Questionable Motives

April 5, 2012

What do you think about this ten point secular plan?

Although American in detail, I think the plan is a really good starting point for all secular liberal democracies. Get religion out of the public domain where it has no business being imposed on all. Here’s a recent list:

1. Respect Our Troops – Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious or nonreligious with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

2. Reproductive Information Based on Science – Any federal or state funded program, whether offering services domestic or foreign, that relates to reproductive decisions shall be based on science and public health; not on religious bias or the denigration or women or secular minorities.

3. Healthcare Professionals Fulfill Professional Duties – Healthcare professionals shall fulfill their professional duties and they must do so without a hint of religious bias or they must find another job. That includes fundamentalist pharmacists that turn away rape victims from Plan-B (Morning After Pill Emergency Contraception).

4. No Religious Bias in Land Use or Employment – There shall be no bias in land use planning or environmental law or employment law based on religion or lack thereof.

5. No Bias in Marriage Law – Marriage can be defined by religious congregations howsoever they choose within their own services but marriage under American law shall have no bias whatsoever.

6. Autonomy for End-of-life Choices – When facing end-of-life decisions, all Americans shall be guaranteed control over their own bodies without being thwarted by religious bias.

7. No Religious Bias in School – America’s youth shall never be subjected to bias in education. If there is one penny of government funds there can’t be one iota of religious bias.

8. Congress Shall Include Secular Americans – The composition of Congress and legislature shall include secular Americans and there shall be no bias against secular candidates.

9. Children Protected from Religious Abuse –  There should be one consistent standard pertaining to the health and welfare of children regardless of a child’s parents, school, or child care center. They are all human beings that deserve human rights and protection.

10. Medical & Scientific Innovation Shall be Dedicated to Health & Advancement – Medical, technical, and science innovations shall be dedicated to the health and advancement of our fellow citizens and must never be impeded by religious bias.

Sean Faircloth is the new Richard Dawkins Foundation Director of Strategy and Policy and the author of this plan. His explanation can be viewed here (all ten points come up towards the end):

 

 

(h/t Russell metamagician and the hellfire club)

 

April 1, 2012

What’s the Tennessee ‘Monkey Bill’ and why does it matter?

“I ain’t kin to no damn monkey,” is a stereotypical religious response to the very notion of evolution by natural selection. But this isn’t the main reason for the stalwart position taken against the scientific consensus that we share common ancestry with other primates. The reason is religious.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Society, explains,

The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures. (E)volution and Christianity are incompatible.

The explanation of common ancestry is incompatible with any religious belief that tries to suggest that humanity is somehow a special creation of a god… a god that can be ‘known’ because it/he/she has bestowed special gifts and favours and privileges to the human branch of the primate family and is therefore clearly deserving of our obedience to him/her/it… as it has been opaquely revealed in various scriptures (Creationism 1.0). In effect this assumption means that, to the faithful who presume special creation and/or divine intervention for humanity without evidence, we are to assume these different and mutually incompatible scriptures are actually divinely inspired science textbooks… textbooks that fail to adequately explain the overwhelming evidence for natural selection we find throughout reality – a reality that has revealed no compelling evidence to indicate any such divine interference anywhere in the chain of evidence for natural selection.  In spite of soothing words from the science organizations like the NCSE and religious organizations that support the  Clergy Letter Project that if one squints just right there is no compatibility issue between creationism and evolution, the fact is that there is no scientific basis on which hang a creationist hat, meaning that to maintain a belief in some kind of creationism relies not on evidence from reality but a faith-based belief alone. Those who wish to insist that humans have been POOF!ed into existence or that at some point somewhere some divine agency intervened in natural selection fail to appreciate that key word: natural. To be clear, one can sometimes find religion without creationism but you will never find creationism without religion.

Why does this matter?

As Mohler quite rightly points out, accepting the scientific explanation for evolution – a foundation upon which all modern biological sciences are built – causes an exodus of evangelical young people. Although Mohler references these effects on his own preferred religion, the point he raises is also true for any religious tenet built on a divine role in human development for which there is no evidence in support and much against (the latest being genetic evidence that clearly indicates no original human couple like the fictional Adam and Eve – which is explained in simpler language here). As the PEW forum on religion and public life notes,

All but a small number of scientists regard Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection as an established fact. And yet, a substantial majority of Americans, many of whom are deeply religious, reject the notion that life evolved through natural forces alone.

