Questionable Motives

May 21, 2011

How does religion unite people?

Filed under: ACLU,Graduation,prayer,Religion,School Board — tildeb @ 1:34 pm

It doesn’t, but why let what’s true interfere with a good belief?

Bastrop High School has a problem and his name is  Damon Fowler.  He has the arrogance, the militancy, the stridency, to insist that the school follow the law and not include a school-sanction prayer in their graduation ceremony. But if the practice ceremony is any indication, the school will still allow the prayer to happen while pretending that it is against it (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you are a naughty girl) to avoid a law suit. And look at the public response to giving the Constitution the finger in the name of god. (Why does this remind me of Padme’s observation during Senator Palpatine’s ascendency to Emperor that this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause?)

Now let us watch the overwhelming tide of condemnation of these people from the true Christians who are nice people who wouldn’t stand for this sort of bullying behavior.

Any minute now…

Perhaps we should await an accomodationist to show up to tell us this could have been avoided if only atheists were more civil?

Still waiting…

A scholarship has been set up in Damon’s name for those who think taking a principled stand against religion promoted in the public domain is the real problem.

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

August 29, 2010

What is prayer?

Filed under: belief,brain,Neuroscience,prayer,Science — tildeb @ 8:12 pm

Over on John Shore’s site there has been a post and commentary about prayer. All the responses have been generally positive about the important role prayer plays in the lives of many. From it being like a relaxant before bed to enjoying the benefits of talk therapy unavailable to atheists, from the suggestion that prayer allows us to become conscious of god to the assertion that it is evidence for god, the comments have been interesting but very much of a type.

So I offered the following comment, which – unlike all other posts I have made – has been awaiting moderation for a day.  Makes me wonder why. Any suggestions?

Meditative prayer with god presumes the object reality of god. When we ‘feel’ better for the exercise, we reinforce our belief that god is real. This assumption is then used to justify belief in an intercessory prayer. After all, because we know that god is real through our experience of meditative prayer and we feel different during and after praying (so the cause must be external because we cannot arbitrarily change how we feel, right?), then it is but a very small step to believing that there must be something to intercessory prayer as well, where god somehow orchestrates a kind of intentional intervention. There are many scriptural references that intercessory prayer works. But are any of these references and conclusions actually true?

Well, we know that people who believe in the power of charismatic healing inhibit their brain’s capacity to critically think by shutting down parts of their medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and we know through a meta-analytic review that there is no evidence to show any causal link greater than chance between prayer and effect. We do know that mindful meditation alters brain chemistry and improves immune function, which brings into question our assertion of the need for any external agency for mood alterations and how we feel during meditative prayer at all.

Once again, we cannot trust that what we believe is true is necessarily true unless we have some less subjective way to test it. And when we do test the claims made on behalf of prayer, what we find is that it offers us no evidence for any external agency.

May 22, 2010

What’s wrong with starting some governmental business with a prayer?

Filed under: belief,prayer,Religion,School Board,Texas — tildeb @ 4:30 pm

The Texas state board of education meeting to discuss upcoming changes to the curriculum:

Pious tidbits:

I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses.

Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England…the same objective is present — a Christian land governed by Christian principles.

I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.

This kind of prayer is an act of intellectual cowardice.

Dunbar, the woman giving the prayer, is using it to pretend that god is guiding them to revise history is way that doesn’t allow anyone who also happens to be respectful of this kind of religious cowardice to interrupt and call her on her duplicity. What is obvious is that Dunbar is using prayer to promote her specific political and religious points not yet discussed by the committee in a way that appears to be pious. It isn’t; it’s sanctimonious cowardliness. It’s underhanded political posturing, inane, and completely unnecessary for the business at hand. That’s what’s wrong with including prayer in government business.

March 13, 2010

Should prayer be allowed in high school graduation ceremonies?

Filed under: Graduation,High School,Poll,prayer — tildeb @ 4:25 pm

Take the poll here.

You are even allowed to explain your vote in the comments section… if you have the courage of your convictions!

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

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 5, 2010

Why bother attacking religious beliefs?

