Obama-Fan Ruins the Moment

November 5, 2008

I know I’ve been silent for a while, but I have a good excuse… which I won’t tell you.  Suffice to say that the end of the election has something to do with it.

Nevertheless, after a one of the happiest nights of hugging strangers that I’ve ever had, I was driving home and listening to some woman on NPR going on about what the Obama victory means for America. It went a little something like this:

“Never thought I’d live to see, etc… and this is a victory against bigotry.  Against sarcasm.  Against….uh… against atheism.”

I almost drove off the road.  Leave alone the fact that that last comment doesn’t make a lick of sense politically (yeah, all us Sarah Palin-loving atheists!), but how exactly does your perception of reality become so twisted that you can possibly work waxing poetic against the evils of bigotry into the same speech that you smear non-belief and non-believers? Isn’t that a form of bigotry?

Anyway, I shouldn’t too hard on the woman: maybe, like so many others, words fail her in what is a tremendously emotional time.


Religious Freedom Under International Islamic Attack

September 4, 2008

Some American innovations are so deeply embedded in our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how any other country could forgo them. But reject them they do, and now the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seems to be moving, with objections from around the globe, to further formalize U.N. resolutions against “defamation,” primarily against Islam. Critics have pointed out that the language gives further cover for the persecution of minority voices in already undemocratic and illiberal Islamic regimes.

“This [language] destabilizes the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”

We don’t really have a culture war in the U.S.: we have a impolite scuffle, mostly exaggerated for the benefit of political fundraising. The real culture war is between the liberal West and theocratic/ideological regimes who enforce conformity in their societies with the threat of violence and persecution.


God/Jews for Jesus to Palin: Terrorism is God’s Judgement on Jews

September 3, 2008

I’m desperately trying to find non-Sarah Palin subjects to delve into, and given that this one only tangentially involves her, maybe this is my way out. Two weeks ago, David Brickner, founder of Jews for Jesus, was invited to speak to Palin’s congregation by her pastor, Larry Kroon. Or rather, according to Kroon, the message was so important that God arranged to have Brickner speak to everyone there, including Palin:

But above everything, I want you to understand—when God set that date, August 17th, 2008, David Brickner in Wasilla Bible Church—God wanted to say something to us at this time in our congregational life, to us corporately and to us individually. And God has brought you here to hear it. David?

What did God arrange for everyone to hear? That the violence and death in the Middle East is God’s judgement of unbelief against Jews and other non-believers in the region:

“But what we see in Israel, the conflict that is spilled out throughout the Middle East, really which is all about Jerusalem, is an ongoing reflection of the fact that there is judgment.

Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It’s very real. When Isaac [Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem, he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can’t miss it.”

And here we are again. To non-believers, or even believers who don’t think that Christianity is the One True Ideology, these beliefs are about as morally repugnant as one can get. If violence and tragedy are a form of “judgment” upon humanity, then we’re talking about nothing less than spiritual terrorism. To many conservative Christians, on the other hand, these ideas are the quite logical implications of their beliefs.

So when this sort of rhetoric hits the mainstream, what happens? Fairly often, politicians seeking mainstream approval will seek to distance themselves from the full implications of such statements, without getting into the theological details (What do you deny about the Biblical basis of such statements? Where did they go wrong?). If this becomes an issue for Palin in particular, I have little doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more about theological uncertainty and humility.

But isn’t it time we started to confront these beliefs directly, instead of briefly shying away from them whenever they are cast in an uncomfortable spotlight? Countless Americans really do believe that it is God’s will that bulldozers crush people to death, that shrapnel would tear apart markets. And worse. Many, including all of Palin’s known spiritual advisors, believe it just and warranted that the majority of humanity will endure eternal suffering merely for having the wrong set of ideas in their heads at the moment of their death.

There isn’t a nice middle ground here. Either these sorts of conservative fundamentals are true, or these views are absolutely and unequivocally morally abhorrent. To worship and glory in such ideas is simply grotesque.

It might well be reasonable to say that we cannot know the mind and purposes of God, and so we should be unwilling to say whether this or that is righteous judgment. That position can warrant some respect. But people like Bricker aren’t saying that: they are going all in on the idea that death and destruction are worthy parts of God’s plan, with all blame falling upon the victims. Humble christians simply cannot toe the line of denying Bricker’s theology, but then failing to pass judgement on his open endorsement of atrocity. Either you’re with humanity, with more humane and loving ideas of God, or you’re with this image of a vengeful God. One can’t be for God, right or wrong, and still claim to have any principled moral code or feeling.


