Sunday, January 25, 2009

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Is Christianity Good for the World? is a written debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. My friend Derek bought it for me for Christmas. Needless to say, Hitchens was con and Wilson pro.

I looked forward to reading it because it's a different question from the traditional theist vs atheist debate of whether or not we have sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. It's quite possible for the Christian god not to exist, yet for Christian belief to be healthy for individuals or society. I don't happen to believe that's the case, but it is an interesting (and in some ways measurable) question.

Alas, I found the debate sorely lacking. To my surprise, I was most disappointed in Hitchens.

First off, the debate was not framed impartially. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised as it was originally published in Christianity Today. The introduction was written by a Jewish theologian who obviously favored the pro perspective. Take this section:
The yearning for a religious order is innate to mankind-even if some individual spiritual albinos find themselves missing the gene. Should Christopher succeed in burning Christianity to the ground, he will not be able to stop humanity from building a new temple in its place.
Accepting these assertions renders the argument moot, which surely qualifies it as a poor preface to the debate. If religion is innate to mankind and its institutions inevitable either (a) the pro argument wins or (b) the con argument wins but, who cares, since we can't end theism as long as there are humans?

And Hitchens is a "spiritual albino" who wants to burn Christianity to the ground? So, the only reason to argue the con side is to be flawed or militant? Nice.

On to the debate itself ...

Wilson begins with the classic creationist misperception that confuses cause with effect.
God knew that we were going to need to pick up dimes, and so He gave us fingernails. He knew that twilights displayed in blue, apricot, and battle gray would be entirely astonishing and beyond us, and so He gave us eyes that can see in color.
He continues with another half dozen or so examples where human evolution has adapted to our environment, and credits god for adapting the environment to us.

Wilson goes on to explain that atheists believe as they do because they "can not handle the Godness of God" and "do not want to thank Him". Um ... if there isn't a God, there's no Godness to handle, and nobody to thank.

Most of the debate centered on 2 topics: Christianity is responsible for bad stuff, and where do we get morality without religion? They do an awful job of sticking to the topic. They're mostly arguing pro and con on theism, not Christianity.

Christianity has been responsible for many moral atrocities.

Hitchens asserts that Christianity can not take credit for its followers' moral behavior without also accepting blame for their atrocities (e.g., the crusades, slavery, anti-semitism).

Wilson's first response is that this is like saying a professor can't accept credit for succesful students without also accepting blame for "the dope-smoking slacker that he kicked out of class in the second week". This argument is so flawed I almost don't know where to begin, and I'm disappointed that Hitchens didn't take it on.

Is the professor also in charge of the university's entrance requirements? If 90% of the class is smoking pot can we still not blame the professor? What if the professor himself is smoking pot? Do professorless classes behave worse?

This thread goes almost nowhere, as Hitchens says "look at the bad stuff Christians did" and Wilson says "those were just the bad Christians".

What is the basis of morality?

This is initially posed by Wilson as "what is truth", but the remainder of the debate focuses almost entirely on moral truth.

asserts that the moral precepts on which Christianity prides itself, such as "love thy neighbor" and the Golden Rule, did not originate with Christianity. And further that many Christian teachings are immoral, such as vicarious redemption (i.e., our sins are absolved by Jesus' actions, not ours).

Wilson does not deny either of these assertions, but simply questions what is the basis for morality without a god. This is a bit disingenuous since the debate is specifically about Christianity - he's just arguing for theism at this point - but we'll let that go. He concedes that non-religious people behave morally (a classic circular argument of theism, giving god credit for the moral behavior of non-believers). If there is no god, he asks, why should we consider theft, murder, genocides, etc. reprehensible things, instead of simply "stuff happens".

barely responds to this at all, which I think is the fatal flaw in his debate, for this surely is the crucial concept: do we need to believe in the supernatural to be moral? I think the answer is clearly "no", but it is the point that most needs arguing to the Christian world, and Hitchens barely makes it.

About all he does provide is "innate human solidarity"; i.e., basic morality is self-evident, and we should rely on our instincts. Lame. "It's self evident" is as weak and baseless as "it's in the bible".

He does demonstrate that Christian morality is every bit as relative as that of an atheist. He again lists many things that were considered moral by all or many Christians in various societies or points in history (e.g., genocide, slavery) that almost nobody, Christian or otherwise, would find moral today.

