November 14, 2015

QotD: Which religious group should organize your hypothetical rescue from terrorists?

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Suppose you were kidnapped by terrorists, and you needed someone to organize a rescue. Would you prefer the task be delegated to the Unitarians, or the Mormons?

This question isn’t about whether you think an individual Unitarian or Mormon would make a better person to rush in Rambo-style and get you out of there. It’s about whether you would prefer the Unitarian Church or the Mormon Church to coordinate your rescue.

I would go with the Mormons. The Mormons seem effective in all sorts of ways. They’re effective evangelists. They’re effect[ive] fundraisers. They’re effective at keeping the average believer following their commandments. They would figure out a plan, implement it, and come in guns-blazing.

The Unitarians would be a disaster. First someone would interrupt the discussion to ask whether it’s fair to use the word “terrorists”, or whether we should use the less judgmental “militant”. Several people would note that until investigating the situation more clearly, they can’t even be sure the terrorists aren’t in the right in this case. In fact, what is “right” anyway? An attempt to shut down this discussion to focus more on the object-level problem would be met with cries of “censorship!”.

If anyone did come up with a plan, a hundred different pedants would try to display their intelligence by nitpicking meaningless details. Eventually some people would say that it’s an outrage that no one’s even considering whether the bullets being used are recyclable, and decide to split off and mount their own, ecologically-friendly rescue attempt. In the end, four different schismatic rescue attempts would run into each other, mistake each other for the enemy, and annhilate themselves while the actual terrorists never even hear about it.

(if it were Reform Jews, the story would be broadly similar, but with twenty different rescue attempts, and I say this fondly, as someone who attended a liberal synagogue for ten years)

One relevant difference between Mormons and Unitarians seems to be a cultural one. It’s not quite that the Mormons value conformity and the Unitarians value indivduality – that’s not exactly wrong, but it’s letting progressives bend language to their will, the same way as calling the two sides of the abortion debate “pro-freedom” and “anti-woman” or whatever they do nowadays. It’s more like a Mormon norm that the proper goal of a discussion is agreement, and a Unitarian norm that the proper goal of a discussion is disagreement.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a lot of groups, which is something along the lines of “diversity is what unites us”. This is nice and memorable, but there are other groups where unity is what unites them, and they seem to be more, well, united.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

October 28, 2015

Europe: The First Crusade – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 19 Sep 2015

Time to look back on the First Crusade and talk about errors and stories that didn’t make the final cut! The religious nature of the First Crusade meant that many of the primary sources for it (certainly on the Christian side) had a vested interest in reinforcing the idea that the crusaders had the blessing of God. Untangling the truth from their stories reminds us that there is no such thing as “the real story” when it comes to history: our modern perspective cannot help but shape the way we see these events also, and even to the extent that we try to set aside our bias, the conflicting accounts mean we still have to conjecture about what’s most correct. This episode also features answers to questions posed by our supporters on Patreon!

October 22, 2015

Europe: The First Crusade – VI: On to Jerusalem – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 12 Sep 2015

The Crusaders now held Antioch, but not securely. The Turks still control the citadel atop the mountain and had a massive army coming to reinforce them. The situation grew worse when Stephen of Blois deserted from the Crusades, and told the Byzantine reinforcements not to bother: he believed Antioch would fall immediately. Now entirely on their own, the Crusaders held the wall in constant vigil until a mystic named Peter Bartholomew claimed to have received a vision from Saint Andrew. Guided by his vision, he discovered metal which he claimed to be the holy lance of Longinus – nevermind that the church already had the holy lance in its possession. Though the Crusade leaders had doubts, the soldiers were inspired so they launched an assault on the Turkish armies. Surprisingly, they won the day: the Turks did not fully support their leader, Kerbogha, and many took the Crusade counter-attack as an excuse to abandon the siege. Bohemond now kept Antioch, while Raymond of Toulouse – after the disastrous Siege of Maarat led the soldiers to commit acts of cannibalism – took the remains of the army south to Jerusalem. His attempt to capture a small city called Arqa along the way almost fractured the crusade army again, and did lead to the death of Peter Bartholomew. They arrived in Jerusalem to find the local wells poisoned, giving them no choice but to attack the city head-on. After days of intense fighting, they won their way inside the walls and began a massive slaughter of the people who still lived inside Jerusalem – the Christian population had been expelled, leaving only Muslims and Jews still in the city. And thus, with Antioch and Jerusalem both in crusader hands, the First Crusade came to an end.

