Sunday, April 29, 2012

Yet another dispatch from the Trans Wars

As the arguments between trans women and trans allies and the "womyn born womyn" crowd continue apace, I thought I would take a look at some of the issues raised and offer my thoughts and clarifications.

The first thing I want to affirm is that everyone involved has the right to free association in their own space and on their own dime.  You have the right to open your circle only to trans women, to queer people, to gay men-born-men, to Jewitches, to disabled people, to cross-country runners, etc. The right to assemble with your chosen peers is an important one and I support that right 100% no matter how I might feel about your choices.  I say this because during earlier discussions here and on The Wild Hunt a few people expressed a desire to end all "exclusionary" rituals and workshops at Pantheacon and elsewhere.  I have no interest in integrating people of color space or in freeing males from the tyranny of female-only space, nor do I think that the existence of these spaces is inherently racist, sexist, etc.
I also want to note that other people have the right to question your decisions, to criticize them, and even to exclude you from their private events based on those choices.  You have the right to declare your coven  is open only to those of entirely European descent.  Your local Pagan center also has the right to refuse you access to their ritual rooms on the grounds because they dislike your membership criteria.  The right to free association does not include the right to a cheering section. And in situations where your exclusionary ritual causes a lot of controversy and hurt feelings - and might well subject your venue to legal issues in a place like San Jose where gender identity is a protected class - the organizers have the right to say "no, you can't do that in our space and on our calendar." 

If you, gentle reader, feel the need for space open only to females assigned at birth/womyn born womyn/genetic women/etc., then I am 100% behind your right to create that space for yourself.  Yes, there are some who will criticize you for that decision: their criticisms are or should be unimportant to you. As they say in Haitian Vodou, "You in, you in. You out, you stay out." You have the right to hold the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival or the Goddess Festival in your own space and on your own dime: you're free to set the attendance requirements to those events as you see fit.  But others also have the right to say "you can't hold womyn-born-womyn only circles at our events."  Because the right to free association goes both ways: just as you get to make the rules for your gatherings, others get to make the rules at theirs.

Which brings us to this latest screed from Radfemhub, courtesy of guest blogger "Dragon Dyke." 
Trans activists are co-opting political movements and the ultimate trans agenda is to remove the rights of all subordinate groups to self-determination and movements for liberation. I do not believe that most individuals who identify as trans or their allies are consciously planning the depoliticisation of class based oppressions. Trans is a structural and colonising tactic – a tool of the patriarchy, but if you buy into trans theory, that is what you are buying into.
The trans cooption of feminism and the attacks of the right of the female class to collective self-determination is the beginning of what I believe will end up being a long running movement to co-opt all struggles of subordinate groups. Trans is a growing movement and it is no longer only focused on trans sex and trans gender. New trans movements focus on trans abled and trans age, and any day now I am expecting to see the emergence of white men who claim to be trans race. As with trans genderism, these new trans movements are largely based on the sexual fetishisation of the subordinate group. So what is the scope of the trans project and what is the impact this growing movement will have on all subordinate classes?
If I'm reading this right (and I've seen similar claims from other Radical Feminists), the trans movement is part of a plot by the patriarchy.  Trans women and their allies are tools of the Learned Elders of Penis, who seek to control the objects of their sexual fetishization by infiltrating their space and co-opting their identities. To that end, thousands of male-bodied people are taking hormones, enduring years of electrolysis and decades of social scorn up to and including violence and murder, and having painful, irreversible and uninsured genital surgery so they can take over the feminist movement. And what's more, they are now trying to infiltrate daycare centers and disability advocacy movements by pretending to be wheelchair-bound children.

(As evidence of these "trans age" movements, Dragon Dyke presents a video interview with an "adult baby." Much as she and her peers seem to have difficulty distinguishing between trans women and drag queens, she also seems incapable of separating identity movements from fetish clubs. And while she correctly notes that so far none of these adult babies are engaged in any kind of political organizing, she fears it would be "problematic" if they decided to assert their right to attend local kindergartens).

Meanwhile Cedar Cat, one of the louder if not smarter Dianics posting in the Wild Hunt's comments, noted:
They are still men, with their male “I want to control everything”, “I want admission to every group” mentality. They recently managed to get a Dianic Elder and High Priestess thrown out of Pantheacon, simply for wanting to circle with “genetic women only”. meanwhile, it’s OK for other groups to exclude bleeding women from their rites.
I presume this means that when feminists assert their rights to be accepted in the boardroom, as combat soldiers on the front lines, as factory workers, etc. they are just acting male with their "I want to control everything" and "I want admission to every group" mentality.  Because if they were real wombmoons they would be passive, nurturing and accepting without seeking "power over" by means of lawsuits, protests, and other nasty masculine behaviors.

I should also note that Z Budapest has not been "thrown out of Pantheacon."  She is no longer allowed to hold "genetic women only" rituals in official Pantheacon space on their calendar.  But she is free to hold these rituals in a private suite: she is also free to present workshops, classes or rituals which are open to all attendees, or even to all attendees who identify as women.  Cedar Cat's complaints to the contrary are rather like the common Fundamentalist whine that taking Christian prayer out of public schools amounts to a War on Jeebus.

(And what's more, "bleeding women" were not "excluded" from the Vodou rite to which she alludes: they were asked not to participate in the salute to Damballah because of longstanding taboos against bleeding people of any sex saluting that particular spirit.  But of course the feminist need to be included in everything trumps the rights of African Diaspora religions to define their own spirituality or enforce their own rules).

Which brings us to the real issue many transphobic Second Wave feminists have with the trans movement: it forces them to confront their own privilege and question many of the underpinnings of their theory.  There is no way that any white college-educated middle class or higher woman-born-woman can claim that she does not have greater privilege in our society than a homeless trans woman of color.  And because so many of them have so much vested in seeing themselves as victims of the oppressive patriarchy, it chaps their asses to imagine that they may be complicit in the oppression of others or that the world might not be easily distilled into Good Wimmyn and Bad Males.  So rather than addressing those issues, they behave in the way most privileged peoples do when called on their attitudes.  Like white conservatives claiming "blacks are the only real racists nowadays" and "nobody ever gave me any affirmative action," they disparage those beneath them and act to preserve their superior position while at the same time denying their superiority.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's BAAAACK: the Return of Z Budapest

After inserting herself into the fray over trans inclusion at Pantheacon and destroying decades of good will with a few ill-chosen words, you would think that Z Budapest would, like the common lab rat and flatworm, have learned to avoid negative stimuli. Alas, Ms. Budapest lacks even a planarium's instinct for self-preservation.

