Thursday, March 26, 2009

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: Does Religion Make People Better? (plus: Hire Helen Rittelmeyer!)

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Wed., April 1 (8pm):

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein (author of Up, Up, and Oy Vey! and Shtick Shift, about Jewish comics and Jewish comics, respectively) arguing yes


Skeptic Austin Dacey (Center for Inquiry rep, Skeptical Inquirer contributor, and author of The Secular Conscience) arguing no.

A (real) April Fool’s Day social-philosophical smackdown, hosted by Todd Seavey and moderated by Michel Evanchik.

Free admission, cash bar: basement level of Lolita Bar at 266 [NOTE TO TOXICPOP READERS: NOT 466] Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop (assuming the J and Z lines still exist in one week).


As some of you know, this topic is of great personal interest to me, due to my religious girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer — who is scheduled to have articles in a staggering five major conservative publications already this year, from to Weekly Standard, and is clearly, as one conservative writer put it, going to take over the world — but WHO NONETHELESS COULD REALLY USE A NEW JOB, if some editor out there is smart enough to hire her. By all means e-mail me leads, such as they are in these troubled times, whether from conservative organizations or not (she’s more or less libertarian as well and just fond of reportage, too, as her recent NRO piece suggests, despite one tiny geography error in there that NRO hasn’t gotten around to correcting despite her request).

I’m telling you, let her get a foot in the door, and then we all ride her coattails to success. Don’t miss the opportunity.

But a funny thing about Helen: she doesn’t think religion makes people better (it sure doesn’t eliminate her fondness for violence in various forms), whereas I — an atheist — think it just might make people better. “Behave or go to Hell” is a pretty powerful motivator for some people, love of God an incentive to charity for many, and without question “Thou shalt not steal” one of the most important libertarian memes of all time (such thoughts are what make me able to tolerate the religious right and even have some sympathy for the Straussians — remember the Straussians? — with their belief that atheists should defer to religion to maintain social order). Still, those beneficial impulses might exist to roughly the same extent, albeit with different philosophical glosses, in a world without religion. It’s a tricky question, but luckily Dacey and Weinstein can work out the details while I listen.

And Helen and I have managed to keep the peace for six months now, if you start the counting (perhaps a bit early) from the Echo and the Bunnymen concert we went to back on October 1. And counting from that day lends extra weight to April Fool’s Day, so why not make that a night of both combat and celebration, the way Helen likes it? Be there in one week.


A few other random thoughts about religion as a mixed blessing (so to speak):

•One of my fellow ABC News veterans (not anyone I knew) was murdered this week in the midst of gay rough sex with a reportedly Satanist-anarchist teenager he met through Craigslist, which is about as tawdry an end as one could come to, I’d say — and somehow when I first heard the victim’s neighbors being reported as saying how nice he was to total strangers, I had a feeling it’d be something like this, though not quite to this extreme. To plenty of Americans, of course, this incident would be proof that we need to be on guard against Satan, anarchists, gays, and New York media personalities, though I can’t help thinking every time something bad happens involving a self-proclaimed Satanist that there’s only one place, ultimately, that people learn Satanism, and that’s from Christianity. You don’t see materialists like me trying to summon demons or expecting magic from goat sacrifices.

•I had brief fallings-out with two, count them two, very political Catholic acquaintances, right-wing Dawn Eden and left-wing Sander Hicks, years ago over Lolita Bar merely hosting a speech about Pinochet’s good points (there are some). The guy who gave the speech wasn’t too happy with the whole ruckus, either, nor, most likely, with my JOKING suggestion that we scrap the controversial planned speech in favor of a defense of Hitler. It’s hard to keep everyone happy when they think eternity or the historical dialectic is at stake, or both at the same time. Sander’s gone on to become something of a conspiracy theorist — but he also hates the banks bailout, so by the time the revolution comes, we may yet see all the interesting people fighting on the same side, which will be nice. (Our debates moderator, Michel Evanchik, is also Catholic, as it happens, and for a “moderator” he’s pretty opinionated himself.)