October 15, 2015

Europe: The First Crusade – V: Siege of Antioch – Extra History

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 5 Sep 2015

After their victory at the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Crusaders have an open path to Antioch and beyond that, Jerusalem. After the Sultan of Rum, Kilij Arslan, ordered the wells destroyed along their path, the Crusaders struggled through the desert and eventually decided to split their forces. Tancred and Baldwin set off towards Tarsus and Tancred tricked the Turkish garrison into surrendering to him, but Baldwin claimed the city for himself and broke his oath to the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos. Tensions between the two lead to another confrontation in the next city, after which Baldwin abandoned the Crusade entirely and conned his way into becoming the Count of Edessa. Tancred meanwhile returned to the main force of Crusaders, who were besieging Antioch. When a force led by Bohemond and Robert of Flanders met Antioch’s Turkish reinforcements on a foraging mission, they attacked them and scared them away. Then Bohemond tricked the Byzantine general into leaving as well, and threatened to leave himself unless the Crusaders let him keep Antioch. They had no choice but to agree to keep their forces together. With this assurance, Bohemond engineered the capture of Antioch: he bribed a Turkish commander to let them through the gates. The Crusaders massacred the people of Antioch when the city fell, but they had no time to rest after their victory: a huge Turkish army was already bearing down on them.

October 8, 2015

Europe: The First Crusade – IV: Men of Iron – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 29 Aug 2015

Having sworn their oaths to Emperor Alexius Comnenus, the Crusaders finally sailed across the Bosphorus River to Turkey. When they disembarked, however, there were no Turkish armies waiting for them. Unopposed, they marched to Nicaea, the capitol of the Sultanate of Rum, and laid siege to it. At last word reached the sultan, Kilij Arslan, who rode back to save his city (and his family) only to realize that this army of crusaders was much larger and better organized than the People’s Crusade which had come before. They had not yet realized, however, that the city of Nicaea was being secretly resupplied by ships arriving by night from Lake Askania. Once they did, the Byzantines transported their own ships overland to blockade the lake and launch a coordinated assault with the crusaders to force the city to surrender. The crusaders marched towards Jerusalem, but along the way, the Turks launched a surprise assault on Bohemond’s army. He ordered his knights to form a shield wall around the priests and civilians traveling with them, and they held for hours under a burning sun until reinforcements from the other crusading armies arrived. They rallied, defeated the Turks, and resumed their march.

October 1, 2015

Europe: The First Crusade – III: A Good Crusade? – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 22 Aug 2015

Although it finds Peter the Hermit’s group from the People’s Crusade in shambles, the summer of 1096 finally sees the “official” forces of the First Crusade set out for Jerusalem. This was not one army, however, but five separate armies led by men with very different motivations and sympathies – many of them surprisingly hostile towards the Pope or the Byzantine Empire. Hugh of Vermandois, brother of the King of France, led one army despite his brother having been excommunicated by Pope Urban II. Godfrey de Bouillon from the German territory had actually helped kick the Pope out of Rome and install the anti-Pope. Bohemond of Taranto brought an army whose experience primarily came from fighting the Romans twelve years prior. Raymond of Toulouse led the largest army and believed himself the main leader of the Crusade, despite the fact that he traveled with the Pope’s appointed leader, Bishop Adhemar. Only Robert of Flanders could be said to be on good terms with both the Pope and the Eastern Roman Empire. When the five armies arrived in Constantinople, Emperor Alexius Comnenus approached them all privately with bribes and threats to get them to swear an oath that any land they conquered on Crusade would be returned to him. They all took it (except Bohemond’s nephew, Tancred) and so the emperor sent them across the Bosphorus to attack the Turks at last.

