so I came down to crash and burn your beggars banquet

The Family: A secret conspiracy of religious fundamentalists, who use their unequaled access to American politicians to meet in secret with overseas dictators, sounds like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel. If true, or if masquerading as truth, then one would expect to find it in a photocopied zine left in a punk rock cafe or an Allston laundromat. Not in a well-researched book, excerpts of which have appeared in Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Not by a man who’s met this conspiracy in the flesh.

But such a book is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family. And such a conspiracy is … well, the Fellowship is such a loose grouping of interconnected “prayer cells” that it’s tough to give them a single name. Founded in 1935 by Norwegian missionary Abraham Vereide, it started as a means to create a solid anti-union, anti-communist front – in the name of Jesus – on America’s west coast. It has grown since then: a faith that does not target congregations but “key men” in places of high power. Since Vereide’s directive that his brothers “submerge the institutional image” of the Family in 1966, they have had no formal status. It’s hard to call a faith that builds no megachurches, sponsors no protests, and does nothing public except run the National Prayer Breakfast a “fundamentalist conspiracy.”

And yet many of the Watergate co-conspirators, including Chuck Colson and James McCord, were members of the Fellowship. Gerald Ford prayed in a secret prayer cell with them. William Rehnquist led the Family’s bible study for federal judges. Figures attacked by controversy, such as James Watt and Clarence Thomas, have absconded to the Family’s private retreat – the Cedars – to avoid the public eye. Reagan and Bush Sr praised the Family for its secrecy and diplomatic efforts. Paul Temple, former Exxon executive, helps support the Family through generous donations. The Fellowship was instrumental in arranging the Camp David accords in 1978 and the Congo/Rwanda talks in 2002. Senators Hillary Clinton, Sam Brownback and John Ensign, as well as Congressman Chip Pickering and Gov. Mark Sanford have all relied on the Family for moral guidance, if not diplomatic cachet. And this is a short list.

What makes the Family so successful, if not so sinister, is that they’re not obvious in their fundamentalism. They don’t have much use for the Bible beyond the New Testament, and even that they don’t memorize. They don’t build a lot of churches. They don’t write op-eds opposing gay marriage. What they have done, rather, is quietly command the ear of every President since Eisenhower, the most powerful men in both houses of Congress, the occasional Supreme Court Justice, and many American diplomats abroad.

Their explicit goal is to turn the U.S. into a Christian nation, and thereby the world into a Christian planet. Or not Christian, rather, but Christ-loving. As Sharlet makes clear, the Fellowship does not believe in the idea of Christianity so much as they worship Christ the man: God made flesh, the ultimate source of power in human form. And in spreading God’s power around the world, they have funneled money and U.S. aid to some of the 20th Century’s worst dictators, including Mohammed Siad Barre, Suharto and Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.

Sharlet doesn’t spend the entire book on the Family (though he could). He spends a lot of time digging into America’s religious history: its Pilgrim founding, its revivals and hysterias, its itinerant preachers and urban megachurches. Secular observers, Sharlet claims, look at events like the Great Awakening or the Scopes Monkey Trial as outliers – bursts of fundamentalism that flare up and die down in time. Sharlet asserts, to the contrary, that the periods of secular culture are the outliers. America is and always has been a fundamentalist nation. Americans want to feel their religion, not be guided by it. And by tapping into that need for a strong, emotional faith, and delivering it to key men in Washington, the Family has succeeded where generations of grass roots efforts have failed. Their hand is on the wheel.


april, come she will

I forgot my camera battery when going to Mia and Bob’s wedding in Dublin, NH this Saturday. So now I have to weblog about it to remember it at all. It’s not my fault.

  • Rachel V. and Steve were kind enough to give me a ride up. We listened to Steve’s XM radio and Rachel’s extra-danceable iPod playlist.

    “Was nu-metal a reaction to the … flamboyance of hair bands?” Rachel asked at one point.
    “I thought nu-metal was a reaction to grunge,” I chimed in from the back seat.
    “And grunge to hair bands,” Steve finished.
    “Only one way to settle this,” I concluded, digging out my cell phone to call Fred Durst. Still hasn’t got back to me.

  • “Who are you texting?” Rachel asked Kevin Q. We stood in the shade around the rustic firepit in Mia’s mother’s backyard.
    “I’m not texting anyone,” he said, not looking up.
    “Then what are–”
    “I’m live-tweeting the wedding.”

  • Later, someone waved a copy of the program at Kevin, with its admonition to silence cell phones during the ceremony. To drive the point home, Serpico texted “turn off your phone” just before the ceremony started. Kevin got it and fumed.