In the end, Hitchens pretty well demonstrates that Christianity might not be altogether bad for the world, but we get by just fine without it. Non-christians, he argues, aren't necessarily more moral than Christians, but they're just as good with less baggage. But he never provides a secular basis for morality, which is sad since many good arguments exist.

They mostly agree on what right and wrong is, but Wilson gives all credit and blame to god and those that choose not to follow him, while Hitchens gives credit to human mind and societies. Despite my admittedly biased view on the topic, I have to consider the debate a draw.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lost [1.9-1.12]

Things are picking up steam now.


Solitary: We gets Sayid's back story as an Iraqi interrogator who falls for a female Shiite captive. The writers also bludgeon the viewer with themes of karma. Again, they're not much for subtlety in this show.
Sayid sets out nominally to map out the island, but mainly out of guilt for torturing Sawyer. He finds the French woman (from the transmission in the Pilot episode). Her name is Danielle Rousseau, and she was part of a seafaring science expedition that crashed (I think that's now 3 separate ship/plane crashes: this, the wreckage in the cave, and the Lost flight). She killed everyone in her party, either because the island drove them or her mad (the latter seems most likely). She captures and tortures Sayid, and informs him that there are other humans on the island whom she hasn't heard (whispers in the jungle) but not heard. When Sayid escapes, he hears the voices. Or was it just the wind?

Raised by Another - Claire, the pregnant lady, was flying to LA to offer her child for adoption. She did so at the encouragement of a psychic who warned of great (and vague) danger to the child were she to do otherwise. It seems he knew the flight would crash. A member of the party (Ethan) turns out not to have been on the flight. He encounters Claire and Charlie in the jingle and ...

All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues - ... kidaps them. (side note: what a lame title) More back story on Jack, who refused to lie to save his father's job after the latter botched a surgery while drunk. It appears this drove the elder doctor into depression and alcoholism, and eventualy to his death. Jack gets his ass kicked by Ethan who ominously warns him not to keep following. They don't find Claire, but they barely save Charlie, who remembers nothing. Boone and Locke stumble upon a metal enclosure while searching for Claire.

Whatever the Case May Be: They seem remarkably unconcerned about Claire this spisode. They also don't expand on the metal enclosure, although there' s a brief scene with Boone, Locke, and an axe, immplying they're still working on busting in but haven't told anyone.
What do we have lurking in the jungle now? A huge mysterious beast, along with more pedestrian ones. A crazy French woman with guns and electricity, and the skill to set tripwires and bear traps. And a group of kidnappers. This episode begins with Kate picking fruit in the jungle by herself.
Sawyer and Kate find a couple corpses from the plane wreck in a lagoon along with the U.S. marshall's lock box. We learn that Kate was a con artist and bank robber, and this case contains a small model airplane that belonged to Kate's former lover whom she killed. She staged a bank robbery just to recover this trinket from a safe deposit box. Was this robbery the crime for which she was being taken to prison, or the murder, or both?

The big news is new people on the island. It bugs me when there's a major event one episode, and the next episode everyone seems blase about it. Why the heck is Charlie not scouring the jungle for Kate? And with all the freaky shit going on, people are still not too bothered about staying in large groups or carrying weapons.

Open issues:
  1. What's the big beast?
  2. Why is there a polar bear on a tropical island?
  3. What else does Danielle Rousseau know about the island?
  4. Did anyone in the tail section survive?
  5. What led Kate to kill her lover?
  6. How did Locke regain use of his legs?
  7. How did they all survive the crash?
  8. Did Claire's psychic know about the crash, and if so how?
  9. Who are Ethan and the kidnappers, and what do they want with Claire? How were they able to make Charlie lose his memory?
  10. What's in the metal enclosure?

Lost [1.5-1.8]

No major revelations in this section, mostly character back story.


Each episode focused on the back story of one character.

White Rabbit: Dr. Jack has father issues, and the guy he saw on the beach was a hallucination of his dead father (whom he was trying to find in Australia). Whether he's going crazy or the island is messing with his mind remains to be seen, but my money's on the latter. Is the island basically a big dream machine that exposes people to their fears, helps them face their inner demons? Chasing his faux father helps Jack find a new cave home for everyone.

