A Year of Progress
posted on 12.16.2006 at 2:54 PM
Something odd and encouraging appears to have occurred in the year I have been doing this blog: The revival of religious orthodoxy, which seemed so powerful a year ago, now, in the United States at least, seems to have eased. Freethinkers seem resurgence.
The evidence for this began, perhaps, with the decision, on December 20 of last year, by Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, that requiring teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." School boards calling for this sort of thing have been voted out of office. Protestations of disbelief have been turning up in the press, on television, even on the best-seller lists. The Republicans, and their faith-based president, suffered, last month, a significant electoral defeat.
Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific. And statements like this by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (while taking a swipe at atheists) -- the "Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars" -- seem hugely overstated. A court decision, six-figure book sales and a vote against an administration. most of whose policies have failed, are poor measures of the religiosity of hundreds of millions of people.
But is it possible that a trend has at least been reversed and that the Enlightenment, after a couple of decades of reaction, is once again moving forward? Do you think?
posted on 12.02.2006 at 1:53 PM
Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.
It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?
What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?
And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?
Religion and Science -- 8
posted on 12.02.2006 at 11:23 AM
Science has not replaced religion.
If he means that lots of people in the world still attend mosques or churches, including even some people in Paris, well okay. It's true: Belief in God, has declined dramatically in Western Europe and certain other cosmopolitan redoubts, but it remains undead. And in some places -- southern Afghanistan, the White House -- it is frighteningly vibrant.
But it is absurd to claim that there hasn't been an astounding switch among much of humanity from religious explanations of the universe, of life, of disease (including mental disease), of human purpose -- a switch that has occurred since Copernicus, since Newton, since Jefferson, since Darwin, since penicillin, since Einstein, since education rates have skyrocketed and information technologies have flourished. No these lesson may not have sunk in yet in Kandahar or the West Wing, but even lots of churchgoers now believe the earth revolves around the sun and we descended from monkeys.
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 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.
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 on 11.23.2006 at 10:59 AM
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Religion and Science -- 6
posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM
Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:
The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.
The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:
Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.
A Born-Again Government
posted on 10.28.2006 at 6:15 PM
Here's the always interesting Garry Wills:
The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government--until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.
Wills outlines the extent of the religious incursions into the current White House.
Hitler and Religion
posted on 10.16.2006 at 9:24 PM
This risks descending into guilt by association, but the religious sometimes like to throw in the Nazi horrors as among the consequences of 20th century secularism. (Finding quotes on the Web in support of stuff like this is another low and too-easy game, as is finding such quotes credited to Ann Coulter.) Still, it seems worth pointing out (thanks Pharyngula) that Adolph Hitler did indeed see himself as a believer -- a Christian, a Catholic:
I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work. [Adolph Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936]
I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so. [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]
Any violence which does not spring from a spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook. [Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, p. 171]
No, I don't think this means that Catholics are Fascists. And I know that atheists have some skeletons in the closet too. But still. (Many more quotes in this vein from this person are available.)
State Helps Churches
posted on 10.13.2006 at 3:30 PM
A powerful new investigative series has been running in the New York Times, exposing increasing number of ways American laws are favoring religious institutions. It is worth quoting:
In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."
My underline at the bottom. Is Prof. Witte right?
Europe and Religion
posted on 10.11.2006 at 10:39 PM
A few points inspired by a New York Times article on growing frustration with Muslim immigrants in Europe:
** In Europe it is the right that is least tolerant of this new religious orthodoxy, at least this new Islamic religious orthodoxy, as became clear during the dispute over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, as has become clear with the recent comment of the pope. (This is all rather perplexing to American secularists who have much less difficulty locating the enemy on the political spectrum.)
** The great paradox here, of course, is that it is precisely the secular values of pluralism and tolerance in Europe that are allowing for the growth of intolerant, even violently intolerant, religious orthodoxies. This is a problem that seems, for the moment, not to have a comfortable solution. Some, like Salman Rushdie, argue against tolerating intolerance. Lurking here is the potentially uncomfortable solution of actually taking on these religions and their potentially murderous absurdities (a task perhaps better executed by a Rushdie than by someone named Benedict XVI).
** In the midst of a dispiriting article it is cheering to read the Times characterizing Europe as "a continent that has largely abandoned" religion.
Religion and Government
posted on 10.10.2006 at 3:36 PM
Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeni Boroujerdi seems to be on the side of good. He has apparently been arrested in Iran for having the temerity to suggest that the country's other ayatollahs should stay out of politics. They currently, of course, have the last word on the decisions of the Iranian government.
However, I must say I have difficulty understanding how if you really believed in the truth of one of these God-rules-everything-in-the-universe religions you wouldn't want God's ostensible representatives on earth -- popes, ayatollahs, whatever -- making the important decisions. If they are indeed infallible, why trust the fallible?
Religion and Mark Foley
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:33 PM
An addition to our ongoing discussion of religion (or its absence) and morality (or its absence):
This Republican congressman, who seems to have exchanged some "predatory" emails with teenaged male House pages, supported the interests of the Christian Coalition 84 percent of the time in 2004 (the last year I could find). He is a Roman Catholic and may have some connection to Scientology (thanks Operation Clambake). According to the Herald-Tribune in Florida, Rep. Foley supported the Defense of Marriage Act, "a measure intended to ensure that only heterosexual couples may wed."
Rep. Foley's other hypocrisies -- attacks on former President Clinton for his affair with an intern, support for tough laws against child porn and seduction of children on the Internet -- have, of course, been well reported.
George W. Bush -- II
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:09 PM
The basic text on the religiousity of the current president of the United States and its influence on his policy remains Ron Suskind's article two years ago. Here he tried to explain Mr. Bush's remarkable confidence in his "gut" and his "instinct":
All of this [as well as] the certainty and religiosity -connects to a single word, ''faith".... That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness.
It is, of course, deeply upsetting to contemplate the wrongness of all the decisions Mr. Bush has thusly made.
George W. Bush
posted on 10.01.2006 at 11:57 AM
There has been some dispute lately about just where the current US president stands among the supernaturals. We have, of course, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' suggestion that Mr. Bush is "El Diablo." But other observers see the self-described "Decider" as fitting more gently into a religious context. Here is Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:
In Bob Woodward's highly anticipated new book, "State of Denial," President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.
I'm not sure the "almost" is necessary in the phrase I italicized above, as has been noted here before. Certainly, one of the great gifts of religion has been certainty. Here is the first major Christian theologian to write in Latin, Tertullian, having a go at those wishy-washy Greek philosophers (whom the Christians would, soon enough, put out of business):
Wretched Aristotle...taught them dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing...self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them....
Mr. Bush settles questions. (The Republicans even pass laws to make sure everyone knows they are settled.) And I'm naive enough to remain shocked that questions could be so badly settled with so little reliance upon wisdom and reason, with such terrible consequences for this country -- and the world -- at this time.
The devil often appears as "the opponent" of religion. But, as history has taught, it is the partisans of religion -- with their obstinate, at some point unreflective certainty -- who so often muck things up.
Reason and Religion
posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM
Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?
We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?
Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."
Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...
Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.
Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?
Atheism and Morality
posted on 09.20.2006 at 11:16 PM
The question of where morality might be found without God has been a preoccupation of this blog. Here, from Jerry Adler's round-up in Newsweek of current books on atheism, is an interesting critique of Richard Dawkins:
Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.
Katha Pollitt made this argument at a conference at NYU some time ago. Somewhere, Pollitt suggested, there is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?
Christians and Frozen Yogurt
posted on 09.19.2006 at 6:08 PM
Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.
posted on 09.18.2006 at 5:34 PM
Something is definitely going on here.
The latest piece of evidence I have collected that the argument against God is being treated with a new respect is a review-essay in Newsweek by Jerry Adler. Adler is dealing with a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, along with a not-so-new book by Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and a forthcoming book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. What's remarkable, for someone who has spent some decades following American journalism, is that while Adler quibbles a bit, he never dismisses the Harris-Dennett-Dawkins point of view.
The Big Bad Wolf
posted on 09.17.2006 at 10:16 AM
1. We have found the one, true way to heaven, salvation, righteousness, enlightenment, whatever.
2. And therefore (this is occasionally implicit but usually explicit) everyone else is wrong and, consequently, lost, deluded, damned, dangerous, whatever.
In settling into pluralistic democracies religions have tried to deflect attention from their big teeth by putting on bonnets and skirts. But then they open their mouths and.... The current example, of course, is the line now making headlines and causing riots from that speech by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope was quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor:
''He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'''
Of course, Benedict's slap at atheists in the same speech, which we have discussed, has failed to cause any riots.
posted on 09.15.2006 at 6:47 PM
• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly," [Baylor's Christopher] Bader says. Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says. They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).