September 27, 2015

If the Pope actually cares about the world’s poorest, he should embrace capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

His Holiness the Pope would do far better for the remaining billion truly poor people on the planet if he ignored the blandishments of the anti-capitalists and looked at the actual track record of free enterprise in the developing world:

He has been called the “slum pope” and “a pope for the poor.” And indeed, it’s true that Pope Francis, leader to 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, speaks often of those in need. He’s described the amount of poverty and inequality in the world as “a scandal” and implored the Church to fight what he sees as a “culture of exclusion.”

Yet even as he calls for greater concern for the marginalized, he broadly and cavalierly condemns the market-driven economic development that has lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty within the lifetime of the typical millennial. A lack of understanding of even basic economic concepts has led one of the most influential and beloved human beings on the planet to decry free enterprise, opine that private property rights must not be treated as “inviolable,” hold up as the ideal “cooperatives of small producers” over “economies of scale,” accuse the Western world of “scandalous level[s] of consumption,” and assert that we need “to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits.”

Given his vast influence, which extends far beyond practicing Catholics, this type of rhetoric is deeply troubling. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact his words are having on concrete policy decisions — but it’s implausible to deny that when he calls for regulating and constraining the free markets and economic growth that alleviate truly crushing poverty, the world is listening. As a libertarian who is also a devout Roman Catholic, I’m afraid as well that statements like these from Pope Francis reinforce the mistaken notion that libertarianism and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

There’s no question that the pope at times seems downright hostile to much of what market-loving Catholics believe. In this summer’s lauded-by-the-press environmental encyclical Laudato Si (from which the quotes in the second paragraph were drawn), Pope Francis wrote that people who trust the invisible hand suffer from the same mindset that leads to slavery and “the sexual exploitation of children.” In Evangelii Gaudium, his 2013 apostolic exhortation, he chastised those who “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

Even more frustratingly, he asserted that such a belief in free markets “has never been confirmed by the facts.” Worse still, this year he stated in an interview: “I recognize that globalization has helped many people to lift themselves out of poverty, but it has condemned many other people to starve. It is true that in absolute terms the world’s wealth has grown, but inequality and poverty have arisen.” Globalization has caused poverty to “arise” and “condemned…many people to starve”?

A man Politico described as insisting “reality comes before theory” could not be more mistaken about the empirical truth of capitalism’s role in our world. While income inequality within developed countries may be growing, the income gap between the First World and the rest of the world is decreasing fast. As the World Bank’s Branko Milanovic has documented, we are in the midst of “the first decline in global inequality between world citizens since the Industrial Revolution.” In 1960, notes the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy, the average America earned 11 times more than the average resident of Asia. Today, Americans make 4.8 times as much. “The narrowing of the income gap,” Tupy found, “is a result of growing incomes in the rest of the world,” not a decline in incomes in developed nations.

September 24, 2015

Al Stewart – “Constantinople”

Filed under: Europe, History, Media, Middle East — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Uploaded on 24 Sep 2010

A song about the fall of Constantinople.

Al Stewart – Constantinople Lyrics

Across the western world
The fights are going down
The gypsy armies of the evening
Have lit their fires across
The nether side of town
They will not pass this way again
So here in the night
Leave your home it’s time for running
Out of the light

I see the hosts of Mohammed coming
The Holy Sister bars her doors against the East
Her house has stood too long divided
The uninvited guests are breaking up the feast
She may not bid them leave again
So here in the night
Leave your home it’s time for running
Out of the light

I see the hosts of Mohammed coming
I dreamed I stood like this before
And I’m sure the words that I heard then
Were much the same
It’s just an old Greek tragedy they’re acting here
Held over by popular acclaim
So here in the night
Leave your home it’s time for running
Out of the light
I see the hosts of Mohammed coming

Europe: The First Crusade – II: Peter the Hermit – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 15 Aug 2015

