Wednesday, December 29, 2004


I've been thinking about evangelical Christianity -- and particularly about deathbed evangelism. You know the sort of thing I'm talking about: a longtime athiest is dying in the hospital, and a Christian relative comes in at the last minute to try to bring salvation. My gut reaction is what I take to be the pretty standard liberal line; in the words of my friend Mandy:
Dude, I'd be PISSED if I were dying and some self-rightous idiot tried to convert me on my deathbed. If I had wanted to believe in something, I would have done it during my life and not tried to cheaply redeem myself at the last possible second. Someone tried to do this to my stepfather, an atheist, as he lay in a coma during his last days, and when I heard about it I felt violated for him because I knew he couldn't do anything to stop the person, which he would have if he hadn't been busy dying. It's like raping someone with religion.
Mandy says she'd be pissed off if someone hoisted religion on her on the deathbed. I'd feel the same way. But when I try to consider the Christian's point of view, I start to think that's not the relevant consideration. We liberals need to be careful about over-generalizing the principle that we shouldn't force our worldview onto others. *Sometimes*, it's appropriate to force things like moral beliefs onto others. For instance, we should *not* be tolerant of people who like to rape children. If a man likes to rape children, he should be stopped. Liberals will often try to explain away the significance of this obvious fact by claiming that we're doing something other than using our own moral beliefs to decide policy, and being intolerant of alternative worldviews -- but that's just what we're doing. And of course, in this case, that is exactly the right thing to do, because the moral beliefs in question are the right ones to have. How does this relate? Well, consider the point of view of the author of the deathbed evangelizer (or indeed, someone who evangelizes in other circumstances). She believes that when people die, they either spend eternity in torture in hell, or in bliss in heaven. And she also believes that the presense or absense of one particular action -- repenting and accepting Jesus -- in life is what determines which way we go. To me, this belief seems difficult to justify, but I recognize that lots of smart people believe things like this. I don't get it at all, but I'll set that aside. Given that a person has this belief, the type of rabid evangelism that so many of us view as an affront starts to look a lot less inappropriate. To see this, suppose that the belief is true; that evangelical Christianity correctly explains what happens after we die. I'm laying in the hospital, terminally ill, with days or hours left to live. Some relative comes in and trys one last time to convert me to Christianity. Since I'm not already a Christian, presumably, I do not believe in heaven, hell, salvation, etc. Since we're supposing that that IS the way the world works, that means that I'm just wrong about what happens post-death. So here comes the Christian relative, trying to save me -- and yeah, I'm annoyed. I tell her, you're not respecting my rational autonomy! You're not valuing me as an agent who makes his own decisions! I've lived my whole life as an athiest, and I have the right to die as an athiest! But it seems like none of this matters. If Christianity *is* correct, then once I'm dead, if I'm in hell, I'm going to be desperately wishing I'd listened. And if I'm in heaven, I'm going to be very, very grateful for the last-minute saving. I'd remember how upset I'd been at the time, but I'd realize that he was, in fact, acting out of love, and with my best interests at heart. If pestering me on my deathbed is the only way to send me to heaven instead of to hell, then by all means, pester me on my deathbed. And I think something like this argument will even go through on the assumption that evangelical Christianity is *false*. Suppose I walk down the street and see what appears to be a person lying on the street, covered in blood, writhing in agony. I ought to stop and help him. I should administer first aid if I know how, and I should call for help. Now fill out the story: suppose that the person was only pretending to be gravely injured, and that it was a fun game, and that my attempts to help him disrupted his concentration and ruined his afternoon. I'm not criticizable for trying to help him, since I had the reasonable and false belief that he needed help. In fact, it would be a horrible thing for me to just walk on by. That would be evidence that I don't care about the suffering of those around me. It seems to me that the evangelical Christian might be like I am in that story. She have false beliefs about what we need, and they try to help us accordingly. The problem is in the belief, not in the action. I would be hurt if I knew that someone who professed to care about me believed that by talking to me, she might've successfully saved me from eternal damnation, and didn't even try. What's the upshot of all this? I definitely do *not* want the evangelicals of the world to redouble their efforts to bring me to Christ. But I think what this sort of consideration shows is that it's not reasonable to just ask them to hold onto their beliefs, minus the going forth to all nations making disciples part. The problem is not that they're trying to force their beliefs onto others -- the problem is that their beliefs are wrong. I think this means that we athiests have to either gratefully accept the annoying but virtuous intentions of the evangelicals, or be willing to engage their religious convictions; willing to try to bring them around to our worldview. We liberals should have a knee-jerk reaction against this suggestion, but if we're serious about the unacceptability of this sort of evangelism, the way that we're serious about the unacceptability of raping children, then this seems to be the appropriate course. (I'm not committing to that last alternative. Maybe we should just put up with it all. But we should NOT continue to criticize the actions while holding the beliefs to be above reproach. The beliefs make the actions appropriate.)