In other words, evolution is a very real threat to this creationist tenet regardless of which religion attempts to maintain it.

What’s a creationist to do but find some way to counter this scientific knowledge… but without any science to back it up?

Enter the Wedge Strategy, designed (pun intended) to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God“.

Theists have been repeatedly thwarted by the courts in the US from including the creationist tenet in science class. The latest (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover) directly addressed creationism in its most modern evolution, namely Intelligent Design (Creationism 2.0). The conclusion was clear: ID has no scientific merit so it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

Oh dear.

Those who thought that perhaps this ongoing battle had finally reached a conclusion were premature; let us now be properly introduced to Creationism 3.0: Academic Freedom! Strengths and Weaknesses! Promote Critical Thinking! This – not scientific evidence – is the next evolution in the Wedge Strategy, brought to us from the Discovery Institute along with a standard petition on how to best promote it without being accused of promoting religion in the public domain.

In 2011, eight states considered bills to include ‘academic freedom’ into the science curriculum, as if this freedom rather than religiously inspired creationism was in some immanent danger of extinction. As Lauri Lebo so eloquently describes – revealing the common language source for all these state bills –

educators may not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Isn’t that grand? What’s so wrong with more critical thinking? What’s wrong is that the problems inherent in evolution – like any science – are trivial in comparison to the robustness of the general explanation. Trivial problems in fully understanding and describing human reproduction is not an invitation to bring Stork Theory into the science class. Somehow this point is missed when it comes to promoting the equally unqualified notion of creationism.

This language of academic freedom helped bring in the Louisiana it’s-okay-to-teach-creationism-in-science-class law (SB 733, LA Science Education Act) and is the template for the Tennessee Monkey Bill – coined accurately to be more  ‘stealth creationism’ by the indomitable Barbara Forrest who works tirelessly to show how this creationist influence remains dedicated to inserting faith-based belief into the science curriculum. This continues now in Tennessee in spite of student complaints and a dedicated campaign supported by 75 Nobel laureates by a Louisiana student Zack Kopplin showing how creationist dogma harms his educational standing for advancement and employment.

Note that as in the Louisiana law, those theories protected under ‘academic freedom’ can include “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning,” tying in very nicely with the stated aims of the Wedge document. This is stealth creationism in action in spite of the ridiculous instructions to future judges contained in the bills that these religious-only, non scientific ‘strengths and weaknesses’ talking points are not “to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” As the Sensuous Curmudgeon points out, this is comparable to saying

“Hey, Judge: Here’s how to construe this law” to a suicide-bomber’s explosive-laden vest being sewn with a tag saying: “Attention Bomb Squad Coroner: The deceased wearer of this garment should not be construed to be a suicide bomber.”

All of this legal and legislative and advocating aside for the moment, the real effect described by Dr. Paul Gross from this agenda driven religious attack against the cornerstone of the biological sciences is this:

(It) discourages teachers from teaching evolution, or from giving it proper emphasis—if only by signaling that it’s a highly controversial subject. Teachers, understandably, fear controversy and potential attack by parents. Meanwhile, for this and many other reasons, science performance of our children against their overseas peers remains average to poor.

Really? Science education can be affected when so many attack it as ‘just another way of knowing’? And that affect produces poor student achievement results? Who could have possibly predicted this?

So just how poor is scientific literacy? Read it and weep.

This is the real cost all of us pay to keep creationists in business. Belief in creationism – no matter what form it may take – creates no new knowledge, opens up no new avenues of inquiry, produces no practical applications, and advances our understanding of the world we inhabit not one bit. It is a dead end resulting in thwarting, stymieing, and impeding real science, real progress, real technologies, real knowledge advancements. Seeing this pernicious religious effect in real people, who are convinced creationism deserves a passing nod of approval and wider public acceptance as a quaint alternative to contrary hard science, perhaps we can begin to better understand why biologists like Dawkins, Coyne, and PZ Myers spend so much time and effort counter-attacking this particular ignorance called religiously inspired creationism… for there simply is no other root cause for it.

Religious belief empowers creationism and it is religious belief that motivates its promulgation to infect and distort science. Some people will think themselves justified to doubt evolutionary science while accepting other branches like physics and chemistry conveniently forgetting that all are a single methodology. (But what can we expect with such poor scientific literacy?) Choosing to believe the physics of gravity here but not there to suit a religious belief about the aerodynamics of a flying horse for certain self-proclaimed prophets of god is as incoherent as accepting evolutionary biology within the framework of genetics here but not common ancestry there.

