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SIHTAF: Pleading Prisoners’ Plasticity of Personal Piety

towerofbabelUnder the category of SIHTAF (Stuff I‘ll Have To Apologize For) is the ever-popular cocktail party saw of prisoner’s rights lawsuits. Inevitably, the complaint will be that there are too many frivolous lawsuits like the prisoner who sued for cruel and unusual punishment because he got chunky peanut butter instead of creamy.1

Related, I recall that several years ago, when I was more interested in the idea of the “secular movement” than I am now, I noticed repetition of the claim that .2% of prisoners are atheists. Advocacy groups love this claim, stretching it well beyond the reasonable inferences one might derive from it to suggest that atheists are more moral in their behavior than believers. It struck me as a claim about which to be somewhat critical. And it turns out that the real number is murkier than that, probably lower than that, at and in all levels of interpretation lower than the percentage of atheists in the population at large.

I’d always figured that whatever the number, it would really be irrelevant because filtering people from the population at large for self-identified “atheism” tends to produce a resulting sample that is much whiter, much better-educated, and much more affluent than the general population. Since race, education, and affluence are three principal factors affecting the likelihood of being incarcerated in the first place, it’s entirely possible that what’s really going on is that rich, educated white people don’t go to prison all that much compared to their less affluent, less well-educated, and less melanin-deprived neighbors. Gratefully, I’m not the only atheist who understands this.

Nor is this the only issue in play: intuitively, I’d always figured that religions seem to gain converts by being available for solace when people are in emotionally vulnerable states. Let me hold back from implying some sort of cynical predation going on: although people in times of grief or loss or despair or fear seem to be emotionally vulnerable to cathartic experiences and thus to the religious imagery associated with them, I firmly believe that those who proselytize to those in such states do so for reasons of empathy and compassion. They wish to solace the grieving, to dull the pain of loss, to provide hope to those in despair and courage to those in fear. And people who find themselves in prison are surely not at high points emotionally.

Furthermore, prisoners have a need for religion. In a somewhat cynical mood, I once theorized that a prisoner might calculate that members of parole boards could be moved by a prisoner describing a religious conversion. Adherence to a religion indicates adoption of that religion’s moral code, which if credited, would tend to suggest that the prisoner was reforming and less likely to commit crimes in the future. Participation in a religion would suggest a desire for a parolee to associate with a church, providing a social support group, again reducing the likelihood of recidivism. And, a member of a parole board might reasonably be expected to be a person who puts a high personal value on both social conformity and personal faith within his or her own life, so a prisoner who made a point of saying “that’s what I want to be like” could thus curry favor in a bid for parole. It might not even matter all that much whether the parole board member’s personal religion was the same as the prisoner’s — seemingly any religion would do to present those positive criteria in a case where the decision to let a prisoner out early was marginal.

Atheism, on the other hand, carries something of a stigma to some people who question whether morality is possible to the godless. To present oneself as an atheist to a parole board would run the risk of proclaiming a rejection of traditional systems of morality and thus could diminish one’s chances of being paroled. So, I theorized in a somewhat cynical way, there were incentives built in to the way incarceration is handled that would propel even a nonbeliever to at least go through the motions and change self-identification, even if as an inner matter that person never really believed.

All of the two paragraphs above was pretty much pure speculation on my part, though, until I read about an atheist prisoner’s in-prison religious experience in the Washington Post. This atheist fell victim to substance addiction and robbed some stores to feed that addiction. He was Jewish by background but had given up on faith at about the same age I did, 16, although he seems to have been more consciously aware of that than I was at that age. But his atheism slipped after being convicted, and he prayed to some inchoate higher power for a reduced sentence. His prayer was not answered.

But that’s when things get interesting. Upon admittance, he self-identified as Jewish rather than atheist. Why?

My motivation wasn’t the access to kosher meals or a desire to belong to a clan in prison, though both drive convicts’ religious affiliations behind bars. I opted in because I wanted to work for rabbis, a job that would put me in the company of educated thinkers whom I could relate to during the lonely decade I had stretching before me.

I’d never thought about these things. Better food. A tribe to affiliate with right away. If I’d thought about it or were facing prison myself, I might have puzzled those things through. But a better job in prison — the sort of vocational activity on the inside that would provide for interaction with educated people — makes me think this guy was being kind of clever. Not everyone will be so fortunate as to have an erudite and articulate, if understandably bitter, cellmate.

But the other thing described that really jumps out at me is the proliferation of non-mainstream faiths:

During my decade behind bars, I met thousands of prisoners in 12 of New York’s joints, both maximum- and medium-security. I spoke with agents of Opus Dei, Fez-wearing Moorish Science Temple members, a few Druids and a surprisingly nice Satanist. I encountered Wiccans (warlocks, never witches),2 Odinists (worshipers of the Norse pantheon and almost exclusively white supremacists, though one Colombian was brought in), Nation of Islam men in bow ties (Farrakhan’s Muslims), Hebrew Israelites (black Jews), Zen Buddhists (meditation pushers), one Sikh (a Kashmiri cabbie who killed his passenger but fed me curry) and one Jedi (charming fellow, heinous murder). No one but me believed in nothing.

