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January 07, 2012

Fighting over the baby Jesus's crib

Many Christians who belong to the Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on or around January 6 because they follow the older Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar that the rest of the world uses. This gives them a huge advantage since they can do their Christmas shopping after December 25, thus not only avoiding the crowds but also taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales.

I came across this news report that said that priests of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church came to blows over who has the right to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the site that tradition says is where Jesus was born. Each side had come with cleaning materials to clean their assigned area but when one group encroached on the space of another, they used their brooms and mops to wage a pitched battle for supremacy. Watch.

What is extraordinary is that this apparently happens every year and police have to be called in to quell the disturbance but that no arrests are made because, as the police chief says, "all those involved were men of God". Of course they were. Who else would fight about something like that?

The intensity of feeling over cleaning a building made me curious as to what theological difference existed between these two religious traditions and discovered that the split dated back to 451 CE and the Council of Chalcedon that was convened to settle an important doctrinal issue known as the "Two Natures" controversy: Did the two natures of Jesus (divine and human) co-exist in his body or were the two natures fused into one? The verdict of the Council was in favor the former and believers of any other formulation were 'anathematized' or cursed.

As if often the case involving dogma, the final adjudication caused umbrage on the part of the losing side in the debate, causing them to take their ball and go home, which in this case meant forming the Oriental Orthodox churches of which the Armenian branch is one.

I myself am on the side of the Greek Orthodox Church in this dispute since they are obviously right. The idea that the two natures of Jesus were fused into one is preposterous and the Armenians will burn in hell forever for this monstrous heresy. As for them breaking away, all I can say is, "Good riddance, splitters."

January 05, 2012

Stoning in Iran

As a vivid example of the ghastliness that can ensue when religious people gain political power, we have the case of people who are condemned to death by stoning in Iran. According to an ACLU pamphlet that I received, at least 14 people are currently awaiting this form of execution.

Bound, wrapped in shrouds and buried in a pit with head and shoulders above ground, the victims are likely to survive for between 20 minutes and two hours from when the first stone draws blood. The reason they survive so long can be found in the chillingly clinical wording of Article 104 of the Iranian Penal Code:

'The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone.'

As can be seen in this passage and in the instruments of torture and death developed during the Inquisition, religious people can be quite ingenious in the careful way they devise ways to prolong the agony of their victims.

One Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, is awaiting such an execution because of an adultery conviction. Maryam Namazie has been highlighting her case, hoping to win her freedom.

That's a relief

Bolon_Yokte.jpgFor all those people worried about the Mayan prediction that this will be the last year before the world is destroyed on December 21, it appears that a new reading of the Mayan calendar says that it did not predict that the world will end in 2012. It only predicted the return of the god Bolon Yokte, shown on the right.

So who is this Bolon Yokte? And does he/she come in peace or to smite us in the ways that gods seem to enjoy? The image suggests someone with a fierce attitude, which does not look promising. Some have suggested that he is in fact Jesus, but that seems a bit much. The concept of the trinity is mind-boggling enough without adding a fourth incarnation. As they say when it comes to gods, three's company, but four's a crowd.

December 23, 2011

Tebow or not Tebow

Although I have stopped following football, I have been intrigued by the story of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow who frequently drops to one knee in prayer during games (this act of genuflection has even acquired the label 'to Tebow' or 'Tebowing') and even has biblical verses painted on his face. So much for Jesus's admonition "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)

Of course, such ostentatious displays of piety cry out for parody and Saturday Night Live duly obliges.

December 20, 2011

Baby Jesus gets company

For fifty years, Loudon County courthouse in Leesburg, VA had just a crèche and a Christmas tree on the grounds.

[I]n 2009, a courthouse-grounds committee, concerned about a growing number of requests to use the public space, decided that Loudoun should ban all unattended displays on the property.

Public outcry was fierce and emotional. Residents poured into the county boardroom wearing Santa hats and religious pins, pleading with county leaders to respect their freedoms of speech and religion. The board ultimately decided to allow up to 10 holiday displays on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants got in line.

You can imagine what happened. Similar to what happened in Santa Monica when public spaces were allotted by lottery, many people got into the spirit of the season.

Then came the atheists. And the Jedis. And the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- each with its own decorations. A skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society's obsession with consumerism. Nearby, a pine tree stood adorned with atheist testimonials.

Flying Spaghetti Monster devotees are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It's a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, its manger surrounded by an army of pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: "Touched by an Angelhair."

Will Christians fight back next year to regain exclusive rights to put up displays on public property? Stay tuned.

December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

He finally succumbed to throat cancer. You can read a remembrance here.

Unlike in the olden days when religious people could (and would) make up stories about nonbelievers having deathbed conversions, nowadays such a fraud is hard to pull off. It is clear that Hitchens had no use for such fairy stories right up the end.

Here he is talking about the Jesus myth.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

December 15, 2011

Magic and religion

Via Jerry Coyne, I obtained this video of an amazing trick.

I love magic tricks. I enjoy them so much that I resist visiting sites that might reveal how they are done, preferring to try and figure it for myself, which is almost always a futile exercise. I enjoy the mystery of magic.

It struck me that my attitude is similar to that of religious people who also like to wallow in mystery and not seek natural explanations for the extraordinary claims of their religions.

There is one critical difference though. I know that the magic tricks I enjoy are just tricks and magicians never claim otherwise either. There is no fraud involved. If someone did claim that they had supernatural powers, then I would work diligently to understand how the trick was done in order to expose the fraud. With religious people and their beliefs, they seem to want supernatural explanations and resist natural explanations.

December 13, 2011

This is going to make Bill O'Reilly cry

Via Pharyngula I learn that the city of Santa Monica this year decided to have a lottery to see who gets to use 14 city park spaces for holiday decorations, instead of awarding them all to Christian groups as in previous years. The result? Christians got three, Jews got one, and atheists got 10.

Now the Christians are miffed, claiming they are being 'silenced' and their First Amendment rights are being violated.

Cue Fox News outrage!

Religion as belief vs practice

Sophisticated apologists for religion will discount almost all the supernatural beliefs of religions because they are incredible and so embarrassing that no one with any pretensions of rational thought can sign on to them. Talking snakes? People dying and coming back to life? Rebirth? Books dictated by god? A supernatural entity who overrides the laws of nature because an individual requests it?

This has led some to try to identify religion with a set of rituals and practices that provide people with a way of viewing the world that does not contradict science and thus can form the basis of common ground between religion and science. In discussions with colleagues, especially in the religious studies department, I am often told that my view of religion is too distorted by fundamentalist Christianity and that most religious people do not concern themselves much with the idea of god at all.

Is that possible? Via Jerry Coyne, I heard of the valiant effort by Julian Baggini in The Guardian to seek the minimal definition of religion would make "religion intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists." Here are what he calls the four articles of 21st century faith that he has come up with as a result of his search:

Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion "really" is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.

  1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.

  2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.

  3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.

  4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.

He points out, quite correctly, that one cannot be ambivalent about the choice of accepting or rejecting them. If you cannot sign on to any one of them, it means that you agree with its contradiction. He says:

So let us be plain that to reject these articles of faith would mean to maintain their contradictions, namely:

  1. Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.

  2. Religious belief requires the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.

  3. Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.

  4. Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.

The next task he set himself was to see whether atheists and religious people would sign up to them. While I would have no problem with religion as described by his four articles, I was frankly skeptical that religious people would agree. Most ordinary religious people would reject them outright because they rule out the supernatural while the sophisticated religious would be uncomfortable with being forced into accepting any concrete formulation since they like to live in a world of ambiguity where they never actually come out and say what the believe.

And sure enough, Baggini later reported general failure. A very few of the more sophisticated religious apologists were reluctant to reject his articles but were wary because of the absence of anything that could be described as transcendental. Some religious people, including those who are thought of as 'radicals', rejected them outright. As Baggini says:

If the articles of faith are to provide any hope of establishing the existence of the kind of reasonable faith I think should be possible, we need to get support for them from people who are actually actively and self-consciously religious.

So far, that has not been forthcoming. Theo Hobson, for example, a self-described "liberal" theologian, says: "I'm afraid I don't really sympathise with this. Christianity can't be reformed by the neat excision of the 'irrational'/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the 'creed' side is an expression of this."

Nick Spencer, research director at the eminently reasonable public theology thinktank Theos, was even clearer in his rejection, saying, for instance: "Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn't mean they can't be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine … I don't see what's left of the Abrahamics if you do take this out of the equation in this way". Spencer also provides little hope of finding too many other supporters out there, adding that "there would be precious few Christians I know … who could sign up to all your points. To take just the most obvious example: according to mainstream Christian thought, Christianity is founded on a belief in the physical resurrection."

Baggini concludes:

Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts. If that is indeed the case then DiscoveredJoys is right that when it comes to belief: the middle ground is virtual deserted.

Religious people, however sophisticated, are unable to break the grip of wanting to believe in some form of the supernatural, some ineffable mystical presence that transcends the material world. This is why there can be no accommodation between science and religion, and in that conflict religion will lose because there is no evidence that such a presence exists.

December 12, 2011

Australian to be lashed for blasphemy

A Saudi Arabian court has found an Australian Muslim guilty of committing blasphemy while he was on a pilgrimage to Mecca and sentenced him to 500 lashes for. He could die as a result. (Via Machines Like Us.)

What is the matter with these people? This case is just like the period of the inquisition where people were punished with even death for lack of sufficient piety. This illustrates the problem with religion. It is rigid and backward looking, holding on to medieval ideas and practices, and threatening people with dire punishments if they do not conform to them. Sometimes the punishment is threatened in this world, sometimes in the afterlife in the form of hell.

Religion has no place in the modern world but many people have not yet come to the realization.

December 11, 2011

Penn Jillette says reading the Bible made him an atheist

His story (of being part of a liberal Christian family and community and attending a church youth group with a minister who was modern and open to dialogue and questioning) is exactly like mine. The main difference is that I was not as smart and as well read in my teens as Jillette was and thus was not exposed to serious atheist thinkers. As a result, my own intellectual efforts at that time were directed towards finding ways to justify my belief in god, and this required me to gloss over all the problems in the Bible and rationalize its atrocities. My serious reading at that time consisted of the modern theologians who did not take the Bible literally (except for a few core elements) and instead focused their efforts on making belief in god intellectually respectable.

So my story is the same as Jillette's except for about a twenty-year gap in which I was seeking reasons to believe in a god before I reached his stage of understanding that the whole exercise was pointless

But better late than never, as they say.

December 10, 2011

Fewer atheists in prison

This article looks at the religious beliefs of prison inmates and finds that the fraction of those who are non-believers is almost negligible, far smaller than their numbers in the general population.

In "The New Criminology", Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith say that two generations of statisticians found that the ratio of convicts without religious training is about 1/10 of 1%. W. T. Root, professor of psychology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, examined 1,916 prisoners and said "Indifference to religion, due to thought, strengthens character," adding that Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists and Free-Thinkers are absent from penitentiaries or nearly so.

During 10 years in Sing-Sing, those executed for murder were 65% Catholics, 26% Protestants, 6% Hebrew, 2% Pagan, and less than 1/3 of 1% non-religious.

Interesting.

December 07, 2011

Being certain about god's existence

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 64% of people in the age range 18-29 say they are 'absolutely certain' that god exists. This is lower than the 73% of people over 30, another sign of the decrease in religiosity of younger people.

What I find really curious is that the respondents say they are absolutely certain of something that they cannot possibly be certain about. Absolute certainty, as commonly understood, means that you have no doubt whatsoever and that is a very high threshold that cannot be met for something as lacking in evidence as the existence of god. I am about as hard-core an atheist as you are likely to meet and even I would never say that I am 'absolutely certain' that god does not exist and most of the atheists I am aware of are like me.

So why do religious people say such things? I suspect that such assertions of certainty are the means by which people try to convince themselves of their beliefs in spite of their misgivings, the equivalent of sticking one's fingers in the ears to shut out unpleasant sounds. Such emphatic assertions of certainty are really symptoms of doubt.

An interesting follow-up would be to ask those respondents what it is that makes them so certain.

December 06, 2011

More evidence of religion's decline

The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College surveys the religious views of Americans and their latest ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) report done in 2008 found the following:

  • 86% of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76% in 2008.
  • The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.
  • The "Nones" (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008.
  • Based on their stated beliefs rather than their religious identification in 2008, 70% of Americans believe in a personal God, roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure), and another 12% are deistic (a higher power but no personal God).
  • In 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990.

The report finds that when looked at as a percentage of the population growth from 1990 to 2008, the 'nones' category captured 37% of this growth while the don't know/refused to answer category (which the report says shared many of the social profiles and beliefs of the 'nones') had 15% of the growth, leaving just 48% of the growth to religiously affiliated people.

There is a lot of data in the report. What I found particularly interesting is that 30% of married respondents did not have a religious ceremony and 27% do not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they die.

I am not sure when or if they will be doing another study to see if the decline continues as I expect it will.

December 05, 2011

Airbrushing the Bible

The Bible poses a real problem for Jews and Christians. In it, god commands the most awful things that we now would recoil in horror from doing. So what options do they have? The literalists say that god must have good reasons for making those commands, even if those reasons are elusive to us, and that we have to simply trust in his goodness.

Of course, that is a tough sell for the more sophisticated believers and some of them have taken the tack of trying to re-interpret the plain text of the Bible to suggest that it actually says things that are more benign or even good than what appears on the surface. One such apologia can be seen in the essay Are Biblical Laws About Homosexuality Eternal? by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky, based on their book The Bible Now, where they tackle the highly problematical attitude of god towards homosexuality, which is turning out to be the Achilles' heel for Christianity and Judaism in America.

The essay itself is a fine example of the contortions one has to go through to salvage the idea that the Bible contains some moral value. Adam Kirsch of The New Republic reviewed the book and Jason Rosenhouse analyzed the essay and both come away unimpressed.

As Kirsch says, the Bible seems pretty clear about god's views on homosexuality.

Just look at Leviticus 20:13: "And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them." The law as written does not apply to women, but for homosexual men it means death.

At this point, the twenty-first-century Jew—like the Protestant and the Catholic, anyone whose religion views the Bible as holy writ—has two simple choices, and one messy and unsatisfying one. The first simple choice is the one the Satmar Hasid would take: the Bible being God's word, homosexuality is ipso facto an abomination, Q.E.D. The second is the one any secular rationalist would take: the Bible is not God's word, and it has no more binding force than any other ancient Near Eastern law code. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, holds that "If a man's wife be surprised with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water," but we are no more obligated to follow this law today than we are to follow Leviticus. Both reflect millennia-old views of gender and sexuality that now appear simply unjust.

The third choice is the one represented in The Bible Now, the new book by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. They have set out to explain "what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time," in particular "five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women's status, capital punishment, and the earth." Some people turn to the Bible for guidance, they observe early on, "because … the Bible is the final authority and one must do what it says." But as secular academics, Friedman and Dolansky recognize that the Bible was written by historically situated human beings, with various political and religious agendas. They belong to the other category of Bible-seekers, they say, those "who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, [but] turn to the Bible because they believe it contains wisdom—wisdom that might help anyone, whatever his or her beliefs, make wise decisions about difficult matters."

Kirsch goes on to say that by using a tortured analysis, Friedman and Dolansky manage to turn that ghastly Leviticus passage into something positive.

This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism. Friedman and Dolansky imply that it was not homosexuality the Bible wanted to condemn, but the humiliation of the passive partner. And since we no longer think of consensual sex acts as humiliating, surely the logic of the Bible itself means that homosexuality is no longer culpable: "The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive."

What licenses this kind of reading is the principle that "God is free to change," that is, to change his mind about what is offensive and inoffensive, good and evil—but only, it seems, in ways that bring him more in tune with the views of people like Friedman and Dolansky (and, I hasten to add, myself).

Rosenhouse points out another fact that makes all this convoluted argumentation seem pointless.

I would add that if we take the text seriously then it is not the authors of Leviticus who are issuing prohibitions, but God Himself. As Kirsch notes, Friedman and Dolansky do not accept the divine authorship of the Bible, so they are free to understand the text as the creation of an uninspired human writer. But in that case, what is the point of this exercise? Why would it even occur to anyone to think the author of this portion of Leviticus, writing thousands of years ago, had any particular insight into sexual morality?

I have no doubt that in the small community of Biblical scholars, this sort of analysis is considered very clever and highbrow. No doubt they endlessly pat each other on the backs for it and shake their heads sadly at those who think that when God personally describes something as an abomination, He actually intends to express His disapprobation for that something. But their arguments amount to nothing. To accept their conclusion we must believe that the Biblical authors once again (let us recall that the early chapters of Genesis come in for similar treatment at the hands of Biblical scholars) expressed themselves in ways that are most naturally understood in a manner almost precisely opposite to what they meant to say.

This is not reasonable. If you want to use the Bible as a moral guide then you are stuck with it. The text is not infinitely malleable, and you cannot reasonably interpret X to mean not X. Rather than try to twist the text to fit modern moral sensibilities, which despite their denials is precisely what Friedman and Dolansky are doing, why don't we simply discard this particular ancient book and move on to more promising approaches to morality?

This is a very important point that I wish to re-iterate. If a person believes that the Bible is of divine origin and thus infallible, then it makes sense that one would try to explain away the morality that is presently unacceptable. But few of the more sophisticated biblical apologists and theologians would claim that the words in the Bible were of divine origin and literally dictated by god. Almost all of them accept that they were the work of humans who lives thousands of years ago and were merely reflecting the morality of their times. Why don't they simply reject the obnoxious ideas in them just the way we would other old books?

What people like Friedman and Dolansky are seeking to do is to find a way to make the Bible less embarrassing to modern believers. It is another example of how modernity, and the sensibilities that come with it, are in direct conflict with the archaic attitudes of religions.

December 02, 2011

Non-religious Aussies

Jerry Coyne flags an interesting report that says that the level of disbelief in god and religion in Australia approaches the high level of Scandinavian countries.

The high level of religiosity of the US is becoming more and more of an outlier among developed countries. This kind of anachronism cannot last.

No wonder young people are leaving the church…

… when churches do things like this.

The national attention paid to a small church in a remote area disapproving of interracial couples is actually a sign of progress. Just a generation or two ago, such an action would have been seen as not being particularly noteworthy.

December 01, 2011

The difference between scientific and religious ways of thinking

how religions argue.jpg

(Via Pharyngula.)

Ask an Atheist panel discussion at 7:00 pm today

For more details, see here.

November 30, 2011

Womb raider

Oh that naughty Satan, always getting into mischief and going where he shouldn't.

Recently The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston, published a column in which the author Daniel Avila alleged that homosexuality is caused by Satan, saying that "The scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil" and "described homosexuality as a 'natural disaster' caused by Satan invading the wombs of mothers of LGBT children."

This is yet another example of religious people using 'scientific evidence' to support their crackpot theories. Unfortunately the article does not address the really interesting question of how sneaking into women's wombs helps Satan create gayness in children because that would help answer the age-old nature/nurture question. Does he do some pre-natal intervention and change the DNA? Or does he use subliminal messaging techniques on the embryonic mind?

The column caused a bit of a fuss with gay rights groups condemning it and the paper has since withdrawn the column saying that they did so because the church does not have a "definitive theory on the origins of same-sex attraction" and thus the speculation that Satan was behind it was a "theological error". This is no doubt the topic of a future doctoral dissertation in some theological seminary. Avila also apologized for his theological errors and later resigned from his position as Policy Advisor for Marriage and Family with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I see progress here. When the Catholic Church has to withdraw, under pressure, an anti-gay column from its own official newspaper (whatever the excuse they give), that is a sign that human rights are advancing. Religion no longer gets a free pass on its crackpot theories to justify its bigotry.

It is quite extraordinary how much license religions are given. For example, some religious groups advocate beating children as young as six months in order to discipline them. A preacher named Michael Pearl has published a book To train up a child that advocates beatings, which he refers to as 'biblical chastisement'. He has a website where he recommends using a flexible plumbing line that can be bought for a dollar at any hardware store and can be carried in your pocket and so is handy whenever you think your child steps out of line and needs a thrashing.

Of course, the author realizes that some of us may not be as enlightened as he is in interpreting what Jesus meant when he said "suffer little children" and on seeing a small child being assaulted with a plastic tube may try to stop it or report it to the authorities, so he recommends "Don't be so indiscreet as to spank your children in public—including the church restroom." On the plus side, he says that you can also use the beatings as a means to help children practice arithmetic.

I have told a child I was going to give him 10 licks. I count out loud as I go… Pretending to forget the count, I would again stop at about eight and ask him the number. Have him subtract eight from ten, (a little homeschooling) and continue with the final two licks.

This book has sold 670,000 copies and was implicated in the death of a child.

Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff’s report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls’ book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff’s report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.

The beating of children used to be common practice until we became more enlightened. In many countries corporal punishment is now banned entirely. But in the US, some religious people still think of it as a good, and even necessary, part of child rearing.

November 29, 2011

Ask an Atheist panel discussion

I will be on a panel Ask an Atheist, sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. The event is free and open to everyone in the university and the wider community. Here is the announcement from the CFI president Lisa Viers:

Case Center for Inquiry would like to invite you to join us for our Ask an Atheist event. The Ask an Atheist event is designed to invite all members of campus to come and have an open dialogue with atheists, agnostics, and humanists who are willing to answer questions from the audience. Our goal for the event is to have people feel more comfortable having discussions about why and how nonbelievers came to their conclusions, and to foster an environment where we can all learn from each other as well as move beyond negative stereotypes that abound between believers and nonbelievers.

The event will be a panel/discussion with Dr. Mano Singham--director of UCITE, Dr. Bill Deal--from the Religious Studies department, Eric Pellish--president of Global Ethical Leaders Society, and Daniel Sprockett--a research assistant in the department of Dermatology.

We invite everyone to this event, and hope it will be a great success to be repeated by future CFI members.

And yes, pizza, snacks, and drinks will be provided.

Date: Thursday, December 1, 2011
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Wickenden 322 on the Case quad

Bill Deal prefers to call himself a humanist rather than an atheist and perhaps the discussion will involve some exploration of the distinctions between the various labels for nonbelief in a god, including agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, secularist, etc.

November 26, 2011

ChristWire parody site

As readers have pointed out many times before, the claims of creationists are so bizarre that it is hard to distinguish the sites of genuine believers from parody sites. One site that has puzzled many people and media outlets is ChristWire. One item that gave tips to women on how to find out if their husbands were gay, went viral, with many news organizations not realizing that they had been had. Some genuine Christian writers allowed their material to be reposted on the site, not realizing that their work was embedded amongst parody items.

Interestingly, the creators of this particular parody site are themselves believers, one calling himself an observant Catholic and the other a religious Protestant.

November 23, 2011

Is this billboard offensive?

ohiobillboard.jpeg

Apparently that's what a billboard company in north central Ohio said in refusing to put it up. However the company is quite willing to post religious billboards.

The whole story is quite bizarre. (Via Pharyngula)

This illustrates once again that religious people resort to the strategy of 'taking offense' because they have no rational arguments to counter those of the atheists.

[Update: For some reason, this post has attracted an enormous number of spam comments and so I have regretfully closed it for new comments.]

November 22, 2011

Young people becoming less religious

The evidence that religion is losing the battle of ideas keeps coming in from all sides. A new Pew survey compares the attitudes of the various generational age cohorts that it identifies by the years in which they were born and labels as the Greatest (before 1926), the Silents (1927-1944), the Baby Boomers (1945-1964), the Gen Xers (1965-1979), and the Millennials (1980-1992), and finds that:

Younger generations also are significantly less likely than older ones to affiliate with a religious tradition. This pattern began in the 1970s when 13% of Baby Boomers were unaffiliated with any particular religion, according to the General Social Survey. That compared with just 6% among the Silent generation and 3% among the Greatest generation.

In the most recent General Social Survey, 26% of Millennial generation respondents said they were unaffiliated, as did 21% of Gen Xers. Among Baby Boomers, 15% were unaffiliated – not significantly different from when they were first measured in the 1970s. And just 10% of the Silent Generation said that they were unaffiliated.

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The report goes on to say that "Fewer than half of Millennials (46%) say religious faith and values have been very important in America's success. This compares with 64% of Xers, 69% of Boomers and 78% of Silents."

Meanwhile the Barna group, an outfit that regularly conducts religious surveys, finds six reasons "why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15."

  1. Churches seem overprotective
  2. Teens' and twentysomethings' experience of Christianity is shallow
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science
  4. Young Christians' church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt

I found items #3 and #6 particularly interesting. On item #3, the report found:

One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is "Christians are too confident they know all the answers" (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that "churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in" (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that "Christianity is anti-science" (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have "been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate." Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

As regards item #6, the report said:

Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church's response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able "to ask my most pressing life questions in church" (36%) and having "significant intellectual doubts about my faith" (23%).

It should be clear that this survey looked at disengagement from church life, not necessarily from belief in god. But once people get disengaged from the groupthink of their churches that gives them the illusion that believing in fantasies is reasonable since everyone around them believes in the same fantasies, many of them will shift to unbelief.

What this survey reinforces is what I have been saying for some time, that the forces of modernity are in opposition to those of religion. Religion is backward looking and opposed to the growth of knowledge in general, science in particular, and to increasingly liberal attitudes towards sexuality. Modernity is an unstoppable force and religion cannot hold it back.

November 14, 2011

Schuller's chutzpah

Robert Schuller is of these typical televangelists, a servant of god who managed to persuade enough suckers to fund his high lifestyle and build his vanity project, the Crystal Cathedral. The church has fallen on hard times and filed for bankruptcy and court documents allege that Schuller family raided the endowment to the tune of $10 million.

But that has not stopped the greed of Schuller. Recently his wife fell ill with pneumonia and he asked the congregation to provide meals. Why someone with all his money needs food donations at all is unclear but what has outraged some members is the extraordinary sense of entitlement embedded in the request. The Schullers asked "that the meals be low in sodium and include items such as fruit, meats, soup and egg dishes such as quiches" and that the meals be dropped off in the cathedral's tower lobby at 4:30 pm each day so the Schuller's limo driver could pick them up and take to their home.

Presumably this arrangement was so that the Schullers are not disturbed by the riff-raff actually coming to their home. I don't know why this would be a problem, since his butler could have sent the people around to the servant's entrance where the footmen or the kitchen maids could have accepted the food donations and checked to see if they met their standards.

November 07, 2011

The role of religion in a secular university

Last Friday, I took part in a panel discussion on the topic: "What is the role of religion at a secular university? Should we support it, promote it, accommodate it, respect it, or just ignore it?"

The event was moderated by a professor in the department of religious studies who specializes in Buddhism and the panel consisted of the chair of that same department (whose area is Judaism), the director of student activities program that oversees student organizations, and myself. The session began with each of us speaking for about five minutes and then the floor was opened up for discussions. It was a lively session with a sizeable number of faculty, students, and staff present. I am not going to try and summarize the entire discussion since I did not take any notes but just focus on my own impressionistic views, paraphrasing some of what people said.

I went first and trotted out my usual Salman Rushdie quote in order to frame my remarks: "At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible."

My point of view on the topic was quite simple. Religion should not receive any special treatment. It should be treated like any other subject or aspect of student life. It is undoubtedly an important topic of historical and social importance and deserves academic study so a department of religious studies is perfectly appropriate. (As the chair of religious studies pointed out in his opening remarks, their department does not get involved in the sacred aspects of religion but looks at religion academically.) The role of their faculty does not require them to be religious leaders or to even be believers in the religions they teach, just as in the language department, the professor of Japanese need not to be Japanese.

I also drew two distinctions: (1) that the norms of speech and behavior are different for private versus public spheres and people should learn to appreciate that; and (2) that we should treat the sacred and secular aspects of religion differently. The secular aspects are those that the university can get involved in while we should steer clear of the sacred aspects.

I said that in order to navigate this difficult terrain, secular organizations such as my university would do well to study and apply the guidelines that the US Supreme Court has developed over time for the Establishment Clause of the constitution, which calls for strict neutrality between religion and non-religion and forbids any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing or inhibiting religion or excessively entangling itself with religion. While the Establishment Clause applies only to the government, it provides an excellent template for any secular organization that is looking for ways to deal with religion. So, for example, student religious groups should meet the same standards as (say) the chess club for recognition and support by the university. If they receive less support, they are being discriminated against because of their belief. If they receive more, then the university is endorsing religion. Both those extremes should be avoided.

I found it interesting that some people in the audience kept trying to find ways to argue that religion is somehow special, that it occupies a niche in society that nothing else can occupy, which is the usual precursor to asking that it receive special consideration. The suggestions took the form:

  1. Religion is very important to a person's sense of identity;
  2. Religion is necessary in order to inculcate ethical behavior; and
  3. Religion is needed to come to terms with the mysteries of life.

My comments during the discussion were largely spent in batting down such attempts.

On the first point, I argued that a person has more than just a religious identity. For example, science may be as important to a scientist (or history to a historian or law to a lawyer) as religious identity may be to a religious person. But we would think it absurd for scientists to get upset if someone treated iconic figures like Einstein disrespectfully by (say) drawing cartoons that made fun of him. But do the same thing with a religious figure and people get offended and, in the case of Islam, can even lead to death warrants. I said that the reason that religious people get so easily offended is because religion has been given a privileged place and not treated like any other belief system. I said that if students spent four years at the university and were not challenged by something that offended the very core of their identity and forced them to confront their beliefs, then we were not doing our job.

On the second point, I pointed out that over two millennia of religious domination of society resulted in the most horrendous atrocities and discrimination. The supposedly divinely inspired religious texts are riddled with god's commands to commit genocide, murder, and rape. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant in the texts and are still part of the official doctrines of major religious groups. The growth of ethical values and human rights and the expansion of humane treatment of people is a late development and is the result of the spread of Enlightenment values and science which has led to what is effectively a humanitarian revolution. Religions gradually and often reluctantly adapted to them, though even now certain religions' attitudes towards women and gays can only be described as appalling. It is a bit much for religion now, at this late stage, to claim credit for the advance of humanitarian values.

On the third point, I said that the purpose of the university is to seek truth using evidence and reason. That steady search has steadily transformed mysteries (things that seemed completely inexplicable) into puzzles (things we know how to investigate, what questions we need to pose, and what tools are necessary to obtain answers) and to eventually be able to solve the puzzles. The steady march of knowledge is to replace mysteries with puzzles and solutions. But religions want to keep mysteries as mysteries forever as things that are impervious to evidence and reason, and can only be understood by revelation. As the TV character House puts it, "You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!" The growth of knowledge in general and science in particular has resulted in us being able to steadily fill in the holes. To want to stay in the holes is antithetical to the search for truth that is the major purpose of the university.

In these forums, I take on the persona of the 'bad atheist', the one who is not willing to go along with the traditional pieties that religion has been allowed to wallow in that go unquestioned. I challenge the idea that the privileged position of religion should be allowed to continue simply because that is the way things have always been. This makes for more sharply focused discussions in which basic assumptions get questioned.

I find it interesting that at the end of these sessions, people often come up to me and quietly confide that they are atheists too but cannot say so openly because they fear discrimination. For far too long, people have tiptoed around religion, avoiding pointing out its uselessness or negative aspects for fear of offending religious people. Having the atheist view articulated openly and unapologetically helps to create a wider space for discussion so that those who would not go as far as me can now see themselves as in the middle somewhere and thus more comfortable. I see my role as analogous to a blocker in football, making forceful remarks that can create space for others to be able to go through.

November 03, 2011

The Haught-Coyne debate video

[UPDATE2: The Q/A session following the debate has been added below the debate video.]

[UPDATE: I have now watched the video and I think I know why Haught was upset and did not want the video released. Coyne was direct and uncompromising (which anyone who has read his stuff should have expected) but I don't think that that was the problem. It was because Coyne used direct quotes from Haught to make his argument that theology can only make science and religion seem compatible by using a fog of language and metaphor. By quoting all those passages from Haught's books, Coyne essentially provided a template and all the ammunition anyone needs to effectively debate Haught in the future.]

The much talked about video of the debate between theologian John Haught and scientist Jerry Coyne is now available. I have not had time to watch it yet but Coyne says that it consists of the two 25-minute talks. The PowerPoint slides that accompanied the talks can be downloaded separately and he recommends that you do that and follow along.

The Q/A that followed is not shown and that's a pity. I find that the Q/A sessions are sometimes the best part of the talk. They enable the speakers to clarify and sharpen their ideas. In fact, when I give talks I often encourage the audience to jump in with questions at any time and even build in time during the talk for such exchanges.

Haught and Coyne's talks:

2011 Bale Boone Symposium - Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

Q/A session:

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? October 12, 2011 Q+A with Jerry Coyne and John Haught from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

November 02, 2011

Still Haughty

Yesterday I wrote about the bizarre situation where Catholic theologian John Haught had objected to the release of the video of the debate that he had with Jerry Coyne. That refusal caused quite a furor in the blog world and as a result, Haught has relented.

You can read Haught's explanation for his initial refusal and subsequent reversal, and Coyne's response follows immediately after. What I want to highlight is Haught's extraordinarily patronizing claim that he was trying to protect our delicate sensibilities from being offended by having to listen to what Coyne had to say.

But let me come to the main reason why I have been reluctant to give permission to release the video. It is not for anything that I said during our encounter, but for a reason that I have never witnessed in public academic discussion before.

I'm still in shock at how your presentation ended up. I was so offended both personally and as an academic by the vulgarity of it all that I did not want other people to have to share what I witnessed that night in October. I still don't.

You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.

It is preposterous to think that the kinds of people who would take the trouble to watch a debate between a theologian and a scientist are like stereotypical Victorian ladies who might swoon and have to reach for their smelling salts. We can judge perfectly well for ourselves who comported themselves well and who didn't.

All Haught has done is vastly increase the interest in watching the debate. He may want to buy stock in companies that sell smelling salts.

November 01, 2011

More evidence that religion has lost the argument

I have said many times before, especially in my series on Why atheism is winning, that religion has lost the argument. Modern science has revealed the poverty of even the most sophisticated arguments for god. As further evidence, Jerry Coyne shares the extraordinary events that followed his debate with theologian John Haught.

On October 12 at the University of Kentucky, I debated Catholic theologian John Haught from Georgetown University on the topic of "Are science and religion compatible?" It was a lively debate, and I believe I got the better of the man (see my post-debate report here). Haught didn't seem to have prepared for the debate, merely rolling out his tired old trope of a "layered" universe, with the layer of God and Jesus underlying the reality of the cosmos, life, and evolution. I prepared pretty thoroughly, reading half a dozen of Haught's books (you need read only one: they're all the same), and watching all his previous debates on YouTube. (Note that he's sanctioned release of those videos.)

Haught seemed to have admitted his loss, at least judging by the audience reaction, but blamed it on the presence of "Jerry's groupies," an explanation I found offensive. I'm not aware of any groupies anywhere, much less in Kentucky!

The debate, including half an hour of audience questions, was videotaped. Both John and I had given our permission in advance for the taping. I looked forward to the release of the tape because, of course, I wanted a wider audience for my views than just the people in the audience in Lexington. I put a lot of work into my 25-minute talk, and was eager for others to see why I found science and religion to be at odds.

Well, you're not going to see that tape—ever. After agreeing to be taped, Haught decided that he didn't want the video released.

I am deeply angry about this stand, and can see only one reason for what Haught has done: cowardice. He lost the debate; his ideas were exposed for the mindless theological fluff that they were; and I used his words against him, showing that even "sophisticated" theology, when examined under the microscope of reason, is just a bunch of made-up stuff, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The only good thing to come from this affair is that it exposes not only the follies of "sophisticated" theology, but the cowardice of a famous theologian. (Haught is the most prominent American theologian who writes about evolution and its comity with religion.) If Haught can't win a debate, then he'll use all his God-given powers to prevent anyone from seeing his weaknesses. I've written to other well-known atheists who have debated theologians, and not one of them is aware of anything like this ever happening.

This is shameful behavior by Haught.

October 28, 2011

Non-believing clergy

Thanks to reader Jeff, I learned that The Clergy Project, designed to provide a safe place for non-believing clergy to make the transition from living a secret life to becoming open, is now operational. I wrote five years ago that I suspected that many clergy, even high-ranking ones like the pope and bishops, are atheists.

ABC News had an interview with some of the non-believing priests. Other interviews can be found on the website.

October 22, 2011

The case against circumcision

PZ Myers makes the strong argument that this practice is nothing but ritualized child abuse.

It is quite amazing how we accept as normal long-standing practices that, if they were not covered by the protective umbrella of old religions, we would reject with horror otherwise as the actions of cults or barbarians.

The Daily Show has more on the bizarre things that religious people believe and do.

October 17, 2011

Disgusting behavior by religious people

Some time ago I wrote about ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel raining big gobs of spit on a reporter because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath and thus violating one of the numerous rules prohibiting work on that day.

Now we have another disgusting story of Ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing eggs and feces at young girls on their way to and from their school, accusing them of sluttishness. What makes this even more noteworthy is that the targets of this abuse, the girls and their families, are themselves Orthodox Jews but they are considered not conservative enough for these god-fearing people.

I am sure that the people indulging in this appalling behavior are convinced that they are doing the will of god. This is what religious devotion can lead to. Deeply religious people can act like jerks or criminals or thugs or even murderers and actually feel virtuous about doing so, because they think that god commanded them to act in this way.

October 14, 2011

Five signs that Americans are moving away from religion

Tana Ganeva points to various data that support this idea.

  1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured.
  2. Non-belief -- and acceptance of non-belief -- on the rise
  3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious
  4. Hate group that exploited religion to bash gays hemorrhaging funds
  5. Getting married by friends

What the last item refers to is that more and more people are not getting married with the trappings of religion, choosing instead more informal, secular wedding ceremonies.

October 06, 2011

No salvation for Klingons

Via reader G. I received this report of a paper that was presented at a DARPA conference on whether, if extra-terrestrial life exists, Jesus would have gone and tried to save them too. The answer seems to be no, partly because it would require multiple incarnations of god and that might be awkward, apparently.

Mind you, this was discussed at a conference sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense.

It is good to know that the US government is keeping up with important theological issues.

October 03, 2011

People who don't think carefully are more likely to believe in a god

I came across this interesting report of a study that says that people who 'go by their gut' when solving a problem are more likely to believe in god than people who reason their way to a conclusion.

They correlated religious belief with the way people approached simple problems like: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" People who go with their gut tend to say (erroneously) that it costs 10 cents while those who think it through arrive at the correct answer. The former type was more likely to believe in god than the latter.

One could conclude that this suggests that belief in god depends on people not thinking things through, which is not really surprising. But the authors of the study downplayed this aspect and instead went out of their way to make the results palatable to religious believers, calling the gut-thinkers 'intuitive' and saying that intuition and reflection are equally important.

Intuition is undoubtedly important. But it is not the same thing as not thinking things through.

October 01, 2011

Religious vetoes

A town clerk won't sign same-sex marriage licenses because such marriages violate her religious beliefs.

I can understand people trying to get laws passed that enshrine their religious beliefs. But it is strange to me that people think that their religious beliefs let them pick and choose which laws to follow. If you allow a personal religious exemption, then you have to allow every individual's personal religious exemptions. Are they willing to extend that right to any religious beliefs at all?

The danger of allowing that should be obvious to anyone who thinks it through. Would you allow an employee to not follow a law because it contradicts (say) Sharia law or Wiccan beliefs? Where would that end? Can a Muslim or Jewish employee in a cafeteria refuse to give a ham sandwich to a customer? Can a Catholic checkout clerk in a supermarket or drug store refuse to process the sale of condoms?

I strongly doubt that people would want to open up that mess. The people who ask for these exemptions are effectively requesting the right to nullify beliefs based only on the religion that they belong to.

Parenthetically, I found this pie chart from Balloon Juice to be amusing.

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September 27, 2011

Five minutes with Philip Pullman

The popular BBC series probes the author's views on writing and religion.

Interfaith dialogues and projects

Religions view each other with either condescension or suspicion. This can make for contentious public discourse and, as we all know, frequently escalates into open hostilities. In order to avoid having things get out of hand, one periodically finds attempts by well-meaning people who think that the problem is due to religious people being ignorant of other religions, and that if they understood each other better they would recognize enough similarities and deep commonalities to defuse the antagonisms. And so we have the emergence of 'interfaith' movements.

In the past, such movements brought together only people from different religions but in recent years, there is growing recognition that skeptics are a significant part of the population and so the umbrella has on occasion been extended to include them as well. But the label 'interfaith' poses a bit of a problem because once you include skeptics, you are no longer talking about faith-based organizations anymore. Atheists shun the word faith because its most common usage is associated with religious faith, which is the acceptance of beliefs that lack any evidentiary support and are even counter to evidence. In fact, the less the evidence in support of a religious belief, the supposedly more admirable that belief is. This is absolutely counter to the rational evidence-based approach promoted by skeptics. But I cannot think of a good word that would accommodate both faith and anti-faith groups.

These interfaith programs usually take two forms. One consists of dialogues to get different religious groups together to share information about what they believe and to clear up any misconceptions that others may have about them. I am all for increasing the general awareness about religious people's beliefs. In fact, I think that the academic study of the world's religions (as opposed to religious education that seeks to indoctrinate children about one particular religion) is a proper part of a school curriculum. I think skepticism and skeptic organizations can play an important role in such discussions, once we overcome the problematic 'faith' label.

The other kinds of programs often involve getting different religious organizations to work together on some community projects. Although well-meant, there is something fundamentally odd about such interfaith projects. Let's face it, each religion thinks that it alone is true and all the others false. They are incompatible at a fundamental level. You cannot have real equality between religions simply because of their divergent truth claims.

These kinds of interfaith projects basically involve asking religious groups to set aside their religious beliefs in order to do worthwhile projects that have nothing to do with religion. So unlike in the case of interfaith dialogues where talk about religious beliefs is explicitly encouraged, when it comes to interfaith projects, people are expected to suppress their differing beliefs but simply work for the common good.

There is nothing at all wrong with that except why bring in the faith aspect at all if you are asking people to then suppress it? Why not invite people to take part in community service and challenge projects for their own sake simply because they are good things? You can send the invitation out to all organized groups (including religious ones) to publicize to their members or to even take part as a group but leave the issue of faith entirely out of it. The goal of getting differing religious groups to stop fighting and killing each other is surely a good thing but that does not have to be coupled with worthwhile non-religious projects.

What does religion add to such community projects, unless religious groups are taking part to show how virtuous they are because of their religion? (In my college days, I was a member of a Christian student group that used to get involved in community service projects and some of the more evangelical members of the group used the occasion to proselytize, basically telling the poor non-Christian people we helped "Look at us! We are doing good works because we are Christians so why don't you become Christians too!" Even though I was a devout Christian in those days, this would drive me up the wall.)

My concerns apply only to the interfaith part of such projects. The other diversity elements such as including intercultural or interethnic groups suffer from no such contradiction since being a member of one ethnic or cultural group does not necessarily imply that one thinks that other ethnic or cultural groups are inferior. It is understood that these are mere accidents of one's birth and thus not obstacles to true equality amongst them. In fact, secular democracies are based on that idea.

September 25, 2011

Abusing the minds of children in the name of god

You may recognize Becky Fischer from the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as the camp leader who thinks that her mission is to indoctrinate young children into being soldiers for Jesus. Here is a trailer for that film. (Note the appearance by Ted Haggard when he was an evangelical in good standing and a major player in the movement, shortly before his drug-taking gay hijinks were revealed. He is now trying to make a comeback.)

Fischer has now taken her show on the road. In this clip she seems to be bringing her creepy death cult thinking to little children in Singapore, getting them to pretend to die and then 'praying' them back to life. The children are told that since Jesus could do that, they can too.

She even tells them near the end that she actually knows of children who prayed and brought their dead pets back to life. The death of a beloved pet is heartbreaking. To increase the pain by giving them such false hopes is exceedingly cruel because the children will think that the reason their own pet did not revive is because they and their prayers were unworthy.

This woman is a menace who should not be allowed anywhere near young children.

(Via Boing Boing.)

September 23, 2011

'Poor, ignorant atheists'

Recent results revealed by the US Census Bureau show that the ranks of the poor have increased to record levels in the US.

This should really come as no surprise to any thoughtful observer, given the relentless drive by the oligarchy to squeeze everyone else in order to enrich itself. But Walter Russell Mead, one of those so-called 'centrist' establishment pundits so beloved in the media who can be relied upon to deliver conventional wisdom on any topic, has come up with his own explanation as to the reasons why. He says that the growing inequality in the US is due to the rise in numbers of poor, ignorant atheists. Why? Because when people leave religion, they also leave religious institutions that promote the virtues that could lead them out of poverty.

He bases his argument on a study that suggests that "While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college."

Someone named David French over at the National Review comments favorably on Mead's musings that atheism and poverty are closely correlated.

Earlier this week, Walter Russell Mead highlighted disturbing research showing that the poor — far more than the rich — are disconnected from church and religion. While church attendance is dropping among all social classes, it’s falling off a cliff for the poorest and least-educated Americans. In other words, the deeper a person slides into poverty, the more they’re disconnected from the very values that can save them and their families.

French then raised the ante, saying that "It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor" (my emphasis). Ergo, since the numbers of the poor are increasing, so is depravity.

This astounding statement aroused such a hostile reaction even in the comments section of the same magazine (where one might expect the readership to be sympathetic) that French hastened to write a new post saying that what he said was not what he meant. He used a variation on the old "Some of my best friends are Jews/blacks/Muslims/whatever" defense, dropping various hints that he is a Good and Virtuous Person who Loves the Poor (within a short post he manages to inform us that he is a Calvinist Christian, volunteered to fight in Iraq, adopted a daughter "who was born into absolute poverty in Ethiopia", and mentors at-risk youth) and that therefore he cannot have meant anything bad.

For some reason, people like Mead (and French) seem to think that we atheists won't like the idea that the poor and uneducated are falling away from religion and joining us. Here's Mead again:

Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.

It is a curious argument. The idea that atheists view with disdain the poor and uneducated and do not want them swelling their ranks is absurd. I have felt that it would be harder to dissuade poor people from religion not because they are less smart but because ideas of heaven become more appealing if your life on Earth is hellish. If poor and less-educated people are breaking free from the shackles of religious indoctrination, then religion is heading for irrelevancy even faster than I anticipated. I don't see how this study is anything but unqualified good news for atheism.

Mead also seems to overlook the fact that the study clearly states that religious adherence is dropping for all, which suggests that the atheists are winning the argument on all fronts, not losing it in any. The drop is just faster for the poorer and less formally educated. So Mead's smug assertion that we atheists "are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared" is just flat out wrong.

Another revealing mistake that Mead makes is typical of elite Villager thinking: that more formal education necessarily implies that one is smarter or that material success is correlated with virtue. This is a typical conceit of the intelligentsia and the well-to-do, that they reached their state in life purely because of their intrinsic abilities and virtues. This is why it is so easy for people like Mead and French to associate poverty with depravity.

September 19, 2011

Voting for gay or atheist for president

Gallup released the results of a poll recently that said that the percentage of people who said that they would vote for a well-qualified homosexual candidate for president is 67% while the number who would vote for a well-qualified atheist was 49%. The number who would not vote for such people was 32% and 49% respectively. These were the two lowest ranked, coming in just behind Mormons, for whom 76% would vote for president and 22% would not vote.

It's always hard to know how to interpret these results because how people respond to such questions can be influenced by what people think is a socially acceptable response. What one can look at are trends. In 2007, the figures for gays were 55% yes and 45% no, while for atheists it was 45% yes and 53% no, so the trends are in the right direction.

Michael Nugent has looked at the trends over the long haul and has a graph that shows that in 1978, gays had only a 25% acceptance, even below that of atheists who hovered around 40%. But around 1990 gays overtook atheists in acceptability. One has to think that popular culture, with its mainstreaming of gay people in the media, has played an important role in the rapid rise. The rise of atheism has been slower.

What is also extraordinary and encouraging in Nugent's graph is the rapid rise in acceptability as president of blacks and females over the same time span.

September 18, 2011

More on the problem of original sin

Stephen Colbert discusses the profound problems created for Christianity and its fundamental doctrine of original sin if the Adam and Eve story is not literally true.

Jason Rosenhouse examines in some detail the attempts by Christian apologists to deal with these difficulties.

Of course, the real absurdity is that anyone in America in the 21st century is talking about Adam and Eve except as a joke.

September 16, 2011

Combating religion in politics

Part of the reason that the religious right has been able to achieve its current prominence in national politics is because even those who do not believe that god exists (at least in any personal form) have refrained from saying so openly in the hope that they will not alienate 'moderate' religionists. This accommodationist strategy of trying to isolate the religious extremists has not worked. All it has done is enable the religious extremists to advance their message under the protection of 'respect for religion' that has curtailed the ability to criticize these religious extremists in a fundamental way.

In the long run, the best way to combat the religious message of the Perrys and Bachmanns and Santorums is not to point out that they have the wrong idea about god's intentions, an argument which they can easily deflect, but to tell them that before we can take their religious claims seriously on public issues, they need to explain why they think that a god exists at all. We should not allow them to simply assume its existence and talk about what he/she/it wants.

What I find really revealing is that although politicians love to talk about their religion, no one in the media ever asks them why they believe in the existence of a god at all. This is the case even if the interviewer is unsympathetic to the politician and would like to pose difficult questions. I think it is because journalists know that no answer can be given that does not make you look gullible and that this would become immediately obvious and cause much embarrassment and would cause an outcry and accusations of anti-religious bias. So everyone colludes to maintain the façade that assertions about religion require no substantiation.

