Questionable Motives

October 5, 2011

Why is the ‘Atheist regimes have killed millions’ argument historically inaccurate?

Filed under: Atheism,Harris,History,Liars for Jesus,Religion,Steven Pinker — tildeb @ 9:27 am

The short answer is because it’s simply not true. This is not news to those of us who understand that such common and typical lies and deceptions and misrepresentations are promoted by liars for jesus who are determined to paint atheists as the cause for much suffering even when that is not historically true.

Steve Pinker offers us five fatal points to this absurd historical caricature in this pithy counterargument:

1. The premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

2. Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

3. According to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

4. Many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.

5. When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.

Enjoy the complete interview by Sam Harris with Steven Pinker.

June 14, 2011

Why does knowledge of history matter?

Filed under: Canada,Education,History,Ignorance,United States — tildeb @ 8:46 pm

History, one of my favourite subjects when I was in school, is a dying subject. And this carries with it a cost played out in ignorance.

In the latest national testing in the States, Americans are losing knowledge of their history, which means their are losing their ability to understand how things were and why things came to be they way they are today. This failure to teach to proficiency in history for public school students is akin to setting them adrift into the world armed only by ignorance of their historical roots.  For example, over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This trend is revealing. Proficiency is one of three categories:  “basic” denotes partial mastery of a subject; “proficient” represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and “advanced” means superior performance. Shockingly, only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, probably the most important Supreme Court ruling ever made. I studied it in high school and later at university… in Canada! And to add a revelation of just how apathetic American students are – without blaming parents and school boards and the internet for this failure to educate, although obviously there is great deal here to go around – only9% of fourth-graders could identify the man on the five dollar bill as Abraham Lincoln. Who he was and why he was an important historical figure pales when one considers the fact that the most basic curiosity of why a picture of this guy is on the five dollar bill is lacking from the start.

And this is the country whose leadership keeps lying to the public that it can produce students who will compete successfully against those from the rest of the world… omitting from the proposition that ignorance – whether in history or science or math – is hardly a solid foundation upon which to build its shining future. Yet that is exactly what it is doing: producing students with little knowledge and even less curiosity. The situation reminds me of the wisdom of Edmund Burke (no, I won’t tell you… go look it up) who said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

That’s a bad thing, by the way.

April 1, 2010

What is cultural maladaptation?

From The American Scholar comes this article about historical change and the need to for historians to study and assess it not by perceived successes and failures but in evolutionary terms: how sustainable has the cultural adaptation become or is the practice maladaptive?

People have developed strategies to meet changes in climate, in energy sources, or in the diseases they confront. In some cases they have developed, through thoughtful observation, ways to avoid degrading or depleting their environment. They have learned how to become more resilient in the face of change.

But adaptation, even in nature, has never been perfect or sufficient. Before Darwin, naturalists like Bishop William Paley, author of the 1802 religious classic Natural Theology, liked to talk about the marvelous fitness of plants and animals to their environments; a world that was perfectly harmonized and perfectly adapted showed, they believed, the handiwork of a rational God. They insisted that everything in the world is perfectly organized and perfectly adapted, that every creature has its assigned place. But Darwin’s theory of evolution overturned the notion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Darwin, for all of his admiration of natural selection, forced us to begin paying attention to the reality and frequency of maladaptation.

After him, the science of adaptation could no longer claim to reveal a perfect world in which everything works for the best or where nature always achieves the ideal solution to a problem. Nature cobbles together solutions from whatever material is available. When those solutions fail, the costs of mal-adaptation can be severe. Contrary to modern critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, the so-called “adaptationist program” in modern biology does not teach that we live in the best of all conceivable worlds. Nature shows us many examples of failure, impoverishment, dysfunction, and death as much as fitness, functionality, and good health. And this maladaptation is certainly evident when we examine human cultures through history.

Historians need to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to embrace the theory and worldview of evolution for the dazzling light it sheds on the origins, development, and fate of humanity.

March 5, 2010

Isn’t it about time to re-write the Ten Commandments?

Filed under: Bible,History,Hitchens,Ten Commandments — tildeb @ 12:37 pm

From the wickedly sardonic wit of the curmudgeonly funny Christopher Hitchens comes these excerpts (and picture) from his article in Vanity Fair:

What if it is the original stone version that badly needs a re-write? Who will take up the revisionist chisel?

There is in fact a good biblical precedent for doing just that, since the giving of the divine Law by Moses appears in three or four wildly different scriptural versions. (When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time.) The first and most famous set comes in Exodus 20 but ends with Moses himself smashing the supposedly most sacred artifacts ever known to man: the original, God-dictated panels of Holy Writ. The second edition occurs in Exodus 34, where new but completely different tablets are presented after some heavenly re-write session and are for the first time called “the ten commandments.” In the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses once more calls his audience together and recites the original Sinai speech with one highly significant alteration (the Sabbath commandment’s justifications in each differ greatly). But plainly discontented with the effect of this, he musters the flock again 22 chapters further on, as the river Jordan is coming into view, and gives an additional set of orders—chiefly terse curses—which are also to be inscribed in stone. As with the gold plates on which Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in upstate New York, no trace of any of these original yet conflicting tablets survives.

Thus we are fully entitled to consider them as a work in progress.

I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism. Only the Almighty can scan matters sub specie aeternitatis: from the viewpoint of eternity. One must also avoid cultural and historical relativism: there’s no point in retroactively ordering the Children of Israel to develop a germ theory of disease (so as to avoid mistaking plagues for divine punishments) or to understand astronomy (so as not to make foolish predictions and boasts based on the planets and stars). Still, if we think of the evils that afflict humanity today and that are man-made and not inflicted by nature, we would be morally numb if we did not feel strongly about genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, sexual repression, white-collar crime, the wanton destruction of the natural world, and people who yak on cell phones in restaurants. (Also, people who commit simultaneous suicide and murder while screaming “God is great”: is that taking the Lord’s name in vain or is it not?)

