Questionable Motives

October 29, 2010

Why are blasphemy laws so dangerous?

Filed under: abuse,blasphemy,civil rights,Criticism,Enlightenment,Human Rights — tildeb @ 10:11 am

The United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly regularly adopt resolutions condemning ‘defamation of religions’ as a violation of international human rights and Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) member states are attempting to create and adopt a new binding international law prohibiting ‘defamation of religions.’ However, there is growing recognition that such a concept has no place in international law as fewer states have voted for the resolutions each year.

Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy on Human Rights examines how governments use these laws to legitimize crackdowns on minority groups, dissidents and other divergent views under the pretext of maintaining ‘social harmony.’ While Policing Belief uses cases studies of seven countries—Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Poland—the findings are indicative of the danger blasphemy laws pose more broadly, particularly in countries lacking strong democratic safeguards.


October 25, 2010

What’s the Alternative?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Jesus and Mo,Religion — tildeb @ 1:19 pm


(from Jesus and Mo)

October 22, 2010

What do people mean when they use the term ‘supernatural’ as it relates to religious belief?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Religion,Spirituality — tildeb @ 10:31 am

I have a busy week posting comments on various sites about accusations of scientism, that atheism is an ideology that will fail, that seeking and respecting what is true necessarily leads to god’s moral truths, and so. I found it quite refreshing, then, to come across a post over at Open Parachute that directly relates to everything I have been trying to express:

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”

October 19, 2010

The moral minefield: is there an alternative to the is-ought divide?

Filed under: Harris,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 9:55 am

Religion and its pervasive role throughout the world in human affairs is an area of tremendous interest to me. Any criticism of religion and its deleterious effects soon runs into the assumption that our moral values require an ethical framework and that religion is a particularly suitable engineer for just this task and so it is a necessary construct that mitigates all its shortcomings in practice . But is this true? Does religion and its varied beliefs in supernatural agencies build a good framework? It is this question that needs serious critical review. Not surprisingly, most atheists tend to avoid this moral landscape because we recognize the pitfalls that divide the is from the the ought. But is this divide unbridgeable, thus allowing religion and all its rational incoherencies the narrow and treacherous escape route it requires from criticism of its actions in moral terms in the human domain?

I have long admired Sam Harris’ veridical writings, presentations, debates, and cogent thoughts. So it is no surprise, then, that I am interested in hearing his thoughts about this moral landscape and his ideas about suggesting that some better framework can, in fact, be used… a framework based on something that allows a better comparison than claims between relative and unverifiable objective moral truths. This framework, Harris suggests, can be built upon the well-being of conscious creatures.

Excerpts from an interview between Salon and Sam Harris about his new book The Moral Landscape:

It just so happens that religion traffics in ideas that are intrinsically divisive, intrinsically insensitive to the actual details of human and animal suffering, and in many cases purposed toward an afterlife that doesn’t exist. That combination of traits leads to a kind of callous disregard for the sane purposes that we would otherwise form for collaboration in this world.

Well-educated, liberal, secular people in the West think you should withhold judgment on certain practices. You look at female genital mutilation in a country like Somalia, and you have to say things like “Well, of course this has to be understood in context. Who are we to say that this is evil in any deep sense?” But my argument is that withholding judgment is tantamount to saying that we know absolutely nothing about human well-being. Maybe cutting off a girl’s genitalia with a septic blade at age 8 is just as good as any other practice in terms of raising them to be happy and well-adjusted people. We know that’s not true. And that’s a scientific claim.

We notice causal patterns in the word, and we tell ourselves stories about these patterns. We do this in science and in religion. Religion just amounts to bad science, in the end. It’s our most primitive effort to describe our origins and the reasons for why things happen. When you don’t understand the weather, when you don’t understand why crops fail, when you don’t understand the origins of disease, you make up explanations. And this is religion. When you develop a methodology by which these things can be understood, you rely on honest observation and clear reasoning, and this is science.

