I am so tired of having to say this. I am both a Christian and a pretty good reader. I can tell you, with chapter and verse, that the Bible’s so-called anti-gay scriptures come from only the most parsimonious interpretations of laws that are actually injunctions against idolatry and inhospitality. The Bible is a dangerous document in how it judges the reader. Your interpretation of scripture will disclose who you really are. And if you use the Bible as an excuse to harm your neighbor, then it will readily condemn you.

(Originally posted August 30, 2017)


Last week, I suggested that one reason why some religious conservatives follow Trump in spite of his contradictions is that many religious conservatives have been conditioned to view reason and worldly knowledge as something far subordinate, if not anathema to, godly faith. We see through a glass darkly—and therefore, no matter how well it telescopes or magnifies, we must not let it challenge God’s Teachings. Harvard’s VERITAS, said one commentator, does not reflect absolute truth but merely the worldly sort. To certain religious groups, reason is what the tempter offered us in the garden, and therefore its fruits can poison. In fact its fruits can damn. So considering all this, it is no real wonder that when people in these groups obey faith without reason, they may also do the same in politics. In other words, some conservative churches have conditioned their congregations to embrace authoritarians.

A part of the solution, I think, is to convince the faithful that reason—and skeptical critique—actually enhance one’s sense of the numinous. And I believe there’s no better way to make this case than by getting the faithful to accept science. This can be a tough sell, because to them, science is the home of evolutionary theory, and climate alarm, and vaccines, and abortions, and the whole damn(able) Enlightenment. But it also brings us the idea that we proceed through error (because, one might say, we see through a glass darkly). It bolsters the idea of democracy and checks and balances (because one person’s error shouldn’t be allowed to rule the rest). And it proceeds from the faith that whatever we learn about the universe, the universe can take it. In fact, as with any revelation, the real question is how much we can handle.

Isaac Newton once said that in his computations he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Astrophysicists climb so high into their equations that they come down, wide-eyed, from a kind of Sinai. Time folds; dimensions multiply; according to NASA, dark matter and dark energy make up over 95 percent of the universe. I don’t have time to make a full case for how science feeds wonder, awe, and love. But I will say that ideas like the simultaneous vulnerability and omnipotence of God becomes far easier to accept, when you encounter things like the fact that light is both particle and wave.

Reason points to reality. And another word for reality is God. Reason may emulsify one’s simple concept of reality (or God, or any single political issue), but it’s in the thicket of things that we find revelation. After all, who ever said that wrestling with reality didn’t involve uncomfortable work? “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob in the wilderness, “and I knew it not.” Or to borrow another scripture, science shows us the back parts of God. And when science teaches a person to rely on fact and reason as further means of discerning what is good, it will surely show that following any sort of autocracy is far from holy.

(Originally posted August 8, 2017)

Faith is a Private Conversation

A study at Vanderbilt just confirmed what I think others have reported—which is that if a person goes to a house of worship once a week, she tends to live longer than someone who doesn’t. This pattern persists across religious traditions. My father can vouch for this; when we lived in Indiana, he helped take care of the local nuns—and most of them were old as dirt.

We can draw at least two things from the Vanderbilt study: 1) It is literally good for the soul to talk with the universe. 2) The universal benefits of churchgoing show that divinity’s acceptance goes way beyond what some of us dogmatic types would like to believe. We have to get over the idea that, as x religious group, we are Creation’s only children. It is selfish, high-handed, and maybe outright hostile to disapprove of how most anybody else* goes about their dialogue with their maker. Certain people will point to scripture as a means of refuting my point, and I can get into chapter and verse if need be—but the shorthand is that they’re interpreting those scriptures in the most meager sense possible. And furthermore, it is a sense that puts divinity at apparent odds with the graciousness of reality.

Look: my sister talks with my mother about different things than I do, but we both love our mother to bits. Unless something strange happens, the details of how Mom and Ali get on with their parent-childing is none of my business. In fact, the confidentiality of some of their conversations is probably part of their closeness. I speak to my parent, and I get a reply. My sibling says something different to our parent, and she gets a different reply. And you know what this reveals? 1) That my sister and I are both equally individual and equally significant. 2) That everybody in the conversation is paying very close attention.

*I put an asterisk here, because I think the one exception to my stance is human sacrifice. When Canaanites burned their children for Baal, that was an abomination. When Romans burned blind people to Ceres, that was an abomination. When inquisitors burned witches, that was an abomination. When terrorists drive trucks into Londoners, that’s an abomination. And when religious conservatives drive “sexual deviants” to either suicide or botched abortions, that’s an abominable sacrifice too.

(Originally posted June 4, 2017)


From NBC:

“AUSTIN, Texas — Parents seeking to adopt children in Texas could soon be rejected by *state-funded* or private agencies with religious objections to them being Jewish, Muslim, gay, single, or interfaith couples, under a proposal in the Republican-controlled Legislature. [Emphasis mine.] Five other states have passed similar laws protecting faith-based adoption organizations that refuse to place children with gay parents or other households on religious grounds — but Texas’ rule would extend to state-funded agencies. Only South Dakota’s is similarly sweeping.”

Does this need comment? I read it to James, and he said, “That is NOT gonna pass Constitutional muster.” The thing is that South Dakota seems already to have achieved such a measure. And I can tell you firsthand that the Dakotas go along just fine, as Constitutional cesspits. 

But let’s say that the courts do their job, and get in the way of this sort of state-funded adoption ban. That would be excellent—just as Trump’s impeachment would be excellent. But as with the Trump-less Trumpites, the movement would only persist. And the adoption agenda would follow this arithmetic: Removing (at least cheap) birth control and stopping all abortions + restricting adoptions to “Christian” families = an increasing supply of “Christian” soldiers. There’s a name for this sort of philosophy. It’s called the Quiverfull movement. 