One of the jokes that secularists bandy about to one another is that there really aren’t any people out there worshiping the old gods like Thor and Odin anymore.3 Except, it seems, in American prisons, where there are some people doing exactly that.

There are all sorts of reasons why the flavors of faith most popular in the outside world might be thought uninteresting to the incarcerated, and the article explores some of them as emotional, intellectual, social, and practical considerations on the part of the prisoners. Some of these might be undertaken with high levels of sincerity and others with high levels of cynicism, but as our author describes it, there seems to be something of an incentive to change religious self-identification often in prison, to the point that the prison system imposed a one-conversion-per-year limit.

And this puts into perspective the issue of the interaction of personal faith, prison administration, and the law. Religion can affect quite a lot of things that would come up in a prisoner’s life. Food is probably pretty important. Being able to hook up with a good crew would be essential if only from a mutual protection standpoint. Access to reading material to keep one’s mind sharp would matter a lot.

But the real thing that occurs to me is that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) is currently in a waxing gibbous phase before the judiciary. A prisoner who claims a religious belief requiring a particular kind of practice could reasonably expect minimal scrutiny of the belief and the practice and whatever kind of prison rule is implicated, and instead enjoy the spectacle of the courts requiring the state’s attorneys to offer elaborate and credibility-straining justifications before eventually losing and having to make special accommodations. It might start with a beard, but there seems to be no limit to where the prisoner-making-the-warden-dance charade might end.

Now reading firsthand that the flower of religious diversity finds especially verdant fields inside the walls of America’s correctional institutions strongly suggests to me that these kinds of claims are going to escalate and accelerate over the next several years — and that we’re going to see claims of religious belief that look somewhat unusual to those of us who tend to encounter only various flavors and intensities of the three principal Abrahamic monotheisms in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps that’s what Congress wants, although I tend to think that it won’t be nearly so attractive in practice as it is in theory. Perhaps that’s where the eventual brake on the seemingly limitless judicial deference to religious rights will eventually come from: the least charismatic litigants possible making the most cynical demands possible, for no better reason than that, at least by all appearances to the outside world, they really have nothing better to do.

The WaPo piece suggests that there might be some nuance to the “nothing better to do” gripe, that the value of religious identification to prisoners may well be different than it is to free people. For us on the outside, it’s a way of living our lives in harmony with our beliefs (or lack thereof) and attaining happiness. For someone on the inside, it might be at some level a survival tactic.

Something to bear in mind as the litigation starts to build up.

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1 There was never any such lawsuit. George Will wrote in 1995 in Newsweek to agitate support for a bill restricting the kinds of remedies that prisoners could gain in lawsuits against prisons, and he described in his column a prisoner bringing such a suit. George F. Will, 1995: “Oh, a Revolution,” Newsweek, Dec. 25, 1995, at 136. The judge who handled the suit, wrote a few weeks later taking Will to task for mischaracterizing the suit: the claim was that the prisoner returned an unopened jar of peanut butter to the prison’s canteen and he was not given credit for the $2.50 deducted from his account to purchase it — the judge noted that $2.50 in a prisoner’s canteen account was not a trivial matter to the prisoner; while some prison lawsuits were frivolous the judge did not think that this one could be thus labelled. Jon O. Newman, “A Jarring Loss,” Newsweek, Jan. 29, 1996.

2 Maybe it’s a California thing, and maybe it’s just been how the dice have shook out for me, but I’ve sure met a lot of people who self-identify as Wiccans over the years. In my late twenties, I dated a Wiccan. A colleague at a law firm I used to work at was Wiccan; a lawyer who was an adversary on a wrongful termination case I had just a few years ago was Wiccan (or was he a pagan? I don’t remember). I had to handle a wage dispute between a clerk at a Wiccan store and the store’s owner. Never had a bad experience interacting with any of these Wiccans (although I never really got to directly interact with the woman I had to litigate against in the wage dispute). But if my experience is any guide, there’s quite a lot of Wicca going on out there.

3 The joke is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to a theist, particularly an apologist, who claims to “not understand” how the atheist doesn’t believe in God. If you [the theistic apologist] don’t believe in Thor and Odin then you must understand how we atheists feel about Jesus. In practice, I have never got a chance to deploy this bit of snark and even if the opportunity comes I doubt that I ever will, among other reasons because there’s not much rhetorical profit in that particular bit of snark; it accomplishes less logically than it ought to, leaving aside the whole question of whether the snark is warranted under the particular circumstances.

 

Image source: wikimedia commons.

 

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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64 thoughts on “SIHTAF: Pleading Prisoners’ Plasticity of Personal Piety

  1. Jewishness is just as much as an ethnic or national identifier as it is a religious identifier. I know this drives all sorts of people batty but there is nothing you can do about it. Its not your business to determine what it means to be Jewish. Secular Jewish culture is a thing in away that secular Christian or Muslim culture is not. Novelists like I.B. Singer, Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud to name a few wrote a lot of novels on Jewish themes that were not about religious faith at all. Likewise, one can speak of Jewish cuisine as unified thing rather than a bunch of special dishes for religious holidays.

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    • Yeah, but the way the dude’s using it seems like a bit of a cheat; doesn’t it? I don’t blame him for a second for doing so, but he’s specifically claiming Jewishness in the religious sense.