What emerges from the first review is this: the Ten Commandments were derived from situational ethics. They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. They are also addressed to a group that has been promised the land and flocks of other people: the Amalekites and Midianites and others whom God orders them to kill, rape, enslave, or exterminate. And this, too, is important because at every step of their arduous journey the Israelites are reminded to keep to the laws, not because they are right but just because they will lead them to become conquerors (of, as it happens, almost the only part of the Middle East that has no oil).

So, then: how to prune and how to amend? Numbers One through Three can simply go, since they have nothing to do with morality and are no more than a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator. Mere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics. The associated ban on sculpture and pictorial art should also be lifted. Number Four can possibly stay, though rest periods are not exactly an ethical imperative and are mandated by practicality as much as by heaven. At least, if shorn of its first and third and fourth redundant verses (none of which can possibly apply to non-Jews), Number Four does imply that there are rights as well as duties. For millions of people for thousands of years, the Sabbath was made a dreary burden of obligation and strict observance instead of a day of leisure or recreation. It also led to absurd hypocrisies that seem to treat God as a fool: He won’t notice if we make the elevators stop on every floor so that no pious Jew needs to press a button. This is unwholesome and over-strenuous.

As for Number Five, by all means respect for the elders, but why is there nothing to forbid child abuse? (Insolence on the part of children is punishable by death, according to Leviticus 20:9, only a few verses before the stipulation of the death penalty for male homosexuals.) A cruel or rude child is a ghastly thing, but a cruel or brutal parent can do infinitely more harm. Yet even in a long and exhaustive list of prohibitions, parental sadism or neglect is never once condemned. Memo to Sinai: rectify this omission.

Number Six: Note that mere human systems have done better subsequently in distinguishing different moral scales of homicide. Memo to Sinai: Are you morally absolute or aren’t you? If so, what about the poor massacred Midianites?

Number Seven: Fair enough if you must, but is polygamy adultery? Also, could not permanent monogamy have been made slightly more consonant with human nature? Why create people with lust in their hearts? Then again, what about rape? It seems to be very strongly recommended, along with genocide, slavery, and infanticide, in Numbers 31:1–18, and surely constitutes a rather extreme version of sex outside marriage.

Numbers Eight and Nine: Admirable. Also brief and to the point, with one rather useful nuance in the keyword “against.”

Number Ten: Does wrong to women by making them property and also necessitates continual celestial wiretapping of private thoughts. Sinister and despotic in that it cannot be obeyed and thus makes sinners even of quite thoughtful people.

February 15, 2010

Why do the Texas state school board curriculum decisions matter so much?

Here are some excerpts from a fantastic article by Russell Shorto published in The New York Times Magazine that answers this question:

Public education has always been a battleground between cultural forces; one reason that Texas’ school-board members find themselves at the very center of the battlefield is, not surprisingly, money. The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State. California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead. Texas, on the other hand, was one of the first states to adopt statewide curriculum guidelines, back in 1998, and the guidelines it came up with (which are referred to as TEKS — pronounced “teaks” — for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) were clear, broad and inclusive enough that many other states used them as a model in devising their own.

The cultural roots of the Texas showdown may be said to date to the late 1980s, when, in the wake of his failed presidential effort, the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition partly on the logic that conservative Christians should focus their energies at the grass-roots level. One strategy was to put candidates forward for state and local school-board elections — Robertson’s protégé, Ralph Reed, once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members” — and Texas was a beachhead. Since the election of two Christian conservatives in 2006, there are now seven on the Texas state board who are quite open about the fact that they vote in concert to advance a Christian agenda. “They do vote as a bloc,” Pat Hardy, a board member who considers herself a conservative Republican but who stands apart from the Christian faction, told me. “They work consciously to pull one more vote in with them on an issue so they’ll have a majority.”

The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The Texas board’s moves to bring Jesus into American history has drawn anger in places far removed from the board members’ constituencies. The issue of Texas’ influence is a touchy one in education circles. With some parents and educators elsewhere leery of a right-wing fifth column invading their schools, people in the multibillion textbook industry try to play down the state’s sway.Tom Barber, who worked as the head of social studies at the three biggest textbook publishers before running his own editorial company, says, “Texas was and still is the most important and most influential state in the country.” And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”

It’s one thing that 60% of American Republicans and about 38% of Democrats believe that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago, but when that religious belief translates into electing creationist school board members who vote accordingly for sympathetic curriculum in a state that effectively writes the texbooks for almost all of the states, then we have a titanic problem.

And it’s not just in the United States where this attack by theology into educational curriculum is such a growing concern.  In Britain, the numbers are approaching parity: about a third of people believe the same fairytale as their American counterparts and a majority think that evolution is insufficient to explain life without some Oogity Boogity to solve the really hard problems.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the move of unjustified beliefs from theology into educational curriculum does not stop with science. This year’s focus in Texas is mostly on rewriting history to favour evangelical christianity as the theological framework within which the founding fathers wrote their documents. The intention is to falsely present the US as a christian rather than a secular nation.

One thing we know for sure: the battle between theology and education for school curriculum will keep Texas a vital strategic theatre of operations. Stay tuned…

January 16, 2010

The Unluckiest Country

Filed under: Haiti,History — tildeb @ 1:33 pm

The second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere has been wracked by coups, dictators, and foreign interventions throughout nearly its entire history. But you don’t have to agree with Pat Robertson to agree that even by Haitian standards, th last few decades have been particularly tragic.

For a short history of this troubled country from Foreign Policy, go here.

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