One small part from a wonderful essay by Russell Blackford over at The Philos0pher’s Magazine:

For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults. 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 moral concerns.

The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

Meanwhile, we are confronted every day by the horrors of political Islam, with its ambitions to extend sharia law universally and its ugly violations of human rights wherever it actually has power. Many critics of religion were radicalised by the traumatic events of 9/11 when thousands of people were murdered by terrorists. Islam doubtless has moderate and even liberal manifestations, but prominent, politicised forms of Islam take a hard line against secularism, modernity, and all forms of liberal thought.

In a different world, we might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be separate from the state, and that discussions about public policy should rely on secular principles such as the Millian harm principle. More radical attacks on religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various sects agreed, without equivocation, to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons (by their own lights) to oppose such strict secularism. Many religious sects, including many mainstream Christian denominations, do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power. They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. Some groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a time when their (allegedly) righteous views will prevail.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into socially-accepted moral norms, let alone into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power? When these questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Atheists and sceptics should, no doubt, defend secularism. But if we are realistic, we will understand that the idea of secularism has little traction in societies where the authority of religion is considered legitimate and taken for granted. For many religious groups, moreover, secularism is not an attractive ideal. Advocating secularism and directly challenging the authority of religion should not be viewed as two alternative strategies for atheists and sceptics who wish to resist the political influence of religion. Rather, these strategies are mutually supportive and ought to be pursued in tandem. That is the lesson that we need to learn.

December 21, 2009

The Catholic Church: is there anything it will not steal?

Filed under: cancer,Catholic Church,prayer — tildeb @ 4:45 pm


Terminal illness such as cancer can be cured by prayer, the head of the Catholic Church in Australia says.

But Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell admits such cures, like the miracle attributed to Mary MacKillop, is obviously rare.

“Yes obviously (cancer can be cured by prayer),” Cardinal Pell told ABC Television on Monday.

“And there are quite a number of examples in the books.”

Cardinal Pell says that won’t give sick people a false sense of security because they realise cure by prayer is a “very long shot”.

The Vatican has recognised Mother Mary’s role in the healing a woman with inoperable cancer during the mid 1990s after she prayed to Mother Mary.

It is the second miracle attributed to Mary MacKillop, who is set to become the nation’s first Saint, 100 years after her death.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  — – – – –

Oh really? Prayer? This is big news indeed… but wait. Who is this woman whose throat cancer was cured by prayer? Her name is Angela Szczepanski, and she writes,

My chemotherapy treatments started July 13, l995. Within one week of my first treatment, I could talk, eat, work and smile. I knew everything would be fine.

Maybe it’s just me not being properly awe struck by a catholic archbishop’s assertion as if it must therefore be fact, but doesn’t this quote by Angela sound suspiciously like a medical intervention? Might it, rather than prayer, be the actual cure? Apparently not, because the cancer returned in spite of Angela’s certainty that she was cured.

The chemotherapy didn’t seem to do much good so, along with radiotherapy, the doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant.

Again, this sounds to me – dullard that I am in the face of claims of supernatural miracles – like another medical intervention. And this time, it seems to have worked, although Angela attributes her survival to the faith exhibited by a devout dentist.

What appears miraculous to me is the gullibility of people who want to attribute effect to a preferred cause, especially a supernatural cause. Although that cause may indeed be true, it seems to me to be more prudent, more HONEST, to first attribute the probable effect to medical procedures that have been shown to have efficacy rather than be so willing to dismiss what is for what might be.

Would Angela have survived her cancer if all she did was pray? There is an awful lot of evidence to suggest that prayer alone does not cure medical conditions (although it may drive away certain mythical demonic possessions according to very biased sources like the catholic church who graduates several hundred ‘highly trained’ exorcists a year). Angela’s story in no way, shape, or form, offers any counter evidence whatsoever to the fact that prayer alone heals nothing.

What bothers me the most about this story is how quickly the archbishop – supposedly an educated person with critical if somewhat rusty faculties at his disposal – is so quick to state with false certainty that prayer heals cancer. That’s a bald-faced lie and he knows it, but hey, what’s another theft of truth in service of his god?

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