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Ann Coulter and Morality

posted on 08.30.2006 at 11:00 PM

Can't resist one more shot at (fish-in-a-barrel) Ann Coulter, borrowed from the review by Jerry Coyne. Here the issue is one that has been visited before on this blog: the relationship between disbelief and morality:

If Coulter were right, evolutionists would be the most beastly people on earth, not to be trusted in the vicinity of a goat. But I've been around biologists all of my adult life, and I can tell you that they're a lot more civil than, say, Coulter. It's a simple fact that you don't need the Bible -- or even religion -- to be moral. Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, who don't follow the New Testament, usually behave responsibly despite this problem; and atheists and agnostics derive morality from non-biblical philosophy. In fact, one of the most ethical people I know is Coulter's version of the Antichrist: the atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins.... Dawkins would never say -- as Coulter does -- that Cindy Sheehan doesn't look good in shorts, that Al Franken resembles a monkey, or that 9/11 widows enjoyed the deaths of their husbands. Isn't there something in the Bible about doing unto others?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:00 PM | Comments (6)

Agnostic Unfair to Atheists

posted on 08.29.2006 at 8:43 PM

Here is Thomas Henry Huxley's explanation for his desire to coin a new term, "agnostic," to express his relationship to religion:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker - I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" - had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

But this is unfair to atheists, is it not? What about atheism implies a solution to the problem of existence?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:43 PM | Comments (3)

How Strong This Itch Must Be

posted on 08.28.2006 at 11:00 PM

Obviously there is an anthropological lesson here:

** Something looks fantastically beautiful: Jesus must have died for our sins.

** Something seems mysterious: the universe must be governed by "an intelligence."

** Humans on occasion do each other a good turn: Some higher power must have endowed us with a notion of The Good.

When things get clear, must be a God. When things get fuzzy, same conclusion. When people behave well... When people behave poorly... The simple means God. The complex means God. Loveliness, horror.... The existence of love, the existence of pain... All, somehow, "prove" the existence of the divine.

How strong this itch must be.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:00 PM | Comments (6)

Religion and Science -- 4 (at least)

posted on 08.27.2006 at 6:11 PM

This a putative comment by a nineteenth-century British clergyman:

O ye men of science, ye men of science, leave us our ancestors in paradise, and you may have yours in Zoological gardens.

And here is our man from the Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer, basically accepting the deal:

If you believe God created the world, it's reasonable to ask, How did he do it? What were the forces and mechanisms he used? Why not look to science and see that he started with the big bang, the force of gravity, inflationary cosmology, quarks and natural selection. Those were his tools. To that extent, science is not a threat, it's your best friend. It's the best tool you have for illuminating the grandeur of creation. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral. I mean, come on, that photo is an actual representation of the reality that God created, if that's what you believe. So why not embrace science rather than fear it?
They've been sold a bill of goods by people who like the warfare model of science and religion, particularly fundamentalists and militant atheists. Both sides want to force a choice and debunk the other side. But it need not be so. It's an incorrect interpretation promoted by extremists.

I've been moaning and groaning about this way of thinking since I started this blog. Guess this is because I do think science and religion are at war. How about this thesis? The further the telescopes look, the fewer the places left for God to hide. To find Our Father currently, based on accounts on this blog, it is necessary to rewind the entire Big Bang and then somewhere, back before electrons and quarks, when all that is (in our universe, at least) was compacted to the size of an ear bud or whatever, there He was, to say, "Poof."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:11 PM | Comments (8)

The Danger of Astrology

posted on 08.26.2006 at 10:52 AM

Scientist Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, interviewed in Salon:

For most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs....I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle.

Could we add to this list various political paranoias and conspiracy theories? Shermer's explanation for belief in astrology and other "goofy things" might also apply to more mainstream beliefs, no?

They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:52 AM | Comments (14)

Cartoons of the Jews

posted on 08.25.2006 at 12:12 PM

Some months ago, during the contretemps over the Danish cartoons offensive to Muslims, I wrote:

We can imagine, as some Muslims have asked us to do, the outrage that would greet satiric cartoons featuring Jesus or, were the point sufficiently nasty, Moses. How about a satiric drawing of an atheist? What would it show? (A man lost in a microscope oblivious to the wonder of all that goes on around him?)