Her latest publicity stunt involves the chant "We All Come from the Goddess."  Z wrote the lyrics for this well-known Wiccan song, and wishes (quite rightly) to stop people from recording the song for profit without compensating her or without even asking her permission.   This is a reasonable request, and one which most Pagan authors and artists, yrs. truly included, would be happy to support.  There's definitely a sense of entitlement among many Pagans, an idea that "information wants to be free" -- by which they invariably mean someone else's information. No matter how anyone feels about Z's politics, Z's religion or Z's personality, she has the right to protect her copyrighted material.  Recording her work without getting her permission is bad form and I have no problem with Z calling out people who do it..

But it doesn't stop there:
I would like you to help me spread the words that Singing "We all come from the Goddess" should NOT BE rewritten. It is my intellectual property. it is NOt a folk song, which by the way is the fate of many composers whose songs are stolen. You steal my song from now will have consequences. You put men into the song, like God,a hex will be activated...  
"My heart belongs
to Goddess..."
Seriously? A hex? A HEX???? At this point Z has to be trying to destroy her reputation.  She took a completely reasonable request and managed to turn it into arm-waving pure comedy gold. I just keep waiting for threats to break our backs and make us humble old country way. It's like watching Bette Davis as Baby Jane Budapest keeping her transgendered sister prisoner in an upstairs bedroom. Or maybe Carol Burnett's version of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond after a week-long binge on bath salts and Listerine.   It's one part chilling, two parts amusing and fifty parts pathetic.

Releasing a creative work into the world is rather like sending off a child: it takes on a life of its own outside your control.  (Just ask J.K. Rowling). Kathy asked what I would do if I discovered people were doing rituals from my books at public festivals without my permission and without crediting me.  I would hope that the people involved approached the lwa with reverence and respect and that the attendees had a positive and productive spiritual experience.  I would also hope that someone would recognize the source and ask why the ritual organizers chose to plagiarize their material - especially when I would have happily encouraged them to use my book as a source and would be proud that my work was useful to sincere seekers.  But I also realize that there's very little I can do if that doesn't happen. And threatening to sic the lwa on people who will not respect mah authoritah just makes me look like a buffoon.

Z, if you're reading this I urge you to consider the wisdom of that great thinker Sassy Gay Friend. Look  at your life: look at your choices. Thanks largely to your ranting, there will be no more public "genetic women with bleeding uteri only" rituals on the Pantheacon calendar. Thanks to you, many Pagans have become aware of trans issues and of the anti-trans bigotry which infects so much second wave feminist thought. And thanks to you, "womyn-born-womyn" space is now increasingly being identified with bigotry and hate rather than safety. You may want to choose your battles more carefully before you come charging in with both guns blazing: at the very least, you may want to stop aiming at your feet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Humility and Hubris: Responding to Comments

In response to my earlier post, Yvonne Chireau commented:
I wasn't going to comment, and then I was again, but what the hell. I missed the first part of the argument with you and Galina. But as one who embraces both the virtues of "humility in spiritual matters" as well as "The Law of Attraction/New Thought" in principle, I wonder why it is assumed that one can't do/be both? It takes a shitload of painful self awareness and honesty to balance, but I don't see these ideas as contradictory by any means.
and SeekInfinity-ICTX added:
You present this as if the only two options are "accept your place" and "live in a delusional fantasy land". This is a false dichotomy; it is entirely possible for one to accept that one has limitations currently but also be determined to overcome every one of them; you make an analogy of a swimmer swimming across the pacific ocean but forget that men build boats. While it could be argued that that's not at all the same thing the same principle can be applied to a persons body; some artificial limbs are already outperforming natural ones in some ways for example. A person can change, spiritually and physically, and they can direct these changes based on their own will if they know how. There are also some philosophies and religions in which gods simply don't have nearly as much relevence as in others; some varieities of buddhism for example take the position of "is there a creator god? maybe but that doesn't really matter since if he exists he would be in as much need of enlightenment as anyone else so even asking this question misses the point". There is also the viewpoint that it doesn't matter if a struggle is doomed since the very virtue of an act is in the willingness to do it no matter the odds rather than in the end result; by this viewpoint a person who tries to swim across the pacific and drowns is more worthy than someone who just decides it's impossible and not worth the risk which brings up the hint of naturalistic fallacy in your argument; just because this is the way things are does not mean it is the way things should be. It also doesn't mean that if we(humanity and anyone who wishes to work with it on equal terms, or at least let merit of any individual being be shown rather than simply assumed due to divinity) worked together we can create a more free universe where any being can get ahead on their own efforts without any externally imposed limitation; I believe this is a dream worth fighting for, even being tortured and dying for. Quite literally, a prize beyond all cost.
Sincerely, SeekTheLimitless-ICTX
May we all find what we seek
Perhaps in the future SeekTheLimitless can seek and find paragraph breaks.  I'd also note that the discussion between yrs. truly and Galina was more mutual agreement than argument. But those quibbles aside, let's address these concerns.

There are definitely virtues to positive thinking.  If you are convinced you are going to fail you almost certainly will.  But the corollary doesn't always apply. There are lots of people who are absolutely sure they will succeed but who end up falling flat on their faces.  (The sad tale of Mighty Casey at the Bat may prove instructive). Positive thinking and self-confidence is definitely a good thing. All else being equal, the self-confident positive thinker will probably go further than the self-doubting negative thinker. But there's a fine line between the virtue of self-confidence and the vice of hubris.

SeekTheLimitless makes a comment about boats: this actually proves my earlier contention.  So long as someone is convinced sie can swim across the Pacific, the idea of building a boat will never occur to hir. Only when we recognize our limitations can we go about overcoming them.  Accepting your limitations and recognizing your place in the grand scheme of things doesn't mean passively giving up and accepting abuse and injustice.  It means working on things you can change and making a difference  for the better instead of wasting energy trying to flap your arms and fly to the moon.

Is the person who tries to swim across the Pacific and drowns in the attempt more "worthy" than someone who realizes this is impossible?  I'd say sie's more foolish. Sie has wasted a life that could have been used to make real, lasting and positive changes in the world on a mission that was obviously impossible and that served no purpose other than to prop up hir ego.  In seeking to transcend hir human limits, sie succeeded only in reaffirming them at a terrible cost.

