Thursday, December 31, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Death with Dignity

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 252 Edgar Dahl “Imagine No Religion”

I was drawn to this title because I am a John Lennon fan, but the essay never mentions him. It turned out to be the type of essay that I expected to find in this book, covering the standard for and against arguments. Happily most of them have not followed this same pattern. It does have a few surprises, and the author has an easy style, so it is enjoyable.

He starts with his own history, and says that where he is from, East Germany, most people don’t bother with religion at all. Usually I find these broad statements about people of a certain country inaccurate, but I was convinced by Mr. Dahl. He never even met a Christian until he was 12. He usually went to movies on Sunday mornings. One day he missed the beginning of the movie, so he wandered around until he happened upon St. Paul’s Cathedral. Imagine his shock when he overheard them talking about eating a body and drinking blood!

Surprisingly, he studied theology. He found it an excellent education in the humanities and several other disciplines. He then covers a few of the arguments for God, “The Ontological Argument” - God is that which nothing greater can be conceived, “The Cosmological Argument” - God is the prime mover, and the “Teleological Argument” - the universe is amazing, someone must have been behind its creation. It is a good quick history and introduction to these arguments and their refutations. He then covers an argument against God, “The Problem of Evil”.

His philosophical training led him to work with ethical issues relating to new biological and medical technologies. At first he thought this would take him away from religion, but he quickly discovered that not only do religious leaders have an opinion on these matters, they are taken seriously. He understands that religion and ethics are inseparable, but he can’t figure out why. He can’t figure how this idea that God and the Bible have the final answer on ethical questions has survived.

To discuss this, he uses the “Euthyphro Dilemma”, from Plato’s dialogue about a conversation between Socrates and a young man named Euthyphro. This was mentioned in Pete Singer’s essay, who Edgar Dahl has worked with, but Edgar spends much more time with it. The dilemma is:

Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?

Either God is irrelevant, because good exists outside of Him, or God is an arbitrary law giver, and even cruel things are good because He says so, or they are good is some way that we have yet to understand. It is difficult for a believer to take either side, or to offer an alternative. Edgar explores this in more depth, and many similar discussions can be found on the web. It is worth thinking about and worth exploring.

In this case, the author of the essay leads to the conclusion that “morality is independent of theology”. That may be, but I think he takes this a step too far when he applies it to a subject he has worked with extensively, physician-assisted suicide. Dahl says,

“But who is the Church to tell those who do not subscribe to their religious views how they ought to die?”

I agree there are times when someone is suffering and continued efforts to keep them alive will result only in more suffering and needless expense, however, Dahl’s statement is an oversimplification. There is much more to this discussion than just what the Catholics or others have to say about it. Perhaps that is the nature of a short essay, but he could have used his allotted space to cover it in more detail, rather than leaving it until the last paragraph. And in his final sentence,

“A liberal democracy based on a strict separation of church and state ought to enable all of its citizens to live and die according to their own values.”

This also sounds simple and practical, but taken to its extremes, could result in family members condoning medical procedures that they don’t fully understand. I don’t agree with a strict interpretation of “Thou shalt not kill”, but once you start trying to find where to draw the line, it gets very complicated very quickly. Edgar Dahl seems to imply that just removing religion from the equation would somehow make it all so easy.

The Bible does not provide an easy answer. Theologians have tried for centuries, but often disagree. Biblical stories present the moral dilemmas, but do little to sort them out. Samson is chained between two pillars by his enemies. He pushes them apart, killing many of his enemies, and himself. Saul was wounded in battle, rather than be tortured by the Philistines, he chooses to fall on his own sword. Even the great Elijah prayed to the Lord to take his life. Catholics may consider suicide a mortal sin, but I am hard pressed to see how they reached this conclusion. On this, Edgar Dahl and I agree.

I would be just as hard pressed to define exactly when it was time for someone to consider “death with dignity.” Dahl does not provide much help in this essay. He has written extensively on the subject, so I hope more answers can be found there. I often find that writing on ethical issues is long on problem explanation and very short on solutions. In this case, I am only reading his blaming. That blame may be well placed, but people usually need an alternative before they begin to change their minds.

Back to the Start

Saturday, December 26, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Julian Jaynes

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 274 Athena Andreadis “Evolutionary Noise, not Signal from Above”

Athena is another essayist who had an insatiable curiosity, read many religious texts, studied hard and became a scientist. She also noticed that a lot of people still followed these old religions. In her quest to understand this, she came across Julian Jayne’s theory of the bicameral mind.

I first heard of this theory in college, not too long after Julian Jayne’s first book that had come out around that time. Basically, it is known that our brain does have a left and right side, the left side for language and more logical thinking and the right for pattern recognition. The theory is that 5,000 or so years ago, the connection between these two hemispheres was not developed, so the messages from the right side occurred as commands from something external, in other words, a voice of god or gods. I don’t remember where I first heard this, but when I related it to some of my college friends, one of them said, “but some people still say they hear God speaking to them.” The theory goes on to say that in a short period, around that time 5,000 years ago, the two halves integrated. This is considered some sort of maturation process for the human race.