Found a couple of those "cartoons of the atheist," which predictably failed to shock. Iran_Cartoons.jpg The more shocking attempt at tit for tat, which I failed to anticipate, has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus but with anti-Semitic stereotypes and the Holocaust. A collection of such images is currently on display, according to the New York Times, in a gallery in Tehran, under the title: "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest."

One features: "a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust." Others seem to have a clear political motivation: comparing Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior, or implying that the Holocaust has been used as an excuse for such behavior.

Iran_Cartoons2.jpgMost Western writing about the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, emphasized the conflict between free expression and protecting sensitivities. Will positions remain the same when the subject is these Iranian cartoons?

My point on the reaction to the Danish cartoons was to note "the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion":

There is still something essentially immoderate about them. There is still something powerfully illiberal about any system of thought that insists that rules of behavior -- the Prophet cannot be depicted, the Son must be seen as divine, meat and milk cannot be eaten together -- have been imposed by an infallible supernatural intelligence and that insists that our eternal (eternal!) happiness depends on our ability to follow those rules....Monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.

But (non-political) aspects of this new exhibit seem to offend not on religious grounds but because of cultural and historical sensitivities. Was I being unfair in underplaying such sensitivities, in an effort to make a point about religion, in Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:12 PM | Comments (4)

God and the Big Bang

posted on 08.24.2006 at 5:24 PM

Here's legit scientist Francis Collins:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

We've had a go at this argument (as phrased by agnostic Margaret Atwood). Here, from his review of Collins' The Language of God, is atheist (albeit with mystical leanings) Sam Harris on the subject:

It is worth pointing out the term "supernatural," which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term "magical." Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can't I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Harris' final point on this subject is an important response to those, like Atwood, who accuse atheists of dogmatism:

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:24 PM | Comments (15)

Curiouser and Curiouser?

posted on 08.23.2006 at 11:56 AM

"This is a mysterious universe, and the more we know about it the more mysterious it seems," the New York Times writes in a pretty little editorial on dark matter.

I wonder whether this is actually true. Is understanding gravity, as most of us do, but having no way to grasp the eleven dimensions of string theory really more mysterious than understanding what the sun and moon do, as educated Greeks did, but having no idea why the planets occasionally seem to zig or zag? Is the point that there are always going to be some things we, or our scientists, can get our minds around, and then, at the raggedy fringes, some we can't? Or are these forms of knowledge really accelerating beyond our grasp?

And then why do we continually try to squeeze even more primitive understandings -- Big Daddies in the sky -- into the holes that inevitably pop up in our increasingly sophisticated understandings?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:56 AM | Comments (2)

Beauty and Jesus

posted on 08.22.2006 at 11:58 PM

In his review Sam Harris quotes the description from The Language of God of the moment when religion overcame human-genome scientist Francis Collins:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains ... the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

Harris' response:

If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.

Why is it that natural beauty is seen as belonging to the supernatural? It seems, at first glance at least, rather firmly rooted in the natural.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:58 PM | Comments (6)

Is the Possibility of God Logical?

posted on 08.21.2006 at 10:09 PM

Some of the best thinking on this subject was done by Carneades, the second-century BCE Greek Skeptic. Here are some quotes from Sextus Empiricus' later account of Carneades' reasoning:

If the Divine exists, it is certainly...both virtuous and happy.... But it does not possess all the virtues unless it possesses both continence and fortitude. And it does not possess these virtues unless there are certain things which are hard for God to abstain from and hard to endure.... For it is the man who holds firm when he is being cut and burned that shows fortitude, and not the man who is drinking sweet wine. There will, then, exist certain things which are hard for God to endure and hard to abstain from... But if so, God is receptive of vexation and of change for the worse, and hence of decay also. So that if God exists, he is perishable....

This is an arguments that flaws are needed for virtues, and therefore that gods, which don't have flaws, can't have many of the virtues.

If the Divine is all-virtuous and possesses wisdom, it possesses sound-deliberation.... And if it deliberates, there is something which is non-evident to it.... It is impossible that...anything...should...be non-evident to God.... From which it follows that he does not exist at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:09 PM | Comments (4)

Morality and Evolution

posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM

When Sam Harris stops fulminating and starts arguing, his attack on the religion-and-science-can-be-buddies book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins gets interesting.

Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:

Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.

Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:

Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:16 PM | Comments (2)

I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One

posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM

In his wise and clever dismemberment of Ann Coulter's Godless, biologist Jerry Coyne falls back at one point on the usual nice-nice argument that there's no conflict between evolution and religion:

The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)

Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?

(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:32 PM | Comments (17)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

What Ann Coulter Knows

posted on 08.17.2006 at 3:46 PM

So far, with one minor lapse, I've done a pretty good job of avoiding mention of Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism . Has, even with the gigantic sales, something of the fish-in-a-barrel about it. I've held off despite what Ben Vershbow calls the book's "Bizarro World" version of the title of this blog. (Were it, for the sake of my own sales, only intentional.)

However, this recent New Republic review of the book by Jerry Coyne (forwarded by Ben) is not only big fun but raises some interesting questions.

Here Coyne wields, against Coulter, among other things, the so-why-are-there-so-many-religions line of attack (the argument Darwin credits for his own disbelief):

What's annoying about Coulter (note: there's more than one thing!) is that she insistently demands evidence for evolution (none of which she'll ever accept), but requires not a shred of evidence for her "alternative hypothesis." She repeatedly assures us that God exists (not just any God -- the Christian God), that there is only one God (she's no Hindu, folks), that we are made in the image of said God, that the Christian Bible, like Antonin Scalia's Constitution, "is not a 'living' document" (that is, not susceptible to changing interpretation; so does she think that Genesis is literally true?), and that God just might have used evolution as part of His plan. What makes her so sure about all this? And how does she know that the Supreme Being, even if It exists, goes by the name of Yahweh, rather than Allah, Wotan, Zeus, or Mabel? If Coulter just knows these things by faith alone, she should say so, and then tell us why she's so sure that what Parsees or Zunis just know is wrong. I, for one, am not prepared to believe that Ann Coulter is made in God's image without seeing some proof.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:46 PM | Comments (15)

An Agnostic's Courage

posted on 08.16.2006 at 4:58 PM

thomas_huxley.jpg In July 1860, Thomas Huxley engaged in his famous face-off with the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over Darwin's theory.

Bishop Wilberforce: "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?"

Huxley: "If then...the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

A couple of months later Huxley's beloved eldest son died.

Huxley is responsible for the neologism "agnoticism." In defense of his new creed he proclaimed:

In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

However, Huxley was anything but uncertain in his opposition to "that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else,...is the deadly enemy of science."

And when a friend implied, gently, after his son's death, that the biologist might miss the comforts of religion, Huxley's response could not have been more staunch and unbending:

Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier, I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me...and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit....If wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (5)

"Proof of Life After Death"

posted on 08.14.2006 at 3:14 PM

ghost.jpgIn this odd period when beliefs seem to be growing simultaneously stronger and weaker, depending where you turn, it is hard to know what you will encounter when you take a look at your favorite newspaper. Indeed, the New York Times today features a sympathetic review of a sympathetic book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by science writer Deborah Blum, on psychics and communication with the dead.

In "Ghost Hunters"... these "psychical researchers" are not simply a bunch of smart men (and a couple of women) obsessed with a dumb idea, but rather courageous freethinkers willing to endure the establishment's scorn. This quirky band, [Blum] argues, was more scientific than the scientists....

Sure. However, it might be noted that, while the hypotheses of traditional science are often enough confirmed by experimentation, the confirmation rate by repeatable experiment of all claims to "telepathy, telekinesis or contacts with the dead" hovers, I believe, around zero. William James stated, after his long efforts to find proof of what he wanted to be true had failed, "that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling." One could come up with another explanation for James' failure.

But then here is our book-review writer, Patricia Cohen:

Ultimately what distinguished James and his colleagues from many of their scientific peers was their humbleness. To think one can divine everything in an infinite universe is an act of extreme hubris.

Once again what we don't know, which is of course an awful lot, is used to justify what we ache to believe. One might think that, from the perspective of the rationalism normally expected of news organizations like the Times, what distinguished James and others who shared his desperation to communicate with dead relatives was a simple, unscientific case of wishful thinking.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:14 PM | Comments (3)


posted on 08.13.2006 at 12:11 AM

The quality of the comments here lately has seemed, to me, extraordinarily high.

