Who Lost Iraq?
posted on 11.30.2006 at 10:41 PM
Here's a perspective on the Iraq disaster from Richard A. Shweder, writing in the New York Times:
In Iraq, the "West is best" default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos.
By "West is best" here we are supposed to read "Enlightenment," whose alleged failings mean a lot to Mr. Shweder. So the point is that the war in Iraq represents a failure of secularism. This despite the fact that the war was launched by an intensely religious American president who admitted to consulting his heavenly "Father" on the matter and to basing his foreign policy on his religious beliefs. This despite the fact that support for the war came overwhelming from the religious right. This despite the fact that much of the indigenous bloodshed in the country can now be traced to a more than thirteen-hundred-year-old religious dispute having to do with the ousting of Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, as caliph.
And, certainly, neither the Bush administration, which started the war, nor the Shia and Sunni fighters who help continue it, are known for their weakness for the "discourse about universal human rights."
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:41 PM
posted on 11.29.2006 at 11:52 PM
The popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.
This is Richard A. Shweder in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago. Now I'm too much of a postmodernist to be a die-hard Enlightenment guy, but isn't there something really screwy about such comparisons. What, perchance, is the story of religion? That the universe was created in six days? That we go to heaven or hell when we die? That there are seventy virgins waiting for suicide bombers? That premarital sex or homosexuality are sins? That some omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Being rules the cosmos? Or is it just that we all should be moral (however that might be defined) because some never-seen, never-heard creature in the heavens, who had a son but then had that son crucified for our benefit, insists that we be?
If the story of the Enlightenment was that the whole world was going to be democratic, pluralistic and secular by now (and in exactly what "holy text" of ours was that written?), yeah it hasn't happened. Just a whole lot of the world is more or less that -- a dramatic change (even a postmodernist wants to say "improvement") from the days before the Enlightenment or even from twenty-five years ago. And while progress in this direction is far from smooth, it seems reasonable to assume that more of the world will be democratic, pluralistic and secular at the end of this century than it is at the beginning.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM
posted on 11.28.2006 at 10:45 PM
Currently working on a multi-part paper on disbelief that should be up here soon. Will be a bit of a lull while I complete that.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:45 PM
Values and Traditional Societies
posted on 11.25.2006 at 6:48 PM
Stumbled upon this testament to the superior wisdom and morality of traditional societies on the website of a Turkish newspaper. It concerns "a married woman who was raped by a man, also married":
The case was exposed when the rape victim spoke up.... The elders of her village aiming to avoid a blood feud found a "peaceful solution." The 16-year-old daughter of the rapist would be given to the husband of the rape victim. Since the men would have settled the issue, no blood feud would emerge.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM
posted on 11.23.2006 at 10:59 AM
This from the New York Times account of that recent conference on science and religion in California:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects -- testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:59 AM
Religion and Science -- 7
posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM
A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.
1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:
"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)
Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:
"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"
Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.
2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."
3. And the debate on how scientists should respond to religion (discussed here often) is also of interest. Here's a dissenting (maybe L or M) voice:
"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist
Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:42 AM
That Analysis Thing
posted on 11.20.2006 at 3:22 PM
Kind of ironic since I've been working on a journalism-review piece heralding the coming of the age of analysis for mainstream news organizations...but the critique I've gotten on the first few chapters of this book is that they are insufficiently analytic. Been trying so hard to maintain an engaging narrative that perhaps I leaned too far in that direction.
Could be more analytic in emphasizing the point made by the various tales I tell -- the story of King Josiah's great god massacre in Judah in the 7th century BCE, for example. The point here being that monotheism grew out of the destruction of -- disbelief in -- lots of other gods. In this draft, I may have relied too much on such points making themselves.
Could be more analytic in looking behind events to their significance -- the political benefits, for example, of centralizing all religious worship in Judah in Josiah's day in the main temple.
Or could be more analytic in dropping a storyline for a while and just making a point: say monotheism, as enforced under King Josiah, as a step, a roundabout one to be sure, in the direction of atheism.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:22 PM
Death Part VI
posted on 11.19.2006 at 8:26 PM
The opportunity to survive death certainly seems a major selling point for religion. Yet some of the more recent explanations for belief tend to underplay it.
This is, in part, because most preliterate peoples don't seem to make as big a deal of the afterlife as modern religions -- particularly Christianity and Islam -- tend to. Some of them don't dwell too much on what happens after death. Many don't see good behavior being rewarded. And one of their goals for the dead is often making sure they don't hang around too much -- because the recently deceased tend to be cranky and meddlesome.
Yet ask people today why religion has such a hold and they will often begin by talking about death.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:26 PM
Odds on Existence of God
posted on 11.17.2006 at 10:23 AM
Every once in a while, it's useful to check up on the theists' logic. Here is Mahlon Marr (writing, alas, under the name Thomas Paine), responding, he thinks, to Richard Dawkins:
Let's meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation - the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design...and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.
This calculation is, shall we say, somewhat flawed.
