Questionable Motives

February 13, 2010

What do we owe to secularism?

In my discussions with many who hold some allegiance to religious beliefs, I am often presented with statements that assure me that human rights, freedoms, and respect of personhood derive from religious holy texts. That’s a rather optimistic interpretation usually assumed to be true by those who wish to present their religion as a force for good in the world. But a significant problem arises when the same texts are used by many men in religious authority as a bullying tool to justify the intent to reduce human rights, freedoms, and the dignity of personhood. The standard reply to my criticism is to assure me that only ‘extremists’ and those who misinterpret god’s will abuse the holy text in such a way and so should not count against the more favorable interpretations and assumptions.

Then along comes another example of religious belief being used to justify some reduction in human rights, freedoms, and dignity of personhood not by some fringe extremist but some central authority like the the pope or the archbishiop of Canterbury or some typical local clergy and I am left wondering how so many religious people can tolerate the constant undermining of hard won secular enlightenment values by people who think believing in some favored invisible sky father adds authority to their opinions about how treat others.

This latest (bold face in mine) come to us from an English vicar concerned about the divorce rate. His solution? Wives, obey your husbands and close your mouth. Such is the quality of so much ‘moral teaching’ from holy texts:

In a leaflet issued to parishoners, the Rev Angus MacLeay used passages in the Bible to justify women playing a submissive role in local church life. He urged women to “submit to their husbands in everything”.

Mr MacLeay, a member of the General Synod (that just voted 241-2 that the conflictual truth claims made by science and religion are compatible because, well, just because they say they are), is opposed to the appointment of women bishops. He has campaigned vociferously for Reform, an Evangelical group that seeks to reform the Church of England “according to the Holy Scriptures”.

The leaflet he issued It says at one point: “Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything in recognition of the fact that husbands are head of the family as Christ is head of the church.

“This is the way God has ordered their relationships with each other and Christian marriage cannot function well without it.”

In a section called `More difficult passages to consider’, it continues:

“It would seem that women should remain silent….if their questions could legitimately be answered by their husbands at home.”

In a sermon days later, his curate, the Rev Mark Oden, a married father-of-three, built on the argument, sparking further controversy.

He told his congregation at St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks, Kent, that the behaviour of modern women was to blame for Britain’s high divorce rate.

He said: “We know marriage is not working. We only need to look at figures – one in four children have divorced parents.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands.”

Thankfully, at least a few of the parishioners have the sense to withdraw their active support from this religious organization that champions with religiously sanctioned authority such twits as this. If the parishioners don’t like it, they can leave. And that’s usually where the critical thinking about the truth claims uttered on behalf of religious denominations  stops. It shouldn’t.

Why can people walk away from religious edicts without public penalty or censure?

Does that right, freedom, and dignity to walk away from ignorant and bigoted faithist social positions come to us from the religious teachings?

Hardly. If we have the courage to deny the edicts of the holy texts to respect their clergy’s teachings, we are assured within those texts of all the awful consequences that awaits us – if not in this life by our faithful neighbours then in the next by a veritable host of supernatural malignant creatures out to punish us for our temerity.

Why we have the right, the freedom, the dignity of our personhood to choose to walk away from such religious drivel is not a small or trivial matter to consider. We can do so because our secular laws protect individual rights, freedoms, and dignity of personhood and can call upon the power of the State to enforce these laws. Part and parcel of these laws is the right of individuals to believe what they wish, known as freedom of religion, so the ally of the individual that empowers our choices with respect whether religious or not is secularism.

And that is a point more people need to spend some time pondering: it is secularism that grants us the rights, freedoms, and dignity of personhood that empowers each of us to be able to make meaningful choices and lends us its authority to force others to respect our legal ability to do so. It is secularism that deserves our primary allegiance as citizens, whether religious or not.

February 6, 2010

Why is ignorance such a powerful political force in the US?

There may be a clue here:

From the Republican Party straight to FOX News – the most ‘trusted’ news source in the US – comes evidence that selling intentional misrepresentations, outright lies, and purposeful misinformation all for partisan gain works and works well. It works because so many people are more than willing to accept ignorance packaged as something else (patriotism, religion, freedom, wisdom, passion, etc.) as the basis for their opinions. Yet once stripped of the packaging, these opinions become strikingly ignorant, intolerant, and incredibly dangerous to the continued respect and well-being of the Constitution.

Check this poll out and tell me what you think.

