Sunday, March 29, 2015

God and Incest. The Bible Reconsidered.

Incestuous sex is perhaps the most psychologically destructive crime a parent can inflict upon a child. But the Bible is rife with incest and supports it.

Let us begin with God’s example of the most righteous man on Earth for his time: Lot. Lot is so good that he is the only man whom God saves from the destruction of Sodom and Go-mor’rah. Putting aside, for a moment, the notion that our Heavenly Father murdering all of the people in two cities, and their babies, is a colossal parental overreaction that makes The-Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He the greatest mass murderer of all time; let’s stay with Gods fondness for incest.

After God’s decent, compassionate and irreproachable, immolation of the area’s city dwellers, Lot’s daughters find themselves without sexual partners. The two siblings do what any well-raised girls would do in such circumstances; they “made their father drink wine that night: and the first born went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose” (Genesis 19:33). Righteous man? Let’s say your neighbor returns your lawnmower one Sunday and starts telling you about a real bender he went on the night before. “Man, I blacked-out, and when I woke-up this morning I learned that I’d had sex with my daughter.” Okay, I’m a humanist and I try not to be judgmental. But I think I’d probably fail in that circumstance. A guy who drinks with his daughters until he blacks-out, then claims he’s not responsible when he finds-out that he’s had sex with his eldest, then later learns that he’s gotten her pregnant, is not blameless. Especially if he does it two nights in a row; once with his elder daughter and once with his younger daughter (Genesis 19:35). I would not want this guy coaching my kid’s soccer team.

And where is God in all of this? He’s all-knowing. God’s right there talking to Lot like some celestial weatherman: “Cloudy with a chance of brimstone; bring an umbrella today in your commute from Sodom.” Why isn’t the Holy One telling his pal Lot about the special wine tasting his daughters have planned? Does God have a voyeuristic kink for watching incest? He does permit a great deal of it in the Old Testament. He does see everything. I would think that he’d prefer the ancestry of his chosen people a little less inbred.

Sure, the Christians at this point may want to distance themselves a bit from the Old Testament. “Those crazy Jews with their talking snakes, genocidal floods and daughters gone wild, they’re the Banjo Boy in Deliverance to our respectable New Testament. Not a chance. In their story, God actually gets off the couch where he’s been watching the father-daughter monkey show and becomes an active participant. You see, God is not the self-described “jealous and angry” sky father deity of the Old Testament; he’s actually your father in the New Testament. “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Admittedly, this is a Supreme Being ad campaign superior to that of the Old Testament, but it does open the Creator up for a bit of criticism when he impregnates one of his daughters. Mary is told by an angel “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). One would think that an all-powerful being could bring his son into the world without entering the womb of his daughter. But, as we have already seen, this is not how God rolls.

Christians can argue all they want about how God entered Mary without breaking her hymen. First of all, that does not mean that it’s okay to put a baby into your daughter. Let’s say some dad walks up to you on the playground. He says “see that kid with your child in the sandbox? He’s my son. Funny story: he’s an in vitro fertilization of my sperm and my daughter’s ovum. But don’t worry, nothing weird happened and she’s still a virgin. You see, my daughter being a virgin is so important to me that the incision was abdominal so that the procedure wouldn’t break her hymen.” I don’t know about you, but I’d probably move away from him. I am so judgmental. Secondly, that little membrane of skin covering Mary’s vagina was certainly demolished when her pelvic muscles blasted the Lamb of God onto the physical plane. 

How about the argument that this was a spiritual penetration and conception with ethereal semen. Well, isn’t that a bigger deal to a group who prizes the spiritual above the physical? Doesn’t that make the violation worse?

For those of a Judeo-Christian bent who like to pick and choose their Bible stories, sorry, there is no room for ignoring or interpreting actions in the Bible. Its words are divinely inspired. If God is a perfect being owed unquestioning allegiance, then questioning or ignoring the words he inspires is not within the ability of a common mortal believer. One’s personal interpretation is actually a disobedient, blasphemous transgression. For a believer, the words must stand on their own as truthful testimony: Lot got drunk on two separate occasions and impregnated both of his daughters. The all-powerful, all-knowing deity did not intervene despite he and Lot being on speaking terms. God himself put a baby in Mary. You can either accept that the Bible is divine truth, or accept that it’s a bunch of myths that contain some repugnant activities on the part of God and his most pious followers.

The Holy Bible. King James Edition. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1978.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Living Without God by Ronald Aronson.

I must say that I have never read an atheist self-help book prior to this. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not insipid. Aronson has a more extensive grasp of academic philosophy, history and science, than most writers in this category. He uses all of these intellectual weapons, albeit selectively, to let his skeptical readers know (to misquote Bob Marley) that everything can be alright with the proper approach.

His optimism, while never the uncritical “happy, happy, happy” of the self-help set, is persistent, though qualified. For example, his chapter entitled “The World on Our Shoulders” discusses human suffering and social responsibility. The existence of such a chapter is the first difference one should note between Aronson and pop-psych gurus: some of the chapters are not focused inwardly on personal, self-absorbing problems. The author sees humans as part of nature and necessarily connected to the world. In tackling social issues, he relies upon empiricism and individual interpretation of what one is seeing. Aronson makes it clear that we have a choice in our behavior; nothing in outcome is pre-determined or dictated to us. Regarding national issues of racism and economic inequality, “whether or not we see clearly depends on a fundamental choice of perception: do we see ourselves as isolated, separate individuals, or instead recognize ourselves as belonging to, and depending on, a wider world…Accepting responsibility for this means first acknowledging that we all belong to a community” (Aronson, pp. 80-81). The author makes it clear that, even if one were to recognize their membership in a community and act accordingly, the road to justice is still long and victory is uncertain. Instead of the absolute confidence that we will attain equality, he concludes that we are working “toward a time when every human being achieves…full human dignity” (Aronson, p. 89).