I more or less dismissed the idea then, but remembered it and expected that if it had legs, further research would reveal more. According to the Julian Jaynes website, the theory has had some staying power. Julian Jaynes died in 1997, but a society has continued his work. Their website speaks to many of the criticisms, so I won’t reproduce them here, other than my favorite, that he did not include anything from China.

Some of Athena’s analysis relies on her knowledge of neurobiology, so I can’t really argue with her, I can only say that I find it suspect. It is sometimes hard to tell when she is relying on Jayne’s theory, and when she is adding in her own analysis. In either case, I don’t find the discussions very convincing. She claims that once the bicameral brain matured into what it is now, religion became an obstacle to all that we could be become. She says that some people now choose to be bicameral, holding back those who don’t. At times I find it difficult to even tell what she is attempting to say. She says religion would have us go against our own accumulated knowledge and

“Instead, we are told that we are inherently polluted and ordered to obey external authority, with the promise that if we relinquish our independent judgment we will enjoy rewards still geared to sate the four Fs (feed, fight, fornicate and flee): virgins, harps, rivers of mead, rather than say, exploring the universe as a beam of conscious light. If, that is, the god we follow is the “true” one. Otherwise, we will suffer punishment that even the most dedicated torturers would hesitate to dispense.”

I’m not sure what a “beam of conscious light” is, but I think we are more likely to find insight into our brain chemistry through the work of evolutionary biologists such as those from an earlier essay, or perhaps Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain scientist who had a stroke and gained firsthand knowledge of how her brain works.


50 blogs on disbelief - Hezbollah

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 270 Maryam Nazamie “When the Hezbollah Came to My School”

From the title, you can guess this one will not be a fun read. She covers the horrific crimes she has witnessed, but does not overstate or dwell on them. She does not spend much time discussing her own beliefs either. Her main theme is the relationship of the West to the crimes of Islam and how they are often dismissed because someone “offended Muslim sensibilities”.

Maryam delineates between political Islam and the people who actually live and worship in these countries. She points out that these sensibilities are imposed from above and,

“If they were really part of people’s own sensibilities and beliefs, Islamic states wouldn’t need to resort to such indiscriminate violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where political Islamists are often in charge of the state, the educational and legal systems, the army and so on.”

She also quotes Mansoor Hemat, about this phenomenon,

“is not rooted in a revival of Islam as an ideological system. This is not ideological Islam; rather it is political Islam based on specific political equations. Clearly, with the rise of the power of political Islam, pressure to revive religious appearances in society intensifies. This, however, is a political pressure. The people sometimes yield to these pressures. This Islamic ‘renaissance’ is backed by violence and terror, which takes one form in Algeria and another in Iran.”

She concludes with a call to action, saying this must be resisted with criticism and ridicule.


50 blogs on disbelief - Short One

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 48 J.J.C. Smart “The Coming of Disbelief”

This one is less than two pages long. Nothing here that I haven’t seen in any other of the other essays. It mentions David Hume, whom I have not yet referenced. Specifically, “Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” Sounds like something worth looking up.


Friday, December 25, 2009

50 Blogs on disbelief - Evolutionary Biology

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 277 Michael P. Rose and John P. Phelan "Gods Insides"

I found another essay that speaks to evolution, written by two evolutionary biologists, Phelan is from UCLA and Rose from Irvine. So far, essays have only said a sentence or two about it and moved on, these two really dig in. They begin by taking seriously the fact that some spiritual life exists in all major cultures. But they do this not to examine why they should accept the beliefs but as a foundation for disbelief. They do not accept that something so universal can be explained by culture alone.

When looking at religion from an evolutionary perspective, there are no antecedents in the animals. Even mating for life can be found there. Phelan and Rose point to our “staggering potential for novel behavior”. Some may argue with their choice of words, but they say, “we have evolved free will.” I don’t think they are claiming a Cartesian brand of free will, or making other claims against determinism, merely noting our unique ability to learn, break out of fixed patterns and our extensive use of tools.

In fact, they say we are “the product of our evolution, not its director”, then ask, “With our remarkable capacity to invent novel behaviors, what stops us from going awry?” Sometimes of course, we do, evolutionary theory predicts such failures. They present 3 basic solutions:

1) Maybe our free will is only a perception.
2) We calculate consequence and choose accordingly
3) We make strategic decisions about consequences unconsciously. Consciously we believe we are guided by an innate understanding of “the right thing to do.”

The third option is the one they are using to develop their theory. They put god(s) in the brain, with evolved functions that nudge us toward Darwinian fitness. They call it the “god function” and say it is neither trivial nor dysfunctional. In this bicameral structure,

“our conscious minds are like the pilot on the bridge of a ship. But the pilot is not in command. The pilot takes orders from the captain. We are not in fact free to choose the meaning of our lives.”