  • The ceremony, though outdoors, was shaded by the towering trees and aerated by ambient wind. Mia’s uncle, a pastor, conducted the ceremony, giving plenty of advice and insight to the young couple. We sat patiently until told to stand again. I suppose it says something of the secularity of the audience that nobody knew what to do when prompted to “share a sign of peace.” It fell to the lapsed Catholics (like me) to turn and start shaking hands.

  • No communion wafers, though. Hell, that’s another, what, fifteen minutes? Twenty?

  • Chatting with my favorite EMT, Lynne W., I learned that tall, skinny people are more prone to suffer collapsed lungs. “I wonder if that has any connection to the stabbing pains I feel once every ten months or so when I draw a deep breath,” I speculated.

    “Could be.”

    “Eh, my cross to bear.”

    “Oh, life’s so hard for you tall and slender people.”

    “Exactly; I – hey!”

  • I got to chat at length with the significant others of my friends: Rachel’s Steve; Michelle McN’s Ben; Kevin’s Shawn. They have an identity outside of their predicate attachment to an existing friend, I discovered. For instance, Ben took up snowboarding after skiing screwed up his knees. He, Haley and I chatted about it in the smoker’s circle near the parked cars. I wasn’t smoking; I just wanted to hang with the cool kids. Like Ben.

    Also, Steve quit smoking, drinking and caffeine a year ago, all on the same day. Neither Vickie nor I could believe it. “I don’t even drink or use caffeine that much, and I don’t smoke,” I told him. “But if a doctor told me those two were killing me, I’d ask, ‘How long do I have?’ ”

  • Rode back with a full car – the Serpico/Keoughs and the Smithneys, me snug in the backseat with Claire and Kim*. We reminisced about childhood indulgences: our favorite books that we devoured a stack at a time, our favorite cartoons, our favorite food. Everyone conceded that everyone at the wedding was cool and that we all need to hang out with them more. Which I plan on.

* All ri-ight.

rule britannia is out of bounds

WALL-E: Another touching and awesome Pixar spectacle. Pixar has mastered animation to the extent that a one-foot robot with only two words in its vocabulary can emote more effectively than most of the stars expected to carry a summer picture today. They’ve mastered comic timing on a level that puts 99% of comedies released today (Mike Myers films, the [Genre] Movie series) to shame. And I’m not the best barometer for tearjerkers, sensitive twit that I am, but very few human actors can move me like Pixar’s wooden toys, fuzzy monsters, colorful fish or rusting robots.

(No, I haven’t seen Up yet; planning on it)

Red Mars: I started this book when I was 14, maybe, got about 100 pages into it, and couldn’t sustain interest. Don’t know why I stuck to my initial judgment for so long – putting too high a premium on my adolescent judgments – but man, was I wrong. Red Mars works on all levels. As a compelling story of social orders in development, Red Mars tells the story of the first permanent colony on Mars – dedicated scientists at constant odds, each with their own vision of utopia that they seek to impose upon a lifeless planet. I also found myself able to follow the hard science aspects to a greater extent than in other sci-fi novels – I got the importance of aerobraking, and moholes, and the Phobos oscillation on the space elevator. So few engineers-turned-authors can make that work for an English major like me.

But above all else, Red Mars tells my favorite story: of how the war between institutions grinds humans in its wake. Red Mars lacks any overt villains. Though the United Nations and the megacorporations that run it draw no real sympathy, they do have a compelling case: they made a significant investment in Mars by getting the colony there, and they want to see that investment recouped. The environmentalists and the terraformers both make solid arguments for their points of view. Even the saboteurs draw the reader in, with their hokey Rousseauvian mysticism.

What else was I wrong about at age 14, I wonder?

Your Religion is False: Asked and answered, I suppose.

Atheists will never gain much traction in the public forum with the cranky attitude that people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers adopt in talking about faith. The ancient churches of the world have dealt with better (and better armed) vitriol for centuries. But gone are the years when joking about a holy man would get you exiled from your village, or burned at the stake, or eaten by bears. Laughter is a hard weapon to deflect.

Joel Grus puts humor to good use in Your Religion is False, by taking a John Hodgmann-esque look at all of the major world’s religions. He alternates between straight-faced looks at the absurdity of religious doctrine and exaggerations for comic effect:

Conservative Protestants strictly follow three universal principles, all of which revolve around the idea of “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do”:

  1. “If the Bible says it, I believe it. If the Bible doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it. If the Pope says it, for sure I don’t believe it, unless the Bible says it too, in which case I have to ask my pastor what I think.”
  2. “It doesn’t matter how good or evil you are – if you accept Jesus as your savior, you’re going to heaven, and if you don’t you’re going to hell.”
  3. “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do.”
The first causes all sorts of problems, as it forces Conservative Protestants to believe that the world is only 6000 years old, to disbelieve in all sorts of useful science, to insist that one man both built a boat capable of carrying and subsequently discovered two members of every species on Earth (including, apparently, all five million-plus species of beetles), and to assert that pi equals 3. The second causes all sorts of problems, as it has allowed a number of Nixon-era criminals to establish lucrative post-incarceration prison ministries. The third is actually an exceptionally sensible position.