I'm not sure how we are to "get ahead on [our] own efforts, without any externally imposed limitation."  Taking my cue from Dion Fortune's excellent Mystical Qabalah, I've always believed that Binah served as the resistance which shapes the force of Chokmah.  If we don't confine and externally limit steam, we don't get a steam engine: our hammer blows will only shape metal if there's an anvil involved somewhere.  To have form is to be limited: that which encounters no resistance can perform no action.  To steal a phrase from Orion Foxwood, "we are spiritual beings on a human path."  Figuring out the reason for our incarnation, and acting in accordance therewith, will get us further than assuming that we  can wipe away all our human limitations if only we believe hard enough.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From Melancholia: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Enhancers

While serotonin reuptake inhibitors can be effective antidepressants, so can drugs which cause the brain to reuptake more serotonin. This reuptake enhancement decreases the amount of serotonin-fueled neurotransmissions. Yet instead of making the situation worse, in many cases SSREs are more effective antidepressants than SSRIs. A 2002 study found the SSRE tianeptine (sold in Europe as Stablon™ and Coaxil™) worked as well as fluoxetine, paroxetine (Paxil™) and sertraline (Zoloft™). A 60-day Indian study of 320 outpatients with major depression given tianeptine found that more than half showed greater than 50% improvement in the Hamilton depression rating scale (HDRS): only 23 patients (7.2%) reported side effects, none serious enough to cause the patient to withdraw from the study.

While their efficacy has been proven in numerous studies, we still do not know exactly how SSREs work. Some research suggests they may improve the brain's ability to respond to stress and limit the damage frequently seen in patients suffering from long-term depression: tianeptine appears to have a positive effect not only on the emotional affect of depressed patients but also on their cognitive ability. Other clinicians theorize that both SSRIs and SSREs result in less serotonin being available to neurons: SSREs accomplish this through increased reuptake while SSRIs cause receptors on the neurons to become less sensitive in response to greater serotonin availability. Whatever their mechanism of action, it is clear that SSREs call into question many commonly accepted ideas about the workings of antidepressant medications.

SSREs may have a greater potential for abuse than other antidepressants, since many patients report amphetamine-like stimulation. A 2004 study of 203 amineptine (Survector™) patients in Kuwait found that many were using it to relieve fatigue and induce feelings of well-being. When told to discontinue their amineptine use 93% of the patients reported a strong desire to continue taking the drug, and only 46 of the patients were able to discontinue their usage without resorting to black market amineptine or other drugs. A Turkish medical journal reported a case of a 34 year-old patient with a history of drug abuse who was taking 3,000 mg of tianeptine a day (the usual dose is 37.5 mg) to achieve euphoria and increased physical energy. Paradoxically, heroin addicts in Russia and Armenia have taken to shooting up large quantities of tianeptine pills to get an opiate-like high. (This is exceedingly dangerous as the injections are rarely filtered properly and the sludge from the pills frequently results in thrombosis, abscesses and tissue necrosis).

Currently no SSREs are available in American or British pharmacies. Amineptine production has been discontinued in most markets due to issues with liver toxicity and severe acne in some users. While tianeptine is still prescribed as an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication in Europe and Latin America, there is little chance it will be made available to American patients. Tianeptine was developed in the mid-1960s and its patent has long since expired. Any company wishing to bring it to the American market would have to submit to rigorous and expensive safety tests to meet FDA standards: once those tests were passed, any company wishing to market a generic version could do so legally. There have been some tests suggesting tianeptine is effective in the treatment of asthma, fibromyalgia, attention deficit disorder and irritable bowel syndrome. Should it be approved for any of those conditions, American physicians would be able to write "off label" prescriptions for depressed patients.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Unofficial Pagan Blog Post: H is for Humility, Hubris and Horse$#1+

Following up on Galina Krasskova's excellent post on humility, I thought I'd offer some of my own thoughts on the subject.  The word "humility" gets a bad rap from people who equate it with servile groveling and self-abasement.  As Galina rightly points out, humility has nothing to do with that.
Instead, it has everything to do with the cultivation of the type of awareness and spirit that renders us best able to take up and maintain the ancient contracts with our Gods, our ancestors, the elemental powers, and each other. It is that quality that allows us the grace of knowing our place in the cosmic scheme of things, not because we are nothing, but because every living thing has its place within the ever weaving tapestry of wyrd. It is important to know that place so that we do not abuse the many blessings that we’ve been given and so that we are able to fulfill the calling of our wyrd well. Humility is the quality that teaches both respect and self-respect. It teaches right relationship.  It is that quality that allows us to bend our heads before the Gods without shame, because it is right and proper to do so.
One of the great American myths is that we can be anything we want to be: we are encouraged to dream big so we can achieve big.  The "Law of Attraction" promises us that we make our own reality. If we want success, fame, and fortune all we need do is ask and the universe will shower it upon us.  (A century earlier this was peddled as "New Thought."  Plus ça change... ). Horatio Alger and his disciples promised wealth for anyone with a good heart and upright moral character: Napoleon Hill promised that all we needed to do was Think and Grow Rich.  The only limitations which hold us back are the ones we accept. By that standard humility isn't just embarrassing, it's downright dangerous.

Add to this the great American myth of our classless society. We have always distrusted the aristocracy and had a healthy distaste for snobbery.  Contrary to many conservative pundits the popular Occupy Wall Street slogan "We are the 99%" doesn't encourage class warfare so much as promulgate the idea that we're all created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.  In light of that idea "humility" looks uncomfortably like bowing to the 1% and accepting that we're not as good as those who are richer, smarter, more popular, more famous or otherwise more successful than we are.

Unfortunately, we're not all created equal; neither can we be anything that we want to be.  Intergenerational class mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark.  Yet a 2000 poll indicated that 39% of Americans thought they were either in the wealthiest one percent or would be "soon," while another New York Times poll found that 11% thought it "very likely" they would become wealthy, while another 34% thought it "somewhat likely." We complain about attempts to teach our children religious myths as science, yet seem to have little problem with teaching them socioeconomic myths as history and current events.

Humility doesn't hold us back from achievement. Rather, it allows us to recognize our weaknesses and acknowledge the barriers we must overcome.  If you are convinced that success will come to us if only we want it badly enough, you may want to consider another famous American proverb: wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first.  There's a reason the Greeks considered hubris a grievous failing. If we do not recognize our weaknesses our enemies will recognize them for us. If we do not acknowledge those (mortal and divine) who support us, sooner or later they will withdraw their support.

And while hubris is dangerous in the material realm, it's exponentially worse when dealing with spiritual matters.  Groveling before the Gods is not necessary.  Recognizing They are superior to you in power, knowledge and wisdom is.  Those who slap an eyepatch on Buddy Christ and make him Yr. Pal Odin, or dress him up in drag and make him Kinder Gentler Athena, insulate themselves from the Divine in all its beauty and terror. They create a clean, safe, unthreatening garden and call it wilderness: they light an LED candle and call it a forest fire.  And in doing so they shut out the wild places and turn their faces away from the sun. Instead of escaping Plato's cave, they stay happily chained up and entertain themselves with shadow-puppet shows.