•The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, [Sociologist Paul] Froese says.
•The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.
•The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us," Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.
There's a kind of progression here: toward a more and more "wan" Deity. Perhaps the next steps in the progression would be:
•The We-Need-Some-Sense-of-Meaning God -- otherwise, as Nietzsche puts it, the earth would be "unchained" from the sun.
•God as an Idea -- a beautiful one, Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov insists.
•The Metaphoric God, who may not exist but is a useful way of thinking of certain existential and moral questions.
•The God Who Makes for a Good Story -- life, presumably, seeming more interesting if we pretend He's around.
•The We-Got-to-Hang-On-to-Something-that-Might-Remotely-Qualify-as-a-God God -- otherwise we'd be atheists.
Pope Benedict XVI Weighs In
posted on 09.14.2006 at 6:07 PM
The latest to join our dialogue on the nature of disbelief is Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, his comments are a bit obscure:
Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe....
Only this can free us from being afraid of God which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism... Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.
His Holyness -- at least as interpreted by the New York Times -- seems to be aiming for something here beyond mere lucidity. I guess the point is that our fear of God keeps us from accepting His assistance in overcoming our anxious fear of the world and of the emptiness of life.
It's hard to argue with the Pope on this "anxiety before the emptiness of life" thing. God knows we've all had days when stuff seems more than a little random. No doubt a bit of supernaturally imposed good/bad, right/wrong believe that the Son and the Father are consubstantial/don't belief the Son and the Father are consubstantial might help. Problem is -- and maybe this is part of the reason Benedict seems to be having difficulty making himself clear -- God Himself often seems more mysterious, shall we say, than clear on matters such as the proper relationship between religion and reason and what we should be doing about Darfur."Who can straighten what He has twisted? Koheleth wonders in Ecclesiastes.
And Benedict must be hanging out with a weird bunch of atheists. I can imagine a some haunted sinner running from God and his alleged judgement. But, rather than being afraid of God, the atheists I know are just unimpressed with Him as a concept (or Concept).
posted on 09.12.2006 at 10:51 PM
Some numbers from a large survey of Americans' religious attitudes by Gallup and Baylor University (via USA Today):
** 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force.
Not surprising. That would leave 8.2% of Americans not believing in God or the equivalent. But then the survey includes this:
** About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%.
Is this evidence that the religious revival is real? Or might this represent a difference in the surveys? And when asked dead on:
** only 5.2% of Americans say they are atheists.
This could be bad for book sales. The next number sounds ominous:
** 45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values."
Not clear, however, whether that means helping the poor or requiring prayer in school.
9/11 and Atheism
posted on 09.11.2006 at 10:24 AM
This from an interview on public radio with Pat Berger, a 78-year-old woman in New York who appears to have found (or strengthened) atheism through the events of September 11:
"I really realized that it is all chance, and it is all random," she says. She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the twin towers because she happened to walk into a meeting at the wrong time. "There is no one watching out for anybody," Berger says.
I can think of other examples of this: One is a relative whose belief in God did not survive his experience with the Holocaust. Why does tragedy not more often lead to a surrender of belief in a benevolent God?
Have Atheists Become News?
posted on 09.09.2006 at 11:22 PM
Dying for Jesus
posted on 09.07.2006 at 8:55 PM
Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.
Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?
The Wages of Disbelief -- 2
posted on 09.06.2006 at 11:38 AM
In my little slice of America announcing I'm working on a history of disbelief has been no problem. Found a useful reminder that Americans are not always so tolerant from a Virginia Pilot article about a small, local group called, Freethinkers and Atheists of Virginia:
"We get that all the time: 'It's a Christian nation - if you don't like it, why don't you just leave,' " said Lauren Floyd, a computer programmer who co-founded the local group.
It was a measure of the stigma atheists say they face that five of the 11 members present on this night last month refused to be interviewed. One man said he was job-hunting and feared that being known as an atheist could cost him employment.
Yvette and Matt Edwards, who live in Norfolk, said hostility was plain in the reactions their atheist-themed bumper stickers seemed to elicit from passers-by.
"We've had people raise their Bible and yell at us," Matt Edwards said. The couple ultimately stripped the fenders clean after wearying of finding scribbled messages such as "Go to church" and "God loves you" on their parked minivan.
Curious if others have experienced any of this.
The Itch for Religion -- 2
posted on 09.01.2006 at 12:13 PM
Or maybe what we're seeing is the culture -- human, global culture -- in the process of shaking off this need for a Heavenly Father. As we shook off (mostly) kings. As we shook off the belief that the earth is the center of the universe. Occasionally -- individually, globally -- we take a step back.
Presumably humans have an "itch" to see themselves in the center of the cosmos, too, but have managed, over time, to overcome it.
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?
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."
The Danger of Astrology
posted on 08.26.2006 at 10:52 AM
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.
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. 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.
Most 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?
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.
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.
Beauty and Jesus
posted on 08.22.2006 at 11:58 PM
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.
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.
Morality and Evolution
posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM
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?
I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One
posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM
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.)
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.
"Proof of Life After Death"
posted on 08.14.2006 at 3:14 PM
In 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.
They're Not in Kansas Anymore?
posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM
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.
"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).
"Raving Atheist" Not Enough of an Atheist?
posted on 07.31.2006 at 7:39 PM
We hate to miss out on a good contretemps, and, surprise, apparently even the gaggle of blogging disbelievers can occasionally spawn one. So here, in the likelihood that you've missed it, is the wise and level headed (a negative for a contretemps) Pharyngula jabbing The Raving Atheist. RA (as he's known in blogland) committed his first sin by questioning abortion. His second may have been this statement: "I will never write another bad word about Jesus or Christianity on The Raving Atheist."
Be warned: Not to be left out, I'm looking for a fight. Maybe I'll never say another bad word about Zeus or paganism.
Death -- Part II
posted on 07.27.2006 at 1:01 AM
This is man-of-the-moment Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah:
"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."
Pat Tillman -- Non-Christian
posted on 07.23.2006 at 9:31 PM
Pat Tillman was an American professional football player who, after September 11, gave up a million dollar contract to fight "for his country" in Afghanistan. He was killed by "friendly fire," though the US military managed to hide that embarrassing fact for almost five weeks. Tillman's family has been pressing for an investigation. Now there is a report that the selfless Tillman was an atheist, or at least a non-Christian, which has some in the Army upset.
Kauzlarich said he'd learned Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother and fellow Army Ranger who was a part of the battle the night Pat Tillman died, objected to the presence of a chaplain and the saying of prayers during a repatriation ceremony in Germany before his brother's body was returned to the United States.
Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.
Lt. Col. Kauzlarich's discomfort with atheism is interesting:
In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more -- that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."
Guess that's true. Guess atheists do find death "pretty tough."
Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know."
Here, in response, is Tillman's mother:
Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with ESPN.com. Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.
"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."
After a pause, her voice full with emotion, she added, "Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble.
...The Tillman family has continued to try to push through layers of Army bureaucracy for answers, about both the death of their son and the appearance that Pat Tillman's Army life, and death, might have been used for political purposes.
posted on 07.23.2006 at 3:41 PM
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the only country today founded specifically for people of one religion: Israel? We know the hugely compelling historical reason for this. Still, sometimes it is hard nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, (as my friend Dan Lazare argues) not to think that this sort of thing is a bad idea.
Sectarian -- 2
posted on 07.20.2006 at 10:03 PM
From the lead story in today's New York Times, on Lebanon:
The weak government is unable to deal with the crisis. Despite the hopes raised by the so-called Cedar Revolution, which ended nearly three decades of Syrian control, the government remains trapped in the sectarian straitjacket of a system that apportions political offices by religion.
Here, for the record, the word "sectarian" is being used to refer to different religions, not just sects of the same religion. Why then, I ask again, not write: "trapped in the religious straitjacket of a system that apportions political offices by sect"? We know why: because the mating of a hallowed word like "religion" with a negative term is not allowed.
Religion and Science -- 3
posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM
Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.
Gould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:
the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.
So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.