Emicho of Leiningen and Walters sans Avoir certainly made a mark, but the largest group in the People’s Crusade was led by Peter the Hermit. To gain passage through Hungary, they swore an oath not to destroy anything, but the lack of real leadership for their group became clear when they very quickly started a market brawl, stormed the local citadel, then fled to Belgrade and immediately repeated their aggression by turning on the Byzantine troops sent to keep them in line. At the city of Niŝ, the Byzantine troops pinned them down and slaughtered a quarter of the entire crusading “army.” The remainder fled to Constantinople and secured passage into Turkey, but the group fractured from within and became two separate factions, with Peter leading one and a man named Reinald leading the other. Both factions competed for bragging rights, committing horrible atrocities to outdo each other. One group actually managed to siege a castle, but it had no water supply, so they were easily starved out by the Turks. The Turks, however, spread a rumor that this group had actually gone on to capture the capitol city, and the remaining crusaders set out to join what they thought would be a loot extravaganza. Instead, they ran into a Turkish ambush that left only 3,000 of their 20,000 soldiers alive. Now led by Geoffrey Burel, they retreated to Constantinople.

September 17, 2015

Europe : The First Crusade – I: The People’s Crusade – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 8 Aug 2015

In 1095CE, Pope Urban gathered the leaders of the Christian community at the Council of Clermont. Urged on by Emperor Alexius Comnenos of Constantinople, he called for a crusade to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims who occupied Jerusalem. Muslims had occupied the Holy Land for over 400 years, but the timing was politically right for the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor. Pope Urban wanted to re-unite Christendom after the anti-Pope kicked him out of Rome, while Alexius Comnenus wanted to retake the territory he had recently lost in Anatolia from the Seljuq Turks. As incentive, the Pope offered crusaders a plenary indulgence: complete forgiveness for past sins in the eyes of God and the church. It worked too well. While the official armies of the Crusade prepared, a charismatic leader named Peter the Hermit began preaching directly to the people, claiming Jesus had sent him to lead them on Crusade. Walter sans Avoir joined him in France, and a man named Count Emicho of Leiningen emulated him in Germany. Both peasant groups met with and created disaster: Walter Sans Avoir’s group pillaged Belgrade while Count Emicho’s group turned on the local Jewish population as an excuse to slaughter them. Thus the First Crusade began with a disastrous People’s Crusade.

September 9, 2015

“For some reason she rarely has the scarlet ‘(D)’ printed next to her name underneath the photos of her looking like an indignant troll doll”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Colby Cosh has more on the controversy over Kim Davis and her beliefs:

The U.S. District Court, petitioned by the unhappy couple, duly ordered Davis to cut out the nonsense at once. She continued to refuse, creating another much-photographed scene at her office, and was summoned back to court Sept. 3 to explain. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that tireless friend to the friendless, actually intervened on Davis’s behalf; it disagrees formally with her view on the law, but it asked that she be fined for contempt of court, rather than imprisoned.

Judge David Bunning was having none of it, and put her in the clink. He says he expects to revisit his decision after Davis has cooled her heels for about a week, after which time the gays and lesbians of Rowan County will have had a fair crack at obtaining permission to marry. Five of Davis’s six underlings told Judge Bunning they are willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the meantime. The sixth is her son, but the judge indulgently overlooked his impudence and calculated that five pairs of writing hands would be plenty to handle the work.

The tangential presence of the ACLU in the legal battle reminds us that there are some features of the United States that remain admirable — that the country has not yet totally degenerated into a shouting match of contending personal narcissisms. Another one is that there have been at least as many demonstrators on behalf of same-sex marriage rights as friends of Kim Davis at the offices of the Rowan County clerk. It is, with all due respect, a place hitherto best known in American history for a 19th-century blood feud between moonshiners.