And he devotes attention to just about every religion I’ve heard of, from the obscure (transcendental meditation, Jainism, giant stone head worship) to the institutional (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc). I think this is the book’s greatest strength and the key to its outreach. Every believer thinks that religions other than his own are silly, or false, or harmful, and wouldn’t mind a chance to poke fun at them. Maybe by seeing them juxtaposed with his own beliefs – equally silly in Grus’s eyes – he’ll have cause to rethink them.

Highly recommended. Buy a copy today.

(Disclosure: I advised Joel on certain portions of the book and provided some feedback on an early draft. However, I think you all know me well enough to know that, if I didn’t think this was a genuinely worthwhile book, I’d put off Joel’s persistent requests for a glowing review with a polite passive-aggression until he lost interest or took the hint. I’m that sort of asshole. But I haven’t; it’s legitimately funny)

breathe in, breathe out

As an atheist, rationalist and all-around humorless asshole, I don’t go in for a lot of Eastern mysticism. I don’t think much of reiki. I don’t believe in the healing power of crystals, or cranio-sacral touch, or reflexology. I think ear candling’s a dangerous fraud. I don’t trust acupuncturists or chiropractors.

So you wouldn’t think I’d be big on ki.

Watching Vlad promote to black belt at jiu-jitsu this past Saturday, I took a moment to revisit my thoughts on ki. Vlad’s built like a linebacker – big but fit, in full control of his mass. But he moves with a fluidity that speaks to incredible control over his own body. When Vlad throws you, you don’t feel the tension of exertion behind it. You feel a smooth, continuous projection, like a roller coaster cresting a hill. That’s the kind of energy it takes to toss someone to the ground using only your hands, or to break through a stack of boards with a single chop while kneeling in front of them.

The human body is a pretty efficient machine for directing force into one fine point. Think about it: your body has enough fine control to turn a deadbolt, enough raw power to lift a box of books, enough coordination to ride a bicycle and enough balance to descend a staircase. That’s a remarkable variety of tasks. But too often, if we’re using our body without training, we dissipate that force. We lift heavy boxes by bending at the back instead of the knees, or we try to turn a deadbolt while holding four bags of groceries. Instead of directing our muscles to their most precise use, we let them run wild.

It gets even worse in a fight, when adrenaline ramps up our reflexes. Our arms flail in crazy windmills. We hold our breath, filling our body with tension, and lean forward on our toes as if to spring. We swarm and crush, but we don’t fight effectively. How much better to dispel that tension – forcing your body to relax, directing energy from where it’s wasted (keeping the entire body rigid) to where it’s needed (the hand, the leg, the arm, etc).

Think of the incredible coordination required for Dwight Howard to dunk a ball from nearly the free throw line. Every muscle must be working in unison to that goal alone – legs, torso, arms, hands. He couldn’t pull that off if he just had a powerful jump, or merely had good ball control. It takes athleticism, coordination and practice.

That’s ki. Strip it of the mysticism, and ki is shorthand for the control and awareness of one’s own body that comes with years of practice at a given task. It’s what lets me push away an opponent half again my weight when I couldn’t bench that much, even on steroids. It’s what lets the world’s greatest athletes perform in the clutch. And it’s what carried my friend and fellow instructor Vlad through his black belt test this past Saturday.

Call it what you’ve like, but I’ve seen it. It’s real.

it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor

I haven’t been religious for more than a decade now. From the day I decided to walk away from religion I’ve never missed it. It fills no essential role in my life, either ethically or logically. I almost forget what it was like to be religious.

But I have noticed one thing missing: the sense of community.

Church, or temple, or the mosque: these are all great places to meet a broad cross-section of neighbors. Consider that the people you see at your place of worship, you might never run into otherwise. They don’t work at your office; they don’t belong to your community pool; they don’t date your friends. But once a weekend, you show up at the same place. You bake stale brownies for the same picnics, assemble the same houses on church retreats to the Appalachians and chaperone the same pool parties. You’re forced to meet people whose paths would never cross yours normally.

Networking like that improves the quality of your life. The broader and stronger your network, the better the type of jobs, perks and friends you’ll find. Oh, you’re in the market for a car? My cousin’s a dealer out in Springfield – he’s been trying to offload some inventory. Or: sixth grade, you said? My daughter just entered sixth grade at that private school up in Clinton; she loves it. And my wife sits on the school board. Let me give you our number.