Miracles and Medical Care

August 18, 2008

Via CNN comes this story detailing the ways in which people’s religious faith and belief in otherworldly intervention colors the way they deal with medical care. This issue raises some really hard questions when it comes to dealing with religion vs. science, belief vs. the lack of it. Take this case:

Pat Loder, a Milford, Michigan, woman whose two young children were killed in a 1991 car crash, said she clung to a belief that God would intervene when things looked hopeless.

“When you’re a parent and you’re standing over the body of your child who you think is dying … you have to have that” belief, Loder said.

Do you though? And does it really help in the long run to truly believe things like that?

We often imagine that these sorts of ideas are obviously comforting, but in my experience, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Unrealistic expectations can lead to bitterness. They can stall acceptance and take you out of a situation right when loved ones need you the most.

And in some ways, these sort of “comforting beliefs” don’t necessarily seem to bring the comfort they would logically imply. Heaven, objectively, should be an absolutely comforting idea that essentially solves the fear of death and heals all hurts. But in practice, the human psyche just seems to grieve no matter what one believes: beliefs are errant trivialities don’t really reach down into the deep, animal well of loss.

On the other hand, these sorts of reactions are, for many people, unavoidable. They can’t really be fought or regulated or even argued with.

The other issue here is that of the way a belief in miracles distorts people’s medical decisions, making them postpone taking loved ones off futile life support, and in countless cases, continuing pointless treatments when comfort, hospice, and simply preparing for death are more important.

It is true that there are occasional cases of so called medical miracles (though rarely are they without explanation and underlying causality). But as the CNN survey shows, beliefs about medical miracles are sort of like people playing the lottery: extremely unlikely occurrences are coloring and altering the decisions of masses that are, in the aggregate, probably not worth it. Should an incredibly unlikely, 1 in a million chance that someone who has been coded for hours will come back with any sort of brain function at all really be a gamble worth, well, millions of other futile medical efforts that only traumatize the family, cost millions more (that could be used instead to save the more likely savable), and sometimes even just make a patients final moments all the more agonizing? Probably not.

The problem is simply that its very easy to see futility in the aggregate, where likely outcomes seem inevitable, but simply not accept it in specific, where ideas of heroic salvation and turning a corner can never be fully dismissed.

And that’s sort of the bizarre part. If miracles could really happen, intentional miracles directed by a being like God, then it hardly seems to make sense to debate whether or not to keep someone on life support indefinitely. An all powerful being would be able to work its miracle on a person no matter what amount of medical care had been given or withheld. The idea, indeed, of “waiting” for a miracle, as if to give it more chances to happen, seems, in the context of a theism than envisions and all-knowing, all powerful God, utterly bizarre.

Update: Here’s an all too common outcome of many heralded medical miracles: while unexpected persistence can surprise, it just drags out the inevitable further, as with this premie who appeared to rally after being declared dead and then chilled (which slowed its remaining metabolism, only to die for real a day later.


Congresswoman: Jesus = Apathetic Neglect

August 12, 2008

When it comes to environmental issues, I’m far from a PETA-pal or global warming groupie. I think massive factory meat production is bad, but I don’t think a few random people being a vegetarian helps stop it. And I think global warming is both a real and man-made effect, but I’m skeptical that we can seriously reduce our emissions enough to make a significant difference (developing directly counteractive climate-change technologies are likely the best hope for a solution, IMHO).

But I see all that as a form of practical realism, not an outright denial that human activity is destroying parts of the planet we should both care about (like the coral reefs) and which will ultimate come back to affect us negatively.

Realism, however, is not quite the strong-suit of many on the religious right. Case in point, Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who had this to say about Democratic efforts to improve emission standards and other anti-pollution crusades:

“[Pelosi] is committed to her global warming fanaticism to the point where she has said that she’s just trying to save the planet,” Bachmann told the right-wing news site OneNewsNow. “We all know that someone did that over 2,000 years ago, they saved the planet – we didn’t need Nancy Pelosi to do that.”(emphasis added)

Yes, that’s right folks: no need to preserve things like coral reefs, coastlines, or cropland in Africa. No need to speak of doing good works in the world, or even not screwing over our fellow man by dumping poison into his atmosphere.