These kinds of Monkey Bills in public legislation matter a very great deal to all of us because they represent superstitious nonsense promoted and legalized and inserted under false pretenses in the public domain under the excuse of words that mean nothing more and nothing less that unsupported religious belief in divine POOF!ism. Rather than gain political capital from promoting poisonous religious beliefs imposed on the public domain, these politicians should be penalized by all of us even if some of us choose to remain privately dedicated to belief in creationism. Our future scientific literacy depends on it and all voters share in this current dismal failing grade we have achieved when we allow religious belief to have such a deleterious effect in our educational system. All of us need to smarten up and start complaining much more loudly and boldly whenever faith-based beliefs dare to enter the public square and demand effect.

January 16, 2012

What’s the harm in believing vaccinations are too risky?

In 2002, the World Health Organization declared measles eradicated from the Americas. In 2011, 763 cases were reported in Canada’s province of Quebec – including 30 children and adults who had been previously vaccinated against the disease – with 89 requiring hospitalization. The cluster was centered in particular schools in Drummondville, with a student population of about 11,000. Some adults were incapacitated for over four months during their recovery and others recovered but with hearing loss. And all of this was preventible.

About 4% of the infected students who had been vaccinated in the outbreak schools contracted measles. Of those children who had not been vaccinated, about 82% contracted the disease which can disfigure and even kill. Of all the students, about 85% had been vaccinated but as we can see, once the vaccination rate falls below about 95% of all children, we start to lose the ‘herd’ immunity (where isolated cases of highly infectious disease do not spread) and all of us – vaccinated and not vaccinated – become endangered.

Why do parents opt their children out from receiving vaccinations? Well, because they would prefer to not run the risk of exposing their children to unnecessary harm from vaccinations. What is this risk? Fevers from the MMR shot (measles, mumps, and rubella) run about 1 in 168 that result in a hospital visit. About one in a million will develop encephalitis (a potentially deadly inflammation of the brain). About one in a thousand with measles will develop encephalitis. The means that the risk for this potentially deadly result is thousand times greater for children exposed to highly contagious diseases whose parents decided vaccinations were too risky.

Let’s look for a moment at the numbers of children who contracted highly contagious and common childhood diseases PER PEAK YEAR before and after vaccinations became standardized prior to 2011 (from the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion):

Rubella: 69,000 cases compared to 9

Polio: 20,000 cases compared to 0

Mumps: 52,000 cases compared to 32

Measles: 300,000 cases compared to 7

Diptheria: 9,000 cases compared to 1

Obviously, parents who decide the risk is too high from vaccinations are not balancing that risk with what’s true in reality, that the risk from getting these common diseases is not only vastly greater but far more deadly once contracted.

So which parents aren’t vaccinating their children? The poor? The uneducated? Those from broken homes? Those from minorities?

Nope.

Today’s non vaccinated kids are most likely from white, affluent, with a married mother and father with a college education. These fine upstanding folk are more likely to seek alternative healthcare and use the internet more as an information source. They also tend to live closer together with like-minded people, usually drawn together by some alternative school, church, or politician. This is why outbreaks of preventable diseases usually occurs in geographical pockets (New England journal of Medicine, 2009).

Now let us consider Tajikistan in 2010, previously declared polio free in 2002, with a vaccination rate for polio at about 87%. Now they have a polio outbreak that has no cure, causes paralysis, and often ends in death. In an editorial from the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the similar risk we face in Canada, it tells us:

“We are only one asymptomatic infected traveller away from an outbreak because of low vaccination rates.”

We know vaccination rates are too low. We know that we put EVERYBODY at greater risk for these highly contagious diseases when the rate falls below a minimum of 90% (current estimates put the rate in Canada at about 62% for two-years-olds up to date for all standard vaccinations). We also know outbreaks can and do happen and these risks of not vaccinating everybody are vastly greater than complications from the vaccines themselves. So what is stopping responsible parents from not only protecting their children but doing their civic duty to the rest of the nation?

In the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick (health care is a provincial matter), children must be vaccinated to attend public school. But parents are allowed to (and do) opt out based on medical concerns. Unfortunately, parents can also opt out for religious beliefs as well as matters of conscience! So although there is a legitimate reason for medical considerations backed up by excellent evidence of harm, there is no equivalent evidence on which to base religious or conscience matters.