Via Jerry Coyne, I came across this interview of Richard Dawkins on BBC in which the interviewer, referring to the 40% or so of Americans who take the Bible literally and think the Earth is 6,000 years old, asks him flatly "Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?" No interviewer in the US would dare ask such a question that so casually denigrates people who believe such things.

It is not necessary to be knowledgeable about science to be a political leader. But one has to be grounded in reality. To assume that religious texts such as the Bible or Koran are literally true and that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution is not the process by which we got here, is to be so deluded that the speaker's grip on reality should be seriously questioned. Such a person is so wedded to dogma that he or she is unfit for any responsible position that requires the weighing of evidence and the integration of expert opinion. But in the US if some belief is based on religion then people still pretend that it is reasonable, however ridiculous it, however objectively absurd, and however much it flies in the face of reality.

If a politician said that they believed in fairies, it would be political suicide because fairies are not protected by the religious shield and people would look askance. Even claims of UFO sightings are treated with scorn and derision though there is nothing about extraterrestrial life and spacecraft that intrinsically violate the laws of science. They simply lack credible evidence. But say you believe in angels and you are asked no further questions, even though one would be hard pressed to explain the distinction between fairies and angels.

Most mainstream journalism in the US is so hopelessly degraded that their idea of good practice is to balance one politician's assertions with another person's opposite assertions. And even this is not done when it comes to religious assertions, which are almost always left unchallenged. One of the rare exceptions was when CBS News's Bob Schieffer asked Michele Bachmann whether she really believed that god used the weather to send people messages. She ducked the question and he allowed her to filibuster. It was clear that she was talking nonsense but US journalistic conventions prevented him from making it explicit.

Journalists should be always asking politicians to back up any assertions with evidence, whatever the topic, and then examine and report on the quality of the proffered evidence and the validity of the inferred conclusions. But I'm a dreamer.

September 14, 2011

Acceptance of equal rights for gays undermines religion

One reason that religious rhetoric in politics is on the rise these days is because of the uncertain economic outlook. When people are fearful of their future, they tend to lash out and seek others to blame and it is easy for politicians to direct their attention to scapegoats. Blaming economic and social problems as being due to god's dissatisfaction with our behavior has always been popular trope for a certain segment of the public, going back to biblical times. It is easy for politicians to take advantage of the vanity of people thinking that they have a good idea of what their god wants, which always conveniently happens to coincide with what they themselves want. But working against them is the general decline of religion itself. As I explained in my series Why atheism in winning, the signs of decline of religion are unmistakable and I strongly suspect that religious leaders know this and are desperately seeking ways to at least slow down the process.

The most telling sign is that surveys show that people are leaving religion in significant numbers, with the greatest drop being among young people. This is why the stakes have been raised, in a desperate attempt by religious leaders to regain ground by making hysterical claims that the lack of religion is causing America's problems. While they point to general moral decay that is supposedly bringing about god's wrath, one of their key signs is the increasing acceptance of gay people as deserving of the same rights enjoyed by others, including marriage.

The irony is that the more religious leaders decry the increasing acceptance of homosexuals, the more they alienate young people, the very group that they need to secure their future. As Adam Lee points out:

Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who've grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).

But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they're actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women's rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it's hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else.

This rise is similar to the way that acceptance of interracial dating and marriage among the young increased with time as more and more young people did not see any problems with it. Currently 86% of people approve of interracial marriages, up from just 4% in 1958. Again, young people are more accepting than old people, with senior citizens with 66% approval being the lowest group.

interacialmarriage.gif

Many religious people and groups are locked into an anti-gay stance that they cannot free themselves from. While some are trying to soften their message with variations of the 'hate the sin, love the sinner' circumlocution of the Catholic church, this is widely seen as a sham. Most religious institutions simply cannot escape being seen as intolerant and hateful.

So instead of religion defeating homosexuality, the increasing acceptance of equal rights for gays will accelerate the decline of religion.

September 12, 2011

Advertising campaign to ban all religions

Reader Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write sent me this link to a Australian TV show that seems to have as its premise asking advertising agencies to come up with campaigns for extreme ideas. They usually get a good response but when they asked for campaigns to ban all religions, for the first time ad agencies declined to take part, even though earlier suggestions such as 'Invade New Zealand' or 'Bring back child labor' or 'Euthanize everyone over eighty' had not dissuaded them.

September 09, 2011

Pinning down opponents of same-sex marriage

One of the questions that opponents of same-sex marriage never satisfactorily answer is why it matters to them if gay couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Why do they care? What harm do they suffer? It is not as if marriage is some limited resource that allowing more people access to would reduce the general availability.

As far as I can see, the opposition to same-sex marriage seems to be almost entirely based on ancient religious texts and their associated homophobia but of course few, other than the religious nutters, want to concede that for fear of being seen as religious bigots. (That distancing from religion is a small sign of progress). Instead they dance around the issue with vague rationalizations that somehow marriage has always been between one man and one woman and has thus acquired the force of tradition or that the purpose of marriage is procreation or that changing the definition of marriage would open the door to polygamy, bestiality, or otherwise destroy civilization as we know it. Of course, none of these 'arguments' stand up to scrutiny but few people are willing to press opponents on this, usually out of the 'respect for religion' trope that assumes that people's faith-based speech and actions should not be questioned. But the legal case involving Proposition 8 in California may finally force them to put up or shut up.

If you recall, in May 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have, under the state constitution, a right to marry. Opponents then brought Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage as a ballot initiative and, heavily backed by the Catholic and the Mormon churches and using lies that allowing same-sex marriage would lead to gay indoctrination of children in schools, they managed to narrowly pass it in November 2008 by a margin of less than 5%.

The constitutionality of Proposition 8 was challenged under the state constitution and its validity was upheld. But it was also challenged under the US constitution and in August 2010, a US District judge ruled that it violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, but allowed the ban to stand while the case was appealed to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Normally the governor and the attorney general of the state are the people who have the obligation to enforce the laws of California and they have the unquestioned right to appeal any verdict nullifying the laws. But opponents of the ruling were stymied because the then-governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the then-attorney general (and now governor) Jerry Brown refused to appeal the district court ruling.

Because of this vacuum, various private parties who had sponsored Proposition 8 then appealed the verdict but this raised the question of whether they had standing to do so. In order to prevent an explosion of third-party lawsuits, one has to show that one has standing to bring about a legal case and one of the means by which standing is established by a private party is that the party has to show that they are directly affected by a law or a court ruling and would suffer direct harm if it were carried out.

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unexpected move, ruled that before it could decide on the constitutionality of the issue, the issue of standing had to be resolved and they sent the case back to the California Supreme Court to rule on whether the challengers had standing. This has put the issue of what harm opponents of same-sex marriage suffer directly to the forefront. Ted Olson, one of the lead counsel opposing Proposition 8, puts the matters succinctly.

Olson will argue that to have legal standing the proponents have to show that they would suffer a direct harm if Prop. 8 is held to be unconstitutional.

"Here, the proponents were asked during the course of the trial, what damage would be done to heterosexual marriage if Proposition 8 was held to be unconstitutional and the lawyer for the Proposition 8 proponents said 'I don't know,'" Olson says. "You have to have a direct stake in the matter that's being litigated."

Court cases can very useful in clarifying issues because people have to answer specific questions that are narrowly focused and posed to them by people who have all the facts at their fingertips. They cannot make sweeping generalizations or filibuster or snow the listener the way they can in public debates or when answering reporters. This is what doomed so-called intelligent design. Its advocates managed to obfuscate the issue for quite some time but they came a cropper in 2005 in the US district court in Dover, PA because under cross-examination they were forced to admit many things they had tried to conceal, such as that under their definition of science, even astrology would have to be considered to be science.

So the question of standing that is going to be adjudicated by the California Supreme Court could be quite illuminating in pinning down exactly what harm opponents of same-sex marriage experience by allowing it. But unfortunately, unlike in lower courts where the merits of the case can be exhaustively examined, in superior courts the process is very brief and tends to be narrowly focused. At the hearing on Tuesday, the California Supreme Court judges seemed to be more concerned about allowing the governor and attorney general the sole right to decide what laws to defend rather than with the issue of what direct harm the sponsors of Proposition 8 suffer if same-sex marriage is allowed. Since they have ruled before that ballot initiative sponsors have the right to defend them in court, that seems likely to be the verdict here too, that they will be granted standing by virtue of being sponsors of the initiative rather than because they would suffer direct harm if same-sex marriage were allowed. You can see the full video of the hearing here.

It seems likely that both aspects of this case, the issue of standing as well as the constitutionality of same-sex marriage itself, will go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

But even if the opponents of same-sex marriage win this legal battle, they have lost the public relations war. It is only a matter of time, perhaps five years, before gay people win equal rights.

August 31, 2011

Samosas for Jesus?

samosa.jpegIn more samosa-related news, I learned from the latest issue of The New Humanist (with its provocative cover photo of comedian Ricky Gervais) that the Islamist group known as al-Shabaab has banned samosas in the regions of Somalia controlled by it.

Why, you ask? Because they feel that its triangular shape is suggestive of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

So there you have it. An Islamist group suspects that a food item originating in a Hindu culture is secretly promoting Christianity.

Who knew that people involved in a civil war in a country facing a famine still had time to ponder the subliminal religious messages embedded in food snacks?

Some entrepreneur should take advantage of this snack vacuum to make crescent-shaped samosas.

Samosas and the soul

samosa.jpegSamosas are a triangular shaped Indian pastry that can have any filling but usually consists of a spicy mixture of potatoes, peas, and other vegetables. Quite improbably, they became the focus of a recent legal case in New Jersey.

As part of an India Day celebration in 2009, the plaintiffs placed an order at the Indo-Pak restaurant for vegetarian samosas, informing the restaurant that the food was being purchased for a group of strict vegetarians. The restaurant filled the order and assured the plaintiffs that the food did not contain meat. After consuming some of the samosas, the plaintiffs returned the remaining samosas to the restaurant and were advised that the food was, in fact, filled with meat. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed spiritual damage and asserted a number of causes of action against the restaurant, including product liability and breach of express warranty.

A lower court judge ruled against the vegetarians on all counts but an appellate court reversed part of that decision, saying that the restaurant had in fact violated a warranty. But they rejected the claim that the diners, by unwittingly eating meat, had experienced "negligent infliction of emotional distress" and "become involved in the sinful cycle of pain, injury and death on God's creatures, and that it affects the karma and dharma, or purity of the soul. Hindu scriptures teach that the souls of those who eat meat can never go to God after death, which is the ultimate goal for Hindus. The Hindu religion does not excuse accidental consumption of meat products. One who commits the religious violation of eating meat, knowingly or unknowingly, is required to participate in a religious ceremony at a site located along the Ganges River in Haridwar, Uttranchal, India, to purify himself. The damages sought by plaintiffs included compensation for the emotional distress they suffered, as well as economic damages they would incur by virtue of having to participate in the required religious cleansing ceremony in India."

The court ruled that they did "not find any evidence of an ascertainable loss on plaintiffs' part". The court said that while they may have not got what they asked for, the product itself was "safe, edible, and fit for human consumption."

This case raises some interesting points. One is how a restaurant that caters to an Indian clientele could make such a mistake, since vegetarian samosas are the norm. The answer to that was that on that same day there had been another order specifically for meat samosas and the two orders had got switched.

The more interesting one is whether one should be eligible for damages because of the harm that one believes one has done to one's soul. I have some sympathy for the diners because I know plenty of people who have strong religious proscriptions against certain foods and would be very upset if a similar thing had happened to them. But the court's ruling made some good arguments as to why the spiritual damage claim was unwarranted.

In the present matter, plaintiffs have not pled or provided evidence of any "loss of moneys or property." Indeed, it would be difficult for them to do so, since unrefuted evidence demonstrates that, following recognition by the restaurant of its mistake, Moghul Express furnished an order of conforming samosas to plaintiffs without cost.

Plaintiffs claim that they have sufficiently plead ascertainable loss by seeking damages in the amount of the cost of a trip to India to undergo a purification ritual. However, what they are seeking is the cost of cure for an alleged spiritual injury that cannot be categorized as either a loss of moneys or property.

Here, an underlying loss of the value of property cannot be demonstrated.

The court said that violations of religious dietary laws did not rise to the standard needed to meet the claim of serious emotional injury, which requires that there must be "an especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious."

How far should we go to accommodate people's religious beliefs? Should we take seriously the claims of religious people that their immortal souls have received damage and that as a result they will not go to heaven?

I don't think so. After all, there is no evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as an immortal soul let alone a heaven for it to go to or any consensus on what standards should be met to gain entry.

I am not denying the fact that the people who strongly believe in these kinds of dietary proscriptions may feel a deep sense of anguish at having broken them even inadvertently. But it seems to me that their beef (if you'll pardon the expression) is with god. The ultimate issue here is whether it is fair for god to punish them for such an infraction. If such people wish, they should plead their case in the heavenly courts or set up religious courts where they can argue their case before theologians and priests, and not use the secular ones which, rightly, have little use for evidence-free claims.

August 30, 2011

Godspeak from AI machines

What happens if you get two Artificial Intelligence chatbots to talk to each other? Cornell Creative Machines Lab tried it out and a theological discussion broke out.

August 28, 2011

What do atheists do in a crisis?

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was brought on to some Fox news show to address this question in the context of hurricane Irene. His advice to everyone: Act like atheists and prepare, without wasting your time appealing to some deity to save you.

In the process he showed up the host and one other guest as total idiots.

Way to go, David!

(Via Pharyngula)

Rabbi Yehuda Levin should get an R-rating

It looks like Judaism has its own share of anti-gay crazies who claim that there is a direct connection between earthquakes (like the one last week that touched DC) and homosexuality. That is the message from a rabbi named Yehuda Levin who quotes god saying in the Talmud thusly: "You have shaken your male member in a place where it doesn't belong. I too, will shake the earth."

Really? The Talmud has our old buddy Yahweh actually saying things like that?

I wonder what nifty quote he will dig out to explain Hurricane Irene, especially since it is hitting New York City, home to many ultra-Orthodox communities.

I still don't get why god metes out these crude and indiscriminate punishments that affect gays and non-gays alike. God seems to be somewhat scatterbrained and lack focus. Why not simply send in some divine drones to kill just the people he hates?

August 26, 2011

Dead pope's blood to reduce crime?

Catholic theologians tend to be a pretty sophisticated bunch. How can they possibly reconcile themselves to their church when the Vatican does things like this?

A vial containing the late pope John Paul II's blood will soon be winging its way to Mexico in a bid to help bring down crimes rates in the largely Catholic country, Vatican Radio reported Wednesday.

Several vials of blood were taken from Pope John Paul II during the last days of his life in 2005. They have since taken on the aura of holy relics, with Catholic faithful invited to venerate them.

That's not all. The Vatican is also going to display vials of his blood for people to venerate.

There's something truly creepy about the Catholic church's obsession with the actual flesh and blood of dead people.

When the US government takes advantage of Sharia law

Sharia law is a system of justice based on Islam as defined in that religion's sacred texts. Like any system of justice based on religion, it is intolerant, cruel, obsessed with sex, and incompatible with our modern understanding of what makes for a humane society. For example, "Within Sharia law, there are a group of "Haram" offenses which carry severe punishments. These include pre-marital sexual intercourse, sex by divorced persons, post-marital sex, adultery, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Haram sexual offenses can carry a sentence of stoning to death or severe flogging."

There has been some hysteria in the US about the creeping threat of Sharia law being imposed in the US, and the claims that Barack Obama may be a secret Muslim are part of this paranoia. Twelve states have even proposed legislation to ban it, although the First Amendment would make these superfluous since it would rule out any laws that seek to advance the interests of any one religion.

But despite this anti-Sharia feeling, what people may not be aware of is that Sharia law is what the US used to enable CIA agent Ray Davis to escape trial and punishment for murder in Pakistan.

You may recall the case in which Davis was captured after gunning down two men in a crowded city. The US demanded that he be released immediately while the Pakistan government said that he had no alternative but to go through the legal process. The US government and the media kept the public in the dark about the facts of the case.

Then to everyone's surprise, Davis was suddenly released and quickly spirited out of the country. How did that happen? Because the US took advantage of Sharia law in which a person accused of a murder can be released if the family members of the victim pardon him in exchange for 'blood money', which is what happened in the Davis case. The Pakistani government has confirmed this.

Shaukat Qadir, a retired senior Pakistani military officer, explains the deal that was struck.

It appears, therefore, that the deal struck between the military leadership included a shut down of CIA’s HUMINT operations in Pakistan, retaining only ELINT, Davis would ‘sing’, within limits, of course, and only then could Blood Money be negotiated for his release. And the US would be bled in that final deal also so as to ensure the safety and the future of the immediate families of both Davis’s victims.

At the height of the debate on the question of Raymond Davis’ immunity from trial for murder, this writer emphasized that Pakistan could not release him without a trial. A trial took duly place and, in accordance with prevalent law in Pakistan, the next of kin of the deceased young men, pardoned Davis in return for ‘Blood Money’. However outlandish this law might seem to those peoples whose countries have their based on Anglo-Saxon principles, such is the law in Pakistan and so there was nothing underhand in what transpired.

Alexander Cockburn says that reports have emerged that "a price tag of about $1.5 million per family was been paid, with US citizenship for a dozen or more members of each family, with job guarantees for those of age and education opportunities guaranteed for children - more than they could ever dream of and sufficiently tempting for them to pardon Davis. Money in sufficient quantity rarely loses its persuasive powers."

So there you have it. Sharia law was used by the US government to enable Ray Davis to escape punishment for his crime. But don't expect the wingnuts to make a fuss about it.

August 22, 2011

Debunking the cosmological argument for god

One of the curious features of modern religious apologists is how they try to use the latest scientific research to argue for the existence of god. Of course, science makes the traditional idea of a personal god who intervenes in the world utterly preposterous and few religious intellectuals outside the evangelical community argue in favor of it. So sophisticated religious apologists have resorted to arguing for the existence of a highly abstract form of god that has no practical consequence whatsoever but for some reason seems to meet some sort of emotional or psychological need. But in order to make their case, they have to cherry-pick scientific research and hope that their audience is not aware of the full science.

The latest attempt is in the area of cosmology. The following very nice video (via Skepchick) exposes how some Christian and Muslim apologists try to use the latest cosmology research in selective ways to make their case.

If the latest developments in cosmology comprise the best arguments for god, then you might expect that cosmologists might be the most religious of all scientists. And yet, as the above video shows, even the scientists quoted by the religious apologists are nonbelievers, suggesting that the cosmological arguments for god are a distortion of the actual science. This paper by cosmologist Sean Carroll titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists explains why.

He first addresses what it would take to require a god hypothesis to be taken seriously.

There are several possible ways in which this could happen. Most direct would be straightforward observation of miraculous events that would be most easily explained by invoking God. Since such events seem hard to come by, we need to be more subtle. Yet there are still at least two ways in which a theist worldview could be judged more compelling than a materialist one. First, we could find that our best materialist conception was somehow incomplete --- there was some aspect of the universe which could not possibly be explained within a completely formal framework. This would be like a ''God of the gaps,'' if there were good reason to believe that a certain kind of ''gap'' were truly inexplicable by formal rules alone. Second, we could find that invoking the workings of God actually worked to simplify the description, by providing explanations for some of the observed patterns. An example would be an argument from design, if we could establish convincingly that certain aspects of the universe were designed rather than assembled by chance. Let's examine each of these possibilities in turn.

He examines both these possibilities and weighs their merits using the normal ways that scientists use to compare theories and finds the god hypothesis wanting, arriving at the following conclusion:

Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description. In the various ways in which God might have been judged to be a helpful hypothesis --- such as explaining the initial conditions for the universe, or the particular set of fields and couplings discovered by particle physics --- there are alternative explanations which do not require anything outside a completely formal, materialist description. I am therefore led to conclude that adding God would just make things more complicated, and this hypothesis should be rejected by scientific standards. It's a venerable conclusion, brought up to date by modern cosmology; but the dialogue between people who feel differently will undoubtedly last a good while longer.

I for one am glad that people religious apologists are advancing these sophisticated cosmological arguments for god. While they may think they are rescuing religion from science, they are the ones, not atheist scientists, who are going to ultimately destroy religion because in order to salvage the idea of god, they have made it so abstract and remote that it will not appeal in the least to most religious people who want a father figure who listens to them when they talk and who will answer their requests at least some of the time. The idea of god persists because children are indoctrinated at an early age with the idea of a Santa Claus-like figure who will both look after them and punish them if they are bad. That basic childlike idea is what gives god its appeal. The cosmological god is unlikely to have much appeal to a child.

If the cosmological view of god gains ground, it will become the sole preserve of a few intellectuals who will comfort themselves with the idea that a disengaged god exists somewhere out of reach of science. But such a god is a far cry from the warm and fuzzy invisible friend that can command mass appeal.

August 21, 2011

Why does god hate the pope?

It looks like he hates his most devoted followers too.

August 19, 2011

Why does god hate Rick Perry?

God seems to go out of his way to do the opposite of whatever Rick Perry prays for.

August 17, 2011

The secret life of L. Ron Hubbard

British television had a series in 1997 called Secret Lives and one program was about L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. It is quite fascinating.

Some supporters of religion argue that the very fact that their religion has lasted so long and spread so widely must mean that there must be something to it. But if people now, with all the information at their disposal, can be suckered by an obvious conman like Hubbard into following his religion, it should not be surprising that people a couple of thousand years ago fell for it too. Joseph Smith and the Mormons is another good example of how modernity does not inoculate the gullible against hucksters.

(Thanks to Norm)

August 16, 2011

What to do about the salvation of non-Christians?

Jerry Coyne discusses some recent attempts to address a troubling problem for Christians: How do you treat those believers in other faiths who seem to be perfectly nice people or who existed in times and places that your brand of religion did not reach?

Consigning them to the fires of everlasting hell seems a tad unfair, no? But saying that all good people go to heaven removes the sense of being special in god's eyes which is, after all, the main recruiting tool that religions have.

Coyne makes the point that all 'solutions' to this problem that tend to universalize salvation will appeal only to theologians and academics. Most religious believers will prefer to think that they are fortunate enough to believe in the one true god, and the rest will simply have to hope that their eventual fate is not too horrendous.

August 12, 2011

Do atheists reject god?

From reader John, I received a link to this interesting video combating the notion that atheists are 'rejecting' god.

Escaping the suffocating embrace of religion

NPR had a couple of interesting religious stories recently.

One of them was about how more and more evangelicals are deciding that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve simply cannot be true in the light of modern science and how this is tearing the community apart.

Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University and a senior fellow at the BioLogos Foundation, and John Schneider who taught theology at Calvin College are just two evangelical Christians who say that "it's time to face facts: There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence."

This is viewed as heresy by the traditionalists who insist that those beliefs form an indispensable part of being Christian.

"From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith," says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution. Rana, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Ohio University, readily admits that small details of Scripture could be wrong.

"But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you've got a problem," Rana says.

Rana and others believe in a literal, historical Adam and Eve for many reasons. One is that the Genesis account makes man unique, created in the image of God — not a descendant of lower primates. Second, it tells a story of how evil came into the world, and it's not a story in which God introduced evil through the process of evolution, but one in which Adam and Eve decided to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, says that rebellious choice infected all of humankind.

"When Adam sinned, he sinned for us," Mohler says. "And it's that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.

Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam's original sin.

"Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament," Mohler says.

The other story is a more poignant personal one from a very different religious world, that of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Sam Katz was a member of such a community in New York who discovered science and lost his faith. What started the slide was when he started going to the library that was next door to his house and started reading secular books for the first time, beginning with Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And then he went to a Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and pondered the implications of the story of evolution, saying "I studied God's law all my life. And you're a Jewish male. I mean, you're the pinnacle of creation. And suddenly, you're not the pinnacle of creation. You're the endpoint at this moment in time, and something else will happen soon. It's hard to explain what that was like, but it was beautiful."

At the age of 16, Katz was sent to a prestigious religious school in Israel where he confided his interest in these secular matters to the dean, who was a respected scholar. Rather than engage with him, the dean responded by trying to isolate him so that he would not corrupt the other students. So Katz left and returned to New York where, with the aid of an organization known as Footsteps, he has managed to break free of the tight embrace of his community and is now a junior in college studying science.

These stories shed an interesting light on the relationship of religious beliefs to knowledge. For example, note that the only things that Rana is willing to give up in the Bible are those things that do not contradict fundamental doctrines. So he is admitting that he first decides what his beliefs should be, and then accepts only the evidence that conforms to it. This is the typical mode of thinking of religious people.

Mohler is right. Without the story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace, the whole premise of Christianity that Christ died for us as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin falls apart. The original sin doctrine is incoherent anyway but eliminating it makes Christianity inconsistent is a way that even its own tortured logic cannot repair. Mainstream Christians who do not take the Genesis story literally have a real problem explaining why Jesus had to die, because the idea that we are born sinful is central to Christian dogma. If you accept that humans evolved, when did the fall from grace occur that created the evil that Jesus had to atone for? If humans are part of the tree of life, then why is original sin only an issue for humans? Most liberal Christians tend to ignore the question, leaving it as an exercise for theologians.

Mohler and others realize, quite correctly, that once you start accepting the theories of science in your worldview, you are on the road to disbelief. They are holding firmly onto Genesis and feel that "if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn't be surprised if their faith unravels", because religion and science are ultimately incompatible.

Sam Katz's dean who tried to isolate him must have also realized that religious views will always lose when confronted with scientific ones. Otherwise why would he fear that one student would corrupt the many others, and not the other way around?

August 09, 2011

And now for something completely different

This blog has had as one focus showing why belief in god makes no sense. In the interests of fairness, here is a video clip of twenty intellectuals (academics and theologians) explaining their beliefs. The contortions some of them get into are quite hilarious.

Via Jerry Coyne, who provides some commentary on each person's arguments.

August 08, 2011

How geography shapes religion

The short book Why we Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson with Clare Aukofer (2011) marshals the evidence that god is a creation of human beings.

In the book, the authors discuss the work of Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, who has "extracted information showing that religious ideas actually can be shaped by geography and ecology. Historically, rain forest dwellers, with nature's abundance all around, tended to be polytheists, believing in spirits based on nature and less likely to assume that gods intervene in their lives. Desert dwellers, living in a monotonous, harsh, and unforgiving environment, were more likely to believe in a single, sometimes harsh, misogynistic, interventionist god." (p. 137)

Just our luck that the unpleasant desert version of god has become dominant.

This work supports the ideas of primatologist Frans de Waal that I discussed earlier.

August 07, 2011

It's a miracle!

It looks like Rick Perry was able to rustle up a decent crowd of 20,000-30,000 people for his prayerfest in Texas, though still well below the 71,000 stadium capacity. One other governor, Sam Brownback of Kansas, also showed up. The event "was Perry's idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss., group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians."

No doubt Perry will look for signs from god whether he should run for president. The fact that the crowd beat early expectations could be taken as a sign that god wants him to run. Or the less-than-capacity crowd might be a sign that god wants him to merely stick to praying. Religious people are good at finding signs from god that tell them to do what they had decided to do anyway.

August 06, 2011

Atheist clergy

I have speculated before that a lot of clergy may be closet atheists and that over time more and more will emerge. This article says that, "A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist."

The pastor of a mainstream Protestant church in the Netherlands is one such clergyman. (See the interesting short interview with him in the link. The BBC interviewer sounds incredulous at what he is hearing.) The Rev. Klaas Hendrikse's view on life after death is, "Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get".

He does not view god exists as a supernatural being: "God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

As for the life of Jesus, he thinks that it is "a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life" and "You don't have to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected".

It seems that some churches are beginning to recognize that many of their clergy simply don't believe. Although Hendrikse has written a book Believing in a Non-Existent God that led traditionalist Christians to call for him to be removed from the church, "a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out." (My italics)

The times they are a changing, alright.

Rick Perry's day of prayer

So today is Texas governor and putative Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's big day of prayer and fasting where he and a motley collection of evangelical religious bigots get together to pray for Jesus to save the nation. One of his key allies in this event is IHOP (no, not that one, this is the International House of Prayer) whose theology is based on the Book of Revelation, the nuttiest book of the Bible which is highly popular with the rapturites.

The signs so far are that the response has been less that overwhelming with only about 8,000 reservations (as of Thursday) for a stadium that can accommodate 71,000. What is worse for Perry, he invited all his fellow governors to attend and it looks like none will, since even the most bigoted politician has enough sense to not want to be associated with what promises to be a hate-fest.

In addition to the evangelicals' open hatred of homosexuality, one of the interesting features is what lurks beneath the surface, a dislike of everyone who is not 'born again'. And that includes Catholics and Jews. For example, the church that Michele Bachmann attended was vehemently anti-Catholic. She formally left it this summer and says that she has not attended for two years though it is not clear what church she has been going to, since she refuses to answer.

August 03, 2011

Short cut to salvation

One of the selling points that evangelical proselytizers use to win converts amongst those who are wracked with guilt for past transgressions is to tell them that if only they would accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, their past sins will be forgiven and that no other religion can promise them such quick absolution. It is a strategy that seems to be somewhat effective (as one might expect) in prisons with some hardened criminals.

The Onion had an article by a mass murderer on how he found this feature of Christianity quite appealing.

It was a stroke of unbelievable luck. Here I thought I'd spend the rest of my life agonizing over that night I broke into a random house and methodically tortured all five of its residents, but Jesus was like, "Nah, you're good." He took all those years I expected to wallow in suffocating guilt for having forced a mother to choose the order in which I strangled her children and wiped them away in a jiff.

Which is ironic because the family I murdered in cold blood was praying to Jesus like crazy the whole time.

If it weren't for the Savior, I'd still be living with a horribly tormented conscience like some chump. I used to think that maybe, just maybe, I could ease some of the unrelenting pain after a lifetime of good works and contrition. But once God's grace washed over me—and that took, what, maybe 15 minutes at most?—I knew I was in the clear.

Bing, bang, boom. Salvation.

I mean, it's too bad I'll never get back those days I squandered on unbearable guilt, but Jesus bailed me out big time, so I'm not going to complain. No sense in living in the past. The man who took five innocent lives in brutal fashion and made himself a glass of chocolate milk afterward might as well be a totally different person. I walk in the Lord now.

Of course, the laws of man will keep me physically behind bars for the rest of my life. But my soul has been set free by the Lord and by the sacrifice of His only son. Despite all my earthly sins, He has redeemed me. He always does.

Had I known that sooner, I would've killed way more people.

It would not surprise me in the least if Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, claims after a few years to have seen the light and found Jesus. He may even become an evangelical preacher, using his own life as an example of how Jesus saves.

Incidentally, via reader Jeff, I received this interesting article by neuroscientist David Eagleman speculating on what might motivate killers like Breivik and how our increasing understanding of how brains work might affect legal proceedings involving such people.

What it takes to be a Christian

The attempt by some Christians to distance their religion from Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, is laughable since he proudly proclaimed his religion in his writings, but it does raise the interesting question of what it takes to be considered a Christian.

For mainstream Christians, if one is baptized, usually as a newborn infant, you are considered a Christian. As far as evangelical Christians are concerned, all you have to do is say that you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, and you are home free, with a direct non-stop ticket to heaven when you die.

What is noticeable is that there is no real intellectual effort needed to become a Christian. During religious services, worshippers proclaim belief in all manner of extraordinary things in the creeds they recite but few pay any attention to the words and would be surprised if the enormity of what they affirm is pointed out to them, let alone be asked to explain why they believe what they say they believe.

But is it that simple to be a Christian? Not everyone thinks so. Via Jason Rosenhouse, I stumbled across a blog by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who seems to be a Roman Catholic because in his profile, he describes himself thusly: "I am a writer and philosopher living in Los Angeles. I teach philosophy at Pasadena City College. My primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. I also write on politics, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective."

In the course of a discussion about the cosmological argument, he posted a comment to his own post (scroll down) where he outlined what would be needed to believe in Christianity. (All italics are in the original.)

For starters, he says:

I would say that as a preliminary to arguing for Christianity, one has to establish first, through independent and purely philosophical arguments: 



1. The existence of God

2. Such attributes as the unity, simplicity, power, intellect, and will of God

3. God's conservation of the world in being and providence

4. The immortality of the soul

5. The possibility of miracles

That's pretty heavy duty stuff. I would have thought that would have been formidable enough to cause any rational Christian to immediately throw in the towel. Note also that you are expected to show all these through independent and purely philosophical arguments. You don't need no stinking evidence, which is probably just as well since there isn’t any for any of those claims.

But wait, there's more! He then says that to be a Christian, you also have to be able to show why all the other religions are false. This is actually an important point that a lot of religious people ignore because all the reasons they give for why other religions are false can be used against their own too. Feser helps them out, starting first with how to eliminate all polytheistic religions, though I am not sure why he includes a nontheistic religion like Buddhism in the mix.

These are just the sorts of topics one finds treated in old-fashioned manuals of natural theology written in the Scholastic tradition. And once one has established this much, religions like Buddhism, Taoism, most forms of Hinduism, etc. are ruled out already. Only some form of monotheism can be true IF any form is true at all.

With those out of the way, he turns to competing major monotheistic religions, though he seems to deal only with Islam, ignoring Judaism altogether. That is typical. Christians in the US tend to tread gingerly around Judaism, believing it to be a false religion but rarely coming out and saying so.

The next step is to show that IF any allegedly revealed religion is true, it has to be backed by miracles in the strict sense -- events that could not in principle happen naturally and that could only have had a divine cause. There is no other way one could have rational grounds for confirming the claim that some message really came from God.

That much pretty much rules out Islam. Muhammad never even claimed any miracle other than the Koran itself. But the Koran is clearly not miraculous in principle even if one believed that it was so extraordinary that Muhammad could not have written it. By contrast, everyone agrees that Christ's resurrection would be impossible by purely natural causes, IF it really occurred.

The next step is to defend the historicity of Christ's resurrection itself. In my view, it is foolish to do this until one has already independently established points 1-5 above. For only in light of 1-5 is the evidence for the resurrection going to have its full power. Apart from 1-5 a skeptic could always say "Who knows what really happened, but we know it couldn't have been a miracle" etc. That won't wash if one has already established 1-5, though.

If one establishes that too, though, and if one grants (what I think there is no reasonable doubt about) that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be divine, then the fact that He was resurrected, that only God could have resurrected Him, and that this happened despite His saying something which would (if false) be blasphemous in the extreme, all would confirm that it was not false. In other words, it would show that there is a divine "seal of approval" on what He said and that what He said is therefore true. But if He is divine, and yet He is a different Person from the Father and Holy Spirit, etc., then we've got the essence of the doctrine of the Trinity. And then from there a Thomistic theologian works out the rest by inferring from what natural theology tells us together with what Christ's revelation tells us. And that takes us beyond natural or philosophical theology and into sacred theology.

That's nothing more than a sketch, but that's the framework that a sound Christian theology would begin by fleshing out. It's the sort of thing Aquinas and other Scholastics do, and the sort of thing that has to be done before the more detailed stuff (law and grace, sin and salvation, Eucharistic theology, etc. etc.) can properly be treated.

So there you go, Christians. None of that wishy-washy "If you accept Jesus as your savior, you are a Christian" short cut. That's for slackers. Get to work meeting all of Feser's requirements before calling yourself a Christian.

August 01, 2011

Morality without god

Jerry Coyne has a nice opinion piece in USA TODAY on the above topic.

July 31, 2011

Murderous people serving 'peace-loving' religions

Some of you may have heard about the 'World Trade Center cross'. Extracted from the wreckage of the WTC buildings were two steel girders in the form of a cross. Girders are usually welded at right angles to each other so discovering wreckage in this shape was not surprising but for a nation that is remarkably good at seeing Jesus even in pieces of toast, this was taken as some sort of miraculous sign from god, though it beats me what possible positive message could be extracted from the carnage. Maybe it is supposed to be like the rainbow after Noah's flood which symbolized god saying, "Hey, my bad" after he killed almost every living thing of the planet.

Some religious people have elevated this piece of wreckage into a religious icon, blessing it, praying around it, worshipping it, doing the usual things that religious people do, and they now want to make it part of the official 9/11 memorial. Since the memorial is a public institution funded by the government, American Atheists have sued to stop it, arguing that inserting something that has been made into a religious symbol violates the separation of church and state.

Fox News had a segment about this in which a spokesperson for American Atheists and a first responder at 9/11 debated the merits of the case.

Notice the program host badgering the atheist spokesperson but that is not unusual for a network that has an overt Christian ideology. What was interesting was that the news program's bulletin board was flooded with over 8,000 messages, many urging that the atheist spokesperson, and indeed all atheists, should be killed! Although the moderators are trying to remove these posts as fast as they come in, screen shots give a fascinating glimpse into the minds of religious people.

So let's take stock. A bunch of Muslims decided that killing nearly 3,000 people is what their god would approve of while a bunch of Christians call for the killing of all atheists as something they think their god would approve of. They see no contradiction between their religion and what they advocate.

And we are repeatedly told that religions advocate peace.

July 30, 2011

Why I am an atheist

This nice graphic puts it quite succinctly, and is consistent with my series of posts on the logic of science.

burden-of-proof.jpeg

(Via Pharyngula).

July 29, 2011

Religious killers

It is interesting how mainstream religions react when one of their followers goes on a murderous rampage because of their religious beliefs. The religions immediately disavow such people because they claim, despite the historical record and the very words in their religious texts, that their religion is one of peace and anyone who commits such atrocities cannot be a true believer.

We have seen this absurd argument advanced repeatedly with members of all religions and the Christian killer in Norway is now being subject to the same shunning by his co-religionists, as The Daily Show illustrates.

It is part of the general pattern of whining as a response to criticisms of your views.

July 28, 2011

Flowchart with rules for debating religious people

In a comment to a previous post, G provided a link to an excellent flowchart that creates ground rules for debating Christians (though indeed it applies to all topics, not just Christianity or even religions in general) that should prevent fruitless discussions.

debate-flow-chart.jpg

July 27, 2011

The pathetic cosmological argument for god

It has become increasingly clear that cosmology has become the last refuge of those religious people eager to find some place where god can still have done something while remaining undetectable. But those arguments are clearly pretty desperate.

Jason Rosenhouse provides an excellent summary of the debate over cosmological arguments and concludes:

If the cosmological argument is the best theology has to offer then we atheists do not need to worry that we have overlooked a good argument for God's existence.

As for the cosmological argument itself, I make no apology for being dismissive. Depending on what version you are considering, you can expect to find concepts like causality or probability being used in domains where they do not clearly apply, or dubious arguments for why an actual infinity cannot exist, or highly questionable premises about the beginnings of the universe or about how everything that began to exist must have had a cause, or groundless invocations of the principle of sufficient reason. You inevitably come so perilously close to assuming what you are trying to prove that you may as well just assume God exists and be done with it.

That's my reaction to proponents of the cosmological arguments as well. They work so hard at finding implausible reasoning to support their pre-ordained conclusion that they might as well just say that believe in god because they want to or need to, even if it is unsupported by evidence.

July 26, 2011

Religious nuts' greatest hits

Rachel Maddow has compiled the great thoughts of the religious people invited to Texas governor Rick Perry's day of prayer on August 6 to which he has invited all his fellow state governors. (Via Pharyngula.)

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

There is an outfit called 'The International House of Prayer'? Who knew? Why isn't IHOP suing for trademark infringement?

July 25, 2011

The Internet: Where religions come to die

Even evangelical Christians agree with this assessment that the internet poses a real threat to religion's survival. Listen to Josh McDowell of Cru, the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

Atheists and skeptics now have equal access to our children as we have, which is why the number of Christian youth who believe in the fundamentals of Christianity is decreasing and sexual immorality is growing, apologist Josh McDowell said.

"The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not," said McDowell, who is author of two books on Christian apologetics, More than a Carpenter and New Evidence that Demands Verdict.

"Now here is the problem," said McDowell, "going all the way back, when Al Gore invented the Internet [he said jokingly], I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that's exactly what has happened. It's like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics]."

McDowell, who lives in southern California with his wife Dottie and four children, said atheists, agnostics and skeptics didn't have access to kids earlier. "If they wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university." But that has changed now.

Jesus and Mo pick up on McDowell's comments.

J&M-level field.png

Daniel Dennett once said that arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with someone who raises the net when you make your shot and lowers it for theirs. The internet is like a more impartial person who has taken over umpiring duties.

July 24, 2011

How to talk like Deepak Chopra

It's easy!

555.jpg

A commenter named marius at the Calamities of Nature site where I saw this had a go at using the template and came up with the following:

The mind is like a quark. In both cases, when tunneling occurs, the physical reality of the void becomes apparent. It is only due to the field that surrounds us all that we can participate in consciousness. From this we know that the grand theory of unity exists. Amazingly, nature is the perfect analog to this phenomenon. The deep connection is the result of the earth. It is revealing that there is a fundamental link between us and the higher plane of existence and that consciousness is always found in the dark energy surrounding the stars.

Pretty good, no? Actually, a lot of so-called sophisticated theology that tries to meld science with god is like this so I suspect that many modern theologians are working off the same template.

July 23, 2011

Rebranding Christ

Via Pharyngula, I learn that Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelical organization, has decided to change its name. The new one? Cru. Yes, really. Apparently college affiliates had been referring to themselves this way for a while.

I don't know about this. Cru sounds more like the stage name a rapper would adopt, as in 'DJ Cru'. Furthermore, the university where I work at has the acronym CWRU that is spoken as 'crew' which sounds the same as 'cru'. So the members of the campus affiliate of this organization will become known as the 'CWRU Cru crew', which when vocalized will sound like you are doing bird imitations.

The reason for the change is that apparently the words 'Campus' and 'Crusade' had negative connotations. More interestingly, they found that even 'Christ' was off-putting because people "might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name". They seem to think that having a name that gave no hint of being Christian would enable their members to sneak their religious message into conversations with people who were unaware that they were targets of a proselytization effort.

This is of course the kind of sneaky tactics religious people use. But despite that, I took it to be a very encouraging sign that the brand 'Christ' is seen by even evangelical Christians as being tarnished.

July 22, 2011

Religion and inequality

Jerry Coyne has a very interesting post discussing a new study by F. Solt, P. Habel, and J. T. Grant, J. T. titled Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity that appeared in the journal Social Science Quarterly, 92: 447–465 (2011), that finds that economic inequality is positively correlated with religious belief, and looks at theories that might account for this.

The most common theory is called "deprivation theory" which says that in economically unequal societies, poorer folks turn to religion for reassurance and comfort. The authors of the paper introduce something called "relative power theory" that says that "many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue."

Coyne summarizes the conclusions of the paper.

Their findings thus suggest that both the deprivation and relative power theories are needed to explain the data. In economically unequal societies, rich people promulgate religion to keep their own place in the hierarchy, and, rather than fighting for more equality, poor people accept religion as an easy form of solace.

The authors also note that the relative power theory explains why the U.S. is so religious despite the fact that its citizens are generally well off. It is, they say, because the U.S. shows considerably more economic inequality than other developed countries (and that is true).

The authors also did a time-study and found that “Increases in inequality in one year predict substantial gains in religiosity in the next,” while “past values of religiosity do not predict future values of inequality” clearly indicating that it is inequality that influences religiosity and not the other way around.

A heartening sign is the trend of declining religiosity in America over the last half century.

aggregate-religiosity-in-us.png

Of course, this predicts that the recent rise in inequality in the US will see an uptick in religiosity. But it seems that the overall tendency is for religion to decline.

Both the original paper and Coyne's summary make for fascinating reading.

What appealed to me is the inference that the fights for economic justice and the elimination of religion are related, since those are two of my personal goals.

July 19, 2011

Reviews of the Bible

Amazon allows readers to post reviews of their books. Jerry Coyne has made a nice compilation of some of the reviews of the Bible by people who treat is as a work of fiction. It's pretty funny. Here's a sample:

There is little plot to this book, save for in the second half, much of which revolves around God's son, Jesus, an interesting fellow. Definitely, the story has finally hit a stride, so the New Testament reads like a novella. Everywhere this Jesus guy goes, he travels with his posse of "Apostles," who aren't your standard yes men. Although they all sing his praises when the going's good, one gives a great "I don't know about no Jesus" performance (Peter) worthy of a scruffy rat like Steve Buscemi. Another (Judas) sells out Jesus for a bunch of dead presidents, like Sean Penn did in "Carlito's Way." Unfortunately, Jesus gets rubbed out by an Italian gang, "The Romans," who torture him and nail him to a cross in revenge for representing on their turf. Lots of high drama here. "Revelations" was pretty weird, sort of like watching "Fantasia" while doing mushrooms, only a lot scarier. Altogether, an excellent read.

July 03, 2011

Dutch ban on the ritual slaughter of animals

The Dutch government has taken the first steps towards banning the slaughter of animals without stunning them first. This means that the way Jews and Muslims produce kosher and halal meat is no longer allowed since that requires the slitting of the animal's throat while it is still alive.

These two religious groups are upset and joining together to claim (surprise!) religious persecution. As one might have predicted, the specter of Hitler is being invoked, with the chief rabbi of the Netherlands comparing this action to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. On the Muslim side, one imam told Reuters, "This is a political decision. Who has the authority to determine whether the way of killing animals is good or not?"

Well, duh. When a country's parliament passes a law, it goes without saying that it is a political decision. And surely that same body has the authority to pass laws governing its food supply?

Religious people cannot seem to get it into their heads that just because some obscure and anonymous desert nomads wrote something a couple of thousand years ago, that is not a basis for deciding policies in the 21st century. You need to make the case based on contemporary knowledge and mores.

The selectivity of religions on such issues is glaringly obvious. They would not dare make the same arguments for their other religious rules such as the killing of people for various transgressions because that would show how barbaric their religious books are. But because the humane killing of animals is still not a universal value, they think they can get away with asking for religious exemptions for their practices.

June 29, 2011

Test your Bible knowledge

Reader Chris sent me this link to 50 questions about the Bible. He got 26 right and he thought I would do better. Alas, I got only 25 right.

Where I think I went wrong was with my method of guessing for those questions that I did not know the answers to. I followed the recommended strategy for answering any multiple-choice tests and avoided the outlier options. But it often turned out that what I thought was too crazy to be true (even for the Bible) was in fact the right answer. So I was punished for giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt

June 28, 2011

New article

The latest issue (July/August 2011) of the British magazine New Humanist has an article by me that tries to clear up the confusion about the distinction between atheist and agnostic. I received my print copy today and my article may be available online next week.

New Humanist is published by The Rationalist Association and is a highly entertaining mix of short and long form articles, cartoons, columns, and interviews, written in a cheeky, lively, and exuberant style, with plenty of eye-catching graphics.

June 24, 2011

Fears of religious vandalism limit free speech

A bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively expensive insurance against vandalism from an atheist group that wanted to place an ad on its buses. Apparently they feared that the ad's message "Are you good without God? Millions are" would inflame Christians enough that they would attack the buses.

A spokesperson for the atheist group draws the obvious conclusion, "The insurance money needed from us basically says CATA [the bus company] and On The Move [the bus company's ad agency] trust the atheists in this community more so than the religious, otherwise the churches that advertise would have that extra insurance premium added to their total cost."

June 18, 2011

More religious cruelty and stupidity

Blog reader FuDaYi sent me this news item about a Jewish rabbinical court that sentenced to death by stoning a dog that wandered into premises because they thought it was the reincarnation of a secular lawyer who had antagonized the court 20 years earlier and had been cursed by the judges to have his spirit passed to a dog when he died, which happened a few years ago. Fortunately the dog escaped.

What is it about religion that destroys people's minds?

June 15, 2011

Dick Goddard on religion and war

The well-known and long-standing Cleveland TV weatherman is an avuncular person, widely known for being an animal lover. In this radio interview on WCPN 90.3, he turns out to be quite outspoken about his anti-war views and his disbelief in god.

This 12-minutes portion of the interview begins at the 36:00 minute mark. (Thanks to Jeff.)

June 11, 2011

Sources of religious belief

Jerry Coyne discusses an interesting article that suggests that religious faith in countries is positively correlated with insecurity, as measured by income inequality.

Another interesting article supports the idea that fear of death can lead to greater religious belief. This study does not strike me as very rigorous in how it was done but it is suggestive.

June 01, 2011

News flash: Jesus wore pants!

One of the image problems that prevents Christianity from attracting men in America is that Jesus, with his long flowing hair that seems out of a shampoo commercial and wearing a robe that could be easily confused with a dress, seems effeminate and this can be off-putting to manly men.

But the undoubtedly manly Jesus' General (who scores an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender) points out that evangelical pastor Steven L. Anderson has revealed the heretofore hidden truth that Jesus actually had short hair and wore pants and that the mistaken image people have of what Jesus looked like is the result of deliberately misleading depictions of him by homosexual artists like Michelangelo who were covertly seeking to advance their gay agenda. As Anderson says, "Sodomite homosexuals such as Michelangelo painted Jesus to look effeminate and to have long hair in order to make him fit their own queer image… Anyone who has not had their mind warped by a so-called theologian or historian knows that a dress is a woman’s garment. The only men I have seen wearing dresses in 2010 are homosexuals, Catholic priests (sorry to be redundant), Islamic clerics, and Buddhist monks. These men are an abomination according to the Bible." You can't argue with that logic.

We are lucky that we have people like pastor Anderson to tell the truth and stand up for what it means to be a man. And talking of standing up, Jesus' General highlights another important feature that pastor Anderson has cleverly deduced from the Bible that can tell you if someone is a manly man or not.

May 31, 2011

The plight of evangelical ministers

"Half of pastors would leave the ministry tomorrow if they could. Seventy percent are fighting depression and 90 percent can't cope with the challenge of ministry… 1,500 pastors walk away from ministry every month because of moral failure, burnout, conflict, discouragement or depression… 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within their first five years."