They are careful to explain this is not another “person” inside our brains. They make no claims on having a complete analysis of this function. For now they are just arguing that it exists. They follow with a discussion of abnormal functioning such as couch-potatoes and social psychopaths. They also discuss the religious hallucinations and delusions sometimes associated with these altered states. These breakdowns of the divide between the two normal brain functions may help to explain just what they are and how they work.

Finally, they look at the role of religion, again noting how it seems to be an important part of the organization of human beings. They note also that it is not required of everyone, just as not everyone chooses to reproduce. They say,

“If our hypothesis is correct, and we do have a god function embodied primarily in our frontal lobes, then practices that modulate, ameliorate, or otherwise enhance this function – this is, religious practices – should exist.”

They also note that religion generates a wide range of behaviors, not all of them working to properly act as intercessor between these two functions of the brain. They conclude with this rather humorous analogy,

“It might be supposed that the argument sketched here leads us to the view that organized and ad hoc religious practices should be exposed as some type of fraud. But we have no such view. Instead, we see religious experience as about as valid or useful as erotica. It too concerns and stimulates an important function, one that is part of the behavioral substratum underlying evolutionary appropriate human conduct. Like erotica, religion may become extreme or dysfunctional in some cases. Also like erotica, there is some variation in religious practice, not all of it worthy of either condemnation or praise.

Religious experience is not divine in origin. Instead, it is an evolved part of the human way of life, one that is abrogated or dismissed only at some peril. Gods are real, and important. But they are neither transcendental nor all-powerful, and their origins are decidedly material. These gods no more deserve our worship or awe than our livers do, though the liver really is a pretty impressive organ.”


Saturday, December 19, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Evolution

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P 97 Taner Edis An Ambivalent Nonbelief

This one starts off almost reluctant to discuss the subject. He was never been a believer and never will be. Then he admits he can’t leave well enough alone. He spends a little time listing the common arguments, not so much to argue them but to admit weaknesses on both sides. He develops a scientific discussion about religion, eventually discussing finer details of its evolution. Other essays have only touched on this so I was pleased to read one that took it full on. This one essay makes the book worth buying.

Instead of attempting to takes sides in arguments that reasonable people have already agreed cannot be settled, he describes where we are with those arguments. I hope that future books on the topic of belief begin at this point. For example, he asks, how do we settle the question of evil? He asks:

“How do we score the Torquemadas on one side and the Stalins on the other? By body count? If atheists can disown Stalinism as a quasi-religious aberration, what about Christians who insist that Catholic authoritarianism betrays Christian love? Every significant political tradition has blood on its hands, including secularism with which I identify.”

Taner follows with a reasoned discussion of science that does pit it against religion. He does say that supernatural claims “give ground” to science, but also says “naturalism is a work in progress”. This can be forgotten in common discourse. It can be annoying to have someone claim the Bible is inerrant, but does the nonbeliever do something similar when they do not allow naturalism to be questioned?

He continues with not only how we got where we are, but how we might move forward from here. In the early days of modern science, it was thought that science would eventually show how nature is God’s creation. Many people still hang on to this notion today. To study ourselves within nature, we need to get some distance from intuitions. As Edis notes intuitive physics, as observed by Newton for example, fails once you start to explore the mechanisms. He compares this to intuitive psychology and suggests we spend more time investigating brain mechanisms. He states, “We do not have a complete and compelling science of religion yet.”

He also notes that his own explorations into supernatural beliefs indicate they are deeply rooted in normal human cognition, and does not expect them to fade away. As he puts it:

“My reading of the science and secular philosophy concerning morality leads me to moral pluralism. In complex societies , we should expect multiple stable, self-reproducing ways of life. These ways of life will support different moral outlooks. They will promote different satisfactions, and participants in these ways of life will most often endorse them upon reflection. Not every possible way of life is viable in this moral ecology, but neither can we achieve any universal morality independent of our particular interests and agreements.”

Taner Edis contributed to the recently published textbook, “The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories and Techniques”. Recent generations have grown up with “God is Dead”, the Monkey Trial and LSD. It will be interesting to see what comes from the next generation that grew up with George W Bush and a fundamentalist resurgence, and at the same time, a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind it.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Possibility

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 10 Margaret Downey “My ‘Bye Bull’ Story”

I had not heard of Margaret Downey, according to the bio on her website, apparently she has made a career out of being an atheist. She is a board member of several foundations and organizations and publishes a newsletter for Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, which she founded.

In her essay she tells an interesting story of her childhood. She grew up in a not only religious but superstitious family. She had lots of fun making thumping noises while family and friends were having a séance. Her days of belief ended when she read

26Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

from the book of Matthew 19:26. She was sitting in a pew at the time and closed her Bible with a noise loud enough to attract the attention of the pastor. She didn’t back down from his stare. She has other great memories and worked hard to get out of poverty and read the entire World Book Encyclopedia. Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” also influenced her.

Finding atheists to associate with was not easy until 1987 when she had Phil Donahue on the television and heard him say, “Please welcome the most hated person in America, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair”. That show and others led her to organizations and she found out about other atheists through history.