First, we should note that believers have been looking for some dark, as-yet-unexplained corner of the universe in which to secrete God for many centuries now. It was once the creation of life for which there was "no scientific theory or evidence available," but then Darwin shed some light on that "mystery." Now they (and agnostics also) have fastened upon the initial moment of the Big Bang. (To be sure, this is a rather important subject, but so was the creation of life.) Light -- scientific light -- will eventually be shed here, too. As Dawkins writes: "Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem." He mentions a couple of possible answers -- "a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity" -- and then adds a prudent "or whatever." But even after such an answer arrives, there will undoubtedly remain new puzzles for scientists to work on -- leaving new dark corners into which indefatigable theists can try to stuff a God.
Second, given the track record of science in explaining the workings of the universe versus that of religion, it seems rather odd to assume that a supernatural explanation for the Big Bang is just as likely as a natural one.
Third, suggesting that God launched the Big Bang just raises the larger question of what or who launched god. So, instead of answering the question, by placing an Omnipotent Big Daddy there at the beginning of space-time you have simply raised a more difficult question
Dawkins would add a fourth response: that the universe tends to move from the simple to the more complex and therefore would not move from God, who seems astoundingly complex, to the germ of the Big Bang. We have debated this point below.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:23 AM
The Best Argument Against the Existence of God?
posted on 11.15.2006 at 5:24 PM
To finish the thought:
What argument has most profoundly shaken your belief? Or eliminated your belief? Or would have if you did believe?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:24 PM
High Tide of Atheism?
posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM
Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").
What goes on?
1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?
2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?
3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 AM
The Prologue to This Book
posted on 11.10.2006 at 2:56 PM
I am posting here for comments, suggestions, criticism, etc., a draft of the Prologue to the book on the history of disbelief I am working on.
You should be able to read it by clicking: Download file
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:56 PM
Atheists and Foxholes
posted on 11.08.2006 at 9:28 AM
The argument that periods of mortal peril end our silly questioning of the existence of God has been so persistent that Charles Bradlaugh's daughter had to arrange for witnesses to confirm that the great atheist had not found religion on his deathbed. War, it is often argued, straightens out disbelievers. The New York Times invokes that discredited argument once again, albeit with a question mark, in the headline atop an opinion piece:
No Atheists in a Foxhole? No Idiots, Either
The piece is about the intelligence of military recruits and says nothing about atheism, so this is a gratuitous and unsupported fallacy (and, the journalism professor in me adds, a lousy headlines).
For the record, the best known of the soldiers killed in America's current wars, former football player Pat Tillman, seems to have been an example of a consistent nonbeliever.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:28 AM
Dawkins on the "Design" Argument
posted on 11.06.2006 at 9:53 AM
Here is Richard Dawkins on one of the better of the arguments for the existence of God. He's a bit unfair to it: The religious position today, rather than entirely ignoring evolution, is usually that there wasn't time for something as complex as an eye to evolve. Still, I think Dawkins is useful on the subject:
The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although -- since the name begs the question of its validity -- it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar 'watchmaker' argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered -- and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed -- things like eyes and hearts -- are designed too. It isn't just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too -- fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you'd be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn't know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science's future ability to explain everything else.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 AM
Mamet and Moses
posted on 11.04.2006 at 3:58 PM
In his new nonfiction book, The Wicked Son, playwright David Mamet rebukes, with a gusto and combativeness found in many of his characters, irreligious or anti-Zionist Jews -- "self-hating Jews," seems the term he prefers.
Where to begin? Perhaps with this interesting point Mamet made while discussing the book on WGN radio recently:
If you look at the five books of Moses, the Torah, it's a complete record of the people, the Jews, who don't like it.... The Abrahamic text is about this desert people who had this revelation and fought it tooth and nail every page until the end of Deuteronomy.
Mamet wants us to see this as evidence that faith has doubt under control. That the irreligious can find themselves -- and answers to their doubts -- in the Bible. We might instead wonder if faith can ever escape or subdue doubt -- even among people who claimed the most intimate experience of God. We might wonder if the whole miraculous production wasn't hard to credit even then.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:58 PM
Did Einstein Believe in God?
posted on 11.02.2006 at 11:47 PM
Here's Richard Dawkins:
When Einstein said 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' he meant 'Could the universe have begun in more than one way?' 'God does not play dice' was Einstein's poetic way of doubting Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. Einstein was famously irritated when theists misunderstood him to mean a personal God. But what did he expect? The hunger to misunderstand should have been palpable to him. 'Religious' physicists usually turn out to be so only in the Einsteinian sense: they are atheists of a poetic disposition. So am I. But, given the widespread yearning for that great misunderstanding, deliberately to confuse Einsteinian pantheism with supernatural religion is an act of intellectual high treason.
But isn't this a bit unfair? Pantheism -- seeing god (or gods) in everything -- is not the same as atheism or even poetic atheism. It would seem to find some sort of divine purpose or meaning where atheists find mere matter -- however attractive.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:47 PM
The Best Argument for the Existence of God?
posted on 11.02.2006 at 1:58 AM
Here is a question for atheists and agnostics as well as believers:
What is the best of the possible arguments for the existence of God? The one, if you don't believe, that comes closest to making you think twice.
posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:58 AM