Religion and Science -- 2
posted on 07.18.2006 at 11:20 PM
Leonard Lopate had an interview this afternoon with Francis Collins, a former head of the Human Genome Project, on "how he reconciles his scientific knowledge with his religious faith." Collins has a book out on the subject, entitled, The Language of God. Stimulating fellow:
God is outside of nature. Science studies nature. Its tools are designed to study nature. So it is totally inappropriate to take scientiific conclusions and draw any particular conclusions about God.
posted on 07.17.2006 at 9:05 AM
An obvious thought: How often are these two words -- "sectarian" and "violence" -- paired. (It's "sectarian bloodletting" on the front page of the New York Times today.) The Oxford Compact Dictionary defines "sectarian" as:
concerning or deriving from a sect or sects. 2 carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect or other group.
The dictionary then gives this example of usage:
Are there any "sects" that are not based on religion? What if they dropped the euphemism and simply wrote "religious violence"?
How often are the words "nonsectarian" and "violence" paired?
Astrology and the World Cup
posted on 07.09.2006 at 8:53 PM
We tend to look up to the enlightened Europeans, particularly the French, as we struggle here in the US with tough questions like whether evolution ought to be taught in the schools. Then we learn that Raymond Domenech -- the coach of the French team, which has just lost in the finals of the World Cup -- has a weakness for matters supernatural:
He has an interest in astrology and has admitted reading tarot cards to learn about players' personalities. He has gone on record as saying he does not like Scorpios and is wary of having too many Leos in his side. Interestingly, no Scorpios were picked for Germany 2006.
Wonder how that sort of thing would go over here. Perhaps acceptable belief systems in this country, beyond frequent knocking on wood, are restricted to those mentioned in one or another of the testaments of the Bible (though the astrology columns do get a large enough readership). Perhaps acceptable belief systems in France are limited to those that aren't mentioned there.
posted on 07.05.2006 at 9:32 AM
As you wander through Europe and South America large crosses often look down on you, and on nearby towns, from the tops of hills. Crosses occupy similar perches in parts of the United States, too. You'd hope -- since US governments are not supposed to "establish" religion -- publicly owned hilltops would be free of such crosses. But that is not the case in San Diego. The Supreme Court is to rule. Stay tuned.
Religion and the Quest for Certainty
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:30 AM
At the heart of the (alleged) religious revival is a hunger-- in a relativistic, postmodern age -- for hard truths. That hunger revealed itself (stripped of religious vocabulary) in a recent education law passed by the Florida Legislature, which proclaims:
"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."
Sure. The law is skillfully deconstructed by Mary Beth Norton in the New York Times.
Relgion and Politics: Barack Obama
posted on 07.02.2006 at 9:15 AM
"It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase `under God.'"
Afraid I know quite a few people, all of whom have been children, who did indeed feel oppressed by it (but then again people do get a bit touchy when forced to mouth, every day, something they profoundly disbelieve). Why is the line between church and state -- inscribed in the Bill of Rights in the United States -- so difficult for so many politicians to honor? Okay, maybe we know the answer. But then it raises another also not-too-difficult question: What won't a politician do for some votes?
Religion and Science
posted on 06.30.2006 at 5:44 PM
And just one more from Edward O. Wilson, in which he fails to take the why-can't-we-all-be-friends?, it's-all-just-different-perspectives-on-the-same-thing position on faith and reason:
So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.
Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
Oddly, this is an argument based not, as you might expect from a scientist, on truth, on the wrongness of religion, but on consequences: religion being ungood for societies.
Three World Views?
posted on 06.28.2006 at 11:13 PM
Edward O. Wilson writes that today...
Global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition, each logically consistent within its own, independent premises.
The first is familiar and expected:
The dominant of these hypotheses, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge, and friend. We interpret his will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.
But the division between his second and third categories -- the secular approaches -- is problematic and interesting:
The second worldview is that of political behaviorism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence the mind originates almost wholly as a result of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature," people can be molded to the best possible political and economic system, namely, as urged upon the world through most of the twentieth century, communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.
Both of these worldviews, God-centered religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical worldview, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. It is the commonality of the hereditary responses and propensities that define our species. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 percent of its existence, it forms the behavioral part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called the indelible stamp of our lowly origin.
From this perspective the move from behavioral psychology to Wilson's own sociobiology, from nurture to nature, qualifies as a new Enlightenment.
Bruce and Religion
posted on 06.27.2006 at 7:07 PM
The larger issue, for me, is how deeply embedded religion is in our culture -- to the point where attempting to live without gods is a much, much more difficult task than we (most of us) think.
Saw Bruce Springsteen in his exuberant and delightful folk-revival show the other night in New Jersey . Surely were enough signs that something else was also being revived. "Come on rise up!" went the chorus of one of the few of his own songs he did. (Fellow to left of me seemed as if he were about to start talking in tongues.) From the older folk songs came lines like "every link had Jesus' name." One song about Jacob, another (you know it) about marching saints.
One lesson: the extent to which this is part of the musical tradition. Pete Seeger, whose repertoire Bruce was ostensibly borrowing, is an old lefty. He, I was reminded, never shied away from "Oh Mary Doncha Weep."
Another lesson: Aging -- often, certainly not always -- can bring you further from being able to do without God. Be interesting to chart likelihood of belief at various ages. I suspect the dip would be at about the time Bruce was singing "Born to Run." The peak? Well he may still be climbing. And Bruce is in the avant garde of the baby boom. Where he heads the middle-aged may be likely to follow.
Kind of weird to be dancing and singing along, with your own exuberance and delight, to a line like "Pharaoh's Army Got Drowneded," knowing there is zero historical evidence that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt ever happeneded. Or am I to content myself with the knowledge that this is mere art, mere metaphor?
Americans, Evolution and Revelation
posted on 06.24.2006 at 12:53 PM
Nothing ["nothing"?] in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation, or more illuminating, than the universal occurrence of biological evolution. Further, few natural processes have been more convincingly explained than evolution by the theory of natural selection or, as it is popularly called, Darwinism.
Thus it is surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rocklike conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 percent that accept the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as truth,
The Attack on Reason
posted on 06.23.2006 at 6:20 PM
This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...
It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....
Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...
Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.
(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")
Thou Shalt Know Thy Commandments
posted on 06.20.2006 at 3:42 PM
The Congressman, Lynn Westmoreland, who sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in Congress, could only name, on the Colbert Report, three of them.
(thanks Ben Vershbow)
Are Atheists More Moral? -- VI
posted on 06.08.2006 at 10:30 PM
The Raving Atheist has come upon a losing candidate in the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Alabama, Larry Darby, who declared himself both an atheist and a holocaust denier.
Darby got 44 percent of the vote! Given how popular we know, or think we know, atheism to be in states like Alabama, that would seem to say spooky things about holocaust denial. Oh. Just learned Darby has spoken before a white supremacist group.
In other Alabama election news, Roy Moore, the former judge who had installed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, lost a primary for governor, getting one-third of the votes against the incumbent. Moore to supporters (from Newsday): "God's will has been done."
posted on 06.07.2006 at 9:38 PM
The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity--ethnic, racial, religious--rather than to appeals based on the rational forms-- economic above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: Why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victims?
Medicine as "Belief System"
posted on 06.06.2006 at 8:56 AM
Is medicine just another "belief system"? Is one belief system as good as another? Alan Ryan, in the New York Review of Books (thanks, as often, to Arts and Letters Daily), includes these quotations from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism. The first refers to how the Asante people in Ghana explain illness:
People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.
Ryan's second quote from Appiah's book contrasts that with a modern Western view:
When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witch-craft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.
Appiah, as I understand it, is not calling for protecting each of these world views but for conversations between them. (Part of an interesting new pro-globalization backlash.) But still. How serious a conversation should I, can I have with someone who believes, say, in resurrection, or God sending plagues, or Karma, or heavenly rewards for suicide bombings, or witchcraft, or that the Bible, unlike the Da Vinci Code, is nonfiction?
And are we to allow that medicine, that science, is just another religion?
Adam and Eve in the New York Times
posted on 06.05.2006 at 11:59 AM
The New York Times ran a characteristically lucid article on the Science report that fig trees may have been the first cultivated plant. But, in the second paragraph the Times decides to have some fun:
Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves...
Fine. We're all for fun. But then the Times seems compelled to treat the Adam and Eve line as if it were more than just fun, as if it needs to be taken seriously, explained:
...in which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.
A few centuries ago considerable scholarly effort was expended calculating the dimensions of Noah's Ark and the date of Adam's creation (accepted answer: 4004 BC). Is the Times now to look for scientific and historical explanations of Eden? Or was the "grown wild" line added because it was feared the "new look in fig leaves" quip might, in the current climate, offend?
Da Vinci Code Banned...
posted on 06.02.2006 at 11:54 PM
...in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as part of a "ban on movies that `hurt' the religious sentiments of people."