She spends that last few paragraphs saying, “don’t buy a bible”, instead get a science book, read great biographies. For eternal life, create a legacy worth remembering. Look in the mirror and find greatness in yourself. Don’t look to stories, because, she says, “There is no need to make up a story just to have an answer to a puzzling question.”

That may be true, but I would suggest to Ms. Downey that she try reading a little fiction now and then. I realize that her problems with religious people are with those who claim facts that can’t be substantiated, but there is nothing wrong with a good story. Stories are more than just distractions, they can teach and get our minds thinking creatively. She had her dose of the Bible when she was young and she has moved on. That is fine for her, but telling people not to even read it that is just bad advice.


50 blogs on disbelief - Problem of Evil

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P5 Russell Blackford “Unbelievable!”

Blackford is one of the editors of the book. Russell is another who had his doubts when he was young, but carried on with a serious effort to believe, until he was 19 or 20 when he finally gave it up.

He spends the bulk of his essay discussing the problem of evil and some logical inconsistencies. There is nothing new here.

He ends with an analysis of the last 50 years or so of the religious landscape. It may have seemed to some that religion was on its way out back in the 1970’s. Recent events have seen it come back to the forefront. It has become part of the debate over stem-cell research and cloning and other policy matters. For these reasons he calls non-believers to action, to challenge the claims of religion and the special authority given to pontiffs, priests and presbyters.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Xenu, Aliens and Agnosticism

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P 65 Michael Shermer “How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science”

That title is a tall order, and I’m not sure he delivers, but I enjoyed reading it anyway. He provides a viable option that many people might find worth adopting, a sort of “militant agnosticism” as he calls it.

Shermer publishes a magazine called Skeptic, writes for Scientific American and has written several books. He regularly tours the country and debates religious leaders. He is very well known in the atheist community, if there is an atheist community. One thing I found out from this essay is that he spent his early adult life as a born-again Christian, and a rather evangelical one at that. This is surprising since it was not encouraged by his family. He took a course on evolution in college, and says that it was really the open minded discussion that occurred in the nightclub after class that led him to adopt a new label for himself.

He gives two reasons for his not believing in God, he is not convinced of arguments for God, and he is comfortable with not having answers to everything. He follows that with a very interesting discussion of that emotional reason, beginning with:

“Many people become cognitively dissonant with uncertainties and probabilistic world models, and thus they feel the need to close that loop with a definitive answer, regardless of how intellectually indefensible it may be. This low tolerance for uncertainty probably has an evolutionary origin related to the fact that in the Paleolithic environment in which we evolved it was almost always better to assume that everything has agency and intention.”

That is, if you assumed that a rock hanging over your head might have some intention to harm you, you would get away. Even though you were wrong, you survived. Conversely, someone who takes too many risks, including assuming a saber-tooth tiger does not have intentions toward them, would have a less likely chance of survival.

Michael Shermer does not spend much time with the ultimate questions. I find this refreshing. He summarizes the line of reasoning that he comes up against in debates. If you haven’t been in one of these debates, this could save you a lot of time. “The final comeback” as he calls it is when God is proclaimed to be outside of everything and needs no creator, and we can’t know what God is.

The debates usually then turn to ancillary arguments, such as “millions of followers cannot be wrong.” Shermer points out that millions of people believe eons ago a galactic warlord named Xenu brought alien beings from another solar system to Earth, placed them in select volcanoes around the world, and then vaporized them with hydrogen bombs, scattering to the winds their souls, leading to drug abuse and other psychological ailments. This is Scientology, and for a fee they can cure you of these ills.

Michael is sometimes dismissive, but his style is playful and I didn’t feel threatened by it. He has a two part response to the question of God, first the burden of proof is on the believer, otherwise, any God could be said to exist because you can’t disprove them. Second, there is evidence that God and religion are social constructs. He follows with the best two and one half page summary of 10,000 years of human mythology that I have ever read.

In the next two pages, he lays out what he calls Shermer’s Last Law:

“Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

It is quite a convincing list of observations and conclusions that lead to the possibility of a perfectly natural being having the capability to create a universe.

All in all, this essay was a great read, including his inclusion of a discussion of this Sidney Harris cartoon.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Magic

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P78 James Randi “A Magician Looks at Religion”

James starts off with his own story that is a little more humorous than most. His parents were liberal and did not go to church, but as with many parents they had some undefined sense of responsibility that led them to send their kids off to Sunday School. For James, this lasted about 2 weeks. He perpetrated the mortal sin of asking “why”. His teacher was rather annoyed with this, so he took his twenty five cents for the offering and went to get ice cream. This went on for two years. His parents never suspected. I guess they just gave up on Sunday School after a while.

He distinguishes “magician” a term implying some supernatural powers from “conjuror” someone who performs tricks. It has been said that this is only honest profession, the conjuror promises to deceive you and he delivers. He notes with some bewilderment, that when he performs a trick such as calling out the phone number of a random person in the audience that is a viewed as a genuine miracle.

