Reason Freely

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

Posted in review by reasonfreely on October 26, 2010

A co-worker of mine read Sharlett’s The Family and suggested I read it myself.  He and I are very different:  He’s extremely faithful, but suspicious of religious institutions.  I’m suspicious of claims of the supernatural, but optimistic about the charity works of religious institutions.  We probably come together on this sort of issue.  We also agree on politics.

The Family chronicles the history of American fundamentalism, both popular and elite.  He focuses on the branching of elite fundamentalism, though, and its implications for American politics.  The thesis of the book is that there is an elite fundamentalism that is largely independent of political party that reveres power through the belief in the concept of Key Men — God puts key men into positions of power.  This philosophy tautologically justifies a powerful man’s actions and helps him feel like he not only deserves his power, God wills it.  The Key Man idea requires sister concepts such as submission to authority — those beneath the Key Man must submit to God’s Will through him, and he must submit to Jesus.  If a man deposes another man for power, it was because God willed it; if he fails, it is because it was not God’s Will.  Power, power power.  Let me quote a passage:


“Absence?” I said, realizing that what he meant by the absence of doubt was the absence of self-awareness…

…God was just what Bengt desired him to be, even as Bengt was, in the face of God, “nothing.”  Not for aesthetics alone, I realized, did Bengt and the Family reject the label Christian…  His commands phrased as questions, His will as palpable as ones own desires.  And what the Family desired, from Abraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power…


Power is revered by prayer cells at the highest levels, arranged by The Family, the group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast among so many other things.  They use prayer cells as ways to organize access to power, to enforce consensus on political aims, and to spread the Idea.  What political ideas does the Family push?  Concepts that help their Key Men in positions of power, of course:  Free-trade and electoral obfuscation (e.g. the Citizens United case); but also politics of authority:  Pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, etc.

Sharlett returns to this theme over and over.  Contemporary American fundamentalism does not care for the nuances of scripture, so arguments from scripture are pointless.  That leaves only arguments from authority and appeals to emotion — the tools that are used to drive elite and popular fundamentalism, respectively.

One problem I found with The Family is that Sharlett doesn’t offer a good alternative.  He spends one or two pages discussing “deliverance” (by seeking, questioning, reflecting) as an idea that can defeat the big idea of “salvation” (through submission and banishing reflection); but he doesn’t create a clear path to a nationwide elite or popular ideology of deliverance — secular or sacred.

It made me want to go back to writing a book on how Jesus was a communist.


Health News Reviews

Posted in review by reasonfreely on May 27, 2010

GOOD:  Paid for by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, this site uses a standardized set of ten criteria to review medical news articles, judging them by how completely and accurately they inform the consumer.  The site is run by doctors, and the reviewers are doctors and public health professionals mixed with journalism professionals.

BAD:  To date the site has reviewed just 1,062 articles in 4 years.  That’s not even one per day.  Your chances of finding a review of a specific article on a given day are slim, especially if it’s a specialized topic or a secondary news source (e.g. blog, website, TV).

Overall, this site is great and I intend to follow it as time permits.  I’ll probably use it for future health posts.

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Review and Essay: Misquoting Jesus

Posted in essay, review by reasonfreely on February 19, 2010
“The bible must be seen in a cultural context. It didn’t just happen. These stories are retreads. But, tell a Christian that — No, No! What makes it doubly sad is that they hardly know the book, much less its origins.”  -Isaac Asimov

Asimov brings up a point that Bart Ehrman makes in his own autobiographical introduction to Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why: Most Christians, especially fundamentalists and biblical literalists, don’t know the origins of the bible they read and revere.  Ehrman started off as a born again evangelical, so serious about his religion that he wanted to become a bible scholar.   His story led him down a path toward reasoning freely as his independent scholarship threw off the shackles of authority (the evangelical preachers and bible study leaders of his childhood) and let him reconstruct the bible himself.  By his work, lay readers can skip the years of graduate education and see where the bible came from themselves.


Review: The Wine Trials 2010

Posted in review by reasonfreely on February 10, 2010

Take hundreds of wines that are commonly available nationwide, varying in price from $3-150.  Randomly pick a few at a time, staying within a major flavor category (e.g. heavy new world red).  Put them in brown bags and number them.  Have groups of people taste rank sets of wine, blind.  Repeat until thousands of people have tasted hundreds of wines.  Look at the results, creating a ordinal-ranked ladder.   That should give you an objective measure of wine quality.

Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch did just that in The Wine Trials 2010, and to ice the cake, they gave us a list of the blind tasters’ top 150 wines for $15 and under.  Their shocking finding was that those “under $15” wines were the category winners.

The recommendations list is appropriately humble, and what I’ve tasted from their list (only 4 of the wines) everything has been good.  As a list to guide your everyday wine purchases, it’s worth the cover price.

But as a piece of skeptical inquiry that exposes wine rating, wine pricing and wine judging as biased and unreliable, well, it’s pretty… acerbic.


Review and Essay: god is not Great; On Secular Heresy

Posted in essay, review by reasonfreely on February 3, 2010

Last month, I read god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.   I found it engaging and entertaining, and I would recommend it to anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, or freethinker.  There is one kind of person above all that I think would love this book, and that person is not really an atheist or freethinker.  She is that person you hear saying “I’m not a fan of organized religion” though she may espouse some faith in a deity, she considers the Second Estate cumbersome, self-serving or straight up corrupt.  Hitchens does not offer a strong argument that god does not exist.  He argues that it is ridiculous to follow the major religions, and leaves open the question of whether some prime mover exists or not (though he repeatedly states that such a deity is unnecessary and irrelevant).