Matters of conscience are based on a belief that the correlation of childhood health problems stemming from autism, learning disabilities, asthma, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, allergic and anaphylactic disorders, neuroimmune and autoimmune disorders and other chronic diseases indicates causation with vaccinations.

This belief is wrong. It is dangerous. It is woo. There is no good evidence to back up these claims but exhaustive evidence that they are not causally linked. The conclusion is clear:

There is no excuse for maintaining such willful ignorance and blind stupidity for  not vaccinating children today (with an exemption for medical reasons) except by elevating a trust in faith over and in conflict with evidence from reality… which is yet another in a long list of examples of private faith being exercised in the public domain that causes very real harm to very real people.

January 11, 2012

Why is being called an ignorant creationist redundant?

I like the Catholic Encyclopedia definition of ignorance in the sense I am using here, namely, a lack of knowledge about a thing in a being capable of knowing rather than the standard notion of it meaning merely a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness… for which one may not be responsible. Creationists here in the West have no such similar excuse; instead, they are perfectly capable of knowing why genetics and the geologic time scale and evolution are not just true in some theoretical sense but true in the fact that they inform our technologies and practices that work consistently and reliably well for everyone everywhere all the time. We are populated by large numbers of people who doubt specific scientific inquires in order to maintain a belief in some kind of religiously motivated ‘creative’ agency… something I call divine POOF!ism. This is intellectually bankrupt and teaching it is as if it were compatible and supportive of science is simply not true. It is religious selfishness in action.

What excuse beyond selfishness do we find for so many Protestant pastors from this Southern Baptist Convention survey? Consider the following:

America’s Protestant pastors overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution and are evenly split on whether the earth is 6,000 years old, according to a survey released Monday by the Southern Baptist Convention.

When asked if “God used evolution to create people,” 73% of pastors disagreed – 64% said they strongly disagreed – compared to 12% who said they agree.

Asked whether the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, 46% agreed, compared to 43% who disagreed.

A movement called Young Earth creationism promotes the 6,000-year-old figure, arguing that it is rooted in the Bible. Scientists say the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The Southern Baptist Convention survey, which queried 1,000 American Protestant pastors, also found that 74% believe the biblical Adam and Eve were literal people.

“Recently discussions have pointed to doubts about a literal Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and other origin issues,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a report on LifeWay’s site. “But Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly Creationists and believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”

Not only do so many of these people not keep their bizarre beliefs private but actually promote them through congregational teachings. And what many are teaching, even though they are beings quite capable of knowing differently, is if not factually wrong then grossly misleading because it is incompatible with what we do know based on what works consistently and reliably for everyone everywhere all the time. In addition, these teaching are pernicious in that they cause intended harm through the promotion of willful ignorance contrary to the teaching of knowledge.

How can I say such things?

Well, consider the incompatibility of belief in an historical and literal Adam and Eve. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of genetics. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about how genetics work in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand heritable diseases and crop sciences, as but two examples. In fact, this belief is in direct and uncompromising conflict with our understanding of genetics that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong genetic evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that the smallest human population from whom we come was no smaller than about ~10,000.  To believe in a literal and historical Adam and Eve means that believers really do reject this part of science we call genetics.

Consider the incompatibility of belief that the world is fewer than ~10,000 years old. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of geology. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about the age and formation of rock strata and the forces that have affected them over time that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand resource exploration and extraction and erosion and tectonics, as but four examples. In fact this belief in young earth creationism is in conflict with our understanding of geology (and radioactive decay) that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong geological evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that we live on planet that has undergone significant change over a great deal of time. To believe in a created earth means that believers really do reject this part of science we call geology (and, by extension, the age of other planets).

Consider the incompatibility of belief that our biological heritage is from divine creation by an interventionist agency. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understand of evolution. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about biological development and change over time by what is known as natural selection (it would not be ‘natural’ if traits were selected by some interventionist agency) that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand biology and medicine, to name but two. There is very strong evolutionary evidence unaccounted for by such a creationist belief that life on earth is related yet differentiated by natural selection over a great deal of time. To believe in creationism means that believers really do reject this part of science we call biology.

So what’s the harm maintaining such a dismissive belief? After all, we are assured repeatedly by many earnest religious believers and apologetic accommodationists that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are actually compatible… and even mutually supportive! So my question is – as always – Is this claim true?