He blames the media for this state of misunderstanding, including PBS that annually trots out the likes of Deepak Chopra or Wayne Dyer offering their quackery. PBS even promotes financial schemes that will make you “rich forever”. He compares this to the once popular “mind-reader” Kreskin who offered a system to pick winning lottery numbers. Why wouldn’t he just used it himself and spend the rest of his life on vacation?

He brings all of this up because, as a conjuror, he knows about how people are fooled and how they fool themselves. Children are the most difficult to fool, because they have not been educated enough yet. When showing them a trick where a coin is magically transferred to the left hand, he has to be very explicit about explaining where the coin is. They will just follow the right hand where the coin actually is, and not understand what the trick is.

He also makes an interesting argument against Intelligent Design with a personal story. He had bypass surgery, where a vein was taken from his thigh and put on his heart. He discussed this with his doctor and wondered why a leg, which we already have two of, and can be temporarily disabled without affect on the rest of our systems, should have such redundancy that a large vein can be removed and it still is functional. The heart however, which must be beating constantly for us to live, has no redundancy whatsoever.

Good question.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

A word about skepticism

I thought I might pause for a moment from the 50 Voices to talk about skepticism.

One of the important voices that led me to this blog was Julia Sweeney. Her movie, “Letting Go of God” is currently showing on Showtime. Julia’s story is a spiritual journey that ends in atheism. I have heard other similar stories that reach a similar conclusion but the story doesn’t end there. There is an epiphany, a walk in the woods, a dream, a prayer answered even when feelings of belief seem to have been long gone.

There is no college major in skepticism, it is not something that people become aware they don’t have then seek out. Usually they are just looking for answers. Belief in UFOs and alien abductions and alternate realities can be dismissed fairly easily. Religion has been around for a long time. Evidence for its claims may be hard to find, but there is a lot of data to sort through. Even historical questions are difficult because they deal with some of the oldest texts that exist. Then there are all the people that say it works for them.

I equate what people report they get from religion with what Joseph Campbell calls the “power of myth”. I have seen it work its magic. Stories of people reading an old story, or examining the archetypes and being affected by it usually come off sounding like something from “Chicken Soup for the Soul”. I generally don’t tell them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Part 2 - Religious Right

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 211 Continuing with Laura Purdy’s essay.

She begins her discussion of the Religious Right by asking about “meaning”. She only considered it to be the activities and aims that get us up in the morning, until the Religious Right caught her attention and told her that was just a cover for her despair. She runs through the usual list of inconsistencies in their claims and rules and makes her own claim that our government is trying to create a Christian nation.

I hope our recent election has shifted that trend. Her essay was written after the 2008 elections, but she does not share my hope. I can’t make a case to completely disagree with her, but I don’t think she makes her case very well. She notes a big difference from John F. Kennedy making a speech about how he would not be influenced by the Vatican to George Bush saying he listens to God. She also has a footnote about two cases of religious suppression, one in Afghanistan and another in Iran. They seem out of step with the rest of her discussion about this country. Many of her general comments on the issue are well stated, such as:

“Those who insist upon them (claims of blaspemy and criticisms of secularism) seem oblivious to the fact that preventing any one religion from establishment is the basis for the flourishing religious diversity in the US.”

Her concerns and experiences as a teacher of Philosophy led her to develop a curriculum that analyzes the Religious Right’s worldview. She wants a full-bore examination, not just the extremes. She says humanity’s very survival may depend on it. This may sound extreme, but having lived through the nuclear arms build-up during the Reagan years myself, it is not beyond possibility. Even lower level conflict or disruption of information that we are already seeing in the media and at town halls, could seriously setback human progress.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Ethics of Belief

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 211 Laura Purdy, "No Gods, Please"

Laura Purdy begins with her story and refers to W. K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” essay as one of the important source that clinched her skepticism. She does not give any details, so I searched it out myself and read it. I highly recommend it. It was written in 1877, so you may need to read slowly to work through the language of the time, but it is still very relevant. A quote commonly used from the essay is

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Less quoted is the long discussion on what is valid evidence. At the end of the discussion, an important statement is made about science and evidence; we must assume nature is uniform. This is not something to be believed like “God exists” is to be believed. It is an assumption that all other inferred truth rests upon. It is an important distinction to understand when separating science from religion.

When examining history, Clifford notes, we must assume some uniformity of the character of people, but we must also acknowledge human fallibility and deception, and understand any written evidence in that light. In my opinion, when examining religion, we must take all of this into account and discover the source of our belief.

Clifford examines the Prophets Mohammed and Buddha. I suspect he avoided Jesus because it appears Christians were his intended audience and he wanted to give the reader an objective point of view. He acknowledges the value of the leadership of these Prophets, their skills in teaching morality and advancing their culture. This makes the task of determining the truth of their visions that much more difficult. Once trusted as good men with valuable insights, should we not accept their supernatural claims as well?