Acknowledging the Gods and honoring them is no more demeaning than saying "if I get into a game of tackle football with an oncoming train, I'm going to lose" or "I am a decent swimmer, but I won't be able to make it across the Pacific no matter how hard I train." Understanding that you are the product of a thousand generations, forged in their love and their lust and carrying their strengths and shortcomings, does not minimize your individuality.  Accepting your place in the grand scheme of things does not mean you should give up striving to improve your position or the world.  In fact, it increases your responsibility.  You may not be the strongest, the fastest or the smartest. But you are here for a purpose and it behooves you to do whatever it takes to fulfill that purpose and your responsibility to those who came before you and to Those who created you.

From Melancholia: the opening to "Medieval Melancholy"

On September 4, 476 Romulus Augustulus, fifteen year-old ruler of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed by a barbarian chieftain named Odoacer. This event has historically been said to mark the fall of Rome: the truth is that by 476 Rome had been irrelevant for well over a century. The Germanic tribesmen who had long served as Rome's mightiest warriors had taken control of increasingly large swatches of territory and appointed puppet rulers to serve their interest in Rome. Roman coinage had become so debased that most transactions involved barter rather than currency: a small aristocratic class ruled over an oppressed, overtaxed, impoverished and increasingly restive majority. And a religion once persecuted for its refusal to honor Roman gods and customs was now legally recognized as the One True Faith.

Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians took pains to find rational causes for diseases and events. The Gods were to be honored: the world was to be understood. With the rise of Christiandom, this approach was far less popular. The Holy Scriptures became a compass not only for theological speculation but for all endeavors: everything could be interpreted in light of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and in the eternal battle between the Armies of Christ and the forces of darkness. And as Late Antiquity became the Early Middle Ages, what had once been seen as a disease of imbalanced humors became a dangerous temptation to despair and damnation.

Melancholia as a Moral Failing

Writing near the end of the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great listed melancholia as one of seven "Deadly Sins." In his Moralia in Job (Morals on the Book of Job), he claimed that "From melancholy there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects" and explained that melancholy was "wont to exhort the conquered heart as if with reason, when it says, What ground hast thou to rejoice, when thou endurest so many wrongs from thy neighbours? Consider with what sorrow all must be looked upon, who are turned in such gall of bitterness against thee."

Not only did could melancholia lead to damnation: it was often a weapon used by the Devil and his minions to ensnare believers. Speaking from his experience in the Egyptian deserts, the 5th century Desert Father St. John Cassian [Chapter ___] described "accedia," a spiritual sloth and dryness which plagued hermits and monastics and which they called "the noonday demon." This demon could be driven away only by the rigorous application of Christian discipline. An Old Irish penitential manual from 800 CE ordered that a monk "whom the Devil has mocked by means of grief and sorrows, such as the loss of friends and relatives, so that it allows him to do nothing good, but [only] to despair," be sentenced to three days of complete fasting, deprived of all food and drink. A second offense would earn the depressed monk forty days on bread and water; should this not improve his morale, he would be separated from the community and kept indefinitely on this diet in solitary confinement "until he be joyful in body and soul."

Women who showed the symptoms of melancholy or mental illness would, if fortunate, be diagnosed with "hysteria." Those who were less fortunate might find themselves in very serious trouble with their fellows. In 906 Abbot Regino of Prüm wrote of "certain abandoned women, turning aside to follow Satan, being seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons." As the Church faced the threat of schismatic movements like the Cathari, efforts to root out sorcery and witchcraft became more serious. Cantankerous and unpopular old spinsters – the classic medieval examples of melancholic women – were often targeted for these accusations and imprisoned, tortured or killed.

Where Aristotle described melancholics as "exceptional people," medieval Christians saw them as especially prone to wickedness. Because they took little pleasure in the company of their fellows, they were untrustworthy and quarrelsome threats to the divine social order. 12th century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen criticized melancholic men in her Causae et Curae (Of Causes and Cures):
[T]hey really love no one; rather they are embittered, suspicious, resentful, dissolute in their passion, and as unregulated in their interaction with women as a donkey. If they ever refrain from their desire, they easily become sick in the head so that they become crazy. If they satisfy their desire for women, they suffer no spiritual sickness. However, their cohabitation with women which they should maintain in a proper way, is difficult, contradictory, and as deadly as with vicious wolves… The influence of the devil rages so powerfully in the passion of these men that they would kill the woman with whom they are having sexual relations if they could. For there is nothing of love or affection in them… They are like ordinary stones that lie around without any shine, as if randomly scattered. Because of that, they cannot be prized among the brilliant stones, for they have no attractive gleam.
Not only did melancholy make its victims less than moral. It could, on occasion, make them less than human. 

(The next section deals with one of the medieval world's more interesting mental illnesses - lycanthropic melancholy - KF).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back to the Atheism Discussion: On the Nature of Religion

Two of my Facebook friends, Kara Rae Garland and Brian Shaughnessy, have taken exception to some of my earlier statements on atheism.  I was surprised to see they were personally offended by a few of my comments. While I've got an uncommon talent for offending people, I thought I was clear that I had no problem with atheism per se as a belief system.  As with most other belief systems, it can produce reasonably moral behavior if followed by reasonably moral people.  It's also arguably less dangerous than many other belief systems insofar as it emphasizes reason over unquestioning belief in divine authority.  And no matter whose metaphysical conception of the universe is correct, I can hardly imagine the Being whom Bruce Cockburn called "Lord of the Starfields" and "Voice of the Nova" is going to get Hir knickers in a twist because some bipedal primate on a small planet questions Hir existence.

Brian and Kara are both correct in stating that Internet trolls are rather low-hanging fruit, and that there are considerably more sophisticated atheist thinkers whose arguments deserve consideration.  This whole series started out as a response to some Weenie-Waggler atheists discovering Jason Miller's blog. Now it's looking like it's  going to turn into a book-length manuscript in the near future. And so, when I'm done with Melancholia and Lilith's Children I'll probably turn my attention and research efforts to contemporary atheism and (hopefully) give the subject the treatment and respect it deserves.  Until then you can consider these postings to be at best preliminary sketches from a work-not-quite-in-progress.

(I owe Brian a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Gould, a nonbeliever, has expressed succinctly one of my main contentions - that there is a place where the realm of science ends and the realm of religion takes over. He also correctly criticizes the issues which have occurred when the two realms get conflated and notes that "Young Earth Creationism" is an American phenomenon which is repudiated by most mainstream Christians. As is the case in many Internet debates, I suspect when the smoke clears both sides will discover they have a good bit more in common than they first imagined). 

Brian and Kara both took umbrage with my claim that atheism is a religion.  Brian noted, "As the saying goes, atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby." In my earlier post about "True Unbelievers" I listed some of the ways in which Internet troll atheists behave like Dominionist Christians.  But now that we've picked the low-hanging fruit, let's take a look at the word "religion" and see how it applies to the situation at hand.