Almost makes you want to go see the damn thing.
Religion and Soldiers in Iraq
posted on 05.29.2006 at 11:21 PM
For those who cling to the belief that when faced with life at its most intense atheists inevitably will waver, here's the Iraq veteran and American military chaplain Major John Morris, interviewed on the public radio program, Speaking of Faith (thanks to Robert Schwartz):
"It's not true. There are atheists in foxholes."
Indeed, war, as the thoughtful Major Morris acknowledges, can intensify disbelief::
What I saw in Iraq....on the battlefield: a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith; a third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic...; the other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith..
War does what life can do, only faster:
Many would say to me very bluntly, "I've lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away," or "I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there's a good God, he would not have let that happen, so I do not want to believe anymore."
This is, of course, the classic "problem of evil" -- one of the more compelling arguments against the existence of God. Major Morris attributes another related argument to some of the soldiers in the irreligious third -- the often unavoidable apprehension that "the center cannot hold":
...War is chaos. You can do everything right and still die.... That chaos seems to...harden people into saying, "I can't think about transcendent things. Nobody's in control. ...Whatever is, is. And whatever will be, will be. ...So don't bother me with anything transcendent or eternal."
And this particular war -- unlike the two World Wars or Korea or Vietnam -- adds one more reason to reject religion, as Major Morris reports:
Now the thing that really throws a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place... That really hardens people to say, "I don't know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don't want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. So I don't want to deal with any of you people who have anything to do with religion, cause you guys are causing the wars of the world."
Religion v. Spirituality
posted on 05.25.2006 at 9:46 AM
Slovoj Zizek's writing against religion has drawn the attention of this blog. Recently he spoke out, in the London Review of Books, on a subject that is not ostensibly among the blog's concerns: the struggle for the soul of what is left of a left. Zizek sums up, and holds up to ridicule, the position of Bill Gates, George Soros, Thomas Friendman, etc. -- who, in good fun, have been dubbed "liberal communists."
Zizek's unsympathetic characterization of their position on religion is among our concerns:
Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit-machines: they want their lives to have deeper meaning. They are against old-fashioned religion and for spirituality, for non-confessional meditation (everybody knows that Buddhism foreshadows brain science, that the power of meditation can be measured scientifically).
Is it time for the irreligious also to have at this more-fashionable-in-some-circles spirituality? Which returns us to the Harris question debated below. And to various ways "spiritual atheists" have of standing for something (or Something) rather than nothing.
Trashing the Bible...and God
posted on 05.24.2006 at 10:32 PM
Q: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."
A: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.
Okay, Dawkins and Harris are known atheists, and this appeared on the Web, not in a mainstream publication. But "psychotic monster" (or should it be Psychotic Monster) and "diabolical" (interesting choice of word)? God? Is this further evidence that it is becoming easier to take swings at religion?
Harris the New O'Hair?
posted on 05.23.2006 at 8:17 PM
For many years, Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the person who came to mind for most Americans when they thought of atheism. There are signs that Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith, is settling into that role (until, at least, my book rockets up the best-seller lists).
Murray O'Hair had some limitations as atheism's spokeswoman: One of her sons had the bad grace to get born-again. and as a thinker she wasn't, shall we say, Bertrand Russell. Harris is a strong writer and clear thinker, but he has one apparent limitation of his own: He "practices Zen meditation and believes in the value of mystical experiences." (Here is Harris himself on meditation.) This leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. Should a spokesman for vegetarianism reveal a weakness for carpaccio that, presumably, would be a negative.
(I, you'll be glad to learn, have no limitations.)
Trashing the Bible
posted on 05.22.2006 at 4:47 PM
New York Magazine certainly qualifies as mainstream. David Edelstein is its film critic. This is from his current piece:
I'd call it biblical vengeance, but even the Bible isn't this perverse.
It is hard to imagine the "Holy Book" offhandedly being called "perverse" in such a publication thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago. We are supposed to be living through a religious revival. But look closer and this is the sort of thing you find.
The Cilice and the Discipline
posted on 05.19.2006 at 9:52 PM
Apparently some obscure text called The Da Vinci Code accuses, through a character named Silas, a group within the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, of various kinds of nastiness. One of those nastinesses is masochism. I caught up via another obscure text: an article in the New Yorker:
It is through Silas that Brown introduces his readers to the practice of corporal mortification--self-inflicted pain as an avenue to deeper spirituality--and the devices employed to achieve it, a barbed belt worn around the thigh (called a cilice) and a knotted rope (the discipline). In one scene in the book, Silas, preparing for a night of doing God's dirty work, strips naked and cinches his cilice until it cuts deeper into his flesh, then repeatedly whips himself until, "finally, he felt the blood begin to flow." ...
Any truth to this? Peter Boyer in the New Yorker again:
A sizable proportion of Opus Dei members, under the guidance of a spiritual director, voluntarily take up the practice of corporal mortification, wearing the cilice for two hours most days and using the discipline. (Both items are produced in monasteries.) Father William Stetson, who runs the Catholic Information Center, in Washington, D.C., and who joined Opus Dei in the mid-nineteen-fifties, when he was at Harvard Law School, says that he learned the larger meaning of corporal mortification the first week he joined. "I understood that what was being demanded of me was an ascetical practice," he says. "Not just the cilice and the disciplines but an austerity of life, living in the middle of the world." Stetson and others frequently point out that corporal mortification, which may seem a throwback to medieval mysticism, was not uncommon even among recent exemplars of spiritual piety. Mother Teresa of Calcutta wore a cilice and used the discipline, telling her Sisters, ''If I am sick, I take five strokes. I must feel its need in order to share in the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of our poor."
Kinky? Serious? Life denying? Humbling. Let an obscure anti-Christian philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, have the last word:
"Suffering itself becomes contagious.... In Christianity...the body is despised.... Hatred of the senses, of the joy of the senses, of joy in general is Christian."
Fiction and the Catholic Church
posted on 05.17.2006 at 4:05 PM
Although I'm one of the forty-three literate individuals left above the age of 16 who have not yet read The Da Vinci Code in one language or another, I still find the Catholic Church's position on this amusing. This organization -- or at least a semi-secret group within it, Opus Die -- had asked that the movie be labeled "fiction."
The "nonfiction" view of the life of Jesus subscribed to by the Catholic Church is that He was born of a virgin impregnated by God; that "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;...these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another;...and yet there are not three Gods but one God"; that Jesus came back to life after being executed by the Romans; and that He will preside on a Day of Judgement in which the dead "must rise with their bodies and are to render an account of their deeds."
Which is not to deny that Dan Brown's argument in The Da Vinci Code -- despite the attractiveness of a married Jesus -- seems screwy.
Religion and Politics -- A Comment
posted on 05.10.2006 at 9:58 PM
This critique of Bush's injection of his religious beliefs into his policy decisions comes from a record from China, dated 662 BCE:
It is when a state is about to flourish that [its ruler] listens to his people; when it is about to persih then he listens to the spirits.
posted on 05.09.2006 at 8:55 PM
It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays?... Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?
Religion and Foreign Policy -- 2
posted on 05.07.2006 at 10:16 AM
When I began this book I looked at President Bush as an anomaly. But in working on the book I found that all American Presidents in one way or another invoke God.... President Bush is a little different because he's so sure about what religion is telling him.
Turns Out Prayer Does Work
posted on 05.05.2006 at 8:12 AM
Forget that unpleasant study. The Cadillac News in Cadillac, Michigan, presents front-page evidence of the efficacy of prayer and faith -- evidence of the good, old-fashioned, anecdotal kind: A woman, Donna Sikes, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. While driving toward the hospital for surgery, she listens to "Infinite Power -- God's Plan for Miracle Living" by Gordon and Pat Robertson.
"The tape said to put your hand on where your sickness is so I did and I was in the spirit all the way down there and I said -- Jesus take it away, I'm all alone and I have no one to help me."
Sikes arrives at the hospital. MRI. Tumor gone. One Dr. Alicia Elmore "of Family Practice of Cadillac confirmed the mysterious disappearance of Sike's tumor and documented the case in a letter written to" Pat Robertson's "700 Club."
posted on 05.04.2006 at 9:36 AM
Even if religion has been making a comeback against secularism in recent decades, hasn't much (not all) religion been transformed by its exposure to secularism? This from A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian:
In its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles.
God Would be Great in 2008!
posted on 05.03.2006 at 1:56 PM
Why not cut out the middle man and just elect the Almighty president?