Clifford says no. These Prophets may have supplied practical wisdom, which has been tested, and for some has also provided comfort, but we have no way to test if their visions or miracles were true. That more than one Prophet has existed, and with conflicting claims is evidence itself that their claims must be questioned. Clifford makes many statements about the danger of passing on unverified beliefs and the responsibility of being honest in what we say, including:

Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork.

Notably, Clifford avoids discussing difficult value judgments or defining what he means by “practical wisdom”. He sticks to the importance of the process of how we question and the methods we use to find answers. An important discussion, one that could end a lot of the silly rankling going on right now.

I’m going to skip discussion of the rest of the first half of Laura Purdy’s essay. She starts to talk about “unnecessary misery in the world” and more could be done in prevent suffering now. I wasn’t quite getting what she meant until she mentioned the religious right. This is an important discussion, one that Laura and I have a lot to agree on. I am going to save that for a Part II.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Psychology

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P204 Tamas Pataki “Some Thoughts on Why I Am an Atheist”

This one took a while, partly because it was Thanksgiving weekend. I might be slowing the pace a bit. Also, this one is rather dense. Get the dictionary back out. I will be summarizing some of his discussion and definitely not doing it justice. It is unique in that it spends most of its time discussing why someone might believe rather than the merits of what they believe. For him, this is a way to argue for non-belief. It could also be a way to examine what role religion has played and could play, but he doesn’t do that.

I’m not sure what titles he holds, but Pataki is well versed in Philosophy, Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, Religion and Social Inquiry. This may be another of the essays that actually converts a few theists, at least those who can work through it. Here is a sampling:

“Psychology cannot of course refute all religious claims, but it can do much to undermine many of them. It can debunk arguments from religious and mystical experience, for example, and, by providing parsimonious naturalistic explanations for the phenomena of religious devotion, display the superfluity of its metaphysical underpinnings.”

He starts off with a simpler discussion of how there are things we do intentionally or unintentionally or there are things that just happen to us. Just as we do not choose where to be born, most of us acquire our beliefs passively. Some beliefs are acquired after deliberation, still others are held because, as Francis Bacon said, we wish them to be true. Or at least, it is more pleasant to believe than reject them.

He mentions the struggle atheists need to go through to shed their heritage. In his case he says, “formal religious education rescued me.”, the stories were so implausible. University study confirmed his early conclusions. He does not rehash arguments for or against gods. He does acknowledge theological doctrines that reject conceptions of an existent deity. For me, this is refreshing because so much of the atheist argument does not acknowledge these: entities beyond language games, empirical or metaphysical disconfirmation. Although he quickly points out their lack of coherence or intelligibility and states only ignorance follows mystery.

He then lists some reasons why someone might believe, regardless of whether they have considered the reasons themselves:

Beliefs provide a consoling perspective.
Some people are just gullible or indifferent.
People rely on others (priests or theologians) to justify their beliefs.
Powerful social forces, and severe sanctions in some cultures.
“A substitutive satisfaction for ineluctable unconscious desires.”
Some have reasoned their faith, but Tamas believes they have erred.

He does not spend much time discussing the arguments for the existence of God because, he says, even if there were better arguments, they would remain disconnected from why most people embrace belief. He argues that it is these psychodynamics that are an important part of the case for rejecting religion.

His psychological explanation has two parts; first beliefs can pacify dispositions, and gives three examples:

Obsessional – need to control sexual and aggressive impulses
Hysterical – split off the profane aspects of personality from the spiritual
Narcissistic – Unconscious need to feel special or chosen

The second part is that religious conceptions shape a child’s mind and create some of the needs that religion may then satisfy. A relationship with an unconditionally loving being can be sustaining for someone unloved as a child. These fantasies may also distort, leading to a pathological grandiose self, of if falling short of the ideal, of being an unworthy, irredeemable sinner. Religious institutions can and do fashion themselves to accommodate and assuage these needs. These are some of the aspects of religion that earlier essays were suggesting need to be extricated.

He discusses many of the pathologies of the religious, and happily also acknowledges that for some, their atheism may arise from psychopathological roots. This is not true for all, in fact I’m sure it is a minority, but it does account for the often cited reason that atheism is just a reaction to religion. Someone once said to me that they realized that they had been viewing God as an angry man in the sky, with their father’s face. Pataki distinguishes atheism in that it is frugal in its metaphysics and does not provide scaffolding for pathologies to build upon.

In his final statement, he notes that the exposing of the needs he has discussed in his essay should be attended to with care. I would hope we would all take to that heart in all of our interactions.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Cosmology

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P 112 Victor Stenger "Godless Cosmology"

Stenger starts out claiming that Christian apologists who say science and religion are not in conflict are wrong. I usually disagree with this statement, but as he defines it, I have to agree. The apologists he is referring to attempt to twist science to create proofs of God.

He covers cosmological arguments for God and pretty well bastes them. He explains how the universe could have come from nothing and why it does not need a cause. It helps if you understand the math and quantum mechanics, which requires an advanced physics degree. He does his best to help you out with that. He provides names and plenty of references for both sides of the argument if you want to pursue this further.