Who is saying this? Not some atheist gloating over the demise of religion. These were the figures quoted by Jonathan Falwell, who took over the ministry of his well-known evangelical father Jerry Falwell.

Ken Pulliam, a former fundamentalist preacher, provides additional statistics on the rampant dissatisfaction of evangelical preachers with their lives:

  • 89% considered leaving the ministry at one time.
  • 57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work
  • 71% stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

Pulliam makes the point that these statistics are telling all by themselves and that it is not relevant to compare them with other professions to see if they are better or worse. Evangelical pastors consist of people who are supposedly sure that they are doing god's work and thus should be immune from the usual problems that the rest of us suffer from. What this data suggest is that many of these preachers think they are living a lie, that the beliefs they share with their flock is not true

While the media focus on a few high profile mega-church pastors to suggest that evangelical Christianity is flourishing, the reality is different. No thinking person today can believe that the Bible is literally true the way that these people say it is. Modernity cannot be shut out and it is taking its toll on many of them. It is really very sad.

May 30, 2011

Dog getting communion

An Anglican church in Canada welcomed pets to attend their services and Donald Keith, a new parishioner, took his dog Trapper with him. Since he was a newcomer, the vicar singled Keith out and invited him up in person to receive what is known as Holy Communion where you receive and wafer (and sometimes some wine or other beverage) to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus. (Catholics are told that the wafer and the wine actually become transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, but I am not getting into that here.)

When Keith went up, Trapper naturally followed him and the interim vicar said a small prayer and gave communion to Trapper too.

I thought that this was a nice story about a spontaneous friendly gesture on the vicar's part. When you are handing out what seems like treats to everyone and there is a dog waiting expectantly in line, it is hard to say no. Apparently almost every member of the congregation found the gesture to be heartwarming. But one person took umbrage and went straight to the archbishop and as a result Trapper has been banned from receiving communion. And of course, the Jesus lovers are incensed. Former Watergate felon and now crazy-for-Jesus evangelical Chuck Colson says that this is the result of the dangerous trend of thinking that humans are not special in the eyes of his god.

If I believed in heaven, my guess would be that Trapper is more worthy of going there than the parishioner who complained about him.

May 21, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the kitsch

This will be my last post. I expect to be taken up to heaven shortly at 6:00 pm eastern time with all the other true believers.

rapture.jpegSome of you will be surprised that I will be among the select few, since I have been making the case for atheism and making fun of all religions, including Christianity, and thus would have seemed a sure bet for hell. It is time to reveal the truth. This was all a ruse on my part. I was deliberately trying to drive people away from Jesus because I was working as a double agent for the CIA (Christ Indoctrination Agency). Jesus wanted to weed out all those whose faith was weak enough that they could be swayed by atheist arguments. Jesus wanted only the truest of the true believers, those who are willing to completely abandon all evidence and reason and logic, and instead put their complete trust in the words in an old book of dubious origin and so he and Melvin and Harvey created this agency to carry out this task. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and most other atheists also work for the CIA and are in the top ranks of the organization, so you will have the seeming paradox that heaven is going to filled with people who were considered dyed-in-the-wool atheists on Earth. Life is full of these little ironies.

Some people say that 2% of the world's population, or about 130 million, will be saved but they are wrong. There aren't that many true Jesus lovers and heaven would not want to admit any riff-raff. We are a pretty exclusive community and only 144,000 people will be saved in the Rapture.

So I will soon be off to get my wings and harp and enjoy the delights of heaven, such as singing hosannas and hanging out with the Cherubim and Seraphim, whatever the hell they are, because the Rapture manual they gave all CIA agents doesn't say. I am guessing that they are a comedy duo like Laurel and Hardy who perform their act between the hosanna sessions.

So goodbye and remember that the world actually ends on October 21. Until then you will experience five month of tribulation, which is not going to be a walk in the park. But cheer up. However bad the tribulation period is, remember that when it ends, it will be even worse in hell. And don't forget to wear clean underwear for the underworld, ha, ha! (Just a little Rapture humor.)

God and the US constitution

There is a person named David Barton who has been pushing the idea that the US was founded as a Christian country and that the separation of church and state was not intended to be a guiding principle. He is widely quoted in evangelical circles as an authority on this topic and has been influential in setting guidelines for high school textbooks.

In early May, Jon Stewart invited him to The Daily Show which is where I first saw him. Barton struck me as a fast talking snake oil salesman who knows how to impress people with seemingly erudite knowledge and to my irritation managed to steamroll Stewart.

To his credit, Stewart realized that he had been snowed so last week he brought on a genuine constitutional historian, Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, author of the book Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, to set the record straight. (The book is on my list of things to read.)

You can see all the interviews.

David Barton part 1:

David Barton part 2:

Richard Beeman part 1:

Richard Beeman part 2:

May 20, 2011

Rapture update

Today's Doonesbury cartoon continues his series on the Rapture

I also received this link from reader FuDaYi about people having fun with the Rapture with parties planned for the big day tomorrow. One person (an atheist, of course) is even offering pet care insurance for people who want to make sure that the pets that are left behind when their owners get taken to heaven will be looked after. This raises the serious theological question: Why don't pets get to go to heaven? What kind of god would deny people the company of their beloved pets? I personally wouldn't want to spend eternity without Baxter.

baxter.JPG

Not everyone is enjoying the publicity this event is garnering. "When we engage in this kind of wild speculation, it's irresponsible," said the Rev. Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "It can do damage to naive believers who can be easily caught up and it runs the risk of causing the church to receive sort of a black eye."

Of course it does. The church deserves to get a black eye because they are the enablers of these people. His concern about 'naïve believers' being misled is hilarious since that group constitutes his entire base. If you encourage people to believe in nonsense, you shouldn't complain if they believe in nonsense that is different from the nonsense that you believe in.

May 17, 2011

New documentary The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today

One of the key cases involving church-state separation (discussed in my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom) was McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) which involved a challenge to the practice of public schools granting "release time" for the teaching of religion in school buildings during the school day to those students and parents who agreed to it. The U.S. Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote ruled the policy unconstitutional. This was the first time that religious instruction in public schools had been explicitly ruled to be unconstitutional under the U.S. constitution.

It turns out that Vashti McCollum, the feisty mother who brought the case objecting to this practice and braved the wrath of the religious people in her small town in Illinois, is still alive died only in 2006 (thanks to reader George for pointing out the error) and some PBS stations will be broadcasting a new award-winning documentary The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today that deals with her case. Here is a preview.

If your local PBS station is not listed on that site, you can call them and ask them to consider showing it.

The dark side of the Rapture

I have heard reports that a caravan of vehicles with billboards announcing the end of the world on May 21 passed through Cleveland a couple of weeks ago. When May 22 dawns and no Rapture has occurred, there will be a lot of disappointed people. This will not be the first time that such hopes have been dashed. There was a major event actually called The Great Disappointment that occurred on October 22, 1844 [date corrected thanks to commenter Robert] when a widely believed end times prophesy failed to materialize.

While Christianity has always had its end-times fanatics, it was the creation of the state of Israel that spawned a huge amount of end-times theorizing because these people believe that Jesus will only return to Earth after the Jews returned to Israel. This is also why there is such a weird symbiotic relationship between Christian and Jewish extremist groups. The expansionist policies of Israel that have ruined the lives of so many Palestinians is supported by the Christian end-timers because they think it is a sign that Jesus has packed his bags and is about to make the return trip to Earth.

I have been having some fun with the whole Rapture thing, because the idea is so absurd. But there is a dark side to it, in that many of the people who take it seriously are making foolish decisions and could ruin their lives. NPR ran a story on some of the people who are waiting to be raptured. One couple with an infant daughter and another baby due in June have abandoned plans for the mother to go to medical school and are spending all their money down so that they will be left with nothing on May 21, arguing that there is no point since it will all come to an end. In another story, NPR described a person who sold off his house and gave up his job to await the event. A colleague of mine described how her former sister-in-law believed in an earlier rapture prediction of 1994 and ran up huge credit card bills that then took a long time to pay off. These people refuse to consider that they might be wrong because to do so would be a sign of lack of faith and cause god to not select them for heaven.

If no Rapture occurs, the people responsible for the predictions will use the standard excuse that the calculations were faulty and go back to the drawing board. This is what current Rapture predictor Harold Camping said in 1994 when his earlier prediction did not pan out. He said it was because he had not read the book of Jeremiah that contained some important clues. That seems a little irresponsible to me. If you are basing a major prediction such as the end of the world on the Bible, and people are taking you seriously, you should at least have had the decency to do your homework and read the whole thing.

In a comment to a previous post, Scott jokingly suggested that it might be fun on May 21 to leave little piles of clothes around because that would be a sign to the believers that people have been suddenly raptured up to heaven. That would be funny except that we have to remember that we are dealing with seriously deluded people who do not think rationally. If these people think that the Rapture had actually occurred and they were not selected and were headed for hell, there is no saying what they will do and it is quite possible that they will go berserk.

Richard Dawkins was asked by the Washington Post to comment on the latest Rapture frenzy and said: "Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon?" He then has a good discussion of how the word 'tradition' used as in 'religious tradition' tends to bestow respectability on a set of nonsensical myths that have no foundation.

I disagree with Dawkins. We should publicize as widely as possible the crazy and evil things that religions cause people to do. Mainstream religions provide the soil in which the crazies can take root and flourish. We need more and more people to realize that these deluded people are deeply misguided because they are connected organically to mainstream religion, not separate from it. Having a public relations fiasco like the Rapture can only help the cause of skepticism.

May 16, 2011

How many people has the Judeo-Christian god killed?

Someone has had the fortitude to go through the Bible and tabulate all the people killed by this particular god. The problem is that while sometimes the numbers are given precisely, on other occasions the figures have to be estimated.

The result? 2,476,636 if you count up the actual numbers and, if you include those killings for which no precise numbers are provided, an estimated 25 million.

(via Jerry Coyne.)

May 14, 2011

NJ governor won't say if he believes in evolution or creationism

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was asked at a press conference if he believes in evolution or creationism and he replied with his characteristic rudeness and arrogance "That's none of your business".

While I would not have said it the way he did, I do agree with him on the substance. There is no reason why elected officials should have to publicly state what they privately believe on any issue that a reporter might be interested in. We are only entitled to know what they do in their official capacities and the reasons they advance for doing it. Issues should be debated on the merits of the competing proposals and on publicly stated arguments in favor of the options and their underlying beliefs are not a necessary part of the discussion.

Having said all that, I was curious as to the implications Christie's reluctance to answer the question. If he truly believes it is none of the reporter's business, I agree with him. But what if he instead felt that giving an honest answer might cause him embarrassment or political difficulties? There are two options here. One is that he believes in evolution but felt that saying so would alienate a major bloc of his supporters. The other option is that he believes in creationism but felt that denying the fact of evolution would make him look like an anachronism in this modern scientific age.

The former represents crass political calculation, the latter demonstrates that to deny evolution is no longer something that is intellectually respectable. Both options are signs of science's progress.

May 12, 2011

Update on the Rapture

Remember, there are only nine more days until the Rapture! Get your forgiveness from Jesus now and avoid long lines in the last minute rush.

Salon has an article on the latest Rapture prophesy and the 89-year old radio host named Harold Camping who is behind it.

Violence and religion

Take a look at this image.

new-reliquaries-4.jpg

Did you notice that the synagogue has been made out of bullets and guns and other weaponry? It is one example of the work of sculptor Al Farrow, in which he uses the tools of violence to create religious buildings in order to make the point that religion and violence are so closely intertwined.

The link where you can see many other works by Farrow was sent to me by blog reader John. The multiple close up views of a bombed mosque are quite exquisite.

Joking about god not welcome on American TV?

I don't watch much TV but I have noticed that there are no YouTube clips of American broadcast TV shows having atheist comedians making fun of god or religion, the way one finds in the UK or Australia. The closest I have seen is House, where the atheist title character tosses off the occasional barb aimed at religion.

An article in The Australian suggests that as a result foreign comedians who are used to making jokes about religion and getting a good laugh in other countries are sometimes surprised at the hostile reaction they get here, as with Ricky Gervais's performance as host of the Golden Globes awards.

What caused real grief at NBC, the network that broadcasts the Globes, and among those of the organisers who leaked that Gervais had "crossed a line" was the presenter's final quip as he exited.

"Thanks for everyone in the room for being good sports, to NBC and the Hollywood foreign press, thank you for watching at home," he said. "And thank you, God, for making me an atheist."

The US has 210 television market areas, or regions. By the Monday morning NBC bosses had had their ears bent by managers from dozens, ranging from the liberal Bangor, in Maine, to the deeply conservative Corpus Christi, in Texas. The problem was Gervais's final flourish, and they questioned why NBC had not "bleeped" it out as it would swearing. The truth was, NBC did not see it coming.

Gervais is not the first British comic to run into this invisible wall. Last year Eddie Izzard hosted the Independent Spirit awards for non-studio filmmakers in Los Angeles. He experienced unusual moments of silence and audience disconnection. The next morning, bloggers crowed that his "attacks on organised religion" cost him the audience.

NBC is now seeking to put the 2011 Globes behind it, although its "standards and practices" lawyers are likely to crush any religious jokes scripted in advance next year. Not that that would stop a runaway Gervais.

Early reports suggest that in 2012 the microphone may be handed to Joel McHale, a half-Italian comedian who mocks teary reality-show contestants and bumbling news announcers on a weekly cable TV show called The Soup. Picking on the hapless is rewarding fun, the smirking comic has found.

More critically, in seven years on The Soup, the host, a Catholic, has never challenged a powerful deity of any stripe.

God, apparently, cannot take a joke in America.

The demand that NBC should have bleeped out the god comment reveals how insecure religious people are. They cannot tolerate the idea that anyone should publicly declare their disbelief. People thank god all the time on TV for all manner of things from winning awards to scoring touchdowns and I suspect that most atheists are like me and find it merely ridiculous and amusing. I suspect that no atheist has been converted to religious belief by hearing such expressions of devotion. And yet believers fear that hearing people say that they are atheists is dangerous and offensive and worthy of censorship

What is interesting is that comedians like Gervais and Izzard get enthusiastic responses for their standup comedy routines before live audiences in the US. One obvious reason is of course that the people who go to a live show already have some inkling of what they are going to get, unlike the people who watch TV at home. But it is also the case that the audience for standup shows consists of younger people, and their acceptance of god-mocking humor may be another signal of the generational shift that is going on, with younger people not taking religion nearly as seriously as their elders.

The problem that religion faces is that it is such a ripe target for humor because it is so self-contradictory and makes such absurd claims, the exact diet that comedians feast on, and so they cannot resist using it as the butt of jokes. As the taboos against it slowly crumble, as they surely will, we can expect to see more and more mocking of the absurdities of religious beliefs.

The upcoming Rapture on May 21 is a case in point. Expect to see a lot of jokes about it as the day gets closer.

May 11, 2011

Judgment Day is almost upon us but don't worry, be happy

end-is-near.jpgThere are only 10 more days until May 21, which is Judgment Day when the Rapture happens! What, you didn't know this? You don't even know what the Rapture is? Let me fill you in.

The Rapture is the name given to the occasion when all the true believers in Jesus will be suddenly taken up to heaven, prior to him coming back to Earth in all his glory to smite all the sinners who are left behind and then destroys the world. Or something like that. It is all a bit confusing but the main thing to bear in mind is that it is definitely not a good sign if you are still here on May 22 because that means you are not among the chosen few. You are going to be in for a rough time for the next five months before the world comes to a final end on October 21, 2011, totally messing up the baseball World Series that starts on October 19. If the currently hot Cleveland Indians make it to the World Series and the Earth is destroyed before they win, it will confirm the dark suspicions in the minds of Cleveland sports fans that god hates Cleveland, probably because of their repulsive Chief Wahoo symbol.

How do we know that Judgment Day will fall on May 21? This website tells you how they calculated the date. They say that a close reading of all the clues in the Bible says it will occur exactly 7,000 years after Noah's flood. Even some Rapturists may be surprised that this implies that the Rapture will occur in 2011 CE since according to Bishop Ussher's famous calculation, the Earth was supposed to have been created in 4004 BCE and Noah's flood occurred on 2348 BCE. So, according to Ussher's chronology, 7,000 years after the flood would mean that the Rapture would occur in the year 4653 CE, which gives us plenty of time to destroy the world in other ways, such as with global warming or nuclear wars, and save Jesus the trouble of coming back to do it himself, since I am sure he has lots of other demands on his time.

There have been other predictions of the end of the world that failed to materialize. But the authors of these new calculations say that, although based on the same Bible as the earlier ones, this time they have got it right. Their new dates are as follows.

  • 11,013 BC—Creation. God created the world and man (Adam and Eve).
  • 4990 BC—The flood of Noah’s day. All perished in a worldwide flood. Only Noah, his wife, and his 3 sons and their wives survived in the ark (6023 years from creation).
  • 7 BC—The year Jesus Christ was born (11,006 years from creation).
  • 33 AD—The year Jesus Christ was crucified and the church age began (11,045 years from creation; 5023 calendar years from the flood).
  • 1988 AD—This year ended the church age and began the great tribulation period of 23 years (13,000 years from creation).
  • 1994 AD—On September 7th, the first 2300-day period of the great tribulation came to an end and the latter rain began, commencing God’s plan to save a great multitude of people outside of the churches (13,006 years from creation).
  • 2011 AD—On May 21st, Judgment Day will begin and the rapture (the taking up into heaven of God’s elect people) will occur at the end of the 23-year great tribulation. On October 21st, the world will be destroyed by fire (7000 years from the flood; 13,023 years from creation).

mayan2012.jpegDon't confuse this end of the world with that predicted by the Mayans. Because their calendar only went up to 2012, some people interpreted it to mean that they somehow knew that the world would end that year. But since the Mayans were heathens who did not know Jesus and their calendar was not based on the Bible, they obviously cannot be trusted.

Notice that we are supposed to have gone through a period of 'great tribulation' that began in 1988 but frankly I had not noticed anything particularly different happening that year or since. But in hindsight, the signs were all there. In 1988 Bobby McFerrin's song Don't Worry, Be Happy won a Grammy award for best song (as well as awards for best album and best male vocalist) which we should have recognized as the sign of the Apocalypse. The title itself was likely code to reassure anxious true believers that they would be saved. Another missed clue was that at 1:15 in this music video (which includes Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams), McFerrin is suddenly whisked up out of his shoes and socks to heaven. People disappearing suddenly and leaving their clothes behind is a dead giveaway that the Rapture is occurring.

I think the evidence is overwhelming that May 21 is the day, so basically we have just ten days left to shape up and get on god's good side or have to evade slaughter in the following five months, which would be pointless since we would end up in hell on October 21 anyway.

Where presumably our punishment will be that we will have to listen to Don't Worry, Be Happy on an endless loop.

May 10, 2011

The 'religions of peace' keep on killing

The Sunni rulers of Bahrain are destroying Shia mosques and attacking demonstrators in this majority Shia country. There are deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

Religious apologists are always telling us that their religions are peaceful and that those who perpetrate violence are not being true to it. But it does not seem to strike them as odd that nothing seems to rouse people to a murderous fury more easily than to feel that their god of peace and love has been slighted.

Education and religious belief

There is an interesting relationship between education and religious belief. It is often assumed that increased education leads to greater levels of disbelief in god. The fact that religion is in rapid decline (as I tried to document in my series Why Atheism is Winning) and heading towards extinction in the developed world, where levels of education are highest, suggests such a correlation.

But it would be wrong to infer that this implies a direct causal relationship between education and lack of religion. The stronger causal relationship is that increased modernity leads to decline in religion, and modernity involves more than just education. Religion thrives on fear of death and the afterlife, and it could be that improved standards of living and a lowering of fears and insecurity about living life in this world are what undermine its appeal. The negative effect on religion may thus be indirect, by enabling greater levels of modernity and higher standards of living.

Even if one infers a direct link between education and disbelief, the relationship need not be monotonic in that people with lower levels of education are necessarily greater believers. I wrote about four years ago that "a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion" and that there is some evidence that religious belief can actually increase when people go to college. Why? Because they learn how to better find rationalizations for the beliefs they were indoctrinated with as children. Thus up to a point, an increased amount of formal education can actually lead to greater belief because it suppresses people's natural curiosity and makes them more accepting of the verdicts of 'authorities' (such as 'experts' and the authors of textbooks), while not being able to distinguish between reliable authorities who use good evidence and closely reasoned arguments to arrive at judgments, and unreliable authorities (like priests and theologians) who simply assert dogma as if they were deep truths, without providing any evidence to back them up.

It seems as if belief in religion follows the pattern described in the poem An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) that goes:

So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.

Many of the arguments for god by theologians and philosophers are so incredible that one finds it hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously, unless one has surrendered logic and common sense and substituted for them a rudimentary skill at rationalization that blinds one to the flaws in the arguments. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." Or, as George Orwell put it even more acidly in his Notes on Nationalism (1945) in the context of people willing to believe in political absurdities, "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

But while some learning can increase religious belief, still deeper learning usually leads to a decline again. This widely quoted passage from Pope's poem makes this point:

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

The evidence is quite convincing, for example, that very high levels of education, especially in the sciences, are strongly correlated with disbelief in a god. The Pew survey of religious knowledge in the US found that "academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population" and "In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God."

It is not increasing education alone but what kind of education that also matters. After all, many theologians have great amounts of formal education but that does not prevent them from putting forward the most absurd question-begging claims for religion. I think that two kinds of attitudes towards knowledge lead to greater disbelief.

One is when people begin to take a skeptical attitude towards their most cherished beliefs and begin to ask for evidence and reason in support those assertions that they had previously taken for granted as self-evidently true. This tends to naturally occur in the highest levels of scientific education where one needs to do this to be taken seriously by one's peers.

But this can also happen without much formal education for people who simply have a thirst for knowledge and an inquiring mind and a critical bent. Some of the sharpest minds I have encountered have belonged to people who did not go to college at all or dropped out and simply educated themselves. But to be able to do that more effectively, they need access to the literature. It used to be that serious thinkers used to write books aimed at the general public but with the advent of modern universities and technical journals, scholars started writing for other scholars and this changed the nature of their output, making them fairly opaque to the general reader, and thus resulted in a very small readership.

For a long time self-educated people were limited in the availability of accessible books and articles on science or atheism or critiques of religion. The recent spate of serious books aimed at the general public and written by the new/unapologetic atheists has changed all that. Suddenly all that powerful but hitherto esoteric knowledge has been made accessible to anyone interested, and the fact that these books are selling by the millions is evidence that many people have long sought such knowledge about religion and how advances in science have undermined belief in god.

The other attitude that leads to skepticism is when people go more deeply into their religion and religious texts and I will look at this in a subsequent post.

May 09, 2011

More billboards!

The godless heathen are spreading their message everywhere. I got an email from blog reader David about a billboard that he and fellow members of the NCW Freethinkers Meetup in eastern Washington state have put up.

NCWbillboard.jpg

David says that the region is very reactionary and religious and so this was quite a bold move on their part, even though the billboard does not directly undermine belief in god but only asks for the separation of church and state to be maintained. But I suspect that there are a lot of closet skeptics in that region as well, and this billboard will hearten them that they are not alone.

So well done David and the NCW Freethinkers!

May 07, 2011

Steroid Jesus

An odd problem that Christianity faces in the US is that Jesus is seen as basically a wuss. All that turning-the-other-cheek stuff does not sit well with a country that has a Chuck Norris mindset. This may be partly the reason that churches tend to be predominantly elderly and female.

To appeal to men, I have written before about how some Christian groups have developed worship services that involve all manner of manly activities.

But this may not be enough. What Jesus additionally needs is a physical makeover to make him less effeminate and more appealing to the testosterone-heavy crowd and this billboard that purportedly appeared in Myrtle Beach, SC may be one strategy.

steroidjesus.jpg

Reports of this billboard date back to the mid-2000 period but I have not been able to confirm that it is real.

Of course, no post on manliness is complete without a video of the Village People singing their hit song Macho Man.

May 04, 2011

Surprising, unsurprising, and amusing facts about US religious knowledge

The recent Pew survey of US religious knowledge that I discussed on the radio and on this blog, had some features that I want to discuss further.

The things that surprised me about the Pew study were:

  • That 45% of Catholics did not understand what transubstantiation meant. You would think that this would be a big part of their preparation for first communion and subsequent devotional activities. That the number of unaware people is so high suggests that this part of their doctrine is viewed as so absurd that it is downplayed. I mean, really, the idea that the wafer and the wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus because of a prayer and are then consumed seems outlandish and even macabre. It is likely that although the words "This is the body" and "This is the blood" are said during the service, it is not emphasized that people should take it literally.
  • 43% of Jews did not recognize Maimonides as being Jewish. I thought that Maimonides was for Jews what Aquinas is for Catholics, someone they admire as a religious intellectual, whom they can point to when their religion is described as a childish superstition.
  • High level of knowledge about Mormonism. "Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon." This really surprised me. Why would people know so much about this tiny religious group? Is it because of Mitt Romney's run for the presidency? The South Park shows?

The thing that did not surprise me was that atheists knew more about religion than Christians. In general minorities in any community tend to be more knowledgeable than majorities because they need that knowledge to navigate the majority culture. Furthermore, atheists usually grew up in religious homes. People who leave a belief structure usually first try to reconcile the conflicts by looking deeper into it to see if it can be made acceptable and only leave when the effort seems futile. So it is not surprising that atheists know more about religions since they usually know what they are walking away from.

The thing that amused me was "Respondents who say the Bible was written by man and is not the word of God get 18 questions right, on average. Those who say the Bible is the word of God but should not be taken literally get an average of 16.3 questions right. And those who say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word, get an average of 14.5 questions right… Holding other factors constant, people who say Scripture was written by men answer nearly three additional questions correctly, compared with those who say Scripture is the word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." Note that the overall average score was 16 questions right out of 32.

Wouldn't you think that people who believed that god was directly talking to them through the Bible would read it voraciously and be intimately familiar with what is says? I mean, we are talking about the same god who they say can take them into heaven or thrown them into hell for eternity. This should be a big deal. The fact that they are the ones who know the least suggests to me that one should treat the assertions of biblical literalists with some skepticism. Many of them say they think the Bible is literally true because their religious leaders tell them so but deep in their hearts I don't think they buy it.

May 02, 2011

When theologians justify atrocities

Since there no credible evidence to back up the idea of god, believers essentially have to resort to debating tricks to try and justify their beliefs. Theologians are quite good at this because they have a lot of practice. After all, it takes considerable rhetorical and logical skill to debate questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But debating tricks are just that, tricks, and any reasonably good debater can quickly identify the ones used by an opponent and neutralize them.

In a comment to an earlier post, Mike Haubrich gives a link to a post on his own blog where he takes apart one of theologian William Lane Craig's favorite debating tactics. What arouses Mike's ire is a post by Craig in which he justifies the most appalling acts by god simply because they are commanded by his particular god.

There is a trap that believers in a god simply cannot avoid. The only way to maintain the idea of a loving god who acts in accordance with our present beliefs about what constitutes humane values and morality is to be erratic and inconsistent, picking and choosing from religious texts which events to take at face value and which to ignore and making assumptions as needed to overcome problems, even if a new assumption should contradict an earlier one.

Intellectuals like Craig find this beneath them because it is so obviously cherry picking and ad hoc and so they try to build an intellectually consistent system. His approach comes under the heading of the fancy name 'divine command theory' in which something is good if god commands it. Here it is in a nutshell:

I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

Of course it is only your god's command that gets this absolution, not somebody else's stray god. In pursuing this logic, as Mike so clearly shows in his post, Lane is forced to conclusions that justify monstrous and barbaric acts such as genocide, the murder of children, and rape.

Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina also weigh in on the horrific implications of Craig's line of reasoning. Christina makes an important point:

I want to make something very clear before I go on: William Lane Craig is not some drooling wingnut. He's not some extremist Fred Phelps type, ranting about how God's hateful vengeance is upon us for tolerating homosexuality. He's not some itinerant street preacher, railing on college campuses about premarital holding hands. He's an extensively educated, widely published, widely read theological scholar and debater. When believers accuse atheists of ignoring sophisticated modern theology, Craig is one of the people they're talking about. [My italics]

And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to kill pretty much anybody. It's okay to kill bad people, because they're bad and they deserve it... and it's okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it's okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said -- not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words -- "the death of these children was actually their salvation."

She then poses an excellent question:

So why did this story not make headlines? Why was there not an appalled outcry from the Christian world? Why didn't Christian leaders from all sects take to the pulpits to disavow Craig, and to express their utter repugnance with his views, and to explain in no uncertain terms that their religion does not, and will not, defend the extermination of races or the slaughter of children?

Because the things he said are not that unusual.

Because lots of people share his views.

Because these kinds of contortions are far too common in religious morality. Because all too often, religion twists even the most fundamental human morality into positions that, in any other circumstance, most people would see as repulsive, monstrous, and entirely indefensible.

The post by Craig that Mike and Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina take apart has to be read to be believed. If I had set out to create a parody of biblical morality to discredit the idea of god, I could not have done a better job. It is a perfect example of a superficially clever argument that only a person who values belief in god over basic morality, or even decency, could construct.

Craig embodies the type George Orwell spoke of in his Notes on Nationalism (1945): "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

April 29, 2011

The creationists' dinosaur problem

Dinosaurs are a headache for biblical literalists. Since religion has no rational basis, you have to build your base of believers by indoctrinating children at a young age. And because children are fascinated by dinosaurs and can't seem to get enough of them, you need to work them into the story somehow. The fact that dinosaurs existed at one time and are now extinct is an unquestioned fact and must be faced. The catch is that dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible. It is no good for creationist adults to deny their existence the way they deny other inconvenient scientific facts because even the most trusting and naïve child is going to balk at such a counterfactual statement.

Young Earth creationists cannot accept the most common scientific explanation of dinosaur extinction as a result of an asteroid collision with the Earth 65 million years ago that changed the climate, because that explanation is too deeply integrated into an old Earth model in which dinosaurs lived long before humans. Biblical literalists believe in a 6,000 year old Earth in which humans existed from the beginning and hence were contemporaneous with all animals so it would be hard to explain why the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs did not destroy humans as well. Besides asteroids are not mentioned in the Bible either.

As a result, there has developed an entire creationist cottage industry devoted to (a) arguing that the Bible does indeed talk about dinosaurs, and (b) providing explanations as to why they are no longer around.

Blog reader David sent along a little cartoon booklet titled There Go the Dinosaurs! that gives one such attempt. As he said it is at the same time both hilarious and sad.

The booklet says that the reason dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible is that they used to be called dragons, which are mentioned extensively in the Bible, and that they were 'renamed' as dinosaurs in 1841. It is true that the name dinosaur was only coined in 1842 by the naturalist Richard Owen after the discovery of the fossils. But this 'renaming' gambit that makes dragons and dinosaurs the same is quite a neat trick because it solves two embarrassing problems at once. One is that dinosaurs existed but the Bible does not mention them and the other is that dragons are widely accepted to be mythical creatures that never existed but the Bible and other fables repeatedly refer to them. Of course, since god knows the future, it does not explain why he did not tell the authors of the Bible to use the term dinosaur. But we'll let that go.

So why did the dinosaurs go extinct, if it was not due to a catastrophic event? The booklet said that humans hunted them for their meat. During the great flood, a pair of dinosaurs was saved in the ark by Noah and after the flood subsided they reproduced like other animals. But because the flood wiped out all the vegetation, the air in the immediate post-flood era was oxygen poor. Apparently dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air and as a result they got tired easily and couldn't run as fast (like what happens to humans in high altitudes, I suppose) and so were much more easily caught and killed. Hence they went extinct.

What is interesting about this scenario is the attempt to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for an accepted fact that picks and chooses from the scientific universe. What creationists do is mix as much standard science as possible with evidence-free assertions. Creationists tend to use science only when it consists of either those things that are common knowledge and cannot be disputed or things that people experience in their everyday lives and seem commonsensical or it provides results that they agree with. Any science that is not common knowledge and contradicts the Bible is rejected. Radiometric dating, for example, requires esoteric and technical knowledge and thus can be dismissed and its conclusions breezily cast aside.

The way that creationists operate is to accept just those scientific facts that 'every one knows' (continents drift, during photosynthesis trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, the Earth moves around the Sun, the universe is vast) and then weave elaborate stories around these anchors to create 'explanations'. The catch is that as time goes by, more and more things that once could be dismissed as esoteric start to enter the world of 'everyone knows' knowledge, creating more headaches for creationists, requiring more ad hoc additions. For example, creationists realize that it is futile to deny that the continents once formed a single large land mass that drifted apart. But in order to explain how that could have happened in 6,000 years, they say that they moved really fast until just recently.

The idea that trees are producers of oxygen (true) and that low oxygen content in air can more easily lead to fatigue (true) is thrown in with a purely ad hoc assertion (that dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air than humans) to arrive at the desired result. As Rudyard Kipling showed with his Just So Stories once you are allowed this freedom to be evidence-free, you can explain anything, a point reinforced by the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo.

edge.jpg

What is really going to destroy contemporary creationism is the age of the Earth and evolution. The idea that the Earth is really old, of the order of billions of years, is now so widely accepted that creationists will come to rue the day that they decided that a young Earth and special creation of species had to be bedrock beliefs. Even the mainstream media, ever solicitous of not offending people's religious beliefs, no longer bother to provide 'balance' when it talks of the age of the Earth being 13.7 4.5 billion years old. The same is true that species have evolved.

At some point, young people will peel away from creationism because just so stories that argue for a young Earth and special creation of species will be just too far fetched for them to take.

April 28, 2011

Atheism's morality

In his regular New York Times column, David Brooks trots out his usual banalities, this time about how without god we cannot have a timeless morality.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

How can people write such nonsense? Does he really think that how we understand what the Bible says about morality has not changed from Biblical times?

The book The Christian Delusion edited by John W. Loftus has a chapter titled Yahweh is a Moral Monster by Hector Avalos that lists the horrendous morality that is found in the Bible. (The essay is largely a refutation of a defense of god offered by Christian apologist Paul Copan in an essay titled Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics that can be read here. )

In his chapter, Avalos ends (p. 232) with a section titled Atheism's Morality that is worth quoting at length:

Copan fundamentally misunderstands the New Atheism insofar as he believes that it cannot provide a sound moral ground for its judgments. For a Christian apologist to think he or she has triumphed by pointing out the moral relativism of the New Atheism is to miss the entire point. As an atheist, I don't deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists. Indeed, when it comes to ethics, there are only two types of people in this world:

1. Those who admit they are moral relativists; and
2. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

Copan fails because he cannot admit that he is a moral relativist, and he thinks that God will solve the problem of moral relativism. But having a God in a moral system only creates a tautology. All we end up saying is: "X is bad because X is bad." Thus, if we say that we believe in God, and he says idolatry is evil, then that is a tautology: "God says idolatry is bad and so idolatry is bad because God says it is bad." Or we end up using this tautology: "Whatever God says is good because whatever God says is good."

As Kai Nielsen deftly argues, human beings are always the ultimate judges of morality even if we believe in God. After all, the very judgment that God is good is a human judgment. The judgment that what God commands is good is also a human judgment. So Christians are not doing anything different except mystifying and complicating morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call "good" onto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves [My italics]. And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species. I have already discussed this at length in my book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

Copan cites Dinesh D'Souza who repeats the oft-cited anecdote that atheists have killed more people than religionists. Again, this is based on the false idea that Nazis were atheistic Darwinists, and that Stalinist genocide was due to atheism rather than to forced collectivism (something I discuss in detail in chapter 14 of this book). Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences. There is an ironclad difference between secular and faith-based morality, and we can illustrate it very simply with these propositions:

A. I have to kill person X because Allah said so.
B. I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

In case A, we commit violence on the basis of unverifiable premises. In case B, we might commit violence on the basis of verifiable premises (I can verify a gun exists, and that it is pointed at me). If I am going to kill or be killed, I want it to be for a reason that I can verify to be true. If the word "moral" describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist.

What does not exist has no value relative to what does exist. What cannot be proven to exist should never be placed above what does exist. If we value life, then you should never trade something that exists, especially life, for something that does not exist or cannot be proven to exist. That is why it would always be immoral to ever take a life based on faith claims. It is that simple.

Avalos captures quite succinctly my views on this topic. I am a moral relativist because I simply cannot see how a moral framework can be constructed that is independent of human input and judgments. The reason that Brooks thinks the rules are timeless is because a human being told him that one particular holy book's rules (out of the many holy books with their own rules) are given by a god and are thus timeless. He chose (or was indoctrinated) to believe that claim. How is that not a product of human judgment?

If a god were to suddenly appear to me, even then I would not unhesitatingly accept those moral commands. If this god said, for example, that I should murder my children (as the Bible says he told Abraham to do with his son Isaac) or indeed that I should murder anyone at all, I simply would not do it and I am confident that these days most people would do the same. None but the most fanatical god believers would comply and we would consider such people to be either insane or moral monsters.

If a god issued commands that we now consider immoral, he/she/it would face a revolt on his hands because all thinking people are, in the end, moral relativists and reject moral commands that are not congruent with their own moral sensibilities or based on agreed-upon humane principles.

April 26, 2011

Silly superstitions

Jonathan Turley writes about legislators in Kyrgyzstan who sacrificed seven sheep in order to get rid of evil spirits in the parliamentary chamber and about chickens that are sacrificed as part of the Jewish Kapparot ritual.

He ends his post by saying "What is astonishing is that some nations remain in the control of such superstitious throwbacks." I couldn't tell if he had his tongue in cheek because, apart from details like animal sacrifice, how is this more of a superstitious throwback than Congress starting its day with a prayer or priests blessing houses and the like?

April 23, 2011

Betting on a sure thing

Texas is experiencing a drought and so the governor has decided to proclaim "the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life."

Since no time frame is specified for when the rain should fall, such prayers are bound to be answered, at which point everyone can thank god for his mercy and blessings.

Next, people in Texas are asked to pray for the sun to rise tomorrow.

(Via Pharyngula.)

April 21, 2011

Imagine there's no hell

20110425_107.jpgThe latest issue of Time magazine has as its cover story the question "What if there's no hell?" which focuses on a 40-year old evangelical preacher named Rob Bell who is head of a megachurch in Michigan called Mars Hill Bible Church that boasts 7,000 members attending its services each Sunday. He is described as a 'rock star' in the evangelical movement and has just published a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that is causing consternation in evangelical circles by arguing that hell may not exist and that heaven may be open to everyone, not just those who accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, the usual standard for admission among evangelicals.

To be quite frank, I had never heard of Bell or his church or his book before I came across this article but I thought it interesting that yet another evangelical is finding the concept of hell problematic enough that he wants to abandon it. Hell has always been a thorn in the side of more thoughtful believers. As I have written before, its existence as a place of permanent and indescribable torment is simply incompatible with any concept of a good god.

I grew up in the liberal Protestant tradition where there was very little talk about hell from our ministers. They were too humane to preach that all unbelievers would suffer unbelievable torments. What they did was instead emphasize that heaven was a wonderful place because you got to hang out with god and hell was being denied this interaction. In this view, heaven was like a wonderful party that you would enjoy going to and at which there would be this person that you had really, really wanted to meet all your life. Hell was what you would feel if you were not invited and thus missing out on a great time. Basically it was what we might call 'hell lite', where you would feel kind of sad, but would not suffer physically.

But many Christians really like the old-fashioned idea of hell and seem to relish the thought of unbelievers suffering torments. The sainted Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica "That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell." How nice for them. And this prospect of future gloating is common today as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books and Ann Coulter's statement "I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me that they do not laugh at the idea of [Richard] Dawkins burning in hell."(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), p. 320-1.) If you, as an atheist, ever engage in conversation with such people, it is not long before they warn you that your unbelief is going to cost you big time when you die, so that you are foolish not to accept Jesus as your savior right now. In fact, for such people, fear of hell seems to be a more powerful motivator for allegiance to god than the attractions of heaven.

It is easy to see why fear of hell is a more potent weapon in the religious arsenal for recruiting and retaining believers than the lure of heaven. Try this exercise. Imagine heaven as the most wonderful place you can conceive of where you experience all the things that make you happy or content. Then think about that experience continuing forever. I simply cannot do so without it becoming crushingly boring. Even children would get bored with Disney World if they were stuck there forever.

This clip from the film Bedazzled (1967), in which Lucifer (Peter Cook) acts as the fallen angel who comes down to Earth for the soul of a short-order cook (Dudley Moore), provides a good illustration.

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine the unpleasantness of eternal torment because even if the same torture is done over and over again, you can easily imagine that it would still be painful. Unlike heaven, hell never gets old. Take away hell, and the appeal of belief is greatly reduced.

The evangelical traditionalists are aware of this danger and are appalled by Bell's apostasy. R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that Bell's message is "theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way." Mohler is right for the wrong reasons. Eliminating hell is subversive to religion because stoking fear of what happens after death is religion's main recruiting strategy.

In 2005, This American Life ran the story of Carlton Pearson, the head of a successful Pentecostal megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Sunday attendance of 5,000 who, like Bell, began to question the idea of hell. Pearson just could not reconcile the idea of a loving god with one who consigns people to writhe and burn in the fires of hell for eternity, and started preaching as if hell did not exist. His assistant pastors were dismayed and broke away and formed their own church, taking much of the congregation with them so that it dwindled down to a few hundred, though Pearson started getting some new converts. You can listen to the episode.


Will this happen to Bell and his church too? It will be interesting to watch.

April 19, 2011

That god, such a kidder

Michele Bachman recently said that back in 2003 when she was a Minnesota state senator and heard that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional, she prayed to her god asking what she should do and her god told her to introduce an amendment in the state legislature defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

But for some inexplicable reason, after telling her this her god did not use his omnipotency to get enough other legislators to support the measure and it failed, showing once again that her god is such a tease. Either that or he is simply disorganized and lacks follow through. As Woody Allen once said, "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever."

April 15, 2011

Morals without god

Where do our morals come from? Primatologist Frans de Waal has a fascinating article titled Morals Without God? where he poses the questions: Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? The article is long but well worth reading and here I will outline his main thesis.

He begins by saying that evolution poses a direct challenge to the idea of a god-given morality, which is why so many religious people react negatively to it.

Don't think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Like me, de Waal finds quite repellant (and counter to the evidence) the idea that we can only have morality if there is a god.

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago.

Of course, religious people can counter that god had placed these moral impulses in us even before religions came about. When you are unconstrained by evidence and can simply make up stuff to suit your needs, there is no challenge that is insurmountable.

Religious people seem to feel the need to claim some distinct and special place in nature that is not biological and thus provides evidence of some special relationship to god. But all past efforts to find things that make us unique among species have fallen by the wayside.

In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable… True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don't hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another's point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee's, doesn't contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives.

He points out that this commonality with other species is not a new idea, that Charles Darwin himself felt that there was nothing unique that separated humans from other species, that we were simply more developed in some areas.

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in "The Descent of Man": "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man."

It is this that so troubles religious believers because it undermines the crux of the religious arguments for god based on a supposedly innate moral sense shared by all humans but not shared by other species. One way of arguing that is to claim that the primal impulse in nature is selfishness, partly arising from a misunderstanding of 'the selfish gene' meme that also was the title of Richard Dawkins's famous book.

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in "The Moral Animal," they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish.

Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there's nothing in it for themselves.

He provides many nice examples of the way that other species exhibit many of the qualities that we once ascribed solely to humans, such as kindness, concern, cooperation, and sensitivity to others' emotions.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

Evangelical Christian and scientist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God (p. 264) also argues that human beings are possessed of a "Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history" and that could only have come from god. But de Waals says that although we do have some innate moral sense, we do not have to appeal to god to explain them because at their elemental level, they have a biological basis, and it is this basis that allows us to build on them and create the moral structures we now have.

[W]ould it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

This does not mean that there are no differences at all between humans and other species. What humans have done is use culture to build upon those primal instincts.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a "moral being." This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human… This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment. [My italics]

For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.

It should be increasingly obvious that a god is unnecessary as an explanatory concept for morality or indeed for anything.

April 14, 2011

Arguments against a god-given morality

The idea that there is an objective morality founders on the fact that our moral standards have changed dramatically over time. An objective god-given morality is one that presumably should be both universal and unchanging with time since god is presumably omnipresent and unchanging. And yet that is obviously at odds with history, where most moral judgments have varied from place to place and over time. Many of the most appallingly evil actions are condoned and even encouraged in religious texts as coming from god, though such actions are now disowned. If there is an objective morality, why was it not obvious to people before and why were there different standards for different communities?

What we do see, though, is a pleasing convergence in moral standards as time goes by, even though we still have far to go. This is almost entirely due to cultural awareness spreading. In just a couple of centuries we have decided that slavery is evil and that discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual preference, disability, race and ethnicity, and age is wrong. We no longer tolerate human sacrifices or child labor. We find torture abhorrent, which forces governments that still practice it to do it in secret or resort to euphemisms to hide their shame. We are less tolerant of wanton cruelty to animals, though we still eat them. Except for a few countries like Saudi Arabia, we no longer punish people for offences by amputating limbs or stoning or beheading.

These recent advances in our moral sensibilities are largely or entirely cultural developments that had nothing to do with god. In fact, they are counter to god's supposed commands since many of these cruel practices originate in the allegedly holy books and are supposed to be god's recommended policies. The importance of culture in advancing the idea of what is good is tremendous. We have made great strides in this area without appealing to god so those who argue that without god we would be morally worse off are fighting a losing battle.

This excellent video clip from QualiaSoup will give you, in less than ten minutes, all the arguments you need to debate anyone who claims that morality can only come from god.

The argument is summarized in the slide at the 8:10 minute mark where he says:

  • NO ONE can claim to KNOW that any god exists
  • Even if god does exist:
    • NO evidence there is only one god
    • NO evidence it is a personal god
    • NO evidence its nature is perfect
  • NO reliable source of divine values
  • NO consistent morality among theists
  • VIOLENT moral disagreement among theists
  • NO objective method for deciding whose interpretation of divine values is correct

NO CONSISTENT INFALLBLE THEISTIC MORALITY

I find the idea that we can only have morality because of religion quite repellent. What does it say about someone that the only reason they don't murder, rape, or steal is because they think god will punish them?

In this video clip, Edward Current imagines what would happen if god disappeared.

The idea that we need a god in order to arrive at moral principles on which to base our lives and societies seems to me to be so self-evidently absurd that I really cannot take seriously anyone who advocates it.

April 13, 2011

Can you be good without god?

Yes.

It is a simple answer to a simple question. It should be quite self-evident to anyone. And yet, religious people manage to get some atheists to actually debate it. P. Z. Myers has posted all the YouTube links to a recent debate between Sam Harris and theologian William Lane Craig on the topic "Does Good Come From God?" I watched about half of it and although it was mildly interesting, I tuned out because I have little patience for discussions based on unexamined and unsubstantiated premises.

Craig was trying to make the case that without a god, there can be no objective morality or standards for what is good. My response to that argument is "So what?" What makes people think that the universe ought to have objective morality? All these discussions about how there must be a god because without a god people would go berserk and murder everyone else and life would be awful and not worth living seems to me to be missing the point. We cannot will god into existence just because we can't bear the thought of life without god.

Whether god exists or doesn't exist is a purely empirical question that can only be determined by evidence. In the absence of evidence for god's existence, we have to conclude that there is no god and must learn to deal with the consequences. That's it. The level of angst that may be produced by taking away the idea of an objective morality (or a god to specify it) is immaterial, unless you are going down the road of the 'noble lie', where the masses of people are deliberately fed falsehoods in order to maintain social order, while only the elite are aware of the truth. (For those who raise the false counter-argument that in the absence of proof that god doesn't exist, we can conclude that god exists, I refer them to this post.)

It seems pretty obvious that we can explain our morality and ethics as derived from biology (things that emerged as a result of our evolutionary history and the propensities for which are genetically and environmentally based) and culture (behaviors that we as a society have consciously decided are desirable or not desirable). The only debate is over the relative weight that we assign to these two causes and that can vary depending on the particular moral issue we are focusing on. However much people may want to include god as a third cause, the truth is that we no longer need god to understand the existence of morality.

Religious people have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have to argue that only humans perceive this objective morality. If all species seemed to have the same moral compass, then that would argue convincingly that it has a biological origin derived from our common evolutionary history. To allow for the assertion of a god-given objective morality, they have to argue that humans have at least some unique moral sensibilities not possessed by other species and that these could only have come from god. On the other hand, they have to show that this moral sense is shared among all humans. If moral standards varied widely for different populations, that would argue for a cultural source.

The philosopher David Hume articulated the 'is-ought problem' (which is related to, but is not identical with, what is called the naturalistic fallacy) where he warned about making claims about what ought to be based on what is. For example, just because we find some property occurring in nature does not mean that that property is necessarily desirable. So we cannot argue that some action is moral simply because it seems to be part of nature.

For example, some people use the presence of homosexual behavior in other species to argue that such behavior is natural and thus should be accepted in humans. While I am fully supportive of equal rights for gay people, I disagree with this particular line of biological reasoning. We can and should uphold equal rights for gay people because there are good cultural reasons for doing so based on general human rights principles, irrespective of whether we can find support for them in biology

Most people understand that we cannot usually infer ought from is. But what religious people like Craig seem to be doing is committing the even worse offense of what one might call the 'ought-is fallacy', where because they think that we need an objective morality in order to keep our barbaric impulses under control, therefore it must exist. And since they also think that only a god can supply such a morality, therefore a god must exist also.