House of the Rising Sun: The Japanese couple (Jin and Sun) once were in puppy love, but working for his father-in-law changed the husband into a brute. Sun was planning to leave him at the airport before the ill-fated flight, but at the last minute a sappy flower reminds her of the pure love they once enjoyed, and she forgot the years of abuse and neglect to remain true to her asshole hubby. We also learn, unbeknownst to Jin and everyone else, Sun speaks English. She'll be eavesdropping on conversations soon.

The Moth: Charlie used to be in a band loosely based on Oasis as far as I can tell (led by two brothers, one's name Liam). At first it's "about the music", but the fame changes them, man. Locke ("the colonel")l helps Charlie kick his habit with a combination of Zen witticisms and tough love.

Confidence Man: Sawyer's a self-absorbed con artist, but he has a soft side - he only acts that way because he hates himself. Why? Because a con man seduced his mother and stole all their money, resulting in the murder-suicide of Sawyer's parents. But, in his revenge quest, he became a con man himself - he became exactly what he hated. This would have been an example of subtle irony if it had been subtle. Some combination of self-loathing and enjoying messing with people's heads leads us on a "slippery slope to torture" storyline that rang false for me.

All 4 episodes were quite sappy, but I actually enjoyed them for the most part. We didn't learn anything about the island, and we only answered one mystery (Jack's halluci-dad). The only new mystery introduced was speculation by Locke that they couldn't possibly have survived the crash out of mere chance.

So, we're left with:
  1. What's the big beast?
  2. Why is there a polar bear on a tropical island?
  3. What is the origin of the french distress signal, and is the speaker still alive?
  4. Did anyone in the tail section survive?
  5. What did Kate do that led her to a life on the lam?
  6. How did Locke regain use of his legs?
  7. How did they all survive the crash?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Welcome Change

Lost [1.1-1.4]

I know I'm way behind the times, but I just started watching the first season of Lost on DVD. The only other thing I've seen by J. J. Abrams is Cloverfield, which I liked. 

I'm through the first 4 episodes. I have to admit I'm hooked, at least enough to watch the rest of season 1. But given the hype I'm not all that impressed yet. 


Quick intro if you haven't seen the show - a plane crashes on a deserted island and ... well, that's about it for now.

Here's what I don't like:
  1. Wayyyyy too much cheesy melodramatic dialog. A little here and there is okay, but does every single conversation have to contain some weighty life lesson about fear, perseverance, and hope?
  2. There's this mysterious giant thing that periodically growls and shakes the trees a few hundred feet from the beach. Everyone is terrified of it, but they still go wandering into the woods every 5 minutes. And they never go check out the trees it knocks over or the area around it - wouldn't that be the first thing you'd do? I'd want to get some idea of what it is. At first they don't even know if it's mechanical or organic, although it later appears to be an animal. It also makes exactly the same noise as boars and polar bears.
  3. Speaking of the polar bear, they manage to kill one with the only gun on the plane. Then they just leave it to rot in the jungle. They've just spent almost all the bullets they have, and they have no sustainable food supply, yet there's not even a discussion of eating it.
The show has a good fomula though. Each episode you generally get the back story of one character (which usually includes some mystery), and the revelation of another island mystery. The acting and dialog are, as I mentioned, dripping with melodrama, but it's watchable. The directing of the scenes where new island mysteries are revealed are well done. I see just enough to pique my curiosity, but not enough to really have any idea what I saw. The characters' reactions to the mysteries seem contrived, though.

Open questions so far:
  1. What's the big beast (it sounds an awful lot like the Cloverfield monster)?
  2. Why is there a polar bear on a tropical island?
  3. What is the origin of the french distress signal, and is the speaker still alive?
  4. Who's the guy in the suit Dr. Jack briefly saw on the beach?
  5. Did anyone in the tail section survive (I'm betting yes, and that this will be an end-of-season revelation for either season 1 or 2)?
  6. What did Kate do that led her to a life on the lam (maybe euthanasia)?
  7. How did "the colonel" regain use of his legs?
I'm sure by the end of season 1 there will be about three times this many new questions and maybe 2 of them will have been resolved. I don't really have any theories yet. It has the feel that they're part of some big experiment, or maybe a Most Dangerous Game scenario. 

It's still on the air and has a loyal following, so I'm guessing it does better than Twin Peaks in keeping a good story going over several seasons. I'll keep you posted on my progress.