      Secular Jewish culture is a thing in away that secular Christian or Muslim culture is not.

      Isn’t that mostly a result of Christianity and Islam being proselytizing faiths that have spread far beyond their initial ethnic sources while Judaism has remained essentially a tribal religion? I understand that it’s possible to convert to Judaism but it’s not encouraged except perhaps in cases of inter-marriage?

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      • There are other ethnic-religions like Sikhism, Shinto, and Chinese folk religions. People would look at you kind of funny if you refer to Japanese culture as secular Shinto culture though. You could be completely Japanese and have nothing to do with Shinto.

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      • That’s a good point, . Might the difference stem from the Diaspora? After all there’s never really not been a Japan as a geographic and political entity.

        I’m just thinking out loud about why things are the way they are, not challenging the fact that they are in fact that way.

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    • There are Christian denominations with associated cultures that people hold onto even if they cease to consider themselves Christians. For one example, there’s certainly an abundance of people who refer to themselves as “lapsed Catholics”. There’s also Mennonites who are raised in the culture and retain it – definitely including the cuisine – even if they lose their faith.

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  2. None of this particularly surprises me. Religion is at least as much about tribal affiliation as it is about specific spiritual beliefs. And my understanding of prison culture is that it’s intensely tribal so there you go.

    Which I find really interesting how in an environment where many of the normal rules and institutions of society either don’t exist or don’t function properly we seem to instinctively revert to older forms of social organization.

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    • [I]n an environment where many of the normal rules and institutions of society either don’t exist or don’t function properly we seem to instinctively revert to older forms of social organization.

      I was struck by this as well, . And by the incongruity of social anarchy prevailing in so highly structured and externally controlled an environment as a prison, creating what seems to be a need for tribal organization.

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  3. Regarding [3], if you ever do decide to deploy this snark, you may want to choose from an older or more obscure pantheon. It’s my understanding that there actually has been a little bit of a revival in recent years of the Norse gods, and not exclusively amongst white supremacist convicts. IIRC, there was even a Linky Friday item on a Thor-worshipper complaining about Marvel movies’ (and more broadly, American culture’s) lack of fidelity or deference to his religious beliefs….

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    • Of course the more obscure a deity deployed in this pre-planned quip, the more effective the gambit, with the tradeoff being that names of celestial beings like Huitzilopochtli and Ningizzida don’t exactly come tripping off the tongue of a modern Anglophone.

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    • While I’m sure the snark would work on many of your average Christian targets; you might be surprised (bemused? horrified?) to learn that Christianity does not teach that the Old Gods were disproven such that they never existed, but rather that they were vanquished (or are held in abeyance). St. Paul is rather explicit that the (Old) gods are demons, which is to say, real, but false. Early Christian evangelization among the pagans is primarily of this sort – conversion from pettty/minor/false gods to the One True God.

      Not that this serves as any sort of proof text for or against the old gods, just that your rhetorical device wouldn’t (ought not) have quite the effect you might think it would.

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      • I’d never really given that a whole lot of thought, although this makes a lot of sense. It would seemingly be a more effective strategy for the evangelist appealing to a well-established polytheist culture than simply dismissing the existence of the gods that culture had worshiped for so long.

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      • Lee, remember, Paul is talking to Gentiles, most of whom came from pagan, polytheistic backgrounds of one sort or another. So he’s talking about the gods of their past, not the gods of his own past. It’s easier to say, “Yeah, they’re real, but they’re not gods,” than to just say that they were fictions.

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      • Doesn’t the Jewish concept of monotheism come from the same historical process? The Israelites had a deity, or El, that they called Yahweh, which eventually vanquished all the other Semitic deities, Baal, Mordoch, Hadad, etc. Eventually Yahweh became the El.

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      • Angels and devils (and demons – pace Gary Gygax) are still part of a Monotheistic order. They are still creatures in the sense of having been created; that they (the devils, that is) set themselves up as petty gods to fool men is, well, pretty rational if one contemplates such a thing.

        And, if you want to see what a Catholic mind contemplating such a thing would look like, look no further than the Simarilion.

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      • Christianity does not teach that the Old Gods were disproven such that they never existed, but rather that they were vanquished (or are held in abeyance). St. Paul is rather explicit that the (Old) gods are demons, which is to say, real, but false.

        I had a conversation once with my mom, who comes from Southern Baptist stock, and this is more or less her view from her Bible readings, though she does not believe that the “other/older/lesser” gods are all necessarily demons – some may be good (in service to the one true God), and some are in-betweener/trickster/chaotic-neutrals (that is, beings of great power who are not to be unequivocally trusted nor put faith in). Her worldview accepts the possibility of many powerful unseen beings (that is, small-g ‘gods’) who don’t get described in the Bible.

        “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” implies Jehovah’s *primacy*, not his aloneness.

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      • And now a pleasant diversion into theogony.

