Those Other Messiahs…

September 2, 2009

I told a friend recently about Sabbatei Zevi, the apostate messiah who I’ve written about before (in one of my favorite posts). An excerpt:

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

‘The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.’

I find Sabbatei Zevi particularly fascinating because he’s one of only a handful of claimants to the title of messiah who still have followers today (the most notable example being Jesus of Nazareth).

This led me to wonder just how many people have claimed to be the messiah. And, like all great questions that have been asked by humanity, this one has a Wikipedia page to answer it.

This is going to be fun reading!

The Kaczynski Dilemma

May 12, 2009

For some reason that I fail now to recall, I recently went on a pre-9/11 domestic terrorism reading kick on Wikipedia. From Timothy McVeigh to Theodore Kaczynski, Wikipedia is a fascinating read when you’re looking for broad brush-stroke outlines. But the footnotes are where the real nuggets lie.

One footnote, linking to “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” is cited in support of this passage:

Students in Murray’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student… Instead, they were subjected to the stress test, which was an extremely stressful and prolonged psychological attack by an anonymous attorney. During the test, students were strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a two-way mirror. This was filmed, and students’ expressions of impotent rage were played back to them several times later in the study. According to Chase, Kaczynski’s records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski’s lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study.

Needless to say, I had to read that article. Fortunately, the June 2000 Atlantic article is available online here. Alston Chase summarizes his article as follows:

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files…

Murray’s experiments were horrifically unethical by today’s standards – and sadly lacking in any clear redemptive value – on a level only attained by Stanley Milgram and a few others. But Chase’s discussion of Murray’s psychological experiments interest me less than his focus on the “prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair.” This atmosphere smelled slightly familiar to me, as my undergraduate education was in certain ways post-dated to the 1960’s: many of the philosophies and prevailing cultural norms that my devoutly Christian professors warned us against seem to have faded into history. Of course, many of the central ideas are there, but they have evolved and cross-pollinated to the point where the counter-arguments seem a bit stale.

Here’s a bit more about Kaczynski’s philosophy (which Chase sees as an all-too-natural outgrowth of ideas ascendent at Harvard during Kaczynski’s undergraduate tenure):

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski’s strong desire to have his ideas — as described in the manifesto — taken seriously.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” Kaczynski’s manifesto begins, “have been a disaster for the human race.” They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system.”

By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens.

This perfect storm of philosophy – that science is both all-powerful and soul-crushing – led to a worldview full of despair. “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” Kaczynski wrote. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” That brutal, grasping despair – if not Kaczynski’s wanton disregard for human life – once held a huge segment of the educated American public captive in a sad cycle:

From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope.

At its core, much of this philosophy is still embraced today. We (speaking general of irreligious Western society) venerate nature in ways that were set aside for hundreds of years in the Industrial revolution, if not longer. We stand in collective awe of the power of science to map our DNA and connect us through the Internet, and recoil in horror from its power to split the atom, mass-produce cluster munitions, and engineer biological plagues. And we, whether we like it or not, we cannot roll back the knowledge of nature and reality yield by science.

Kaczynski’s rage was directed at society, and at technology, and thus he targeted individuals closely associated with the scientific-academic-industrial complex. But the Kaczynski dilemma – how to reconcile our love of nature, our belief in the power of science, and the unavoidable conclusion that the greatest damage caused by nature has been a consequence of our science – can be answered in many ways. Kaczynski solved the dilemma through ironic use of simple technology, by sending bombs to targeted individuals to disrupt the flow of society, and, ultimately, to propagate his beliefs.

If the underlying tenets of Kaczynski’s views hold true, why haven’t more people resorted to his methods? Why aren’t his ideas preached far and wide? (Admittedly, a small anarchist core of disciples exists.) I suggest that the underlying despair has been eroded in part by the moden environmental movement in at least two ways.

First, science used to be synonymos with industrialization. Today, industrial production and the pollution it creates is perceived as being decidedly low tech. Science – especially climate science – is about finding smarter solutions to energy and transportation. While “old science” with its domination of nature is vilified, the new science is embraced as the key to our salvation from an earthly hell.

Second, the environmental movement – here less driven by science than by philosophy – has shifted from a massive scale to an individual one. Whether this shift was intentionally driven by leaders in the field is unclear to me, but it has been effective. Consideration of the world system as a whole can lead one to despair, but individual action can provide redemption. Shifting to consuming less or no meat, to burning less fossil fuel, or blindly acquiring more stuff – all these are personal acts lauded (rightly in my view) by the modern environmental movement. And regardless of whether those actions are effective global solutions (again, I think they are a great start) they are indeed an effective salve for the Kaczynski dilemma.

Christian Humanism?

January 9, 2009

David Manes–a peer from my college days–has written a fascinating piece on Christian humanism, exceeded only by the discussion it prompted.

Personally, I think the merger of Christianity and humanism dulls the meaning of one or the other, but would be a lot happier with Christian humanists running around than Christian fundamentalists, so I won’t complain too much. I think growing up a fundamentalist makes it hard to accept more liberal/ less strident expressions of faith as being legitimate forms of Christianity. For a while I went through what I call my “liberal Christian phase” (about 9 months maybe?) where I described myself as a Christian and said that I believed in God. Over time I realized that what I meant by “Christian,” what I thought of Christ, and what I meant by “God” (something akin to Einstein’s God/Universe equivalence) were drastically different from what the people I was conversing with meant.

At this point, I feel that God, as commonly defined by most of the people I know who claim belief in Him, is not a concept that I find very useful/helpful/logical. If everyone meant what Einstein said, then I might describe myself as a deist/theist/whateverist, but we don’t live in that world.

Two Approaches to Unity

January 6, 2009

The Christian Chronicle–long the flagship publication of Churches of Christ, the denomination of Christianity in which I grew up–has an interesting review up of a collection of essays on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Long story short, the Church of Christ grew out of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement, a movement early 19th century American Christianity to “restore the first century church”. One hallmark of the Church of Christ (that in some places has faded as parts of the CoC veer closer to ‘mainstream evangelicals’) has been that believers see their body as the Church. They don’t think there should be division in the church, so calling them a “denomination” is considered an insult. And they often self-identify only as “Christians” and would never start off by saying they’re members of the Church of Christ. Likewise, a publication like the Christian Chronicle is called just that, and not the Church of Christ Chronicle.

This theological identification has frequently been accompanied by a condemnation to hell of anyone outside this fairly narrow (a few million people worldwide) Church of Christ. That (blessedly) is one common tenet of belief that has faded somewhat for many members of the CoC, at least in the US.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of the Christian Chronicle review of One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address’:

The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom.

There are basically two ways to achieve “unity” in an organization where people of differing consciences disagree. The first is to exclude all those with even moderately different views, condemning them as hell-bound outsiders. We could call this the judgmental approach. The other, tolerant approach, is to accept that, faced with imperfect information, people will disagree.

First Bus Ad Spotting

January 6, 2009

Being a carless DC resident and therefore a frequent patron of public transport, I’ve been keeping my eye out for the American Humanist Association bus ads:

Disappointingly, I haven’t seen one yet. But today I saw one of the counter-ads. Evidently there are least two different organizations placing these now. The one I saw said this: “Believe in God. Christ is Christmas for goodness’ sake.” I feel uplifted now.

Is God Scientifically Testable?

January 5, 2009

Lily (of Peaceful Atheist) asks “Is God Scientifically Testable?” Well, it depends on what you mean by “God”. But probably not. Thoughts?

Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!