Positives: Known for being decisive leader. Has military experience. Projects sense of authority. Reputation for integrity. Many millennia of experience with media (primarily testaments and oral tradition, however). Unlikely to find new skeltons in closet (though possible Satan might make rounds of Sunday talk shows).
Negatives: Beard tests poorly with focus groups. Hazy citizenship. Has so far escaped openly taking sides in sectarian debates -- might be difficult to avoid in a debate. Unlikely to carry California. Possible tough questions about Katrina and holocaust. At least one well known extra-marital relationship. Jealous. Testy.
Religion and Foreign Policy
posted on 05.02.2006 at 2:41 PM
Here are three (consecutive, I believe) sentences from President Bush, speaking in California last week:
A. "I base a lot of my foreign-policy decisions on some things that I think are true."
B. "One, I believe there's an Almighty."
C. "And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."
Bush has said these sorts of things before. But perhaps it would be useful to look closely at a few of the words he uses.
"True" is not, on the face of it, an ugly word -- especially when tempered, as it is in statement A, by "I think." The problem, particularly when the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake, is how truth is determined. Statements B and C indicate that Bush sees truth not as the product of investigation, analysis or discussion but of belief or revelation. So we seem to have foreign policy based on faith. (To be fair, the United States was founded on the assumption that a few "truths" are "self-evident.")
"Free," too, is an attractive word. However, in statement C it is removed from the realm of politics and assumed -- based on belief or revelation, for how else could this be determined? -- to have been placed in "everybody's soul." Freedom here is not an "unalienable Right," like "Liberty" in the Declaration of Independence; it is an inescapable "desire." We no longer need to ask people how they weigh various "rights," whether they might upon occasion prefer tyranny to war or lawlessness, "Life" to "Liberty." We don't need votes or public-opinion surveys. We know what they "desire." We can look into their "souls."
Perhaps the most interesting word here is "Almighty." This is no mere "Creator," limited to endowing. This is not Tony Blair's God, who, along with history, will judge. Bush names a can-do Deity -- All Mighty. His God runs the whole show. That (although I am unfamiliar with the president's thinking on the question of free will versus determinism) would seem to take lots of pressure off Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et al. The key is not whether there really were WMDs, whether civil war was likely or how many troops should have been sent. Align yourself with the wishes of the Almighty -- and the "desire" He has implanted in "everybody's soul" -- and, in time, He'll take care of the rest.
I don't know enough about the religious pronouncements of other presidents or other world leaders. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric has not been that exceptional. However, for the man (ostensibly) running the United States today -- with its resources, with its power -- these three statements strike me as deeply, deeply disturbing.
posted on 04.29.2006 at 4:46 PM
For a summary of the argument for teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution in the schools, see the new United States presidential press secretary, Tony Snow (via Matzke via Pharyngula). Snow asserts:
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.
Colbert v. Atheist
posted on 04.27.2006 at 9:37 AM
Colbert: Well, I've got historical evidence. The Bible tells me Jesus was born of a virgin.
Harris: Yeah, but . . .
Colbert: I mean, there's your witness right there, the Bible.
Harris: Unfortunately, the Qu'ran says that anyone who thinks that is going to spend eternity in hell.
Colbert: But we're not talking about the Qu'ran, we're talking about the Bible, okay? The Bible is without flaw. It is inerrant. And we know this, because the Bible says it is without flaw.
This is, as those who have sorted through this program's various levels of irony will confirm, an example of religion, the Christian religion, actually getting punched around a bit on a major American cable channel: Comedy Central. This is not the sort of thing we were used to seeing on our televisions in this country.
Are we witnessing a result of the increasing number of television channels with increasing space (despite corporate ownership, etc.) for diverse viewpoints? Or is the great, centuries long march of reason proceeding apace after all?
The Evolution "Debate"
posted on 04.26.2006 at 3:59 PM
"Evolution: The Big Surprise" is a headline on the cover of the current issue of the New York Review of Books. And your first thought is that it might have something to do with the debate over "intelligent design."
It doesn't. The article describes some interesting recent research on embryo development and how it has "radically altered our views of evolution and the relation of human beings to all other animals." Still, the fact that you even suspect that the New York Review would be troubling itself with countering a theory with no serious scientific support shows how this creationist nonsense has wormed its way into contemporary discourse.
Another sign is the fact that this article must begin by anticipating our suspicions and making clear that it is not about the "recent controversy about the theory of evolution."
Let's say religious groups were able to convince the odd school board that the "theory" that the universe was created in the year 4004 BC should be taught along with history and astronomy. Would articles on these subject then have to begin by explaining that they are not about the recent controversy about the age of the universe?
Religion and Historical Truth
posted on 04.13.2006 at 4:58 PM
New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):
The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.
Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?
Religion and Politics -- 2: John McCain
posted on 04.10.2006 at 10:59 PM
This from a New York Times article on the Democrats' favorite Republican, likely presidential candidate John McCain:
He said schools should be allowed to offer "intelligent design" courses as an alternative to evolution.
And perhaps levitation courses as an alternative to gravity?
Religion and Immigration
posted on 04.09.2006 at 11:39 PM
The religious battles in the United States lately have been between the orthodox -- of all stripes -- and the secular. (Ann Coulter's latest work of deep analysis even has a title similar to that of this blog.) But among the political alliances the current, increasingly heated debate over immigration has threatened is the recent evangelical-Catholic partnership to oppose abortion and support traditional religious values. This has certainly not been a happy partnership for those concerned about freedom from religion. Nevertheless, its potential breakup brings some eerie reminders of the way things were.
The Blindingly Obvious
posted on 04.06.2006 at 10:56 PM
Interesting how much effort, nowadays, is going into proving what we ought already to know: Life evolved in part from climbing from the sea to the land. Prayer by strangers can't improve health. Next? A double-blind study of whether psychics can solve crime? Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Maybe this -- the eradication of superstition -- is a slower process than we thought. Maybe you have to keep at it. Maybe disbelievers, not believers, should be calling for more of these studies.
Evidence of Evolution?
posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:55 AM
Just discovered fossils of a giant fish with proto-limbs -- a "missing link" between fish and land animals -- certainly deepen understanding of evolution. But have intelligent design/creationist arguments received so much attention in the United States recently that these fossils need to be seen as further evidence of the truth of the theory of evolution (as if this theory is wanting in proof). Apparently yes. This is paragraph five of the lead story in the New York Times today:
Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin's theory.
Indeed, while this is certainly an interesting and important story, it would probably not be the lead story if this religious foolishness had not received so much attention.
Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?
posted on 04.04.2006 at 9:54 PM
Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:
the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.
But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:
The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.
So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."
Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?
Prayer Worthless! -- 4
posted on 04.04.2006 at 12:29 AM
Yes, we want to carry on about how ridiculous it was to waste time proving the blindingly obvious: that a stranger's prayer can't improve your health. But maybe we're forgetting the time and place in which we live. Watching the Final Four (Okay, so I did prove susceptible to March Madness after all), I've seen ads for a TV show (CSI) about a psychic and a movie (didn't catch the name) about demons.
America Hotbed of Atheism?
posted on 04.01.2006 at 12:19 PM
Madeleine Bunting is a wobbly writer -- not, on merit, worth the space I've devoted to her. Nonetheless, she has a way, as she lurches about, of stumbling upon some interesting issues. Another point that I'm intrigued by in her recent piece in the Guardian is this claim that America has become the site of a death match between hardline atheists and creationists. Britain, in her view, must avoid "American-style false dichotomies between faith and science." American style!
Americans are well aware that they possess an oversupply of exuberant creationists. But the United States -- not Europe -- as a hotbed of extreme atheism! Gosh.
Could there be something to this -- perhaps the result of an equal and opposite reaction to those creationists and their buddies on the religious right? Or is Bunting, once again, just not looking where she's going.
Prayer Worthless! -- 3
posted on 03.31.2006 at 3:47 PM
Let's forget for a moment the "faith-is-not-something-that-can-be-investigated-by-science" talk that will inevitably follow reports on this study showing that prayer by strangers does not help before a heart operation. What does the fact that the study was done tell us about the moment in which we live?
1. That ours is a time when many people still take such ridiculous assumptions seriously enough so that money (including US government money) and energy are devoted to studying them.
2. That, despite all the talk of religious revivals and resurgent orthodoxy, the relentless assault of science and scholarship upon superstition continues.
