Atheists Can Claim Victory Over Bananas, Ray Comfort Concedes

June 13, 2008

Ray Comfort, who with former child-actor Kirk Cameron became famous (or infamous) for declaring that bananas prove God’s design, has finally backed off on his claim that the fruit is the “atheists nightmare.”

Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has all the details and audio. As Comfort is forced to finally admit, bananas were indeed designed for pleasing human beings… but by human horticulturists, not by a god.

This certainly doesn’t make me more likely to take Comfort’s other assertions any more seriously than I do now. But credit where credit is due to him for graciously giving in, even if the whole thing had already become something of a joke (albeit for reasons having much more to do with Freud than with Intelligent Design).


Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Doc Expelled Trying to Organize a Theatrical Comeback?

June 12, 2008

With Expelled down to just a handful of theaters nationwide, it certainly looked like it’s theatrical run was pretty much over and done with. The film’s blog hasn’t been updated since April, it’s Press Room since early May, and the most recent content about from the film from the producers seems to be a largely irrelevant celebration of their victory in the fair use case against Yoko Ono.

But some people have apparently been receiving word that the producers want to stage a theatrical comeback of sorts. Various emails and other messages have been appearing over the last week purporting to be from Motive Entertainment, Expelled’s marketing/PR firm, and all are calling on supporters to help lobby the film back onto multiplexes around the country. From one such:

I am in charge of the re-release of our film Expelled…The goal is to gain 1,000 new theaters to release the film….over the summer…We are booking new theaters now…

The caveat is that we need at least one group of 250-300 to support the film with a verbal commitment and then tell me personally what theater is preferred and I will see to it that theater get the film at once…

If this little whisper campaign is legitimate (and I’m still a little skeptical at this point on that score), it’s simply more evidence that the film failed to have the cultural and financial impact that the producers had once hoped. And that, flustered and confused by the lack of impact, they’re trying to find some way to implement a small-scale do-over.

Still, as I said, I’m skeptical. While the name noted in the story, Tripp Thorton, appears to be a real employee of Motive, the email included doesn’t seem to be their corporate domain. And, unless I managed to stare straight at it without seeing, Motive’s website no longer mentions Expelled in any of the places you’d expect.

The only thing that strikes me as really plausible about the messages is that they appeared just after the film’s producers won their lawsuit against Ono, thus freeing them from the injunction that may have hindered previous efforts to expand the film’s distribution.

Other than that, no one seems to be talking so far, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Unless we do see some miraculous return from obscurity in the theaters, it won’t be until the DVD release, along with the inevitably maddening extras, that there will be much more to say.

Update: On her handful of redundant, self-plagiarizing pro-ID blogs, Denyse O’Leary keeps referring to a “surprise or two in store for Americans.” Could she be referring to something like the above?


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.


Muslim Women Surgically Pose as Virgins to Avoid Disgrace and Death

June 11, 2008

When I first heard about Hymenorrhaphy (a form of plastic surgery on the to restore the appearance of an intact hymen) I wasn’t quite sure what to think. When it was first developed and promoted, the procedure was billed as a benefit to the healing process of some rape survivors, who felt they needed a physical healing to coincide with the rest of their recovery. Fair enough.

But however you feel about that purpose, articles like this, detailing the rise of hymenorrhaphy as a means to deal with a culture clash, surely put a far more disturbing spin on things.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Hicham Mouallem, a doctor in London who performs the surgery. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

The essential point of the surgery, when you think about it, is grotesque: to install a flap of skin whose sole purpose is to be painfully torn apart in later intercourse… all to give a man the satisfaction of a bloody first coupling. In some cases, even to give him evidence of blood to show to his waiting friends and family. Never mind that hymens can be broken for all sorts of other reasons other than sex (medical problems, physical activity, injury): many men and their families are now demanding an official “certificate of virginity” from gynecologists before they’ll even consider taking a marital “test-drive.”

The article highlights one such case in particular: a woman whose hymen was torn from horseback riding as a child who had to take out a loan to even afford the surgery.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

Unfortunately, for far too many women, virginity and life are often the same thing: the specter of so-called “honor killings” awaits woman that stray beyond the approved sexual traditions of various cultures in the Middle East and Africa.

One of the most gruesome cases in recent memory involved an Iraqi girl who befriended (without any evidence of actual physical romance) a British soldier… and had her throat crushed underfoot and body stabbed and mutilated by her own father. The father was arrested, but then let free.

