All posts filed under: Religion

Keep Calm and Hail Satan

On its surface Hail Satan?, directed by punctuation enthusiast Penny Lane (Nuts!) and distributed by Magnolia Pictures (Man on Wire, Capturing the Friedmans), is a straightforward if openly sympathetic report on the rapid growth of the Salem, Massachusetts-headquartered Satanic Temple and the Temple’s goading of heartland conservatives in the perennial debate over the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. All of which is entertaining enough. But, below the surface, Lane’s film is also a case study in the resiliency of religious identity and atheism’s waning power as a rallying cry, as a movement, as a flag worth waving in an age of identitarian politics. A revealing line is delivered about halfway through the film when Mason, a clean-shaven, bow-tied Satanist from Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, there is such a thing; a central message of the film is that the Satanists aren’t who you think they are), explains that he’d been a “zesty little atheist” before becoming involved with the Temple. Mason’s disdain for his former identity is mischievous but unmistakable. So is his enthusiasm for a more positive, more nourishing …

Banning Evil: In the Shadow of Christchurch, Quasi-Religious Myths Can Lead Us Astray

On March 15, a 28-year old an Australian gunman named Brenton Tarrant allegedly opened fire in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, killing 50 and wounding 50 more. It was the worst mass shooting in the history of that country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was rightly praised for her response to the murders, declared: “While the nation grapples with a form of grief and anger that we have not experienced before, we are seeking answers.” One answer took form a week later, when Ms. Ardern announced legislation that would ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Will such gun-control measures work to reduce gun crime? Maybe. They did in Australia following a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania in which 35 people were murdered. A 2006 follow-up study showed that in the 18 years prior to the ban, there had been 13 mass shootings. But in the decade following, there had been none. Gun culture is different in every country. But there is at least an arguable case to be made that the …

The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History

The Secret History On March 4 2011, the French historian Reynald Secher discovered documents in the National Archives in Paris confirming what he had known since the early 1980s: there had been a genocide during the French Revolution.1 Historians have always been aware of widespread resistance to the Revolution. But (with a few exceptions) they invariably characterize the rebellion in the Vendée (1793–95) as an abortive civil war rather than a genocide. In 1986, Secher published his initial findings in Le Génocide franco-français, a lightly revised version of his doctoral dissertation.2 This book sold well, but destroyed any chance he might have had for a university career. Secher was slandered by journalists and tenured academics for daring to question the official version of events that had taken place two centuries earlier.3 The Revolution has become a sacred creation myth for at least some of the French; they do not take kindly to blasphemers. Keepers of the Flame The first major Revolutionary mythographer was the journalist and politician Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), who became the first President …

Is Religious Belief in Decline?

On January 8, 1697, 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy on the Gallowlee execution ground in Edinburgh. Two weeks earlier, he had been convicted of such grave crimes as questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ and the logic of the Trinity, and the authorities wanted his death to serve as a warning to other would-be dissidents. In The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment, Michael F. Graham explains why his subject was taken to an “execution site reserved for those guilty of the most heinous crimes”: For common thieves, murderers and even many witches, the Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle would do. But this execution was far from typical. On the contrary, it was a smokeless auto-da-fé aimed at placating an obviously angry God, invoking new laws against blasphemy that would never be used with such force again. Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, and in the century that followed his death, Edinburgh would become one of the most important intellectual centers of the …

From Astrology to Cult Politics—the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion

If you count yourself among the secularists cheering for the demise of religion, it isn’t hard to find comforting statistics. Nearly every survey of the state of religion in my own country, the United States, presents a similar picture of faith in decline. Compared to their parents and grandparents, Americans are less likely to self-identify as religious, attend religious services, or engage in religious practices such as daily prayer. Full-blown atheism is still a minority position. But the ranks of the “non-religious”—a broad category made up of those who reject traditional conceptions of God and religious doctrines, or who express uncertainty about their beliefs—are growing. Even those who self-identify as Christians are less inclined to talk publicly about God and their faith than their predecessors. Indeed, many Americans are Christian in name only—using the term more as an indicator of their cultural background than as a declaration of a spiritual life committed to the teachings of Christ. And the rest of the Western world is even farther ahead on this same path. But secularism advocates …

Understanding the Miracle of Hanukkah Through the Ancient World’s Prism of Horrors