No.

Believers in god have to first establish using empirical evidence that god exists before they can use god in arguments about morality or anything else. You cannot argue for the existence of god on the basis of some property that you arbitrarily assert must exist (for whatever reason) and that could have only come from god.

The source of morals is a question of interest and worth investigating. As the human race progresses and science advances, we are going to be confronted with trickier issues of morality and so determining the bases of such decisions is a worthwhile activity. But introducing god not only does not help in elucidating this question, it makes things even murkier by introducing purely arbitrary and non-empirical elements into the discussion.

April 12, 2011

Know when to fold 'em

Commenter Peter alerted me to a story on This American Life about a gung-ho evangelical who went through the process that I have described before, where he goes to seminary and on learning Biblical history and scholarship becomes an atheist.

Filled with all the new information he now has as to why Christianity is false, he becomes zealous for atheism and tries to convert his family members, before he realizes that people join religious groups for a lot of benefits that have little to do with belief in god and that sometimes, on a personal level in the private sphere, it may be better to leave them alone.

The story starts at the 8:20 minute mark and goes until the 20:00 mark.

April 11, 2011

Evangelicals and fundamentalists

In the American Christian religious landscape one finds Catholics, mainline Protestant religious denominations, and the rest that one can describe as evangelicals and fundamentalists. While the Catholics form a distinct group, there is a great deal of overlap between the other three categories and it is not often easy to see what distinguishes them. In particular, people tend to use the words fundamentalists and evangelicals interchangeably.

John Green of the University of Akron describes four cardinal beliefs of evangelicals that distinguishes them from mainline Protestants:

One belief is that the Bible is inerrant. It was without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. A second belief is that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. A third belief, and one that is most well known, is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. Sometimes that's referred to as a born-again experience, sometimes a little different language. Then the fourth cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

Now different members of the evangelical community have slightly different takes on those four cardinal beliefs. But what distinguishes the evangelicals from other Protestants and other Christians is these four central beliefs that set them apart.

Mainline Protestant Christians on the other hand have a slightly looser set of beliefs.

Mainline Protestants have a different perspective. They have a more modernist theology. So, for instance, they would read the Bible, not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document, which has God's word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.

Mainline Protestants tend to also believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. But many mainline Protestants would believe that perhaps there are other ways to salvation as well. People in other religious traditions, even outside of Christianity, may have access to God's grace and to salvation as well, on their own terms, and through their own means.

Mainline Protestants are much less concerned with personal conversion. Although they do talk about spiritual transformation, they'll often discuss a spiritual journey from one's youth to old age, leading on into eternity. So there is a sense of transformation, but there isn't that emphasis on conversion -- on that one moment or series of moments in which one's life is dramatically changed.

So mainline Protestants don't discount conversion, but they simply don't regard it as a central feature of their beliefs. Finally, mainline Protestants are somewhat less concerned with proselytizing than evangelicals. Certainly, proselytizing is something they believe in. They believe in sharing their beliefs with others, but not for the purposes of conversion necessarily. The idea of spreading the word in the mainline tradition is much broader than simply preaching the good news. It also involves economic development. It involves personal assistance, charity, a whole number of other activities.

Fundamentalists tend to have the most well defined belief structure as this article points out.

The first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the "five fundamentals":

  • The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this.
  • The virgin birth of Christ.
  • The belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin.
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ.
  • The historical reality of Christ's miracles.

By the late 1910s, theological conservatives rallying around the Five Fundamentals came to be known as "fundamentalists."

Steve Waldman, editor-in chief of Beliefnet, said (back in 2003):

Evangelicals are a very broad group. It's probably a third or 40 percent of the population of the United States. Fundamentalists are a subset of that. They are very conservative politically. Have a literalist view of the Bible.

Evangelicals have a much wider range of political views. A lot of them are conservatives, but not all of them. About a third of evangelicals voted for Al Gore. So it's a pretty broad range.

And you tend to think of evangelicals as being fundamentalists because the most well known evangelicals are people like Jerry Falwell who are fundamentalists and are very conservative.

I am a little puzzled by the fundamentals. It would seem that if you believe in the first fundamental principle about the inerrancy of the Bible, then three of the other four fundamentals would follow as a direct consequence since they deal with supposedly factual events. Only the one about Jesus's death being atonement for sin is doctrinal and would need to be separately spelled out. Perhaps the fundamentalists realized even back then that despite their followers' claims to believe that the Bible was god's inerrant word, very few people actually bothered to read it since the Bible is a big book and many Christians (as the Pew survey recently pointed out) have only the haziest of ideas of what it contains. So they emphasized those facts that their followers must be explicitly aware of and commit to.

April 10, 2011

Searching for the mind of the Lord

Via Pharyngula I learned about an internal fight amongst the so-called Young Earth Christians that resulted in Ken Ham (The head of Answers in Genesis and the person behind the creationist museum in Kentucky) being disinvited from a conference on home schooling. What struck me was how the other creationists decided that Ham should be kicked out. In their letter to him, they said, "The Board believes this to be the Lord's will for our convention and searched the Scriptures for the mind of the Lord and the leadership of the Holy Spirit before arriving at this decision." (My italics)

I became curious about how they did this. What exactly were they looking for? Where in the Bible would you find something about your god's policy on home schooling conventions? What keywords would you use? Or do you randomly pick verses from the Bible, like a lottery, and then try to divine its meaning, like you would the entrails of a chicken in former times?

I suspect that although such Christians routinely use the language of 'searching for the mind of god', they arrive at their policy decisions based on more mundane considerations just the way other people do and throw in god as an afterthought to give them added weight.

April 08, 2011

There is no conservation law for human conflict

I have often made the claim that the world would be a better place without religion. This seems to me to be self-evidently true for many reasons, the most immediate one being that religion causes so many deaths. Even the most cursory look at the history of the world would reveal the vast number of wars, deaths, injuries, and other forms of suffering committed by one group of people on another because of religious differences. One does not have to even look at history but just look at the world today.

I sometimes get the response that conflict between people is inevitable and if religions do disappear, that people would find some other issue to fight over. The inference that my critics seem to draw from this is that there is no point trying to get rid of religion because there is some sort of conservation law for conflicts.

This seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. It is like saying that since we are all going to die of something eventually, there is no point in finding cures for diseases since all that will do is shift the cause of death to something else. But eliminating one disease does not create new diseases and does have the effect of increasing life expectancy.

No one is saying that religion is the only cause of conflict and so we would not expect all conflict to cease if religion disappeared. But it is a major source of conflict and eliminating it would undoubtedly help, just as eliminating or finding cures for some diseases have improved the quality of life immensely.

Steven Pinker argues that despite all the wars and genocide that have occurred fairly recently, there has been a steady decline in violence from Biblical times and that the present era is the least violent in history (via Machines Like Us). He points out that the Bible encourages the most appalling violence and cruelty against others.

While there is obviously no natural conservation law for conflicts, there is one sense in which that idea can be partly salvaged. There is no question that having groups of people fight over things like religion or race or tribe or nationality or other divisive issues diverts them from seeing the more structural causes of their plight such as rule of the oligarchy, by the oligarchy, for the oligarchy. So these conflicts serve the interests of the ruling classes. If religion, one of the easiest of ways of creating conflict, were to disappear, those who benefit from conflict would actively seek to find other ways to ignite strife.

But that still does not imply that we should not seek the elimination of religion. Religious beliefs seem to be the most combustible and the easiest to use to get people to adopt a we/them attitude and to look at people just like them as their enemies. Look at the fights between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. In both conflicts, both sides share enormous similarities but what should be a unifying glue is easily overcome by their absurd obsession with religious differences.

Nothing seems to fire up people more than the thought that they are fighting for their god and that he will reward them for their murderous acts. Look at how easy it was to incite religious people to brutally murder innocent people in Afghanistan, simply by burning a book halfway around the world. The idea that a powerful god would even need puny humans to avenge his honor is ridiculous on its face and the fact that believers actually think like that shows how religion robs people of basic common sense and encourages irrational thinking.

Taking the divisive tool of religion away would make it harder to foment discord.

April 07, 2011

Countering atheist arguments

It should be impossible to lose a debate with a religious person because the facts, logic and reason are all on the side of atheism. However Edward Current shows religious people ten ways to checkmate atheists.

April 06, 2011

Review: America's Most Hated Family IN CRISIS

In 2007, Louis Theroux from BBC2 spent some time with the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who gave him considerable access to talk with all their members. The resulting documentary called America's Most Hated Family provided for some absorbing and informative television that I wrote about earlier.

Most revealing to me was that the church consists almost entirely of one family descended from its leader Fred Phelps (he has 13 children, 11 are lawyers, four are estranged of whom one is a gay rights activist), many of whom are college-educated professionals earning a good living (the Phelps family runs a successful law practice in Topeka, Kansas) and whose contributions from their outside income seem to be the entire means of support for the group. What I found disturbing was the indoctrination of the children of the family from a very young age, who seemed to be able to turn on the famed Westboro rhetoric on cue.

It turns out that since that time there have been a considerable number of defections from the church, especially of young adults, two of whom had been featured in the original program. So this year Theroux visited the church again for a sequel to find out what was happening and especially how the parents were dealing with their children leaving. The result is an hour-long documentary that was aired on BBC2 on Sunday and that you can see in four parts. Here's the first part

and you can see part 2, part 3, and part 4.

It quickly becomes clear that the church is in a state of serious decline. In the 2007 documentary, there was a rambunctious energy and vitality in the group, a sense of purpose and mission in getting in the face of those who disagreed with them. Now they seem just sad and pathetic, an older group trying to keep up the momentum but not having the sharpness and edge they had before and largely going through the motions. There was an air of weariness and resignation and I got the sense that the aging church was on the ropes. The parents of the defecting children maintained a façade that it is good when apostates leave and that they did not care that they had lost all contact with their own children but it was unconvincing, except for a couple of true believers. It was also clear that they are worried that even more children will defect as they reach adulthood and discover the appeal of modernity via the contacts that they make on the internet, promising a freedom that is too alluring to resist compared to the tight embrace of the church.

There was one scene where some of the girls (who are not allowed to date) seemed to be fantasizing about a young Scandinavian TV crew that had come to film them. This scene was poignant because the girls seemed to sense that while such crushes were normal, yet they were told that it was wrong and they realized that it was hopeless to dream of a real relationship with young men as long as they were part of the church.

What is happening to the Westboro church is what is happening to religion everywhere, as my series on Why Atheism is Winning argued. The lure of modernity is taking young people away from religion, leaving religion with an older (and largely female) constituency, plus young children who are not old enough to leave. Religion continues largely because of inheritance. Children have to be indoctrinated while they are young and stay indoctrinated to keep the institutions going, because few people convert into religion from nonbelief. Once you have young people defecting from religion in significant numbers, it is over. Such defections are increasingly likely these days where you cannot keep them insulated within their closed world, and those who have escaped to freedom can still communicate easily with those left behind.

Seeing this documentary, coupled with the larger trends I have written about before about the impact of modernity on religion, tells me that the days of the Westboro church are numbered. It could well be that the church's recent Supreme Court victory will be their swan song and that within a decade or less, it will implode. Patriarch Fred is 81 and looks feeble and his death without a clear successor may trigger further dissension.

At the very end of the documentary (at the 12:20 mark of part 4), Theroux speaks again with Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the founder's daughters and the most visible spokesperson, and she admits her fear that more of her remaining children (she has 11) might also defect. For a fleeting moment the brash confident persona disappears and she looks vulnerable, with the worried look of a mother who might lose her children. I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. Despite all her crazy and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric and air of arrogant certainty, I think she is too smart not to have her own secret doubts and it cannot be easy for her to see the tight world that she has constructed and controlled start to fall apart and be able to do little about it.

April 05, 2011

The barbaric killings in Afghanistan

People who choose not to be affiliated with any religion are the fastest growing segment of the population in the world. In contrast, all religions are in decline except for Islam which seems to be in a growth mode largely because of its high birth rates. When Islam goes into decline, as it surely will like all the other religions, it will in large part be due to actions like those of the murderous fanatics who rampaged in Afghanistan and killed over 20 people (even beheading some) in retaliation for the burning of a Koran in the US.

Such an atrocity cannot help but cause acute discomfort to any Muslim who likes to see himself or herself as part of the modern world. While murdering people (like blasphemers or apostates) who commit an act that is offensive to your religious beliefs has a barbaric logic to it that presumably makes sense to the appropriately insane, killing innocent people who just happen to be nearby because you cannot lay hands on the people who did the offensive act is so outside the bounds of reason that no one who has any pretence to being part of the modern world will even try to find justifications for it. Doing so immediately brands one as being outside the pale of normal human society.

And this is what Muslims who aspire to modernity have to confront. The people in Afghanistan who committed that atrocity claim to be acting in the service of their god. It is no good for so-called 'moderate' Muslims to say that these people are misguided and that 'true' Islam (i.e., their own version) would frown on such acts. People will be forced to ask themselves what it is about their religion that makes people even consider the possibility that killing innocent people for the actions of others is noble and that their god will look favorably on them for doing so.

Gods and snakes

I have noticed recently that religious believers no longer try to argue that belief in god is justified in itself but have settled for trying to put religion on a par with disbelief, as purely a matter of choice.

For example, religious believers who are disturbed by the argument made by atheists that belief in god is irrational sometimes respond by saying that since we cannot prove that there is no god, then atheism involves as much a 'belief' religion, and thus both are equally rational or irrational. Ricky Gervais provides a good response to that by pointing out that "Atheism isn't a belief system. I have a belief system but it's not "based on" atheism, it's just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I've never been skiing. It's my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time."

He is right but I want to expand on that idea a bit in my more pedestrian style.

Atheism does not automatically provide one with a philosophy or a system of ethics or morals. But that does not mean that atheists have none of those things or that there are no behavioral consequences for being an atheist. They just come from sources other than a belief in a god.

Here is an example. Suppose someone moves into a house and for whatever reason believes that there is a poisonous snake somewhere in it that has somehow managed to evade all attempts to detect, locate, or remove it. Such people will consciously adopt a lifestyle that takes the possible existence of a snake into account. They will turn on the lights in the room before going in, will look down as they walk, they will open cupboards, drawers, and closets gingerly and be ready to jump back if they see a snake, they will examine their shoes and clothes before wearing them, and so on. They will look for signs of the snake's presence and be alert for snake-like sounds. After awhile, these behaviors will become routine and done unthinkingly. Furthermore, the behavior of all people of who believe that there are snakes in their houses will be quite similar.

Now take someone who does not believe there are any poisonous snakes in the house. Such a person will behave quite differently from the believer, not doing any of the precautionary things that the snake-believer does. But unlike the snake-believer whose behavior is based on that belief, the behavior of the nonbeliever is not based on that nonbelief. She does not act as any part of a conscious or planned strategy based on the absence of snakes. She does not go around sticking her hands into sock drawers simply because no harm will come from doing so. The nonbeliever does not say to herself, "I will stick my hand into the sock drawer without looking first because I believe there is no snake there" or "I will put on my shoes without first checking inside because I believe there are no snakes." Snakes simply do not enter her consciousness.

So while the behavior of a believer in the snake derives from that belief, the behavior of the non-believer does not derive from that non-belief, even though the behavior of the nonbeliever will be quite different from that of a believer. Non-belief does not prescribe behavior. As a result, there will be no consistent pattern of behavior among non-believers, unlike the much more uniform behavior of believers. Some non-believers may look down when they walk, others may not. There is no way of predicting.

The analogy with religion holds pretty closely. A person who believes in a god will behave in ways that are guided by their religious belief. On a practical level, if you are a Hindu, you are likely to not eat beef. If a Muslim or Jew you will avoid pork. But if you are an atheist, there is no predicting what you will eat. Atheists can be found in the entire spectrum of diets, from vegans to fast-food addicts. Those decisions will be idiosyncratic and depend on personal choices based on a multitude of sources since non-belief does not provide a unifying principle or idea.

More significantly, the idea that there is a god who can punish you with eternal hellfire if you disobey him or reward you with heaven if you do obey results in people trying to figure out what god wants from them and acting accordingly. Since their belief significantly influences their behavior, they make the mistake in thinking that non-belief drives atheists' behavior. Religious people seem to think that atheists decide how to behave by reasoning along the lines of "Since there is no god to judge and punish me, I can lie and cheat and steal."

This is false. If you don't believe that god exists, you simply do not factor the absence of god into one's behavior or one's moral and ethical makeup, just the way the behavior of the non-believer in snakes is not driven by the absence of snakes.

It must be hard for believers in god, for whom that belief is so important, to appreciate that we atheists simply do not factor it into our daily lives. The absence of god is simply taken for granted.

April 04, 2011

God-men, faith healers, and other frauds

While India is emerging as a powerful and modern economy based on science and technology, it still suffers from religious superstition, especially the phenomenon of 'god-men', frauds who prey on the gullible to fool them into thinking that they are avatars of god. It seems like all you need to do is wear orange robes, grow your hair long, utter some religious mumbo-jumbo, and perform some cheap magic tricks for people to start worshipping you and, more importantly, give you money that they can ill-afford to part with.

This video shows a heartening effort to counter these frauds, by the Indian equivalents of James Randi.

The biggest such fraud is, of course, the man who calls himself Sai Baba, who is famous in that part of the world. He has devotees from all walks of life, including politically powerful people. Three families of my own acquaintance are devotees of his, making pilgrimages to his place and, most important, giving money. When I expressed skepticism, one of them gave me a book that she claimed would convince me of his authenticity. It did not.

This video exposes the tricks he uses to impress his followers.

Exposing god-men in India is not without risk because religious nutters hate having their faith exposed as worthless and can resort to violence, so these debunkers have to be commended for their courage.

In the west we do not have god-men but we do have our equivalent frauds, evangelists and faith healers who claim to be channels for god's actions. To be successful in this con seems to require fast-talking, ostentatious living, and a TV or radio outlet.

But while all these frauds differ superficially, the goal is the same, to separate fools and their money.

April 01, 2011

Religious insanity

There are reports that at least eight UN workers were murdered in Afghanistan in retaliation for the burning of a Koran in a US church last month.

Taking the lives of eight people for the burning of a book? This is the type of insanity that exists in religions' most devoted followers.

March 30, 2011

Protecting sacred books

Apparently the British government is thinking about granting certain books protected status that can result in the prosecution of people for the burning defacement or disrespect of such books, after a 15-year old girl in England was arrested for 'inciting religious hatred' after burning the Koran. It is wonderful that in the US we have the First Amendment to protect us from this kind of legislative foolishness, at least so far.

One wag has decided to seek protection under this proposed law for the book Classical Electrodynamics by J. D. Jackson and gives very cogent reasons why it deserves it.

I totally agree. In the first year of physics graduate school, taking a course in which 'Jackson' (as it was informally and affectionatley known) was the required textbook was a rite of passage for every student. We all struggled with its difficult problems in order to understand the laws of electrodynamics. After that ordeal, we all ended up revering that book and instinctively go back to it when we encounter any problem in that area of physics. What Jackson says on any issue is considered definitive.

If that does not make it a sacred book, I don't know what does.

The god of the apps

A rabbi named Adam Jacobs has offered what he says is "A Reasonable Argument for God's Existence." And what would that be?

It is that because we have not explained (as yet) how life originated, it can only be due to god. Yes, that same old stale argument, the god of the gaps, gets recycled yet again, this time in the form of the mysterious and supposedly inexplicable appearance of DNA and RNA.

This is pathetic. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who is now head of the National Institutes of Health, rejects that argument because he has a sufficiently good knowledge of biology to realize that we are making great progress in solving that problem and that any religious person who bases his or her faith on that particular piece of contemporary ignorance is just asking for trouble.

In his book The Language of God, Collins says:

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction… [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

Despite Collins's plea, the god of the gaps will never go away because it is only argument that religion has, since there is no positive evidence for god and every other argument for god has been shot down. In fact, Collins himself is being disingenuous because he too resorts to using the god of the gaps argument except his gaps are different from those of Jacobs'.

Most skeptics now know how to effectively deal with the god of the gaps argument, using the recent advances in science. A recent article in the New York Times says that in order to help believers deal with the strong criticisms they are now facing, some people have developed apps to help believers with rejoinders. Yes, really.

Sean McDowell, the editor of "Fast Facts" and some textbooks for Bible students, said he has become increasingly aware of a skill gap between believers and nonbelievers, who he feels tend to be instinctively more savvy at arguing. "Christians who believe, but cannot explain why they believe, become 'Bible-thumpers' who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions," he said. "We have to deal with that."

"Nowadays, atheists are coming to the forefront at every level of society — from the top of academia all the way down to the level of the average Joe," added Mr. McDowell, a seminary Ph.D. candidate whose phone app was produced by the B&H Publishing Group, one of the country's largest distributors of Bibles and religious textbooks.

I don't think that atheists are 'instinctively more savvy at arguing' as McDowell claims. It is that atheists have all the facts, evidence, reason, and logic on their side so that arguing with a religious believer should be a slam-dunk, once you have grasped the basic ideas. What the new atheists have done is put all those things in the hands of the general public. Religious believers' arguments, by contrast, are based on ignorance (the god of the gaps) or involve plays on words, such as trying to exploit the ambiguity of the word 'theory' or whether atheism is a 'belief' like religion and thus requires just as much 'faith' as belief in god.

So if you are debating religion with a believer and he keeps looking at his smart phone, it may not be that he is checking his text messages. He may be seeking rejoinders.

The article says that atheists are also developing apps to counter the religious apps. So let the app wars begin!

March 29, 2011

The death of the afterlife

In February, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris debated rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson on the topic "Is there an Afterlife?" The moderator was Rob Eshman. The 97-minute debate can be seen in its entirety here and a summary by Landon Ross who attended it can be read here.

It was an interesting debate. Hitchens and Harris are seasoned debaters and seemed very much at ease. Wolpe is quick-witted and has a good sense of humor and an engaging manner but Artson had a pouty expression that is off-putting and he seemed to not be happy at being there at all but made a couple of good points. Although the two rabbis (especially Wolpe) got some applause, most of it was reserved for sallies by Hitchens and Harris, despite the fact that the venue of the debate was the American Jewish University, which should have given home field advantage to the rabbis.

Ross's summary captures the main points and I want to focus on a couple of things. Harris pointed out that the idea that we have some form of consciousness that separates from our bodies and floats off intact after we die is simply not tenable in the light of modern science. We know from studying people who suffer brain damage that different types of damage to different parts of the brain result in changes in people's personalities. Apart from the normal changes in brains (and thus personalities) as we age, brain tumors or diseases like Alzheimers can dramatically accelerate that process. So when we die, what exactly is it that continues into the afterlife? The personality/soul that we had at the moment of death, even if it is terribly debilitated? Or some earlier form of it? And if the latter, how does the soul reconstruct itself at the point of death into another earlier, and presumably better, form? At what age does this soul decide, "OK, that's it. I am going to stay this way and make my escape when the body dies." Or does it mean we have two souls, one that grows along with us and dies with us, and the other that at some point reaches perfection and goes into hibernation and awakes just when we die?

In fact, if you believe that life begins at conception and the soul enters the body at that time, then the afterlife is going to consist mostly of the souls of miscarriages, which occurs in about 15-20% of recognized pregnancies, or the souls of fertilized eggs that didn't even get implanted, which occurs about 30-50% of the time.

The same problem arises for those who believe that our physical bodies are resurrected after death, either immediately or at the second coming of Jesus. Which body? If it is the body at the point of death, then the afterlife is going to have a bipolar distribution in ages, with almost everyone being either very old or very young, mingling with lots of fertilized eggs. The remaining few bodies will likely be ravaged by disease or mutilated because of some terrible catastrophe. When evangelist Billy Graham was asked what we will look like in heaven, he said that when we are resurrected we will have glorious bodies that never grow sick or old. Does this mean that heaven looks like Fort Lauderdale during spring break? This hardly solves the problem since it is not clear when we were at our best. Is it when we were children? Young adults? Older adults? Who gets to choose how we look? (I should add that Harris did not go into nearly as much detail as I am on this question.)

The two rabbis are sophisticated people so the approach they took was quite predictable. They disavowed all aspects of religion that most people believe in, effectively becoming what I call 'religious atheists', insisting that they believe in something supernatural while rejecting any concrete form of that belief. Whenever Hitchens and Harris dissected some religious belief, the two rabbis would immediately respond by saying that "That is not what I believe" and that they agreed with the criticisms, while at the same time avoiding stating clearly what they actually do believe. They wandered around in what I have called the fog of religious language. Artson went so far as to say that his god was not omnipotent and was powerless to overturn the laws of science and only had the power of persuasion! Judaism seems to be particularly malleable when it comes to beliefs about god and the afterlife, allowing for far more official disavowal of what we commonly understand than Christianity or Islam. It reminds me of the joke that so many Jews are secular that the Judaic creed seems to be "There is but one god and we don't believe in him."

For example, Artson said how the thought of seeing his grandmother again in the afterlife gave him great comfort. Then a little while later, when he was asked whether he believed in an afterlife in which he and his grandmother would exist as recognizable people, he backtracked, saying that after death we would exist as packets of energy and of course, no one could deny that energy exists! How he, as one packet of energy, would recognize another packet of energy as his grandmother was the key question left unexplained. I think that Hitchens and Harris either did not want to skewer him or felt that his absurdity was self-evident. I must say, though, that I get annoyed when people invoke scientific concepts in such a facile way to gloss over the problems with religion. At least no one brought up that perennial favorite, the uncertainty principle as the loophole by which god evades detection, for which I was thankful.

This debate illustrates why religion is faltering so badly. Its most sophisticated apologists are on the ropes. They know enough of science to realize that the traditional beliefs of their faith traditions are completely incoherent and simply do not stand up to scrutiny. They are thus forced to abandon the concrete core beliefs of the vast majority of their fellow believers while being unable to offer anything in return except content-free metaphors that are meant to parry the criticisms of atheists while presented to the gullible religious folk as deep insights. The creator of Jesus and Mo accurately captures the deliberate ambiguity that is being explopited.

j&m2011-03-11.png

Religion is now brain dead. It has lost any intellectual power that it may have had in pre-modern days. Its body, in the form of religious institutions, is still functioning but just barely and is on life support. And it has no soul that will live on after its death.

March 28, 2011

John W. Loftus talk on The Christian Delusion

I attended the talk by John W. Loftus on Saturday. There was a crowd of around 35-40 which was very good considering that the event was organized at very short notice and Saturday evenings at 6:00 pm is not the best time to draw a student audience. The officers of the CWRU Center for Inquiry did a terrific job in arranging everything.

Loftus's talk was very interesting for me in that he presents an insider's view of how American evangelical Christians see the world. One has to understand that world view if one is to engage effectively with religious people in the US. As a former evangelical preacher, he is aware of what kinds of arguments might reach them. He presents believers with what he calls the 'Outsider Test for Faith', asking them to apply to their own faith the same criteria that they use to reject competing faiths.

I think that the alliance of people like Loftus, who were once committed Christians and are now atheists, and atheists who come from a scientific background could be very fruitful since we bring complementary knowledge to bear on the problem of how to deal with religion and can learn a lot from each other.

He and I were able to spend some time together before and after his talk and I found him to be as engaging in private as he is as a public speaker. He and I shared books and ideas and I will report on his book The Christian Delusion once I've had a chance to read it.

Meanwhile, his blog Debunking Christianity is lively and well worth visiting.

March 26, 2011

Those poor persecuted bigots

The Catholic Church has complained to the UN Human Rights Council that "People who criticise gay sexual relations for religious or moral reasons are increasingly being attacked and vilified for their views."

I had not realized that bigots had such sensitive feelings. No doubt the Catholic Church will next complain about criticisms aimed at those who support pedophilic priests.

It is amazing how people think that saying that one's views originate from one's religion automatically confers immunity from the normal rough and tumble of public political discourse.

(via Machines Like Us)

March 25, 2011

God makes you obese

That's what a new Northwestern University study seems to find.

The study, which tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years, found normal weight young adults ages 20 to 32 years with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index. High frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious function at least once a week.

While the result seems pretty conclusive, the causal connection between god and obesity is not clear. Matthew Feinstein, the study's lead investigator suggests, "It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity."

I find that unconvincing. Is the food at these religious get-togethers that bad? In my experience, they are usually potluck events, with home-cooked dishes that are actually pretty good. Even if it is bad for you, eating it just once a week seems hardly sufficient to produce this effect. It seems more likely to me that that the desire for food and the desire for god both spring from the same source, a neediness that is never satiated.

Given Americans' obsession with their weight and their propensity to rush out and adopt any and all kinds of diet programs, perhaps atheist organizations should adopt a new recruiting slogan: "Lose god and lose weight!"

March 23, 2011

Religion headed for extinction

The BBC reports on a new paper presented this week at the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society (of all places) that used mathematical modeling on religious affiliation trends over the last century and arrived at a conclusion that supports my thesis in the recent series on Why Atheism is Winning that religion is in a state of rapid decline.

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team's mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

I looked up the actual paper which can be read here and its abstract outlines the methodology.

When groups compete for members, the resulting dynamics of human social activity may be understandable with simple mathematical models. Here, we apply techniques from dynamical systems and perturbation theory to analyze a theoretical framework for the growth and decline of competing social groups. We present a new treatment of the competition for adherents between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies and compile a new international data set tracking the growth of religious non-affiliation. Data suggest a particular case of our general growth law, leading to clear predictions about possible future trends in society.

The basic idea behind the model is as follows:

We begin by idealizing a society as partitioned into two mutually exclusive social groups, X and Y, the unaffiliated and those who adhere to a religion. We assume the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members, which is consistent with research on social conformity. We further assume that attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility of the group, a quantity encompassing many factors including the social, economic, political and security benefits derived from membership as well as spiritual or moral consonance with a group.

This leads them to a nonlinear coupled differential equation for the proportion of people in X.

So what is their conclusion?

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [My italics]

Of course, this is mathematical modeling but the models seem to fit the existing data very well. The graphs in the paper support my contention that the rate of collapse of religion increases with time.

For decades, authors have commented on the surprisingly rapid decline of organized religion in many regions of the world. The work we have presented does not exclude previous models, but provides a new framework for the understanding of different models of human behavior in majority/minority social systems in which groups compete for members.[My italics]

My reasoning was that this was due to the lack of any rational basis for believing in god and that once that became more widely recognized and the collective delusion undermined, that the decline would be rapid.

March 22, 2011

Lying about religiosity

It is a well-known phenomenon that people overestimate their capacities on traits that are deemed to be socially desirable. In the US, since being religious is seen as a good thing, people seem to feel obliged to put on a facade.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans are less religious that they claim to be. The Pew survey of religious knowledge in the US says that 4/7 (about 55%) attend church once a week but a University of Michigan examination of actual time diaries kept by people indicate that the figure is only about 25%, much like many European countries, while self reports were about 35-45%. The gap between self-perception and reality in the US was around 18% whereas the highest gaps elsewhere in the world were only about 4-8%, and these were in Catholic countries.

Given that fact, should we believe the Pew results that say that "more than a third (37%) say they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week, not counting worship services"? I find that really hard to believe. The Bible is not a great read, frankly. There are a few occasional well written and poetic passages but most of it consists of turgid prose dealing with dreary lists of rules.

My guess is that even if we use the same inflation factor of two that exists for church attendance to arrive at about 20% for weekly Bible reading, that would still be too high.

March 21, 2011

Belonging to a religion but not religious

A survey of 1900 people in England and Wales found the interesting result that while 61% of respondents said they belonged to a religion, 65% also replied "no" when asked if they were religious.

The British Humanist Association conducted this survey to illustrate the fact that the British census, which is due to be carried out soon, gives a misleading impression by asking only the first question and thereby suggesting that people are more religious than they really are. They say that people check off the boxes of belonging to religious institutions for cultural, rather than religious, reasons but that the government uses this inflated data to advocate for funding of things like faith-based schools. They are urging people who are not religious to tick the 'none' box when asked which religion they belong to.

Another interesting result was that "Among respondents who identified themselves as Christian, fewer than half said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the son of God." That alone would explain the above difference.

It would be really interesting to have a similar survey done in the US. I think the religiosity figures are inflated here too, though maybe not as much.

March 20, 2011

Religious scientists

When I argue that science and belief in god are basically incompatible, religious people often respond by pointing to the fact that there are religious scientists. The evangelical Christian Francis Collins, who headed one team of scientists that mapped the human genome and is now head of the National Institutes of Health, is the poster child for this group.

Other scientists like Craig Venter, who headed the other team that mapped the human genome, is dismissive of religious people like Collins. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Venter was asked about this:

SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …

Venter: … That's his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it's either faith or science - you can't have both.

SPIEGEL: So you don't consider Collins to be a true scientist?

Venter: Let's just say he's a government administrator.

The idea that science and religion must be compatible because there are religious scientists is not an argument since it is quite possible for people to hold contradictory ideas in their heads and all of us are good at compartmentalizing our minds in order to do so.

As Jesus and Mo point out, that argument can be taken to argue for the compatibility of almost anything.

j&m2010-01-22.jpg

March 19, 2011

Opposition to same sex marriage plunges

New polls confirm earlier results that for the first time in the US, those who favor same sex marriage now outnumber those who oppose it. "A whopping 68% of Americans under 30 now support marriage equality, but the percentage is nearly as high, 65%, for Americans in their 30s. A majority of folks in their 40s are on board, too."

Recall that in the earlier poll, there was a drop from 73% opposition in 1988 to 56% in 2004, to only 40% opposition in 2010. So the rate of decline in the opposition has increased by a factor of 2.5 from 2004 to 2010 over that of the earlier period. I predict that opposition will stabilize to about 25%, which is usually the size of hardcore people on any issue.

These results are significant in ways other than the welcome one that the rights of gays for equality are now being recognized. Opposition to homosexuality has no rational basis but is almost entirely religion-based. It is religion that has locked itself into opposition to gay rights and same sex marriage, so this new acceptance is really bad news for religion as well, since it signifies that its hold on people, especially the young, is disintegrating as they reject its intolerance. And once again, as I said in my series on Why Atheism is Winning, it is young people who are leading the way.

March 18, 2011

Contradictions in the Koran

It is not only Christians that have the headache of deciding which parts of their holy book they should follow and which parts they should reject. Jesus and Mo point out the same problem that Muslims have with the Koran.

jesusandmo.png

For more examples of the intolerance and cruelty in the Koran, see here. It amazes me that people can claim that their god is a merciful and loving god when their very own holy books have such hateful passages.

March 17, 2011

CFI talk on Why Atheism is Winning

The talk I gave at to the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry on Why Atheism is Winning produced a lively discussion. The talk lasted for about an hour and was followed by a Q&A that lasted for almost 90 minutes with most people sticking around for the full period.

Both the talk and the Q&A will be posted soon for viewing.

UPDATE: The hour-long talk is now up on YouTube.

I will upload later the lively Q&A that followed the talk.

March 15, 2011

I did not see that coming

In an earlier post, I wondered how long it would take for religious nutters to say the recent earthquakes were due to god, who seems to be really cranky, getting ticked off about something or the other. I expected the usual suspects: gays, feminists, abortion, etc. But to my surprise it turns out that it is Japanese atheists who are the cause.

Senior pastor Cho Yong-gi of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest Christian church in the world [my italics], has faced vicious public condemnation as he called the catastrophic Japanese quakes and tsunamis "God’s warnings."

"I fear that this disaster may be warnings from God against the Japanese people’s atheism and materialism," an online Christian press quoted the elderly religious leader as saying Saturday.

"I hope that these series of events will drive the Japanese to turn their eyes towards God."

Of course, in the midst of the massive death toll there was the usual praise for god for not killing people in an in-group.

Meanwhile, Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo also came close to facing similar public blame with his Twitter remarks.

"I thank God and my ancestors for keeping the Korean peninsula safe," the Catholic governor wrote on his Twitter on Sunday. "The disaster left more than 2,500 dead or injured and 10,000 missing."

How thoughtful of god to single the Korean in-group for preservation while slaughtering those in the Japanese out-group! This must prove that Korea is god's chosen country. Take that, America!

The woman in the following video claims that the events in Japan were in response to her prayers at the beginning of Lent (which was last Wednesday) to teach all the atheists who are around her a lesson. She is thrilled that god responded within two days and says that if more people pray with her during Lent, she is sure that by the end of Lent god will similarly smite those other hotbeds of atheism, namely Europe and the US. (She must have been reading my series on why atheism is winning.)

This was so over the top that I watched closely to see if there was any indication that this was an Onion-type parody but it seems genuine. She is actually taking delight in the massive death and destruction in Japan as answers to her prayers.

It is sad what religion can do to people.

(Via Pharyngula.)

March 14, 2011

Talk on Why Atheism is Winning

I will be giving a talk on this topic on Wednesday, March 16 at 7:00 pm in the 1914 Lounge in Thwing student center on the CWRU campus. It is free and open to the public and free food is provided to compensate you for having to listen to me. The talk is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry.

In my talks, in addition to the tradition Q&A and discussion at the end, I also encourage people to question and comment during the presentation, so come along with your ideas.

March 12, 2011

Cue the religious nutters

We have had two natural disasters in quick succession that have killed and injured a lot of people and inflicted considerable damage: The earthquake in New Zealand and the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

I am wondering how long it will take before the religious nutters (and I am looking at you Pat Robertson) come out and say that this must be because god is angry with us about something. I am not sure what god could be angry about in these cases but you can be sure that it contravened something in the book of Leviticus or some surah in the Koran.

Since god tends to use very blunt instruments as punishments, indulging in mass killings and wanton destruction that destroy men, women, children, and the elderly indiscriminately, what ticked him off in these cases need not be due to anything that happened in those countries. It could well be that he was angry that 'don't ask, don't tell' was repealed in the US, but didn't want to hurt people here because as his chosen people and country, we are special in his eyes.

March 11, 2011

The evangelical Christian paradox

In an article titled Why evangelicals hate Jesus, Phil Zuckerman says:

White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is perhaps one of the strangest, most dumb-founding ironies in contemporary American culture. Evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message.


March 10, 2011

"Darwin is blasphemy"

A British university scientist who is also an imam of his mosque received death threats for saying in a lecture that Darwin's theory of evolution is consistent with Islam.

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country's largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds. But the lecture was interrupted by men he described as "fanatics" who distributed leaflets claiming that "Darwin is blasphemy".

"One man came up to me during the lecture and said 'You are an apostate and should be killed'," Dr Hasan told The Independent.

You would think that he would leave such an intolerant mosque and join another but such is the hold that religion has on people that he preferred to apologize and say he was wrong.

Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque's committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. "I seek Allah's forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused," the statement read.

"I want to go back – I've been going to the mosque for 25 years. It is my favourite mosque in London, and I have been active in the community for a long time. I hope my positive contribution will outweigh their feelings towards me."

(via Machines Like Us)

March 04, 2011

Truly ugly anti-Muslim bigotry

What is wrong with these people that they can shout such invective even at small children walking with parents?

February 26, 2011

Asking the right questions of religious believers

Thanks to Machines Like Us I learned about a cable access call-in TV show in Austin, TX called The Atheist Experience. The hosts of this show take exactly the right approach. In this clip, a Christian caller gets stumped (as so many tend to do) when asked to explain why he believes in god and the Christian god in particular.

You would think that this is the question for believers and that they would have thought deeply about it. And yet when you ask them directly, they act as if the question had never occurred to them and flounder around.

Taking pity on the caller's inability to articulate any reason, the hosts of the show then very eloquently explain why they themselves became atheists.

February 25, 2011

Do children pick up their religious views from their fathers?

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning say that, "Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation." (My italics)

The paper does not provide citations, unfortunately, though I did find a little support in the literature for the claim. For example, in a paper titled On the Relative Influence of Mothers and Fathers: A Covariance Analysis of Political and Religious Socialization (August 1978, JOURNAL OF MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY, vol. 40, no. 3, p. 519-530) authors Alan C. Acock and Vern L. Bengtson say that "The mother consistently appears more predictive in most areas we examined and is often the dominant parent in terms of prediction. The only areas in which the fathers had a slight edge were in Religious Behavior, Religiosity, and Tolerance of Deviance."

My parents had similar religious beliefs so I cannot tell who influenced me more. I had not been aware of the greater influence of fathers on children's religious beliefs and am curious if this statement is consistent with the experiences of readers of this blog.

So are your religious views closer to your father or your mother?

February 18, 2011

Circumcision

I have never understood how modern societies permit male circumcision while they rightly condemns the female variants. It seems like as long as some practice is old and stamped with the word 'approved by religious authorities', it is exempt from the usual protections we give children.

I am glad to see that the creator of Jesus and Mo shares my concern.

February 08, 2011

New Yorker article on Scientology

This long article by Lawrence Wright goes into great detail on the abusive practices of this creepy organization, using the defection after thirty-five years of Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis as a focus.

February 03, 2011

Bill O'Reilly digs himself in deeper

It seems like the widespread ridicule that O'Reilly got for his 'argument' that the tides proved god's existence has got under his skin. He tries to explain and hilariously exposes his ignorance even more.

So basically god is for those who do not know any science. Glad you cleared that up, Bill!

(via Machines Like Us)

January 28, 2011

"I'm a good Catholic girl"

I'm at a conference and the moderator at a session that I attended gave us an anecdote during which she said "I'm a good Catholic girl". Was I offended at her injecting religion into a secular meeting? Of course not. She wasn't preaching to us, it was just a passing comment, inserted for humorous purposes and we all laughed.

But what if she had said, "I'm a good atheist girl"? I bet you that that there would have been sharp intakes of breaths and some mutterings that she had delivered a gratuitous slap at religion. This is the protective shield that religion has built around itself that has to be dismantled.

January 26, 2011

God is alive and well and still slaughtering animals

It turns out that about 200 cows suddenly died in Wisconsin, which, along with other recent reports of mass deaths of birds and fish, are taken as signs that the end times are near.

Such mass deaths are not uncommon and only seem so because the media's interest is triggered by one unusual event and they then report every subsequent similar event as if they are mysteriously connected, until it gets bored and moves on to a new pseudo-trend. But religious folk, ever eager for a sign that their god is still around, desperately seize upon these natural events as evidence of the supernatural.

January 23, 2011

The latest idiocy

Apparently the willingness of people to be duped by hucksters into believing that inanimate objects wield magical powers that can improve their lives has resulted in the popularity of something called 'Power Balance' bands, a silicone band containing a hologram. It seems like all it takes is for some celebrity to endorse some nonsense for others to rush out and buy them, even if there is zero evidence in its favor. Articles about these things never seem to include people who buy these things and then have their lives take a turn for the worse.

I blame religion for this kind of idiocy. It encourages people to believe in magic, and once you go down that anti-science road, you become a sucker just waiting to be taken in by hucksters.

January 18, 2011

If all the atheists left America…

(via Machines Like Us)

January 09, 2011

God will not protect you from measles but vaccination will

Following up on the post about the fraudulent study about how the MMR vaccine may cause autism, I came across this sad report of 70 children dying of measles in Zimbabwe. They were part of a religious community that shunned vaccines because "it contradicts their belief in supernatural powers."

The story illustrates what a deadly threat measles is, and how its threat escalates rapidly as the proportion of unvaccinated people in a population increases.

January 08, 2011

The tide goes in, the tide goes out, so god exists

Watch the expression on the face of David Silverman (of the American Atheists) when Bill O'Reilly gives his argument for god's existence.

Steven Colbert shows that O'Reilly seems to be very fond of this argument.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill O'Reilly Proves God's Existence - Neil deGrasse Tyson
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>Video Archive

Neil deGrasse Tyson oversimplifies his explanation for the tides by suggesting that it is entirely due to the moon's gravitational pull that changes direction as the Earth rotates. That would explain only one ebb and flow a day. The effects of both the Sun and the moon are required to create the two daily tides.

Does O'Reilly really not know that we understand tides so well and that it is not an inexplicable mystery that requires god? Or is he, like some religious people, simply going through the motions of trying to find things to buttress a belief that he suspects deep down is insupportable, because is too scared to go against prevailing orthodoxy?

January 06, 2011

Blasphemy

Laws against blasphemy constitute the ultimate concession by religious people that their god does not exist. I think religious leaders secretly realize that the non-existence of god is such an obvious fact that allowing people to publicly say so might cause the whole religious house of cards to topple, and so they have to resort to legal measures to prevent people from pointing out the absurdity of their beliefs.

But blasphemy laws are not only stupid, they are evil. We currently have the terrible situation of a Pakistani Christian woman who is under a death sentence for blasphemy and two days ago a Pakistan provincial governor was shot to death by his own bodyguard because the governor had opposed this blasphemy law. What is particularly disgusting is that mainstream religious organizations in Pakistan are lauding the murder and militant clerics in Pakistan have been protesting any changes to this barbaric law.

The Islamic countries seem to be the worst perpetrators of this blasphemy evil. What is worse is that they are trying to gain international acceptance for their medieval ideas, using the United Nations as a vehicle. In November 2010, the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee of the 192-member General Assembly voted 76-64 (42 abstentions) in favor of a resolution condemning the 'vilification of religion'. While this is a smaller margin than last year (81 to 55 with 43 abstentions) and is non-binding, it is still disturbing that so many countries would support it.

January 05, 2011

The masochistic relationship of religious people with god

I described yesterday how I use the Noah's flood story to get Biblical literalists to confront the fact that the story, like many other stories in the Bible, describes god as a monstrous genocidal maniac. In this post, I will describe some of the ways they respond.

Last year, I wrote about a discussion with a religious woman who stopped me on the sidewalk outside my office to hand me some Jesus literature. At some point she started talking about Hitler, as such people invariably do. I reproduce part of the Q and A I had with the Jesus woman.

Q: Do you believe that Noah's flood actually occurred? A: Yes.

Q: In that flood, god deliberately murdered all but the eight people in Noah's family, including tiny infants. Wasn't that worse than anything Hitler had done? Didn't that make god the worst genocidal maniac in history? A: No.

Q: Why not? A: Because all those people died because of their sins.

Q: What about the infants? Doesn't it bother you that god murdered vast numbers of tiny newborn infants by drowning them? What had they done to deserve that awful fate?

At this point, she started making stuff up, the way that religious people do when they have no answer. They think they can get away with this because they assume that the person they are talking to does not know the Bible. The doctrine of original sin that says that even newborn babies are also sinners has always been a tough sell, even for the most ardent believers, and she did not even try to pull that one on me. She instead said that god had immediately gathered up in his arms all the babies who had died in the flood. It is a nice cozy image but irrelevant. A murderer who cuddles his victim immediately afterward is still a murderer, and even creepy to boot. It is also totally fictitious. I told her that the Bible said no such thing. As far as the Bible was concerned, in drowning babies god was carrying out his plan exactly as envisaged and I challenged her to show me where in the Bible it said that god had scooped up the drowned babies.

She was stumped and asked me to wait and went off to get reinforcements from the rest of her group and came back with a middle-aged guy and a younger man. But not only could they not back up her assertion of god's act by providing me with biblical verses (which I knew they couldn't) they had no better responses to the questions I posed to them.

Q: Is murdering a baby an evil act? A: Yes.

Q: Is drowning huge numbers of babies evil? A: Yes.

Q: Wouldn't a huge number of babies have drowned in the flood? A: Yes.

Q: So aren't you worshipping an evil, infant-murdering god? A: No, because if god does something, it cannot be evil.

At that point, I could not help laughing at the absurdity of the logic. When I asked the same question (in a private email correspondence) of someone named Henry (who also believes that Noah's flood actually happened and is not perturbed by that act), he too gave an incredible reply: "You have to take into account that God is the creator and he has the right to destroy His creation for reasons He chooses."

In other words, we are merely possessions of god that he can torture or murder at will because he created us and thus owns us. This extraordinary position was also taken by some unidentified religious person to Christopher Hitchens (starting at the 6:55 mark). In other words, the same people who insist that each of us are precious in god's sight, that he knows each hair on our head, and that he cares about our personal welfare can, when cornered, turn on a dime and say that he has the perfect right to treat us as if we are disposable commodities, to be tortured and murdered at his whim, just because he created us.

I also had a very similar exchange with a commenter to an earlier post where he tried to justify god's command to stone to death rebellious children by arguing two points: that someone who rebels against his parents is also rebelling against god and is thus on the road to evil and will end up committing murder and rape, and so being stoned to death was a good thing, a form of pre-emptive crime fighting. This is of course a patently ridiculous argument and not to be taken seriously. But the other argument was the same as Henry's, that since god owns us, he can do what he wants with us. The ironic thing was that this exchange was in response to my post about how religion can make good people do bad things, sort of proving my point. Only a truly religious believer could justify stoning to death of children.

It does seem to be unavoidably the case that if you believe in god and take these allegedly holy books as revelations of his divine will and instructions for how you should behave, you are ultimately forced into a masochistic relationship with your god, where you accept any and all atrocities committed by god, even against you and your loved ones, because he is your master.

The only way out of this is to pick and choose what parts of the holy book you consider the 'good bits' and want to follow and create a tortuous re-interpretation of the plain text of the words of the 'bad bits' that it makes a mockery of the holy book being divinely inspired, because what you are doing is imposing an externally derived ethical sensibility that has no religious basis onto your supposedly divinely inspired book. If you are willing to do that, why use the book as a moral basis at all?

There is something disturbingly pathological about the relationship of Biblical literalists to their imaginary god. Having someone demand that you love and worship him even while he abuses you is bad enough. To comply with such a demand when you can simply walk away seems to me to be a telling indicator of a masochistic personality.