Prayer Worthless! -- 2
posted on 03.31.2006 at 2:53 PM
A few additional notes:
-- $2.4 million was spent on this study to see if strangers praying for you could actually improve your chances when having heart surgery. Perhaps it was worth it just to get the headlines in the papers today (USA Today: "Study shrugs off prayer's power to heal"), but surely there is more worthwhile medical research to be done.
-- According to the New York Times, the US government has spent "$2.3 million on prayer research since 2000."
posted on 03.31.2006 at 1:55 AM
No fooling. We now have a study.The New York Times :
Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.
Surprised? How about this:
And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.
Is this not further evidence -- sorry Ms. Bunting, sorry Mr. Archbishop of Canterbury -- that science ain't healthy for faith? Is it also a sign, and this is a bit surprising, that faith ain't healthy? (Thanks to Bret and Lauren.)
Does Darwin Lead to Atheism? -- II
posted on 03.29.2006 at 9:52 PM
Madeleine Bunting is concerned with avoiding "false dichotomies between faith and science." What religious models might satisfy Bunting and "mesh with" (the phrase is from Dan Jones) evolution? Jones mentions the obvious one: God sets natural selection in motion and watches it work -- presumably devoting Himself, thereafter, just to prayer-answering and salvation-dispensing. Various wispy Gods -- God as Nature, God as metaphor, God as consciousness, etc. -- would also fit.
Wouldn't you have to ignore, or view as fiction, large portions of various holy books for more traditional versions of God to "mesh"? In the effort to avoid "dichotomies," don't you lose either a lot of God or a lot of evolution?
Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?
posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM
A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:
'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'
In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."
This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:
'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'
Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)
posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM
From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:
He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.
Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?
Are Atheists More Moral? -- II
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:57 PM
Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
Religion and Politics: Hillary Clinton
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:30 PM
"It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," Clinton said, "because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Hard not to support adoption of a Would Jesus Get Arrested standard for all future US legislation (though I must admit I have some difficulty locating this particular Jesus, The Illegal Alien, in my copies of the "Scriptures"). And it's always invigorating, of course, to see a politician standing up for some valued voting bloc's convictions.
However, I have to wonder whether the good senator, even with all her advanced polling, might not be missing the beginnings of a turn in American public opinion. Our finger in the wind (and this method does, upon occasion, work) is detecting the initial stirrings of a secular backlash against the orthodox backlash against secularism. Whoever Hillary assigns to adjust her convictions should be advised to turn to this page for the latest on this anti-religious revival.
The Defanging of Religion
posted on 03.24.2006 at 9:32 AM
Religions, in recent centuries, are being housebroken (though sometimes it seems like trying to domesticate a wolf). They're being taught that it's not polite to burn "heretics," not neighborly to go to war with "infidels." Of course, as is the case with all such world-historical movements, some areas, some sects, have been slower than others to accept the new order. Some believers still have difficulty grasping why those who scorn the One True God must be tolerated. These laggards have been making a lot of our news lately. The latest example is the case of poor Abdul Rahman, who converted from Islam to Christianity in that new beacon of democracy, Afghanistan (our part of Afghanistan), and is now on trial for his life.
The Bible as a Theory?
posted on 03.21.2006 at 11:22 AM
This recent comment by the archbishop of Canterbury points to some of the jagged edges in the intelligent-design debate. His name is Rowan Williams:
"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."
Isn't the liberal, pluralistic perspective on intelligent design similar to that of the archbishop: Religion is fine; it just doesn't belong in science classes? (And, by this argument, John Barrow ought to decide if he's a physicist or a theologian, because they are two entirely different professions.)
Wouldn't a proselytizing nonbeliever argue, however, that, when it comes to the creation of the universe, the Bible does put forward a "theory"? Wouldn't this nonbeliever resist the idea that religion should be placed in a special reason-proof, science-proof "category" and, in fact, want intelligent design discussed in school so that it -- along with the notion that the universe was created in six days -- can be analyzed and, presumably, refuted, as the notion that the sun revolves around the earth has been refuted?
The Origin of Bacteria
posted on 03.18.2006 at 10:25 AM
For some recent online debunking of the argument for intelligent design see Concerned Scientist (via Pharyngula). The point, of course, is that rather than arriving -- poof -- suddenly and inexplicably, life on earth came about through a series of comprehensible steps.
posted on 03.17.2006 at 2:13 AM
Cambridge University cosmologist and mathematician John Barrow is this year's winner of the $1.6 million Templeton Prize.
-- The prize, designed to be worth more than a Nobel, is given "for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."
-- Barrow's research interests include mulling over the "anthropic principle" -- the notion that the laws of physics couldn't have been "set" just right to make possible John Barrow and, presumably, the rest of us without someone or something adjusting the dials.
-- Isn't "Spiritual Realities" an oxymoron?
-- Isn't it going to take more than $1.6 million -- chump change -- to get God (or even a less headstrong spirit) into some physicist's laboratory or Larry King's studio?
-- Should there be a reward for "Progress Toward Debunking Spiritual Claims to Reality" (Yo Soros! Gates! Other cool rich guys!) -- or has that work already been satisfactorily completed?
-- How do we know our nifty intelligent-life-supporting universe hasn't been accompanied by many drippy barren universes (all of which would lack physicists capable of using them to demonstrate the absence of intelligent design)? Why couldn't our universe simply be a fluke -- like the fact that John Barrow happened to have been born at just the right time to be hugely rewarded for his spiritual inclinations? How do we know that the physical laws needed to produce us aren't simply among the most probable, most stable outcomes of universe-creation events? Who adjusted the dials on the physical laws needed to produce the Intelligent Designer His or Herself?
The Clash of Eras -- II
posted on 03.15.2006 at 5:06 PM
"Her secularist critique of certain Muslim extremists who serve for her as an exemplar of all that is wrong with contemporary Muslim and Arab culture is unoriginal. Typical of irate secularist and modernization discourse, her argument consists of the standard flustered response to religion that we have heard since the Enlightenment: you are backwards and ignorant, grow up and get over it."
Is this -- "grow up and get over it" -- not what atheists, were it put somewhat more gently, do believe? Is it not merely "typical" of the "secularist...discourse" but necessary to it? Can you disbelieve without thinking others are wrong, even ignorant, to believe?
The Clash of Eras
posted on 03.15.2006 at 12:30 PM
We tend when talking of the beliefs of others to be cautious, to mince words, show respect. That's part of what's interesting about the recent statement (made on Al Jazeera!) by the Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan (quoted, most recently, by Tom Friedman). It is blunt; it is bold; and it has earned Dr. Sultan (as if to prove her point) numerous death threats:
"The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
No cultural relativism here. No fear of seeing progress in history. No fear of questioning or judging another's beliefs -- the fear that sometimes seems to paralyze anthropologists. (Wilhelm Schmidt: "There is but too much danger that the other [the nonbeliever] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colours.") Dr. Sultan, a nonbeliever, talks about religion.
(If you absolutely require a cynical perspective, try the Daily Kos.)
Are Atheists More Moral?
posted on 03.14.2006 at 2:36 PM
Three arguments, I think, can be made for the proposition that the irreligious are actually more moral than the religious:
1. That religions have actually encouraged violence because such intensity of conviction can lead to intolerance or crusades. Zizek (playing on the Dostoevsky line): "The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted."
2. That atheists are more moral because a moral law resides in Nature or Humanity, and the atheist's view of this law is not obscured by ancient texts, rituals, tribal feuds or other forms of religious mumbo jumbo. Zizek alludes to this when he talks positively of "merely human constraints and considerations." It was a major theme when the pro-Atheism argument first showed itself in Europe with Baron d'Holbach and, later, young Shelley:
There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those who err; earth in itself
Contains at once the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law; she only knows
How justly to proportion to the fault
The punishment it merits.
3. That the religious do good only to cozy up to God (as discussed here). Zizek: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."
These are attractive arguments for nonbelievers. Are they valid? And one more question: Is a "properly Christian ethical stance" what nonbelievers should be after?
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM
The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:
Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."
Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:
Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.
New Genes -- I
posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM
The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)
We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.
This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.
Poorly Camouflaged Retreat, cont.
posted on 03.05.2006 at 3:25 AM
Garret Keizer -- writing originally in the Los Angeles Times (thanks again to Ben Vershbow):
"The supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion."
God in Prime Time
posted on 03.03.2006 at 11:18 PM
Alert as usual, I have just focused on the fact that prime-time American network television featured a program in which God was a regular character. This realization arrives, apparently, well after that program -- Joan of Arcadia -- was canceled:
"Daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenager, has been acting a little strange. Most don't know that it has to do with the unusual way various people keep popping up, introducing themselves as God and then giving her specific directions to do things, such as get a job, join the debate team or volunteer with children. The appearances are hard for her to believe, even more so as she never knows who's going to turn up next. One minute it's a cute boy her own age, the next it's the lunch lady or a little girl."