At the police station where the father was held Sergeant Ali Jabbar told The Observer last week: ‘Not much can be done when we have an “honour killing” case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws.

The young woman’s mother, a distraught witness to the crime, eventually fled the family… only to be gunned down in the street. Sadly, this story is far from an isolated incident (as the refusal of Iraqi authorities to prosecute a confessed killer might have already indicated). And it is not only men at fault. This “tradition” has even seen mothers restrain and slit the wrists of their own struggling daughters… for the crime of failing to commit suicide after being raped by their own brothers.

Given these sorts of bloodbaths as a backdrop, it’s hard to fault women for seeking the surgery.

But there’s little room for cultural relativism here. The cultural demands driving women to go under the knife, to fear for their lives and safety, or simply to hate and fear sex and their sexual pasts in general, are not quaint little cultural differences. They are backward and morally vile. They are a practice and an attitude that needs to be opposed, denigrated, and ended. It’s defenders should ultimately come to feel shame and remorse. It’s executioners should end up with the same punishments as any murderers or abusers.

Our own culture is hardly free from pernicious influences on women: including even those that lead women to breast implants and other cosmetic surgery. But there’s a world of difference between the stressful notions of physical attractiveness and the idea that women are “dirt,” fit to be beaten, humiliated, or even killed if they have had sex (or have even been raped) outside of marriage.

Let’s hope that more members of the relevant cultures and religious traditions at least take the attitude of this guy (reacting to a French case in which a recently man humiliated and dumped his wife on her family’s doorstep, accusing her of being impure, and then demanded an immediate annulment):

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, [the Islamic Center of Roubaix’s] vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”


Uh, The Ten Commandments on Church Property is Just Fine, You Silly Billies

June 10, 2008

Moses Smash!Ed Brayton has noticed a truly batty story over at the bat-central vanity publication, WorldNetDaily.

For years, the ACLU has been consistently and rather politely explaining that our government is not the proper venue in which to endorse particular religious ideas… let alone to post a list of religious commandments in government courthouses. Naturally, for zealots who believe that no government function is complete without the showy stamp of their particular religious ideology, this principled position is quite frustrating. Also frustrating is the fact that U.S. courts have often agreed with the ACLU.

Enter “Project Moses,” the brainchild of anti-ACLU crank Joe Worthing. The aim of Project Moses is simple: do something that the ACLU is perfectly fine with, that they’d even defend in court as a constitutional right, all in the hopes of pissing them off. Hundreds of Ten Commandment monuments installed on church and private properties later, and so far, no luck.

And lest you think this is all about an innocent love for the Ten Commandments, rather than merely treating holy scripture as an extension of Worthing’s middle-finger:

One Nebraska city’s situation is a perfect example of what the organization wants to do: A citizen brought a complaint against the city government for a Ten Commandments monument hidden in a remote corner of a public park.

It was removed, but one of the Project Moses monuments was placed instead on a street front property. It happens to be only a few blocks from where the complainant lives, and he now has to drive within 15 feet of God’s Laws whenever he passes that location, Worthing said. (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, I’m sure the man is scared stiff of that the voodoo powers of “God’s Laws” (which apparently have an effective radius of only 15 feet) will like… uh, or something. And stuff. Doing what he asked (i.e. just to move the monument off government property) sure showed him!

It doesn’t matter how many times ACLU and other supporters of the separation of church and state explain that they are not trying to ban religion but merely to ensure that the government stays neutral on religious matters. Zealots like Worthing have simply bought into the misrepresentations and scare-tactics of the religious right without any reservation or skepticism. So much so that they’ve actually convinced themselves that they’re striking a blow against us by doing what we suggested they do in the first place.

Sigh. And you know that thing where people are so crazy that they start to sound like they’re in an article from the Onion? Yeah, well, we’ve got that:

“Christians [sic] schools, too, should consider the impact, he said.

Instead of having a cardboard cutout [of the Ten Commandments], how about a 900-pound stone monument in an entryway,” he said. “It’s something like 3,500 times a child will have to walk by that over the course of their grade school years. They just may be able to remember them then.” (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, in schools that generally require children to read and study the bible daily, where public displays of bible verses, prayer, and Ten Commandments already abound, slapping down another huge granite slab is what’s really going to tip the balance. It’s so crazy it just might work. Maybe they can put his Ten Commandments monument right next to the Ten Commandment monument they already have.