January 04, 2011

The sanitized Bible

I wrote recently about my email correspondence with 'Henry' (not his real name). In the course of my probing as to what he actually believed, I asked him whether he believed in Noah's flood (the story begins at Genesis 6:9) as a historical event. Christians who believe this to be true tend to paint with a broad brush and gloss over the details. For them, it is a short story the moral of which is a just god punishing evil humankind and starting over with a clean slate, using just the righteous Noah and his family. The whole story is treated as if it were a road (or rather boat) trip for Noah and his family and all the other people are ignored. If they dwell on the details at all, they consist of quaint images of cute animals marching two by two into the ark.

I don't let believers like Henry get away with this sanitized version of the story. I ask them, if they think the story is true, to imagine the details of what must have come before the supposedly happy ending of a new dawn for humankind with doves and rainbows and perhaps Celine Dion singing in the background. I ask them to think of the steady non-stop rain, the relentlessly rising water, people panicking as they realize that this is no ordinary flood, parents gathering up their infants and children to save them, climbing to the tops of buildings or trees or desperately seeking higher ground, hoping against hope that the rains will cease, and their increasing terror as it does not.

Once they get as high as they can, they will do what parents instinctively do which is try and save their children, holding them up above the water even as they themselves get covered and are unable to breathe, wishing for some miracle to save their babies at the last moment. But nothing happens. The rising waters swirl over the terrified infants and soon even their gurgles subside to a deadly silence as they suffer ghastly deaths by drowning. [Update: Commenter Jeff alerts me to this image by Gustave Dore that captures my words almost exactly.]

Meanwhile god is watching all this and does not lift a finger to help. At any moment he could have chosen to save at least the infants who have not done anything wrong, unless you believe in the truly idiotic doctrine of original sin. But god does not do what any ordinary person would feel compelled to do when seeing others in danger, and that is to try and save them.

I ask religious people how they can possibly believe in such a god. I do this because if you take the flood event to be historically true, surely it must rank as the worst act of genocide in history, revealing a truly despicable god, one who is a callous mass murderer. Anyone who takes the Noah story to be true has forfeited any right to speak of morality or the existence of a loving god.

Religious people get increasingly uncomfortable as I describe the above sequence of events because I don't think they have ever actually thought these things through and their religious leaders never go into detail either, for obvious reasons. And this is just one story. The Bible is full of such ghastly stories of a cruel and vengeful and merciless and vain god. This is why any thinking and compassionate person who actually reads the Bible has a good chance of becoming an atheist.

Most religious people are not really taught the Bible except in the highly sanitized form they learn in Sunday school as children. I have in our house something called a Children's Bible and it omits all the horrendous elements of the stories, like Abraham's willingness to murder his son, god's commands to stone to death rebellious children and women who are not virgins on their wedding night and people who merely gather wood on the Sabbath, not to mention all the rape and incest and genocide. It reads more like an epic adventure story. This is reasonable for something written for children but the problem is that many religious people never grow out of it. Their knowledge of the Bible progresses little beyond their childhood indoctrination. For them, ignorance is truly bliss.

Next: Some actual conversations with believers on this topic.

January 01, 2011

Faith and respect

What better way to begin the new year than by having the irrepressible Pat Condell putting religion in its place?

December 30, 2010

"But the Bible says…"

Jesus and Mo pick up on a peculiar way of arguing by Christians who will quote the Bible to argue why the Bible is true.

It is not only Christians who do this, though. I have heard Jews argue that their religion must be true because it is the only one in which god spoke to a huge number of people at the same time and thus they could not all be lying or deluded. Their source for this claim? The Old Testament.

I also had a discussion with two Mormon evangelists who came to my door. They claimed that the Book of Mormon must be true because it correctly predicted things. When I pointed out that the book was written after the events that it allegedly 'predicted', they disagreed saying that the book was written before the events but was discovered by Joseph Smith after. Their evidence? The Book of Mormon itself.

It is kind of amusing demonstration of how the desperate desire to believe can result in people abandoning their reasoning skills.

December 16, 2010

The radio discussion on the Pew religion survey

The call-in radio program on the Pew survey on religious knowledge (in which atheists and agnostics turned out to know the most about religion) was interesting. The other members of the panel were Tim Beal, a professor of religious studies at my own university (whose field of specialization is the Old Testament), and Reverend Marvin McMickle, the pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland. (You can listen to the program here and it is also available as a downloadable podcast.)

The discussion got quite interesting around the 21-minute mark when Beal pointed out that many professors of religious studies are, in fact, atheists. I followed up by pointing out that the more one knew what was in the Bible or the more one learned about the background to the Bible, the more likely one was to become an unbeliever. Most people's knowledge of religion is what they learned as stories when they were children in Sunday school and does not get much more sophisticated than that. I pointed out that almost anyone who went to seminary and studied the Bible learned that much of what they believed had no basis and that this came as a shock to many, moving them towards unbelief. I quoted the study by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola on unbelieving priests where they said that a common joke they heard from them was that "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention."

After all, there is no historical or archeological evidence for almost all of the Old Testament. Let alone the obvious fictions about Adam and Even and Noah and the like, there is no evidence for Abraham, Moses, of Israelis kept in captivity, and no archeological evidence of the exodus consisting of 600,000 warriors (about 3 million people) wandering for forty years in the Sinai desert. The conquest by Joshua never happened and Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled. No traces of the kingdoms and the magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have ever been found though excavations have unearthed traces of older societies. The main controversy among scholars is whether the famous king David existed at all or was at most a minor chieftain.

Instead of being a continuous narrative of the history of a people, the OT should be considered as a library of fictional books written by multiple authors between the late 6th century BCE and the early 2nd century BCE in order to propagate certain myths and promote monotheism. It has been revised repeatedly over the years until being 'canonized' around the 4th century CE as the Bible that people now take to be the word of god. Beal agreed with me on these facts.

McMickle was clearly agitated by my comments and protested vehemently. What I found amusing was that he did not challenge me on the facts, which of course he cannot. He instead said that he was shocked that I could so casually dismiss three thousand years of belief by so many people. He went on to speak of the value of religion in sustaining people through slavery. He (and a caller) implied that they did not worry too much about the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible but that simply accepted the canonical Bible.

I was also amused that a caller (at around the 30 minute mark) seemed to be incredulous that someone who had once been a Christian seemed to be denying Jesus and was 'almost' blaspheming. I made it clear in my response that I was definitely denying Jesus and had no problems with being considered a blasphemer. I later regretted that I did not add that I also denied Allah, Krishna, Yahweh, Zoroaster, Zeus, and even the Holy Spirit (whom I like to fondly call Harvey), which is the one sin that Jesus says that Melvin will not forgive. I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity blasphemer.

A little later, in response to an atheist caller who said that he was angry that none of his priests had told him about the lack of historicity and unknown authorship of the gospels (another fact that Beal confirmed), I said almost all priests know all this stuff but cannot share this with their parishioners because that would be a bad career move. It would freak out their flock and likely get them fired and there is little that an ex-priest is qualified for. So they stay silent and allow their parishioners to continue to hold on to their childish Sunday school myths as if it were history. Preachers like McMickle are willing to concede obliquely in intellectual conversations that it is not important to them whether the events in Bible are historically true or not but you can be sure that they will never say from their pulpits that there is no evidence that the events described in the OT ever occurred.

The key difference between scientists and religious people is that scientists value the role of evidence in supporting belief and care whether something is true or not, and know that it is quite possible for almost everyone to believe things that are false for a very long time. So the fact that people have believed their religious myths for millennia is of sociological interest but of no significance as regards to its truth-value. The key question is whether there is any evidence for these beliefs. The fact is that there is none. There is as much evidence for Moses as there is for Santa Claus.

As for the benefit of religion sustaining people through slavery, one could just as well make the case that the reason slaveholders encouraged slaves to become Christians was to make them passive and accepting of their awful lot in this world, with the promise of rewards after they die.

December 05, 2010

When 'Judeo-Christian' really means just 'Christian'

There is a move to dump the present speaker of the Texas house of representatives because he is a Jew, with some saying "We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it."

But of course they resent any suggestion that they are bigoted towards Jews. As one of them said, "My favorite person that's ever been on this earth is a Jew… How can they possibly think that [I am a bigot] if Jesus Christ is a Jew, and he's my favorite person that's ever been on this earth?"

Who can argue with logic like that?

December 01, 2010

The best thing about Christmas

As one who sang in a choir for the annual Christmas carol service during my college days, I think that the best thing about Christmas is the music. (I am talking about the carols only, not the cheesy Christmas 'songs', almost all of which I detest with a passion.) I do not agree with the theology implicit in the carols, but the music is great and the general sentiments of peace and goodwill are worthy.

Some people in a shopping mall food court get an unexpected treat, courtesy of a flash mob.

November 26, 2010

Heathen's Greeting!

Yes, boys and girls, Thanksgiving is over and you know what that means. It's time to start the War on Christmas! So let the games begin!

First off, the New York Times reports on the unveiling of a new billboard ad campaign by four different secular groups to encourage atheists and even just doubters to realize that there are a lot of unbelievers out there and that it is safe to come out and join them.

Right on cue, we have religious believers begin to whine about how atheists are being mean to believers by spreading such messages during the Christmas season. In my local paper the Plain Dealer, columnist Regina Brett gets the ball rolling, criticizing the ad campaign. To be fair to her, she tries to be even-handed, also decrying the demonization of atheists. Hers is a "Why can't we all be nice to each other during this holiday season?" kind of column.

This is fair enough but her message is confused. As with most believers, she sees statements about disbelief as aggressive while statements of belief are taken as the norm. So being nice to one another means that atheists should either shut up or use gentle humor or word things carefully so as not to cause cognitive dissonance among believers.

For example, Brett condemns as 'just mean' one billboard which has an image of Santa saying "Yes Virginia ... there is no God". She does not seem to get the humor of one imaginary entity parodying a well-known quote to assert that another imaginary entity does not exist.

She also puzzlingly says that "God is love. It says that in the Bible. But I doubt that will end up on a billboard to recruit atheists." She's right, it won't, but what's her point? Why would an atheist campaign even consider advertising that god is love when we don't believe that god exists in the first place? Religious people are the ones who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, claim that god is love, and they put that message up all over the place

What believers don't seem to get is that many atheists enjoy Christmas as a secular holiday (which is its actual origin), a good excuse to relax with friends and family. If religious people want to overlay the holiday with all kinds of god messages, they are welcome to do so. What we don't enjoy is being told that we have to accept the whole god package as well.

If we want to secularize the holiday and greet each other with "Seasons' Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" or even "Heathen's Greetings" or "Reason's Greetings", then religious people will just have to learn to live with it, just the way we atheists and non-Christians live with overtly religious symbolism all around us, especially during December. Many of us even say "Merry Christmas" and refer to it as the Christmas season. It really does not bother us because Christmas has, thanks to the relentless merchandizing of businesses, become a secular holiday.

November 24, 2010

Oh, good grief!

Further evidence that when it comes to religion, people can be so easily suckered to believe what they want to believe.

November 21, 2010

Torturing for Christ

Jerry Coyne has a post with photographs describing the devices used by the Catholic Church in Colombia to torture heretics into making confessions during the inquisition that lasted from 1610 to 1821. It is sickening what they did and the article is not for the squeamish.

But of course, all this was done in the service of a loving and merciful god, so it must be good, no?

Religious cruelty to animals

There is no question that factory farming treats animals inhumanely. Yet Johann Hari points out that in Britain at least, there is one redeeming feature in that system in that the animals are required to be stunned before they are slaughtered, thus making them numb and presumably sparing them considerable pain as they are killed.

Yet there is an exemption for even this minimal requirement, granted for (surprise!) religion:

You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it "halal", and if you are Jewish you call it "kosher".

Atheists who criticise religion are constantly being told we have missed the point and religion is really about compassion and kindness. It is only a handful of extremists and fundamentalists who "misunderstand" faith and use it for cruel ends, we are told with a wagging finger. But here's an example where most members of a religion choose to do something pointlessly cruel, and even the moderates demand "respect" for their "views". Their faith makes them prioritise pleasing an invisible supernatural being over the screaming of actual living creatures. Doesn't this suggest that faith itself – the choice to believe something in the total absence of evidence – is a danger that can lead you up needlessly nasty paths?

As has been said by many people many times, it takes religion to make otherwise good and reasonable people do bad things.

November 06, 2010

Pope on the run

One positive sign about the impact of the rise of atheism is that pope Ratzinger feels the need to constantly warn against it on his travels. After doing so in England, he has felt obliged to do so in Spain as well, saying, "The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today." I love the fact that uses the word 'modernity' to contrast to faith, thus reinforcing the idea that religious faith is a medieval relic.

Spain is a country in which 73% identify themselves as Catholic although only about 14% attend mass regularly, has a socialist government that has pushed through some reforms such as ending obligatory religious education in state schools and legalizing abortion, divorce, and gay marriage.

One positive sign about the impact of the rise of atheism is that pope Ratzinger feels the need to constantly warn against it on his travels. After doing so in England, he has felt obliged to do so in Spain as well, saying, "The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today." I love the fact that uses the word 'modernity' to contrast to faith, thus reinforcing the idea that religious faith is a medieval relic.

November 04, 2010

Abortion is causing the US to go bankrupt?

It is very easy to find bizarre stuff on the web. I usually don't read the comments sections on the more popular political blogs because they quickly veer into incoherent rants. But once in a while my eye catches something that is so quirky that I become curious as to how any rational mind can think like that.

Take this comment in response to a Politico post about raising the debt ceiling:

END ABORTION NATIONALLY OR FACE NATIONAL BANKRUPTCY. The most recent increase in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion by H.J.Res. 45 was signed into law on February 12, 2010. The amount of national debt accumulated from 1791 until Roe V. Wade made abortion legal on January 22, 1973 was about $444 billion. Do the math to find the % of the total national debt prior abortion being made legal nationally. I predict that US Congress will raise the debt ceiling again. We will go bankrupt as a nation because of the national sin of legal abortion. There is a solution. Abortionility, A plague from sea to sea. To Christ our knees must bend, Then Roe V. Wade will end. 2 Chronicles 7:14

In case you are curious what the Chronicles reference is and don't carry your Bible around with you all the time, here is the verse: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

The person who wrote this is educated enough to write grammatically and is knowledgeable enough to marshall some fairly esoteric facts to buttress his argument. But then the neurons seem to suddenly start firing randomly, leading to a chain of reasoning that is bizarre, to say the least. Basically the author seems to be saying that god started rapidly increasing the US national debt as punishment for legalizing abortion and will erase the debt if we stop the practice. Who knew?

Not only is it a textbook example of confusing correlation with causation, it is also an example of how religion subverts people's reasoning skills.

November 03, 2010

What's going on at Elsevier?

Elsevier is a commercial publishing house that publishes scientific journals. Lat year there was a scandal when it was revealed that it had allowed the drug company Merck to fund a new and phony journal titled Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine under its name that essentially pushed Merck drugs to unsuspecting physicians by quoting the 'journal' in support of the claims for their drugs' efficacy.

Now comes another story (via Jerry Coyne) that a real Elsevier journal called the International Journal of Cardiology has published an article that claims that the Koran and the Hadith were prescient in their knowledge of how the heart works. Reviews of the article were scathing. The article consists of taking parts of the religious texts and interpreting them as metaphors that are congruent with modern understandings of the heart. While this may be of interest to a journal of religion or religious textual analysis, it is not science.

But what caught my eye was that the article was received by the journal on May 7, 2009 and accepted just five days later, on May 12, 2009. This is highly unusual. The review process for scientific articles takes many months and can stretch to more than a year as the manuscripts are sent out to reviewers who send them back with comments which then go to the authors for revisions, then back to the reviewers, etc. before the journal editor finally makes a decision. What happened here is that the editor must have bypassed any outside review and summarily accepted it. But given the obviously controversial nature of the claims, you would have thought that such a paper would have merited more careful scrutiny, not less.

So why did the editor of the journal and Elsevier go out on a limb by publishing this pseudoscience?

The slippery arguments of religious people

Maybe I am getting old and cranky but I must say that my patience is wearing thin with religious fundamentalists and the shifty way they argue.

Recently I had an extended email exchange with someone (let's call him Henry) from Sri Lanka whom I did not know before but who had heard about my switch to atheism from an old friend of mine. My friend is a religious fundamentalist member of a charismatic church with a sweet and gentle nature of whom I am very fond. For her sake, I showed more patience and spent more time responding to Henry than I would with a total stranger.

Henry clearly wanted to try and persuade me to change my mind and show me that his belief in god was based on science and reason. He wanted to argue that so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) and its associated 'specified complexity' were arguments for the existence of god. I have, of course, heard all these arguments before and they are nothing but the tired old 'god of the gaps', where people look for things that science has not explained yet or things that seem highly improbable, and insert god as an ad hoc solution. It is Paley's watch repeated yet again. It seems like this same argument gets resurrected repeatedly, the only 'new' features being that they keep looking for new gaps as the old gaps get explained by science. It is quite extraordinary how believers can never come up with actual evidence but are very imaginative when it comes to inventing new metaphors to say the same old thing.

Usually at some point in such discussions I ask such people what they believe because religious people like to keep things vague so that when you corner them on one point, they will say, "Oh, but I don't really believe that." It is usually a good strategy to ask them right at the beginning what things in the Bible (or whatever their holy book is) they think are true. I usually do this early in the conversation but did not do so with Henry because he sounded like he was a sophisticated religious apologist who took almost everything in the Bible as a metaphor.

At some point in the ensuing correspondence, I began to suspect that I was mistaken and asked him flat out about specific beliefs. It turns out that Henry believes in the historicity of the Bible such as the stories of Adam and Eve, that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead, and so on. At that point I told Henry that the discussion was over, that anyone who believed in such absurdities had essentially abandoned science and there was no use having a discussion about science with him.

Henry could not seem to understand my point. He kept saying that what he believed about Adam and Eve etc., was immaterial to whether ID was true or not. He could not see that what he believes about god is relevant to whether or not it is worth arguing the matter with him. He would have been right if his other beliefs were about cooking or films or politics. But the question of whether Adam and Eve and the resurrection are historical events is very relevant to the question of whether his version of god exists.

It seems to me that one can have a reasonable discussion with someone only if the parties share certain premises within which the debate can proceed. In discussions on science, one has to value evidence, the rules of logic, and accept the basic laws of science. If one is willing to accept all the ridiculous other things that Henry believes in, then one is saying that one is willing to jettison science whenever it contradicts your particular dogma and are using it only when and where you think it suits your purpose. As an analogy, when scientists discuss superconductivity, they use quantum mechanics as a basic framework of analysis. There is no point discussing superconductivity with someone who rejects quantum mechanics as not being valid.

I have seen Henry's kind of argumentation before. It is the same 'wedge strategy' that the ID people used in their attempt to foist god on us. Their idea was that if you can find some narrow, esoteric, isolated phenomenon and argue that god must have acted there, then therefore god exists. Once you have established that beachhead, then since god is a Magic Man who can do anything, you can believe any nonsense you want because god could have done it.

This is the opposite of how we think and argue in any other area, science or otherwise. If there are huge and glaring contradictions with a theory that stare us in the face, then we need to address and solve those before we even think of applying that theory to some esoteric event. It would be like using quantum mechanics in a highly technical field like superconductivity when it does not explain basic things like atomic structure. The reason that we nowadays use quantum mechanics to explore highly esoteric and difficult areas of knowledge is because it has been able to successfully address more straightforward problems. If it had failed to do so, we would have abandoned it long ago. Similarly, the reason that Newton's laws of motion and gravity were taken seriously was because they enabled us to successfully address the major problem of the motion of the planets in the solar system. Over time, as the theory's ability to successfully address problems became apparent and confidence in it rose, it was used to investigate more esoteric problems.

This is why when people tell me that they believe in Adam and Eve and the resurrection and all that kind of stuff, I insist that they provide evidence to reconcile those with science before I will even bother to discuss things like ID. Of course, the only way they can explain such events is by postulating a Magic Man who can do anything. Once they say their Magic Man can create complete human beings out of nothing and even raise people from the dead, then it becomes pointless to discuss ID because creating a bacterial flagellum would be a piece of cake for their Magic Man.

The greatest success of the new/unapologetic atheism movement has been in making reason and evidence and compatibility with modern science the measure of whether any idea is worth taking seriously. People may not realize what a huge shift this is. This has made it embarrassing for people who believe their religious myths. What people like Henry try to do is to shift attention away from their embarrassing and obviously implausible anti-science beliefs like Adam and Eve and the resurrection to what they think sounds intellectually plausible. They try to limit the debate to a very narrow spectrum of knowledge where they think science does not obviously contradict their pre-determined religious beliefs.

The new atheists are having none of that. If you want to debate the existence of god, be prepared to defend the full spectrum of your beliefs about god, not just the ones you think are defensible.

October 30, 2010

File this under 'Clueless'

The September 2010 issue of Awake!, the magazine of the Jehovah's Witnesses, has an article titled Is Atheism on the March? that says right at the beginning:

A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.

I have written before about the absurdity of religious people complaining about the new/unapologetic atheists not keeping quiet about their disbelief when we are swamped with religious messages. But coming from a group that actually comes to your door to proselytize, this surely must win the prize for lack of self-awareness.

October 26, 2010

Why theology is useless

Critics of the new/unapologetic atheist movement frequently chastise us for our supposed lack of awareness of theology. This criticism can come from surprising quarters such as fellow atheist John Shook, director of education for the Center of Inquiry who recently wrote: "Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology."

His article spawned a fierce response, mainly because he did not name or quote a single atheist in support of his charge. Others pointed out that many of the most visible members of the new atheist movement actually do know quite a lot about theology. They just don't think much of it. That onslaught resulted in Shook issuing a sort of retraction and apology, though still not naming names.

If Shook wants the name of an atheist who disparages theology, he is welcome to use mine because as far as I am concerned, studying theology is a colossal waste of time. For example, just look at the kinds of issues that theologians spend their time on. All their efforts to reconcile their holy books with advancing science lead to similar exercises in futility.

But there are also theoretical reasons why theology is useless and in order to expand on that point, I need to make clear what I mean by the word. If one looks at the Merriam-Webster definition of theology, it says that it is "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially the study of God and of God's relation to the world." (Italics in the original.)

It is helpful to split that definition into two parts. The first part 'the study of religious faith, practice, and experience' is better labeled 'religious studies' and constitutes a credible academic discipline. Religion has undoubtedly played an important role in the history of humanity, and how it originated, is practiced, and its consequences for society are not only important topics of study, but I would go further and argue that they are essential. The second part of the definition, 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world', is what we popularly consider to be theology and is what I consider to be useless for the following three reasons.

The first reason is because it seems pointless to study something whose mere existence has not even been conclusively established. We have no evidence that god exists in the first place and strong reasons to doubt it, so what is the point of studying it? As a parallel, no one would claim that 'the study of extra-terrestrial aliens and their relation to the world' is important unless they had first established the actual existence of such aliens. But even if aliens do not exist, studying why so many people believe in them is still worth doing. You can replace aliens with unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, or any number of imaginary things to make the same point.

The second reason is that theology as 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world' is essentially an attempt to construct a theory of god using the empirical facts of the world as evidence. But any theoretical model of something presupposes that the thing being studied behaves in a law-like manner. For example, we can construct a kinetic theory of gases because the atoms in the gas behave in a law-like way. We can construct a theory of evolution because organisms exhibit law-like patterns of change. We can construct a theory of gravity because freely falling objects have law-like trajectories. The reason that law-like behavior is so important is because it is only then that the resulting evidence has enough systematic features to enable us to inductively assert the existence of an underlying pattern, and thus generate a theory.

But in the case of god, it is asserted that he is not subject to law-like behavior and can do whatever he likes whenever he likes. That is the whole point of being god and why believers say they cannot make any concrete predictions of what he will do in the future. Religious believers stoutly resist any attempt to make god obey laws (whatever the laws are) because they say that then he would not be god. This immediately rules out any possibility of constructing a theory of god. The best that theologians can do is create post-hoc 'explanations' of events.

The final reason that there can be no theory of god is because of his supposed uniqueness. Individual people, like god, also act capriciously and unpredictably, so that it is almost impossible to try and create a theory of any single individual in order to predict precisely how he or she will behave. But because we have so many people, we can hope to build statistical models that exhibit law-like behavior of populations, i.e., people in the aggregate. It is like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Because of it, we cannot predict with any great confidence the exact moment when any given radioactive atom will decay but if we start with a large number of radioactive atoms, we can predict with great accuracy what fraction of them will decay in any given time interval. The fields of sociology, political science, and economics are examples of fields in which we can build theories of human behavior in the aggregate. But with god we have supposedly a unique entity that can act capriciously. How can one create a theory about such an entity?

This lack of the foundations for creating a theory of god explains why despite thousands of years of effort by a vast number of very clever and dedicated theologians, there is not even the slightest consensus on what god is like. It seems like theology, like a well-stocked God-mart store, can supply any god for any need. You want a stern and even vengeful god who has no compunction about throwing even minor sinners into the torments of hell for eternity? Theology can supply that god. You want a loving god who will forgive and welcome into heaven all but the worst of people? Theology can provide that god too. You need a god who will console you in times of trouble? No problem, they've got just the god for you. You need a god who controls every aspect of your life? Theology can provide exactly what you need. You need a god who seemingly chooses to work only through the laws of nature? Yep, they've got some of those too. And if you order any one of these gods, they will include free-of-charge a deistic god who created the universe and all its laws at one instant and then retired. But wait, there's more! If you place your order within the next 24 hours, they will even throw in 'the ground of all being' and 'a plenitude of actuality'! So order now!

Is it any wonder that I think there is no field of study as pointless as theology?

October 25, 2010

The Catholic Taliban

The Italian government has given the mayors of their towns new powers to help them crack down on crime and 'anti-social' behavior. So what does the mayor of the seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia want to use these powers for? To ban mini-skirts, low-cut jeans, sunbathing, playing football in public places, and blasphemy.

Of course, a local Catholic priest approves, because when it comes to upholding the highest standards of morality, the Catholic Church is the first institution that comes to mind, no?

Richard Dawkins sues the person who ran his website

Josh Timonen, the person entrusted by Richard Dawkins with running his website, has been charged by the charitable Richard Dawkins Foundation with embezzling $239,000 over three years. Timonen denies the charges. This falling out has come as a shock because the two were close and Dawkins even dedicated his latest book to him.

How Adam and Eve killed the dinosaurs

In my earlier post titled Gen fight at the Baptist corral, I discussed the hoo-ha that is currently going on in some religious circles because of William Dembski's attempt at reconciling the doctrine of original sin with evolution and an old Earth.

The reason that this is a problem for Christians is that they believe that all suffering is due to the fall from grace caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. If you believe in an old Earth and evolution, then how do you explain the natural disasters and suffering that occurred during the time of our pre-human ancestors? Dembski's book presumably answered this question but since there was no chance in hell that I would buy that book and read it, I thought his solution would be forever lost to me.

But fortunately there is a blogger (who claims to be also an orthodox Baptist) who has written a detailed review of Dembski's book with lots of direct quotes and I am now privy to Dembski's solution which I will share with you, because I am sure that you have been losing sleep worrying over this very question.

Brace yourself for an earthshaking revelation: in Dembski's world, effects can precede causes!

Here's how Dembski's plan works. You start with the big bang and evolution working their way through, all leading up to the time when non-human hominids appeared. All this happened just the way we godless heathens say it happened based on silly old evidence and the laws of science. But "these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God." Then at some point, these hominids entered the Garden of Eden, "received God's image and became fully human" (whatever that means). They then experienced the famous fall from grace and the consequent punishment of suffering that is inflicted on us all.

But here’s the kicker: All the suffering that occurred before that time was due to god applying the punishment retroactively because he knew the fall was going to happen later. So, for example, god punished the poor dinosaurs by sending an asteroid to collide with the Earth and cause all of them to go extinct because sixty five million years later a couple of hominids would wander into a garden and eat some fruit. Doesn't seem quite fair to the dinosaurs but who are we to questions god's sense of justice?

At this point, I am sure that some of you are saying, "Hold it right there, Bill. Isn't that going a bit too far? Surely you realize that abandoning the principle of causality is to deal science a mortal blow? If effects can precede causes, then is anything in science safe? Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

One of Dembski's critics, fellow Baptist theologian Tom Nettles who thinks a young Earth is the way to go, seems to think this is absurd and compares it to a stern father who spanks his child soundly every Sunday evening because he knows that the child will do something wrong during the coming week and so he might as well get the punishment over with.

The problem with you cynics is that you are not looking at things with the eye of faith. After all, once you have given god the power of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence so that he can overrule all the laws of science, why hold back? Why not go the whole hog and give him the power to reverse cause and effect as well? As Dembski's says, "Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects?" True, that. Once you have demonstrated a willingness to abandon almost all of science, why cling to some trivial remnant of it merely because it poses an obstacle to your theological argument? As the comic strip Jesus and Mo astutely points out, what gives religion its edge is that it is allowed to make stuff up.

The United Negro College Fund has for decades had as its slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." When I think of all the undoubtedly very clever people over the centuries, even millennia, spending enormous amounts of time tying themselves up in intellectual knots to reconcile their allegedly holy books with rapidly advancing science, it truly does seem like a colossal waste. What make it worse is that the people seeking to solve such problems do not seem to realize that the problems they are grappling with are artificial ones of their own creation and are not able to see a simple solution that stares them in the face,

The only upside is that these contortions provide a source of endless entertainment for people like me.

October 22, 2010

Gen fight at the Baptist corral

A battle has broken out in the genteel world of Baptist theology over the proper understanding of the book of Genesis.

It began with the publication in 2009 of the book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World by William Dembski. Dembski's name will be a familiar to those who followed the controversy over so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) because he was one of their key leaders. He is a clever and well-educated man, a glutton for formal education whose bio says he has a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, a Ph.D. in philosophy, a doctorate in mathematics, and a master of divinity degree. Much of his work during the ID debates was aimed at producing mathematical and statistical arguments for god using information and complexity theories. He is also a prolific writer, churning out books and papers at a prodigious rate, which made him a moving target. By the time scientists and mathematicians had analyzed his latest book and pointed out flaws in his arguments, he would have a new book out where he would claim that he had addressed them.

The high point in his career was when he was appointed head of the Michael Polanyi Institute at Baylor University. Baylor is a research university with Baptist roots and the Polanyi institute was a think tank specifically created by president of the university (himself a theologian) in 1999 to promote ID. But the faculty of the university rose up in revolt at what they considered an end-run around faculty governance on academic matters by their president to advance his personal religious agenda, and demanded the closing of the center. Dembski was removed as the head of the center in 2000 and left Baylor in 2005 to his present home as a faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Given that Dembski craves acceptance by mainstream scientists and academics, going from a research university to a fairly obscure regional seminary must have been a blow.

As one can see from the subtitle, his latest book attempts to address the age-old problem of theodicy but Dembski tries to do it within the framework of an old Earth. Why this is a problem is because orthodox Christianity teaches that sin and suffering were caused by Adam and Eve's shenanigans with the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden that resulted in their fall from grace and created the original sin that taints all of us even from birth. It is this belief that leads to the doctrine that Jesus had to die as a vicarious sacrifice to absolve the world of its sins. (Ok, I know that none of this makes any sense but it is what Christians are required to believe so bear with me.)

The doctrine of original sin requires original sinners and thus requires Adam and Eve to be real people who were the first humans and consequently a young Earth. Dembski seemed to have been persuaded by scientific evidence that believing in a young Earth was deeply problematic. But since he wanted to retain the idea of salvation through Jesus's death, he tried to find a way to insert the doctrine of the fall and original sin into an old Earth framework in which evolution had occurred. He also allowed for the possibility that Noah's flood may have been a local phenomenon, not a global flood, again based on the scientific evidence.

Even these slight concessions to what the rest of us might consider incontrovertible science were too much for his colleagues and ticked off the young Earth biblical literalists. He got some strong criticisms from some of his Baptist colleagues, especially a highly negative review from Tom Nettles, a faculty member of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who claimed that Dembski was rejecting Biblical literalism and inerrancy because of scientific arguments. The idea that scientific evidence should take precedence over the 'plain text' reading of the Bible is a big no-no for these people.

Paige Patterson, president of the seminary where Dembski is a faculty member, is an unabashed young Earther who rejects evolution and thinks Noah's flood was a global one. He was concerned by the possibility that one of his faculty members was straying from the fold, rejecting orthodoxy and espousing an old Earth heresy. Patterson commissioned David Allen, the dean of his school of theology and Dembski's immediate superior, to write a lengthy rebuttal to Nettles' review, in which he argued that Dembski was truly orthodox and that Nettles had misunderstood him.

Patterson also summoned Dembski to a meeting and as a result, a chastened Dembski issued an abject mea culpa, saying that he had not actually thought through some of the things he had written in his book and laid out what he says he actually believes, and outlined what he would have done differently if he were to write the book now. He now says that he does believe that Noah's flood was a global one and that his assumption of an old Earth was not a belief he was committed to but merely a speculative exercise purely for the purpose of seeing how it could be reconciled with ideas of the fall and original sin. It is a great example of a coerced retraction. His apologia ends:

Yet, in a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part. Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.

In writing The End of Christianity today, I would also underscore three points: (1) As a biblical inerrantist, I accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible. Thus, in particular, I accept Mosaic authorship of Genesis (and of the Pentateuch) and reject the Documentary Hypothesis. (2) Even though I introduce in the book a distinction between kairos (God’s time) and chronos (the world’s time), the two are not mutually exclusive. In particular, I accept that the events described in Genesis 1– 11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch. (3) I believe that Adam and Eve were real people, that as the initial pair of humans they were the progenitors of the whole human race, that they were specially created by God, and thus that they were not the result of an evolutionary process from primate or hominid ancestors.

The statement by Patterson, Allen's defense of Dembski against Nettles, and Dembski's apologia can all be seen here.

Nettles, however, is not buying this revisionism. He seems to suspect that Dembski really believes in the heresies he expounded in his book, and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the Patterson/Allen/Dembski response. Will they fire back? Or will they fire Dembski? The Baptist world waits agog.

In my book God vs. Darwin, I wrote about how the intelligent design people tried to make us think that they accepted all of modern science (including evolution and an old Earth) except for a few biological systems which they said required a designer. They stoutly resisted any attempt to lump them in with religious fundamentalists who took the Bible literally. Many of us had strong suspicions at that time that this seemingly liberal interpretation of the Bible was just a charade in order to disguise their more rigid religious agenda and make ID acceptable to the courts as an alternative to evolution. P. Z. Myers, whose blog first alerted me to this new Dembski story, seems to think that what this recent episode reveals is that Dembski was a common-or-garden creationist all along and that this controversy has forced him to publicly admit it.

I think that what is going on is more interesting. I have not read Dembski's book and have no plans to do so, because life is too short to read books that use biblical texts to address empirical questions. But reading this back-and-forth over the book suggests to me that while Dembski may or may not have been a true-blue creationist at one time, he now finds the scientific arguments against at least a few of its orthodoxies persuasive. Dembski is a clever man, even arrogantly so, and I suspect that it must galling to him that in order to keep his job, he has to publicly recant under pressure from his religious bosses, people whom he must consider to be his intellectual inferiors. Who would have thought that Dembski, of all people, would experience what it is like to walk in Galileo's shoes!

I suspect that what has happened is that Dembski has started down that dangerous road in which he starts to value evidence and reason and secretly tries to integrate science with his religious beliefs. Beware, Bill. That way leads to atheism!

October 21, 2010

Faith healing and me

In yesterday's post and earlier I have expressed my fury with parents who let their children suffer and die because they withheld medical care, believing that their faith will heal the child. P. Z. Myers documents some other abuses inflicted by parents on children. Such acts are nothing short of criminal because they sacrifice the health and even the life of a child on the altar of parental superstition. There is no evidence that faith healers can do what they claim to do and plenty of evidence that they are at best misguided and self-delusional or outright frauds preying on the gullible.

Some believers in faith healing have asked me whether my skepticism is because of my lack of experience with it and urge me to check it out. Actually I do have some experience with faith healers. I had polio when I was six years old that resulted in some serious physical handicaps, though it has not prevented me from having a very full life. My parents were Christians and they did everything they could to improve my life, and that included taking me to faith healers.

I recall a faith healer named Brother Mandus coming to Sri Lanka as part of a world-wide crusade and my mother took me to the church where he was preaching and at the appropriate time told me to walk up to the altar with the others who were seeking cures for various ailments. Although I was a child then (around eleven or twelve) and it was a long time ago, I recall going up and praying fervently and remember him placing his hands on my head and praying for me to be healed. It was all very sincere (at least on my mother's and my part, though I cannot vouch for Mandus) but, of course, nothing happened.

Sometime later, we were in another town away from the capital city and my parents must have heard of another faith healer, a local man this time, and they took me to him. This was a very different experience. This man was not a Christian but more like a witch doctor and it was a private affair just for us. It was night time and I remember lying down on the floor in a candle-lit room that threw long flickering shadows everywhere while this wild looking, long-haired, bare-chested person wearing long chains around his neck chanted and flailed and waved all manner of things around in the air just above me, including swords. It went on for quite a while but again, nothing happened.

This experience was quite spooky and should have terrified me but I was not scared because I must have implicitly trusted my parents, who were also present, that they would never let me be harmed in any way by this wild and crazy guy. I recall only being curious as to what the hell was going on.

What were my parents, pillars of the Christian church, doing dealing with what could be considered black magic? Many Sri Lankans, like people elsewhere (other than religious chauvinists and fanatics), are somewhat eclectic and relaxed in their attitudes towards religion. It is not uncommon to find icons of Jesus and Buddha and the Hindu gods in the same location and people worshipping all of them. While my parents were religious, they were also practical and open-minded people who had their priorities right. For them, having me get better was top of their agenda and they were willing to do whatever it takes. Having me get better would have trumped any allegiance they might have felt towards any religious dogma.

My parents were pragmatists and if they had been Edgardo Mortara's parents, I think they would have converted to Catholicism in a heartbeat if that was the only way that they could have got their child back from the Pope, arguing that a god who would not excuse an act that arose out of pure parental love was not a god worth worshipping. Fortunately for me, their primary efforts were directed towards making sure that I got the best possible medical treatment. They would never have gambled with that. I suspect that their ventures into trying to find supernatural healing were seen by them as extras, done on the off-chance that it might work. In this, they were totally unlike those religious people who will let their children suffer and even die because they think pleasing their god is more important than anything else.

Believers in faith healing will never be convinced that there is nothing there. They always have the option of blaming any lack of success on people having insufficient faith. They would say that the reason why god did not heal me was likely because of my parents' lack of sufficient faith in the Christian god, as evidenced by their commitment to getting the best possible medical treatment for me, as well as their willingness to try non-Christian faith options. Or maybe because 'god could see into my heart' (a phrase Christians love) and discern that although I thought I was a devout Christian, the seeds of my future atheism had taken root and so I was not to be rewarded. Of course, this whole concept of a god who holds back from healing children just because they or their parents are insufficiently devout is truly horrendous, but religious people never seem to see that aspect of it.

When it comes to faith healers, people like the Pope and all other major religious leaders who do not denounce faith healing as a total fraud are also culpable. By encouraging people to think that god can and will heal those with sufficient faith, they are accomplices to all the faith healers who prey on the gullible.

Because religious leaders are shirking this task, we have to delegate the responsibility of debunking these frauds to comedians like The Chasers.

October 20, 2010

How religions mainstream insanity

Some time ago, I wrote a post titled Suffer little children about children who are allowed to suffer and even die because of the religious beliefs of their parents. I mentioned the tragic case of a woman Ria Ramkissoon with a child named Javon who in 2006 joined a Christian religious group whose leader, who called herself Queen Antoinette, demanded total obedience from her followers.

Sometime in 2007, Antoinette was angered when Javon did not say 'Amen' after his meals (he was just 16 months old at that time). Antoinette said that Javon was a demon and demanded that food be with held from him until he said 'Amen', and the mother complied with the order. The child died of starvation. Queen Antoinette said that God would bring Javon back to life but only if they had enough faith, and she ordered everyone to pray. But of course, god did nothing of the sort and as the body began decomposing, Antoinette ordered his body placed inside a suitcase where it was eventually discovered in 2008 in a storage shed.

The mother and the group's leaders were arrested and tried and in May of 2010 were found guilty of various charges and sentenced. Ria Ramkissoon received 20 years in jail which was suspended for all except the time already served and five years probation, provided she testified against the cult leaders and undergoes long-term deprogramming and psychiatric counseling in a residential facility. As a result of her testimony, Queen Antoinette was sentenced to 50 years in prison, while her daughter Trevia Williams and aide Marcus Cobbs were sentenced to 50 years incarceration, with all but 15 years suspended.

One curiosity about the case was that the mother was willing to plead guilty only on the condition that she be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea in the event that her son was resurrected from the dead. Julie Drake, division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office and one of those who prosecuted the case, explained the prosecution's strategy. It makes for interesting reading.

At Ms. Ramkissoon's insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected, she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea.

Why did I agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected? If Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, it would be legally appropriate. That said, I do not share Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs, and I believe the likelihood of Javon's resurrection in my lifetime is too remote to be a concern. I carefully specified on the record that this condition involved resurrection of Javon's body — not reincarnation into another body.

Why did Ms. Ramkissoon receive probation? There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others, several of which applied to Ms. Ramkissoon's case.

First, it was clear to everyone that the central and most culpable defendant in this case was Queen Antoinette. She was the leader of the cult. She issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. She warned the others not to feed Javon and removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon's control. Our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder and to secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony, and Ms. Ramkissoon was willing to tell the truth.

Second, and equally important, I believe that justice was best served by placing Ms. Ramkissoon in a residential treatment facility rather than in prison. It was clear to everyone who interviewed Ms. Ramkissoon that she had been indoctrinated through classic "brainwashing" techniques into a cult. She had no malice or ill will toward Javon; quite the contrary, she believed Queen Antoinette was acting in his best interests. Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress. After Javon's death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for his resurrection. This was not an individual who was acting out of a classic criminal intent (e.g. malice, anger, desire for revenge or gain), but rather a mother who has and will suffer anguish over the result of her inaction.

Almost everyone who hears about this case will come to the reasonable conclusion that Ramkissoon is insane for believing that there is any chance that her child will be resurrected. They will agree with Drake that she has been brainwashed by the cult. You might expect that Ramkissoon could have even been found not guilty on the basis of insanity. What other explanation could there be for someone who starves to death the child she loves, purely on the orders of someone else claiming to speak for god? But Drake provides an interesting coda on how religious delusions are treated differently from other delusions in court trials.

It should be noted that the main reason Ms. Ramkissoon was not found "not criminally responsible" is because her delusions were of a religious nature and were shared by other people; therefore they could not be classified as a "mental disorder." (my italics)

Ramkisson's beliefs are no different from mainstream Christianity. After all, Christians who go to church on Sunday solemnly say the words of the various creeds that outline their fundamental beliefs, all of which include expectations of their own bodily resurrection from the dead. If we consider Ramkissoon to be brainwashed and insane, why don't we treat all Christians the same way?

This is the problem with religion in a nutshell. To the extent that anyone believes in the resurrection of the dead, they too have been brainwashed, just like Ramkissoon. But because mainstream religious beliefs, even crazy ones, are stamped with the label 'religion' and shared by many other people, they are not considered to be mental disorders.

One of the main effects of religion is to launder insane ideas into mainstream acceptance. But in order to do so, religious people have to create a consciously hypocritical world. They have to say they believe in things that one has to be clearly insane to believe in (like that dead bodies will come back to life) while at the same time find ways to discourage those who might actually consider acting on the basis of those beliefs.

No civilized society would be possible if large numbers of people actually acted on the basis of all their religious doctrines. Fortunately for us, civilized societies base their laws largely on science and secular values.

October 18, 2010

The craziness of astrology

Sometimes even I forget how many stupid things people still believe. When I debate religion with believers, I often use astrology as an example of something that is totally absurd but once was given credence by a huge number of people, to show that just because something is widely believed does not mean that it has any merit. One has to go beyond that and provide evidence. The idea that the configuration of planets and stars could have an effect on people's daily lives is now considered so absurd that to publicly espouse it is to declare oneself to be primitive and superstitious. In the Dover trial on so-called intelligent design, the point where advocate Michael Behe was forced to concede that if their definition of science were to be accepted then astrology could be considered a science too was considered to be a low point for them, discrediting their carefully constructed case that intelligent design was a science.

Hence it always comes as a shock to me when I find that many people still take astrology seriously and determine both big and small decisions on the basis of it. It is to the great shame of my native country Sri Lanka that its political leaders always consult astrologers before making any major decisions, though for a few there were suspicions that they were not true believers and cooked the books (so to speak) by having astrologers provide answers that the leaders had already determined on a more rational basis. Astrology is highly malleable and open to wide interpretation and it is not hard to find an astrologer who will tell you what you want to hear. But the very fact that even these suspected skeptics felt the need to go through this charade of publicly avowing belief shows the power that this particular superstition has on the general public.

For example a new harbor is nearing completion at the southernmost tip of the island to serve as cargo container distribution center. This harbor is being built by Chinese engineers with aid from the Chinese government. A news report says that astrologers had given an 'auspicious' time for the opening of the harbor but it was 10 months ahead of the scheduled completion date. The opening went ahead anyway because what government would want to risk offending the stars and the planets?

Despite the Chinese Company in charge of this Hambantota project objecting to the holding of this ceremony ahead of the completion of the project, the water filling opening ceremony was carried out on the 15th of August owing to the fact that there is no suitable auspicious time (nekath time) in the days ahead for the President.

Answering inquiries made by us, the Chinese Engineers engaged in the Hambantota port project stated the water filling ceremony was really scheduled to be launched about 10 months later.

As a result of this astrology-based stupidity, the engineers now have to work around the premature release of the water, adding to the cost and the time of the project.

For people who believe in astrology, the time of birth is of great importance because the alignment of the stars and planets at that moment supposedly determines the future of the child, even to the extent of predicting whom they will marry, their careers, health and prosperity, etc. So the exact time to the minute is noted when a baby is born so that astrologers have the most accurate information to work with it. (On a personal note, my older daughter was born in Sri Lanka and my younger daughter in the US – yes, we are the proud parents of an 'anchor baby'! – and in both cases there were discreet requests from extended family members as to the time of birth. We of course deliberately did not bother to record this information and since we knew what the purpose of the request was, we refused to give out indications of even the rough time of day, thus foiling their plans to create astrological charts for them.)

Given my awareness of the influence of astrology at least on the Indian sub-continent, I should not have been surprised to read an article by Eric Bellman in the October 5, 2010 online edition of the Wall Street Journal that women in India are using astrology to determine the best time to have a baby and then requesting their doctors to perform c-sections at that time. This is raising serious health and ethical questions because there can be negative health consequences with artificially shifting the date of birth. As Bellman says, "Moving a birth up by even one week can lead to complications such as breathing problems in babies whose lungs have not fully developed. Mothers face increased risk of infection, blood loss and even death from the procedure, which delivers the baby through a surgical incision." But apparently for the mothers who believe, "the large potential benefits of having a child blessed by the stars outweigh concern about potential complications from a caesarean."

Although beliefs in astrology transcend any specific religion, there is no question that the irrational ways of thinking that religion encourages make people more susceptible to this kind of nonsense. I wonder if there are any atheists who take astrology seriously?

October 17, 2010

How to tell true science from false science

For a long time, scientists and historians and philosophers of science have struggled to try and figure out how we can know which theories of science are true and which are false. It is a very difficult problem, and my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000) focused on this very question.

But Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has found the solution!

Are science and Christianity friends? The answer to that is an emphatic yes, for any true science will be perfectly compatible with the truths we know by God’s revelation. But this science is not naturalistic, while modern science usually is. Too many evangelicals try to find middle ground, only to end up arguing for positions that combine theological surrender with scientific naïveté. [My italics]

Got that? We don't need no stinkin' evidence and reason and logic and math and all that high falutin' stuff to determine which scientific theories are true. The ones that agree with what is in my particular holy book as interpreted by what my particular Magic Man whispers in my ear is what is true. Simple, isn't it?

Of course, this is what the pope told Galileo a long time ago. If we had simply listened to the pope then, we could have stayed at the same level of scientific development as at that time. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

The invaluable cartoon strip Jesus and Mo deserves to have the last word on this topic.

October 16, 2010

Hitchslaps

If you are ever going to publicly debate a religious person, I recommend that as part of your preparation you watch this 15-minute collection of clips of brutal Christopher Hitchens put-downs, referred to as 'Hitchslaps'. The one he administers to someone defending circumcision (it begins at 11:50 and I think his victim is Harold Kushner) is a thing of beauty.

(via Machine Like Us.)

October 15, 2010

Corrupting the minds and bodies of young children

If there is one thing that the sex scandals in the Catholic Church should have taught us, it is that young boys should not be left unsupervised in the presence of clergy.

But now come reports that the Sri Lankan government, in another shameless attempt to pander to the majority Buddhist community, plans to have 2,600 boys as young as 10 years of age ordained next year as Buddhist monks to commemorate year 2600 according to the Buddhist calendar. This means that the boys will have their heads shaven, be put in robes, and made to live in temples with older monks.

People are protesting on many grounds, one of which is that the boys are too young to make such a drastic decision. The second is that there have long been strong rumors of sexual abuse in Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, but it is a taboo subject that people are fearful to bring out in the open or investigate. Like with the Catholic Church for so long, the authorities have been hesitant to take the allegations seriously.

