of or wanted the daughter be killed as a human sacrifice.

Thus is seemed to me that Dawkins made a claim that would stir people's emotions that wasn't supported by evidence (when I looked into it myself). One incident doesn't made a trend by itself but it hardly served to discourage the notion that Dawkins made claims relating to religion that are unsound. I looked at the websites you listed (thank you for doing so) and none addressed that notion.

If you would be up for addressing either that point in specific or the broader notion we can.

By the time I'm done with this you may have noticed I can go on quite a bit myself. I you want me to I can try to limit the size of my comments as well.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, typo again.

"(which I wouldn't oppose it you want to apply it to something I type)" should be "(which I wouldn't oppose if you want to apply it to something I type)".

Even when I reread a comment before I post it a typo often slips through.

Hope I don't make any that are too bad and if I say something that doesn't look right (this one isn't as bad as the one before) feel to point it out and ask if I intended to say that.

Dale said...

pplr, no worries about the length of comments. Comment as much as you like. I have a light editorial touch about these things and will only remove the most over-the-line entries, but you're not close to the line. I appreciate the back-and-forth.

If you're saying you live in a world in which there is no taboo against full-throated criticisms of religious claims, then you and I are inhabiting different worlds. But as I think about it, perhaps there's too much emphasis on 'taboo' here -- the problem is not so much with taboo as with the epistemology. The grounds for believing the supernatural claims surrounding, say, Jesus, Allah, and Joseph Smith are what they are regardless of how extremely or lightly one applies their teachings. The kindest, most tolerant, most loving Muslim on earth shares with Osama bin Laden the belief that an angel dictated the Koran to Mohammed; the gentlest Christian and Fred Phelps share, among other beliefs, the idea that the Bible is the word of the universe's creator and that Jesus rose from the dead; the most fervent bigot in the Mormon church shares with the most tolerant Mormon the idea that Joseph Smith dug up some golden plates that were inscribed with a revelation from god.

People used to honor, revere, and issue prayers to Zeus, Poseiden, Thor, and so on. People in the Americas sacrificed human captives to their gods.

In all cases, this is faulty: it's all based on the same *quality* of reasoning, the same *standards* of evidence. The epistemology is the problem. Allow it for one and you open the dams -- anything goes.

So sure, religious moderates find the religious extremists as disgusting as any atheist does -- more so in at least some cases since they see that the extremists are giving their creed a bad reputation. True enough. But the religious moderates enable and perpetuate the epistemology.

If the Bible [or Koran, etc.] is a source of authority to which people should pay attention, then it's on believers to explain the terms because there are passages that seem pretty extreme. Fundamentalists-literalists do so in a straightforward way: obey it word for word. "God said it, I believe it." That's crazy, but it at least hangs together in a crude way.

I have no idea how religious moderates address this -- they seem to pick and choose which passages of the holy book they like and just pretend the other parts aren't there. You are welcome to set the record straight. I've discussed the matter in more depth here:

As for Jepthah, I will speak for myself and not for Richard Dawkins: Judges 11:29-38 tells the story in which Jep cut a deal with god: if god would help him overtake the Ammonites in battle, he'd make a burnt offering of whatever came out the door of his house to greet his return. God helped him, he overtook the Ammonites, and when he went back home, his daughter came out of the door first. He let her weep in the countryside for a couple of months since she knew she'd die a virgin, but then he followed through on the deal by making a burnt offering of his own daughter.

Now, you can say that the god character had no direct, active role in the killing of the girl, but don't you think that's pretty weak tea? God was, in the context of the story, at least strong enough to make Jep strong enough to win a big military campaign. Moreover, this is supposedly the same god who found a way to intervene when Abraham was just about to kill his son, Isaac, so it stands to reason he can take the elevator down to earth and stop child slaughter when he feels like it.

But for Jep's case, he did not stop the burning of the girl. Could but didn't want to? Didn't care either way? Was too busy to notice in time?

Opinions evidently vary, but again speaking for myself, I just don't worship, or even like, "all-powerful" entities that don't bother to stop things like that.

Anonymous said...


Sometimes I lack tact and sometimes I don't (it can be hard for me to tell). But a basic point about a lot of religions is they are (and should be) open about what they think. Other than being a mind control organization (the word cult doesn't define it well enough sometimes) Scientology is different from this because it, reportedly, keeps its views secret.

About moderates, I'm sure many people look at the Bible different ways. Some as symbolism, some as stories for/with a moral teaching (and this may require understanding what X means in social situation Y-basically looking at the context), some as history, and, perhaps often, a mix. And that is with the POV that the Bible is special. This may mean approaching the Bible with an acknowledged level of uncertainty. There are guide posts like the 2 most important commandments but I suspect a good number of moderates approach the Bible with educated guesses and know it. Less simple than Fundamentalists but not necessarily unthinkable.

And that is with the view of all (each word) of the Bible as special, there are others that note "Inspired Word of God" may mean "Inspired" more than "dictated by". A lot of movies "inspired" by an event don't reflect at least some of the details correctly. The Bible is a collection of books that have been passed through the centuries. The possibility that a translation was done wrong or improper editing carried out is a point of concern.