February 3, 2010

How science-savy are you and does it matter?

A majority of Americans profess respect for science, according to a recent Pew Forum report: 84 percent of people surveyed agree that “science’s effect on society” is “mostly positive.” That’s a finding likely to be met with skepticism by many secularists, who blame religion for what they believe is widespread hostility to science. Considering religion’s role in fomenting opposition to the theory of evolution (which some two-thirds of Americans reject), this skepticism is neither unreasonable nor surprising. In fact, according to Pew, people without religious affiliations are “the most likely to perceive a conflict between religion and science,” while “the most religiously observant” are “least likely to perceive this clash.”

Science and scientists are even “viewed positively by those who differ over evolution, global warming and other contentious issues,” Pew reports. When these “contentious issues” involve the disputed morality of scientific endeavors like stem-cell research, it’s not hard to reconcile contentiousness with respect (we should welcome moral debates about science, given its destructive power). But what’s the worth of the public’s positive view of science if it fails to persuade people to accept fundamental scientific facts—about evolution, say, or global warming—that conflict with their religious beliefs, worldly desires, or resistance to bad news?

It’s not surprising that the public’s reported love for science is unrequited. “While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations,” the Pew report observes. “Fully 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem … and nearly half (49 percent) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.”

To measure (or approximate) public knowledge of science, Pew administered a twelve-question quiz. It consists of simple multiple-choice and true/false questions testing basic general knowledge. (How do you match up with the general public? Take the science quiz here.)

But a quiz like this, focusing on a few random facts, doesn’t test what may matter most—the public’s understanding of scientific inquiry; the importance of experimentation, observation, and logic; and the relationship of evidence to belief. It’s the failure to appreciate scientific methods and the role science should play in shaping public policy that enables politicians to ignore it.

The influence of personal experience on public opinion greatly complicates the challenge of changing opinions about evolution: people don’t directly experience or aren’t aware of the costs of believing in creationism or intelligent design and crusading against the teaching of evolution. A decline in science education has little if any discernible, more or less immediate impact on their lives.

And that’s a huge problem with significant and long-lasting costs.

From the article Science and Public Opinion.

February 2, 2010

Why is it a criminal act to support Britain’s Equality bill?

From The Independent:

In the first official announcement from the Vatican that the head of the Roman Catholic Church will tour Britain, Pope Benedict XVI called on his bishops to continue campaigning against the Equality Bill which he said threatened religious freedom.

“Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society,” he wrote. “Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.

“In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.” In a separate warning to any bishop thinking of deviating from the Vatican’s lead on such controversial issues, Pope Benedict also reiterated the need for the Church to “speak with a united voice”.

“In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate,” he said. “It is the truth revealed through scripture and tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.”

I have commented on this Pope’s meddling in secular law and public policy before (see here, here, and here). And I use the word ‘meddling’ quite on purpose to counter the lie commonly put forth by faithists that religious belief ought to be left alone from criticism because it is merely a private concern and people are free to believe what they wish. The atheist response is that private belief is a freedom in need of protection, but that when that belief leaves the private domain and undergoes a transubstantiation from belief into the justification for actions counter to human rights and dignity, then the justifications are quite properly open to criticism. When organized religion – not just some private individual’s belief in god – inserts itself into the public domain where it has no justifiable reason to intrude and interfere in real world matters, then dishonest, misrepresented, and misinformed justifications need criticism.

This is certainly the case with Britain’s Equality Bill; if we are talking about codifying fairness and equality into secular law, rest assured that religious organizations will line up to fight any attempt to impose non-discrimination on their religiously inspired misogynistic and bigoted practices because it undermines the basis of their legal ‘freedom’ to do so. That is the talking point these clergy will champion, that equality in law isn’t really about addressing the blatant inequality that is omnipresent in such organizations as the catholic church, to misdirect criticism away from practices and pretend it’s really about freedom of belief. It isn’t. These church people will lie, misrepresent, and misinform others and pretend the issue is about freedom to believe rather than freedom to practice discrimination and bigotry. And they will do it by pretending to support that which they actively fight against: equality and fairness.