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Giving opportunities

I thought I'd pass on this couple of pluts from the radical leftist fringe group, which hates America almost as much as it hates Christmas. Oh yeah, also families.
Dear MoveOn member, This is a cherished time of year, when we take time out from the workaday world to focus on our families and friends. Our thoughts also naturally go to those in harm's way -- the young American men and women who won't be with their families this holiday season, and the Iraqi refugee families that face a long, cold winter. That's why we're highlighting two opportunities for MoveOn members to reach out in the holiday spirit to the people who are paying the true costs of war. For the 160,000 men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, even a holiday call home can be prohibitively expensive. That's why the United Service Organizations (USO) has launched "Operation Phone Home" to provide phone cards to every soldier who wants one in time for the holidays. With just a few days left, the USO is still trying to hit its goal, and MoveOn members can make the difference. To send a phone card, just go to: This is a great way of showing that those of us who didn't support the Iraq war still support and appreciate the sacrifice of the people who were called to serve in it. And this kind of small-scale giving can snowball into large-scale benefits for the troops. After MoveOn members and many others donated millions of frequent flyer miles to bring soldiers home during their leave, the Pentagon was compelled to fully fund all future flights themselves. Your leadership made the difference then, and it can do so again. War takes its toll on civilians as well as soldiers. Massive numbers of Iraqi families that have been displaced by the escalating violence. Because conditions are so dangerous, humanitarian relief organizations have withdrawn from Iraq, and the Iraqi winter is closing in. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is one of the very few international organizations still daring to bring vital services directly to Iraqi civilians. You can make your donation to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and earmark it for Iraq, at: The IFRC is racing to help hundreds of thousands of refugees survive the winter by providing blankets, heaters, and basic medical supplies. In the face of increased insurgent violence targeted at government schools, the Red Crescent has mounted an effort to equip every school with first aid training and basic medical supplies. They've also been charged with maintaining the rapidly growing number of orphanages in the most war-torn parts of the country. Most of our holiday traditions revolve around the simple metaphor of bringing light into the darkness. For us here at MoveOn, you're the single greatest source of light we know. We're awed and honored to be working with you. Because of you, we know there are brighter times ahead. Have a wonderful holiday.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A completely true story

FBC readers may have noticed that I've been thinking a lot about the philosophy of fiction lately. I saw Finding Neverland yesterday (very good), and it began with the caption, "Inspired by true events". In this particular case, the movie was inspired by actual events, but suppose it hadn't. I don't think that would've been an act of deception on the part of the movie makers. Suppose that the prologue to Star Wars went like this:
The following is the true story of what occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.
In that case, the "this is a true story" line is a part of the fiction. In a movie inspired by events, the "this is a true story" bit is intuitively *not* a part of the fiction. So what's the difference?

Sunday, December 19, 2004


You may have noticed that I haven't posted in a while. That's finals for you. Expect to find more content here soon, if you look for it, and expect me to start reading your blog again if you're one of the blogs I read. Briefly, now, before packing and then bed: I was poking around Southwest Airlines's web site, and discovered a cool feature -- flight status text messaging to cell phones! I entered in my flight number and cell phone number, and they'll text message me if my flight is delayed or something like that. It works for pagers, email addresses, and PDA's, too. Merry Christmas, everyone. My semester is finally over, and I'll have time to be back on the internet again starting very soon.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