I need to divert for a moment and look at ‘science’ in the larger sense and understand why this argument about creationists respecting science – but not these specific scientific avenues – is just not true.  Science, let us recall, is a METHOD of inquiry and not the results of an inquiry. In other words, exactly the same METHOD is used to investigate, say, genetics as it is germs, aerodynamics as it is astronomy. It makes no sense to suggest that it is somehow compatible and supportive to reject that METHOD here but not there in order to privilege some prior religious belief. It’s actually dishonest. It is neither compatible nor supportive to suggest that the belief in geocentrism does not stand in contrast and competition with heliocentrism when the two notions are incompatible – they are necessarily in conflict – any more than it does to suggest biblical inerrancy should be granted to the story of Adam and Eve but not biblical inerrancy to the sixty some odd reference to the earth as the center of the universe. To reject the specific science that informs genetics and geology and evolution to privilege religious beliefs incompatible with them is contrary to being supportive of the METHOD of science used to inform all other scientific inquiries. It is that identical METHOD that shows us that the geocentric model fails where the heliocentric model succeeds for everyone everywhere all the time. It is that METHOD that informs all these practical applications and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time derived from the specific scientific inquiries so vilified by supporters of creationism. By rejecting genetics and geology and evolution to favour and prejudice some holy scripture, creationists are rejecting the METHOD of science used to inform not just these specific scientific inquiries but ALL OF THEM.

This has a pernicious effect… especially in medicine.

Evolutionary theories are critical for understanding human disease. They are used to understand the origins of cancer and to better design therapies, which directly help our understanding through evolutionary history to explain modern health problems (such as type-II diabetes and obesity). It is upon these evolutionary theories that we have learned to appreciate viral evolution, which is used to design safe and effective vaccination strategies that work. For example, an evolutionary viewpoint is the only way to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and to develop effective methods for stopping or slowing it. Defining the evolutionary process of cancers is leading to new, more targeted approaches in cancer treatment. How we incorporate these evolutionary ideas into medical education enhances the education of health professionals, which is in stark conflict with creationist belief (that usually blames sin for our earned deaths… such a cheerful and optimistic bunch). Our biomedical science gains from understanding human evolution and allows us to design and implement solutions to our vulnerability to disease. The evolutionary approach to medicine and public health is enormous, informing areas of research and providing predictions and guidance for novel interventions.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific quest to know.

It isn’t. At all.

Now consider the incompatibility creationism presents as an alternative to the benefits from informed medicine and how many future doctors and medical researchers are turned away from this pursuit in the name of honouring the religious beliefs of their parents and pastors about creationism. Think of how many students are affected when creationists in all their various lying for Jesus and Allah guises try to insert this theology into science classrooms or religious students who do everything they can to remove specific scientific inquiries like evolution from their educational curriculum.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific METHOD. It’s simply not true.

Creationism – and its gaggle of handmaidens of other necessary beliefs contrary to specific scientific inquiries – is in direct conflict with the METHOD of science that produces what works for everyone everywhere all the time. This is why such belief that sidelines legitimate and honest inquiry into reality is not a ‘different way of knowing’ or some separate but equivalent Magesterium. Creationism is a turning away from honest scientific methodology (methodological naturalism) and insisting on a return to ignorance. Ignorance is the real alternative people are choosing when they reject and ignore knowledge we have that works for everyone everywhere all the time, knowledge upon which companies invest trillions of dollars, knowledge that has the effrontery to work consistently and reliably well in reality over time. By staying faithful to beliefs that are wholly inadequate to reveal what works in reality by comparison, people are choosing ignorance over knowledge to maintain their religious belief. The sacrifice costs. Yet still many are teaching  creationism to their kids and want it taught to the general public. They want respect for this ignorance established in law and want to base public policies on extensions of it in areas like research and human reproduction and foreign aid. It’s ignorance in action, what we atheists like to call ‘turtles all the way down’. It’s a ruse, a lie, an intentional deception, a willful disregard for what is true in reality to pretend creationism is an equivalent and respectable alternative to specific scientific inquiries rather than the ignorance in action it honestly is.

It’s high time more of us reminded creationists determined to insert their beliefs into the public domain of this brute fact, that being an ignorant creationist is in fact and deed redundant.

(h/t Pandasthumb)

October 17, 2011

Why do we need to keep criticizing faith-based beliefs in the public domain?