Let’s take a closer look at what this pope is really saying:

He argues that the Equality bill threatens religious ‘freedom’ in that it will insist on ‘unjust’ limitations – that is to say, that the limitation will impact how religious organizations act if that action is based on inequality and targeted bias. I’m not ‘free’ to drive a car at any speed in any direction I want, and reasonable constraints imposed by the state for the social good on the rules of the roads of the nation are hardly an infringement on my ‘freedom’ to travel but quite rightly address how I do so. The same responsibility for the public good does not affect the freedom to belief; the state has every right to insist on reasonable constraints on how these beliefs are put into practice. So the honest issue here is about what constitutes the ‘unjustness’ of the limitations.

The ‘unjust’ limitations are unjust, it turns out,  because they run counter to “natural law.” And what might this law be?

Nobody seems to know. What we are told is that Natural Law is apparently the grounding as well as the guarantee upon which the very existence of equality rests. And here I thought it was constitutions and bills and declarations of rights and charters of freedom and other laws passed by legislation and enforced by the state… much along the lines of the Equality Bill, for example. Silly me. Natural law seems to be what the pope or any religious person says it is. And for anyone to go against such a natural law and insist on equality in secular law is, according to this pope,  undermining equality.


Isn’t that a lovely piece of circular reasoning? It smacks of relativism, when white means black and inequality means equality, doesn’t it? And we know this pope doesn’t think much of relativism… unless it belongs to him, in which case a miracle occurs and some relativistic piece of nonsense uttered from the source of papal bulls suddenly is ordained as a bill of truth… co-signed by god, no less.

But it is still dishonest.

To add insult to intellectual dishonesty, the pope wishes to describe any voice that dares criticize his dishonesty to be immature and unbalanced. Why so? Well, the proof for this is that the pope’s correct position is based on scripture, tradition, and the pope’s opinion, all of which is the necessary triumverate (or should I say troika)… for people to be free!  Of course. Why didn’t I recognize this simple truth right away? Any idea whatsoever, in other words, that disagrees in part or whole with the church’s interpretation of scripture, the church’s actual practices, and whatever the pope decrees to be correct, isn’t a criticism at all: such disobedience is a crime against this so-called ‘natural law’ that informs people’s freedoms. And we don’t wish to be criminals and advocate the elimination of freedoms, now do we?

So the solution is obvious: if one wishes to support real equality and freedom, the natural kind sanctioned by god and not the artificial secular stuff passed by legislation and enforced by the state, then one must allow the church… all churches, actually, as well as any and all acts justified by some religious assertion that can call upon natural law and god’s special favour… to be exempt from secular law. It’s only right and proper. To suggest otherwise turns out to be a crime against god’s natural law, making those who support the Equality bill criminals who wish to undermine your freedoms!

Good grief.

January 31, 2010

How does an American liberal become an islamic jihadist in a distant land?

This eleven page story from the New York Times describes how Omar Hammami from Daphne, Alabama, has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

So how does one go from being a smart, popular, and talented young person with a bright and promising future into an active jihadist half way across the world? Omar explains:

“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”

Dena, Omar’s older sister, offers this conflicted reply.

“I think it’s admirable to stand up for what you believe in, but it gets hairy when you affect the lives of others,” she wrote.

Hairy. That’s an interesting way to describe killing, maiming, beheading, and stoning others.

Hammami responded that he understood how strange it might seem to “fight for beliefs,” especially as he had once been a liberal (under the influence, he wrote, of the teacher he still referred to as “Mrs. Hirsch”). But he had come to the realization that “we don’t live in a utopian society.”

So what needs to change? Well a good starting point according to Omar is a recognition that, “Human rights,” he said in an audio recording released by the Shabab last July, is “the Western form of democracy which cannot be reconciled with Islam.”

And it is religious belief that is the more important of the two, according to far too many people. And therein lies a good part of the explanation. I think it is that kind of assumption – a willingness to reduce the secular rights and freedoms of people to be subordinate to some other ideology, some other belief set – that clears a path for the transition from responsible citizen to murderous terrorist, a perspective that is essential to have in order to allow people to continue to think well of themselves while they carry out everything from small acts of righteousness like voting to reduce civil rights of others to horrendous acts of brutality on behalf of some ‘higher cause’ against other people. I am disgusted that the salve offered by religious belief about so much unnecessary suffering is so easily excused by assuming belief that all of us are merely preset pieces within God’s preordained plan. “You take solace in knowing that it’s in God’s hands,” said Shafik, Omar’s islamic father sunken in his armchair, as Debra, Omar’s southern baptist mother nodded. “And there is nothing you could have done to change it.”