        I’ve recently come across scholarship describing multiple sects of Jews, emerging in the second century BCE, who professed belief in a multiplicity of celestial beings, subordinate to YHWH but superior to humans, and who from time to time interacted with humans on behalf of YHWH. In modern parlance, “angels” or “archangels” or “demons.” This can accommodate the existence of multiple celestial beings within the stubbornly monotheistic world view of the late bronze age Hebrews which their chroniclers describe as having so often infuriated the political entities with whom the Hebrews interacted, Babylonians, Achaemenids, and Romans alike.

        The best-known such archangel was “Shaitan” or “Satan,” the “adversary,” who was not necessarily an enemy of YHWH, but rather an analogue to the position of a trusted human minister in bronze age royal courts, who was given license to disagree with the king’s ideas as a vehicle for debating their ideas on their merits. In the book of Job we see Satan following YHWH’s instructions and engaged in dialogue with YHWH about Job and his faith. Mattatron (the Chancellor of Heaven) and Michael (the leader of the heavenly military) are other angels that have gained a degree of immortality by transferring from Jewish folklore to the Christian mythos. (I remain mystified as to how the Fertile Crescent celestial figure of Satan became conflated with the Hellenized myth of Prometheus and transformed into the now-familiar character of “Lucifer” tempting mankind to sin through the promise of knowledge; Prometheus did not fill a “friendly adversary” role in Zeus’ court on Olympus and it was for empowering humans to wax powerful through mastery of fire and eventually become a threat to the Olympians, as opposed to causing some sort of moral decline, that Prometheus was punished.)

        The scholarship I’ve come across suggests that another such entity was named either Esau or Jeshua, and that this name evolved into “Jesus” over time. The Jesus legend was that this celestial being was tricked by Satan, the adversary, into dying as an act of sacrifice, but conquered death and returned to celestial life. The original legend did not portray Jesus interacting with humans at all. From this, in a bid for credibility, those who celebrated these celestial transactions claimed that Jesus traveled through humanity’s sphere of existence both going to and coming back from the world of the dead, and as more interaction with historical figures was put in to embellish the story, the angel-come-to-earth story morphed into an angel-become-man story morphed into God-become-man and that gets mixed up with a messianic fervor pervading the region as a reaction to Romans displacing native political institutions and cultural Hellenization on steroids, and now you’ve got something that resembles Christianity as we know it today.

        I’m unsettled as to how much credit I want to give this theory of the pre-Christian Jesus. I’m calling it “plausible” at the moment and enjoying intellectually playing with it as a fresh concept — we’ve all observed how stories morph and grow over time and successive re-tellings. I can see where Christians would recoil from it as they would from an angry rattlesnake, though. The scholarship also describes lots of portions of the Christian Bible as latter-day forgeries, and claims that the Pauline Epistles pre-date the Gospels, and I lack the expertise necessary to evaluate the veracity of those claims.

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      • Burt,
        Traditional Judaism (semi-contemporary to now) sees Eve eating the Fruit of Knowledge of good and evil, as a change, and an improvement to humanity — less of a sin.

        It’s in seeing the tempting, and the eating of the fruit as sin, and Original Sin, that Satan — the tempter — draws close to Prometheus.

        I hadn’t heard the notion of Jesus as pre-Christian, and I’m honestly a little surprised. But the idea of Satan as “adversary” and prosecutor when one stands to be judged by God, certainly is still seen in Judaism. [It’s a bit more logical than the Christian idea, which has Satan opposing G-d. The Jewish G-d is entirely too big and all encompassing to oppose.]

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      • The religious objection to Harry Potter is that witchcraft is a real thing, performed by consorting with and praying for the power of demons, and that the books are likely to tempt people into believing in and practicing it.

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      • There’s a very late PKD novel called The Transmigration of Timothy Archer which has a similar theme, that Christian beliefs come from a pre-Christian Jewish mystery cult, not from a historical Jesus. (Timothy Archer is a fictionalized Archbishop James Pike, with the name being a pretty obvious pun.)

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      • This is probably as good a place as any to note that the other day, my son told me he was praying to Santa Claus for a particular toy.

        When we explained that one does not pray to Santa, he said, well, maybe God can take the message up to Santa.

        If that’s not the American religion in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

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      • The Jews of antiquity or even latter had a strong folk tradition of angels and demons but the Rabbis, and these are very traditonal and orthodox Rabbis we are talking about, were always not enthusiastic about it. The Rabbis and their predecessors advocated and taught a very strict monotheistic cosmology that had no room for subordinate divine or demonic creatures.

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      • When we explained that one does not pray to Santa, he said, well, maybe God can take the message up to Santa.

        *Up* to Santa? Santa is occupying a location that is higher than God? Or is God just darting up and down from heaven all the time, so can take a message with him to the north pole, which is presumably on the way to heaven?

        I’m finding part of this theology dubious, somehow. I would look it up, but my Bible inexplicably doesn’t include A Visit from Saint Nicolas.

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      • Perhaps it’s unsurprising, albeit rueful, to read in the WaPo that in prison Asatru has been co-opted by white supremacist gangs — worshiping the gods of the Vikings and all that.

        One wonders what the ancient Scandinavians who originally worshiped that pantheon would make of such characters as their successors-to-the-faith; my understanding is that the Scandinavians of that era were pretty cosmopolitan and didn’t have much difficulty interacting cooperatively with people of other ethnicities as trading partners or military allies.