Poor parents often give up their children to become Buddhist monks because then they will have food and shelter and clothing and receive some sort of education. There is also apparently a bizarre belief that by 'donating' their children to the priesthood, the parents receive 'merit' that can be cashed in to get a better next life (Buddhists believe in reincarnation) or even gain nirvana, the ultimate goal. It is amazing how children are used as pawns in religious games.

It should come as no surprise that as a result of being conscripted, some Sri Lankan Buddhist priests become venal, showing little resemblance to the ideals preached by their founder Siddhartha Gautama.

October 13, 2010

Atheist children of prominent religious parents

A strange and sad story has surfaced. A person claiming to be Michael Behe's son has said that he has rejected his family's Catholic faith and become an atheist. Those who have been following the 'intelligent design' movement will be familiar with Behe. He is the author of Darwin's Black Box, the book that became the Bible of that movement with its claims that things like the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting mechanism were conclusive evidence of the existence of a supernatural designer.

It is not the son's apostasy that is noteworthy. After all, it is not uncommon for children of prominent religious figures to reject the religion of their parents, switching to other religions or to unbelief. What is sad in this case is the parents' response. The unnamed son (who seems to be close to twenty years of age and one of eleven children) writing under the pseudonym 'salty914' says he has been banished to the basement of their house and prevented from talking to his siblings in private in case he infects them with his heresies. The network of family friends are mostly Catholic and he says that some of his friends in those families have been forbidden to talk to him.

You can read his story by following the thread posts by salty914 where he elaborates on why he became an atheist. He also includes some interesting insights into whether his father is trapped by his long support for ID to continue being an advocate even though he may suspect that ID is wrong. It should be noted that it has not been confirmed that salty914 is who he claims to be and the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax. His first post appeared about a week ago and has received wide publicity and there have been no denials yet from the Behe family as far as I know. [Update: Someone whom I know and trust sent me a private email that says that he has been in contact with Michael Behe and that he acknowledges that salty914 is in fact his middle child and does not dispute the information being put out by him about what is happening.]

I have met Behe several times during the days when I was debating ID supporters and he is a genial man, one of the more reasonable religious people, who accepts almost all of evolution but seems to feel the need to preserve some role for a Magic Man. Although his testimony in the Dover case (which I write about in my own book God vs. Darwin) made him look foolish, he is no fiery fundamentalist. This reported behavior seems out of character. But family dynamics are hard to decipher from the outside and it is never pleasant when families become estranged. People who are able to have a calm and reasonable discussion with strangers who disagree with them may not be as tolerant when the challenge comes from their own children.

The Behe situation is not nearly as bad as that of Fred Phelps, head of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, whose son Nate also became an atheist and moved to Canada. The elder Phelps (who is a big man physically, towering even above Michael Moore) would take the Bible injunction to not spare the rod seriously and whale away at his children regularly with a heavy yard implement called a mattock and subject them to grueling physical activity. I discovered that Fred Phelps as a much more varied background than I had been aware of. He is a lawyer who got an award from the NAACP for his early work on anti-discrimination civil rights cases but was disbarred in 1979. He is also active in Democratic Party politics, running several times for that party's nomination for governor of Kansas.

You can see an interview with Nate Phelps below, where he recounts what it was like to grow up within the Phelps family, provides insights into his father's background, and narrates his own journey to atheism.

Joytv-The Standard-Nate Phelps INVU from Jonathan Roth on Vimeo.

And if you can't get enough of the Phelps horror show (and I have to admit that the psychology of religious fanatics has a definite fascination for me) you should watch this 2007 BBC documentary titled The Most Hated Family in America, where Louis Theroux spent three weeks with the church trying to understand it from the inside. The documentary lasts about an hour and is split into eight parts. The first part is below and the subsequent parts are prompted at the end but the last part seems to be missing from YouTube (at least I could not find it).

Fred Phelps and the most prominent spokesperson in the church, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, can be dismissed as publicity-seeking anti-gay bigots, but what interested me was the psychology of the other members of the church, especially the younger people who are mostly Fred's grandchildren. They seem and look normal even when they start talking, with a smile, about how god hates everyone except the members of their church. They go to the local public schools and are apparently not shy about telling everyone else that they are all going to hell, which must make for interesting lunchtime discussions in the cafeteria. The film provides a chilling window into how effectively children can be indoctrinated into an in-group/out-group Manichaean worldview.

One thing that I had been curious about is that for a church with a tiny congregation, it seems to have quite a bit of money. The budget to take their funeral picketing teams around the country alone costs about $200,00 annually. The homes that the Phelps families live in seem quite bourgeois, occupying a block in a middle class suburb with a big common central backyard containing a swimming pool. I was curious as to where the money came from, especially since the church seems to consist mostly of patriarch Fred's family. Fred has 13 children of whom 11 are lawyers and 54 grandchildren. Four of his children have defected from the church which now treats them as outcasts. Daughter Shirley has 11 children of her own.

Apparently members of the church are encouraged to work regular jobs and give 10% of their income to the church. If the church has 100 members earning the median wage of around $50,000, that alone would provide them an annual income of $500,000 which, under the ridiculous US tax provision that privileges religions, is tax free.

So viewed as a purely business proposition, Papa Fred has quite a nice racket going, getting his family members to support him living in style. Fred is 81 and it will be interesting to see what happens when he dies, since there seems to be no succession plan. The obvious choice to take over would be his daughter Shirley who is the most prominent and active person in the church, a lawyer herself, and clearly very smart and articulate and a true believer. But she cannot take over. Why? Because the leader has to be a man, of course.

It must be strange for someone like Phelps-Roper who despises people purely because they are gay to find herself considered inadequate and inferior by her own group purely because she is female, with both forms of discrimination based purely on the Bible. You might think that the blatant injustice against her might cause her to question the whole idea of taking the Bible at face value. I suspect that that level of self-awareness cannot exist for people like her because it would cause too much cognitive dissonance.

October 11, 2010

Science and religion aren't friends

Jerry Coyne has a good article in today's edition of USA Today with the above title.

October 05, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church and free speech

Tomorrow the US Supreme Court will hear the case as to whether the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to conduct their anti-gay protests at funerals.

I think it is misguided to try and use the law to suppress the Westboro group because not only it does infringe on their free-speech rights, it also gives them the kind of publicity they crave and allows them to act as First Amendment defenders.

What should be done is to organize flamboyant counter-demonstrations, the way that the people at Comic Con did in July of this year or as Michael Moore did back in 1999 in his TV show The Awful Truth.

Or as Red State Update did.

Ridicule and humor is the best weapon against hateful speech. We should laugh them out of business.

Why does god hide?

It must be really frustrating to be a thinking person who believes in god because he doesn't help you in the least. Since god does not seem to actually do anything that you can point to as incontrovertible evidence of his existence, believers have to look in obscure corners of knowledge, as was the case with so-called intelligent design. God seems like this passive-aggressive personality who wants you to believe unquestioningly in his existence and worship him but doesn't give you anything in return. As a result, believers have to confront the question of why god is so elusive.

A rabbi by the name of Alan Lurie has taken up the challenge and written an essay titled "Why Does God Hide?" His essay lays out the problem clearly enough:

This notion, that God's presence is hidden, is a significant dilemma for many, and for some is clear proof that God does not exist. Why, one asks, would the creator of the Universe be so difficult to spot? Surely if such a creator exists, there would be obvious evidence. And why wouldn't this creator, in order to silence disbelievers and recruit more faithful, simply appear on the White House lawn, announce his presence, and miraculously end all war, hunger, and disease? For some, this hidden presence is evidence that even if a creator deity does exist, such a being is not worth worshiping. What kind of a god, who religious people say loves us, would stand by as horrible atrocities happen, and silently allow us to suffer? Such a god is either not all-powerful, not all-knowing, or certainly not completely benevolent. Many site [sic] the Holocaust, for example, as clear proof of God's impotence or indifference.

Why yes, rabbi, these are excellent points and exactly what we atheists say. But please go on.

The question of God's hidden presence is not new, and has been an essential theological question for at least 2,000 years. The Bible itself continuously wrestles with this question, and God's apparent capriciousness is the theme of the Book of Job. Of course a simple answer is to say, "The reason for the struggle is that there obviously is no god. Let go of this idea and the struggle disappears." OK, that's a perfectly fine response.

Again, rabbi, you are perfectly right, that answer does solve every single theological problem, doesn't it? So can we simply agree that the problems have been solved and stop the discussion? Alas, no. At this point, the rabbi abandons his reasoning powers and descends into the usual woolly language and thinking of apologists.

He goes on to make four points, presumably to explain why god exists but is so elusive.

  1. A Misunderstanding of the Nature of God

    He says that the popular conception of god "as a person, perhaps like ourselves, only much, much bigger, smarter, etc." is childish and must be abandoned because the "great theologians, mystics, and spiritual guides have all recognized that what we call "God" is not a limited being."

    Ok, but what is his conception of god then? Alas, after that buildup, we are let down because the rabbi punts. "Well, not to be evasive, but this is not a simple answer that can be written in a short blog, and whatever I write will be inaccurate, misunderstood, and radically incomplete."

    As Jerry Coyne says, Lurie is 'pulling a Fermat' here, saying that although he knows what god is really like, he cannot do so is in the limited space available to him so he won't even try. What a tease! But let's move on to his second point.

  2. A Misunderstanding of the Nature of Religion

    Lurie resorts to the tired, old 'two worlds' model that argues that science and religion address different questions, saying that "Religion is a compilation of humanity's yearning to find meaning and purpose, to document the encounter with the Divine realm, and to help facilitative such encounters for others…. the true purpose of religion is to help us recognize that we are more than our momentary desires, our fleeting thoughts, and our painful sense of separation from each other and nature."

    Here Lurie is pulling a Marilynne Robinson, piling words upon words to convey deep emotion about god as a solution to existential angst without addressing the point of his essay. What has all this got to do with the elusiveness of god? Let's hope he gets to it in point three.

  3. A Misunderstanding of the Means to Experience God's Presence

    Lurie challenges the notion "that evidence for God should be immediately obvious to anyone" saying that "The experience of God requires deliberate and sustained effort, as well. That is why all religious and spiritual traditions teach us to meditate, pray, practice gratitude, and seek God's presence on a regular, deliberate basis."

    In other words, god has decided that you must eat your spinach before you can have dessert, that you must commit yourself to a long and rigorous regimen before you can "experience" some emotional state that you can then interpret as god's presence. God punishes those who are not willing to go to religious boot camp by denying them his presence or, as Ringo Starr might have sung,

    You got to pay your dues
    If you want your god to schmooze
    And you know it don't come easy
    .

    This explanation seems rather self-serving and not convincing. After all, Mother Theresa at the end of her life expressed deep frustration that she had not experienced god and few would argue that she was a slacker who did not put in an enormous amount of effort into trying to experience god. In addition, the experiences reported by believers tend to be indistinguishable from hallucinations. I have written previously about my own "experiences" of god's presence.

    It seems to me that Lurie is saying that you must commit yourself to a state of willful self-delusion, the way people in the charismatic movements like the Pentecostals do, in order to "experience" god.

  4. A Misunderstanding of the Proof

    Lurie seems doubtful of the power of traditional ontological, cosmological, and teleological proofs for god, saying "Few people, I suspect, are truly convinced by any of these "proofs," and all have been rigorously challenged."

    That is true but oddly enough, he then simply moves on and does not provide a defense or an alternative, essentially conceding the point that the arguments used by theologians for centuries are useless.

When someone writes an article with the title "Why Does God Hide?", one expects to find answers. Instead what we get here is one statement saying that he has an answer that it is too complicated to even sketch out its outlines, one in which he says that if we don't personally experience god, it is our own fault because we have not worked hard enough at it, and two irrelevant digressions.

What is truly amazing about theologians is how they can talk and write so much while saying so little.

POST SCRIPT: Ringo Starr and It don't come easy

October 02, 2010

On the radio

On Tuesday 9:00am-10:00 am, I will be on our local NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 on their Sound of Ideas program to discuss the results of the latest Pew survey on the state of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics came out as the best informed.

You can listen live or to a podcast after the show.

[Update: This show has been pre-empted and will be re-scheduled.]

September 26, 2010

Back to the future

Blog reader Norm sent me this link to something called "The first annual conference on geocentrism" to be held in South Bend, Indiana near the University of Notre Dame. It has the title Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right.

My first reaction was that this was an Onion-type spoof but it seems to be legit.

Of course, the choice of any point in space to be the origin of the frame of reference is purely arbitrary. Which frame one chooses depends on one's purpose. For purely practical purposes such as navigation, choosing the Earth to be at rest makes sense. The heliocentric model is the best choice for describing the motions of the planets, and the center of a galaxy is most convenient to describe the motions of stars in the galaxy.

The church was wrong in insisting that the geocentric model was the only choice and it was Galileo's assertion that there were alternatives to it that disturbed them. All this has been well known for some time and so the point of this conference completely mystifies me. Are the organizers really suggesting that there is only one allowed frame of reference and that its origin is at the Earth?

September 25, 2010

The Mystery of the She-Pope

A young Catholic woman dresses up as a man and joins the priesthood (not hard, given that the robes they wear), goes to Rome, and ends up as the pope. She then gets pregnant and delivers the child on a public street during a procession in which she is wearing the full papal regalia. The bystanding worshippers, outraged by the revelation of her deception, kill her and bury her by the roadside. This is the story in a new German film called Die Papstin.

Far fetched? Perhaps, except that the film is based on events that might have actually happened. The September/October issue of The New Humanist has an article by Sally Feldman (not available online) that looks at the story of 'Pope Joan' who supposedly lived in the ninth century. The catch is that even though there are about 500 reports on this episode written from early medieval times to the 17th century, there are no contemporaneous records of what happened during her time, which has rightly called the Dark Ages, and the powerful Catholic Church would have had every reason to expunge any mention of such an embarrassing episode.

The article points out that this story has been investigated by many people and even though unproved is quite widely known and believed. In the course of investigating it, Peter Stanford, the former editor of the Catholic Herald discovered a chair that was used in papal elections in medieval times that had an odd key-shaped hole cut in the seat. According to accounts, before the election of a new pope could be confirmed, the would-be pope was required to sit in it and then the youngest deacon present would have to reach up through the hole and confirm the pope's 'eligibility', if you catch my drift. Such a precaution might well have been the result of the Pope Joan episode.

September 23, 2010

What is a soul?

In a previous post titled The fog of religious language I said that sophisticated religious apologists tend to speak so vaguely and elliptically that it is hard to know exactly what they actually believe, and singled out Marilynne Robinson as one culprit. In an interview in the September/October issue of The New Humanist, she does it again.

Q: You use the word "soul" in your book. What do you mean by this?

A: There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession.

Well, I'm glad we cleared that up.

September 22, 2010

Here we go again

We are going to see another round of discussions about whether the Bible is literally true. New computer simulations suggest the possibility that winds could have created a temporary land path over the Red Sea.

Of course, there is no independent scientific evidence that any of the Biblical stories earlier than about 650 BCE (which encompasses almost all the period covered the Old Testament) are true but religious people tend to be desperate these days and are likely to seize upon this as 'proof' that the Bible is true.

Of course, this leaves the sophisticated theologians, those who argue that the reason there is no evidence for god is because he exists 'outside of space and time' in a quandary. Does god act within our space and time or not?

What we will see once again is religious people saying that science has no relevance to religious beliefs, except when it appears to provide some support for it.

Update: The lead author of the paper has a Christian website. Why am I not surprised?

September 21, 2010

Does the existence of the universe violate scientific laws?

Continuing from yesterday's post, I said that some religious people think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it. But they do not understand that energy comes in many different forms and that they all have to be included in the calculation. The fact is that despite all the matter that exists in the universe, the net energy of the universe is zero because the positive energy in the matter is canceled by the negative gravitational potential energy. So the appearance of an entire universe out of nothing need not violate the law of conservation of energy or any other law. Hence unless expressly forbidden by an as yet unknown law, there is nothing to prevent a vast, even possibly infinite, number of universes to have been created and exist simultaneously with ours, each with its own space-time and laws and matter distinct from ours.

This is known as the multiverse theory. In this scenario, given the large number of universes, it is not only likely, it is almost inevitable that one of those universes would happen to have the form of matter and the laws of science that eventually led to us. The so-called 'fine-tuning' argument that religious people sometimes invoke, that the properties of our universe seem to have just the right values to produce life like ours and thus suggests some deliberate design and hence a designer (which is, of course, our old buddy god) goes away, because those universes that did not have those properties would not have produced our kind of life forms. (There are other solutions to the fine-tuning problem that do not require multiverses.)

The problem is that we do not, at this time at least, know how to make contact with these other universes or have any direct evidence for their existence. But, as is usually the case with scientific theories, scientists are working on the problem.

[Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin] Rees, an early supporter of [Stanford physicist Andrei] Linde's ideas, agrees that it may never be possible to observe other universes directly, but he argues that scientists may still be able to make a convincing case for their existence. To do that, he says, physicists will need a theory of the multiverse that makes new but testable predictions about properties of our own universe. If experiments confirmed such a theory's predictions about the universe we can see, Rees believes, they would also make a strong case for the reality of those we cannot. String theory is still very much a work in progress, but it could form the basis for the sort of theory that Rees has in mind.

"If a theory did gain credibility by explaining previously unexplained features of the physical world, then we should take seriously its further predictions, even if those predictions aren't directly testable," he says. "Fifty years ago we all thought of the Big Bang as very speculative. Now the Big Bang from one millisecond onward is as well established as anything about the early history of Earth."

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border. If string theory is right, the collider should produce a host of new particles. There is even a small chance that it may find evidence for the mysterious extra dimensions of string theory. "If you measure something which confirms certain elaborations of string theory, then you've got indirect evidence for the multiverse," says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London.

Support for the multiverse might also come from some upcoming space missions. [Stanford physicist Leonard] Susskind says there is a chance that the European Space Agency's Planck satellite, scheduled for launch early next year, could lend a hand. Some multiverse models predict that our universe must have a specific geometry that would bend the path of light rays in specific ways that might be detectable by Planck, which will analyze radiation left from the Big Bang. If Planck's observations match the predictions, it would suggest the existence of the multiverse.

Physicist Sean Carroll explains the multiverse theory in this three-minute video.

The point is not that we have shown that the multiverse theory is true because we haven't. The point is that there is no shortage of scientific explanations for why our universe exists and has the properties that it has. Like Laplace, what we can say is that we have no need for the God hypothesis. People might want to believe in a god to satisfy some emotional or psychological need, but we do not need such an external agency to explain our being. As Steven Weinberg said, "One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious."

Will religious people now give up on god as they realize that there really is no hope for finding something that only god or religion can explain? I hope so, but am not optimistic. Although religion has proved itself to be totally useless for anything except as a soothing or scary bedtime story for children and credulous and insecure adults, the desire to believe in a god is so strong in some religious people that they will find some other leaky boat to put their faith in, even as the waves of disbelief wash over them.

September 20, 2010

The last goal post?

One of the fascinating things about watching how the science and religion debate has evolved is to see how religious apologists have been backpedaling, shifting the goal posts, trying to find ways to avoid having god become redundant. This process has been going on ever since scientists no longer saw their role as reconciling science with religious revelations and started pursuing their lines of inquiry wherever it led. This decoupling of science from religion began in the mid-19th century as the new sciences of geology and biology made it impossible to believe in a 6,000 year-old Earth or in the special creation of species.

This began the inevitable process of scientific explanations contradicting the religious ones that had been used as evidence of god's actions. As various inexplicable phenomena and miracles that had been considered evidence of god's actions came under scientific scrutiny, they were found to have natural, physical explanations. And science has the huge advantage over religion in that it is reliable and predictable, unlike god explanations. As Stephen Hawking says in this interview, science will win over religion because science works.

The more sophisticated theologians and religious apologists realized that having their faith depend upon the existence of such gaps in knowledge was a losing strategy that was causing religion to look silly because it required constant shifting of things that were supposedly inexplicable by science ('intelligent design' being the most recent manifestation) and 'the god of the gaps' became a term of derision, with even religious apologists disavowing it. As Isaac Asimov said, "To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today."

As an example, in response to the publicity surrounding the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that claims that god is an unnecessary concept, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was quoted as saying that "Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence." (I have just started reading The Grand Design and will provide a review when I am done.)

Williams' comments were supported by other religious leaders in Britain. Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, said "The 'god' that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing." Similarly, Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest and a scholar in the history of science at Cambridge University, said that "A creator God provides a reasonable and credible explanation of why there is a universe."

These apologists' words signal a shift to what may be the last goal post. Rather than looking for specific inexplicable things to ascribe to god's actions, a strategy that has not worked well for them in the past, they have gone big, for the Hail Mary, saying that the universe itself, either its physical existence or the reason for its existence or both, is inexplicable without god. The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo recent points out one obvious problem with this approach.

(Another response to Hawking's claim that god is unnecessary is to adopt a world-weary 'So what?' attitude, and suggest that these questions are not even interesting. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being." Sacks also tried to pooh-pooh the support for atheism generated by Hawking's book, telling the London Times "What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us with breathless excitement that God did not create the universe as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition.")

So sophisticated modern theologians have been reduced to claiming that god has to exist as the ultimate creator of the universe, which is no different from one of Thomas Aquinas's old proofs of god that said that you needed something to produce the something of our universe out of a prior nothingness. This argument may have seemed plausible at one time. After all, the universe has a lot of stuff in the form of planets and stars. How could all this stuff suddenly appear? Surely their sudden appearance must violate the laws of science and the only way this could happen is because of the actions of some divine being?

But that argument is simply not credible anymore. Theologians think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of currently accepted scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it, and thus is evidence for god. Of course, as I have argued before, saying 'God did it' is not an explanation for anything in the first place but in the next post, I will show why this hope is misplaced even on scientific grounds because the creation of the universe does not violate any laws.

September 18, 2010

Ratzinger and Hitler

Richard Dawkins takes on Pope Ratzinger's absurd charge that Hitler's crimes grew out of atheism at the Protest the Pope rally in London which drew about 10,000 people. Hitler was baptized a Catholic and never renounced it.

Dawkins really lets the pope have it. And he deserves it.

(Thanks to Why Evolution is True.)

"Please don't upset me by saying there is no god"

In her regular column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 15, 2010, Connie Schultz demonstrated once again the curious sense of entitlement that religious people have. She began as follows: "Years ago, I criticized atheists who wanted to dissuade believers of their faith. My argument was always the same: Why don't you just leave us alone?"

In response, I wrote her a personal email:

Dear Ms. Schultz,

I read with interest your column today that started by saying that years ago you criticized atheists who did not leave you alone but wanted to dissuade you from your faith.

What exactly were these atheists doing to bother you? Were they coming to your door? Were they stopping you on the street to hand out their literature? Do they have TV and radio shows that preach their viewpoint and warn of dire consequences if you do not convert to their point of view?

As an atheist myself, it doesn't bother me when people express their ideas in the public sphere, or even in the private sphere. Those people think they have the truth and want to convince me and that's their right. Similarly atheists think that they are right and seek to convince others of it. These kinds of exchanges are no different from debates over politics or anything else, where the goal is to win hearts and minds.

It also does not bother me that your newspaper provides almost saturation coverage of religious matters, especially concerning the recent closing of Catholic churches or religious festivals and parades in Little Italy. In fact, after an initial swipe at a few religious people, your entire column today was a paean to the virtues of religion. Despite the cutbacks in the size of the paper, it still has a Saturday page devoted to religious matters, with a column dedicated to advancing religious views. Do you think atheist views get anywhere near that level of coverage? Would they even consider allowing an atheist regular use of that Saturday column space?

So I find it a little odd that when atheists speak out about their disbelief, religious people feel as if they are being imposed upon, as if they have the right to be shielded from opposing views. Are they so insecure of what they believe that they need to be surrounded only by affirming views?

There is no reason why religious beliefs should be privileged and shielded from criticism. Surely we all benefit from a full airing of a wide diversity of views on issues?

Sincerely,

Mano Singham

No response yet.

September 15, 2010

But can they get it on MTV?

When I need a good laugh, the folks from the Westboro Baptist Church never let me down. Their message is so absurdly anti-gay, so over the top, that I have long suspected that they are really a performance art troupe trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records by pulling off the longest-running prank in history.

Now they have decided to create a music video to spread their message. Check out the result.

Frankly, I think it needs work and so here's some advice, Westboro folks. No need to thank me.

First ditch the tune. "We are the world'? Please. Find something that is not so hackneyed and has a decent beat. Also ditch the keyboardist, and get some decent guitarists and drummer.

You also need to rewrite the lyrics to make it more catchy, cut the length in half, and get a better film editor. It would also help to have less mean-looking people as lead singers. Having people who can sing would also be a good idea. And what, your people couldn't take the trouble to memorize those cheesy words and had to read every one? That shows lack of commitment. And what is the deal with that guy waving a Canadian flag at the end?

The present music video is not going to achieve your goal of making people angry. It will make them fall asleep.

One-day conference: Religion Under Examination

The CFINO (Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio) conference is on September 25 from 9:00am – 4:00pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Independence, Ohio

The theme is Religion Under Examination and the program and speakers look really interesting. More information and registration details can be found here.

September 14, 2010

Anyone want a used Koran?

Now that the Florida church has decided against its Koran cookout, there is a question that I have not seen asked, and that is what the pastor Terry Jones plans to do with the 200 reprieved Korans now in his possession.

He can't give them away or put them alongside the Bible in motel rooms because that might seem like proselytizing for Islam. He can't simply toss them in the trash, which would seem almost as incendiary as burning them. I presume he does not want to hang on to them and risk being struck by a thunderbolt from his god, because these gods get really jealous when they think you are flirting with other religions. His options are really limited.

Anyone know what he is going to do with them?

As The Daily Show points out, this episode illustrates that the religious loonies have taken over the national discourse…

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… so may the best god win!

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September 13, 2010

The fog of religious language

When one discusses the science-religion conflict with sophisticated religious apologists, one has to be alert to two things in order to avoid finding yourself in a fog where unsure of what you are talking about.

One fog generator is that sophisticated apologists tend to shift without warning between metaphor and the concrete, something that I have written about before. In order to stay on firm ground, it is good to keep clear what the discussion is about.

The first thing is to ask believers whether the god they believe in exists as a separate material entity, just like a photon or electron. If the answer is yes, then the question of god's existence becomes an empirical question, like the existence of a photon or electron, and they are obliged to provide evidence for why we should believe in its existence. If the answer is no, and their god is some kind of metaphor, then we can stop the discussion right there. The usefulness of metaphors is not something that the methods of science are designed to investigate.

What usually happens though is that they refuse to be pinned down. They assert that god is not material and exists outside of space and time but then proceed to ascribe properties and actions to god that can only be true if god is a material entity existing within our space and time. You should press them as to how they can possibly know that their conception of god exists at all, let alone its properties, if it 'exists outside of space and time', since the speaker obviously lives within our space and time.

What one should be alert for is the sleight of hand that speaks of god as a metaphor in order to avoid having to provide evidence when it is requested and then, when the discussion has moved on, to make assertions ('God wants us to do this' and 'God is like this') that treats god as if it has a material existence.

As an example of the kind of woolly thinking that permeates religion-speak, consider this disappointing interview that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had with religious apologist Marilynne Robinson. The problem with the interview was not that Stewart made some trivial errors like confusing dark matter with anti-matter. It is that the whole conversation was highly vacuous, reducing Stewart to making absurd statements that science is like faith.

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While watching the interview, I felt there was something familiar about Robinson's name and then I remembered. She had written a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion for Harpers magazine back in November 2006. She did not like the book but that is fair enough. Reviewers are not obliged to give positive reviews. What was bad about the review was that it gave the reader little idea of what the main argument of Dawkins' book was, because of the fog of religion-speak that she generates.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on clarity

He makes a good point in that what religious people object to about the new atheists is that we are shunning complicated theological/philosophical circumlocutions about god and stating clearly why there is no reason to believe in him/her/it. Clarity is the enemy of religious apologetics.

September 10, 2010

Is religion good for anything?

As science has advanced, religious believers have been increasingly threatened by the fact that religion may become irrelevant in the sense that god is not actually required for anything, other than to provide comfort to those people who fear death and feel the need to believe in some powerful deity. The response has been to assert that religion and science do not conflict because they provide answers to different kinds of questions. In effect, they are said to occupy different niches in knowledge space. Over time, a cottage industry has grown up devoted to finding different ways to state this single idea. So now we have statements such as that science addresses 'how' questions while religion addresses 'why' questions or that science deals with questions that have a material basis while religion deals with non-material moral and ethical questions, questions of meaning, etc.

In a recent online debate one saw other variants of this with Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, being quoted as saying that "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean."

This sound good (at least to the accomodationists who want to think that science and religion are compatible) until you stop and think for a moment and realize that it has no content. After all, anybody can ascribe meaning on anything. What makes religious people think that the meaning they bestow on things should be taken any more seriously than any other claim to meaning?

Religions have for a long time got used to making assertions about morality and meaning in the name of god or their holy books and having people accept it as having authority. Religious people tend to think that anything that science cannot give a glib answer to is something for which we should accept religion's glib answers. As the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip astutely points out, what gives religion its edge over science in the popular mind is that is that it has been allowed to make stuff up.

For a long time this practice went largely unchallenged except in a few intellectual circles, but the new/unapologetic atheists have refused to abide by this polite fiction that religion provides specific insights and answers to deep questions that are inaccessible to other forms of inquiry. They have posed the question of why should we take seriously religion's answers to the 'why' or moral or ethical or meaning questions. They refuse to grant religion a privileged role in addressing any question and because they have taken their challenge out of purely academic and intellectual circles and into the popular public sphere they have caused turmoil. Religious leaders are unsettled by having their authority challenged and being asked to provide reasons as to why their assertions should be taken any more seriously than the ranting of any random person in the street who claims to hear divine voices in his or her head.

What should not be allowed is for apologists to postulate unchallenged that religion is the place that one should go to as the source of meaning and morality, and they should be asked to justify why the answers to such questions could not just as well have come from some non-religious source such as the study of psychology or the social sciences or cognitive science or neurology or evolution

Another claim of religion is that it is the source of wisdom. Sacks says, "There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live." Mary Midgley, a frequent writer on religion, says that 'real wisdom' can be found in the Bible. But what exactly is this wisdom of which they speak? When pressed, the answer that is provided is usually some variant of what is known as the Golden Rule, that one should treat others the way that one would wish to be treated. But this precept transcends any particular religion and is something whose value and utility also arises quite naturally out of evolutionary thinking, so claiming that it is an insight arising purely from religion cannot be justified.

It is not that wisdom cannot be found in the Bible (or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita). Of course it can. Real wisdom can also be found in complex works of literature, including Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Tagore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. People from all walks of life who have thought long and hard about the nature of the human condition are bound to come up with insights that are meaningful even if not always original.

Religious apologists should be asked what is it that lifts religious insights above those emerging from any other deep thinker. The answer is, of course, nothing. And there is certainly nothing to suggest the usually banal insights that it does come up with originate from the kind of entity that most people identify as god.

POST SCRIPT: Religion! What is it good for?

Replace 'war' with 'religion' in this Edwin Starr classic and the song still makes sense.

September 09, 2010

The New War Between Science and Religion

(This article of mine was published on May 19, 2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the antievolution forces in the 2005 "intelligent design" trial. The new war concerns questions that are more profound than whether or not to teach evolution. Unlike the old science-religion war, this battle is going to be fought not in the courts but in the arena of public opinion. The new war pits those who argue that science and "moderate" forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world—such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe—allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Prestigious organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have come down squarely on the side of the accommodationists. On March 25, the NAS let the John Templeton Foundation use its venue to announce that the biologist (and accommodationist) Francisco Ayala had been awarded its Templeton Prize, with the NAS president himself, Ralph Cicerone, having nominated him. The foundation has in recent years awarded its prize to scientists and philosophers who are accommodationists, though it used to give it to more overtly religious figures, like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Critics are disturbed at the NAS's so closely identifying itself with the accommodationist position. As the physicist Sean Carroll said, "Templeton has a fairly overt agenda that some scientists are comfortable with, but very many are not. In my opinion, for a prestigious scientific organization to work with them sends the wrong message."

In a 2008 publication titled Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the NAS stated: "Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. ... Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. ... Many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings."

Those of us who disagree—sometimes called "new atheists"—point out that historically, the scope of science has always expanded, steadily replacing supernatural explanations with scientific ones. Science will continue this inexorable march, making it highly likely that the accommodationists' strategy will fail. After all, there is no evidence that consciousness and mind arise from anything other than the workings of the physical brain, and so those phenomena are well within the scope of scientific investigation. What's more, because the powerful appeal of religion comes precisely from its claims that the deity intervenes in the physical world, in response to prayers and such, religious claims, too, fall well within the domain of science. The only deity that science can say nothing about is a deity who does nothing at all.

In support of its position, the National Academy of Sciences makes a spurious argument: "Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. ... Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith."

But the fact that some scientists are religious is not evidence of the compatibility of science and religion. As Michael Shermer, founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (A.W.H. Freeman/Owl Book, 2002), "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, notes, "True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind."

Accommodationists are alarmed that their position has been challenged by a recent flurry of best-selling books, widely read articles, and blogs. In Britain an open letter expressing this concern was signed by two Church of England bishops; a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain; a member of the Evangelical Alliance; Professor Lord Winston, a fertility pioneer; Professor Sir Martin Evans, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and others. The letter said, "We respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

Such solicitousness for the sensitivities of so-called religious moderates is not new. During the run-up to the Scopes trial, in 1925, the accommodationists of that era were similarly uneasy about Clarence Darrow's defending John T. Scopes because they felt that his openly expressed scorn for religious beliefs might alienate potential religious allies. But Darrow's performance in that trial is now viewed as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools. "Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours," H.L. Mencken wrote after Darrow's withering questioning of William Jennings Bryan.

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as "extreme," "uncivil," "rude," and responsible for setting a "bad tone." However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Mencken rightly deplored that undue deference to religious beliefs. He wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, "Even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights," but he "has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. ... The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion."

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

But political considerations should not be used to silence honest critical inquiry. Richard Dawkins has challenged the accommodationist strategy, calling it "a cowardly cop-out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable."

Evolution, and science in general, will ultimately flourish or die on its scientific merits, not because of any political strategy. Good science is an invaluable tool in humanity's progress and survival, and it cannot be ignored or suppressed for long. The public may turn against this or that theory in the short run but will eventually have to accept evolution, just as it had to accept the Copernican heliocentric system.

It is strange that the phrase "respect for religion" has come to mean that religious beliefs should be exempt from the close scrutiny that other beliefs are subjected to. Such an attitude infantilizes religious believers, suggesting that their views cannot be defended and can be preserved only by silencing those who disagree.

Mencken said of Bryan's religious beliefs, "Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. ... What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings."

While Mencken's use of the word "contempt" is perhaps too harsh, he makes a valid point: that no beliefs should be exempt from scrutiny simply because many people have held them for a long time. It is time to remove the veil that has protected religious beliefs for so long. After all, if we concede without argument that mainstream religious beliefs are compatible with science, how can we argue that witchcraft and astrology are not?

September 08, 2010

More on the Koran burning: Let the games begin

As usual, I agree with the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo . Note the headline in the newspaper.

September 07, 2010

File this under things that are unlikely to turn out well

An evangelical church in Florida is threatening to burn 200 copies of the Koran on September 11, "to honor those who were murdered" in 2001. The priest behind this effort says that the goal is "to send a message to al-Qaida." Of course, the 'message' that will be received is that there really is a war between Christians and Muslims.

We will be lucky if the only retaliation is that some equally crazy Muslims somewhere in the world burn 200 copies of the Bible. But if the Muslims up the ante and burn more than 200 Bibles, we may have an escalation that results in all religious books being burned.

What is it about religion that inspires crazy behavior on the part of its most ardent devotees?

Stephen Hawking on the universe and god

Recently religious apologists have taken to harping on the question "How can something come from nothing?" because they think that science cannot explain how the universe came into existence. Of course, their own answer that "God must have done it!" is not an answer at all since it merely shifts the problem to that of how god could come into being from nothing.

Stephen Hawking has recently published a book that says that we can indeed understand how the universe came into being without invoking god. The idea itself has been known for sometime but when Hawking says it, it generates a lot of media attention. Cosmologist Sean Carroll explains Hawking's ideas in a three-minute video.

In short, science has not proved that there is no god (because such proofs are impossible) but has shown is there is no need for god.

June 21, 2010

The great discovery of religions: Be nice to others

In the debate that is currently being waged between accommodationists (those who believe that science and religion are compatible worldviews) and new/unapologetic atheists like me who argue that they are not, the accommodationists usually argue that each area of knowledge is separate and has revealed different truths that complement each other. But what are these great truths that religion has supposedly revealed? Here they are vague but recently the Dalai Lama wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled Many Faiths, One Truth where he takes a shot at addressing this. (Thanks to commenter Ross for bringing my attention to it.)

The results are, to say the least, underwhelming. What the Dalai Lama says he finds is that despite their superficial differences and beliefs in their own superiority that has led to hostilities at various times in history, all religions reveal a common feature: the importance of compassion.

That's it? This is the great truth revealed by religion? Thousands of years of study by theologians all over the world and the end result is that we should be show compassion to one other? This is something that was likely known to agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago and even to the earlier hunter-gatherers, long before any of the current religions came into being, simply because of its utilitarian value. It is also something that any child now would discover for himself or herself simply by playing with others.

Compare that banal discovery with the truths that science has revealed in just the last few hundred years. Sean Carroll helpfully provides a list. (Thanks to commenter kosmofilo for the link.)

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

The Dalai Lama deplores the fact that religions have long been intolerant of one another and used violence to further their aims. But these kinds of articles usually contain an obligatory swipe at atheism and in his attempt at this bogus balance, he takes a swipe at new atheists, saying "Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs."

So while religious believers have carried out murderous rampages against people of other faiths and unbelievers many times over history, what we atheists are guilty of is making 'blanket condemnations' of religion. i.e., we have used words and ideas to advance our goals. Oh, the horror!

One does not like to criticize the Dalai Lama or even make fun of him. He seems like a nice guy who smiles a lot and advocates peace. But his op-ed is nothing but platitudes, designed to give ecumenical religious people something to feel good about by claiming for it some special benefit that does not really belong to it.

POST SCRIPT: Trailer for Star Wars, Episode VII?

(Thanks to Pharyngula)

June 18, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-5: Israel's bleak future as a democracy

The brutal behavior of the Israeli government in boarding an aid flotilla and killing some of the people on board and then justifying the action may have come as a shock to some but should not. For a long time, it has been clear that Israel is sliding further and further into becoming an authoritarian state based on religious orthodoxy that treats the Palestinians in the occupied territories with practices that strongly resemble the abhorrent apartheid policies that used to be practiced by South Africa.

Because of the rising influence of orthodox Jews, Israel has started making rules based purely on religion into laws that everyone, believers and non-believers alike, must follow. Recently Benjamin Netanyahu used the Bible to support his claim to be able to build in East Jerusalem.

Peter Beinart's article describes how Israeli politics is moving farther and farther away from a liberal democracy.

Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” With their blessing, “a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.

The article goes on to say that the demographic trend of Israel's Jewish population is going to make things even worse.

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young.

While Israel still has a somewhat free press, there have been increasing efforts to suppress freedom of speech, going so far as to detain at the borders and then bar entry to the West Bank to Noam Chomsky when he had been invited to give a speech. The government even destroyed all copies of a newspaper that had an investigative report on the 2008 assault on Gaza. Uri Blau, the journalist who wrote it, even had to go into hiding, perhaps because it would have had stories like this one from a United Nations report:

Israeli ground troops ordered around 110 Palestinian civilians into a single home in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood and ordered them to stay indoors on Sunday. On Monday morning, Israeli forces repeatedly shelled the building, killing at least 30 of the civilians inside. It then refused to allow ambulances to retrieve the dead and dying people for days.

What is going to happen is that as Israel comes more and more under the sway of its increasingly Orthodox religious right wing population, it will pursue even more racist policies towards the Palestinian people and become an even greater international pariah.

Instead of putting pressure on Israel to move in a more liberal democratic direction, the Israel lobby in the US actually encourages the authoritarian trend by trying to make sure that every politician in the US seeking high office swears unswerving loyalty to Israel. As a result, we have the executive and legislative branches willing to express support for almost any actions by Israel, even if it might harm the long-term strategic interests of the US. The way it manages to pull this off is by making it seem as if the interests of the US and Israel are identical. Glenn Greenwald recently highlighted New York senator Charles Shumer's abhorrent views where he states that he supports the Israeli government's view that the entire population of Gaza should be punished right up to the point of starvation. And the audience of Israel supporters in the US actually applauded him. Other US politicians and commentators have followed suit without any outcry at all, let alone at the level reserved for Helen Thomas when she said objectionable things about Israel.

In an interview, historian Tony Judt expresses his views on the long-term danger to Israel of depending on the unconditional support of the US and discusses how its current psyche of victimhood came into being.

In the case of both Israel and Iran, we see how easy it is for two countries that once showed promise of becoming liberal democracies to be steadily driven away from that under the sway of religious groups. As a result, the future of that volatile region looks exceedingly bleak.

If the appeal of religion is not nipped in the bud before religious groups can gain in strength, it seems like only a matter of time before those groups gain power and influence, with potentially disastrous results.

POST SCRIPT: Pandering to the Israel lobby

Each election season, we have the spectacle of politicians pandering away to Israel and the last presidential election was no exception, as this The Daily Show demonstrates.

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For more on pandering to Israel, see clip here.

June 17, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-4: The Iranian case study

Iran provides a good case study of how unstable liberal democracies can be when faced with concerted efforts by powerful forces determined to undermine them.

Americans were taken by shock when students occupied the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held embassy employees captive for 444 days. Ever since they have been bewildered by references of Iranians to the US as "The Great Satan" and have asked themselves the question "Why do they hate us?"

If they read the 2003 book All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer they would understand better what the rest of the world has long known. The book reads like a spy novel, describing in great detail the CIA-backed coup that in 1953 overthrew the popular elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh and gave Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) and his brutal secret service known as Savak such autocratic power that they suppressed democratic institutions and allowed foreign companies to continue exploiting Iran's natural resources in return for providing them with military hardware.

The book recounts the history of Iran and the events that led to the coup. In a nutshell, a succession of corrupt Iranian rulers had allowed a British oil company exclusive rights to export the country's oil with no oversight and paying just a pittance to the Iranian monarch. The British oil company executives and technicians lived in luxury while the Iranian oil workers lived in slums of indescribable squalor. As nationalist sentiment rose in the 20th century, there came demands for a representative parliament (knows as the Majlis) to be formed to take away some of the power of the monarch, redress some of the grievances, and obtain a fairer share of oil revenues. But the oil company, backed by the British government, high-handedly refused to deal with people they considered barbarians.

When the charismatic nationalist Mossadegh was elected prime minister by the Majlis in 1951, he immediately nationalized the oil industry and was hailed throughout the country as a great hero who was finally reclaiming the resources that rightly belonged to the people.

The British government, under the racist and imperialist Winston Churchill, set about trying to overthrow him and managed to use anti-Communist fears to persuade the newly elected Eisenhower government and the newly created CIA to take the lead in the venture. And they succeeded is doing so, conniving with the Shah to overthrow Mossadegh and do so while the Shah fled the country, and then restoring the feckless Shah to the throne, giving him and his puppet prime ministers control of the country. It should be remembered that in their fights with the British (and also the Russians), Iranians had seen the US as their friend in the anti-colonialist struggle, and so the CIA-backed coup against them was seen as a shocking betrayal.

The name of the oil company at the center of the intrigue and exploitation was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and yet later, after the coup, returned to Iran as British Petroleum. (Yes, BP was a greedy and unscrupulous corporation long before the Gulf oil spill.)

After overthrowing Mossadegh and placing him under arrest for the rest of his life, the Shah of Iran ruled dictatorially and brutally until he was overthrown by the followers of the religious extremist Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and had to flee the country again. When President Carter allowed the Shah into the US, outraged Iranians saw this as a repetition of the 1953 history in which the CIA would once again connive with the exiled Shah to engineer a coup to return him to the throne. In order to prevent that, they occupied and ransacked the US Embassy in Teheran, which had been a center of coup planning in 1953.

For the purposes of this series of posts, the point I want to make is that Mossadegh was a believer in liberal values, such as the freedom of speech and the press and the right to demonstrate. He was personally religious, though not a zealot, but believed in secular government. It was his support for liberal democratic values that enabled the enemies of Iran, including the CIA, to foment dissent and opposition by bribing military officers, journalists, media owners, politicians, thugs, and religious zealots to destabilize the government. They did this by creating the impression of popular opposition to his rule by organizing street demonstrations against Mossadegh and even getting some of the thugs to pretend to be counterdemonstrators in favor of Mossadegh and have them deliberately destroy property so that ordinary people would get disgusted with him. Mossadegh did not clamp down on demonstrations or suppress opposition media against his government even though they were being instigated and paid for by the CIA, and thus he was deposed.

Kinzer says (p. 210) that buoyed by their 'success' in overthrowing the government in Iran, the CIA then went on to undermine governments in Cuba, Congo, Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere. So now, whenever you hear of 'popular' protests against governments that the US does not like, such as that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, you would not be far wrong in inferring that the CIA is playing at least some role in creating the impression of dissatisfaction. The classic book Inside the Company: CIA Diary by former CIA agent Philip Agee (1975) describes in detail the tactics the CIA uses and how they foment 'spontaneous' outbursts of opposition. It is a must-read.

So after the Shah's brutal dictatorship from 1953 to 1979, Iran has been led by an illiberal, religion-dominated government consisting of mullahs and otherwise highly religious people, not quite an outright theocracy yet but dangerously close to becoming one. But it has managed to survive all manner of external attacks, ranging from an invasion by Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein who was then backed by the US that supplied him with money and material and defended him at the UN) that resulted in a war that lasted from 1980-1988 and took a terrible toll, to sanctions and other destabilizing efforts led by the US.

The only window of government which even approached that of a liberal democracy was the period 1951-1953 under Mossadegh.

The demoralizing inference is that liberal democracies cannot survive unless people are willing to defend it with the same fervor that religious fanatics seem to be willing to put forth to defend theocracies.

POST SCRIPT: Philip Agee describes how the CIA subverts democracy

June 16, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-3: The European model

What is happening in Europe is an interesting example of the tension between religion and liberal democracy. The countries in western Europe are only nominally religious. As Dan Barker, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said recently in a talk at CWRU, people in those countries usually enter a church only three times in their lives, and on two of those occasions they are carried in. It is surely no accident that these countries are also stable liberal democracies.

I think that a strong case can be made that lack of religious fervor is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for liberal democratic values to flourish. The US is perhaps the only country in which fairly strong religious beliefs co-exist with liberal democratic values and this is because of the existence of the first amendment to the constitution which has at least partly managed to keep any single religious group from imposing its will on everyone.

But even the western European countries face threats due to the rise of overtly religious practices. The introduction of blasphemy laws in Ireland is one example and the growing Islamic population and their increased adoption of overtly religious practices like wearing full body coverings for women is causing stress to their secular societies, many of which do not have many overt signs of public religiosity. The most recent Dutch election results saw gains for political parties that seek to ban further immigration of Muslims because the immigrants are strongly religious and the Dutch see this as a threat to their secular way of life.

It is clear that France especially sees the rise of overtly religious practices as a threat to its secular principles. For example, it has taken a strong stand against the wearing of religious veils. A French parliamentary committee has said that "requiring women to cover their faces was against the French republican principles of secularism and equality." The French parliament condemned the Islamic full face veil, saying that it is "an affront to the nation's values of dignity and equality." Meanwhile a French Muslim woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil on the grounds that since the veil restricted her view it prevented her from driving safely. France has even refused to grant citizenship to a man because he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil.

France is not only targeting Muslims. The French parliament passed by (276 to 20) a 'secularity law' in 2004 that banned the "wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh's head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted." France has also banned the wearing of Sikh turbans in schools

Meanwhile Belgium has banned the burka.

Switzerland has also started taking steps, such as banning the construction of any new minarets.

While I personally dislike of overt symbols of religiosity, I think that such actions are going too far. I think the US constitution has it just right, requiring the government be strictly neutral is relation to religion, neither supporting and promoting it nor actively undermining it. Going by that principle, banning a form of dress purely because it is religious seems to me to be wrong.

Of course, strict neutrality as required by the constitution is often violated. In practice, the US government does provide considerable support for religion by granting religious groups tax-exempt privileges, allowing religious symbols (especially those associated with Christianity and Judaism such as crosses, menorahs, and ten commandment plaques) on government land, praying at government functions, and the like. The Supreme Court decision on April 10, 2010 allowing the Mojave Cross on public land is one such example. (One month after the verdict the cross was stolen and has not been found so far.)

As a result of treating religious beliefs as deserving of special treatment, religious people think that they have the right not to do anything that is against their religion. So for example, we have some pharmacists in the US claiming that they should not be forced to dispense contraceptives or other medications because they feel that that is going against god's will.

So what should we do about this? A good start is to not give religions any special privileges at all. Religious beliefs and religious organizations should have exactly the same status as any other beliefs or organizations. The fact that you have religious reasons for something should not count in the slightest. Behaviors based on religion should get no special treatment at all, either positive or negative.

In the UK, a High Court judge has done a great service for this cause by upholding the dismissal of a relationship counselor who refused to give sex therapy for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs. The dismissed person, so used to having religious beliefs pandered to, whined that, "because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles." But why should the fact that he has 'strongly-held Christian principles' be at all relevant or be more significant than strongly held principles that are not based on religion? If he had strongly held tribal allegiances against some ethnic group, should they be accommodated? Of course not.

