Tuesday, February 28, 2006


One of the great things about going out into the world is that you meet people you wouldn't otherwise meet. This past week, Andrea and I went on a ski vacation with her family. Toward the beginning of the week, I was walking to the shuttle to go back to the Beaver Lodge.

The way these shuttles work is that on the outside of the bus there are racks for skis. And there's a line you stand in, with a small opening that leads through a thigh-height fence to the bus. So you stand in line waiting for the bus to come, then the bus comes, then you go through the small opening, put your skis in the rack, and then board the bus and head out. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Standing in line is voluntary - there's nobody there enforcing the queue. So there I was, standing at the end of the line, waiting to cross through the little opening and put in my skis, and this absolute bastard crosses over the fence and puts his skis up on the rack out of turn. And then he looks at me with this completely smug smile, like he's gotten away with something, and he gets on the bus with that smile, and keeps smiling it all the way to the Beaver Lodge.

So in our culture, there's this idea of piety, and it's a little bit different than what Socrates discussed with Euthyphro. The way the average person experiences piety in our culture is that we know a person who is following a certain set of moral strictures, and we don't follow those same strictures, and that person gives us a disapproving look when we do something that contradicts those strictures. And this is what I think most people in our culture mean when they use the word "piety." The attitude of superiority of a person who is following a "better" moral code.

The problem with this is that whatever moral code we follow is a personal decision. If I choose to stand in line and not jump the fence, that's a decision I'm making on my own. I have no right to impose that decision on someone else. The guy who jumped the fence and put his skis on the rack before me didn't do anything wrong. For me to get indignant about it is nonsense. I chose to stand in line. My choice is mine, not his. So for me to get upset when this other person does something that contradicts my own moral code is an example of me being pious.

Another non-religious example of piety where I'm generally on the other end is the pre-merge merge. The way it works is that you're driving down, let's say, a two-lane-each-way road. Up ahead in the distance, you see an arrow that indicates a lane closure. What do you do?

It turns out that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the sign, and then merge. This creates a single merge zone, right at the sign. Merging this way is quite efficient, so traffic moves at the maximum possible pace through the zone of congestion.

But in our culture, it is generally considered rude to merge at the sign. You're supposed to merge *before* the sign. Generally there will be a stretch of as long as a mile prior to the actual lane closure where there are no cars in the lane that has the closure, because it's just not done to drive through that section. But I happen to know that it's more efficient to merge at the sign, so I have to choose: be more efficient, and possibly piss a lot of people off, or be less efficient, don't offend anyone, and put up with the longer wait.

Anyway, what's the point of all this maundering? I've noticed a trend among certain evangelicals to think that the behavior of others affects them. For example, consider the idea that the reason that New Orleans got hit so hard was because of some kind of moral turpitude on the part of some percentage of the populace. In order for this to be true, it has to be true that if you live in close proximity to a large number of people who are not following God's law, whatever you happen to think that is, then you will suffer along with them, even though you are following God's law.

So there's this urgency to getting everybody to be moral. You have to force people who aren't being moral, according to you, to be moral, because your very life may depend on it.

I hope the flaw in the logic here is obvious. These same people talk about the rapture, and about armageddon, and the war between good and evil. If such a thing were possible, it would be obvious that our fates are not dependent on the actions of others. If a pious person is subject to the rapture, then he or she will experience this rapture whether his or her neighbors are pious or not. If there is a God, if there is a judgement, there's no reason to worry that you will accidentally be judged according to your neighbor's actions. An omniscient God does't make mistakes. You don't have to worry that your city is going to be flattened because of some moral lack that you see in your neighbor.

Anyway, I frowned at the guy on the bus. It was a lame thing to do. Fortunately, it didn't seem to kill his joy, so I guess it turned out okay. The ski trip was very nice. I think I managed to avoid being pious at anyone else.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Riot of Images

So there's apparently this big fuss going on about offensive images of the Prophet, Mohammed. On the one hand, I think that trying to offend people with images like this is kind of sad; on the other hand, the fuss that it kicked up is kind of sad, too.

There is a reason why devout Muslims aren't supposed to make or look at religious images. The problem with representational art is that it leads you to form an image in your mind that is not a true image of the intended object. So when the object in question is a religious object, it's a form of idolatry - worshiping an imperfect image instead of what the image was intended to represent.

So the problem with representational art, in this context, isn't what it depicts. It's that it attempts to depict what cannot be depicted. And to whom does that matter? Why to a practitioner of the religion, of course. It doesn't matter what pictures an infidel looks at, because he doesn't worship the object being depicted anyway.

The mechanism that leads to people rioting in the street, and people dying, is this: you have an image in your mind of what "the Prophet" is. This image gives you comfort, and brings you closer to the divine. And then you look at an image that purports to refer to the same object, the one you think of as "the Prophet." You identify the object to which the image refers as the one you think of as "the Prophet." What is depicted in the image appears to you as less than divine. So the image in your mind is diminished. And this brings your heart farther away from the divine. And this makes you feel upset. And you get angry. And you direct your anger at the person who made the image. And you riot. And people die.

It's not hard to fathom why representational art is considered so dangerous. If only it were the case that words were less dangerous. Really, words are just the most subtle form of representational art that we have to hand.