No no: all that matters in life is whether or not a bizarre, largely unintelligible ideology is true or not, thus “saving” us from the hypothetical insane rage of the very being peddling salvation from its own bizarre universe.

Sometimes you’ve just got to drop your jaw in awe that anyone could come up with this stuff, let alone believe it strongly enough to be so self-righteously smug about it.


Did Religion Evolve to… Divide Humanity?

August 1, 2008

That’s what two scientists from University of New Mexico are claiming in a recently published study. The gist is that people seem to do better against infectious diseases when they are fractured and isolated into various societies and sects. Thus, we would expect to see a far greater diversity of religious sects in tropical areas with many dangerous infectious diseases. And, apparently, we do.

“Why does Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?” they ask.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbors, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Unless there’s more to it, this strikes me as a remarkably weak argument. I can think of a heck of a lot of other factors that set tropical areas apart from, say, Norway, in ways that seem much more relevant to the development of religious sects. Poverty is a huge one. Lack of education. Lack of, well, health care to deal with the misery of disease. Maybe the researchers have controlled for all these other, more plausible effects, but I don’t see any discussion of this critical methodological challenge in the article.

And, of course, there’s always the alternative model of causation: it’s religious differences that cause disease, as the one-true God smites those who try to get too creative in their worship!

Off topic, but can anyone explain what the final sentence of the article means? Is it just a editing oversight? Because it doesn’t seem to make much sense:
In earlier work, the team linked the rise in the numbers of women who worked with left wing and liberal politics.
Linked them… with what? If they just mean that they tracked the rise of women on the left, that would make sense, but “linked” implies some sort of further correlation, no?

Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Conservapedia’s “Reasonable Explainations” for Atheism

July 28, 2008

Oy. Via Daniel De Groot at Open Left comes a glimpse into the minds of people that cannot win arguments outside of their own little sandbox:

As De Groot notes, it’s not entirely clear what the unreasonable explanations for atheism would be, in light of this list.

But I have an excellent relationship with my father, Conservapedia. Thanks for the concern.


Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

Read the rest of this entry »


When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

Read the rest of this entry »


James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.


No Atheists in Retirement Homes, But Fewer Believers to Come

July 18, 2008

USAToday’s poll-maven Frank Newport has a quick analysis of some Gallup Polling on religious preference in the States, in this case regarding religiosity by age group. In many ways it’s not too surprising. Newport can’t help himself when it comes to repeating, without caveat, the usual slander of “no atheists in foxholes,” but he’s got a new modification that apparently hits closer to the mark: “no atheists in retirement homes.” Sigh. Anyhow:

Beginning at age 30 this “no religion” percent begins to decline. By age 40 it’s down in the lower teens, and by age 62 it’s in the single digits. It keeps getting lower. Of all of those we interviewed over the past six months who were 89 years of age (over 150 of them), only 2% said that they had no religious identity whatsoever.

That is indeed a pretty tiny percentage of atheists (if that’s what it really represents: as we’ve seen in other surveys, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what counts as an atheist, and some atheists do have “religious identity” in that they are still culturally this or that, such as secular Jews who observe some holiday traditions and so on).

Newport doesn’t mention it, but in addition to plausible factors like generational differences (old people today grew up in an era where the instilled traditions and expectations involved at least a cultural belief in nigh universal faith) and perhaps even just a plain old likelihood to run to religious belief in the face of age and death, I think a pretty plausible factor here is free time: empty-nested parents and older retirees often just have the time and the space to actually sit down and think about religious preferences that they’d been too busy to really consider seriously during their working/parenting years. I’ll bet that in many cases, the “no religious preference” folks are generic cultural Christians who simply never bothered to find themselves a church.

Still, any atheists who look at religious preference as a numbers game can’t help but be encouraged by the higher-than-normal rates of non-belief amongst the current younger generations. If it’s true that people become more religious as they age, it’s still the case that having fewer religious people to start with ultimately implies fewer religious retirees than there would have been. For all those who think that the “New Atheism” hasn’t had any cultural impact other than increased obnoxiousness… well, the numbers are telling a different story.

Personally, I expect that the real difference between the old people of today and the old people of the future is going to be the cultural impact of computers. The Wii is creeping into retirement communities already: imagine 40 years from now how different the ultra-connected net-generation is going to be than their forebears. We may all become just as demented and physically slowed down as any generation before us. But we’re going to do it texting, gaming, blogging, and generally supplementing our fading physical and mental fortunes with the communicative freedoms and entertainments web.


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