To push that a bit further there are people who think there may be flaws in a given Bible but something in it somewhere is still worthwhile so the Bible could be approached with the mindset of someone running a salvage operation.

The last may be especially attractive to someone (and I think I've heard there are a few like this) who think all religions point to some great truth. In each of those examples you have people that would actually treat the Bible as a special book but aren't about to take it literally.

How each views God (or Allah or whatever) can be different. When asked about the nature of God (I think the other thread mentioned it) an answer at least some people give is they don't know the nature of God, they try to, have some guesses and think they know something but an image that may not be clear or total. Part of the delay could have been thinking over the question and part of it could have been a lack of eagerness to acknowledge uncertainty. That last bit is speculation/guess on my part but (considering all the variations of the main religions and how often uncertainty can mark non-religious parts of life) uncertainty doesn't strike me as off the wall.

Anonymous said...

Now agree with that thought(s) or not (maybe it involved a bit of mental wandering on my part) there is still the problem that more concern is being placed on people we're both pretty sure aren't about to go do terrible things to other people than people who will do terrible things to others for non-religious reasons.

Now to Jep. You summed up a story but do you see the assumptions in the story as you laid it out?

1st assumption, Jep cut a deal. Where does it say God accepted any deal? And even if God was willing to cut a deal where does it say God accepted, or even wanted, the terms offered? It does appear that Jep made the offer unsolicited.

2nd assumption, God helped in the battle. Maybe God helped him because he did win and maybe he would have won anyway because he had the leadership skills to run raids on the local community anyway (these skills possibly being why the local community turned to him in the first place).

3rd assumption, God did help during the battle and it was because of the vow. Here I may go along a bit for argument's sake and say what if God did help out. It is possible God had other motives for doing so than the vow. There may be a reason not mentioned that God wanted this community not to be conquered (at least not at this time).

4th assumption, God wouldn't have let him out of this deal. Jep says he cannot break the deal but there doesn't appear to be any prophet or priest giving Jep a thumbs up on the deal and saying God approves. If God actually encouraged the daughter to come out of the house it could have been to shock the guy enough to give him a chance to rethink what he was doing-I'll point it out more soon, but there are prohibitions on human sacrifice.

5th assumption, a disapproving God intervenes in a direct manner. There are reports of miracles and so on in places but there are also points where if God intervenes at all it is in a subtle manner. Why send down a column of fire to stop 1 particular murder when murders are happening across the world? Jewish rules of the day and possibly having the daughter come out (as a form of slapping across the face someone who would readily kill someone else) could be subtle forms of intervention that left Jep's free will intact. Not all groups that fit under label commonly called Christianity say we have a choice but many do. For those groups free will is an important thing and also why God would step back and let us make our own decisions with their own consequences. If there is a God there isn't a requirement that he/she/it stop us from making decisions or feeling the results. People may ask for help after the fact but that may be interfering with our ability to mess up. God may intervene, may not, or may in an unrecognized way. I may be getting long winded and off topic here but a lot of Christians feel we have at least some level of free will.

There is room here for reasonable doubt as to if God wanted this to happen.

Anonymous said...

At least some JWs feel the daughter wasn't killed but sent off to live a kind of nun-like life (why she would bemoan not having sex and the possibility she may never). But a lot of others feel she was killed. However, a decent portion of them (I'm guessing as to the % because at least some do) take this as a sign Jep was actually picking up "pagan" traditions and thus not being a proper Jew.

Beyond the regular 10 commandments prohibition against murder there is (at least in the Bible I'm looked at reads) Deuteronomy 18:9-11 "When you come into the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominations of the peoples there. Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead." That disapproves of making human sacrifices of ones' kids. In 2nd Kings 21:1-18 there is the story of a king who did make a son of his into a human sacrifice, but as part of a bunch of pagan ways he adopted. God, as presented in that chapter, disapproved.

Not only is there reasonable doubt God wanted Jep to kill his daughter, but if Jep did this he was breaking the rules.

Dale said...

I started commenting in reply but turned it into a post:

As for the idea that people do all kinds of bad thing for all kinds of reasons, that's undeniable. But there's something categorically important about doing bad things because the words from the all-knowing maker of the universe sanction it.

Kepler said...

Having seen this post a few weeks ago, I decided to read this book ("Crazy for God"). It was very funny and dished out much due ridicule to the religious right and to evangelicalism in general. I could not put it down. I read it in one sitting!

That being said, there are few discerning readers who will come away feeling good about the utter cruelty that the author shows to his parents. As you read, you'll begin thinking that the author is a grade A jerk and that his stories are likely untrustworthy. Frank comes across as a bitter, narcisistic, immature asshole. For anyone who's read this book, it might be worthwhile to also take a look at the critical review of Oz Guiness found here:

Francis Schaeffer, the author's father, may have been a fundamentalist, but he was also a moral and decent guy who didn't hate anyone -- unlike the God-Crazies whom Frank encouraged his father to ally with late in his life so that Frank could make a quick buck.

Having sincere albeit false beliefs should not make anyone the subject of hateful vitriol -- especially from one's own son.