He also points out some pretty sad maneuvering by those on the religious side of the argument, including quoting things that aren’t there. These are not fringe members of the theistic community, William Lane Craig and Dinesh D'Souza. Our new understanding of where we are in the universe has created a significant shift in culture. Religious leaders should be champions of that new understanding, not trying to make new information fit outdated interpretations.

He also covers the anthropic principle and the argument of “fine-tuning” the universe. I think he pretty well puts those arguments to bed. He only spends one paragraph on the primordial existential question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” He quotes the Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “Nothing is unstable”. I’m sure that makes more sense to other Nobel Prize winning physicists. Their definition of “nothing” is no doubt different from mine.

Stenger acknowledges that there are many possible ways the universe could have come into existence, making the dualistic question seem trite. However you might note that the existence of many possible theories leaves many questions still open.


50 blogs on disbelief - Faith and Belief

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P 187 Joe Halderman “Atheist out of the Foxhole”

This one is by a Vietnam Vet. During his tour, he wrote a column for a sci-fi magazine using the title “Atheist in a Foxhole”. He covers the difference between faith and belief and points out that believing there is no God does not count as a belief system.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Austin Dacey

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
Go back to First in this series

p182 Austin Dacey “The Accidental Exorcist”

Since the last essay mentioned the UN resolution on defamation of religion, I thought I would check out the essay from someone who sat on that committee. As a rare non-religious representative on that committee, it must have been difficult sit through discussions on the wording of limiting freedom of expression. He essay does not mention it.

It does tell a great story of pubescent boys playing Dungeons and Dragons, somehow integrating it into their Christianity and what happens when a dramatic young woman enters the mix. I won’t give away the ending. He continues with a playful description of his beliefs including:

“What was God’s motivation in overseeing the suffering of Jesus? “OK I’ll forgive you people, but only if you kill my son.” That is not a coherent story line.”

He seems to be open to many possible beliefs, and puts in this intriguing line:

“As cognitive psychologists and behavorial economists are showing, most of our tendencies to magical thinking come not from arrested development but from the proper functioning of well-developed adult brains that unfortunately find themselves in complex new environments, unforseen by evolution, which defy our simple mental heuristics and shortcuts.”

I don’t know what psychologists or economists he is talking about, but it sounds good to me.


50 blogs on disbelief - Introduction

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p1 Russell Blackford & Udo Schuklenk “Introduction: Voices of Reason”

If I had read this before buying the book, I might have passed. The store I ordered it from did not have it on the shelf, so I didn’t get that chance. That made for an interesting story about the sideways glance I got from the customer service person, a sort of, “ahh, you are one of us” look, but I’ll save that for later.

I agree with the editors that it is important for these voices to be heard at this time in history. Early in my research into atheism, I discovered that atheists are treated like a minority. A large percentage of people would not want their sister marrying one or would be suspicious of a stranger if all they knew was that they were atheist. However I can’t agree with this statement from this introduction

“Each week, it seems harder to keep the candle of reason alight.”

Atheists may currently account for only 18% or so of the total population, and may be under-represented in government, but look at the lower age groups, and the numbers are approaching 50%. Conversion is unlikely to have much of an impact on that. Instead of acknowledging that, they make their case with something that boarders on deceptive:

“concerted attempts are being made at the level of the United Nations to cement a new concept into international law, the dangerous idea of “defamation of religion.”

This “concerted effort” was supported by nations that themselves are known human rights abusers and it was a non-binding resolution. The United States dropped out of the committee before it was passed in a sign of protest. Recently, after the book was published, the US has re-joined the committee, apparently in an effort to correct the resolution. Regarding this, Hillary Clinton said,

“Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. I strongly disagree. The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance not with suppression of discourse.”

Here is a link to the resolution
Editor's Note: This link is now unavailable, it is has security restrictions. The document is labeled (E/CN.4/2004/L.5). I will continue to check for it being reinstated at the UN's website.

A friend of mine has a sticker on his refrigerator that reads, “Intolerance will not be tolerated”. The editors don’t seem to get the joke. They don’t seem to understand that intolerance, met with intolerance, is just more intolerance.

When they are not engaging in hyperbole, I agree with them. Sifting through a wide variety of thoughts on religion is not easy. Our schools systems, in honor of separating church and state, have instead reduced religious literacy to near zero. This hurts free thinking and cultural awareness at a time when it is critical to our survival. We don’t need teachers leading prayer in schools. We do need them teaching that the God of Abraham is claimed by Jews, Muslims and Christians and get kids thinking about what that means for today’s politics.

