More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.


Your Brain Makes Its Decisions Without You: More on Free Will and Identity

July 2, 2008

There’s little doubt that conscious experience is one of the most perplexing phenomenon that… well that it has ever encountered. Not only do we not know what our inner “observing” subject is, we don’t know how to even think about what it is. Why am “I” (whatever it is that’s experiencing anything at all) linked to not just to a body, but to a specific body? Why aren’t “I” someone else? Why is it “like” anything to be a human being, rather than our brains simply carrying out choice and action without any seeming internal passenger?

Philosophers and Theologians have long tried to lay claim to the mystery with concepts like “Soul” or “Free Will” that purport to explain conscious experience or the nature of willed choice, but their attempts have never delivered any actual tangible, additional insight into the phenomenon. Later attempts like “qualia” have only put more names to things we still do not understand. And perhaps it’s no surprise that these attempts have been so unproductive: their ultimate aim has always seemed less about increasing our knowledge, and more about a turf war over which school or ideology can assert exclusive right to this most precious of philosophical possessions.

But while there’s no guarantee that science can ever fully explain consciousness, there can also be no doubt that if you want to learn at least something about it, rather than merely discover new names for things you still don’t understand, neurologists have far more to offer than most traditional philosophers and theologians at this point. And, indeed, what science is revealing is far weirder than we could have ever imagined from any armchair.

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Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

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NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.


Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

June 24, 2008

Seriously, what’s up with this?  According to a new Pew study on religion, 21% of atheists believe in God: either a personal or impersonal force.  And 8% are absolutely certain that a God exists. 12% even believe in heaven, and 10% in hell!

Either we have here a very lousy study, a heck of a lot of joke answers, or a fair number of people who are remarkably confused about what “atheist” means.  I very much doubt that the bulk of these contradictory responses represent the sort of sophisticatedly confusing theologies of people like Paul Tillich.


Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

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The Bible: Read it as Being Correct OR Take Seriously What it Actually Says?

June 17, 2008

From James McGrath, who’s been following the strange and embarrassing saga of Obama-as-Anti-Christ rhetoric, comes what turns into quite an interesting reflection on the tension between wanting the Bible to be prophetically correct, and wanting to read what the text is really, literally trying to say.

As McGrath explains, that tension is particularly high in the Bible’s final chapter. Revelations, the fevered dream of a Christian-vindicating apocalypse, has always been one of the Bible’s most controversial inclusions. While there’s always the possibility that some other apocalypse would have taken its place (they were quite popular theological devices at the time), its hard to even imagine what Western History would have looked like without its long series of end of the world cults and the omnipresent fear the world was ever heading towards the greatest darkness imaginable.

But Biblical scholars have long known that the clearest, simplest meaning of the text is that it refers to and end of days that prominently features Roman Empire. And not just any future possible Roman Empire: the very one that is now non-existent. Given the specific continuities described in Revelatons, any attempt to fit any modern Anti-Christ du jour runs into some severe problems, per McGrath:

Once one realizes this, suddenly it becomes clear that fundamentalists are forced to believe that the temple will be rebuilt and a new Roman empire created, simply to make the world the way it was when the book was written, so that its imagery can still have a future reference. But it makes no sense to say that John refers to a series of 6 emperors, and then ignores all the others that followed until Obama became president of the United States, and suddenly he is the last one. There is nothing in the text and nothing in any form of intelligent reasoning that could make such a leap justified.

And so we’re left with a real dilemma for fundamentalist literalists (though few will likely acknowledge it): which is more important? That the Bible must be seen as correctly predicting future events, at all costs, no matter how elaborate the interpretive gymnastics required to keep it even potentially viable? Or that you should read and take seriously the plain text meaning of the words?


Possible McCain Veep Pick Struggled With Daemons: Literally

June 11, 2008

We’re talking here about Bobby Jindal, the young Republican governor of Louisiana… and apparently once an amateur exorcist and faith healer. He even, according to an essay he once wrote, may have cured cancer!

In any case, Talking Points Memo has the whole story, complete with Jindal’s bizarre narrative.

Whenever I concentrated long enough to begin prayer, I felt some type of physical force distracting me. It was as if something was pushing down on my chest, making it very hard for me to breathe. . . Though I could find no cause for my chest pains, I was very scared of what was happening to me and Susan. I began to think that the demon would only attack me if I tried to pray or fight back; thus, I resigned myself to leaving it alone in an attempt to find peace for myself.

Hmmm.. not exactly the sort of heroic character we might expect from a future Vice President: quietly hiding in a corner, hoping the demon would concentrate on consuming his friend instead of noticing him.

At least he managed to cure cancer while he was at it:

“When the operation occurred, the surgeons found no traces of cancerous cells. Susan claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer and can remember the sensation of being ‘purified.'”

Anyway, do read the whole thing (or, at least, all the excerpts that TPM supplies).

I very much hope for Jindal’s sake that there’s more, in the complete context of the essay, that moderates some of this extremely silly stuff, or that Jindal has a more adult and lighthearted take on things today. But this is a pretty powerful reminder of the fact that many people sincerely believe that human problems can be due to the influence of invisible spirits who are, for some reason, allergic to the Bible.

Now, you’d think that if anyone would be open to demonic possession and thus allergic to the Bible, it’d be us atheists. And yet, suspiciously, it only seems to be people brought up in vivid and violently obsessive religious traditions that are ever inclined to act out these sorts of exorcism events. Meanwhile, I can touch and read the Bible just fine without breaking out into sweats, hives, or obscenities. Maybe I’m just possessed by an exceptionally polite demon?

Or maybe we non-believers are just so gosh darn bad that demons don’t even waste the effort.


Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

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The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.


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