'Twas on Fridays at eight on CBS. Here's a selection from "Joan's diary":
"On top of this, You Know Who pays me a visit. And guess what he tells me to do? Clean. Like he's my Mom. I'm going through this horrible crisis and all he can come up with is to clean?"
God as "You Know Who"? What, for God's sake, are we to make of this updating of Joan of Arc with the Joan Osbourne song as its theme? Would be nice to see this as part of the religious revival. But sounds as if it was quirky. Could religion be coming back quirky?
I should say something here, too, about "Touched By An Angel" and the, apparently edgy, "Book of Daniel." Unfortunately, I know little about these canceled shows either. Must I learn? Has the religious revival been canceled?
Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction
posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.
Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.
Instead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:
"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"
So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.
Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?
Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?
Rushdie on the Cartoons
posted on 03.01.2006 at 10:54 PM
From a statement signed by Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy and others on the Danish cartoons (brought to my attention by Ben Vershbow):
"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
Not so much a call for toleration (as we've been hearing) but a call for "resistance" and secularism.
"We reject « cultural relativism », which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions."
Is something stirring?
posted on 03.01.2006 at 8:51 PM
Just one more post coming on them:
Before we get, belatedly, to her:
God and Science
posted on 02.28.2006 at 12:04 PM
From a New York Times article on the defeat (Hallelujah!) of a bill in Utah that would have "required teachers to issue a disclaimer to their students saying that not all scientists agree about evolution and the origin of species."
"The bill died on a 46-to-28 vote in the Republican-controlled House after being amended by the majority whip, Stephen H. Urquhart, a Mormon who said he thought God did not have an argument with science."
Glad to see, of course, that Mr. Urquhart believes God to be open minded. But I continue to wonder how the diety might square science with miracles, the afterlife and His own omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent existence.
Wieseltier on Dennett III: Hume
posted on 02.24.2006 at 5:39 PM
Daniel Dennett claims to be -- and in fact is -- following in the tradition of
David Hume in using an exploration of the causes of religion to loosen belief in religion. But Leon Wieseltier accuses him of editing out one important statement by Hume -- the one in which the great skeptic admits: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
And it is true that, when pressed, Hume seems to emit a vague deism not dissimilar to the vague deism to which Wieseltier himself seems to cling (rather desperately, it seems). But the point, which Wieseltier fails to mention, is that in Hume's day one was pressed to avow belief in a deity with an insistence and consequence of a different order from anything philosophers today might confront. Just half a century earlier, a young man was hung in Scotland for rejecting religion. And Hume was afraid to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for 25 years -- until after his death.
This Scottish philosopher, who generally wanted to avoid "clamour," must have felt it prudent to display at least some plausible religious belief. Was he being insincere? We don't know. (Some of his professions of belief, such as the one Wieseltier quotes, seem inconsistent with his reasoning elsewhere; however, an unbending atheism would seem inconsistent with Hume's skepticism about intellectual certainty.) Is Wieseltier being fair in quoting, in the New York Times, Hume's avowal of belief in intelligent design without noting the pressures he faced? That question seems easier to answer.
Wieseltier' on Dennett II: Religion and Love
posted on 02.22.2006 at 1:16 PM
Here's something I find hard and interesting to think through. It is an analogy that is never fully made in Leon Wieseltier's surprisingly scatter-shot and shrill attack on Daniel Dennett's new book. The analogy is between religion and love.
Dennett has tried to explain why human societies end up believing in supernatural beings. We could come up with similar explanations -- biological, cultural -- for why humans fall in love. But such explanations would not negate the power, the beauty and the reality of love. (Here I would agree, in other words, with Wieseltier that a merely evolutionary or scientific explanation would fail to capture the whole messy, glorious, infuriating thing.) Do the power, beauty and reality of religion survive, similarly unscathed, attempts to give the causes of religion?
They probably do, don't they? Religion -- as emotion: as piety, awe, humility, sense of the sacred or sublime -- can certainly grip and can certainly be, in its way, lovely. Such responses, even a firm unbeliever would have to acknowledge, are real.
The problem, I think, is that religion wants to be more than just a pretty and deep emotion. It wants to have its view of the universe accepted as fact, just as some lovers insist in trying to persuade us that their beloved really is the most attractive or the only one for them. And here we can rebut with facts: "Moses could not have written the first five books of the Torah since his death is described in them" or "You said the same about your previous lover." Or we might note the factors that have led to the erroneous assertions -- their causes: "False ascriptions of authorship are characteristic of the oral tradition" or "Of course this feels special; you hadn't dated anyone for two years."
Religion also wants to be taken seriously as philosophy. This is what Wieseltier, in his clumsy way, seems to be claiming for it. In which case, we have a right to question biases, premises, groundings, internal consistency, etc. And I fear that by serious philosophic, not poetic, standards the treatises of starry-eyed prophets do not stand up much better than the treatises of starry-eyed lovers.
Science and Religion
posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM
Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:
All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."
The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?
Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?
posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM
It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending in his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:
"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."
It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?
Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?
Cartoons of the Atheist -- Part II (and Dennett's Book)
posted on 02.20.2006 at 11:33 AM
A few years ago, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published this cartoon; it was an unclever response to an opinion piece by Mitchell Kahle in which he wrote: "The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is entirely without merit or legitimacy...."
This notion that atheists will get religion as soon as they sense death or the full turbulence of life is an old one. In the nineteenth century some atheists went so far as to arrange to have witnesses by their deathbeds to prove that they did not succumb to a last-minute conversion.
Before getting to Leon Wieseltier's intemperate, wrongheaded and fascinating review of Dennett's book in Sunday's New York Times, I want to finish with Adam Kirsch's somewhat more delicate skewering. For at some point he falls back on a version of the old foxhole argument:
"To believe or disbelieve is existentially the most important choice of all. It shapes one's whole understanding of human life and purpose, because it is a choice that each of us must make for him or herself. To impress on a man the urgency of that choice, Kierkegaard wrote, it would be useful to "get him seated on a horse and the horse made to take fright and gallop wildly ... this is what existence is like if one is to become consciously aware of it."
Much here perplexes me. First, how does Kierkegaard's view of existence relate to Woody Allen's revelation that "eighty percent of life is just showing up"?
Second, what does it mean to say that belief in God is an "existential choice"? Doesn't belief in God depend on only one factor: whether you think there really is a God? I know we're supposed to forget such calculations and perpetrate some kind of "leap of faith." A "leap" toward what? From what? Over what? Is there any place to stand on the other side? Do you have to keep leaping? A "leap" that allows you to kill your son? Faith in dreams? Faith in reason? Faith in superstition? Faith in faith? Faith in nothing? Faith as a kind of madness? Faith in God?
And, third, what sort of argument for religion is it to say people crawl toward it when life gets tough and they get scared? When he heard thunder, my late golden retriever would attempt to hide his head under a bed. This earned neither him nor the bed much respect in my eyes.
The Causes of Belief
posted on 02.18.2006 at 11:35 AM
In a review of Daniel Dennett's new Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Adam Kirsch argues that an explanation for why people believe is not an argument against belief:
"Mr. Dennett believes that explaining religion in evolutionary terms will make it less real; that is the whole purpose of his book. But this is like saying that because water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, it is not really wet.... Just so, the reality of religious experience cannot be abolished by explaining it as an adaptation to our prehistorical environment."
But, of course, the reality of religious experience is considerably more elusive than the wetness of water. And a couple of the more common arguments used to demonstrate (against the evidence of our senses and of science) the existence of supernatural beings are hugely vulnerable to explanations of why so many believe.
One such common argument for the existence of God: the fact that all human societies seem to believe in Him or them. (This is the argument ex consensus gentium.) But if that widespread belief can be explained by the fact that a hypersensitivity to the presence of conscious agents is of survival value in hominids, then that argument disappears.
Another such common argument: that human societies believe in God because they've been given "revelations"; they've seen miracles, had visions. But if the belief was really caused by evolutionary pressures, there is less reason to believe in those revelations, miracles and visions.
Democritus, whom Dennett's book does not cite, had a go at the causes-of-belief question almost two and a half millennia ago. Hume, whom Dennett does cite, engages in a rigorous investigation of these causes in his Natural History of Religion. For good reason. This is powerful stuff.