Satirist Alan King once famously remarked that the story behind every Jewish holiday can be summarized as “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But that template doesn’t do justice to Hanukkah—which marks the period during the 2nd Century B.C when Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and then his son Judah Maccabee, rose up successfully against the Seleucid Empire (and its Hellenized Jewish supporters). This was a successful Jewish military campaign, not the usual passive attempt to survive external aggression. Judah’s men were not gentle souls. At Hanukkah, we linger on the reportedly miraculous way in which a small supply of sacred oil lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But the fanatics who launched this campaign were more concerned with smashing idols, forcibly circumcising children, and slaughtering Seleucid troops. (The war ended in 160 BC, after the Jews forged an alliance with Rome, and the Seleucids eventually gave in to the Maccabees’ demands for increased religious freedom.) Unlike Passover, which is centered on the …

‘Luciferina’: An Interview with Amanda Knox

Though the Republic of Italy has been secular since 1985, on the wall above the judge in the Perugia courtroom hung a giant black crucifix. The main prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, thundered at the then 22-year-old American defendant, Amanda Knox, on trial in 2009 for the murder, two years earlier, of her British roommate in Perugia, Meredith Kercher, calling her, Knox remembers, a slut and an adulteress. A  lawyer involved with a related civil suit dubbed Knox “Luciferina” — a satanic slur that soon found its way into press coverage of the matter. And it stuck. Another Italian lawyer denounced Knox publicly as a “dirty-minded she-devil, a diabolical person focused on sex, drugs, and alcohol, living life to the extreme,” and “a witch of deception,” “Lucifer-like and Satanic,” yet who possesses the face of a saint. An Italian commentator declared that Knox had “the face of an angel but the eyes of a killer.” In reference to her looks and supposedly scheming character, British tabloids (soon followed by the Italian press) dubbed her “Foxy Knoxy”—though the moniker …

The Onward March of Christian Political Power

Fifty years ago, in conscientious reaction to the perceived erosion of biblical norms in society, religious conservatives began operationalizing the teachings of Christianity into a vigorous political program. Society’s accelerated liberalization in the 1960s—which featured the sexual revolution, drug experimentation, and enforced racial integration—prompted religious leaders to harness the power of “Judeo-Christian values” to build an electorally formidable monolith. They succeeded. A ritual in Republican politics now involves presidential hopefuls prostrating themselves before religious conservatives in order to be anointed the next Great Godly Leader by the Christian masses. In other words, to even have a prayer in Republican politics, these candidates need their prayers. Today, though the individual battles are waged on different fronts, the nature of the conflict—the sociocultural clash between Christian political power and its rival frameworks—remains fundamentally the same. The debates over school prayer, stem cells, and evolution, have evolved into debates over religious liberty, transgender rights, and whether or not employees for functionally atheological corporate entities should be compelled to provide customers with a religiously-laden greeting during the winter holidays. …

The Preachers of the Great Awokening

“Yea, on the contrary, Justice calls aloud for an infinite Punishment of their Sins.” Jonathan Edwards From the sun-blanched beaches of California to the snow-covered cities of New England, a religious fervor is sweeping the United States. PhD-toting preachers spread the faith with righteous zeal, denouncing those who violate its sacred principles. Sinners are threatened not by an angry god, but by a righteous mob. The impenitent among them are condemned to be outcasts, while the contrite, if they properly mortify themselves and pledge everlasting fealty to the faith, can secure enough lost status to rejoin society, perhaps forever marked by a scarlet epithet. Racist. Sexist. Ableist. This is the religion of Wokeness, and this is the era of the Great Awokening. In the following article, we will explore this quasi-religion, Wokeness, as a status system that functions predominantly to distinguish white elites from the white masses (whom we will call hoi polloi). It does this by offering a rich signalling vocabulary for traits and possessions such as education, intelligence, openness, leisure, wealth, and cosmopolitanism, all …

Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

In the age of Neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious. The dualism of Rene Descartes—a world reduced to machinery and a separate soul, to “measure and number” combined with Christian theology—was the origin of our modern worldview. But it has been entirely exorcised, emptied of soul and Christianity, respecting only the machine underneath. It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer. Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy. As the world grows more mechanical, religious inclination is produced from the merciless rack of empiricism and positivism. New ways of contextualizing religious belief have emerged from the tradition of Christian existentialism, which dates …