When part of your job offends your religious beliefs, you have two choices…

Filed under: Business, Liberty, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

… and those choices are either get a different job or accept that your religious objection does not free you from having to perform all of the normal duties of the job. Some people, however, have the fixed notion that their religious beliefs must be respected and deferred to by everyone:

I’ve said it before but religious people really seem to believe that their religion ought to grant them special, legal privileges which are not provided to the rest of us. For some reason, certain people are so entitled that they believe their spiritual beliefs can be used to justify their own idiotic behavior, and if you dare to criticize them for their idiotic, unfair, or immature decisions that is evidence that you are simply an anti-religious bigot. What’s especially bizarre is that no other ideology is treated in the same way. If I were an investment banker and started refusing to do my job on the grounds that I was a socialist or if I were a cop and started refusing to make drug arrests on the grounds that I was a libertarian, no one would ever even attempt to argue that this was justifiable behavior. However, if I refuse to do my job because I’ve decided certain aspects of that job are against my religion, suddenly millions of people will view me as a martyr and I can expect pro bono legal counsel as members of my religious sect rush dutifully to my aid.

This situation is getting frankly ridiculous. The most famous recent example, obviously, is Kim Davis — a woman who was elected to a position that required her to issue marriage licenses and began refusing to do her job after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. If she didn’t want to do her job, there was one relatively simple option which was available to her since the very beginning and is still available to her should she choose to exercise that option — she could just quit. That would, in fact, be the adult thing to do if she feels that her religious beliefs do not allow her to meet her current job requirements, but instead she has decided to turn herself into some sort of ridiculous martyr to the religious right … and of course her $80,000 a year government salary, courtesy of the tax payers of Rowan County, Kentucky, probably had something to do with this decision. She deeply and truly loves her God, you see, but doesn’t love him quite enough to forego that sweet-ass government pension plan on his behalf.

Everyone knows the Kim Davis story, but what many people do not know is that at this very instant there is a virtually identical story involving a Muslim employee’s dispute with a Midwestern regional airline called ExpressJet. The woman’s name is Charee Stanley. Three years ago she became a stewardess for ExpressJet and then two years ago, presumably after sustaining some sort of catastrophic brain injury, she decided to convert to Islam. After her conversion, she found that her new faith frowned upon the serving of alcoholic beverages, so she began refusing to serve alcohol to passengers. More recently, she was suspended from her position pending a review because other flight attendants complained that they were being required to do her work in addition to their own. I personally don’t feel this is a particularly unreasonable complaint, and if it had been up to me, Ms. Stanley wouldn’t have simply been suspended, she would have been fired immediately for failure to meet her job requirements.

And just to prove you don’t need to actually be religious to hold this kind of belief, there’s also mention of Canada’s own Christian atheist, Reverend Gretta Vosper of West Hill United Church.

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 1 Aug 2015

We take a rest in the middle of our Justinian and Theodora series to look back at the story so far and correct a few things! But the errors we made (minarets on the Hagia Sophia!) and the questions viewers have asked us give us the opportunity to expand on many parts of the story that we had to leave out of the series, and we encourage you to perform a full dive into this history to learn about the Hagia Sophia‘s construction, early doctrines of Christianity, and many more details about the life of Belisarius. Plus, James can’t resist the temptation to play Five Degrees of Walpole to see how our infamous meddler from the South Sea Bubble series can be connected to the history of Justinian and Theodora!

September 7, 2015

QotD: The Crusades

Filed under: History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression — an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity — and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion — has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

Thomas F. Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades”, Crisis Magazine, 2002-04-01.

September 1, 2015

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – VI: Fighting for Rome – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Jul 2015

Belisarius has only just taken Neapolis when the king of the Ostrogoths is overthrown. The new king, Vitiges, withdraws from Rome entirely to consolidate his power, allowing Belisarius to take Rome without a fight. But after Vitiges gathers his troops, he marches to retake Rome. He springs a surprise attack on Belisarius at the Salarian Bridge, which the Roman general barely escapes. Now he must survive in a city under siege, invening ship mills to continue producing the grain that feeds the city and training the civilians as soldiers. He holds off the Ostrogoths until reinforcements from Justinian arrive. After an indecisive battle, he agrees to a truce with Vitiges, which gives him time to position his troops. When the Ostrogoths break the truce, Belisarius is ready for them and crushes their force to drive them finally out of Rome.

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