(Thanks to Ben Vershbow, of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for the Kirsch link and, soon, many more.)
posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:18 AM
In his interesting opinion piece on the Danish cartoons, Robert Wright includes this observation:
"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious."
Certainly, this is true. Wright thinks it's good -- a sign of civil "self-restraint." But, when it comes to religion, isn't this reticence -- this reluctance to discuss and debate -- why so many odd, seemingly un-thought-through notions survive? Isn't it why religious (or anti-religious?) beliefs sometimes seem to lurk in dark corners of otherwise well-lit minds?
Cartoons of the Atheist
posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:47 PM
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?)
Wait, by the grace of Google, I found one (our artist is Jack Hamm):
I suspect that this image would not be sufficient to rouse the residents of the Left Bank or the Upper West Side to burn flags or embassies. Would it be possible to come up with a cartoon that would seriously offend atheists? Are they above (below?) this sort of thing? Is this because for the atheist "nothing is sacred"?
Doesn't a feeling for the "sacred" increase the inclination to take offense? Would this not be a response to the assertion by Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, that, in essence, religion is merely one of many "collective identities" societies can use as an excuse for violence?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part VI
posted on 02.09.2006 at 8:17 PM
I'm not sure how I myself would answer the question raised in the previous post. This seems one of those occasions when I've been writing to learn what I think.
Of course nonbelievers will be quick to line up with those who champion free expression, diversity of opinion and "peace, love and understanding." That has seemed almost too obvious to require much saying.
But I read myself as having been writing about the intolerance and fear that seem to lurk at the bottom of most religion. The nonbeliever's contribution may be to remind that even though you can teach most religions proper table manners and sit comfortably with them over tea, 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.
I think I want to say that this incident -- along with what has been going on in the red states lately -- should remind us that monotheism does not blend easily or smoothly into liberalism.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part V
posted on 02.08.2006 at 9:48 PM
** The politics have been breaking rather oddly on the those satiric cartoons. Some of the papers daring to reprint them have been right-wing papers -- normally more sensitive to affronts to religion than to limitations on free expression. (Does it depend on which religion?)
** The argument, as I see it, is not between the natural enemies atheism and orthodox belief but between the natural enemies pluralism/freedom of expression and orthodox belief. Which raises the question (actually Bob Stein raised the question) of what an atheist might see in this battle.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part IV
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:50 AM
In an opinion piece in the Times of London the atheist (Why aren't there more pieces by atheists in the Times that lands on my doorstep each morning?) Matthew Parris also sees deep and irreconcilable differences surfacing in the current battle over those Danish cartoons:
"Let us not duck what that "I do not believe" really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him. I do not believe that the Jews are God's Chosen People, or subject to any duties different from the rest of us. It means I do not believe any living creature will be reincarnated in another life.
"In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.
"Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the "community" of belief among "people of faith", this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others."
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part III
posted on 02.07.2006 at 11:42 AM
While all right-thinking folk want the violence that has broken out in response to the satiric drawings of Mohammad to end, this awful incident does at least have the virtue of reminding us that this is a world that is sharply divided -- between humanistic, tolerant pluralists and true believers in one or another faith.
The views of Danish newspaper editors and devout Muslims may indeed be incompatible. No religious testament with which I am familiar tempers its "Thou shall not"s with an "unless it is an expression of some individual's right to free expression." And no self-respecting child of the Enlightenment is eager to hand mullahs, priests or rabbis significant control over what they do, say or print.
Orthodox Muslims are correct in suspecting that some Western intellectuals find their beliefs (like most orthodox beliefs) rather silly. Western intellectuals are correct in suspecting that some orthodox Muslims (like orthodox members of other faiths) think they are damned or damnable. And orthodox Muslims and Western intellectuals increasingly find themselves occupying the same neighborhoods, using the same media.
These are not friendly differences. These are not worldviews that can easily share a smaller and smaller world.
Yes, end the violence. Yes, let's all try to be sensitive and understanding. But it is also worth remembering that a crucial struggle is going on in the world today: between devout faith and freethinking. This struggle is inevitably going to cause some pain.
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part II
posted on 02.07.2006 at 1:08 AM
Many respond to the struggle between religion and atheism by hastening toward some sort of middle ground. Some retreat to a lazy, hazy deist god of the sort first proposed by the Greek thinker Xenophanes in the sixth century BCE. Some prefer a gentle agnosticism.
The ugly and upsetting riots against the publication of those cartoons satirizing Mohammad demonstrate the difficulty of securing that middle ground. Muslims believe their Prophet should not even be depicted. Western intellectuals believe in the freedom to print what you want, to satirize what you want. Where is the reasonable, non-doctrinaire position that might bridge these beliefs?
Atheists tend not to burn things. Does that make them moderate?
Cartoons of the Prophet -- Part I
posted on 02.06.2006 at 10:37 PM
As the flames were lit around him in 1553, Michael Servetus, a scientist and renegade religious thinker, is said to have cried, "O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" According to one observer, had he instead phrased it, "Jesus, the Eternal Son, have pity on me!" the flames might have been extinguished. For Servetus was being burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva precisely because he refused to affirm the divinity of Jesus.
Believers have long taken affronts to their religion, even seemingly minor affronts, rather seriously.
Times on Itch for Meaning
posted on 02.02.2006 at 8:13 PM
The New York Times editiorial page is not known for discussions of the validity or usefulness of religion. But how about this line from an editorial this morning:
"This is human nature at work. There is nothing we love better than finding order where we suspect it may not exist and deciphering meaning where meaning may not be intended."
Not a bad explanation for why so many believe an intelligence lurks behind the universe. However, it appeared in an editorial on the effort to find a pattern in Academy Award nominations.
An Indifferent Cosmos
posted on 01.23.2006 at 6:38 PM
More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:
"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."
Is this really such a tough question?
On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism
posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM
Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.
Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)
However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."
Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."
Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?
Judge Jones' decision, continued
posted on 12.23.2005 at 11:52 PM
Back to the problematic quote in Judge John E. Jones laudable decision against requiring mention of "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools: "The theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
Hasn't religion surrendered a whole lot if its god no longer creates the species, let alone moves the stars and planets?
"The fact that orthodox Christians so eagerly grasp the vagrant straws floating by shows that they are now content with the very smallest fragments of all that once they were positive was true" -- Clarence Darrow
Might these hazier, more abstract, less necessary views of god -- views that might be compatible with evolution and the rest of modern science -- qualify as vagrant straws, small fragments of once grand religious truths?
Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts
posted on 12.21.2005 at 11:30 PM
** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.
** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?
** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution...in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?
When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.
Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."
One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.
Wintertime for Atheists?
posted on 12.18.2005 at 10:39 PM
Let us count, during this holiday season, the outrages: School officials here and there - Kansas, Pennsylvania -- attempting to force teachers to pretend that "intelligent design" is science or that evolution isn't. A United States president who appears to have based decisions involving war and peace upon his belief that he is the instrument of his god's purposes. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shall make no graven image," has always been my favorite) attempting to sneak into government buildings in the United States. God as a character on prime-time TV. Incessant efforts to reinsert Christ into holidays celebrated by many who do not worship Christ. And overseas? Fatwas, jihads, bombings, wars - in the name of religion.
The United States seems lost in yet another of its Great Awakenings (though to partisans of reason and enlightenment it looks more like a Great Swoon). Religious belief, now that the heathen Communists have been routed, is on the rise in Poland, Russia and other former Soviet countries. Such belief seems, with heathen left-leaning intellectuals also having taken some blows, even to be crawling back in Western Europe, even in France.
This is a blog about the writing of a book. And that book is to be a history of disbelief - from ancient India to contemporary California. One conclusion is clear: Disbelief has been on the rise in the world in the past five hundred or so years. The days when most literate Europeans seemed convinced that the universe was created by God in six days, on or about the year 4004 B.C., seem long gone. The days when it was possible to argue that there is no such thing as a true atheist also seem rather distant. However, what is not clear is whether this great march toward secularism has, somehow, right now, stalled.
Is the age of disbelief ending, as Alister McGrath recently argued in his book The Twilight of Atheism? Is religion - with an inevitability that could pass for God ordained - making a comeback? Or is all this orthodox sturm and drang merely an understandable reaction to the globe's ongoing secularization? Is freethinking in retreat or is this merely a pause in our continuing march toward a world based more on reason, less on faith or superstition?
By writing a blog while writing the book, I hope to improve my understandings not only of historical matters but of such contemporary issues - by testing my own surmises, by benefiting from the comments of some interested and thoughtful residents of Internet-land. I hope, thereby, to write a better book.