If his Christian beliefs are so meaningful to him, he should get a job where they are not violated. He has no right to expect society to accommodate his private beliefs just because they happen to be religious. Once you allow that exemption, then you are faced with the impossible task of determining which religions and which religious beliefs should be accommodated.

The problem with religious people is that they want society to grant their beliefs special status. The judge rightly said in his ruling that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified, adding that to do so was irrational and "also divisive, capricious and arbitrary." The judge rejected a plea by the former Archbishop of Canterbury that judges should be sensitive to religious issues, saying that "this appeared to be an argument that the courts ought to be more sympathetic to the substance of Christian beliefs and be ready to uphold and defend them."

Rules are often bent to accommodate purely religious beliefs, which strikes me as wrong. Any exemption to a rule should be such that it is based purely on secular grounds. So for example, if the US military has a rule that requires all soldiers to wear certain headgear, Sikhs should not have been given an exemption simply because it violates their religious beliefs. If any exemptions to standard headgear are given, they should be based on reasons that make sense apart from religion and provide options that are available to everyone, Sikh or not.

The less we accommodate religious beliefs the better.

POST SCRIPT: Resurrection of Touchdown Jesus?

touchdownjesus.jpgYesterday I wrote about how lightning destroyed the 62-foot roadside statue known as Touchdown Jesus. Church officials now say that they will rebuild and restore the statue.

I don't know if this is a wise move. I would have thought that to religious people, a direct lightning strike would be seen as a sure sign from god that even if he does not actually hate Jesus, he really dislikes tacky and ostentatious statuary. They are risking really ticking him off by building a replica and inviting maybe a plague of frogs next time.

My advice to them would be to build something small and tasteful, like a statue of Baal or a golden calf or something. I hear that god likes those.

June 15, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-2: How to avoid conflict between the two

Based on the examples I gave yesterday, I would argue that religion and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The reason is that democracy is a system of social organization that is based on rules that are arrived at either by consensus or by some democratic process. The ideals of liberalism are not given by god but have been arrived at over centuries by people trying to find the right balance between personal freedoms and the need for an orderly society. There is no higher authority for any law or constitution than the consent of the governed. If one wishes to change the laws, then one has to persuade ones fellow citizens of the benefits of the change and get them to agree in sufficient numbers.

The laws of religion, on the other hand, are supposedly given by god and usually written down once and for all in some text. They do not usually evolve with the times, except within limits. While there may be some flexibility in interpretation of these laws, they are non-negotiable in principle. The idea that there is a supreme, all-knowing power who knows best and lays down the rules pretty much eliminates the possibility of negotiations and compromise, a bulwark of the liberal democratic process.

Liberal democratic values can flourish only in those countries where religious beliefs are weak or non-existent. As long as religions and religious authorities are kept out of power, then democracy can exist. The problem of religion in liberal democracies is what to do when religious groups threaten to use the processes of democracy to take over the power of government and then impose their religious practices on everyone. When confronted with this possibility, you are forced into a choice between allowing undemocratic forces to exploit the democratic process to force everyone to live in a theocracy with its denial of basic freedoms of democracy, or using undemocratic means (such as banning religious parties) to prevent such a theocratic takeover. Neither of these outcomes is desirable since liberal democracy dies either way.

Is there a solution? I believe that the best thing to do is to not let religion gain a foothold in the first place. The only way to do so that is consistent with liberal democracy is to use our freedom of speech to show that religious beliefs are false, the idea of rights and values given by god makes no sense, and that no reasonable modern person should take religion seriously. If we can do that and make religion less appealing, then it becomes highly unlikely that religious political parties will ever gain power. After all, it is unlikely that any political party today that bases its platform on the sayings of Greek gods will win any elections because those gods have been discredited. It is not necessary to ban the worship of Greek gods or throw its believers in jail because believing in such gods is now seen as ridiculous.

This is where the current accommodationist policy of not criticizing religion, and even praising it for its supposed good qualities, shows its greatest weakness. It actually increases the likelihood of an eventual theocratic takeover by making religion seem like a good thing. What is worse, people bend over backwards to give religious special privileges that other groups don't enjoy, such as tax-exempt status, and by pandering to religious leaders and practices, thus giving them greater credibility and actually enabling them to get even stronger. When we treat religious beliefs with reverence and act like religion is a force for good, we make political parties based on religion more likely to flourish and grow.

People who seek to avoid offending religious people by not criticizing their beliefs are thus in a bind. They cannot oppose religious political parties because of their religious basis since they claim that religion is a good thing. It is then hard to later turn around and oppose religious groups when they look likely to seize power and impose their religious rules on everyone.

Gideon Levy points out the dangers of increasing theocratization in Israel and of the special privileges that it currently gives to some religious groups, like being able to avoid serving in the military. He places the blame for this squarely on secular people who misguidedly treat religions as deserving of special treatment.

Orthodox society and its leadership should not be blamed for this. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have the right to do everything they can to impose their faith on the secular majority. It's the secular who are to blame. Just as it's not yeshiva students' fault that they are not drafted, but rather the fault of the secular majority that allows this, so it is with the other aspects of our lives. We, the secular people, are to blame for all this. We're the ones who give in.

Robert Fisk talks about the increasing influence of religious groups in Israel's military.

Take Amos Harel's devastating report in Haaretz which analyses the make-up of the Israeli army's officer corps. In the past, many of them came from the leftist kibbutzim tradition, from greater Tel Aviv or from the coastal plain of Sharon. In 1990, only 2 per cent of army cadets were religious Orthodox Jews. Today the figure is 30 per cent. Six of the seven lieutenant-colonels in the Golani Brigade are religious. More than 50 per cent of local commanders are "national" religious in some infantry brigades.

There's nothing wrong with being religious. But – although Harel does not make this point quite so strongly – many of the Orthodox are supporters of the colonisation of the West Bank and thus oppose a Palestinian state.

And the Orthodox colonists are the Israelis who most hate the Palestinians, who want to erase the chances of a Palestinian state as surely as some Hamas officials would like to erase Israel.

Fisk is wrong about one point, led astray by his own liberal democratic thinking. There is something wrong with being religious for the very reasons this series of posts makes and which he himself demonstrates in his article – religion and liberal democracy makes bad bedfellows.

This is why it is important in liberal democratic societies for us to prevent such scenarios from unfolding and the way to do that is to use the process of open discussion to show up religion for what it truly is, a waste of time and resources, a holdover of thinking from the dark ages, and a burden on society. If enough people can be persuaded that religious beliefs are useless and that those who hold them are as much holdovers from primitive thinking as astrologers and those who make decisions based on chicken entrails, then it is less likely that political parties based on them will ever be in a position to take over state power. And liberal democracy can be preserved by liberal democratic means.

Next: What is happening in Europe.

POST SCRIPT: Touchdown Jesus, R. I. P.

Why does god hate Jesus?

June 14, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-1: Are they compatible?

I have argued repeatedly that science is incompatible with any religion, unless one claims that religion is nothing more than just a grouping of like-minded individuals who feel the need to engage in theological discussions and common rituals, similar to groupings of social and business clubs. As soon as you introduce a supernatural agency that is unconstrained by the laws of science that everything else operates under, you have abandoned the scientific worldview. So the answer to the question of whether religion is compatible with science is a simple 'No'.

But is religion compatible with liberal democracy? At first glance, it would seem that the answer is yes. After all, a characteristic quality of a liberal democracy is about not imposing any ideology on people but respecting their personal freedoms as much as possible. The freedom to believe in whatever one wants to should surely be considered a basic right. But that is not what I mean by compatibility. After all, we know that there are many religious scientists but that does not mean that science and religion are compatible, only that it is possible for a human mind to simultaneously hold two incompatible beliefs. The key question is whether at a fundamental level, the goals and ambitions of religion will inevitably collide with the ideals of liberal democracy.

I am a firm believer in the virtues of liberal democracy. But for all its virtues of tolerance for diverse views and support for fundamental freedoms and basic human rights, it has an Achilles heel: that it allows authoritarian and even dictatorial groups to use that very tolerance of diverse views to gain power and, having done so, seek to do away with the very freedoms that enabled them to freely gain power in the first place.

This can happen in two ways. In the first, a party can come to power with a covert agenda, giving lip service to the principles of liberal democracy but then subtly undermining those values. We see that currently happening in the US as both major parties steadily undermine the constitution by denying such fundamental rights as to be free of torture, the right to a speedy trial before a judge and one's peers, the right to habeas corpus, the right to a lawyer, the right to personal privacy, and so on. While publicly praising the rule of law and the virtues of the constitution and boasting about their own adherence to those values, the Obama regime, like the Bush-Cheney one before it, has sought to undermine liberal democracy by increasing the king-like powers of the presidency, even asserting the right to execute people just on his say so.

The other way liberal democracies can be undermined from within is if a political party openly states its desire to replace democracy with an authoritarian system. This is what is more likely to happen with religious groups. Suppose for example, a political party with an overtly religious agenda seeks to win elections on a platform that says they will impose religious laws on the country if they gain power. Since religion is considered a good thing by many, and the majority of people are religious, it is not at all improbable that such a religious political party can win substantial support.

These are not merely theoretical concerns. We have seen this happen in countries where religious groups have taken power through the democratic process. The very fact that Sarah Palin can openly state that she wants the US to be governed by the laws of the Bible and not have people react in horror is a sign of the possibility of this scenario playing out in the US.

The religious groups do not have to gain total power. As long as they have sufficient clout that political leaders feel the need to pander to them, liberal values suffer. The various 'blue' laws restricting activities on Sundays are instances of where religious groups have succeeded in imposing their will on everyone else.

Religious apologists talk about the tolerance that their religions preach but the fact is that when religious groups attain state power they seek to impose their own religious beliefs and practices on everyone and liberal democratic ideals die. The reason that the Catholic Church was able to unleash the power of the Inquisition to torture and murder heretics was because state power was available for its use. Can we doubt that if the Catholic Church gains state power anywhere today it will try and impose its doctrines about abortion and contraception and homosexuality on everyone? How can it do otherwise since they think these doctrines are based on god's commandments?

In Sri Lanka, although it remains a democracy (though not a liberal one), the desire of the government to pander to the Buddhist majority has resulted in similar impositions. For example, full moon days are considered holy days because of the myth that the Buddha obtained enlightenment on such a day. When I was living there, the government ordered that all places of entertainment (theaters, bars, clubs) had to close on those days because these things might distract people from praying and meditating. The radio would play only somber music. In other words, the government legislated what everyone, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, should do purely on the basis of what the most powerful Buddhist leaders demanded.

Of course, the cases of Islamic countries immediately come to mind. Almost all countries where there is an Islamic majority, even if they are not outright theocracies, impose varying levels of Islamic rules on everyone. We know how bad actual theocracies can be from the examples of the Taliban in Afghanistan and regimes like Saudi Arabia.

The problem of what happens when religious parties use democracy to gain power can be seen in Algeria. After achieving independence from France in 1962, its elected president was overthrown by the military in 1965 and the country was led by a succession of military leaders for the next two decades. But after moves to restore democracy, the first ever parliamentary elections held in 1991 was won by a fundamentalist religious group called the Islamic Salvation Front. To prevent a theocratic takeover, the military cancelled the election and seized power again, throwing the country into a bloody civil war that has continued intermittently ever since.

The Islamic country in the Middle East that progressed the most was Turkey under Kemal Ataturk who created a secular republic in 1923, stripped religious leaders of their power, closed religious schools, abolished Sharia law and introduced a secular legal code, and discouraged the veil and other traditional clothing and encouraged western dress. But religious groups have recently grown in dominance, gaining a plurality in recent elections. The current leadership has gained significant clout by downplaying its religious motivations and the country is struggling with what to do if religious parties gain a total majority and seek to impose Islamic-based laws on everyone. It would be a tragedy if Turkey ended up like Algeria.

So is a liberal democracy a state of unstable equilibrium, always in danger of getting pulled to the two extremes of religious or anti-religious authoritarianism?

Next: How does one avoid a theocratic takeover?

POST SCRIPT: Testing Galileo's claim

All of us know that if you drop a hammer and a feather, the hammer will hit the ground first. Students are told that this is because of air resistance and that in its absence they will fall at the same rate. Apparently the Apollo 15 astronauts tested this on the moon and I was unaware of the existence of the video showing this until very recently.

You can see the movie and read the NASA webpage that discusses the experiment.

May 31, 2010

God is everywhere

(Since today is the Memorial Day holiday, I am taking a break and doing a repost.)

There is a famous and funny old sketch called the Five Minute University in which comedian Don Novello acts in his character of Father Guido Sarducci.

As he says, when students study theology at his university, all they will learn are the answers to the two questions: "Where is god?" (Answer: God is everywhere) and "Why?" (Answer: Because he likes you). I am beginning to think that the answer to the first question is absolutely correct.

Take a look at this picture of a cut tree stump that is in a churchyard in Ireland. What do you see?

mary tree stump.jpg

Nothing? Just a tree stump that someone has cut in an odd way? Oh ye of little faith! To the devout this looks like the Virgin Mary and they think its appearance is (what else?) a miracle. People are making pilgrimages to pray around it. Over 2,000 have signed a petition objecting to plans to uproot the stump, and want to convert it into a permanent shrine of some sort.

The thing that strikes me is that recently Jesus and Mary seem to be showing up all over the place, in slices of toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, womb ultrasounds, Marmite jar lid, Kit Kat bar, shower curtain, cheese curl (the last one has been dubbed 'Cheesus'), dental x-rays, mugs of hot chocolate, even on the backside of a dog and in bird droppings.

Commenter Chris sent me this compilation of a huge number of Jesus sightings that local TV news shows love to report on. There seems to be an epidemic.

The one newsperson had it right when she said, "You know, it seems like if Jesus was going to show up somewhere it wouldn't be in ice cream."

Such stories, apart from revealing religious people to be hopelessly credulous, also demonstrate how weak some people's faith is, not how strong. It is only people who are really desperate for a sign to bolster their beliefs that will seize on such pathetic things as validating their faith. The woman who saw the Marmite Jesus 'took comfort from the image' saying, "I'm not particularly religious but I like to think it's Jesus looking out for us." She seems oblivious to how ridiculous it is to think that god would reveal his presence in a bread spread.

This kind of thing puts religious authorities in a quandary. On the one hand, they realize that if you have too many such sightings, religion begins to look more and more ridiculous. Even the TV reporters in that compilation clip seemed to find the whole phenomenon humorous. After all, if people start worshipping tree stumps, how can you distinguish so-called mainstream religion from more allegedly primitive religions, such as paganism. Some religions actually do involve tree-worship and the Christmas tree symbol itself likely began as one.

On the other hand, religious authorities cannot categorically debunk all of them as nonsense because their livelihood depends on people believing that god can reveal himself to people on occasion even if it is such weird and useless ways. The problem for the church is that it wants to discourage freelancers and maintain a monopoly on what qualifies as a revelation of god and what doesn't, as this is the source of their power and money. They tried to walk that fine line on this occasion too.

Local parish priest Fr Willie Russell said on radio station Limerick Live 95FM yesterday that people should not worship the tree. "There's nothing there . . . it's just a tree . . . you can't worship a tree."

A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the "church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism".

"While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition," he said.

Fortunately for the spokesman, he was not asked what distinguishes this particular "superstition" from all the superstitions that the church expects people to believe, such as that the wafer and wine become transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus when the priest mumbles some words over it. Mary-in-a-tree-stump is nothing compared to that. He could depend on the 'respect for religion' nonsense to deter 'polite' reporters from asking such obvious questions.

That Mitchell and Webb Look reports on another miraculous sighting.

All these Jesus and Mary sightings and the comment in the above clip that the melon message blew his tomato message out of the water gave me an idea for a new reality TV series, because what the nation really needs is another reality show. This one would consist of people bringing their candidates for an authentic god appearance and making the case for it on live TV. Then a panel of theologians would give their comments, the audience votes for which artifact is the best miracle of god, and then everyone worships the ultimate winning object.

I think the perfect title for the show would be "American Idol". I hope no one has used it already.

POST SCRIPT: You mean the Earth isn't 6,000 years old?

Watch this statement by Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen (R).

What is amazing is that her statement that the Earth is 6,000 years old is said so casually during a discussion of environmental concerns over uranium mining, as if it was the most commonplace fact in the world and not at all something idiotic and controversial. These people live in their own bubble world.

May 28, 2010

The internet and religious taboos

One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows broad-based actions and thus can undermine hierarchical control of messages. It has become very easy for like-minded people all over the world to quickly connect up and act in concert in support of any particular cause. Furthermore the considerable anonymity afforded by the internet means that people can defy taboos with impunity.

Take for example, the absurdly hysterical response of Muslims whenever someone draws an image of their prophet Mohammed. They go on riots and rampages and even threaten to kill the perpetrators. Just recently Lars Vilks, a Dutch cartoonist who drew an image of Mohammed as a dog, was attacked while lecturing on free speech. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt because police rushed to his rescue but during the assault other students chanted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"). If they thought they were bringing honor to their god and religion by this disgusting display, they were greatly mistaken. It is a truly pathetic god who needs thugs to beat up people who are merely exercising their right to speak.

In the past, there was little that anyone could do about this kind of thuggery in the service of religion because access to the media was limited and because the major media do not want to alienate their advertisers, they were likely to self-censor, the way Comedy Central did with its show South Park and the Mohammed controversy.

But things are different with the internet and it looks like Muslims have gone too far with their demand that everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) adhere to the ban on drawing images of Mohammed. There has been a backlash and this taboo has been violated on a grand scale. For example, May 20 was declared to be "Everyone draw Mohammed day", where people around the world were encouraged to submit their entries. There were many Facebook pages such as this one.

As one can expect when amateurs enter the scene on a mass scale, some of the resulting images are far more insulting to Muslim sensibilities than the ones that triggered the initial protests.

As a result of this response, Pakistan, which is rapidly going down a theocratic road, has banned YouTube and FaceBook because of its 'growing sacrilegious content'. But this will also fail because the internet is hard to corral and people will find ways to get around any fences that governments try to set up.

The AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) student group at the University of Illinois decided to counter this by chalking stick pictures of Mohammed. They have been joined by other student groups at other college campuses. (This act had its own amusing unintended effect with some students, unaware of the controversy or even of who Mohammed was, saw the stick figure chalking campaign as some kind of show of support for a seemingly very popular student with that name.)

Were all these actions gratuitously provocative? Yes of course. Were they rude? Certainly. Were they even juvenile? No doubt. But this is the kind of response that people should expect in the internet age when they try to enforce their peculiar taboos on everyone. The internet allows widespread yet concerted and anonymous action and religious people should realize that they can no longer control the message and decide what everyone should consider sacred. Trying to do so only makes things worse for them, a la the Streisand Effect. They should just learn to act like adults.

No one has the right to force devout Muslims to look at such drawings. If Muslims stumble across one, they should do what we all do when we encounter a visual image we do not like, and look away. But none of us have the right to prevent other people from drawing things and viewing them and the sooner religious people realize and accept this and leave it to their god to defend his honor, the better.

POST SCRIPT: How religions began (language advisory)

May 18, 2010

What does the Bible say about suicide?

Given that many religious people think that the life they will have after death will be so much better than the life they have now, this raises the problem of why they don't simply commit suicide or why they seek medical treatment for illnesses instead of seeing life-threatening diseases as signs that god want them to join him in heaven. To explain this paradox, religious people have sought to find moral prohibitions against death wishes and suicide.

Interestingly enough, the Bible does not directly condemn suicide. This poses a bit of a theological problem because it does seem a little odd that a god who seems to care about the minutest and trivial details, going so far as to warn people not to wear garments made up of both wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11) or to plant two different kinds of seeds in the same field (Deuteronomy 22:9) and even demand that a person be stoned to death for collecting wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), couldn't be bothered to come right out and say that offing oneself was not kosher. So assuming that what is not prohibited is permitted, it would seem that suicide is compatible with at least Judaism and Christianity.

But this idea that suicide may be permissible or even desirable goes against the grain of sophisticated religious believers so, as is usually the case, theologians concoct reasons as to why although god is silent on what would seem to be an important question, we really should not commit suicide.

Some Christians claim to find indirect biblical support for not taking one's own life. Augustine argued that the sixth commandment against murder covers killing oneself. But that won't wash as it is clear that all the other prohibitions in the ten commandments (lying, adultery, stealing, coveting) only apply to acts done to other people and there is no reason to think that the sixth commandment is any different. Other apologists find other reasons:

Some people believe that all who commit suicide go immediately to Hell. However, the Bible never says if this is the case. The Bible is silent on this issue. God probably did not address it in black in white for a good reason. If we knew that we would still go to Heaven if we killed ourselves, there would probably be a lot more suicides taking place than there already are. However, if we knew that all who killed themselves were automatically banished to Hell, no matter what their situation, it may be too much for the grief-stricken family and friends to bear. (bold emphasis in original, italics are mine)

I am always amused by how religious people think they can psychoanalyze god and determine his desires so precisely. And the results of their analysis always turn out to be exactly in agreement with what they want it to be. To his credit, the author of the above passage is refreshingly frank about the obvious fact that religious people should have a greater desire to commit suicide than the non-religious.

Islam does not seem to be so wishy-washy. Going by recent events, killing oneself in the service of god seems to be considered noble in that religion. The suicide bombers who murder innocent people and generally commit mayhem in the service of their god are convinced that they will reap rich rewards in heaven after they die and they look forward to it, as do those fanatics in all religions who kill others because they think they are doing god's will. They commit their abominable acts knowing that they will either die in the process or likely be executed for their crimes, and they don't care because they are deluded that their god will reward them.

Oddly enough Islam, the religion that has become identified with suicide bombers, has clearer prohibitions against suicide than the other two Abrahamic religions. But of course theology is so malleable that some Islamic scholars have found a martyrdom loophole to the prohibition against suicide and this is used to mislead people into thinking they are doing something noble when they are being murderous.

It is likely that depression and despair, the usual causes of suicide, strike people indiscriminately and takes no account of whether people are religious or not. But religion can persuade people to take their own lives in the service of what they perceive as a greater good or a better life. It is after all religious cults that can persuade their followers to indulge in mass suicides, such as led to the Heaven's Gate and Jonestown tragedies. I cannot imagine what one could say to persuade a group of atheists to take their own lives. Actually a strong case can be made that atheists place a greater value on life than religious people because they know that this is the only life they have.

There is always something to look forward to, from the trivial to the major. In fact, the reasons to live are so numerous as to beyond the ability to list them.

POST SCRIPT: Exercising free speech rights

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May 17, 2010

On suicide

One of the oddest arguments made to atheists is that if they do not believe that the universe has a meaning, then they need to explain why they don't immediately commit suicide. Usually I can understand the arguments of religious people even if I don't agree with them but this one truly baffles me. It strikes me as a weird idea that simply because we and the universe are not part of a grand cosmic plan, our lives are not worth living. This argument is often presented along with Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus because Camus poses this issue: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

Really? They fundamental question of philosophy is whether one should commit suicide? Come on, Albert, surely you jest. Frankly, I think very few people, except perhaps a few philosophers and the clinically depressed, get up each morning wondering whether life is worth living and entertain thoughts about ending it all. Most people, even under the bleakest of conditions, seem to want to live, even if they cannot articulate why, and whether or not they are religious. The desire to live is just taken for granted. In fact, there are good evolutionary reasons why we seem to have an innate will to live that has nothing to do with philosophy or the existence of meaning. Organisms that have a will to live and an aversion to death or suicide have a selection advantage over those that easily give up, and the latter trait would have been selected against and disappeared a long time ago in our evolutionary history.

I think this suicide argument represents a good example of projection, imputing to others what you yourself think or fear. An externally imposed meaning given by god seems to be so important to some religious people (and philosophers) that they think life would be not worth living without one. Since atheists do not believe that god exists to give the universe meaning, religious people think that we must be suffering from existential despair. It is perhaps from this premise that atheists are sometimes asked why they don't commit suicide. That is the best reason I can come up with for this baffling argument.

But that argument is false. Atheists accept that this is the one and only life we have. We know that we are here because of both chance and the many, many contingent events that occurred in history. If any one of the vast numbers of my ancestors had not chanced to meet and mate with another particular ancestor, I would not be here. There is nothing inevitable about any of our existences. However difficult our personal situation may be (and for far too many people today life is a grim struggle for survival), we are simply fortunate to be alive at all. Why would atheists, who of all people understand particularly well how contingent our lives are, want to prematurely end it?

In fact, it is religious people who should be more tempted by suicide since they are the ones who disparage this Earthly life in comparison to the wonderful heavenly life they imagine having after they die. Since life after death is highly valued and praised in many religions, premature death should be considered a good thing by believers. They are the ones who should welcome death instead of avoiding it. This is why martyrdom is used as a motivating force to induce people to commit deadly attacks against others without regard to their own well-being. The belief that one will be richly rewarded in heaven for your acts can overcome one's natural instinct for self-preservation.

Of course, martyrdom is not quite the same as suicide. The former implies that one dies in pursuit of some goal that is deemed to be noble, though in the eyes of the world it may just be a murderous act. Suicide does not require such a purpose. But for the purposes of this discussion as to whether nonbelievers should be more suicidal, the distinction does not matter.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it looks like very few religious people seem to genuinely believe that stuff about life in heaven being so much better than life here and now, and seem to value this life as much as atheists do, thus greatly limiting the pool of would-be suicide assassins.

Next: What does the Bible say about suicide?

POST SCRIPT: Technology to the rescue

So you and your band mates are ready to belt out Sweet Georgia Brown but don't have a percussionist. What to do? Not a problem that an old tractor and Swedish ingenuity cannot solve.

If you'd like to hear more tractor music, here's your chance.

May 14, 2010

The question of meaning

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is trickier to deal with than the question of the existence of god since meaning is not anything tangible. Since it is usually associated with a god's plan, the existence of god is a more basic question and eliminating god usually eliminates an externally imposed meaning. But some try to establish the existence of god backwards by arguing that we can infer meaning from the way that the universe is structured and therefore there must be an entity that created this meaning. The fine-tuning and anthropic principle arguments are attempts at this backwards attempt to argue for god's existence.

What is becoming increasingly clear from all the research in cosmology and biology is that the universe has all the indications that it has no underlying purpose or design or meaning but is evolving according to natural laws in which chance and contingency also plays a role, just as it does for the evolution of life. The universe just is and we just are. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it becomes pointless", later clarifying his words by saying, "I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point" (quoted in Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger, p. 333). Richard Dawkins's conclusion is that "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." (Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85) Some religious people have seized upon Dawkins's words (which were purely an inference based on empirical observations on the nature of the universe) to suggest that he is some kind of depressed nihilist, when all the evidence suggests that Dawkins really enjoys life. What they are doing is projecting on to him their own fears about what the lack of an externally imposed meaning would mean to them.

All the evidence points to the conclusion that the universe and life do not exhibit any sign that everything is part of any grand plan. Rather than bemoan this fact, we have to come to terms with it and not indulge in pointless wishful thinking, trying to will into existence that which is not. Otherwise we will be like Peter Pan, the title character in J. M. Barrie's classic children's story, urging children to clap to show they believe in fairies in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Life is not a fairy tale. Wishing and hoping and praying cannot bring into existence what is not there.

The appeal of a cosmic plan as a way to give one's life meaning eludes me. What would such a plan imply, exactly? Does it mean that my life has been mapped out already, that one is merely a puppet manipulated by hidden strings, just going through the motions of life? Religious people counter this by arguing that god has given us free will but it is hard to reconcile that with a pre-existing plan. If I have genuine free will, why can't I mess up god's plan by doing something that was not part of the plan?

The question of whether each one of us thinks that our lives have meaning is a distinct one from whether the universe provides us with that meaning. Atheists think that the universe by itself does not provide us with meaning but it does not follow that they think that life is not worth living or that their own lives are pointless. As James Watson, co-discover with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, said in response to the question of what he thought we are put in this world for, "Well I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm anticipating having a good lunch." (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 100.)

Watson's response that the anticipation of lunch gives his life purpose might be flip but it is true. There are plenty of things that we look forward to and are worth living for. Whatever our lot in life, we get pleasure from many things: the company of our family and friends, food, books, nature, and all the other things that we look forward to experiencing. The list of things which one can look forward to is endless. I for one eagerly anticipate learning new things and science is always opening up new frontiers of knowledge. There are new telescopes being built and satellites being put into orbit and new experiments being done. I am hoping that I will live long enough to learn at least some of what they discover. I also look forward to positive political changes such as the reduction of was and global poverty and disease and greater access to health care and education.

Atheists know that we have to create our own plan, for ourselves and, in conjunction with others, for the world. People, working together, can create a better world for all or choose to destroy it. Our fate is in our hands. If the goal of trying to create a better world does not inspire you and give your life meaning, then I doubt that religion will do any better. In fact, as I will argue in the next post, the absence of some external cosmically imposed meaning, rather than being depressing, is extraordinarily life affirming and exhilarating.

POST SCRIPT: How to attract more young people to church

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
God Smacked
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

I predict that it is only a matter of time before churches introduce scantily-clad cheerleaders to further liven things up.

May 13, 2010

The vanishing Deep Mysteries

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the face of science advancing its frontiers of knowledge, religious believers have had difficulty clinging on to the idea that there are still Deep Mysteries for which the only solution is god. The two most recent favorites are the origin of our universe and the very beginning of life. In the series of posts on the Big Bang, we have seen that when it comes to the origins of our universe, while we have by no means answered all the questions fully, it is clear that there is nothing about it that causes scientists to throw up their hands in bafflement and proclaim that some mysterious supernatural processes are at work. There already exist perfectly natural alternatives to divine creation.

The theory of evolution by natural selection does for life what the Big Bang theory does for the universe. It explains how, once the first simple self-replicating molecule came into being, it could grow in complexity until it produced the diversity of life we see all around us. It provides a natural law-like explanation for how everything came about.

Some people cling to the hope that the emergence of the very first life form is a Deep Mystery. But at this very moment, scientists are also working on how that first self-replicating molecule was created. This question is also no longer a mystery. It has become a puzzle in chemistry for which some of the solution pieces have already been found. In his 2005 book Genesis: The scientific quest for life's origins, Robert M. Hazen discusses the progress that has been made in this area.

So in both cases, starting with simplicity, we are well on the way to explaining how complexity in life and the universe has come about.

What becomes patently clear when we look at how the universe evolved according to the Big Bang and how life on Earth evolved according to evolution is that it all happened due to a mixture of chance and law-like behavior. In other words, there is no evidence that there was some grand underlying plan. We humans are now here but there is no reason to think that we were destined to appear in our present form.

Other alleged Deep Mysteries, such as the mind, consciousness, and morality have also long since ceased to be mysteries and instead have become puzzles for the various scientific fields on which they impinge, such as cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Scientists are working on and making progress in all these areas. (For further reading on these topics, see Moral Minds by Marc Hauser and Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.) Although there is still a long way to go to answer the more difficult questions in those areas, just as in the case of the origins of the universe and life there seems to be no need to invoke any explanation that involves non-physical matter or supernatural agencies to understand these phenomena.

I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that science has answered all the important questions. Far from it. What I am saying is that scientific progress has shifted all these questions from their former status of Deep Mysteries to their new status of scientific puzzles for which we have some leads on how to investigate them. If scientific history is any guide, once a mystery has become a puzzle, it is only a matter of time before it is solved.

The increasing comprehensibility of the universe and the steady elimination of Deep Mysteries make some people acutely uncomfortable. This sense of unease, though not limited only to religious people, seems to fill religious people with such concern that they simply dismiss the possibility of total comprehensibility out of hand because it implies that this world is all there is, that there is no externally provided meaning to their lives. They have the feeling that the universe must have a purpose and plan developed by god.

In support of this position, they adopt a circular logic: They think that without a plan to give their lives meaning, there is no point to living. Since they want to live, there must be a plan and hence god must exist. And since god exists, there must be a plan because if god created the universe, why would he go to all the trouble of doing that without a plan?

Before I address the reasons why life is still worth living even in the absence of a god, I must address this curious argument and where it breaks down.

The universe does not owe us anything at all, let alone meaning. It may or may not have a meaning but the fact that some people need some external meaning for their lives does not imply that one exists, any more than the fact that some people really, really want to believe in god because of some deep emotional need means that god must exist. Whether god exists is an empirical question that one has to infer from evidence based on observation and experiment. The answer is not a given and cannot be assumed a priori, just as we cannot assume that the universe is flat simply because we may want it to be. We need data to answer empirical questions. And there is no data to support the idea that god exists.

Next: The question of meaning.

POST SCRIPT: The New War Between Science and Religion

My article with the above title has just appeared in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education and should appear in the May 16, 2010 print edition.

May 12, 2010

Religion as drama

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I criticized an essay by theologian David B. Hart who took the new/unapologetic atheists to task for not being as sophisticated as the grand old philosophers like Nietzsche, saying that we were attacking low-level straw gods and not engaging at the highest level of philosophical sophistication. But when the dust settles, what does Hart actually believe? As is usually the case with sophisticated theologians, this turns out to be extraordinarily hard to pin down, but what we can say is that what they believe in is nothing that the average religious believer would recognize as god.

Hart starts by saying what he does not believe.

We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

Apart from the caveat 'subject to the rules of evolution', almost all religious believers would suggest the contrary. Basically he is saying that the god that most people believe in is not subject to the rules of evolution. Given that in the absence of any evidence you can assign any properties you like to god, we can concede him that point. But does a "complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos" that is not subject to the laws of evolution exist? He does not say because these sophisticated theologians rarely flatly state what kind of god they think exists because they know that existence claims require evidence and they cannot provide any. As is usually the case when theologians debate atheists, he is good at specifying what god is not but vague about what god actually is. This is a common ploy by sophisticated apologists since it enables them to avoid being pinned down to anything concrete and gives them an escape route so that when they get cornered, they can say that the god that has been refuted is not the god they personally believe in. (Jesus and Mo comment on the slippery use of the 'metaphor' argument, something I've also written about before.)

Hart goes on to criticize philosopher A. C. Grayling's essay published in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. (My italics)

His casual statement that 'of course' we do not have to believe any of the Christian story and its moral claims and metaphysical systems requires clarification. Is he saying that he himself does not believe it? Or that people can choose to reject it? If the former, then he has made what seems to me to be an extraordinary concession for someone who claims to be a Christian theologian. If the latter, then it is so obvious as to be not worth stating.

So what does he think is the point of believing in Jesus if the whole thing can be dismissed as fiction? He immediately goes on:

But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.

It is an odd statement. He seems to be saying that only by recognizing the immense and tragic significance of Jesus's death do we earn the right to be taken seriously as atheists. This is utter nonsense. Just because Christians invest Jesus's death, if he ever lived at all, with enormous import does not mean the rest of us have to. It is because we don't that we are atheists.

In Hart's apologetics we see once again the attempt to avoid making an existence claim for any kind of god. Instead we have an appeal to aesthetics, that Christianity provides a great sense of tragic drama that we atheists are too crass to see and because we cannot see it, our arguments against god are worthless. John Haught also made the claim that what Christianity provides is a great drama. What theologians like Hart and Haught seem to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides a grand narrative that we can glory in. I have called such people 'religious atheists', people who seem to deny the existence of any popularly recognizable god but still want to be considered believers.

Sorry, but that won't work. Most people want more from their god than that the story provide great drama. The people who make the trek to Oberammergau each decade to see a reenactment of the death of Jesus are not going there because of the great acting or a terrific script. They go there to be reminded of the way they think their actual, physical god died to save them from their sins. The whole salvation-by-vicarious-sacrifice may not make much sense but there is no doubt that the believers take this story seriously and as literally true. People are not looking to Christianity (or any other religion) to provide them with great drama in their lives. One can do much better by going to the movie theater or playhouse or reading books, without all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Believers want a god who answers their prayers in tangible ways.

The average Christian who occupies the pew of a church every Sunday is likely to be even more dismissive of the Hart-Haught idea of god-as-drama than any atheist. They will see it for what it is: a rejection of the basic tenets of their faith in the existence of a real god who acts in the world.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus doesn't think much of Mr. Deity's drama

May 11, 2010

When theology infiltrates philosophy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It is clear that the sustained attacks on religion by the new/unapologetic atheists are having an effect, with apologists scrambling to find ways to respond. One tack they take is to not engage directly with the arguments but simply to disparage them by saying that the arguments of the new/unapologetic atheists are not new, that they were made a long time ago. This is correct. One can find strong criticisms of religious beliefs going back thousands of years and what we atheists say nowadays is not fundamentally different, because there have been no new arguments in favor of god either. What is new about the new atheists is the emphasis.

The earlier atheists tended to focus on combating the philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of god enunciated by people Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, and the like. The modern atheist movement draws upon the success of science and relentlessly stresses the necessity of evidence for any belief. When religious apologists try to drag the discussion back to vague philosophical issues by talking about ontology, prime movers, ground of all being and the like, our response tends to be "Yeah, yeah, that's great, have fun with that. But where's the evidence in support of your position? What evidence do you have that your god exists at all?"

It is this turn of events that has thrown the apologists for a loop and they are trying to shift the focus away from evidence (because they don't have any) and back to the turf of philosophy and theology by suggesting that this relentless focus on evidence is a sign of low intellect and crass materialism, that we are simply not engaging with the case for god at the appropriate level of high philosophy.

Theologian David B. Hart is a member of this tribe. He thinks that the new atheism movement is just a passing fad and in an oh-so-weary tone dripping with disdain, argues that we new atheists are ignorant and shallow and simply not up to snuff when compared to the grand old atheists who were willing to engage with philosophy. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize this argumentation as an example of what I have called the Kierkegaard gambit. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

In a long and dense essay critiquing the works of the current crop of new/unapologetic atheists, Hart lays out his case.

To be fair, the shallowness is not evenly distributed. Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply,

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

He then explains what kinds of things that we new/unapologetic should be talking about. As often happens when we enter the world of deep theology, any idea that might exist is buried it in a thicket of dense obscurantist prose. Here's an example:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

My reaction to this was: Huh? "[A]bstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such"? What does that mean? This kind of language is what results when theology invades philosophy.

I think philosophy is a very valuable discipline, enabling people to develop the tools to think clearly, probe deeply to the core of ideas, and sharpen our use of language. Theology, however, is another story. It is largely the futile attempt to justify belief in the existence of god in the absence of any evidence. Theologians use the language of philosophy, not to sharpen and clarify and enlighten, but to create a fog of words to hide the fact that they have no evidence for god. Theology is, to co-opt George Orwell's phrase, an attempt to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. When you have no evidence, words become your shield.

Next: But what does Hart actually believe?

POST SCRIPT: Science versus religion

When you see the tremendous advances that science has brought us compared to religion, you can understand why theologians keep trying to drag us back to rehash the metaphysical arguments of the past. It is because theology has nothing new to offer.

May 10, 2010

In praise of blasphemy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I have been highlighting the absurd overreactions of religious people to what they perceive as lack of proper deference to their sensibilities. To them I say that they should learn to deal with it the way all the rest of us have to deal with others who exercise their rights of free speech to say things that we strongly disagree with. If religious people are offended by any TV show or song or book or film, they should simply not watch or listen or read. They, and other religious groups, have absolutely no right to try and prevent others from saying what they want to about religion. There should be no restrictions on speech in the public sphere, other than statements that create a clear and present danger.

Author Philip Pullman had the perfect response to people who get offended. He has just published a novel that gives an alternative account of how the Jesus legend arose. In his version of the story, Mary actually gave birth to twins: Jesus, who was a good man who initially thought he was the son of god but towards the end of his life realized that he was not and that there was probably no god either; and Christ, a weak and shallow person who, along with a mysterious stranger, orchestrated the events that led to the legend of Jesus that Christians now believe. The title of the book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (You can read a review of the book here.)

At a reading and book signing, someone complained about how the title was offensive to Christians, saying "Now Mr. Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary Christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say."

Pullman's reply is excellent. Watch:

For those who cannot watch or would like to know the exact words used by Pullman, I have transcribed it:

"Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don't have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that's all I have to say on that subject."

The private sphere can have expectations of certain norms of speech and behavior because in such situations it is often difficult for people to leave or avoid hearing or seeing things without creating awkwardness and drawing attention to oneself. It would be rude, for example, to invite someone into our homes and make fun of their beliefs. And most of the time people conform to such unspoken norms and things move along smoothly. But at the same time, those same norms should not be used to shut down discussions of legitimate questions just because people dislike them. The problem arises when people either want to restrict speech in the public sphere or do not make the distinction between the public and private sphere and apply the norms of behavior in one sphere to the other.

The absurd sensitivities of religious people need to be combated because undue respect for their beliefs leads to them doing the most appalling things in the name of protecting the honor of their religion and god. The problem is that once you concede that religious beliefs have any kind of preferred status, you immediately open the door to people thinking that they can decide what other people can say or do concerning their beliefs. For example, in Poland simply offending someone's religious sensibilities can get you fined and even imprisoned. A pop star who merely said that she found it far easier to believe in dinosaurs than the Bible, adding "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes" has so offended the Catholic Church that she is now facing two years in prison.

This is why widespread blasphemy is good and even necessary. It serves to remind religious people that religion has take its lumps just like any other beliefs. The more we tiptoe around religious beliefs, the more we encourage a sense of entitlement among religious people.

POST SCRIPT: Pope Song

Tim Minchin, whose terrific beat poem Storm (scroll down) making fun of new-age anti-science blather went viral, has a new song aimed at the pope and the Catholic Church.

Be warned that he uses strong language to make a point about the absurdity of people who seem to get more offended by mere words than by the terrible acts committed by priests and the cover-up of those acts by the church hierarchy. The tune is so catchy that you may find yourself singing it.

If people are offended by the song and video and want to do something about it, I suggest that they go back and read Phillip Pullman's words above as to their options.

May 07, 2010

Suffer little children

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have no problem with religious people wearing funny clothes and taking part in funny rituals and practicing all kinds of funny customs in the private sphere. It's a free world (at least parts of it) and people have a right to practice their religion in any way that they see fit, and what consenting adults do is none of my business, though I fully reserve the right to be amused by such things and to point out the absurdities. Just as they have the right to practice their religion, others have the right to be make fun of them for doing so. But what is absolutely unconscionable is when these people impose their beliefs (religious or otherwise) on children.

Take for example, the practice of circumcision in Judaism and Islam. This strikes me as weird and indefensible. There has been an understandable outcry against the practice of female circumcision (dropping the euphemism and calling it by the more accurate term 'female genital mutilation') but it surprises me that there has been nothing similar against male circumcision. Why isn't it called male genital mutilation? If adults want to circumcise themselves they should be allowed do so, just as we allow body piercing and tattoos and the like. But subjecting an infant to such things is simply wrong and it is only because it is a practice that is protected by long standing religious tradition that we do not say anything. Imagine if there had been no circumcision at all and some group came along today and said that they wanted to cut off the foreskin of their newborn male infants. Child protection agencies would be on them in a flash and their children would likely be taken away to protect them from potential abuse. But because it is done under the name of religions that have been around for a long time, it is given a pass.

It is like tattoos. We do not prohibit the practice of adults getting tattoos. But what if a new religion was started that required tattoos as a mark of faith and new born babies were given tattoos as a symbolic gesture of their parents' commitment to having the child grow up in that religion? Would we, or should we, allow the practice? Shouldn't the government step in and protect the rights of the most defenseless members of its community?

To me the issue is one of protecting the bodily integrity of a child that cannot give informed consent to mutilation. In Sri Lankan and other societies, female infants have their ears pierced and earrings inserted soon after birth and this practice is considered quite harmless and acceptable. But I refused to let this be done to my own daughters when they were infants (to the surprise of relatives who wondered why I was opposing a long-standing and unquestioned tradition) because I felt that since this was their body, this was a decision that they should make for themselves when they reached an age when they could make an informed choice. (When they were older, one of my daughters chose to have her ears pierced and the other declined.)

It is bad enough that religious people indoctrinate children's minds with foolish ideas when they are at an impressionable age so that they find it hard to let go when they become adults. But some people go to such an extreme that they are willing to put the lives and health of children in danger. The number of such tragic cases is overwhelming and reading about them breaks your heart.

For example, we have the case of a child who died after receiving only homeopathic treatment. Another Wisconsin girl died because her father prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor for a form of diabetes that could have been easily treated. Another boy died of a ruptured appendix while his parents prayed. In another case, children starved because their mother, who did not try to get a job or money in any way, said that they had to wait for god to provide. (This idea that god will take care of things resulted in the death of a man who injured his knee but could not afford to get it treated because he had no health insurance. So he simply sat in his recliner and prayed for healing for eight months.)

A member of a Christian religious cult starved her child to death on the instructions of her cult leader who claimed the child was a demon because he did not say 'amen' after meals. Prosecutors struck a deal with the mother in which she pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence but it will be reviewed if the child is resurrected from the dead. One hopes the prosecutors were only humoring the obviously deranged mother in order to get a guilty plea and do not really believe that there is any chance that the child will come back from the dead. The cult leader and two other members were found guilty of second-degree murder and child abuse and can face up to 60 years in jail at their sentencing in May.

A Haredi woman in Israel was arrested because she was starving her child and the members of her religious community rose up in protest and got her released.

There were apparently moves to cover Christian Science prayer treatments in the health care bill but fortunately it seems to have been stripped from the final bill that was signed into law.

The trouble with religion is that it encourages people to think that (1) their god is all-powerful and (2) that he will take care of those who faithfully worship him. Should we be surprised that some people (especially the more devout believers) take this message seriously and think that god will solve all their problems? One should not judge such people too harshly, though their acts are undoubtedly criminally stupid and they should be prosecuted in order to deter others from following their example. They are simply ignorant and gullible.

The people who are really culpable are the religious leaders and educated and sophisticated religious people who know better. They should be denouncing the idea that god will heal people. They know that god is not going to heal their own children and know enough to take advantage of modern science and medicine for themselves and their families when the need arises. But while not believing it themselves, they cynically endorse and propagate this message of a loving god who will look after the physical needs of his followers.

It is at the feet of these 'moderate' religionists that the ultimate blame for the suffering and deaths of these children should be placed.

POST SCRIPT: Children's guide to religion

May 06, 2010

The dangerous mix of politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I am not one who reveres the 'founding fathers' of America, the architects of its independence. They were all-too-human and had their faults, such as their tolerance of slavery, their denial of equal rights to women, and their desire to preserve the privileges and property rights of the well-to-do landowning classes. But even with those caveats, one has to gratefully acknowledge that the constitution they created, despite its serious flaws, was way ahead of its time in its incorporation of ideas that address the question of how to create a functioning republican democracy and balance the needs of free people with an orderly government. And the Bill of Rights surely must rank as the jewel in that crown.

What is remarkable is their recognition of the importance of keeping government and religion separate. This has nothing to do with what they themselves believed about god and the many discussions and debates about whether they were personally Christians or deists or atheists seem to me to be missing the point because that fact does not prove anything. There was undoubtedly a wide diversity of religious views among them, but despite that they seemed to have little difficulty in deciding that they wanted to create an explicitly godless constitution. (See The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (1996) for a history of the debates on what to do about religion in the constitution.) The only mention of religion in the original document is a negative one (Article VI: [N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.) and the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights cemented this idea of keeping god out of government actions by including the Establishment Clause that says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The wisdom of this sentiment can be seen in the mess that inevitably ensues when governments are either explicitly based on religion or pander to them. The worst examples of these are the Islamic countries where the application of Islamic laws result in the denial of many of the personal freedoms that we take for granted. The treatment of women in Islam is particularly appalling and Islamists have also interpreted the Koran to say that any apostate must be put to death. Those two items alone should be enough to demonstrate why Islam should never be given any legal or political authority in any country, and countries that enforce such practices should be vigorously condemned.

Other countries which are ostensibly secular but where the majority religious groups have become militant in demanding that their sensibilities take precedence over secular policies have resulted in religious tensions and bad policies. The strong influence of Christianity in the US, Hinduism in India, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka are examples of where pandering to religion has been bad for the countries concerned.

Israel is another country in which the influence of religion has been pernicious and seems to be getting even worse. Just as the tea-partiers are taking over the Republican party and driving American politics into a form of quasi-theocracy, the Israeli Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) are pushing Israel to becoming even more of a theocracy than it currently is. In an article titled A hostile takeover of Zionism: Israel is teetering toward theocracy, Patrick Martin in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Saturday, September 26, 2009, describes the rise of the Haredim.

They seek strict adherence to Biblical rules governing the Sabbath, to Halachic rules concerning food, to age-old traditions of separating men from women, and to the strict observance of Orthodoxy in all aspects of people's lives, from birth, through education, marriage and death to burial.

They also want their rules to be followed in deciding just who is a Jew and who therefore can enjoy the privileges of a Jewish state.

They also do not shrink from violence.

Prof. Ben Yehuda's research found that violence is the number-one criminal infraction among Haredim. He also found that most of that violence is for political purposes.

This past summer witnessed many vivid examples. Thousands of Haredim rioted on several successive Saturdays to protest the opening on the Sabbath of a privately owned parking garage near the Old City of Jerusalem; thousands more rioted when social-services personnel arrested a Haredi woman in Jerusalem who was starving her child.

This week, a young woman was beaten for not being dressed modestly enough in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemish. The town, where many Sephardi refugees settled in the 1950s, recently has had an influx of Haredim. Earlier this month, a man and woman were beaten by Haredi youth when the two sat next to each other on a bus bound for the town.

Naturally this is causing tension with the more modernistic segments of Israeli society. For example, some women, even among the Haredi, are refusing the Haredim's demand that they sit at the back of the bus.