Filed under: Gnu Atheism,private domain,public domain,Religion — tildeb @ 10:56 am

I like to comment on web sites that promote some kind of faith-based belief (usually about god but also about any kind of woo accommodationism and/or acceptance) that make intentional misrepresentations. Usually, these misrepresentations are about atheists,  science, and history. I feel the authors of these misrepresentations are in need of challenge and critical review. All too often, however, my criticism of any kind (as well as any questioning of the author’s motives to avoid meeting the challenge) is identified as aggressive and hostile and I am quickly banned from any further comment, which is the web site author’s prerogative of course. Being polite is equated with respect only on the condition that one is in agreement with the author, whereas any disagreement is labelled as in need of administrative moderation supposedly for the tone of my comment… usually followed by an opportunity to mend my ways (that is to say, stop being critical) before being banned. But before anyone think this pertains only to the more fringe religious web sites, let me assure you that it crosses all boundaries… from Chris Mooney’s personal fiefdom at Discovery Magazine’s The Intersection to John Shore’s popular blog to Sabio Lantz’s Triangulations. Notice that I will not link to these sites: such censorship of criticism is not my idea of promoting a free exchange of ideas.

This issue of tone and the accusation of hostility the average atheist brings to various forums was brought up on No Apologies Allowed. I commented that many theists bring nothing but their beliefs to the discussion, beliefs that are equivalent to made up stuff, a disregard and disrespect of what’s true, and an attitude that belief is equivalent to knowledge, pointing out that in sum absolutely nothing is being offered to others on the forum. I also explained that this is often  seen by others to be nothing more than concern trolling, and so these commentators are treated rather harshly by other commentators. When asked why atheists bother to offer commentary that is “hostile” to faith-based believers, I concluded that religion affecting policies and governance in the public domain was in great need of sustained criticism.

I found the author’s response rather interesting:

Most religions deal with behavior and set standards for it. How can that not help but be related to the public domain? For me, the claims related to Jesus of Nazareth and His teachings form the core of my interactions with people. After all, when He was asked about the greatest commandment (a standard by which we are to judge our behavior), He instructs us to not merely love God in our own personal domain, but to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I had just reviewed John Polkinghorne’s accommodationist claptrap from Jerry Coyne’s post about a new film (followed later by Eric MacDonald’s usual excellent dismantling of why Polkinhorne’s explanations are so disingenuous) and so I was thinking about this oft-repeated mantra of atheist hostility. I think it worth repeating here how I explain what I think is really going on and why we need to keep criticizing religion in the public domain and reduce its popularity:

Sorry for the length of this comment, but I hope you will find it useful.

This is actually a central topic of concern: the push to impose behavioural rules on everyone under the banner of some people’s favoured religious morality. And under the term ‘behavioural’ falls a host of legal positions under which all will be subjected… like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, adoption rights, stem cell research, reproductive rights, and so on, all of which have a very profound religious impetus. This raises a very important public concern: are our laws and public policies being formed for good reasons that stand on their own merit? Or are these global positions being formed on the assumption that faith in some divinely sanctioned morality should properly rule all?

To the religious, the authority of personal religious revelation and various scriptures can be very potent in and of themselves and widely considered ‘good’ by the faithful on this basis alone… assuming that god only supports (and reveals) what’s ‘good’ (raising the Epicurus argument) rather than appreciate that this makes god subservient to what’s good (an intolerable ethical consideration to those who believe god is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent). The counter argument is that whatever god does is good in and of itself, so it’s difficult to sit him down and find out exactly what reasons inform his chosen moral position. We must take certain moral positions on faith, many theists insist, and just go with that authority.

To the atheist, this reasoning is not reasoning at all but an intellectual capitulation to the priestly caste to do our thinking for us. And we know that theocracies that do this are the most backwards and unenlightened regimes in the world. Human rights, freedoms, and the legal dignity of personhood afforded to individuals in the west under secular liberal democracies are antithetical to these totalitarian theocracies. So we have a self-interest to make sure the state does not become an arm of any theology if we wish to protect our legal rights and freedoms from any totalitarian authority.

All of the above-mentioned issues have some bearing on the theological/human rights divide. Just seeing this divide is a major impediment when theists by and large assume the two are compatible… yet are compatible only if the separation between state and various religions are respected in law. So when people bring their religious views to a discussion and expect the other to respect faith alone (as a good reason for holding some opinion that involves a moral component taken on faith), we find a conflict of interest immediately: theism practiced through law in the public domain (meaning having effect on public policy and governance) excused on the basis of divine morality is incompatible with a primary respect for an individual’s rights and freedoms.