I think we must form a global civilization. We have no choice. We have a global economy, we have a single environment, we have infectious disease that spreads with every airplane flight. The question is, How do we create a civilization in which the greatest proportion of people can thrive, and in which the causes for war become distant memories? Within a nation-state, wars can be a distant memory. The likelihood of a war between Vermont and Florida seems incredibly remote. Why is that? We understand the stability of a single state. We need to engineer a similar degree of stability at the international level. There has to be a way to enforce international law. The question is how to do that, and how helpful is it that 1.5 billion Muslims and 2 billion Christians both think they have the perfect revelation of the creator of the universe, and that the world will end, ushering in the fulfillment of their eschatology. This isn’t helpful at all, and should be terrifying to every rational person.

Religion isn’t the only problem. It’s all the forms of tribalism: nationalism, racism, et cetera. But religious tribalism is the most difficult, because it’s the only one that comes with an ideology that is transcendental. It’s the only one that gets people, for the most part, to celebrate the deaths of their children, because the belief in paradise actually removes the last barrier that sane people have to doing horrendous things and making huge sacrifices for idiotic reasons.

I am intrigued. It’s time for me to buy the book.


October 15, 2010

Why does a ‘miracle’ look just like human ingenuity?

So here’s the thread of the religious thief making the rounds these days after the 33 Chilean miners were rescued:

Once feared dead, 33 trapped Chilean miners began to emerge Tuesday night after more than two months underground. Among the necessities that sustained them 2000 feet down were food, vitamins, supplemental air and, according to many reports, their faith. (Elizabeth Tenety, The Washington Post)

Prayers and well wishes from around the world reached the miners. Pope Benedict prayed for them after a mass in August, and the Vatican sent blessed rosaries “as a sign of the Pope’s closeness with them.” Priests and ministers visited the site in the predominantly Catholic country. The Baptist Press reported that two miners “accepted Christ” during their ordeal. The Seventh-day Adventists sent mini-bibles down to the crew, highlighting Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit … and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.”

So let’s see: how exactly did any religious knowledge help in this rescue? Other than perhaps raise flagging hopes with the absurd notion that some supernatural deity would intervene on their behalf, the miners were able to survive because of human preparedness that stocked a safe area with food and water, which allowed them to survive long enough for other humans to dedicate the necessary resources to solving the engineering problem of gaining access to a small area 2000 feet lower than the surface through layers of different kinds of rock to resupply them with food and water while a larger transit tube was built for their eventual removal. And it all worked.

So should we praise god for human ingenuity?

The truth of the matter is that we have no evidence that any god played any part in the success of the rescue mission. But rest assured that we will now we get to sit back and watch various religions try to steal the credit due solely to the hard work and dedication and tremendous effort of people like the engineer who led the Chilean rescue efforts Andres Sougarett and the international aid and expertise of other mining engineers who are the only ones who made manifest this successful conclusion. God didn’t transport these miners to the surface: Andres Sougarett and his team did. To say otherwise steals directly from their proper due

But that’s what fuels religious belief: thievery of favourable natural processes, thievery of favourable human endeavors, thievery of favourable and beneficial outcomes. It’s all owed to god, we are told, and is our just reward for believing in magic and invisible superpowers and specific kinds of superstition.

And where is this same argument – this same justification for evidence of god’s favour – when the natural processes are brutal and indifferent to the human suffering it causes? Where is god when human endeavors are disastrous? Where is god when bad luck and unfortunate timing yields pain and death? Oh… well… umm… we can’t allow god to be mature enough to accept both ends of the responsibility spectrum, you see… bad for the image, don’t you know. No, we must allocate to god only success and benevolence to match up with our claim that god is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere at all times, and – of course – benevolent. And any evidence against this template is simply dismissed because, well, you know… it’s god. (Now imagine how well we would serve ourselves if we practiced that same delusional and apologetic thinking on behalf of British Petroleum or President Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu or Osama bin Laden.)

Let’s take a moment and appreciate just how neolithic is the human urge to grant power to superstition and divine agency when faced with adversity and helplessness:

The ninth man to emerge from the mine was Mario Gomez, a 63-year old who, CNN reported, “became the group’s spiritual leader and requested a crucifix and statuettes of saints so the men could construct a shrine.”

A shrine. Yes, that’s the ticket home.