Many have stated that religion of necessity involves belief in a Supreme Being or Beings.  I earlier provided several counterexamples of religions which do not involve such belief.  And as T. Jeremy Gunn noted in the Harvard Human Rights Journal
One of the many difficulties encountered in reaching a consensus on a legal definition of the term [religion] is that, at root, “no convincing general theory of religion exists.”[20] Three of the principal theories about religion are: first, religion in its metaphysical or theological sense (e.g., the underlying truth of the existence of God, the dharma, etc.); second, religion as it is psychologically experienced by people (e.g., the feelings of the religious believer about divinity or ultimate concerns, the holy, etc.); and third, religion as a cultural or social force (e.g., symbolism that binds a community together or separates it from other communities). Definitions of religion typically begin by assuming one of these three different theoretical approaches.
By all three of those theories, atheism qualifies as a religion.  It is concerned with the underlying truth of the existence of God: it rejects that existence categorically and feels the need to make a public affirmation of (lack of) faith. It involves the feelings of the believer about divinity, the holy, etc. and the perceived dangers of those feelings/beliefs in self and in others. And it binds a community together: one may attend atheist conventions, join atheist forums, and support various atheist organizations and atheist causes.  "Stamp collecting" would only qualify under the third theory, and that marginally. "Not collecting stamps" wouldn't make the grade at all, since to the best of my knowledge there are no organizations which seek to create a community of non-stamp collectors.

I might also add to that the idea of religion as a set of beliefs which shape one's gestalt, one's way of engaging with the world and arranging the various points of data which continually flood our brains.  Beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of Deity/Deities certainly has an effect on the way one perceives the world: so do beliefs of the role of and proper way of engaging with these Deities.   The same New York forest may look very different to an Evangelical Christian who sees the Lord's Creation, a Wiccan who sees the Presence of the Goddess, and an atheist with a degree in botany who sees a biosphere with characteristics common to both Northern Hardwood and Oak-Hickory Forests.

A lack of interest in stamp collecting does not shape our moral and ethical beliefs or our ways of interacting with fellow humans: belief in God/s or lack thereof certainly does.  That shaping may be for good or for ill: one can excuse atrocious behavior or be spurred to exemplary deeds based on religion or on atheism.  But whatever their effects, atheism and theism both shape the individual's worldview in ways which are very different than the effects of stamp collecting on even the most ardent hobbyist.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Melancholia: Aristotle

WHY is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious [ill-tempered and melancholic] temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes? – Aristotle, Problemata XXX.1
As with the writings of Hippocrates, we now realize that some works attributed to Aristotle may have been written by his disciples. Problemata – a collection of questions and answers on topics ranging from the nature of sweat to legal issues – is considered by many to be a "pseudo-Aristotelean" work. Law professor and Aristotle scholar Steve Wexler has suggested a middle view. He believes the answers were written by a student at Aristotle's academy, while the questions were the work of the great philosopher himself. Regardless of the provenance of this work, it is noteworthy for being the first recorded instance of the question "Why do so many brilliant people suffer from melancholy?"

This question raises other important issues. According to the Hippocratic corpus, ideal health came when the humors were in equal proportions. But the eminent men Aristotle was describing – great poets, artists, politicians and philosophers – had a noteworthy excess of black bile.  Given the Greek love of the harmonious mean, how could this overabundance sometimes lead not to illness but to genius? And how is it that depression and even frenzied madness so often go hand-in-hand with superior gifts?

The answer to Problemata XXX.1 compares melas kholē to wine, noting that it affects different people in different ways. Too much wine makes some people friendly and others aggressive: some become giddy and joyful while others are moved to tears. From here Aristotle (or his student) suggests that black bile, like wine, can be of both a hot and cold nature. An abundance of cold melas kholē produces the despondency and torpor commonly associated with clinical depression. But should the excess black bile become heated, the person may become frenzied or clever or erotic or easily moved to anger and desire, while some become more loquacious. Many too, if this heat approaches the region of the intellect, are affected by diseases of frenzy and possession; and this is the origin of Sibyls and soothsayers and all inspired persons, when they are affected not by disease but by natural temperament.

Contemporary readers may note that this condition of "heated black bile" greatly resembles the manic phase of what we today call Bipolar Disorder. The commenter also notes that while suffering from cold black bile  (a depressive phase) the melancholic suffers "groundless despondency" and may be inclined to "suicide by hanging," especially after drinking. (This is not surprising, given that alcohol is a notorious depressant that can simultaneously attenuate sadness while reducing impulse control). But there are some who are able to maintain a tenuous balance between these two states: they are able to channel the frenzy associated with hot black bile and the deep torpor associated with cold black bile. As a result,
Those in whom the excessive heat dies down to a mean temperature (to meson) are atrabilious, but they have more practical wisdom and are less eccentric (ektopoi< and in many respects superior to others either in education or in the arts or in public life…
And since it is possible for a variable state to be well tempered (eukraton) and in a sense a favourable condition, and since it is possible for the condition to be hotter and then again cold, when it should be so, or to change to the contrary owing to excess, the result is that all atrabilious persons have remarkable gifts, not owing to disease but from natural causes.

The word translated as "remarkable gifts," περιττοι (perittoi) has several meanings in the original. It means "exceptional" but can also mean "exaggerated," "superfluous" and "uneven." The gifts of which the commenter speaks are fragile, balanced precariously between brilliance and madness. Should their surplus of melas kholē overflow their efforts at restraint, they will fall headlong into despair or frenzy. The condition that makes them great also causes a tendency toward epilepsy, ecstatic states, extreme fear of people and suicidal ideation.

It is also important to note that Probelmata XXX.1 explains the genius of poets and artists not as a gift of the Gods but as the product of a chemical imbalance. The Problemata's remarkable melancholic is explained in material terms: both his genius and his instability are the product of imbalanced humors, not divine inspiration. While lacking our contemporary knowledge of brain chemistry, Problemata XXX.1's view of black bile is remarkably similar to our understanding of dopamine and serotonin levels. And its treatment of the role of humors in specific personality types would become increasingly important as the various Greek city-states fell under the control of their Roman neighbors to the west.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Yet More on Atheism: Responding to Commenters

In response to "Today's Hot Topic: Atheism," Matt Grossman said:
I agree with most of what you've written here, but I do wonder whether religion is potentially more destructive then secular philosophies insofar as it feeds the worst tribalisms. Certainly the intensity of the endless conflicts in the Middle East seems heightened by the religious sentiment fueling already violent geographic disputes. There are plenty of nuts in the world, and plenty of nationalistic strife, but religion seems uniquely adept at bringing the two together and turning people involved in the latter into the former.
I'd flip the equation around. In my opinion, geographic and political disputes fuel a great deal of the religious conflict. Keep in mind that Israel was founded by secular Jews and that at the time of its founding many Orthodox Jews felt it was an abomination to return to the Holy Land before moshiach came. I'd also note that for most of its history Islam was far, far more tolerant of Judaism than Christianity was. A Jew in medieval Cairo or Istanbul had far more opportunities and was far less likely to be persecuted than a Jew in Warsaw or Minsk.