Religious services work like that, in a way few other groups do, because of the disparate interests they draw in. Other groups – professional organizations, amateur sports teams, bar-hopping circles of friends – can approach that level of networking success, but they can never duplicate it. You need the random-but-not-quite sampling that a faith draws in – people who believe enough in common to talk to each other, but not so much that they have nothing to say.

I’ve been part of like-minded atheist experiments – the Boston Objectivist Network being the most successful – but it’s never quite the same. And I think this is why religious people will enjoy a statistical, and thus political, advantage over the non-religious for decades to come. They have instant networks. They have a voter base – or, more importantly, a movement base – that can easily be tapped into. Atheists do not.

I’m not saying you should join a church you don’t believe in for the free brownies and car washes. But I’m always looking for ways to expand my network.

hit the shore ’cause I’m faded; honeys in the street saying money, yo we made it

Pascal’s Wager is an argument for belief in the Christian God – not proof of its existence, but merely a contention to believe in it – that runs as follows:

[E]ven though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should “wager” as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose.

Game theorists might explain the wager using a chart like this:

  God exists God does not exist
Wager for God Gain all Status quo
Wager against God Misery Status quo

Already we see one problem – if belief in the Christian God costs us nothing, it also means nothing. You can argue over what a belief in the Christian God requires: consumption of the Eucharist? regular attendance at Sunday Mass? faith alone? faith plus good works? In fact, millions have been arguing this for the last twenty centuries, and millions have died in the arguing. But it strikes me as common sense that belief must entail some behavior that non-believers aren’t doing. There has to be some obvious difference between belief and non-belief. Otherwise, the term “belief” is meaningless.

Okay, the apologist says: belief costs something. But that’s a relatively minor pittance compared to the infinite reward of Heaven. A small price is worth paying if there’s a chance of an infinite payoff.

This bugged me for a while until last night, as I got off the shuttle from work. As usual, I was thinking about gaming.

Consider: I have a die with six sides. You examine it to your satisfaction to prove that it’s not weighted or tricked. If you like, we can substitute a die of your own, provided I get to examine it as well.

I say, “Pay me $5 and I’ll let you roll this die. I’ll pay you whatever number comes up.”

You say, “That’s a sucker bet.”

I say, “But! If you roll a 6, I’ll let you re-roll and add the new number to the total. If you roll a 6 again, I’ll let you roll again. I’ll let you keep doing this as many times as a 6 comes up.”

You say, “Really? I dunno …”

I say, “Come on! A small price is worth paying if there’s a chance of an infinite payoff!”

So you fork over $5 and roll. Ten rolls later, I’m up at least $8, if not more.1

Pascal’s Wager has a lot of problems, but the biggest is: he never gives you the odds of each outcome. And you never trust a game where they don’t post the odds. Let’s say the Commonwealth of Massachusetts holds a special lottery where the prize is infinite money for life – the ultimate charge card. Should I pay $1 for a ticket? $10? $50,000? Depends on the odds of winning.

The “infinite payoff” of Heaven sounds nice and all, but I don’t know if the odds of the Christian God existing are one in a thousand, one in a trillion or one in ten. And that’s a lot of hours to give up on Sunday if I guessed wrong.

These are the things I think about on the bus.

1 The average roll on a fair die with six sides is 3.5. The average roll on an exploding die with six sides – meaning, one that lets you re-roll and add on every time you get a six – is 4.2.

like joseph stalin and gandhi

Quick survey: what is the worst thing that someone would have to do or say before you stopped respecting him or her?

If you agreed with a political figure in every way but one, what would that one have to be for them to lose your vote? Abortion? Same-sex marriage? Evolution?

If you idolized a rock star or professional athlete, what’s the one stupid thing they could shout during a performance that would make you throw out their albums? “Keep Britain White“? “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas?” “You can’t say there were dinosaurs when you never saw them?”

If you had a close friend whom you trusted with your secrets, how abhorrent would their views have to be for you to stop trusting them? Could you disregard a little casual bigotry or social naivete? If they had a BUSH/CHENEY 04 sticker on their bike? Or if they had a NADER sticker?

I’m genuinely curious about people’s limits; I’m not trying to make a point of any sort.

Of those three above, I can only answer the last question. Politics entertain me too much for any one representative to disappoint me. And since I have accused pederasts pedophiles on my iPod and convicted rapists on my DVD shelf I apparently have zero standards there. But I would have a hard time being friends with a proselytizer. Not just someone who believes, and not just someone whose beliefs inform their life choices, but a person who feels obligated to Bear Witness and to Convert. Someone who slipped tracts into my messenger bag, or campaigned to get evolution out of the curriculum. Someone who stood on a street corner and waved signs at drivers. Someone who knew – just deep down in their hearts knew – that I could one day believe.

But enough about me. What gets your goat?