In its purest form, the Quiverfull doctrine focuses mostly on parents who are Christian already, where the women are supposed to “relinquish control of the womb to God,” and have as many babies as possible. (Apparently this surrender is very liberating to the mother. Of course it is.) That focus aside, however, I can see how the Quiverfull doctrine can slide easily into the “you have ‘em, we’ll raise ‘em” strategy. As the name suggests, the Quiverfull philosophy hinges on the idea of warfare. In some early instances, Amish or Orthodox Jewish versions of the movement have embraced the fact that small-group longevity depends on growing a population. But when we unpack this stance in relation to the nation’s already-conservative midsection, we can come up with something like this: 

As with any extremist doctrine these days, the idea of warfare has metastasized from the goal of survival to one of conquest. I’ve come across a few books on the Quiverfull movement. Some of them have titles such as Family UNplanning; A Mom Just Like You; and (my favorite) The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality. Of the ten titles I’ve seen, however, three of them went like this: Arrows in His Hand; The Family: God’s Weapon for Victory; and Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors. Rachel Scott is the author of that last one, and Fox News covered her on a 2007 spot that was called “When Birthing Children is a Religious Experience.” In this segment, Scott mentioned an encounter with a “warrior angel” who espoused the Quiverfull philosophy. Bottom line is the Quiverfull movement has entered at least the Fox-viewing mainstream, and it has the aroma of what may anti-Islam folks would call a jihad.

Now back in the day, a Roman patriarch had the option to disown his infant. The family laid the baby on the ground. If the father picked it up, the infant was saved. If the father stepped over the child, the baby was left to die of exposure. The mother had no legal say about any of this. Early Christians grew their numbers, in part, because they rescued the abandoned children. I would bet my favorite French press that the Quiverfull movement makes mention of this fact. But let’s be very clear: The Dakota-Texas laws are not a rescue. They are an imprisonment. By forcing more children into adoption agencies and then minimizing those who may become their parents, the laws will add more children to a system where already 428,000 kids languish in American foster care. No quiver can hold that many—especially not when women freed of womb-angst are having lots of babies of their own. 

And I’d like to mention one final thing: Conquering armies have captured children and raised them before. In fact, the ancient Romans were very good at this. But after a while, something started to happen. The abducted children grew up. And they became not only aware of their origin but also of their numbers. They realized that if they wanted to, they could organize a revolt. And that, dearies, is one of the reasons why the conquering empire fell.

(Originally posted May 13, 2017)


Train a generation to follow bad theology without question, and it’s no wonder that they’ll follow bad journalism with the same fervor. Teach them to treat reason as a road to a lower truth than their own, and you’ll own them insofar as you own their truth. It’s an ancient kind of evil to dominate people this way. And as for them, it’s an ancient kind of selfishness to fear for one’s soul so much that one won’t risk learning enough about reality to best discern how to help a neighbor.

(Originally posted May 5, 2017)

Lyle Watson and Loving the World

Lyle Watson was a fascinating writer who held doctorates in anthropology and animal behavior while also earning degrees in geography, botany, chemistry, geology, biology and ecology. Additionally, he spoke nine languages. He used science to investigate crazy things.

He looked at premonitions (ranging from the abilities of some animals to predict earthquakes to the fact that everybody in a midwestern church choir once avoided a boiler explosion by each, separately, and somehow arriving to practice fifteen minutes late). He mentioned how the same math expression—which I cannot articulate—describes patterns in “gravity, light, sound, heat, magnetism, electrostatics, electric currents, electromagnetic radiation, waves at sea, the flight of airplanes, the vibration of elastic bodies, and the mechanics of the atom.” He investigated the notion that humanity’s missing link is likely an aquatic creature, the way prehistoric hippos returned to the water to give us whales and dolphins and ancient elephants gave us manatees. His books, in general, are full of a lucid wonder. And regardless of whether he eventually convinces you of anything, he will delight you with the numinous by merely pointing at what science has to say about what it can observe. 

Perhaps one of my favorite things he’s done is track a series of discoveries in Swaziland that, as far as I can discern, show that back while Europeans were still trying to figure out agriculture, Stone Age south Africans were mining for iron. Mining like this is apparently a technological feat. And if you think about the engineering involved in tunnel-making alone, some of that assertion begins to make sense. These miners did all their work by hand. And they used the gathered hematite—the red and the blood smell—for religious rites that ranged from painting the living and the dead, to firing the iron in clay vessels. That is, their excavation wasn’t for tool making, but for ritual.

And here’s the thing: After the miners dug all these tunnels and scooped up what they needed, they filled in every seam with rock. They plugged it all up. In doing so, you can imagine them asking the earth’s pardon. Watson later quoted a reasonably present-day Sioux medicine man, who lived across the world from Swaziland: “You cannot ask me to dig in the earth. Am I to take a knife and plunge it into the breast of my mother? Must I mutilate her flesh to get at her bones?” And I bring all this up because I still think of Standing Rock, and of the approach of Earth Day, and of all this damned fracking that our all-for-me administration uses to rape the ground. And I think that just as some creatures can sense the moods of the earth, and as some scientific expressions repeat in regards to what governs the earth, we can so easily resonate with the idea that robbing the earth is taboo. Taking without healing is instinctively wrong. That’s such a basic truth that sages have built horizontal cathedrals, filling in the ground. And these days I wonder if, as the seas now rise, they are coming to take us back, so that maybe, in their mercy, we can evolve again.

(Originally posted April 15, 2017)