I think that’s a cop out. I think we need to educate people to better understand and appreciate that what makes individual freedom possible is our collective and primary allegiance to and respect for secular enlightened values of equality, dignity, and fairness. There are far too many of us who think allegiance to the state and the religious majority it supposedly represents is where our allegiance properly belongs, but this misdirection and misunderstanding is as much to blame for creating more Omars as is the religion of islam. As the push in Western democracies continues to promote government support for christian values, the greater is the danger we face that we will lose our freedoms. We need to wake up, get off the fence, and push back any encroachment by anyone who campaigns or acts against the primacy of secular values.

January 25, 2010

What is Canada’s mental health strategy? Combat Satan!

The new Canadian Mental Health Commission is “a wonderful opportunity” for Christians to be involved in dealing with one of the most pressing issues in our society, according to one of its members.

Chris Summerville is one of 11 non-government members of the new Commission’s board of directors.

Summerville said he hopes to bring a holistic approach to the issue that addresses body, mind, soul and spirit. Summerville said one of his goals is to “bring the presence of Christ” into the different perspectives that will be present in the Commission.

There has been a “prejudice against religion” on the part of some mental health professionals, he said, and “historically clinicians have been reluctant to discuss religion with their clients.”

Satan will use any opportunity to attack, including mental illness, said Summerville, but mental illness and spiritual should not be equated. Summerville said churches often don’t do a good job of dealing with mental illness because they tend to “treat it as a spiritual problem exclusively.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the formation of the commission on August 31. It grew out of a study by a Senate committee chaired by Senator Michael Kirby, who will chair the new Commission. The Commission’s board of directors includes 11 non-government experts and six government representatives. The Commission will receive $10 million in start-up funds until mid-2009 and then $15 million a year after that.

From Canadianchristianity’s website here.

January 15, 2010

Is there a bias against atheists?

A majority of Americans consider belief in God essential to morality, the Pew Forum confirmed in 2007; and Pew recently found that most Americans do not want their family members marrying atheists.  (Note to Brit Hume: I doubt that most Americans would exhibit comparable hostility toward Christians.) The new Pew Research Center report on increased optimism among African Americans notes that while “interracial marriage is now widely accepted by Americans of all racial groups … there is one new spouse that most Americans would have trouble accepting into their families: someone who does not believe in God.”  Resistance among people affiliated with a religion to intermarriage with atheists may be stronger than their resistance to gay marriage: seven in ten religious people surveyed by Pew would oppose or resist intermarriage with an atheist.  And while comparably high percentages of the most regular churchgoers oppose gay marriage, opposition declines significantly among the less devout.

So I’m not ignoring the beginnings of what some consider an atheist liberation movement (although American atheists are not exactly oppressed).  And I’m not complaining:  I don’t care if religious people consider me amoral because I lack their beliefs in God.  I do, however, care deeply about efforts to turn religious beliefs into law, and those efforts benefit greatly from the conviction that individually and collectively, we cannot be good without God.

Persistent hostility toward atheism may not be a source of educational or employment discrimination for individual atheists (although it does engender significant discrimination in the military), but hostility toward atheism is a threat to freedoms of conscience and religion that all of us share.  It’s an often overlooked irony that atheists who regard all religions with equal disrespect, favoring no one faith over another, are sometimes the most reliable defenders of equal religious rights.  But you shouldn’t have to be irreligious to consider religious liberty transcendent.

From Wendy Kaminer’s article No Atheist Need Apply at The Atlantic

January 11, 2010

What should religious belief NOT sound like?

Rachel Maddow’s show is often very well done with good research, pointed questions, and biting commentary. This story reveals lunacy in the religious Right, which seems to be successfully hijacking the Republican party.

PZ Myers has a very valid point when he comments on the subject of Rachel’s show and  says:

Here’s what we get in American government: a room full of morons, eyes squeezed shut, bobbing their heads back and forth as they beg an invisible man in the sky to smite health care reform. Witness this and realize that religion is a pathology, an evil mind-rot that makes the stupid even more stupid..

To view the video, please go to PZs site here (I can’t embed it, but I’m working on it).

January 10, 2010

Do atheists perform a public service criticizing religious belief?

Excerpts from Russell Blackford’s Hellfire and Metamagician post:

The trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide … rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.

The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions – but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.

Religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns.

If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them – live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society – whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.

Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers … and when they involve large sums of public money.

In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don’t find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out – supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument.

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