Dude, it’d be like, the Twenty Commandments! Let’s launch over it!

Update: In doing a bit of research, the only reference to a monument in a Nebraska city park I could find was the one in Plattsmouth. Unless there is some other high profile case in Nebraska concerning the Ten Commandments in a park, Worthing is either lying, misinformed, or this quote is from several years ago. After several appeals, the court in this case ultimately ruled that the monument could stay on public property.

Also notable in this case was the fact that the courts, which had originally protected the name of the man filing the complaint out of fears for his safety, eventually allowed the Omaha World-Herald to publish it. When they did so, they rather disturbingly included not only his name but also what car he drives, his license plate, his personal and professional details, as well as, charitably, listing the death threats made against him and his family.


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:

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


McCain Ally Hagee: Hitler Was Sent By God To Drive Jews to Israel

May 21, 2008

After all the hubbub about Obama’s pastor, John McCain’s chosen political allies are proving equally disturbing, though somehow without equal coverage.

Bruce Wilson from Talk2Action has uncovered yet more disturbing text and audio concerning John Hagee’s bizarre theological declarations. In addition to declaring that Jews have “dead souls” (whatever the heck THAT means!) this newfound sermon from Hagee declares that Adolf Hitler was sent by God to punish European Jews for not immediately going to found the state Israel, and then to drive the surviving remnant there afterwards.

Here’s Sam Stein summarizing the key parts of the sermon:

Going in and out of biblical verse, Hagee preached: “‘And they the hunters should hunt them,’ that will be the Jews. ‘From every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks.’ If that doesn’t describe what Hitler did in the holocaust you can’t see that.”

He goes on: “Theodore Hertzel is the father of Zionism. He was a Jew who at the turn of the 19th century said, this land is our land, God wants us to live there. So he went to the Jews of Europe and said ‘I want you to come and join me in the land of Israel.’ So few went that Hertzel went into depression. Those who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the holocaust.

“Then god sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says — Jeremiah writing — ‘They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and from the holes of the rocks,’ meaning there’s no place to hide. And that might be offensive to some people but don’t let your heart be offended. I didn’t write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Update: Looks like McCain has had enough of this guy: he’s now rejected Hagee’s endorsement.


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

Read the rest of this entry »


Soldier Uses Koran for Target Practice

May 17, 2008

Front page of CNN: a U.S. soldier was caught using the Quran for target practice. Critics of the Iraq war and the occupation, I suppose, are meant to look at this incident as one more reason why it was all unjustified and needs to end asap.

Let’s be serious though. Specifically, this was a dumb, disrespectful thing to do, not to mention one harmful to the goals of the U.S. occupation. But statistically, it’s neither surprising nor notable that some young American men pull crude and silly stunts, especially given the tremendously stressful situation they’re in. And if you are in the position of having to achieve military goals with young American men, rather than robots, then this sort of thing is a known and generally inevitable cost of doing business. Add it to the long list of downsides to war and occupation, but don’t pretend that it’s particularly special to this war, this occupation, or this military.

And then there’s this:

Another military official kissed a Quran and presented is as “a humble gift” to the tribal leaders.

Assuming that this was a non-Muslim official acting in an official capacity, this seems to go too far in the other direction: respecting the fact that local Muslim believers think the Quran is sacred does not and should not require someone to participate or symbolically prostrate themselves to it. In some ways, that’s disrespectful in its own way: a causal kiss-and-make-up insincerity.

Also, while the middle of a war is probably not the time or the place where anyone wants to debate it, the story notes that what the soldier did is a crime, both in local law, and according to the U.S. forces’ commander, Jeffery Hammond. I can’t let that pass without pausing to note how absurd and unconscionable it is.

Finally, the story ends with a reaction from the Association of Muslim Scholars:

“As the Association of Muslim Scholars condemns this heinous crime against God’s holy book, the Constitution of this nation, a source of pride and dignity,” the groups statement said, “they condemned the silence by all those who are part of the occupation’s agenda and holds the occupation and the current government fully responsible for this violation and reminds everyone that God preserves his book and he [God] is a great avenger.” (emphasis added)

The first part of the bolded part is factually untrue, given this story. The second part is basically a threat of divine retribution. Both parts deserve little but scorn.

And besides, everyone knows that it’s Iron Man who is a great Avenger.


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.