Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'll See Your Jesus and Raise You 10,000 Buddhas

City of 10,000 Buddhas.

This follows up on an earlier post. Maha is misrepresented by Bill O'Reilly (unfortunate, but no surprise), and some Christian bloggers and commentators seems extremely confused by her citing the whole 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' thing. Additionally, she finds one of the stupidest arguments I've seen in a long time:

As for the comment on Atheists – keep in mind – by claiming to be an Atheist – a person is acknowledging the absolute and certain existence of God! Otherwise there would be no God to Not Believe In!

This is not proof of God's existence, but is proof that a decent education and basic logic skills are valuable.

Meanwhile, TBogg provides the shorter version of conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat's latest piece:

Brit Hume’s comments about that whore Tiger Woods provides us with a wonderful opportunity to discuss just exactly whose god has the biggest dick.

Here's Ross Douthat's actual piece, so you can read it yourself. Like Hume, he is a social conservative and Christian, but converted to Catholicism. Let's take a look at a few sections (emphasis mine throughout):

Somewhat more plausibly, a few of Hume’s critics suggested that had he been a Buddhist commentator urging a Christian celebrity to convert — or more provocatively, a Muslim touting the advantages of Islam — Christians would be calling for his head.

No doubt many would. The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.

Had Hume actually engaged in "freewheeling religious debate," and done so in a proper venue – not a purported news program - there would be no problem. He was proselytizing, trying to convert a celebrity to his religion, and denigrating another religion. Hume was making a pitch, not "debating." As Tom Shales (who Douthat quotes earlier) wrote:

Hume has a message for Woods; lots of people will have a message for Hume. First off, apologize. You gotta. Just say you are a man who is comfortable with his faith, so comfortable that sometimes he gets a wee bit carried away with it. If Hume wants to do the satellite-age equivalent of going door-to-door and spreading what he considers the gospel, he should do it on his own time, not try to cross-pollinate religion and journalism and use Fox facilities to do it.

This isn’t too difficult a concept. If Hume had apologized this way, I think most people would have accepted it. Back to Douthat:

But these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.

"Debating" isn't quite the same as "discussing," and neither is the same as "preaching" or "proselytizing." Plus, has Douthat never watched cable, including cable access? Is he unaware of the 700 Club and the network on which it appears? In most areas, there are plenty of TV programs with preaching (mostly Christian), and there are others shows where people discuss religion (Bill Moyers has done several thoughtful specials on it). There's also places of worship, journals, blogs, and many other venues. A political roundtable – even one talking about celebrity gossip on a lousy network - is not the right venue. Douthat seems like he's implying censorship. Is he seriously claiming that religion isn't discussed?

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

Of course what Hume said was bigoted. He effectively claimed his religion was better, while demonstrating his ignorance of another major world religion. As he basically admitted in a later interview, he did so despite his knowledge that others probably would be offended. But notice that Douthat is now echoing Hume: 'Hey Tiger, maybe there's something in Christianity for you.' Douthat's understanding of Buddhism isn't that impressive, either.

Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.

Douthat tries to walk back his own proselytizing. It's not surprising he'd complain about "knee-jerk outrage" if he basically agrees with Hume. But what "knee-jerk outrage," anyway? Can we have some examples? Douthat doesn't cite any, and makes a pretty muddled argument here. Most of the criticism of Hume has been over him being a clueless dolt - which he was. Buddhists and others have corrected Hume's ignorance – which doesn't somehow mean that Hume wasn't ignorant with his "knee-jerk" proselytizing. It doesn't exonerate him. A mature, intelligent response to Hume doesn't somehow make Hume mature and informed.

Here's Douthat's big finish:

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

If we tiptoe politely around this reality, then we betray every teacher, guru and philosopher — including Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha both — who ever sought to resolve the most human of all problems: How then should we live?

It’s reasonable to doubt that a cable news analyst has the right answer to this question. But the debate that Brit Hume kicked off a week ago is still worth having. Indeed, it’s the most important one there is.

"Peaceful" is relative. No one is calling for violence against Hume. But Hume has hardly provided some laudable model for "peaceful theological debate." If Douthat really believes that, it's just sad. Meanwhile, "How we should live" is hardly a question limited to theology, and the Harvard-educated Douthat should know that, as well. I think he's just hacking away in defense of a fellow socially conservative Christian, and there's a whiff of the same victimization he supposedly decries.

I don't think what Hume did was horrible and unforgivable – it was just rude and clueless. As Fran pointed out in comments to the last post, Hume became more religious after his son's suicide. That's pretty brutal, and if religion gave Hume comfort, I certainly don't begrudge him that. I know others for whom religion has done much the same. There's nothing wrong with having compassion for Hume as a human being. As I wrote in the comments last time, I'm guessing Hume was thinking, in part: 'my religion has given me a great deal, and who wouldn't what want I have, so I'll spread the word.' It can be well-intentioned, but the problem is that other people have rich personal lives, and/or good communities, and/or spiritual or reflective lives, all of which differ from Hume's in trappings and often in substance as well. He's apparently never figured that out, or doesn't care. He's acting like an old, rich, socially conservative white guy who thinks his world is the best and the norm.

Clearly there's nothing wrong with discussing religion, but there's the question of venue, and there's no virtue in discussing religion stupidly. Hume played the victim a bit with O'Reilly, and Douthat presses the same angle slightly. Douthat also pretends that Hume added something valuable, and started an important "debate." No - he didn't. I'm guessing most college freshmen in an intro religion class could be thoughtful, and probably less ignorant of Buddhism. If Hume stops proselytizing, it will not be some big loss, as Douthat whiningly implies. Religion, and religious discussion, will not somehow disappear from American life. Respectful, intelligent discussion of religion, philosophy and ethics will continue – but apparently Hume and Douthat will continue not to be part of it.

Fixed some typos.


bdwyer said...

btw The RW story is that Sandy Hume killed himself b/c the Clinton people outed him. Or they killed him and made it look like a suicide (which they were evidently very good at). Either way, he's on the Clinton Body Count. Stay classy, kids!

zeppo said...

It's rather difficult to have a rational discussion of religion when you have freaks like Pat Robertson mouthing off about what a nice God he believes in that would wipe out tens of thousands of people for something he says their ancestors did.