Monthly Archives: August 2013

10 Forms of Christian Privilege

This is a US-centric view. Not all of these privileges apply in other western nations.

As a Christian:

  • your religious observances, both special holidays, and Sundays throughout the year, are likely to be available as work holidays with no special arrangement or employment difficulties;
  • you don’t need to fear that your children will be prevented from playing with their friends because of your religion;
  • you can identify your faith online, using your own name, without fear of repercussions to your job or business;
  • you can list your church involvement on your resume and expect it to be a positive indicator of your community spirit and moral integrity;
  • you can stand for public office without fear that a majority of the electorate will not vote for you on the basis of your Christianity;
  • you can fail, or do bad things, without those around you seeing this as caused by, or an indictment of your religion;
  • you can move to a new city and expect to find a broad range of Christian churches, open for you to attend and join;
  • you can form a new Church with others and expect have it granted tax exempt status without having to engage in complex litigation;
  • you can access local Christian schools and universities that will see your children through their entire schooling in a context that promotes your faith;
  • you can expect to see media reports discuss Christian prayer and the actions of God in response to unrelated incidents.

Of course there are many more. These are simply the ones I’ve encountered, or my non-Christian US friends have.

And, of course, to head off the criticisms of those who want to minimise privilege: these privileges vary in severity in different areas; there may be examples where the opposite happens (remember non semper ergo numquam); and in some cases some minority forms of Christianity may find themselves on the wrong end of these privileges too. It is important to remember that privilege is large scale, systemic and complex. That these privileges can be nuanced is not evidence they do not exist.

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The Best Service

I have a small collection of business books here. Each promises to help me start, run or sell a successful business. At some point in my business book buying I realised something important.

The most successful business books are those that are the best at being business books.

Or, put another way

The success of a business book has only a little to do with the quality of information in it.

If we crunched the numbers and measured the success of businesses based on the books that their CEO’s read and purport to act on (adjusting for the popularity of the book), I doubt very much we’d get a list that looked like the business bestseller lists. To write a successful business book you need to make the reader feel good about themselves, feel motivated, and feel powerful.

Sabio wrote today about Dating websites. In my professional experience the same thing is true here. The most successful dating sites are those that are the best at being dating sites. The success of a dating site has very little to do with the quality of matches it produces, or the long term happiness of its clients. To make a successful dating website, you need to make your customers feel good about themselves, and feel loved.

…I almost feel bad approaching the barrel of religious fish holding this shotgun…

But it is certainly true that religions promise enlightenment, spiritual fulfilment, community, counter-cultural release, and a different way of living. But those that are successful are good at being a religion, something that has very little to do with supplying those things.

And I’d say that goes for all kinds of religion. It is easy to see the Joel Osteen brand of evangelical pablum in these terms. But often progressive and liberal brands of religion work in the same way. And, just like business books and dating, you can’t tell by listening to the rhetoric. You have to look, in the words of the Bible, at the fruit.

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Children’s Religion

In our Western culture, we have a polytheistic religion especially for children. Like any polytheistic faith, some figures are more or less important, and some families have particular devotion to one or more.

The spirits, deities or supernatural beings in this religion include:

Father Christmas. Who judges our moral qualities and travels round the entire world visiting every child on Christmas eve to bring their rewards.

The Easter Bunny. A figure who’s devotion is on the rise. Visiting on the night before Easter and laying out an elaborate chocolate puzzle for children to solve.

The Tooth Fairy. Who brings monetary gifts as compensation for the traumatic experience of bodily loss.

The Sandman. Who brings blissful dreams, and nightmares, and whose visits can be detected by the grains of sand-like hardness in your eyes when you wake. His devotion is somewhat waning these days.

Jack Frost. Who brings the cold weather, and whose finger prints can be seen on your window when you wake.

The Bogeyman. A malevolent spirit who will visit retribution upon children who misbehave.

Many parents react with as much anger and outrage at the prospect of someone taking away their children’s faith, as they would if someone were to take away their own. Yet this religion is unique in that we expect it to last only for a time.

Adults, despite not believing, are expected to be the theologians and priests of the religion. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are expected to give theological accounts of this religion, and to act as apologists in the face of skeptical questioning.

Despite this odd feature, Children’s religion is a religion like any other. It relies on the same theological and evidential tricks, the same appeals to the supernatural, the same moral calculus, and the same cultural inertia.

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Disproving Parallelomania

The Story so Far:

Neil at Vridar published a chapter of Tom Brodie’s book on Jesus which purports to show the many and detailed connections between the Elijah/Elisha narrative in 1 Kings 19, and Jesus’s challenges to his disciples in Luke 9.

James at Exploring our Matrix responded with skepticism.

It’s All Random … Mostly (what a very suitable blog title!) called out James on his use of the world ‘parallelomania’ – suggesting that it is a facile insult, but avoids engagement.

I’ve been musing on this today.

I find it hard to imagine what a constructive engagement with ‘parallelomania’ might look like. One that goes beyond just blank skepticism. Because there are some claims that can only be addressed with skepticism.

Seeing patterns in noise is hard to disprove.

Here’s an extreme example (to illustrate the problem, not to say Tom Brodie’s conclusions are comparable). If someone claims to see Jesus in a tree-stump, how do you have detailed engagement with them on it? They’re just going to head for the detail – “look this particular fleck of pigment looks like a nostril – right?, so clearly this section is a nose.” – “No, its just a coincidence” – “but this wiggle here in the nostril, that’s the columella transit, in the exact correspondence with this fleck here which is the philtrum, what other markings on the three have that exact combination – it can’t be coincidence!”

I’ve had those kinds of conversations with people claiming amazing biblical prophecies, for example. With really specific, odd detail. It is difficult to engage with.

So false positives in patterns can only be really disproved by an overall probabilistic argument, but such arguments can feel week, and they tend to require a huge corpus. Let’s say we were to properly engage with Brodie’s argument – how would it be done? Well, I’d want to find how many other texts, when interpreted at the same level of generosity, would also display the same number of ‘correspondences’. But nobody is suggesting Luke is independent of 1 Kings, so how do we tell the difference between coincidence, allusion, and derivation? Surely not by just counting the hits.

So I have some sympathy for using the term ‘parallelomania’ as a term of skepticism. To say, yes it is fine to find parallels, but as long as you’ve only shown the parallels, you’re relying on a kind of probabilistic innuendo to make your point: you have neither analysed the false positives nor the false negatives.

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