In reading Living Without God, I had to consider what value such a book might have to a community as individualist and decentralized as ours. Atheists don’t need a catechism. Of course we do have a few rather dogmatic thinkers among our community. Some are still stuck: angry at their dads or defining themselves by their opposition to the religion in which they were raised. But by and large, we’re pretty independent. Our strength resides in choosing our own paths through life. As a result, there can be as many atheisms as there are individuals who call themselves atheists. So why read a book that lays-out one person’s personal plan? Perhaps because it is an opportunity to bounce the author’s perceptions off of your own, comparing your thoughts and strategies with those of another rational, evidence-based individual. It’s an occasion to meditate on some questions, agreeing or disagreeing as you choose, sifting through Aronson’s thoughts and yours on the topics of the chapters (gratitude for life, facing death, hope, social responsibility), finding the views and methods that fit your life. If there are important subjects that Aronson has, in your mind, failed to address, then it’s time for you to write your own book.

Aronson, Ronald. Living Without God. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

American Lion by Jon Meacham.

American Lion is the product of Newsweek editor and popular author Jon Meacham. It follows Andrew Jackson’s life in a chronological fashion. However, the greatest portion of the book is focused upon the seventh president’s White House years, with short chapters on life before and after his two terms. Centering the narrative on Jackson’s political career allows the author to spend more time on issues of the period that are most important to US political history.

The book begins with a bombastic prologue concerning South Carolina’s threatened secession. Meacham presents a dramatic play for the dim-witted. “It looked like war” is the opening line, attempting to grab the reader with crass emotionalism. “Jackson pounded a table as he pondered the crisis: ‘By the God of Heaven, I will uphold the laws’” (Meacham, p. xvii). It’s Macbeth with a twang. But this is Meacham’s merchandise. He is a magazine huckster writing to entice enough public to insure a best seller. Once he has baited his hook with enough banality to lure his mediocre-brow fish, Meacham settles-in to write a capable biography. Though he never abandons the qualities of forced sentimentality and theatrical excitability which attract literate infants with shiny things, his biography is well-informed.

The author has a little used, but effective means of providing citation. Notes appear at the end of the book. They are not designated a number as is traditional. Instead, a preceding number denotes the page on which a reference may be found. This permits one to easily examine the book’s evidence page by page. It is a sensible enough method that the reviewer cannot determine whether it or the traditional means of documentation is superior. Meacham is meticulous in his offering of citation. Here we see the positive influence of his journalism background.

The author can be a bit too forgiving of his subject’s personal failings. For example, Jackson campaigned for his Vice President (Van Buren) in the latter’s White House bid. At the same time, the dearest woman in his life (his niece Emily) was dying of tuberculosis. He chose political priorities over Emily because a Van Buren win would vindicate Jackson’s own presidency. Meacham rationalizes “to him the country was family too” (Meacham, p. 328). It would be more accurate describe a man who would step over the corpses of his loved ones to attain political goals, with a gentle reference to his ambition and self-involvement.

Fortunately, on important matters of Jacksonian racism and politics, Meacham is clear-sighted. Jackson owned 150 slaves (Meacham, p. 303). In office, “he denounced abolitionists’ ‘inflammatory appeals’” and “worried that anti-slavery forces were about to destroy the country” during his efforts to repress distribution of their pamphlets in the South (Meacham, p. 322). While there is always a danger that one may judge a past generation employing current values, it is not an issue in cases where a significant enlightened opposition existed. It would be arrogant to laugh at Ptolemy for believing that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Few thought differently. But during Jackson’s time, ideas repudiating both censorship and slavery were prominent. In this context, Meacham’s critique that “Jackson, who believed in the virtues of democracy and individual liberties so clearly and so forcefully for whites, was blinded by the prejudices of his age” is a fully appropriate one (Meacham, p. 303).

In addition, throughout the biography, Meacham critically examines the President’s unjust “Indian Removal” policy which forcibly relocated Native Americans and resulted in so many deaths. The author’s view is that Jackson’s position “was an exaggerated example of the prevailing white view, favoring removal at nearly any cost…he was on the extreme edge of the mainstream” (Meacham, p. 96). While “there was a significant anti-removal campaign across the country,” Jackson remained untouched by it. “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy” (Meacham, p. 7).

American Lion is a conflicting mix of invented dramatic feeling and well-researched facts about the Jackson presidency. Meacham does tell a colorful “story,” with all the positive and negative permutations of that word. The writing is exciting, but may distract with sensational content. Sentences like “To rule, one had to survive, and to survive one had to fight” (Meacham, p. 7), are emotive but meaningless. Presidents don’t rule. In the context of a presidency, the word fight is a purple metaphor. Survival is not a real concern. A student of history will be required to dodge some melodrama, but this will not affect comprehension of the facts. Those who feel that excessive passages of dramatic prose are a waste of reading time will fare better with an academic biography of the seventh president.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion. Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House, 2008.