One of the purposes of blogging a book as it is being written is to have ideas tested and, possibly, sharpened, transformed or overturned. This has repeatedly occurred -- although I have not often weighed in with comments of my own acknowledging that. Please take this as a blanket acknowledgement and expression of appreciation.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:11 AM | Comments (2)

Atheism Defined

posted on 08.12.2006 at 6:40 PM

Bradlaugh1.jpgHere's Charles Bradlaugh, one of history's most important atheists and a major character in my book, with an unusual description of his (lack of) beliefs:

The Atheist does not say "there is no god," but he says "I know not what you mean by god; I am without idea of god; the word god is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny god, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception."

Doesn't sound that far from agnosticism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:40 PM | Comments (18)

Death -- Part III

posted on 08.11.2006 at 2:23 PM

Euripides writes:

Who now can tell whether to live may not
Be properly to die. And whether that
Which men do call to die, may not in truth
Be but the entrance into real life?

This would seem to be among the aspects of religion the Europeans have outgrown? But shouldn't the "strict agnostic" acknowledge it as possibly true? Or do we have at least the right to say that it, like Martin Amis' universe-wide "intelligence," is hugely unlikely?

(Cited in Life of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laertius, trans. by, C. D. Younge)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:23 PM | Comments (3)

Author Seeks Advice -- 2

posted on 08.10.2006 at 6:48 PM

Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.

I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):

Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.

Two questions:

1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)

2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (9)

Waiting Out Religion

posted on 08.09.2006 at 11:41 PM

More from novelist Martin Amis (a nonbeliever who will no longer call himself an atheist), from a PBS interview with Bill Moyers:


MARTIN AMIS: I remember talking to Saul Bellow about this in his last years. And he did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel RAVELSTEIN, he said, "We all believe that. We just talk tough." And I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, "I don't believe that, do you?" And she said, "No, I don't believe that."

I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.

Cool. But "if ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature" to reject the possibility of a universe-wide "intelligence" -- as Amis states -- why is it okay to reject an afterlife? How, in other words, do agnostics manage to decide what they've "outgrown" and what raises "too many questions"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 PM | Comments (6)

They're Not in Kansas Anymore?

posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM

Thomas Frank, author of the insightful What's the Matter with Kansas, cautions against too exuberant a celebration of the defeat last week of anti-evolution forces on the Kansas Board of Education:

Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.

Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.

How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:

The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:35 PM | Comments (3)

"World War IV"

posted on 08.08.2006 at 9:56 AM

Now it's with Iran. And, of course, we're already losing:

Their war aims have never been secret. They have been shouting them out on the world stage to a billion listening Muslims, ever since they handed us the first of many humiliating defeats in 1979. These Persian mullahs and their followers aim to restore Islamic supremacy in the 21st century by leading all Muslims everywhere to victory in a great global jihad against America, Israel, and what is left of the free world.

Picking outlandish comments off the Web -- this is Barbara Lerner in the National Review Online -- is, of course, too easy. Do it enough and you can end up as paranoid as they are. And Ms. Lerner's solution to the Iran problem can indeed leave you spooked:

We should light up the skies with our own surprise: a massive aerial bombardment that wipes out most of Iran's nuclear facilities, and decimates the ranks of its mullahs as well as those of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij forces that keep them in power, defeating these monsters and decimating their fan base by shattering their image of invincibility.

Sure. But what might concern us here is the extent to which -- after Iraq, not to mention after the Enlightenment -- the blood-thirsty rhetoric of religious warfare -- against "monsters" -- continues to dominate some strains of American political discourse (and lurk behind others).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:56 AM | Comments (1)

Too Many Questions to Be an Atheist?

posted on 08.07.2006 at 9:39 AM

Here's Bill Moyers interviewing one of my favorite novelists:

BILL MOYERS: You're not a believer?
MARTIN AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. Not a being, but an intelligence. And I don't mean intelligent design. I just mean why is it so vast, as Updike said, why not this attractive spattering of stars in the background be perfectly enough, you know? Why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes? These extraordinary quasars and black holes. What do we need all that for? So many questions remain, that I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more.