Although it may be of psychological benefit to pretend that our actions curry favour from deities when we can do nothing else but sit back and wait, what rescued these miners was in no way supernatural; it was man-made, designed and empowered by a method of thinking that yields practical and consistent results. It enables knowledge to be gained and built upon, and then successfully implemented, and we should not for a single moment give thanks to Ooogity Boogity, nor pretend that religious belief has any right to ‘celebrate’ this human achievement in its own name rather than humanity’s. We should celebrate this shining example of human ingenuity – not religious hocus pocus – which again proves to ourselves that this method of thinking rationally – what is called methodological naturalism – has the potential to save lives when we use our ingenuity wisely. And the wisest way is to first get over the infantile belief that supernatural interventionist benevolent deities will act on our behalf if we pay proper homage to them. That kind of thinking stops ingenuity dead in its tracks and returns us to the wishful thinking that accompanies the shivering and hopeless cave-dwellers we once were, that these miners were without any means of escape. We have moved on, and we all have access to this escape tube built by man’s method of gaining natural knowledge. It’s high time more of us escaped our self-imposed caves and altering the associated thinking we carry with us from that distant and ignorant past. We move out of the cave when we abandon our willingness to accept ignorance. It’s time to leave the shrines behind in the caves where they belong.

Let’s grow up enough to start to trust ourselves and our abilities. It is time to stand up to those among us who wish to steal our achievements in the name of their religion. Each of us needs to choose either to stay in the comfort of the cave with our beads and bone rattles, our magical chants and body paints and funny hats, or choose to drop the pretense of what we merely believe may be true for what is probably true, likely, accurate, and correct in order to explore what lies beyond our beliefs. We don’t need any imaginary hand-holding by our invisible Sky Daddy to undertake this scary but thrilling ascent. We really are brave and capable enough to go it alone. And the rewards are worth it.

October 12, 2010

Why aren’t science and religion friends?

Filed under: bioLogos,Jerry Coyne,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 8:53 am

From USA Today comes Jerry Coyne’s article that is a summation of his reasons why Karl Gibberson over at BioLogos is wrong about his series of critical articles against Coyne over the compatibility of science and religion. I have posted the entire piece because I think it succinctly addresses the core differences between the two ‘ways of knowing’:

Religion in America is on the defensive.

Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America’s fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.

But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a “New Atheist,” there are many others attacking the “movement” and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident. The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.

As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.


“But surely,” you might argue, “science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious.” One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.

Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.

Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.

Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

And this leads to the biggest problem with religious “truth”: There’s no way of knowing whether it’s true. I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can’t rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It’s the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you’re right if you can’t tell whether you’re wrong?

The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible “truths” about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as savior, you’ll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God’s son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there’s no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity’s miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.

In contrast, scientists don’t kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.

But don’t just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it’s amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book, Science vs. Religion. Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We’re No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they’d reject that science in favor of their faith.

‘Venerable superstition’

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. His latest book is Why Evolution is True, and his website is

October 9, 2010

Religion in the public domain: Confrontation or accommodation?

Filed under: New Atheists,PZ Myers,Secularism,theology — tildeb @ 12:44 pm

Which side of the fence are you on? For those who know about P.Z. Myers’s reputation as a fiercely strident Gnu Atheist, the answer is pretty evident. But why does he take such a position? Are his reasons good ones? And why that take-no-prisoners approach for which he is famous?

He was on a panel this week and addressed these questions under the heading of Confrontation or Accommodation. I think his words from his presentation are well worth our consideration, so I have re-posted them here in their entirety:

I’m going to begin with where I entered this conflict — and make no mistake, it’s a real battle — with my experience in science education, and specifically with the teaching of evolution. Biology has been a lifelong passion for me, and when I first began teaching way back in the 1980s, it was a shock to discover students who had nothing but contempt for the great unifying principle of my discipline, who were happily wallowing in self-inflicted ignorance and who outright denied plain and simple facts about science. And when I discovered that there were ministers who came onto our campus and lied to our students, presented half-truths and weird fantasies to substitute for evidence, i was outraged. We Gnu Atheists have a reputation for being militant, but make no mistake: we didn’t start this war. If you want to place blame, put it on the backs of religious zealots who have been poisoning the minds of the young for a long, long time.

This is another theme in this conflict: Gnu Atheists are so dang angry. Damned right we are. The real question is why everyone else isn’t. If you aren’t angry about what’s being done to undermine education in this country, you haven’t been following along.