To me it seems religion largely provides justification to people who already have decided on a particular course of action.  If we're going to talk about a "god delusion," we should also mention our "ethical delusion" - a concern for being "moral" or "ethically correct" which appears to be even more deeply etched into our wiring than our religious instincts.  Most often our ethical thought appears to be a priori: we decide what we want to do based on self-interest or emotional drives, then seek evidence that we are indeed "doing the right thing." It's not like Baruch Goldstein was a member of Peace Now before he suddenly converted to an extreme right-wing sect of Orthodox Judaism and decided to shoot up a Hebron mosque. Nor are most Palestinian suicide bombers peace-loving Sufis who are seduced by radical imams.

That being said, religious leaders have built-in soapboxes from which they can fan flames and encourage their congregants to give free rein to their baser instincts. But the same can be said of journalists, political leaders, radio and television personalities and other public figures. Demagogues may find religion a useful tool, but there are many other equally useful ones available to the ambitious, charismatic and unscrupulous.

And Shoku said:
I'd say they are probably going too far but we've now left the issue that brought me to post among you; you're just annoyed with people that are rude to you and I have no objection (or right to object) to you feeling that way.

What metric do you use to tell apart insulting things that don't describe you very well and ones that probably do have a little something to do with how you behave?

-I like wit and comedy but a few years back I took a look at the Asian American community. That's been their approach and... well we're still really fucking racist to them as a society. I can't point to any group that's been a big part of the population for that long and still has to deal with open racism except maybe in really backwoods towns where you get the impression that people are inbred anyway. So really that just means that people from the middle east have it worse and Hispanic people might face similar troubles (I'm a bit ignorant about that group.)

The "anger isn't an appropriate way to respond" implication worries me though. I've seen judges decide to keep one monument but not others just because nobody seemed mad about it before (though that would have required them to speak out at a time when they'd be heavily persecuted for it.)

It really looks like you're only comfortable with methods that aren't effective.
I think there are times and places when anger (or, more often, a firm refusal to stand down and be ignored) is justified and useful.  But I'm not sure how effective behaving like an asshat on the Internetz is at promoting the Atheist cause.  And I find the approach of desecrating holy symbols to prove a point or Shock the Superstitious Fools to be both offensive and counterproductive.  Throughout history attacking a city's gods and looting their temple has been the ultimate way of showing your contempt for them.  Whether it's burning Torah scrolls to show your hatred of Jews or burning indigenous artifacts to show your hatred of "superstitious witchcraft," the message is the same: your faith is vile and should be eradicated completely.  Yes, I saw the arguments on freethoughtblogs that "it's just a cracker. Get over it. And what about the pedophile priests, Inquisition, etc.?"  I see those arguments and raise you another two.
"It's just a mosque: they can wash the spray paint off.  Get over it.  And what about all the people who are killed by Muslim terrorists?"

"It's a grave. The guy is dead: he doesn't care whether or not we took a steaming shit on his tombstone and put the video on Youtube. And what about all the terrible things his religion/political party/business did?"
As far as mutilating the Q'uran goes, I'm a writer.  Historically, those who start out burning books tend to move on to burning authors at their earliest opportunity. So I tend to react strongly to that sort of behavior both out of a sense of outrage and a sense of self-preservation.

Ultimately this sort of behavior is cowardice masquerading as courage. It's a small yappy dog baring its teeth behind a wrought iron fence: it's a bratty child sticking out his tongue over his mother's shoulder.  It's an attempt to be offensive knowing that there will be no consequences, that you are doing it, in the words of PZ Myers "because you can."  Of course you have the right to antics like host desecration, just as you have the right to march down the street wearing a FUCK AUTHORITY T-shirt and a matching tutu.  But don't be surprised if people stop taking you seriously when you exercise that right.

There's also the problem of the New Atheism's veneration of logic and rationality. If you are claiming that your creed (let's avoid that troublesome word, "faith" and use instead a word which means "statement of belief") is a more rational choice than theism, it behooves you to prove it by acting more rational than the Bible-thumping hoi polloi. Claiming you're a "Bright" and then responding to questions with ranting obscenities is rather like claiming you are tolerant and open-minded, except insofar as fags, spics and Chinamen are concerned.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More on Atheism: Baiting and Switching

Strictly speaking "atheism" is merely a-theism, the state of being "without God," or, more precisely, without belief in God.  By that standard there are many "religious" atheists. There are Jews who doubt the existence of G-d but who find meaning and value in Jewish tradition. As Kimberly Winston notes in the Huffington Post:
In the 1920s, American Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan developed the theology of what would become Reconstructionist Judaism, founded on the idea that God is not personal, but a summation of all natural processes. Four decades later, Reform Rabbi Sherwin Wine came out as an atheist and founded "Humanistic Judaism," which emphasizes secular Jewish culture and history over belief in God.
Siddhartha Gautama showed little interest in worlds to come or the nature of Deity.  Many of his followers have created extensive theologies complete with Gods, Demons, Heavens and Hells: he was much more focused on mindfulness in the here and now. One Western Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, has discussed this in some detail:
What Batchelor believes the Buddha did preach were four essentials. First, the conditioned nature of existence, which is to say everything continually comes and goes. Second, the practice of mindfulness, as the way to be awake to what is and what is not. Third, the tasks of knowing suffering, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation and the "noble path". Fourth, the self-reliance of the individual, so that nothing is taken on authority, and everything is found through experience.
Meanwhile, many contemporary Pagans and Hermetic Magicians are more precisely Jungians than theists. They believe that the Gods and Mythic Heroes are symbols and archetypes hard-wired into our brains. Through the use of ritual, meditation and other techniques they hope to access those archetypes and gain wisdom and personal empowerment thereby. Others (like myself) are animists: while we believe that consciousness is not exclusive to human beings - or to carbon-based biological organisms - we do not believe that these other sentient beings are omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent or omnibenevolent. So by any standard which claims that God must be defined by the "Four Os" we too are atheists.