People have the right to tie themselves up into all the knots they want to in order to please their god. Most of the time such extreme forms of religious devotion serve merely to make religious people look silly to outsiders. The problem is that these people think that everyone else should also follow their religious rules, and use laws and threats and violence to get others to comply. For example, in yesterday's post about orthodox Jews spitting on a reporter for using a tape recorder on the Sabbath, the reporter herself was not Jewish, but these religious people felt that everyone should follow the absurd rules that they think their god has encoded in their religious texts.

This is why if we cannot persuade people to abandon religion, we should at least make sure that religion does not have any influence in the policies that governments adopt. The Establishment Clause in the US is a good model for all countries to follow.

POST SCRIPT: Islam on women and children and apostasy

Richard Dawkins nails an Islamic cleric on the apostasy question. Note the cleric's attitude that parents can do what they like with their children.

However Muslim apologists might try to evade the issue, the indisputable fact is that Islam's attitude towards women and children and apostasy is simply awful.

May 05, 2010

Tying yourself in knots to please god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was at a conference recently and during one session a sign-up sheet was passed around. When it came to my row, the woman seated next to me gave me her business card and asked me to fill in her name and information on the sheet. I noted her long skirt and the fact that it was a Saturday and realized that she must be an observant Jew and that it was prohibited for her to 'work' on such a day and writing was presumably deemed to be work, something she confirmed to me later when we chatted at the end of the proceedings. I did as she requested, all the while silently marveling that a highly educated person would voluntarily conform to such absurd rules by an obviously petty god who has way too much time on his hands if he worries about things like this.

All religions expect their devoted followers to do all manner of silly things in order to show their devotion to a god who seems to care about the most petty things. But amongst the more populous religions, Judaism surely takes the lead in the knots that it can persuade its most loyal believers to tie themselves into. Judaism has more than its fair share of religious rituals that can make an outsider wonder how any rational person can think that their god wants them to submit themselves to such contortions just to please him. The anachronistic restrictions on clothes, the long hair and beards, the robes and head coverings, the incredibly complicated food rules, the prayer rituals with all that bobbing and weaving, seem to me to be bizarre. The strangeness of the rituals can cause problems, as in the case of a scare that resulted in a plane having to make an emergency landing because of fears generated when someone started practicing a complicated Jewish prayer ritual with boxes tied to his head and arm that seemed to the other passengers and crew as being inexplicable and, in these days of fear of terror, alarming.

It makes me wonder who thought up all these strange things and why. Perhaps making people look very different and do ridiculous things enhances group cohesion and enables the group members to distinguish and separate themselves from others, an important feature when you are a new and small religion trying to create a separate identity. After some time has passed and the religion is established, the need to be so overtly distinct disappears but the rules persist, leading to all manner of absurdities as the passage of time makes old rules seem increasingly nonsensical.

Attempts to reconcile behaviors prescribed in ancient religious texts with life in modern societies eventually lead to absurdities like kosher telephones (scroll down) and 'certified Sabbath mode' ovens.

There was also a recent controversy over 'Shabbat elevators' that operate in high-rise buildings occupied by observant Jews. Apparently, pushing an elevator button, like writing, is proscribed on the Sabbath. God forbid that on a hot Saturday afternoon people should decide to not take the stairs to their tenth floor apartment. God would be so mad at such an act of disrespect.

But even many religious people do not find the idea of climbing the steps of their high-rise appealing. So one set of rabbis approved of a solution where an elevator would keep running on a permanent loop, going express all the way to the top and then stopping at each floor on the way down. Thus observant people would not have to actually do anything other than walk in and out of the elevator when the doors opened at the appropriate floor. This might require a long round trip if, for example, if you wanted to go from the first floor to the third floor, but that was the price one paid for not offending your god, who seems to really care about such trivialities and keeps a close watch on people to make sure they don't break the rules.

But, alas, another set of killjoy rabbis said that the first set of rabbis was wrong and that to use these elevators is a "severely prohibited" desecration of the Sabbath. No doubt a resolution will eventually be reached on the proper use of elevators after careful poring over the wording in documents that were written long before the discovery of electricity.

One man who has devoted his life to studying questions of halacha, or Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. His organization provides consulting services and guidance on the installation of elevators and other systems in hotels, hospitals and other buildings.

Contrary to what his critics say, Halperin insists he is not in the business of finding ways for Jews to duck their Sabbath obligations. But he firmly believes that the Torah's rules, as well as its lessons, can be applied in any age provided that Talmudic scholars take the trouble to delve deeply into the technological workings of each and every machine or gadget in question. (my italics)

For those interested in what those solutions are — and they are numbingly complex — the institute has published an entire book on the subject, replete with engineering explanations and diagrams.

I am certain that a solution to the elevator problem will be found and will be one that allows people to take advantage of this modern convenience, since religions seem to always find ways to accommodate the material needs of their more affluent members. (The cynic in me notes the curious coincidence that Halperin just happens to run a consulting business to advise clients on such highly esoteric doctrinal issues.)

But can you believe that people actually spend vast amounts of time and intellectual effort on things like this? And that their verdicts and the resulting rules are taken seriously and followed by others? Religion has to be one of the biggest time wasters that one can imagine.

But it is not always merely time-wasting that is involved. Sometimes things can turn downright ugly and hateful as when a group of orthodox Jews surrounded a reporter and repeatedly spat on her simply because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath. As she reports, "I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting - on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions - hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me - I didn't see him - a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me."

The men who committed such a disgusting act probably did so on the basis of careful study of their religious texts. No doubt they think of themselves as virtuous and godly men, and went home smugly satisfied that they had defended the honor of their god, and that their even more godly rabbis patted them approvingly on their godly little heads.

This is what religion can make people do.

POST SCRIPT: The Internet: Where religions come to die

Until this video pointed it out, I had not fully appreciated the fact that even though atheists are a local minority, their commonality across the world makes them numerically larger than the members of all except one religion.

May 04, 2010

Religion and women

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I attended a university function where several faculty members were being honored. One of them was a friend of mine and after I congratulated her by shaking her hand, we were just chatting of this and that when another one of the honorees (someone I had not met before) joined us. I congratulated him too and shook his hand. At this point my friend also congratulated him and held out her hand. He declined to shake hands with her saying that it was against his religion. He was wearing a yarmulke so presumably he belongs to a sect of Judaism that does not allow men to shake hands with (at least some) women. The rejection of the proffered hand resulted in a moment of brief embarrassment but my friend is very gracious and lowered her hand and continued the conversation with him. The man did not seem unduly disturbed, presumably because he does this to women often.

I have to say that I was annoyed by the whole incident even though I was not the one whose hand was rejected. What kind of religion requires someone to reject an offer of friendship simply because it comes from a woman? What kind of god would not forgive a gracious gesture by one of his followers to a fellow human being? Why would you even want to worship a god or follow a religion that forbids acts of politeness that harm no one? Even if you like your religious group and want to belong to it, why would you not use your own mind and reject those rules that are so obviously absurd and even offensive?

I know that orthodox Jews (and fundamentalist members of all religions) will say that I just don't understand, that obeying god takes priority above all human social conventions and that their god has laid out pretty clearly what they are allowed to do, required to do, and forbidden to do, and that it is not the province of mere mortals to question god's commandments or to pick and choose which rules to obey. To those people, I say simply that I do understand their reasons. I just reject them. I do not respect those people for their commitment to their faith. I think less of them because their blind allegiance to ancient books and their religious leaders takes precedence over how they treat the people around them.

I think that it is the singling out of women that bothers me. I would not have been as bothered if he refused to shake hands with everyone, including me. I know someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleanliness, is always washing his hands, and refuses to shake hands with anyone because of the fear of germs. Most people know about this quirk and accommodate it. Those who encounter him for the first time are surprised when he declines to shake hands but when the situation is explained to them they tend to not be offended, recognizing that this behavior is the result of a kind of mental illness over which he has little control.

Similarly it is tolerable if there are cultural practices that apply uniformly to everyone, the way some societies bow in greeting rather than shake hands. But singling out individuals or groups of people whom one will not touch purely because they belong to some group that is deemed untouchable seems to me to be indefensible, but is tolerated as long as it is done in the name of religion.

The strange thing is that it is usually only misogyny that is tolerated these days, as long as it is done in the name of religion. Imagine if Judaism had a rule that said that believers should not shake hands with people of color, and that in mixed groups of people orthodox Jews shook hands with only white people. Such a blatantly racist rule would be met with such strong social disapproval nowadays that teams of high powered rabbinical scholars would have soon come up with a loophole in their religious texts to explain why that rule was a 'misreading' of their ancient texts and that deep scholarly study revealed that shaking hands with people of color was perfectly kosher. (For example, see the concerted efforts to undermine the Hindu caste system that treated the 'lowest' caste people as untouchable.) But sexist rules don't seem to bother people that much.

I spoke with a couple of women after this incident and they recounted similar experiences of rejection. What was interesting (and disturbing) was that it was the women who felt momentarily ashamed by the incident, mortified that they had done something wrong by almost defiling the 'purity' of these religious men. This is rubbish. It is the men who reject the offered hand, not the women who offer it, who should feel ashamed that their religion makes them forego common courtesies. But such is the power of religion to sanctify that it makes the victims of such rudeness feel that they are the ones at fault. In this case, the man's rejection of the woman's hand, rather than being accompanied by a groveling apology (which might have made the act seem less rude) was actually brusque and unapologetic, which likely added to the women's sense that they were the ones in the wrong, though that is manifestly not the case.

Religions can still be blatantly anti-woman and we are expected to accept it and shrug and act like it is no big deal. As long as such practices arise from old and powerful religions like Judaism or Catholicism or Islam, we are told we must 'respect' their right to treat women as second class or worse.

I am not suggesting that we should go out of our way to make people do things they don't want to do. For example, if I find myself in a situation where I suspect the norms of social behavior are different from the ones I am accustomed to, I try to pick up clues as to appropriate behavior. I do not initiate an offer to shake hands with anyone if I suspect they belong to a group that disapproves of the practice. What I do is wait for them to make the first move and reciprocate accordingly. If they nod, I nod. If they bow, I bow. If they offer their hand, I shake it. But that is different from rejecting an offer of friendship initiated by someone else.

Let me make my point clear. People can avoid any groups of people they like for any reason. That is their right. But they have no right to expect that the rest of us approve of such actions. They are rude and they should realize that others think of them as rude. Religious people have no right to expect that society should be accepting of rude behavior simply because it is based on religious beliefs.

Acts that demean women do not become less so because they are done in the name of god.

POST SCRIPT: The one true god

May 03, 2010

Hindu and Buddhist absurdities

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Religious thuggery and silliness of the kind I described in earlier posts earlier (see here and here) is not limited to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. When people's religious beliefs warp their sense of proportion, let alone their senses of logic and reason, absurdities are sure to abound. It is not hard to find examples in all religions of people who think that their beliefs must be shielded from any mockery or even criticism, and Hindus and Buddhists are no exception to the rule.

For example, we have Hindus so upset over what they perceive as slights to their religion that an Indian culture minister had to offer to quit. What was the issue?

Hindu devotees believe the area between India and Sri Lanka - now known as Adam's Bridge - was built millions of years ago by Lord Ram, supported by an army of monkeys.

But scientists and archaeologists say Adam's Bridge, or Ram Setu, is a natural formation of sand and stones.

On Wednesday the Archaeological Survey of India told the Supreme Court that the religious texts were not evidence that Lord Ram ever existed.

Hardline Hindu opponents of the government accused the administration of blasphemy and protesters carried out demonstrations in the area and in Delhi, Bhopal, and on a number of key highways.

The next day the report was withdrawn.

Two directors of the Archaeological Survey of India were actually suspended for their role in preparing a report that said that religious texts were not evidence for the existence of god and that an army of monkeys did not build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile Hindus in England got upset over the euthanasia of a 'sacred' cow that vets had determined was suffering from multiple ailments. Hindus were also upset over the film Love Guru, saying that "the film will hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus worldwide." Someone called Bhavna Shinde of the Sanatan Society in the US was upset that the main character wears sacred Hindu saffron robes and carries holy prayer beads, and said that "They should draw a line when it comes to people's faith."

Really? Why should we draw a line when it comes to people's faith? What gives her the right to decide when and where lines should be drawn when it comes to public speech? In fact, the very silliness and sensitivity of religious people cries out for mockery. If they try to draw such lines, they are practically begging people to cross them.

In a much nastier case, Muslim widows in India were beaten and paraded naked through streets and forced to eat excrement because they were branded as witches. How were they fingered as being witches? Apparently some 'holy' women in the village have this power of identification.

Buddhism does not get much in the news in the US but you can rest assured that they are as hypersensitive and prone to taking offense over the most ridiculous thing as any other religious group. I am proud to say that the Buddhists in my own country of origin (Sri Lanka) can match any religious group in the world when it comes to hyperventilating over the most trivial of supposed slights. I already wrote how Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka actually managed to get the time zone of the country changed because their 'spiritual plane' had got out of whack with the old time zone., resulting in the terrible tsunami of 2004 and other events.

Then a singer named Akon had to cancel his visit to Sri Lanka after protests about a music video that occasionally showed a Buddha statue in the background. The Sri Lankan government, always obsequious and eager to pander to the Buddhist majority, refused to grant him a visa. In another case, dozens of Buddhist monks (yes, monks) stormed the Sri Lankan Buddhist Affairs Ministry (yes, the government actually has such a ministry if you can believe it) in protest over a poster advertising the film Hollywood Buddha.

And people really want religion to be taken seriously?

POST SCRIPT: Indian skeptic debunks mystic live on TV

A well-known 'tantric guru' boasted on Indian TV that he could kill people using only his mystical powers. "Go on then – kill me" was the response of Sanal Edamaruku who is head of the rapidly growing Indian Rationalists Association. The guru agreed to perform a series of rituals to kill him. An Indian TV station cancelled its regular programming and staged the event live watched by millions of agog viewers. Eat your heart out, American Idol.

Of course, nothing happened. During the whole process, Edamaruku looked alternatively amused and bored, and livened up the proceeding by laughing and taunting the guru. After a while, he objects to all the manhandling which apparently should not be part of a 'tantric process', whatever the hell that is. What surprises me is that the guru agreed to this deal at all, since it would reveal him to be a fake in front of a huge live audience and for perpetuity on YouTube. Did he actually think that he had this power? If so, it is a tribute to his power of self-delusion.

It struck me that Edamaruku should have, at one stage, pretended to die suddenly, to see if the guru was himself shocked that his mumbo-jumbo actually worked.

April 30, 2010

Religious silliness

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the world of the Abrahamic religious traditions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), religious fundamentalism and hypersensitivity seems to be getting worse, with American-style creationist ideas (though not of the young-Earth variety) even gaining ground in the Middle East.

As an example of religious sensitivities, there was the case of a US military sniper in Iraq using a Koran for target practice. This was undoubtedly a rude act done by a stupid person but it led to an equally stupid overreaction by Muslims, who became incensed because the Koran is a 'holy' book. As a result, the US military had to make a groveling apology once the incident became public, even kissing a copy of the Koran and calling the soldier's actions 'criminal'. There were even protests that resulted in the deaths of three people. All this over nothing more than shooting a book. As someone who loves books, I find the wanton destruction of books offensive in general but I am not going to riot over it and I recognize the right of people to do what they want with the books they own.

Muslim theologians had to add their two cents worth, with the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq issuing a statement.

"As the Association of Muslim Scholars condemns this heinous crime against God's holy book, the Constitution of this nation, a source of pride and dignity," the groups statement said, "they condemned the silence by all those who are part of the occupation's agenda and holds the occupation and the current government fully responsible for this violation and reminds everyone that God preserves his book and he [God] is a great avenger."

If god is a 'great avenger' who 'preserves his book' with so much care, then why don't they let god decide what action to take against those who use it for target practice? If it was such a gross provocation, surely god could have struck the soldier dead or at least given him boils? The fact that the soldier is fine must mean that god does not care that the Koran was shot up.

Some schools in Somalia have been forbidden to ring bells to signal the end of class, because bells sound Christian. One should not be surprised at such silliness when one hears that Muslims around the world protested the publication of cartoons showing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. How absurdly sensitive can you get when mere cartoons can arouse protest like these?

A cleric in Iran blamed the recent earthquakes on women wearing revealing clothes and behaving promiscuously. That, of course, explains why earthquakes occur on an almost daily basis in the US and Europe. Not to be outdone in the world of religious absurdities, a Jewish rabbi said that hurricane Katrina was God's vengeance for the Israeli pullout from Gaza. What, you don't see the connection? Me neither.

In Malaysia, Bibles referring to God as Allah were seized by the Malaysian government which claimed that "the word Allah is Islamic and that its use in Bibles could upset Muslims." When later a court ruled that non-Muslims could also use the word, the government appealed the verdict, resulting in violence. "Arson attacks then followed, mainly targeting churches, and wild boar's heads were placed at mosques. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims and their presence would be taken as an insult."

Two Muslim journalists in Malaysia, investigating reports that Muslims were being converted to Christianity, attended a Catholic mass, took communion, and then spat out the wafers. (I am not sure why they did the spitting part. Did they fear that if the ate it they might have accidentally become Christian, and thus risked being killed which is the punishment for apostasy in parts of the Islamic world?) Naturally, this created a tizzy in the Catholic Church hierarchy which actually believes that the wafers become the body of Jesus as a result of a ritual. Riots and Muslim-Catholic conflicts ensued. Oddly enough, William Donohue of the US Catholic League or, as I prefer to refer to him, the head of the Church of POOP (Perpetual Outrage to Obtain Publicity), did not seize this opportunity to whine about Catholics being victimized. Then there were Catholics who were upset over a crucifix artwork that seemed (to their sex-obsessed eyes) to display Jesus's genitalia.

We also have Christians in Italy who were angry at the inclusion of a mosque in a nativity scene. And then we had Christians in the US throwing a fit because of the decision to remove crosses from an Army chapel in order to create a neutral environment for all religions to pray in, as required by US military regulations.

The Irish have taken a great step backward into medieval times by actually passing blasphemy laws, so that now "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion" is liable to fines of up to 22,000 euros. Jesus and Mo have something to say about it.

And there is the high school in Missouri that banned their band's shirt that played on the evolution theme because the shirt upset people who dislike evolution.

Meanwhile that rich storehouse of unremitting goofiness known as Conservapedia has launched a project to rectify what they see as 'liberal bias' in the Bible! Not satisfied with insisting that science conform to the Bible, they now want the Bible to conform to their ideology. What a fun project!

Don't religious people realize how silly all this makes them look?

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the Conservapedia revisions to the Bible

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April 29, 2010

Religious thuggery

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have written repeatedly about the absurd levels of sensitivity of some religious people, who immediately get up in arms if they feel their religion is being mocked in even the mildest way. A catalogue of religious absurdities would range from the farcical to the tragic and even criminal. Most of the time, the protests merely make religious people look silly but sometimes things get ugly and even deadly.

Saudi Arabia has to be the leader in carrying Islamic sensitivities to absurd lengths, even seeking to execute 'sorcerers' because it considers reading horoscopes and fortune telling to be un-Islamic. Yes, in the 21st century there exists a government that does not realize that horoscopes and fortune telling are merely swindles designed to separate gullible people from their money. Saudi Arabia also planned to execute a witch.

Somali Islamists have stoned people to death for 'adultery', a charge so broadly defined that it is even leveled at children who have been raped.

The latest example of the absurdity of religion and the consequences of giving undue deference to religious beliefs involves the creators of the cartoon TV show South Park who have been threatened by some Muslims with a fate similar to that of Theo van Gogh because they supposedly planned to air an episode showing the prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. I did not see the episode. There is some confusion about exactly what was shown in response to the threats, whether any self-censorship was exercised and if so, whether it was by the Comedy Central network or by the South Park creators. Jesus and Mo have something to say about this.

The creators of South Park are hardly heroes in the fight over free speech. Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers takes them to task for shallowness and an unwillingness to stand for anything. But even shallow speech like theirs has to be protected from religious thuggery. Those Muslims who threaten violence against those who mock their religion are taking advantage of their right of free speech to deny free speech to others.

Pat Condell tells them where to get off.

Of course, issuing threats because they are offended is not the province of only Muslims. They are abetted in their sense of entitlement by people of other religions who try to claim some kind of privileged status for religious beliefs in general. American Christians, in addition to the deadly violence they use against abortion providers, can be as eager as Muslims to threaten anyone who offends them. Glenn Greenwald lists Jewish and Christian religious people who murder because they think their god wants them to. He describes the case of Yaakov Teitel who was charged with two murders, three attempted murders and other acts of violence. "It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God," said Teitel at the Jerusalem courthouse. "I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased."

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that:

Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book "The King's Torah" that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.

Shapiro based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the Bible, to which he adds his opinions and beliefs."(my italics)

In an NPR interview recently, a young woman in Pakistan said that people who commit violent acts cannot be 'true' Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace. Christians and Jews often say the same thing when confronted with people who commit similar acts in the name of their god. But such people are missing the point. It does not matter what they think. The people who commit these acts of intimidation, thuggery, and murder think that they are the true believers. This is why religions are so dangerous. True believers actually take their religious texts seriously and think they are being faithful to their god's commandments by doing these unspeakable acts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on the South Park incident

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April 28, 2010

Making up stories about god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

On my last trip to get a haircut, I overheard a different barber talking with his customer in the next chair. The barber was telling a joke that was aimed at atheists. I could not hear all of it because my own barber was making conversation with me and I did not want to seem rude by telling him that I was more interested in what was going on in the adjacent chair, but I managed to get the gist.

The joke was about an atheist who goes on a hike alone in a remote area and confronts a bear who overpowers him and is about to kill him. The atheist cries out to god to save him from an awful death. At that point god freezes time (and the bear) and has a conversation with the atheist where he essentially asks him why he should save him now, given that he did not believe in him until the atheist really needed his help. I missed hearing the next bit but the punch line was that the bear got on his knees and gave a prayer of thanks to god for the meal that he was about to enjoy. So presumably the atheist dies because of his denial of god. The barber and his customer shared a good laugh at the joke.

Of course, there are many such jokes that circulate. Some religious people seem to get a big kick out of the idea that atheists will be punished by god for not believing in him, and take a lot of glee in the thought that they will suffer awful deaths and eternal torment in the afterlife. The Jesus people often take that tack, never missing an opportunity to let you know how awful hell is. Some of them realize that harboring such thoughts of gruesome vengeance does not reflect well on their own professed religious values so they try to disguise their sense of satisfied anticipation by cloaking it as concern for our souls, that they are not enjoying the thought of our suffering but are merely trying to warn us away from an awful fate in the afterlife.

What was interesting to me is that all these stories that religious people tell are just that – fiction. Things like the barber's tale never occur in reality. Religious people seem to believe that god can unambiguously appear to people, stop time, and do all kinds of amazing things to show off his power but it doesn't seem odd to them that such things never ever happen in real life. Apart from repeating the events written about in their unreliable ancient religious texts, they have to resort to making up stories (jokes or otherwise) about god. It never seems to strike them that the stories in their religious texts that speak of god's intervention in earthly events also probably started out as just these kinds of fictional stories designed to reinforce religious people's belief that god was on their side.

You would think that it might occasionally strike them "Why doesn't god do this kind of thing once in a while nowadays? Why is he so silent? He never writes or calls." After all, we new/unapologetic atheists in particular have given god enough provocation to make him good and mad at us, enough to make him want to teach us a lesson by very publicly smiting us. You would think that the fact that god has never unambiguously appeared or spoken to anyone or done anything would be sufficient to at least suggest to religious believers that god might not exist. But such is the power of faith to overwhelm reason that the thought never seems to even occur to them, let alone convince them.

This is because when it comes to god, religious people do not seem to be able to distinguish fiction from reality.

POST SCRIPT: Choosing between science and religion

Alas, not everyone chooses sensibly, thus revealing the power of early religious indoctrination to convince believers to deny reality if it contradicts belief.

April 22, 2010

Non-believing priests and their parishioners

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in their paper Preachers who are not believers say that one of the biggest problems that non-believing clergy face is what to tell their parishioners. It is not only their disbelief that they have to hide, it is even the stuff they learn in divinity school which is quite different from the simple biblical views that their parishioners believe. The Washington Post has a panel of writers who contribute to their On Faith column and they have all weighed in with different ideas about what they think non-believing clergy should do.

However, the priests interviewed in the study all decided that they needed to conceal their disbelief and doubts but find it burdensome to publicly spout beliefs that they themselves can no longer accept.

Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles.

What was interesting was that they all seemed to think that many of their fellow priests also believed things that were quite different from their parishioners. They saw themselves as professionals with insider professional knowledge that they could not share with their flock. "I mean, you have a professional class of people, basically, who are working with an organization of non-professionals."

Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don't believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.

When asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, [one of the disbelieving clergy] said:

"They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don't want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They've got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don't want to make people mad at them. They don't want to lose members."

They struggle to find ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance between what they believe and what they publicly profess.

Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing."

But they often feel so stifled that they try to find ways to seek out parishioners with whom they can explore their unconventional ideas.

One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books by Bart Ehrman or Bishop Shelby Spong… or even Sam Harris.

Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren't preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them.

This was a revelation to me. My own religious upbringing in Sri Lanka was strongly influenced by three very progressive and humane clergymen, people about whom I still have fond memories. They were the two Anglican chaplains at my school (my school in Sri Lanka was established by Anglican missionaries from England and it had a tradition of having English chaplains), and the Methodist minister of my church, also an Englishman. They were people who were very open and accepting and you felt that you could explore any idea with them without them becoming shocked or outraged or condemning you for having heretical thoughts. They were people who were smart, scholarly, and thoughtful. In fact, just the type of deep thinkers who might end up not believing in god.

Looking back I wonder if they were this open-minded because they were also secretly grappling with unbelief and the frank discussions we had were their way of dealing with their own issues, like the priests in the Dennett-LaScola study.

Though I never took the Bible literally, I was a strong believer (though not a fundamentalist) and I don't recall ever actually questioning the existence of god. But if I did so and told them, I think they would have taken it in stride. But it never crossed my mind until now that they might have been secret non-believers. It never occurred to me to ask them if they actually believed in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection from the dead of Jesus. But looking back, I am beginning to wonder. It might be interesting for those readers of this blog who know clergy well enough to ask them point blank if they actually believe in god and the virgin birth and the resurrection.

It is strange that such questions are never asked. It makes one suspect that such discretion is practiced because people fear that disbelief of basic dogma is far more prevalent among clergy and laity in churches than they are willing to let on. It is a can that many suspect contains worms but no one wants to open to find out.

POST SCRIPT: Talks by Dan Barker in Cleveland

Dan Barker is a former evangelical preacher who became an atheist and left the church and founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

He will be speaking at CWRU tomorrow (Friday, April 23, 2010) in Wickenden 322. The talk is free and open to the public. The title of his talk is "Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists,"

The event is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. For more details go to the group's Facebook page or contact president Andrew Schriver at acs127@case.edu.

The next day (Saturday, April 24) Barker will talk on "How to be good without God" at Cleveland State University at 6:00 pm in Nance College of Business (1860 Euclid Ave.) room 118. The event is sponsored by the CSU Non-Prophets.

For more details see their April 24 Event page on Facebook or contact Bryan Pesta at Bpesta22@cs.com.

April 21, 2010

The loneliness of the unbelieving priest

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper Preachers who are not believers that in order to overcome their sense of loneliness, unbelieving clergy quietly seek out cues and clues to identify which of their colleagues share their disbeliefs. "Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries." (I wrote earlier about this topic and the Dennett-LaScola study here and here.)

Richard Dawkins comments on the peculiar dilemma faced by disbelieving priests and what it says about the straitjacket that religion imposes on those assigned to do its work.

The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn't tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

The reasons that priests become unbelievers vary. Apart from their discovery during their studies that there is no way that their religious texts can be infallible, they also confront the same questions that occur to most thinking people, except that they cannot avoid them the way that other people can. Here are some sample quotes from unbelieving clergy:

"[I]f God was going to reveal himself to us, don't you think it would be in a way that we wouldn't question? …I mean, if I was wanting to have…people teach about the Bible…I would probably make sure they knew I existed. …I mean, I wouldn't send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out."

"I do remember this a couple of years down the road after being a Christian - this concept and idea of hell. I was going, 'Hell? What do you mean I was going to hell? Why? What's hell, and where is it?' And I've never believed in hell. I just never bought it. There's a place where people go when they die, and they burn eternally? No."

"The whole heaven thing makes no sense either. Why would I want to walk on streets of gold? I know people think that's literally how it's going to be. If we have no value system in heaven, as far as monetary or value system like we have here on earth, why would I want to walk on streets of gold? And I have people who believe they're going to have a physical body, and we're going to be in the new Earth…and we're not going to die, and we're not going to grow old, and we're not going to have pain. Why? That all makes no sense to me."

The debates between religious people and theists, and the books published by the new atheists have also been effective in making them into unbelievers.

"Probably one of the most mind-opening things was listening to all these debates from top people of Christianity; or believers vs. non-believers. And I tried to do the same thing: be open and listen, and use my mind and reason, I guess. And almost undeniably, even being a believer and knowing the Christian claims and scripture, you know what? This guy won in the debate. He's a non-believer. Why?"

The reason the atheists win is of course that it is the atheists who have all the arguments and evidence on their side. There is absolutely no way for a religious believer to win a debate with an atheist except by using rhetorical tricks and verbal sleights of hand. Atheists who are aware of those tricks and keep their focus on the main issue (that there is no evidence for god and that the world is perfectly explicable without invoking any kind of supernatural agency) will easily win such debates. It undoubtedly helps in such debates to know science so that one can rebut the spurious claims that are sometimes put forward that recent scientific advances support the existence of god.

The key phrase above that tipped that priest into disbelief is that he tried to use his 'mind and reason'. Once people start to do that, faith in god will disappear. Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation that broke away from the Catholic Church, was well aware of the danger that reason posed to faith, saying, "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God" and "Reason should be destroyed in all Christians" and "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 190)

This is also the reason why faith tends to decline with increasing education (Michael Shermer, Why We Believe, 2000, p. 84, 253). The dilemma faced by mainline churches is that they want to be seen as the religion of choice for thinking people, unlike the fundamentalist churches whose preachers simply cherry-pick verses from the Bible, think that it an inerrant record of historical events, and make appeals to their flock based purely on emotion, mainly fear of hell and damnation. But in order to serve that constituency, these churches have to have scholarly priests able to thoughtfully address the questions posed by thinking people. But a scholarly priest has to use his mind and reason and is thus in great danger of becoming an unbelieving priest.

I think that religious institutions must be well aware that the ranks of their clergy are rife with disbelievers.

Next: How do disbelieving priests deal with their parishioners?

POST SCRIPT: More on corruption in the Catholic Church

NPR had a story yesterday on the scandalous case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, the sexually abusive, drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ that I wrote about earlier, giving more details of how he gained money and power and influence. For example, rich people who gave him large cash contributions would get to have private masses with Pope John Paul II. It is just like corrupt politicians granting private access to rich contributors.

You can read the transcript or listen to the broadcast.

April 16, 2010

The role of Pope John Paul II in a corrupt Catholic Church

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

While a lot of the attention and blame for the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church has focused on Pope Ratzinger's role, John Paul II has had a shameful history as well. Yesterday, I wrote about his lack of action against, and even the promotion of, an abusive Canadian priest Bernard Prince. Even more shocking are the recent revelations of his close relationship with Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a powerful order known as the Legionaries of Christ. When he died in 2008 at the age of 87,

Maciel left an ecclesiastical empire with which the church must now contend. The Italian newsweekly L'espresso estimates the Legion's assets at 25 billion euros, with a $650 million annual budget, according to The Wall Street Journal. The order numbered 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians in 2008.

This expose by Jason Berry in the April 6, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter lays out the awful details. I will give only a few details. You have to read the whole thing to get a sense of the scale of the corruption. If you did not know better, you would think that this article was describing the workings of some weird hybrid organization made up of the Mafia and a cult. It is a shocking story of money, sex, power, intrigue, and corruption in the Catholic Church. Religion plays hardly any role except as a cover for the corruption.

In his time, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado was the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic church. He was also a magnetic figure in recruiting young men to religious life in an era when vocations were plummeting. Behind that exalted façade, however, Maciel was a notorious pedophile, and a man who fathered several children by different women. His life was arguably the darkest chapter in the clergy abuse crisis that continues to plague the church.

The saga of the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, a secretive, cult-like religious order now under Vatican investigation, opens into a deeper story of how one man's lies and betrayal dazzled key figures in the Roman curia and how Maciel's money and success helped him find protection and influence. For years, the heads of Vatican congregations and the pope himself ignored persistent warnings that something was rotten in the community where Legionaries called their leader Nuestro Padre, "Our Father," and considered him a living saint.

This much is well established from previous reporting: Maciel was a morphine addict who sexually abused at least 20 Legion seminarians from the 1940s to the '60s… Maciel began fathering children in the early 1980s -- three of them by two Mexican women, with reports of a third family with three children in Switzerland. (my italics)

And yet, despite all this, John Paul II kept supporting him.

Even as he was trailed by pedophilia accusations, Maciel attracted large numbers of seminarians in an era of dwindling vocations. In 1994 Pope John Paul II heralded him as "an efficacious guide to youth." John Paul continued praising Maciel after a 1997 Hartford Courant investigation by Gerald Renner and this writer exposed Maciel's drug habits and abuse of seminarians.

In 2004, John Paul -- ignoring the canon law charges against Maciel -- honored him in a Vatican ceremony in which he entrusted the Legion with the administration of Jerusalem's Notre Dame Center, an education and conference facility.

It was only in 2004 that Ratzinger "banished him from active ministry to "a life of prayer and repentance" for abusing seminarians." Maciel's life and success in the Catholic Church shows how money has corrupted the institution. The reason that the Vatican was willing to overlook his crimes was because he created a huge financial empire that used its resources to curry favor with top Vatican officials by essentially buying their support with cash contributions.

For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each.

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel's career before 2001 -- the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office – was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others.

According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio.

To his credit, the article says that Ratzinger was one of the few people who rejected one such cash bribe.

The article goes on to say that Maciel had rich and influential supporters, within and outside the church. One of them was the highly influential Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006 and now dean of the college of cardinals, who was the beneficiary of large gifts of cash and lavish parties thrown in his honor by Maciel, and who in turn put pressure on other Vatican officials, including Ratzinger, to not investigate the charges against Maciel. In fact, this report suggests that Ratzinger was better than John Paul II at dealing with Maciel and was the one who finally pulled the plug on him, though belatedly and quietly. (Sodano was the cardinal who in this year's Easter sermon reiterated that the sex allegations against the church were merely "petty gossip".)

Lay supporters included Steve McEveety, producer of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (Legion priests advised on the film), Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who spoke at Legion conferences; Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo, who performed at a fundraiser, Harvard Law Professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, "former CNN religion correspondent Delia Gallagher spoke at a Legion fundraiser, and William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, defended Maciel in a letter to the Hartford Courant , after a 1997 article that exposed Maciel's history of pedophilia. Two Legion priests are TV news celebrities: Jonathan Morris on FOX, and Tom Williams, a theology professor at the Legion university in Rome, for NBC during Katie Couric's coverage of the 2005 conclave and again with Couric at CBS." People may recognize Legion priest Jonathan Morris, a telegenic priest who often appears on TV.

The basic problem is that the church hierarchy is more concerned about protecting the church than the victims. The Vatican has now issued new guidelines that say "for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law."

So they finally deign to follow the same laws that the rest of us must obey.

POST SCRIPT 1: What to do about the abuses in the Catholic Church?

John Hodgman thinks he knows how to solve the problem.

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POST SCRIPT 2: Talk

On Monday, April 19 at 7:45pm I will be talking to Case people about my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom in the 5th floor Library in the Clocktower building of The Village at 115.

April 15, 2010

More abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The scandal concerning the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church gets worse and worse. The latest example showing how deeply entrenched the policy of secrecy and cover up was in the church has been the publication in the Toronto Globe and Mail of a 1993 letter from J. R. Windle, Bishop of Pembroke in Ontario, to the representative of the Vatican in Canada concerning Bernard Prince, a priest in his diocese who had been found to have abused a child.

From the letter, it appears that the priest had acknowledged his crime but the diocese had managed to keep it secret. They did not hand him over to the police or want him transferred to another diocese within Canada but had agreed to have him sent to Rome in 1991 instead. The guilty priest was apparently a friend of Pope John Paul II and the latter had actually decided to promote him, if you can believe it, at about the same time that it emerged that the acts of abuse byPrince had not been limited to a single isolated incident but had gone on for an extended period and that he had abused other children as well.

The Bishop of Pembroke was alarmed that if the abusive priest were promoted, the victims would be so angered that they might make their charges public. Throughout the letter, what becomes disgustingly clear is that the main concern of the bishop was how to get Prince out of his diocese while keeping things secret. Here are some excepts from the letter, with all the italics being mine:

When Fr. Prince was first proposed for his present position in Rome (on the recommendation of the now Archbishop T. Franck), I explained to the then Archbishop Jose Sanchez (now Cardinal Sanchez), in his capacity as Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, that, while the charge against Fr. Prince was very serious, I would not object to him being given another chance since it would remove him from the Canadian scene.

Recently it has been brought to our attention that there was not one but four or five victims in all (all minors who talk freely among themselves about their involvement with Fr. Prince), and that several lay people of the Wilno-Barry's Bay area, as well as a number of priests of the Deanery of Barry's Bay are aware of these unfortunate events… any papal recognition or promotion would surely result in animosity and "admiratio", along with other possible ramifications.

The victim assured Monsignor Barry [the Vicar General] that he would not lay any charges (although his counsellor strongly advised him to do so), unless he learned that Fr. Prince was victimizing other individuals and that appropriate steps were not bring taken by his superiors to obviate this possibility through counselling and supervision.

Consequently, Your Excellency, the scenario which exists today is considerably different from when I first spoke with Archbishop Sanchez. At that time we were under the impression that the incident was isolated, in the distant past, and there was little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging.

However, the knowledge and extent of Fr. Prince's previous activity is now much more widespread among both the laity and the clergy than previously existed. Hence, were he to be honoured in any way it could easily trigger a reaction among the victim(s), or others who are aware of his previous conduct, and this would prove extremely embarrassing both to the Holy See and to the Diocese of Pembroke, not to mention the possibility of criminal charges being laid and a civil lawsuit ensuing.

The next passage shows how the church exploits the 'respect for religion' trope (that I have criticized before) and its carefully cultivated mystique of the priesthood to exert coercive power over its victims to keep things quiet.

One redeeming factor is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest. Had this happened elsewhere there would be every danger that charges would have been laid long ago with all the resultant scandal. Unfortunately one priest, who was talking with one of the victims who partially revealed. Fr. Prince's activity while living with him in Ottawa, has been somewhat indiscreet in his comments about Fr. Prince, and has had to be cautioned by the Vicar General in this respect.

The next passage shows the collusion among all the top church officials on the policy of covering up crimes and the need to protect the image of the church over the needs of the abused victims:

I regret both the length and contents of this letter, Your Excellency, but when there is so much at stake for the Church in general and the diocese in particular, given the adverse climate we are currently experiencing, any promotion for Fr. Prince, even for a Papal Honour, but most especially for the Episcopate, would have horrendous results and cause immeasurable harm. All of the Bishops of Ontario who are aware of this situation (and there are several) would most certainly agree with my assessment in this regard.

However, as previously mentioned, a promotion of any kind would indicate to the victim that he is being further victimized and hence we could anticipate that a charge would be laid and a public trial would follow. This has been the pattern which has been followed in recent event s of a similar nature and it is a situation which we wish to avoid at all costs.

Despite these warnings, Pope John Paul II allowed Bernard Prince to serve in the position of secretary-general of the Vatican's Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1991 until he retired in 2004. He was finally convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 boys between the years of 1964 and 1984 and is now serving a four-year prison term. It took this for him to be finally defrocked in 2009.

The consistent strategy of the Catholic Church has been to cover up abuse cases and get victims to keep quiet. Is it any surprise then that Catholic bishops in Connecticut are currently fighting a proposed law that would eliminate the statue of limitations on child sexual abuse, because that would unravel their whole plan? They have simply no shame.

Pope Ratzinger is due to visit England in September of this year, no doubt to teach people all about Christian morality. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have enlisted the services of two human rights lawyers to see if he cannot be arrested during his visit, the way that brutal Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was, to be tried for the crimes committed by the organization of which he is head.

This should be interesting.

POST SCRIPT: The real problem

The Onion reports on what Ratzinger thinks is the real problem behind the child abuse scandal.

April 09, 2010

The fog of belief

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper titled Preachers who are not believers that as a result of their scholarly education, the priests they interviewed and many of their fellow priests just cannot take the tenets of their faith seriously anymore. As one said of his peers: "They're very liberal. They've been de-mythologized, I'll say that. They don't believe Jesus rose from the dead literally. They don't believe Jesus was born of a virgin. They don't believe all those things that would cause a big stir in their churches. But that's not uncommon in mainline denominations, or even in the Catholic Church." Another said, in an undoubted overstatement, "Oh, you can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!"

The churches probably suspect that there is a considerable amount of apostasy among their clergy because it rarely asks prospective clergy to affirm their beliefs. Part of this is because the churches themselves no longer seem certain about what doctrines people should believe. Over time, as scientific knowledge has advanced and made traditional beliefs untenable for any thinking person, the churches have retained their creeds which lay down very specific statements of beliefs that one must in theory hold, while in practice adopting a policy of 'anything goes' (well, almost) that gives people a lot of wiggle room as to what they can actually believe in. As Dennett and LaScola write:

The ambiguity about who is a believer and who is an unbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked.

The five clergy were never asked point blank at their ordination if they believed in god or the virgin birth. If the subject is broached in some way, they adopt the strategy of talking about the concept of god instead of god itself, and this rhetorical ploy is accepted as a way of avoiding direct statements of belief or unbelief.

R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says that this is a disturbing trend: "In other words, some theologians and denominations have embraced a theology so fluid and indeterminate that even an atheist cannot tell the believers and unbelievers apart."

The disbelieving clergy find themselves in a very tough situation that is almost unparalleled. I cannot think of any other profession where what one believes is tied so integrally to the work one does and where one is routinely required to profess statements of belief. You can see how it can wear you down if you do not believe the things you have to keep saying. As Dennett and LaScola say:

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest. (my italics)

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides.

But not everyone sees these clergy as brave people struggling with their personal demons of doubt and disbelief. Some view them as hypocrites who have no place in the church. Mohler thinks that unbelieving priests "are a curse upon the church" and that "If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them. If they will not "out" themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to "out" them."

I think the priests are well aware that this may be the reaction from many of the people around them if they are honest. And so they keep quiet.

Next: The loneliness of the unbelieving priest.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the Catholic Church atrocities

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April 08, 2010

Priests who don't believe

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Over four years ago, I speculated that the percentage of atheists among clergy and theologians may be much higher than in the general population, that it became even more likely the higher one rose in the hierarchy, and that as a result even the pope could well be an atheist. I gave two reasons for making that case.

The first is that members of the clergy encounter on a daily basis many of the kinds of personal tragedies of sickness, death, and violence than can make lay people question their faith, and hence they are more likely to find it hard to believe in a benevolent god. Since no one wants to believe in an evil god (though that would explain things a lot better), disbelief becomes an increasingly plausible option.

The second reason is that those clergy who belong to religious institutions that require years of study in theological colleges before ordination will quickly learn as part of their curriculum that their religious texts are products of human beings and that they have a dubious history that makes it very unlikely that they were divinely created. All the many contradictions make it hard to believe that the religious books were divinely inspired either, unless you believe in a god who is really sloppy and was too cheap to get himself a good editor. Most lay people have little idea of the origins of their texts and thus can more easily believe that they were divinely inspired or created.

Now even the Vatican's chief exorcist has conceded that apostasy is more common in the upper ranks of the church than people might think, speaking of "cardinals who do not believe in Jesus."

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University have recently published a paper titled Preachers who are not believers that seems to provide support for my speculative suggestions. They describe five case studies of Christian priests who are still working but were willing to confide in confidence that they do not believe in the tenets of their faith. Three of the priests were from liberal denominations (whom they called "the liberals") and two were from conservative denominations ("the literals").

These priests spoke of how hard it is to live a lie and how they would like to be open and change their lives but they stick with it because they have no other means of making a living.

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks. As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don't they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

Confiding their difficulties to a superior is not an appealing option: although it would be unlikely to lead swiftly and directly to an involuntary unfrocking. No denomination has a surplus of qualified clergy, and the last thing an administrator wants to hear is that one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default. More likely, such an acknowledgment of doubt would put them on the list of problematic clergy and secure for them the not very helpful advice to soldier on and work through their crises of faith. Speaking in confidence with fellow clergy is also a course fraught with danger, in spite of the fact that some of them are firmly convinced that many, and perhaps most, of their fellow clergy share their lack of belief. (my italics)

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them.

John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark describes some of the things you learn from biblical scholarship:

Miracles do not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade; the Virgin Birth and understanding the Resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body enters Christianity in the 9th decade, the story of the Ascension of Jesus is a 10th decade addition.

Should it be surprising that these things can shake the faith of believers, including priests, and are thus kept from the general public?

POST SCRIPT: The War on Easter

Now that atheists have won the war on Christmas, isn't it time to start wars on all the other holidays of all the religions?

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April 07, 2010

Should the pope resign?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Catholic Church is battling the widespread perception that it is rotten to the core. Even the Chief Exorcist of the Catholic Church says that all this abuse and cover-ups by high officials of the church are signs that "the Devil is at work inside the Vatican." (Yes, there actually is such a post as 'Chief Exorcist', if you can imagine it. If anyone had any doubts that the church is still an institution with medieval sensibilities, this news should surely settle it. He claims that he has dealt with 70,000 cases of demonic possession in his 25 years on the job. That's almost eight every day, including weekends and holidays! Give that man a raise.)

As Christopher Hitchens writes:

This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck.

And now there are reports that the Boy Scouts have also been covering up the sexual abuse of young boys.

The Boy Scouts of America has long kept an extensive archive of secret documents that chronicle the sexual abuse of young boys by Scout leaders over the years.

The "perversion files," a nickname the Boy Scouts are said to have used for the documents, have rarely been seen by the public, but that could change in the coming weeks in a Portland, Ore., courtroom.

The attorney for a man who was allegedly molested in the 1980s by a Scout leader has obtained about 1,000 Boy Scouts sex files and is expected to release some of them at a trial that began Wednesday. The lawyer says the files show the organization has covered up abuse for decades.

It seems like we should be extra vigilant about hierarchical organizations that place young children under the unsupervised care of dominant older people. Such situations seem to create just the right conditions for abusers to take advantage of children.

Richard Dawkins says that despite the calls for him to resign, the pope should not do so:

As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly - ideally - qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Dawkins surprisingly missed 'gay-loathing' in that list.

Of course, all this will not prevent religious people from trotting out that old chestnut that we can only get our morality from god and the Bible and religion, that without them we would be totally amoral or downright evil people. They will claim that acts of a few bad apples do not mean that religion itself is a bad influence. The problem is that they try to have it both ways. The power of the Catholic Church and the clergy arises from their claim that they have a direct line from god, through the laying of hands by the pope, archbishops, and so on. All the trappings of the church, the rituals, the incense, the robes, the fancy hats, the rings, are meant to instill in people the idea that the clergy are holier than them. Priests cannot claim that privilege when it suits them and then say 'Oh, we should not be held to higher standards than ordinary people' when it emerges that they are often worse than ordinary people.

Defenders of the church will argue that the number of priests involved in abuse cases is small (though that argument is becoming harder to sustain as the scale of the abuse keeps growing) and that there are good priests doing wonderful work. They are right. There have been many inspiring Catholic priests and nuns, especially in Latin America, who bravely used the protective cover provided by the church in a good way, to fight for justice and to end oppression by cruel and murderous dictatorships. It is interesting that both Ratzinger and John Paul II actively saw the crushing of such priests and the associated liberation theology as a prime task, just as they sought to suppress the movements of progressive nuns and priests in Europe and the US.

Both popes seemed to see the abuse by priests as something secondary, to be covered up so as to not distract from the fight against doctrinal heresy. It would have been nice to see them use all that energy to combat abusive priests instead. But instead, priests who severely abused children could expect sympathetic understanding from the church's top echelons while those who merely advocated the abandonment of policies of priestly celibacy or a male-only priesthood or the prohibition against contraception risked being severely rebuked.

Given the long-standing demands from popes to all high church officials that they should essentially cover up the acts of abusive priests, probably a high fraction of all the current crop of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have such skeletons rattling around in their closets. So one should expect more and more allegations of cover-ups to emerge, coupled with an increasingly solid wall of resistance from the entire hierarchy of the church as it dawns on them that they are all at risk of exposure and that, in the words of Ben Franklin, they must all hang together, or assuredly they shall all hang separately. One has to look for the few remaining bishops who have clean hands to have the moral courage to go against the policy of stonewalling.

I have no doubt that the pope and its priests and bishops will continue to have the gall to act as if they are still the guardians of morality. Ratzinger now is trying to evade guilt by saying that the problem is that humanity in general is in crisis and in need of deep change for which, of course, he and the church can provide moral leadership. As this cartoon by Jesus and Mo says, this is what they always say, even if it is becoming increasingly clear that they have absolutely no standing to make the claim of being moral leaders.

POST SCRIPT: How the Catholic Church really works

Actor Louis CK investigates for Funny or Die how the church works and tries to find some humor in the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church as the abuse horror stories multiply. (Warning: Very strong language and sexual content.)