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      • It’s not like the original Nazis really got the whole “Aryan” thing correct to begin with, so the modern-day knuckleheads (I think LeeEsq referred to them the other day as Nazi cosplayers) remain all mixed up, like pasta primavera.

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      • Scandinavians of that era were pretty cosmopolitan and didn’t have much difficulty interacting cooperatively with people of other ethnicities as trading partners or military allies.

        Among other, more intimate cooperative endeavors.

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    • It strikes me that the Odin argument might still be valuable, but for different reasons.

      Rather than being an argument for why someone should be an atheist, it might work better as an argument to show someone why others might not see things as black and white as they do.

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  4. I knew some pagans/wiccan in college who seemed to worship in a Celtic kind of way. I also knew someone who said they worshiped the Greek Gods. Said person was from the Midwest and the child of professionals and works as an attorney now. I once made a joke about Ares being a “drama queen” and my Hellinist friend got very offended or pretended to get very offended. To this day I have no idea how said person decided to come to profess belief in the Greek Gods, said person was not of Greek origin in any way, shape, or form.

    I wish I knew a bit more about the author’s background. He says his father was Jewish (which implies is mother was not) but he doesn’t say how Jewish he was brought up or not.

    I’m going to join in with me and say that Judaism is as much of an ethnicity, background, culture, and philosophy, as anything else. Identifying as Jewish does not necessarily identify someone as religious. This tends to drive a lot of atheists batty and they get all cursey and say “Fucking Atheist Jews! How do they work?” If you google, Jewish atheists go to synagogue, you will find everything from news stories, to personal essays, Pew Surveys, and academic research/papers.

    http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

    I suppose this can partially be called a kind of “We Would Be Good Enough for Hitler” kind of thought process. It also has a basis in Jewish thought which declares that a person born Jewish remains Jewish, they just might not be a very good or observant Jew. Interestingly this does combine the Jews and anti-Semites of the world in thought.

    I also think that the difference between Jewish atheists and non-Jewish atheists is that Jewish atheists generally don’t have batshit crazy upbringings. Many of the atheists I know grew up in the far edges of Christian fundamentalism and evangelism. We are talking about real Jesus Camp kind of stuff. They more or less believe that they are the victims of child abuse. They seem perplexed by Reform Judaism and the idea of going to services for a few times a year, keeping kosher during passover, Hebrew school for Bar or Bat Mitzvah prep but otherwise a very secular life.

    Reform Judaism strikes me as an inherently sensible way of doing things. Also there are only 14 million Jews in the world and we probably stick together for solidarity.

    There is probably not a God. All the science of the world indicates that the world is billions of years old. Simple logic makes me wonder why an allegedly omnipotent human being would create hundreds of different religions (I don’t buy the Paul claim of those religions being really demonic ruses.) But declaring myself an atheist instead of Jewish feels like an act of deceit and treachery against my tribe. Thousands of years has gone against Judaism and seen Jews as less than human and I feel like declaring myself an atheist will just turn me into a traitor and someone trying to deny a very core existence.

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    • Saul, I think you are entirely correct on one key difference between Jewish and non-Jewish atheists. The reason why Jewish atheists tend to be less overly angry or bitter at religion is because most of them don’t come from intense religious upbringings unless the grew up Ulta-Orthodox. Even if their parents strove to keep a somewhat observant Conservative home, the intensity of belief and overwhelming religiosity isn’t there. Most Jewish parents, besides really strict Orthodox types, are not going to disallow any form of secular culture because its not Jewish or something.

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    • “I once made a joke about Ares being a “drama queen” and my Hellinist friend got very offended or pretended to get very offended. To this day I have no idea how said person decided to come to profess belief in the Greek Gods, said person was not of Greek origin in any way, shape, or form.”

      I once made a joke about Abraham being a “drama queen” and my Jewish friend got very offended or pretended to get very offended. To this day, I have no idea how said person decided to come to profess belief in the Jewish God, said person was not of Israeli origin in any way, shape, or form.

      Same? Different? Thoughts, ?

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      • Have you ever read Greek Mythology? Ares is often shown putting up a lot of huff and puff but wimpering off whenever he is wounded in battle. Also I did not give the full context of the conversation in which I was talking to Classics majors.

        This is a post where Burt is questioning whether anyone can sincerely believe in the old Norse Gods. Why aren’t you going after him?

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      • My sense of Burt is that he questions just about all religious belief.

        You often bristle at even the suggestion of criticism of the Jewish faith. Yet you so wantonly criticize another faith, going so far as to questioning a person’s character by saying she might have only been “pretending to be offended”.

        Maybe there is more to the story but that is on you for failing to present it. Criticizing people’s Gods is either okay or not okay. It is not okay for some Gods and not others.

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      • Well, consider what is probably the epicenter of Ásatrú in contemporary society: the Ásatrúarfélagið, a collective of 2,488 Icelanders who are building a temple to a triad of the Aesir. Here’s what that organization’s high priest has to say about the members and the sincerity of their worship:

        I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. … We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.