But we also respond rationally. My early incredulity about the nonsense being promoted by creationists was followed by a lot of fact-finding. You can do it too — look up the history of creationism, and you find that we’ve been fighting this same battle for at least half a century, and dealing with the same inane arguments over and over again. Where once Duane Gish was the creationist dinosaur roaming the earth, he was replaced by Kent Hovind, and he is now superseded by Ken Ham and Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. Nothing has changed but the names. We have had a succession of court cases: Epperson v Arkansas in 68, McLean v Arkansas in 82, Edwards v. Aguillard in 87, Kitzmiller v Dover in 2005 — are they coming to an end? Did any of these trials diminish the influence of creationists? One flareup will be squelched, and next year there will be another. Similarly, we see a succession of politicians come and go, and nothing changes. Ronald Reagan becomes Santorum becomes Bush becomes another dreary chain of Republican know-nothings at every election cycle. It’s 2010, and guess what: Christine O’Donnell is running for the senate, and I’ve still got a local fundamentalist pastor coming on to my campus every week to instruct my students in the video fables of Brother Kent Hovind.

We have been treading water for 50 years. In one sense, that’s a very good thing: better to stay afloat in one place than to sink, and I am deeply appreciative of organizations like the NCSE that have kept us bobbing at the surface all this time, and please don’t ever stop. But isn’t it also about time we learned a new stroke and actually made some progress towards the shore? Shouldn’t we move beyond just reacting to every assault by Idiot America on science education, and honestly look at the root causes of this chronic malignancy and do something about it?

The sea our country is drowning in is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities pushed by tired dogma and fervent and frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry, I don’t feel like drowning there either.

There is an answer, and it’s on display right here in this room. The solution, the only longterm solution, is the sanity of secularism. The lesser struggles to keep silly stickers off our textbooks or to keep pseudoscientific BS like intelligent design out of our classrooms are important, but they are endless chores — at some point we just have to stop pandering to the ideological noise that spawns these unending tasks and cut right to the source: religion.

That’s where the Gnu Atheists get their confrontational reputation. We’re fed up with fighting off the symptoms. We need to address the disease. And if you’re one of those people trying to defend superstition and quivering in fear at the idea of taking on a majority that believes in foolishness, urging us to continue slapping bandages on the blight of faith, well then, you’re part of the problem and we’ll probably do something utterly dreadful, like be rude to you or write some cutting sarcastic essay to mock your position. That is our métier, after all.

There is another motive for our confrontational ways, and it has to do with values. We talk a lot about values in this country, so I kind of hate to use the word — it’s been tainted by the religious right, which howls about “Christian values” every time the subject of civil rights for gays or equal rights for women or universal health care or improving the plight of the poor come up — True Christian values are agin’ those things, after all. But the Gnu Atheists have values, too, and premiere among them is truth. And that makes us uncivil and rude, because we challenge the truth of religion.

Religion provides solace to millions, we are told, it makes them happy, and it’s mostly harmless.

“But is it true?”, we ask, as if it matters.

The religious are the majority, we hear over and over again, and we need to be pragmatic and diplomatic in dealing with them.

“But is what they believe true?”, we ask, and “What do we gain by compromising on reality?”

Religion isn’t the problem, they claim, it’s only the extremists and zealots and weirdos. The majority of believers are moderates and even share some values with us.

“But is a moderate superstition true?”, we repeat, and “How can a myth be made more true if its proponents are simply calmer in stating it?”

I mean, it’s nice and all that most Christians aren’t out chanting “God Hates Fags” and are a little embarrassed when some yokel whines that he didn’t come from no monkey, but they still go out and quietly vote against gay and lesbian rights, and they still sit at home while their school boards set fire to good science.

It’s all about the truth, people. And all the evidence is crystal clear right now: the earth is far older than 6,000 years. Evolution is a real, and it is a process built on raw chance driven by the brutal engines of selection, and there is no sign of a loving, personal god, but only billions of years of pitiless winnowing without any direction other than short-term survival and reproduction. It’s not pretty, it’s not consoling, it doesn’t sanctify virginity, or tell you that god really loves your foreskin, but it’s got one soaring virtue that trumps all the others: it’s true.