Pretty thoughts, as expected, but unexpectedly odd ones. In what sense would a cute, simple little universe (surrounded by what?) be more intelligible without "an intelligence"? (Wasn't it the apparent cuteness and simplicity of the pre-Copernican, earth-centered universe that supported the traditional notion of humans as God's chief concern?) Why should the universe be easily intelligible to two-eyed, one-brained us? How does the universe's lack of intelligibility increase the chances that there is "an intelligence" behind it? (The traditional religious argument was the opposite.) How might we have an "intelligence" that is "not a being"?

I love the notion that we'll need "eight more Einsteins." But hasn't the work of the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins we have already had been leading in one direction: away from a Prime Mover, away from a universe-designer, away from "some intelligence" (anthropomorphic or not)? Hasn't it been leading -- step by step -- toward a naturalistic, scientific understanding -- however difficult-- of an extremely large and complex universe?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:39 AM | Comments (11)

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

posted on 08.04.2006 at 6:32 PM

More from churchgoer Bill Moyer's PBS interview with "strict agnostic" novelist Margaret Atwood:

MARGARET ATWOOD: A book came out called THE LIFE OF PI, by a guy called Yann Martel. And it begins by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God." Then he goes off on this...seaman's yarn about getting lost in a life boat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of...South America. Where upon, according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore, and he's put in the hospital. And then these three Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened to the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story.
Then he tells them this whole story. And they confer it among themselves and they say, "We think that maybe your story isn't true. And that there was no tiger." And you know he says, "Well that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger." And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, "Well actually we like the story with the tiger better." And our narrator starts to cry and he says, "thank you."
So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better then we like the story without God in it. Because it's more like us, it's more understandable, it's more human.
BILL MOYERS: More human with God?
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory, or that has any interest in us.... Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that?

Is this how it is with the "strict agnostic" position: it is supposed to be about the impossibility of certainty, but it ends up being about the longing for a human-sounding story? How about that?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:32 PM | Comments (5)

Deuteronomy -- III

posted on 08.04.2006 at 1:45 AM

It may not be easy, at this grim moment in world politics, to find signs of progress. But that is where the Bible can be helpful. For it sure seems we have progressed a bit, most of us, from the moral standards it promulgates. I am quoting, once again, the last book of the Torah:

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other Gods".... Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life.... Stone him to death.

No wishy-washy, politically correct indulgence in tolerance here.

And then there is this:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your god delivers to you, showing them no pity.

Few today -- even in the name of the Bible -- would "destroy all." Merely some. Progress.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:45 AM | Comments (2)

"Atheism is a Religion"

posted on 08.02.2006 at 9:29 AM

While being interviewed by Bill Moyers recently, the novelist Margaret Atwood announced (thanks Esther) that she is an agnostic rather than an atheist because "atheism...is a religion." Here is her explanation:

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven.
BILL MOYERS: There is no God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: You can't prove that.
BILL MOYERS: So you become-- what' a strict agnostic?


MARGARET ATWOOD: A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce, as knowledge, anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words if you're going to call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to, or if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge.

And more:

MARGARET ATWOOD: ...Even, for instance, a physicist, will say: Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity." And you will say..., "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know."

I believe there are answers to her argument, which is primarily epistemological, in analytic philosophy and in the ancient Greek philosophy of Carneades and his argument about "plausibility": If not knowing about the Tooth Fairy and the origins of the Big Bang are judged the same thing, I fear we won't get too far. But my favorite answer would be that of all the things one might put before the Big Bang some omnipotent, omnibenevolent creature would be not only the least plausible but the most confounding.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:29 AM | Comments (12)

"You Spin the Whirling Planets"

posted on 08.01.2006 at 10:15 AM

BILL MOYERS: In church on Sunday, we sang a 200 and some odd year old hymn, Franz Josef Haydn. With some contemporary words. And the words go, "God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain. Mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain."
Now the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know why-- how these things happen. We need the poetry don't we. Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion, and writing can give us?

Sorry, Bill (a fellow I usually respect), but isn't "God...filling the seas" -- as we would an inflatable pool -- also an "explanation," albeit a rather primitive one? Isn't it a stab at "knowledge," albeit, given what we know, a rather unconvincing one?

We're all for music, but isn't there less "poetry" and mystery in God molding mountains -- like some kid playing with clay -- than in the monumental, austere forces of (Newtonian) nature?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:15 AM | Comments (10)