        An auto-translate of their expression of their own doctrines comes out to

        The religious have ásatrúarmenn mainly regard the ancient Edda.
        Many ásatrúarmenn look further AST as faith or lifestyle rather than direct religion. Call etiquette runic is actually misleading because belief is not only tied to pagan gods, but the gods or spirits within Norse mythology and folk beliefs, as guardian spirits, elves, the goddesses, will, giants, dwarves and other powerful beings or ancestors. Ásatrúarmenn practice their religion in such a manner that each one is suitable as long as iðkunin breaks not contrary to law.

        Now, auto-translate is always going to be kind of clunky, but that seems pretty harmonious with what I’ve encountered with other pagans and Wiccans — there is no orthodox doctrine, each practitioner is free to believe or not believe in however much of the mythology feels right to them, perhaps paring the belief down to pretty much nothing but an affinity with the lifestyle. In their hearts and souls, how many of these perfectly nice-looking Icelanders really believe in Thor and Odin and Frigg? We can’t ever know for sure. But if their high priest is at pains to describe the faith in terms of metaphor and the declaration of faith on the website provides a statement to the effect of “actual belief in these supernatural entities is completely optional,” that suggests to me that participation in this group is driven more by cultural than spiritual reasons.

        Given that these are free people peacefully associating together, there’s a degree to which the sincerity of their belief is not all that relevant. I’m interested in the OP in the role religion plays in prison to better understand how religion and the law intersect there. By all appearances, the Ásatrúarfélagið is an association of good people coming together to celebrate their shared history, make friends, drink coffee, and it looks like they really enjoy watching movies. They’d probably be pretty cool to hang out with. They don’t need paganism as a common tribal marker to deal with the potentially life-and-death and certainly scraping-together-barely-minimal-quality-of-life sorts of issues the way prisoners do.

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      • Burt Likko, it depends on how you define need. People like to form groups and groups like to distinguish themselves from other groups somehow. How does one group of Icelanders getting together for social reasons from other groups of Icelanders getting together for the same reason? They embrace their ancient Norse herritage in some fashion. Otherwise, there would be nothing to mark them as different.

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      • I once made a joke about Abraham being a “drama queen” and my Jewish friend got very offended or pretended to get very offended. To this day, I have no idea how said person decided to come to profess belief in the Jewish God, said person was not of Israeli origin in any way, shape, or form.

        Abraham? Really? He’s your go-to for drama queen? Not Moses, or even God? Both of them fit better.

        Anyway, I hate to have point this out, but worship of the ‘Jewish God’ has, uh, spread rather far and wide, whereas the Greek gods…haven’t. And hence people are *surprised* when running across Hellenians(1), whereas they *aren’t* surprised running across people who worship the ‘Jewish God’. That’s sorta obvious. And presumably, they’d be just as startled running across Christians in places where Christians are rare, like China. (Although Hellenism in American is actually much rarer than Christianity in China.)

        I am unsure why someone being *startled* about someone’s religious beliefs is offensive. Or maybe the offensive part was telling people, years later, how he had found it startling?

        I also find it interesting that you know better than Saul if the person was *actually* offended or not.

        Criticizing people’s Gods is either okay or not okay. It is not okay for some Gods and not others.
        You often bristle at even the suggestion of criticism of the Jewish faith.

        Saul, in that exact post: There is probably not a God. All the science of the world indicates that the world is billions of years old. Simple logic makes me wonder why an allegedly omnipotent human being would create hundreds of different religions (I don’t buy the Paul claim of those religions being really demonic ruses.)

        For the record, *that* is criticizing people’s Gods. And the Jewish faith. Right there. And it’s attacking the entire foundation of it, asserting that God logically doesn’t exist at all.

        Whereas calling Ares a drama queen is basically operating *within* the religion by accepting Ares existed and the tales of him are true, and is merely referring to his ‘documented’ behavior in a mildly irreverent manner. It’s like calling Peter a cowardly punk for his ‘Jesus? Don’t know that guy.’ act…not the most respectful, but the shoe does fit.

        Now, there are plenty of places that you can call out the double standard of the *media*, both fiction and non-fiction, treating Christianity (and maybe Judaism) as something unimpeachable and something to stay far away from referencing at all in any manner but utter respect(2), whereas all other religions are okay to dismantle for parts…but, uh, Saul is not doing that.

        Unless you bar people from reading the classic myths and how Ares behaved in them, people are going to form opinions about Ares’ behavior in those myths. Which, as humans often do, they will discuss with other people. Some of those people they tell could possibly have a different opinion about Ares, up to and including worshiping him. We live in a pluralistic society, and that happens. With all religions.

        And, no, saying Saul didn’t give context that he was in a class about the classics doesn’t have anything to do with that. Saul, not being a Hellenian, has based his ideas about Ares on classic myths(3), and, presumably, a discussion about classic myths would be the only context in which he *could* have been discussing Ares. Unless the idea is he started talking about modern-day Hellenians without actually checking if anyone there was one, or he just decided to start blurting out his opinions of Greek Gods without any context at all.

        1) It’s so rare I’m not even sure what to *call* worshipers. Hellenians sounds right, but I could be wrong.

        2) This is changing a bit. Witness Supernatural, although that’s still afraid to have actual ‘God’ show up…at least, not outside of hints.