But none of us would qualify as "atheists" by the standards of the New Atheists.  Their atheism doesn't just involve a lack of belief in God/s.  It involves an open rejection of and contempt for anything smacking of "religious thought," combined with a steadfast conviction that anything which can't be corroborated, falsified and repeated must be ignored or mocked.  And it requires a rejection of anything which smacks of the "supernatural." Not only does it act as a religion: it elevates people like Penn & Teller and The Amazing Randi to the status of prophets.

There's no reason why one could not be an "atheist" and believe in telepathy.  The fact that people might sometimes be able to hear the thoughts of other people does not imply the existence of a God: it merely suggests our brains may, under certain circumstances, function as transceivers.  One might accept the existence of incorporeal beings like fairies and djinnis without accepting that they worked in service of or in opposition to some Higher Power.  Microbes and viruses are invisible without appropriate tools, yet their effect on the visible world is hardly questioned by even the most ardent atheist.  There are stories throughout different eras and cultures of beings like the "Good Folk" who occasionally interact with humans and have enormous impact on their lives.  The similarities in these tales is certainly thought-provoking at the very least.  Yet anyone who showed up on a New Atheist forum talking about the possible existence of fairies or telepathy would quickly be laughed off the virtual stage. 

Consider the way atheists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins have rejected Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis.  It has passed the hurdles of corroboration: it has made several speculations which were later proven true regarding weathering of rocks by microorganisms, the lack of life on Mars and the role of microorganisms in transferring essential elements from ocean to land.  It answers intriguing questions about the amounts of methane in the atmosphere and treats the planet as a complex and self-sustaining system - something which would seem self-evident to most based on the available evidence.

Yet it is controversial among many atheists not because it is wrong but because it can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. It suggests that evolution and the development of life on Gaia was directed: that there may be some form of consciousness involved in the planetary system as a whole. (Lovelock has backed away from this in recent years, to little avail: of course, Galileo's refutation didn't convince many people either).  The idea that evolution might be a teleological (goal-directed) process must be rejected out of hand not because it is wrong but because it might lead to Science being poisoned by Mysticism.

The Gaia Theory does not prove the existence of a God in the Abrahamic sense: it merely provides  tantalizing evidence of a Higher Power with Intelligence which is not limited to a human body.  This Intelligence does not require worship, faith, or sacrifice of virgins: it is not Personal nor is it directly concerned with our welfare, our morals and ethics, our sex lives, or our voting habits. But it must be ignored or refuted because it runs afoul of scientific orthodoxy in much the same way evolution runs afoul of certain religious orthodoxies.

Monday, April 2, 2012

More for the Atheists: the First Cause Argument

I want to respond soon to some questions which have been raised in earlier posts, but for now here's a brief discussion on one of the famous arguments for the existence of Divinity, the "First Cause." In the West the most famous form of this argument comes from the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I can't fap to this!"
 In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
Note that the argument for a "first cause" does not prove that this cause is omniscient, omnipotent or omnibenevolent. It does not prove that this cause answers to the name YHVH, Allah, Zeus, Odin or Yog-Sothoth. It does not prove the superiority or inferiority of one set of myths over another. Neither does it provide us with any explanation as to why this first efficient cause is an uncaused cause, why it is not contingent on something else.  What it does do is raise a very interesting question, one which has long been pondered by philosophers and stoners alike: how did everything get here?

In his "refutation" of the First Cause argument, Lord Bertrand Russell said:
I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause. 
What Russell does here is beg the question.  He admits that we cannot answer the question of the Uncaused Cause, claims the question is meaningless, then states that the Universe as a whole IS the Uncaused Cause. Following this tidy dismissal of the whole problem, he states "I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause." Russell provides no examples of matter, energy or anything else arising ex nihilo: he merely states that "There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause."  Which is rather like saying "There is no reason that God could not have created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. If you were more intelligent, you'd be able to see the utter necessity of a Creator God. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time discussing the subject."

And, alas for Lord Russell, there is indeed evidence that the universe as we know it "should not have always existed." As physicist Paul Shestople puts it:
The steady state theory of cosmology claims that the Universe simply exists without changing with time. This theory presents many physical as well as philosophical difficulties. Evidence suggests that the Universe is expanding. While there are ways to explain expansion in a steady state universe, few astrophysicists believe this theory, because there is little evidence to support it. As the first widely held theory about the Universe it is included here for historical completeness. 

The big bang theory states that at some time in the distant past there was nothing. A process known as vacuum fluctuation created what astrophysicists call a singularity. From that singularity, which was about the size of a dime, our Universe was born.
"I say! I can fap to this!"
In other words, at some point billions and billions of years ago, there was nothing. Then out of nothing came a dime-sized Singularity which exploded.  Then there were stars, and then planets. Then life evolved  And then there was 4chan. And to date the best explanation as to how everything arose out of nothing comes from physicist Edward Tryon, who said in 1973 that the birth of the universe was "simply one of those things which happen from time to time."  Which is hardly an airtight refutation to St. Thomas Aquinas's argument: it's merely a more polite restatement of Russell's claim that the whole question is meaningless and can be ignored by sensible atheists.  Rather, one presumes, like those inconvenient fossils can safely be ignored by Young Earth Creationists.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The True Unbelievers or "G is for Godless"

After reading Jason Miller's posts on Atheism, I decided to drop by PZ Myers' blog. For those of you who don't know PZ Myers, imagine Christopher Hitchens minus the wit. Among his more notorious publicity stunts are  throwing several Eucharist wafers in the trash along with pages from the Q'uran and posting cartoons of Muhammad with the comment "We defy such arbitrary restrictions on our freedom, whether it's a demand that we treat crackers with respect or a demand that we do not render images of some guy, and we violated them, because we can." These antics, presumably, were intended to show that atheism is far more rational, logical and reasonable than any silly superstition. (When a Florida pastor defaces someone else's holy symbols he's a bigot. When PZ Myers does it he's a freedom fighter. From where I stand it looks like both are attention junkies). 

First I should clarify that I have no objection to atheism per se.  I have no interest in winning people over to the True Faith and can hardly imagine that any God worthy of the name would get huffy about the issue.  (Do you really care if some random stranger believes or disbelieves in your existence?) I think atheists do everyone a public service when they insist on drawing hard clear lines between Church and State or between Science and Religion.  It's silly to conflate facts with mythical truths by claiming your holy text trumps hard evidence.  But it's equally silly to claim that Science is the only way by which we can encounter the world and that the universe can be and indeed must be understood only through the tools of logic and mathematics. As Martin Heidegger put it:
The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging--forth. Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing. But the revealing never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate. The revealing reveals to itself its own manifoldly interlocking paths, through regulating their course. This regulating itself is, for its part, everywhere secured. Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the revealing that challenges.
The "New Atheists" like to call themselves skeptics. That's a misnomer which does a great disservice to actual skepticism. Skeptics focus on the limitations of their knowledge, trying to determine that which they cannot know. The New Atheists are actually fundamentalist Materialists. They reject as impossible any claims to the "supernatural," by which they mean anything which cannot be explained using the tools and techniques of contemporary science. If it can't be falsified, verified and repeated ala Karl Popper it can't exist. And if it's rejected by the Western scientific establishment (i.e. Qi) it must be nothing but superstition and quackery with any evidence to the contrary being self-delusion or willful fraud.
This of course eliminates any possibility of considering the mystical experience as based in anything but brain anomalies, despite the remarkable continuity in mystical experiences across eras and cultures. It means ignoring data which does not fit neatly into the standard paradigm.  (For years this happened with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome: because doctors couldn't find a cause, it was obvious that all those women were just malingering... ). And it means responding with heated emotional attacks when presented with anyone who dares to doubt the rightness of their conclusions.