My jaw is still hanging open

Is this really happening? Is Fafblog still satire? Here's an honest-to-God AP story (excerpted merely for brevity). My emphasis.
WASHINGTON - Under detailed questioning by a federal judge, government lawyers asserted Wednesday the U.S. military can hold foreigners indefinitely as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even if they aided terrorists unintentionally and never fought the United States. Could a “little old lady in Switzerland” who sent a check to an orphanage in Afghanistan be taken into custody if unbeknownst to her some of her donation was passed to al-Qaida terrorists? asked U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green. “She could,” replied Deputy Associate Attorney General Brian Boyle. “Someone’s intention is clearly not a factor that would disable detention.” It would be up to a newly established military review panel to decide whether to believe her and release her. Boyle said the military can pick any foreigner who provides support to terrorists or might know of their plans. And the foreigners held on the U.S. naval base in Cuba “have no constitutional rights enforceable in this court,” Boyle told the judge. “That’s really shocking,” Thomas B. Wilner, attorney for 12 Kuwaiti detainees, told reporters after Green’s hearing. “People throughout the world will fear the United States is asserting the power to pick up little old ladies and men who made a mistake.” ... Green asked if a hypothetical resident of England who teaches English to the son of an al-Qaida leader could be detained. Boyle said he could because “al-Qaida could be trying to learn English to stage attacks there,” and he compared that aid to “those shipping bullets to the front.” Some detainees have been picked up in Bosnia and others in Africa. 'Where is the battlefield?' Noting the Supreme Court said detention was to keep combatants from returning to the battlefield, Green asked, “What and where is the battlefield the U.S. military is trying to detain the prisoners from returning to? Africa? London?” Boyle: “The conflict with al-Qaida has a global reach.” ...
Hat tip: Fafblog. I give money to Oxfam, which gives badly-needed aid all over the world. If some of that aid ever happens to indirectly benefit Al-Queda -- say, for instance, that Oxfam's aid saves childrens' lives in Sudan, and some of those children grow up to be terrorists -- will the government come after me? One thing is for sure: if the United States government ever subjects me to torture for accidentally abetting terrorism, I'm going in with a sense of righteous indignation.

Social Security explained

John Quiggan at Crooked Timber has a very nice post, laying out the complicated political issues having to do with Social Security. Good reading for those of us who don't know what all the talk is about quite as well as we ought to.

Stem-Cell Research

Jeremy Pierce has a post about a paralyzed Korean woman who has regained her ability to walk, thanks to spinal cord blood (not embryonic) stem cells. Jeremy says:
So does this vindicate the Kerry-Edwards proposal to expand government funding for embryonic stem cell research, which California has already now done with their own state funding? Well, look at the fine print. It turns out this wasn't from embryonic stem cells at all. These are cord blood stem cells. ... This is actually an important discovery for the pro-life argument against needing embryonic stem cells for this kind of thing. There's still greater potential for embryonic cells if the overcome the biggest obstacle to using them at all, which there's been no progress on, but cord blood stem cells do in fact work for this sort of thing, so I don't know how embryonic stem cell advocates can see this as anything more than a mixed result for them.
I heard about this story from Tony Perkins, at the Right-Wing Family Research Council. His response was, predictably, similar to Jeremy's:
In what will likely be a recurring theme, the pro-life community can say to supporters of embryonic stem cell research, we told you so. A South Korean woman paralyzed for twenty years is walking again after her spinal cord was treated with stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research can only dream about this type of result. The difference between the use of embryos and the use of umbilical cord blood is literally the difference between life and death, between cures and false hopes. The killing of human embryos for scientific research crosses an ethical line, but, as science proves, actual cures are to be found with stem cells obtained ethically. There is now walking evidence that there is no justification for destroying embryos for failed science, much less using taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research. Stem cells obtained from cord blood and other ethical sources should be regarded as the hope of the future, rather than science that kills human life for the sake of some researcher's curiosity. The scientific world and the public officials who subsidize their work with taxpayer money should take notice.
Jeremy is right, of course -- this news doesn't particularly vindicate those of us who support embroyonic stem cell research. But Perkins definitely goes too far when he says this constitutes an argument against embryonic stem cell research. Why should progress in one area count as an argument against doing research in another area? I don't feel like embryonic stem-cell research is in particular need of vindication at all; embroyonic stem cells *might* cure important things, or might just lead to useful -- or even merely interesting -- scientific advancement, and that by itself is a perfectly good reason to use them. I guess arguments like the one that Jeremy aptly observes doesn't apply here, which I don't particularly care about, might be important for a supporter of this research who believes that embroyos have moral worth, and that destroying them is, ceteris paribus, morally wrong. That person would need to justify destroying embroyos with good evidence that in the end, more good will come of it. But I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone endorse that combination of views.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Critics call the bill censorship

You think? Lawmaker seeks ban on books with gay characters.
Allen said no state funds should be used to pay for materials that foster homosexuality. He said that would include nonfiction books that suggest homosexuality is acceptable and fiction novels with gay characters.