        3) Or, in theory, he could have based it on Hercules/Xena or Disney movies or comic books, but ‘drama queen’ isn’t really a good description of Ares’ behavior in any of those.

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    • This is essentially my question with the various religious exemptions or carve-outs that periodically come up around in other arenas around here – it seems like inevitably they end up advantaging one person over another, which opens up two cans of worms as we try to decide A.) if the person asking for the exemption or privilege is truly sincere or just jockeying for advantage, and B.) even assuming their sincere belief, why does their sincere belief entitle them to any advantage at all over my different sincere (or non-) belief?

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    • It seems to me only in the very narrow sense that he wanted to work as (the equivalent of) a lay minister / chaplain’s assistant, which, yes, probably beats scrubbing pans for a living*, but to do that particular job requires a specific profession of faith that other jobs do not.

      It reminds of boot camp where in the first few weeks, you’re allowed to do very little. For example you’re not allowed to eat any deserts. Except on Sunday services, where you could have coffee and donuts as you were there with other base personnel and their families. So of course, a whole lot a people went to Sunday services for those first few weeks, right until the point where you *were* allowed to have deserts, (and by then, had off from midday Saturday to early evening on Sunday anyway).

      *though I understand that cafeteria is one of the plum jobs as well

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      • Does being a lay minister/chaplain’s assistant require being of the faith? I have to think it doesn’t since this man wasn’t really of the faith.

        I could see a requirement that a Rabbi be Jewish because, well, that is an inherent part of the gig. But if anyone who says, “Yea, I’m Jewish,” qualifies for this privileged position, than it doesn’t actually seem as if being of the faith is a requirement to perform the tasks.

        But I may be misunderstanding this particular role within this particular faith.

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      • This strikes me as being similar to a homebuilder who realizes his employees are making 3 foot high doors deciding to sell only to very short people rather than make door frames higher.

        If we decide that there is long-term value in a prisoner working for a rabbi (or priest, or mullah) but then note that there are only a couple of these opportunities, then it seems the best fix isn’t to lottery in conflicting faiths for the purposes of equity. Rather, it seems the obvious fix should be providing more opportunities for prisoners to do so.

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      • In the Roman Catholic tradition, such a person would be expected, for instance to distribute the communion wafers (via a specific, but very brief ceremony). That person (in this case, the job title is Eucharistic minister) is also expect to be Catholic. (that the person could actually be a layperson is a relatively recent development)

        Again, I don’t know much about prison, nor Judaism for that matter, but I do know how some of this stuff works in the military, and the enlisted people that help out priests and rabbis and imams and etc don’t quite have white collar jobs. (so to speak). They’re doing a lot of scut work, and I imagine that Mr. Genis had to do a lot of floor scrubbing the floors, along with being able to shoot the breeze with educated folks.

        Like I said, I think the specifics of this case are

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      • I agree wholeheartedly. I guess what I’m uncomfortable with is if someone who were fully equipped to handle the job save for his faith — and holding the faith didn’t function practically into the performance of the job — being told he couldn’t hold it because it was for Jews (or Catholics or Methodists or Muslims or Druids) only.

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      • But religious counselors such as Spritzer can and do. In a prison where talking in the halls was forbidden, I once got locked up for breaking that rule. I had answered a question that the state-hired rabbi asked in passing. At the disciplinary hearing, did he save me? No. But Spritzer did, by calling the warden, who reversed the charge. Perhaps he valued my soul more. And he, not the rabbi of the state, was the one sending clothes to cold Jews and food to hungry ones.

        Btw, it’s easy, but sloppy, to make this an indictment of ‘the system’ and not just an indictment of the ethics of one particular rabbi (and the merits of the ethics of another). (and that’s only after talking the story told from one point of view as part of an agenda completely at face value).

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      • I get that. But I’m going to assume that the assumed prerogative that’s being taken is the priest/pastor/rabbi/mullah’s, not the warden’s.

        And that feels about right to me, because I feel far more uncomfortable telling a priest/pastor/rabbi/mullah that from now on, they have to do their thing differently to placate a secular sense of fairness about who they should have working for them.

        (Or to analogize, to me the prison work thing is similar to my believing both that women should be granted equal access in the workplace AND that the Catholics get to decide for themselves whether or not they want to have female priests.)

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      • It becomes an administrative issue. Are the duties organized such that there is a single floor-moping cadre for the entire facility? Then anyone can. Or is it organized such that chapel workers mop the chapel, library workers moil the library, gym workers mop the gym, etc? Then mopping becomes ‘other duties as assigned’ and the main qualification becomes most important, and acceptably exclusionary.

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      • I’d agree with that. If the chaplain’s assistant is responsible for leading Bible study, offering the Eucharist, and mopping the floor, sure, make that job exclusive to a Catholic. But if the chaplain’s assistant is taking phone calls, doing the chaplain’s laundry, and mopping the floor, I struggle to see that as something that need be exclusive to Catholics.

        The problem with ‘s proposal (as I understand it) is he would defer to the chaplain if he said that the latter ought to be exclusive, even if it probably shouldn’t be.

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      • If there is a church, temple, or mosque out there that doesn’t hire those kinds of jobs from its own [parishioners] I have never seen it.

