Missionary rhetoric

August 12th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

In my many attempts to engage in discussion with people who come to my door proselytizing one of several faiths that are based on or vaguely resemble Christianity, I’ve noted one universal rhetorical tactic: persistent emphasis on the putative commonality between what I believe, teach, and confess, and what they’re selling. I understand why this is part of the script — people fear the unfamiliar, and are probably less poised to impulsively reject innovations marketed as merely a set of inessential tweaks and “improvements” to what one already believes. I also suspect that this strategy is fairly effective with people whose convictions are merely nominal or cultural, or perhaps with those whose faith is grounded in ecstatic experience without some foundational knowledge of doctrine and history.

If my experience is any guide, though, this strategy fails miserably when confronted with even a reasonably-informed, enthusiastic lay person. Indeed, the differences between Christianity and superficially-similar religions (regarding the nature of the Godhead, salvation, authority, and epistemology, to name but a few points of dispute) are obvious and fundamental; they are essential in a way that glib assertions of continuity could never let on. While the “elevator pitch” style necessitated by a porch conversation doesn’t lend itself to subtlety or nuance, one might nonetheless draw the conclusion that the objective of such rhetoric is deceit rather than merely making the intended proselyte more comfortable. Finally, if these interlocutors really believed that my faith was essentially the same as theirs and that I had merely missed out on certain novel enhancements, why would they be acting as if it were so important that they convert me?

Was verfolgst du mich?

June 29th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Apparently, the religion reporting in AP wire stories that the NYT runs isn’t much better than the religion reporting in the NYT proper:

Archaeologists recently unearthed and opened the white marble sarcophagus located under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which for some 2,000 years has been believed by the faithful to be the tomb of Paul.

Consider this some vindication for Wenham’s reading of Paul: not only was Paul not a theological innovator, but, given that his tomb has been regarded as such for “some 2,000 years,” many of his epistles must even precede the birth and ministry of Christ!

(Note also the gratuitous Ratzinger-bashing in the final paragraph: “At the end of Sunday’s service in the warm basilica, Benedict, 82, lost his balance slightly as he slipped on a step on the altar….”)

Papal epidemiology

March 24th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II, I went out to lunch with some grad school classmates, as I often did when I was younger and had more free time. This lunch in particular was memorable because the entire lunchtime conversation was devoted to the topic of who would succeed him as Bishop of Rome. As a confessional Lutheran, I had regarded the elevation of a new pontiff as a matter of some minor interest — as the decision would affect a great swath of Western Christendom and many of my close friends — but primarily as a matter internal to the Roman church and not really any of my business.

I was especially amused by this lunchtime conversation because all of the other principals were secular materialists, who surely had even less of a stake in the matter than I. I asked the loudest participant why he was so concerned about the workings of the College of Cardinals, and he suggested that a new pope could greatly help “Africa, because they need condoms.” I suggested that the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa was almost certainly not attributable to individuals’ overly-rigid adherence to Catholic moral teaching, but I believe that this point was rather too subtle for the discussion.

As it turns out, the truth is almost the opposite: adherence to the traditional dictums about chastity and fidelity is actually just about the only thing that reliably prevents HIV transmission “at the population level,” argue Edward Green and Allison Herling Ruark, of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard. Their article includes the following fascinating special case of what is surely a reliable general observation about human behavior:

It has been clearly established that few people outside a handful of high-risk groups use condoms consistently, no matter how vigorously condoms are promoted. Inconsistent condom usage is ineffective—and actually associated with higher HIV infection rates due to “risk compensation,” the tendency to take more sexual risks out of a false sense of personal safety that comes with using condoms some of the time. A UNAIDS-commissioned 2004 review of evidence for condom use concluded, “There are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on ­condom promotion.”

If Green and Ruark are correct, then it’s better for sub-Saharan Africa that Benedict hasn’t revised John Paul’s position on promoting contraception. However, their article is not merely negative; indeed, they are able to suggest a variety of tactics for fighting against the HIV epidemic that are shown effective and that don’t preclude the vigorous involvement of traditional churches.

RIYL: “A pope who will matter”

The Unicorn Delusion

February 23rd, 2009  |  Tags:  |  14 Comments

Dinesh D’Souza on atheist proselytizers:

I don’t believe in unicorns, so I just go about my life as if there are no unicorns. You’ll notice that I haven’t written any books called The End of the Unicorn, Unicorns Are Not Great, or The Unicorn Delusion, and I don’t spend my time obsessing about unicorns.

  • In case your twitter friends don’t already include someone with a golden mouth, you can follow John Chrysostom.