Each of us really must choose which hierarchy to support: a primary respect for the state to remain secular or a primary respect for some moral faith claim to trump individual rights. Only one can be primary in law. That’s why I say religious belief must remain in the private domain where what I religiously practice does not affect your rights and freedoms, and your religious practices do not effect mine. I think that can work.

The argument I go back to is on what merit does this theistic moral claim trump that contrary theistic moral claim? Said another way, the important questions all of us must answer is 1) Is this claim true, and 2) how do I know? You are well aware that contrary claims made in scripture become arguments of various interpretations and divine intentions. Without a clear answer about which one is correct, however, it seems to me that all theistic claims even if contrary to one another have the same merit: it is simply a matter of faith.

This explains why in just christianity there are over 30,000 sects with many contrary moral claims based on different interpretations offering up many ‘authorities’. Without having any need to go into any of them, faith is obviously no reliable way for us to discover some singular divine moral code or theists would have long ago come to a consensus on what that actually is. When you throw all the world’s religions past and present into the mix, we have no cohesive notion of what any divine moral code might actually be in practice nor any reliable way to find out if any of them are, in fact, true in an honest comparison.

But a moral code based on Enlightenment values is a cohesive set of rules of behaviour, and we see how human society can flourish when we keep the state out of the business of promoting any one particular religious moral code; instead, we promote a fully secular legal system based on everyone’s shared individual rights and shared freedoms and we allow people to have faith in whatever set of beliefs about god rocks their world… as long as it doesn’t reduce or effect the rights of anyone else.

As soon as someone understands that the religious views about abortion or gay marriage and so on really does impose one’s own moral preference over and above another the moral preference of another by curtailing their individual rights and freedoms, then we have made progress. In this sense, these fundamental disagreements between theists and non theists can be better understood to be about maintaining and protecting shared rights rather than one over accepting or rejecting god. This issue if not us/them battle between faitheists and anti-faithiests; it’s a battle over a shared or favoured public domain.

The hostility/aggressiveness the theist hears from the non theist is spoken in the tone of defending our mutual rights and freedoms with passion. The aplogetics the non theist hears from the theist is spoken in the tone of honour and respect for god. The middle ground that I think will eventually be found acceptable to all rests with theists believing what they wish for themselves and rendering all issues secular to Caesar’s public domain.

September 23, 2011

Why is there still confusion between what’s personal and professional?

Over at Wintery Knight, I came across a post about doctors being forced to act “like atheists.” Heaven forbid, of course. Naturally, I wanted to find out what this terrible imposition might be so I read the post about a doctor dispensing theological advice and commented. As night follows day, so too does moderation and deletion of my thoughtful comments occur by another cowardly intellectually bankrupt religious blogger (not that I’m biased). What are these delicate people – and I’ve come across many – so afraid of with a comment critical of their conclusions? That the sky will fall? It can’t be because of loss of audience: the hit counters reveal that the controversial comments I make increases the number of visitors, increases the number of pages viewed on the site, lengthens the time people spend there, and increases the number of comments made about the topic. I take the time and make the effort to comment because I think bloggers willing to espouse an opinion that interests me should be treated to mine… especially if it is contrary because the reasons will be (or, at least, should be) interesting to consider even if they are found inadequate or insufficient to change anyone’s mind. It seems a fair exchange in the public square. But editing and deleting my comments undermines any possibility for an exchange to occur, turning the site into a love-in of groupthink rather than promoting honest discussion about controversial opinions.

But honesty is always the preferred casualty when confronting faith-based beliefs with criticism because maintaining faith-based beliefs is contrary to maintaining intellectual honesty that has to account for the criticism. The honest answer to some faith-based belief is, “I don’t know,” rather than an assumption of the truth of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But this kind of honesty directly undermines the the legitimacy of any claim to some divine authority if it can be legitimately questioned and that’s why criticism and doubt are seen by so many religious bloggers to be ‘attacks against’ rather than ‘inquiries into’ faith-based claims. Because of this, faith of the religious kind naturally evolves into a garrison mentality because it is built on something that is need of constant shoring up of whatever cherry-picked defenses can be used. Consistency and accountability are dislocated from faith and this is necessary for the faith to survive. That is why at its root religious faith-based beliefs have no capability to be engage in honest dialogue by its supporters when it comes to inquiring into the faith-based beliefs of individuals; the beliefs can only be maintained by a willingness to first be intellectually dishonest, to reject the honest “I don’t know” and substitute the dishonest faith claim as if it were likely true, likely probably, likely correct, likely accurate… without any substantive reasons based in reality to tip the balance to that likely possibility. This is the intellectual dishonesty in practice.