        How many have you seen? For things like janitorial services, lawn care, etc., the churches I’ve attended might start by asking within the given congregation (especially to get volunteers or reduced rates) but don’t care about anyone’s faith once they have to go outside. Our current child care person is Jewish, which is a great fit because there’s no service for her to miss on Sunday morning.

        As for secretarial work, all else being equal, the more familiar the person is with the given faith and especially the given faith community, the better, just because there are fewer communication/”translation” issues that way.

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    • And I’d like to add that I am very sympathetic to the broader point. One the particularly irksome aspects of the criminal justice system, the one that most affects people at the margin, is the habit of courts of ordering AA/NA meetings in lieu of (or in consideration for a reduction of) jail time. Even if the efficacy of such programs was not in doubt at all, there’s an overt religious (though non-denominational) aspect the program with that brand, and it’s usually the only game in town. (My city I believe does allow SMART, which is deliberately secular in nature to give it a different branding than AA and to compete with same)

      So there’s definitely cases where believing in (some kind(s) of) God is a benefit – and faking it is of more benefit than refusing to do so.

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  5. This is completely sidestepping the litigation part of the OP, obviously, but…

    As a failed seeker of faith, I think I would argue that there can be great value in identifying with a particular faith without truly believing it. Indeed, I think this is more common than most people are willing to believe.

    Above, Lee and Saul are each talking about “cultural Jews” as if it’s something unique to their tribe, but I have come to believe that this phenomena is not relegated to Judaism. When I hear someone define what it is to be a cultural Jew, it strikes me that this country is filled cultural Christians. I have no way of knowing, of course, but just as I suspect their are more cultural Jews that True Believer Jews, I suspect as well that there are more culture Christians than True Believer Christians. In fact, I think that one can argue that most of the Muslims I know are, in fact, cultural Muslims.

    And like I say, I think there is still great value there.

    As someone who does not believe in God and who thinks that it is likely that the prisoner in the OP identified as he did for cynical reasons (and indeed, he seems to admit as much), I also think this: If this man is going to work on his social interactions skills to bond with a tribe, spend some hours each week working with with rabbis, and in other ways educate himself while in the slammer, it’s easy to imagine him coming out in a better place than he would have otherwise.

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    • In the OP cynically described some things that a prisoner might wish to use religious affiliation to impress a parole board with. I describe myself cynical, which is potential he unfair to the religious organizations that may very well, and in many cases actually do, offer the benefits described. A sincere convert can be expected to accrete some of these personal improvemental.

      My cynicism rests with the sincerity of the prisoner, not of the clergy, and is based on my assumptions about a typical prisoner’s likelihood of recidivism.

      It is important to bear in mind that it is precisely the job of a parole board to sift through the cynical and identify the sincere. It’s just that criminals are often such skilled liars!

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    • Above, Lee and Saul are each talking about “cultural Jews” as if it’s something unique to their tribe, but I have come to believe that this phenomena is not relegated to Judaism. When I hear someone define what it is to be a cultural Jew, it strikes me that this country is filled cultural Christians. I have no way of knowing, of course, but just as I suspect their are more cultural Jews that True Believer Jews, I suspect as well that there are more culture Christians than True Believer Christians. In fact, I think that one can argue that most of the Muslims I know are, in fact, cultural Muslims.

      Religions do not have an edge, culturally speaking. At least, not in America.

      There are people who walk around saying what the rules are, but the simple fact is that belief structures are a continuum, and trying to draw a hard and fast rule where someone has dropped out of a belief structure is just a little pointless.

      Especially if the belief structure has been almost totally subsumed by the social structures that are ‘a religion’.

      Religions *try* to do this, with some hard and fast rules (usually, ‘belief in God’) but manage to completely fail, and in fact, don’t actually want to succeed. (You don’t kick people out of a church that have a ‘crisis of faith’. You bring them in and preach at them.)

      I believe I have ranted here before about how most Christians seems completely uninformed about what their denomination actually thinks, with many of them having somewhat a dubious grasp of the entire institution of Christianity. This is because people are learning what ‘their religion believes’ via some sort of cultural osmosis, not, you know, their religious leader actually *telling* them.

      Which is why you get people believing things from wrong denominations, and all sorts of weird fanon accepted as canon. Christianity, at this point, is a cultural institution much more than it is a religion…or, maybe, possibly, that’s how all religions always are, and we’ve sorta been fooling ourselves this entire time.

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  6. NB: Most Wiccans of my acquaintance would take serious offense to being called “warlock”, regardless of their gender expression. “Witch” is the correct term for practitioners of any type in nearly all currently practiced rites in the US. “Warlock” is a term reserved for apostates or oath-breakers. There are a couple of exceptions in the newer rites but they live at the intersection of the MRA movement and Wicca.

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  7. Burt,

    How would a test of religious sincerity work in practice? Or maybe it shouldn’t be a “test” so much as something that, say, a parole board should be allowed to consider (which I suppose it already is supposed to do anyway). Also, is it the case that sincerity can’t be challenged, or that wardens, prosecutors, etc., just choose not to devote the resources to challenge it? Maybe the extant standard of proof (whatever that is now) is sufficient, but it’s that the people in charge just don’t want to invoke it.

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