You won’t understand what the Gnu Atheists are up to until you understand that core value. I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases; do you think I care? I did not become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers. I have been told that I must think promoting atheism is more important than promoting good science education; tell me how closing my eyes to claims of an imaginary deity using quantum indeterminacy to shape human evolution helps students better understand reality. I’ve been told to hush, there are good Christians who support science, and a vocal atheism will scare them away…and I have to ask, you question my support for science education, when you pander to people who you admit will put their superstitions above science if someone says a harsh word about Jesus?

I have to follow the advice of Tom Paine:

A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

And I will insist that a principle worth holding is worth fighting for. We must confront untruths; letting them lie unquestioned is simply a way to allow them to fester and grow.

I have to quote something I recently read by Ed Yong, the science journalist who blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science. He has an excellent post up asking, “Should Science Journalists Take Sides?“, and while it’s specifically addressed to journalists, it applies equally well to scientists, or humanists, or just plain citizens. To summarize it all, the answer is yes: journalists should take sides, and I’m going to generalize it and suggest that we should all take sides. Here’s what Ed wrote:

A veteran science journalist recently wrote: “Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”. That’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

Too many of the godless believe in something even more: to avoid rocking the boat, to refrain from challenging dogma, to deftly avoid the issue when someone raises some religious folly. If you think you’re helping the cause with your cautious silence, then a brick wall is a public intellectual.Then Ed has this bit, which could have been written by a Gnu Atheist:

As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting. It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.

In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.

I have to repeat that. The word for people who are neutral about truth is “liars”. It shouldn’t be “scientists”. It shouldn’t be “humanists”.

Earlier today we heard Paul Kurtz speak, and while I have great respect for his contributions to this secular movement, he did mischaracterize atheists, and I have to call him on it. One of the most common canards applied to us, and especially to the Gnu Atheists, is that we’re negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Coyne and Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors who write about reason and evidence and science, where front and center you find an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely anti-religious, and you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been reading our books or articles for comprehension.

What may have confused some people, though, is that we also believe you can’t love the truth without detesting lies. That an honest way of dealing with those lies is to confront them openly, head on, and unapologetically, and while some might rationalize accommodating unjustifiable distortions of the truth as a strategic option, there are a number of us who consider that principle to be one on which we will not compromise.

October 7, 2010

Why am I a Gnu Atheist?

Filed under: Atheism,belief — tildeb @ 12:20 pm

I am a gnu atheist and as such I feel it is important to show that, on issues that matter, all of us as people share far more than the beliefs (or lack of them) that so often divide us. And what matters most, I think, is compassion (‘com’ meaning ‘with’ in the sense of something shared, and ‘passion’ meaning suffering). We are in this world together and what brings us closer is this sense of sharing the trials and tribulations and triumphs of human life, what John and many others call ‘love’.

I can appreciate because I’m fully human what it means to another to suffer like I do – whether that suffering is an artistic expression that falls just short, unrequited love, personal loss and tragedy, pain and injury and betrayal, even a child advancing to some new endeavor leaving a part of childhood behind forever (tough not to cry when the child heads off to school for that first time filled with such excitement and courage and armed with nothing but optimism).

But so too can I share the passion that infuses all of human life with so much potential meaning and purpose through love and adventure and excitement and common achievement. We share all of our humanity even if we share only some of what our different ideas of what that life should look like.

When I come across this sense of shared suffering – our common humanity expressed a zillion different ways – undermined by particular religious beliefs, I feel compelled to speak out. Not always well, not always effectively, not always kindly, but with an intention that is good, an intention to bring people back to what we share. In the same way that criminality is determined by intent to cause harm, so too do I criticize beliefs whose intent is to divide, to reduce human welfare and human well-being in the name of obeying and pleasing some other-worldly agency. Too often this attempt to impose one’s religious belief on others – no matter how heartfelt the case may pretend to be – is done to raise one’s lesser self to a more elevated place in the belief hierarchy, as if piousness itself is more precious to whatever creator agency is believed in than the actual welfare and well-being of others. Those individuals who are willing to sacrifice the welfare and well-being of others in the name of promoting them selves in the metaphorical eyes of some deity need to be confronted for their selfishness, stupidity, for their lack of empathy, for their arrogance and effrontery, for their misplaced priorities, and worst of all for their intentional perversion of that which binds us together: compassion – of shared suffering with other people in this life, in this place, in the here and now. In its place comes this belief-twisted caricature of compassion that is equivalent to becoming god’s jackbooted bully in order to share the deity’s suffering. It’s a form of illness of human spirit, one that is so blindly extended into the world through misogyny and bigotry and intolerance for what is just, what is right, what is good. We know better. And we can do better.