As I said on PZ's board, the main differences between a Dominionist and a New Atheist are that the Dominionists have more political clout and generally use more temperate and polite language. Needless to say, many of PZ's fans got their knickers in a twist over this statement.  But let's take a close look at some of those similarities.

Both wish to control not only praxis but belief.

Most of us don't really care what our neighbors or our countrymen do in their bedrooms or in their chapels.  We are less concerned with their theology than their behavior: we're happy to leave them to their delusions so long as they leave us to ours. That's the way people co-exist peacefully in polite societies.  We're with Thomas Jefferson, who said "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

The Dominionists, of course, will have none of this. They see tolerance not as a strength but as a great evil: where we see democracy in action they see the wicked kings of Israel and Judah honoring the idols of foreign gods. Alternate beliefs must be attacked and refuted lest their holders go to Hell and take society along with them.  Meanwhile, the New Atheists feel that anyone who has fallen victim to the God delusion should be treated as, well, deluded.  They see tolerance of the God delusion not as a strength but as a great evil. They feel they are morally obligated to engage with believers and to either convert or discredit them. As Gregory Greenwood said on PZ's blog:
Not only is the god belief unevidenced and irrational, it is also actively harmful. Given the ludicrously long odds against the existence of any such being, it is not only acceptable for rationalists to point out how ridiculous the idea is, it is irresponsible of us not to.
Both are convinced of the rightness of their own cause and the wrongness of everyone else's

The Dominionists rely on the King James Version of the Bible for their reasoning. The New Atheists rely on things like Parsimony, Occam's Razor, Russell's Teapot and various other logical puzzles which "disprove" the existence of the supernatural to their satisfaction. There's only one little problem: they miss the distinction between deductive and inductive logic.  If the premises of a properly constructed deductive argument are true, then the conclusion must be true. While inductive logic can suggest that something is true or false with a greater or lesser degree of likelihood, it cannot prove or disprove anything.  It is entirely possible to come to wrong conclusions via Occam's Razor: if it weren't, Agatha Christie and other mystery writers would have been out of a job long ago.  What looks on the surface to be the most plausible answer is not necessarily the correct one.  (There are other problems with many of their "arguments" which I hope to address in later entries, but for now my point is that they claim that their use of logic has provided them with the same degree of certainty as the Dominionists give to their revealed texts - and they are just as mistaken).

There's also the issue which they keep ducking: science can provide us with evidence that a "Big Bang" happened, with evidence of evolution, with the laws of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, etc.  But it cannot explain WHY that Big Bang happened or why our universe has the structure it does. As Consciousness Razor puts it on PZ's blog:
I’m not a physicist either. As I understand it, that’s a possibility, but it requires a certain model of the BB which isn’t necessarily the case. It could be that there is infinite spacetime in the past and the BB only makes it impossible to know much about it (though if we can’t know anything about it, then I’m not sure how that could be supported with evidence). To give another example, a multiverse theory explaining the BB could be about causes in the multiverse’s framework. Anyway, I guess the relevant point is that those would rely on a legitimate causal mechanism based on evidence, rather simply making shit up about imaginary intelligent beings.
Also, Carrier recently put forward an argument that basically says “nothing comes from nothing” is false. If we suppose nothing exists and try to figure out what logically follows from that state, then we’re also supposing that anything logically necessary also “exists” — that is, it’s true and exists in that sense. Since none of that entails something else (which isn’t logically necessary) cannot exist, then that something is possible. So even if physical theories wouldn’t be able to offer a causal explanation, there’s still no reason to believe something coming from nothing is logically impossible.

Which gets us right back to the question of why there are multiverses instead of a great void? And how is it that "something" comes from "nothing?"  Instead of admitting "we don't know" the typical New Atheist response is "there are no SKY FAIRIES BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!" Which is, honestly, no more convincing than thumping on a Bible and threatening me with hellfire.

Both feel the rightness of their cause trumps rules of polite social discourse

Most of us agree that defacing holy books, desecrating icons, etc. is bad form and those who do it are worthy of condemnation.  PZ thinks it's just fine and dandy to toss consecrated hosts in the garbage along with pages from the Q'uran and then post the video of same for all the world to see.  In fighting the Evil Dominionists, he's managed to sink to their level and show the same kind of violent intolerance they espouse.

And let's see some of the other polite discourse from the followers of reason and rationality:

Here's "Chris P" speaking out on Jason Miller's blog:
Sorry but being “nice” didn’t work. My mother said to live by example – that doesn’t work. If I religiously use my turn signals – other people don’t bother.
If you want to talk social skills – I suggest you talk to the evangelical Christian on the other side of the cubicle wall. He farts, he belches, he eats while he is on the phone to customers and suppliers, he swears like a trooper, he loses his temper, …..
Not standing for BS is a GOOD social skill. How much more certainty do we have to have? You’ve had 2000 plus years and still cannot agree on which religion is right – I think you’ve fouled out and don’t deserve a seat at the table anymore.
 And  here's Colonelzen on PZ Myers' blog:
Definition of an asshole: someone who won’t change what he’s saying to accomodate your sensibilities.
Yes we’re assholes. Reality is what doesn’t change no matter how you feel about it.
We’re arguing that that the reality is more important than fairy tales.
Ok, we’re assholes. We know it. We won’t change what we’re saying to make you feel better.
Reality doesn’t care. We may care but can’t change it. Recognising that requires that we be assholes.
So we’re assholes. So is reality. Get over it.
This sort of discourse has nothing to do with rationalism or reason: it's a bunch of angry socially challenged people acting out like a toddler finger-painting with his own poop.  And they justify their fecal artistry by claiming they have a moral imperative, that the rightness of their cause is such that they must get their message out no matter whom they offend.  One must wonder what would happen if they had the power to enforce their "No God, No Way, No How" message by means other than making rude posts on the Internet.