Michael Malice has joked that people he prays for (just as an experiment) seem to get cancer, as in the cases of a man who was hoping to give Dawn Eden a job and then later Dawn herself — and though Dawn is doing fine now, I can’t help noticing that she just mentioned her fellow religious author (and our fellow New York Press veteran) Mark Gauvreau Judge also having cancer. Best that Malice not pray for him, I think. Coincidentally or not, both Howard Stern and director Vincent Gallo have also joked (?) that they suspect themselves of having the power to give people cancer — specifically to give Roger Ebert cancer, in Vincent Gallo’s case (for Ebert’s harsh review of Brown Bunny). And there are undeniable personality commonalities among Stern, Gallo, and Malice. Not that I’m suggesting any actual supernatural forces at work here (or anywhere), of course.

•Meanwhile, I see Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (or “bee-otch,” after his drubbing in debate with Christopher Hitchens a year ago) is battling one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in a public debate, or rather a former Power Rangers actress who has just written her second pro-libido book on being a “Hot Chick.” Strange world. As it happens, I recall that shortly before my time at ABC News, there was a John Stossel special about gender differences that illustrated the concept of males being willing to do embarrassing things to gain power by showing Newt Gingrich shaking hands with people dressed as the Power Rangers at some event. Reality seems so very distant at times.

•And this week, anyone keen to show the social benefits of religion must contend with the fact that a horde of Orthodox Jews here in New York — for all their admirable sense of community and traditionalism — went berserk and attacked a deli owner for accidentally selling them non-kosher hotdogs. You know, Jonathan Swift was one of my early inspirations to be a writer, and even when I was young and more enthusiastically and simplistically anti-religion, I thought his characterization of religious disputants as akin to people fighting over which end of an egg to eat first was unfair. Yet in my ostensibly modern and cosmopolitan city, a food vendor was just reduced to using an electric carving knife to fend off an angry mob that thinks God hates their hotdogs. Maybe Jonathan Swift had the right idea after all.

But again, you can discuss that with us on April Fool’s Day (really) — and chat with Helen before hiring her, if you want to kill two birds with one stone.


Christopher said...

“a horde of Orthodox Jews here in New York รข€” for all their admirable sense of community and traditionalism”

There have actually been some interesting articles recently about a growing number of sex abuse scandals in Orthodox communities in NY. It seems like such things have been going on for some time but have been kept “within the community” until recently.

Catholics, any advice to offer now that your priests have basically become punch-lines for sex abuse jokes?

Todd Seavey said...

I will say — without knowing details — that one possible disanalogy is that the bad Catholic priests apparently have tended to be from a liberal 1960s cohort, sometimes in relationships with teen boys rather than smaller children, which arguably makes that organization’s problem one of managing liberal transformations rather than one of pure traditionalist insularity. That excuses nothing but makes it more difficult to discern which way reform lies.

Of course, you could do away with such (t)horny issues by just disbanding all religions, which may be what we do next week if things get _really_ interesting. There’ll still be plenty of bad people in the world, though.

Interestingly, stats suggest, I gather, that atheists are more law-abiding than religious believers — but that _unchurched_ but _believing_ individuals are the most prone to criminal and anti-social acts. So the trick is to leap-frog to law-abiding atheism for the whole population without going through a period of merely unchurched moral drift. I cannot promise this will go smoothly.

Christopher said...

Personally I think the issue is not liberalism or tradition, but rather hierarchies based on absurd superstitions that lead followers to believe that priests, rabbis, Zen masters, etc. have special spiritual authority and are thus to be given a pass for certain types of behavior. The abusers obviously use this to keep victims quiet and the communities are often complicit for similar reasons.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Ten idiocy-related texts for this April Fool’s Day (which is also the day of our big Debate at Lolita Bar about religion between Secular Conscience author Austin Dacey and Up, Up, and Oy Vey!/Shtick Shift author Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, of course): [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] •Perhaps the offense against scientific standards of rationality committed by “young-Earth creationists” (of whom we likely had none in last night’s skeptic-heavy debate audience, which, despite a courageous and very well-received effort by Rabbi Simcha, voted overwhelmingly that religion does not make people better). [...]

toddseavey said...

Here’s audio of the Debate at Lolita Bar on the question “Does Religion Make People Better?”

Seek said...

I see the Haredi (i.e., Hasidic) Jews as a cancer on the face of the Jewish comunity — crude, violent, corrupt, and incapable of handling even a simple, much less complex idea. Truly, they are the Jewish equivalent of the Taliban. This hyper-conformist cult is further proof that localism doen’t necessarily lend itself to liberty. They make me ashamed to be Jewish.