Religious belief opens this door (and often makes these divisive acts into virtues) as much as it opens a door to community and love and good works and to sharing beliefs of like-minded people. I think religious belief is unnecessary to achieve the same positive results (for what I think are better reasons) under different secular enlightened banners and ends up causing more harm than it does good in the conglomerate. I also recognize that the choice to hold religious beliefs is not my call (I’m not the one promoting the idea of the Thought Police). Each of us (but only in a secular liberal democracy let us remember) has the legal right to believe whatever we want that juices our religious engine but we don’t have the right to impose those beliefs in any way on others without undermining exactly that same right! (It’s a mystery why so many fail to recognize the importance of this very point when it comes to one’s primary worldly allegiance between a specific religion and the state, especially those who denigrate enlightened secularism in the name of extending their religious beliefs into the world.) Sometimes that fact needs to be pointed out to those who seem to be so willing to sacrifice it on their religious alter.

Finally, I have come to the conclusion that religion and all its negative effects can be all but eliminated if each believer holds true to keeping the positive beliefs they cherish wholly private (especially from children). We can be just for the sake of equitable justice and fairness, do what’s right for the sake of being ethical, be good for the sake of our common morality. Religious belief is not a better foundation (nor the only foundation) upon which to justify these goals and their achievement, nor is it central to determining and exercising what is just, right, and good. We can gather compassion in our hearts regardless of our beliefs and spread it like seeds through compassionate action as our testimonial to having lived honest and full human lives.

I don’t need to believe in deities. I can seek my answers – even if they include the ever-popular “I don’t know” – without any religious baggage. And that’s both empowering and freeing.

October 2, 2010

Are your religious beliefs those of a simpleton or a sophisticate?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Critical Reasoning,theology — tildeb @ 5:42 pm

Although many will be tempted to say neither, most will explain that his or her god is more along the lines of a personal loving kind that is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere, part of yet separate from the universe and time, as well as a benevolent and loving entity. But do these poor misguided folk realize that this kind of description is considered by theological authors of sophisticated theology to be far too simplistic to accurately describe a sophisticated and modern understanding? We wouldn’t want to confuse a simpleton’s understanding – which is often the target of gnu atheists – with the much more sophisticated ones much more impervious to the drive-by criticisms thrown, we are assured repeatedly by religious apologists, inaccurately by atheists.

So let’s see if you can tell the difference:

1) The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

2) The‘orthodox’ theological view – namely, that God is an inhuman, inexplicable, intangible, unlocatable, unthinkable, pointless, non-creating, uncommunicative nonentity.

If you chose the latter to be the sophisticated one, you’d be right according to Terry Eagleton. But there’s a wee little problem with that: such a deity offers us nothing to back up questions of morality, meaning, purpose, and values. Such a deity can have no implications about how we are to tackle issues of gay marriage, female priests, contraception, and so on. Yet the religious voice on matters of ethics is granted a widespread hearing as if what is said is naturally endowed and informed by religious belief. This can only be true if god is more like #1 or the simpleton’s version.

So we have a conundrum: either Dawkins’ funny little introduction used in the first description is the god of most christian believers, in which case the criticisms offered by New Atheists are properly targeted, or the voice of religious believers on matter of ethics is based on the simpleton’s unsophisticated theological version, in which case the the criticisms offered by New Atheists are properly targeted. Either way, the sophisticated theology offered by the Eagletons and Armstrongs of the world is as much a tiny outlier in the active religion practices by the vast majorities of believers as much as it is irrelevant as well as incapable of adding anything of interest in matters of morality, meaning, purpose and values.

October 1, 2010

What’s the Sound of Science?

Filed under: Religion,Science — tildeb @ 7:40 am

A knock-off song too good not to share.

(Tip to New England Bob who credits Greg Laden and Bora via WEIT)

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