Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Reading

The Fossil Fuel of Religion — Adam Lee has a new book on the danger rigid faith represents to our society.

Rising into the troposphere, carbon dioxide accumulates in a stifling blanket, trapping the rays of the sun and warming our planet as surely as a hot car left in a parking lot. In the past, feedback mechanisms in the biosphere prevented excessive warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: the oceans absorb it, green plants drink it, rain dissolves it, carbonate rocks sequester it. But we’re pumping it into the atmosphere at a prodigious rate, burning through millions of years’ worth of hydrocarbon reservoirs in decades, driving the climate system relentlessly out of equilibrium. And decade by decade, global temperatures tick upwards, glaciers recede, habitats dwindle, ice caps fragment, sea levels rise, storms gain strength, the extremes of flood and drought worsen, desert spreads, and the powerful and wealthy special interests who stand to profit by mortgaging the planet attempt to denigrate and marginalize the voices crying in the wilderness to warn humanity of the danger.

But combustible hydrocarbons aren’t the only product of the Middle East that shapes the face of the world today. From those desert sands comes another fuel. Like oil and coal, this fuel has its origins in the distant past; unlike oil and coal, this one is invisible, intangible. Rather than being transmitted through drills and pipelines, it travels through the air, leaping from one mind to the next, igniting conflagrations figurative and literal. Our economy runs on the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion.

Instead of the compressed remains of long-dead living things, the religions that dominate our world today are made up of fossilized dogmas, shaped in the cauldron of a long-gone world and compressed by time and tradition into a rock-hard mass. Religion, too, has its impurities, but instead of sulfur and mercury, humanity’s beliefs are contaminated with impurities of tribalism and xenophobia, fractions of hate and fanaticism and glorification of martyrdom. And when they burn in human minds, instead of smog and acid rain, they give us suicide bombers exploding in crowded streets, the suffocating darkness of fundamentalism, bloodthirsty mobs in the streets screaming for holy war, armies marching forth to conquer under the red banners of crescent and cross, the Twin Towers collapsing in flame.

I’m not claiming that religious belief is uniformly harmful. At its best, religion can inspire human beings to perform acts of great charity and compassion and create works of wondrous beauty. But these good works have been endlessly reported and praised, and they need no additional documentation from me. If anything, people who report on religion have a tendency to only report its good effects, while sweeping the bad ones under the rug or blithely dismissing them as perversions of “true” faith. I seek to provide some balance to these choruses of praise by reminding people that religion has also directly caused many acts of terrible bloodshed, cruelty and destruction.

Worse, many of these evil deeds come about not by twisting or distorting the teachings of scripture, but by obeying them. There is much material in every religious tradition that teaches violence, intolerance and hatred of the infidels. Modern theologians who recognize the savagery of these passages have either ignored them altogether or else have elaborate schemes of reinterpretation aimed at convincing themselves and others that these verses don’t mean what they say. Unfortunately, there will always be believers who see through this charade and interpret the violent verses with the frightening simplicity which their context suggests. These people are a threat, and so long as we persist in believing in books that contain these sorts of dangerous messages, they will always be a threat. It will be one of the major themes of this chapter that people become irrational and dangerous to the precise degree in which they truly believe their religion and take its claims seriously.

I’m well aware that the majority of individual believers are not hate-filled fanatics, but ordinary, decent people. However, as I hope to show, decent people do not need religion to justify their actions, whereas the fanatics do. Good people would be good with or without their religious beliefs, but religion has far too often been used to inspire and promote acts of great evil and cruelty against others who believe differently, and lends itself far too easily to that use. As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg put it a few years ago:” With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”

No Loonies — Carl Hiaasen vets the VP field for Mitt Romney.

For Republicans, the painful lessons of the 2008 campaign should be clear. Romney’s not a dummy, but neither was John McCain and look what happened.

The decision to pick Sarah Palin was so sudden and unexpected that she didn’t even have time to write an official autobiography. In retrospect, even an old high-school essay would have been illuminating.

Unlike McCain, Romney should actually meet his future vice-presidential nominee before announcing his choice. Have a cup of coffee, bat around a few ideas.

Maybe a geography quiz. Nothing too tricky — name the seven continents, whatever.

Prevailing cable punditry says Romney is going to pick someone “safe,” meaning dull, white and male. The candidate will have more experience holding public office than Palin did, and he’ll likely hail from an important swing state where moose don’t outnumber independent voters.

That’s why Rubio is still in the VP mix. Florida’s electoral votes will be critical, and polls show that the race here between Romney and President Barack Obama is tight.

Let the Games Begin — Some of the most interesting matches at the Olympics aren’t on the field.

Quickly the reality sinks in that the village is “just a magical, fairy-tale place, like Alice in Wonderland, where everything is possible,” says Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skier at the ’94 Winter Games and a reporter for subsequent Olympics. “You could win a gold medal and you can sleep with a really hot guy.”

And no matter your taste, the village has got you covered. The soccer girls? “All hot, and they dress like rock stars,” one male swimmer says. Male gymnasts? “They are like lovable little Ewoks,” Kintner says. Sacramone has a few favorites of her own: “As far as best bodies, it’s swimmers and water polo players, because that’s an insane workout. And the track guys, they’re sneaky-cute. Very serious, but when they lighten up, you’re like, ‘Oh, you’re kind of adorable.'”

The challenge athletes face is what to do with their urges and when. “If you don’t have discipline, the village can be a huge distraction,” Solo admits. Some swear off sex until their events are done; others make it part of their pre-event routine. American shot-putter and silver and bronze medalist John Godina thought he’d seen it all in Atlanta: late-night hookups, friends disappearing for days at a time. But he hadn’t seen anything like the dorm room in Sydney he shared with a javelin thrower, which had instantly become a revolving door of women without backstories. “It’s like Vegas,” Godina explains. “You learn not to ask a lot of questions.”

Doonesbury — Brain trust.