To change gears for a moment (but I shall return to the entrenched loyalty to intellectual dishonesty by faith-based believers), let me now turn to issues of personal expressions carried out in professional settings and why this is a confused problem that isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Like I explained in my comment to Wintery Knight, let’s take a moment to consider police officer Bob empowered to enforce the law. Do any of us really want Officer Bob to use the professional powers of his office to promote his personal beliefs? I don’t think so; I think it is entirely reasonable to expect Officer Bob to act professionally while discharging his duties and obligations to enforce the law. While acting as that professional he will be subject to the code of conduct and ethical requirements demanded by that profession… and we should expect no less. But if Officer Bob decides to step beyond this line established by his professional obligations  and under which he is empowered to discharge his duties while acting in his professional capacities then he is open to professional censure. This is not unreasonable for Officer Bob any more than it is for a pharmacist or fire fighter or judge or soldier or doctor or teacher or any other profession who oversteps their professional boundaries into the private.

When a judge decides to use the court bench to favour personal beliefs (like the new appointee to Chief Justice of South Africa’s Supreme Court, who has a long and misogynistic history of doing just that) that are contrary to one’s professional obligations of impartiality (justice through the courts is supposed to be blind), then professional censure is only proper. When a teacher enters into a personal relationship with a student, then the professional boundary has been crossed and censure is only proper. When a doctor uses his professional standing to promote theological treatment (or non treatment for theological rather than medical reasons) at that medical office or hospital or clinic, then censure is only proper. It is the crossing of the line between what is professional while acting in that professional capacity and what is personal in a personal setting that should be acted upon. That is where the infraction has taken place and is need of professional censure.

I have found that many people become rather confused about what is being censured and seem to have great difficulty understanding that the personal aspect itself is not (necessarily) at issue. Quite often the personal aspect that has motivated the crossing of the line is religious, so the issue of non professional behaviour becomes distorted into a faux criticism of some personal religious behaviour… as if the stand alone behaviour under censure was about religion. This causes a lot of unnecessary confusion about what the problem actually is: crossing the professional/personal line and why that crossing requires professional censure when done in a professional setting; instead we have opinions like those expressed in Wintery Knight that mistakenly confuses the issue to be one of religious expression under attack by the secular state.That’s why I commented, to clarify this issue.

Now we return to the inherent intellectual dishonesty of supporting faith-based beliefs: because my comment was deleted there as well as at sites of other religious defenders who seem hell-bent on pretending their faith is under attack from the godless whenever religious behaviour is censured, I think they are misrepresenting the issue intentionally. Someone pushes the delete button. The issue of non professional behaviour in a professional setting is intentionally and dishonestly presented by these button pushers as the state arbitrarily trying to censure the religious… as if government agents are attempting to turn professionals into – gasp! – atheists. This is not only dishonest and intentionally so but downright ludicrous in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And defending this garrison mentality over religious expression takes away from this issue that is causing so much confusion elsewhere.

Government is far too often brimming with those willing and able to abuse their public offices to promote tolerance and respect and accommodation for religious behaviour in secular settings, and are rewarded with political gain for their supposed sensitivity and politically correctness for doing so.  Many in government and its bureaucracy are also are quite confused about this issue; they not only start inserting allowances for accommodating personal preferences in professional settings that are professionally inappropriate, but attempt to legislate this confusion into quasi-judicial kangaroo courts under the banner of human rights commissions and tribunals to enforce it and financially punish anyone daring to criticize this state-sponsored abuse publicly.

But governments are not alone in this abuse: professional oversight bodies themselves confuse where the professional obligations end and the personal expression begins, insisting that certain professionals must live under its codes of conduct and ethics all the time… even into their private lives and hold an individual’s professional recognition hostage to this end.

As you can see, the confusion is endemic and it is not clarified when religious defenders attempt to co-opt what is an important issue desperate for public exposure, debate, and change to be corralled into serving only in religion’s defense. The removal of this confusion is in defense of all, for all, by all.

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