I admire that their editing process did not include forcing a party line. The resulting essays do not all agree. I think that is a good thing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - The best one

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 191 Dale McGowan “The Unconditional Love of Reality”

Dale is another one of the few authors in the book that I am familiar with. He has a great website. I highly recommend it for parents. This is a great essay from the first sentence to the last. It starts with an honest statement:

“It’s all too easy to get one’s own narrative wrong.“

He tells a personal story beginning with his father’s funeral as a boy to his discoveries of free thinking authors in his 30’s. He was an avid reader and read the entire Bible more than once, and was reading books of other cultures at the same time, noting the similarities. He found Greek and Roman mythology more interesting. He admits a predisposition for wanting Christianity to be true, but then says,

“The truth itself is more beautiful than an illusion, even when that truth is uncomfortable.”

He discusses the many hurdles he needed to overcome. He is quite open about how difficult it was to learn of “any significant presence of articulate disbelief in our cultural history.” even though he was an anthropology college student at Berkeley. This was pre-Internet and pre-Richard Dawkins. He lists a number of famous names that, after a lot of digging, he found to be what he calls “freethinkers” including some of America’s Founding Fathers, Einstein, A. N. Wilson, Seneca, Twain and others. He claims

“A systematic cultural suppression of the rich heritage of religious doubt keeps that heritage out of view.”

Even after immersing himself in that heritage some doubt of his doubt still lingered. Lengthy correspondences with two theologians, who were also friends, finally sealed it.

I’m not so sure about a cultural suppression, at least not in any “conspiracy theory” sense. I will give Dale the benefit of the doubt and suggest the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” for those who want to explore that further. It includes an analysis of how textbooks are selected and indicts all of us for them being watered down and inaccurate.

He ends with two sentences that are as beautiful as any hymn:

“But I know that all the comforts and assurances I need, all we’ve ever really had, are those we get from those around us who have inherited the same strange, scary, wonderful conscious life that each of us has. We are cosmically insignificant, a speck and a blink in time, inconceivably unimportant – except to each other, to whom we should therefore be unspeakably precious.”


Sunday, November 22, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Various Arguments

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 129 Stephen Law “Could It Be Pretty Obvious There’s No God?

Stephen covers some of the logical forms of arguments against God in a more playful way than A. C. Grayling did. In all cases, he starts with “If God exists and is all-powerful and maximally good…” The arguments then hold up pretty well against that assumption. The trouble is, the idea of an all-powerful God comes from Greek traditions that got mixed in with the Bible in the early centuries of the common era.

He then lists how theists might respond to the problem of evil with theodices – theistic explanations for the amount of evil that exists. He also includes something he calls playing the mystery card. That is basically what I did in the first paragraph. I argued that his premise was not correct, that God is more mysterious than that. I might have gone on to say something about how we as mere humans could not understand God’s infinite wisdom or why he allows evil in the world.

I enjoyed this essay because I could remember being in discussions where the things he was identifying were said. But what he calls playing the mystery card, I call knowing your history. Understanding the cultures of my ancestors is important to me. I know history is not everyone’s favorite subject, but then there is that old saying, the one about “repeating” and “doom”.

Then he does something that was not effective for me. He says what if instead of maximally good, God is maximally evil. What would happen if you applied the logical arguments, switching good and evil. He concludes that because the arguments could work in reverse and prove God is maximally evil, that demonstrates that God pretty obviously doesn’t exist.


50 blogs on disbelief - This one covers a lot

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P145 A.C. Grayling “Why I Am Not a Believer”

It may be difficult to do justice to this one. It is somewhat technical. I needed a dictionary to get through it. It does a lot of defining, terms such as rationality and probability. These are important terms if you plan to engage in a conversation on belief. It mentions religions other than Christianity and lists names of virgin birth stories in other religions. As advanced as the vocabulary is, he often uses derogatory and demeaning language, which seems out of place.

He applies the tools he defines to close off theistic arguments and I think for some he might succeed. His audience is people who are well educated and those who can follow these arguments have probably already considered them.

He refers to “magisteria”, but does not give any details of Stephen Jay Gould’s thoughts on non-overlapping magisteria, the idea that science and religion can coexist and not be in conflict. Grayling says, “it will not wash”. Given how he defines the conflict, I would agree. He points to a six-day creation and divine intervention in Numbers 16:30 and notes how incompatible these are with science. I believe Gould was suggesting that we look for what religion does that science cannot, provide a place to discuss questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, and set our divisions there. I prefer that to picking fights as Grayling does. Religion has long acknowledged science. The trial of Galileo is often pointed to as evidence that it has not, but rarely is it mentioned that there were scientist working inside the Vatican that agreed with Galileo.

In the first half of the essay, he uses references, but when he starts to do some historical analysis, he stops. I have heard some of the things he says before, and I have not found any research to back them up. He starts off:

“The nature of religious belief, the reasons for it, and the reasons for its persistence are all explicable without any need to suppose the truth of any part of it.”

That may be true. The Unitarian church is founded on the idea that gathering together on a Sunday does not require belief in any particular miracle. That is not what A.C. Grayling is proposing here however. He proposes two theories, one that priesthoods started out explaining natural occurrences that early humans didn’t understand. When nature was better understood they switched to supernatural explanations to maintain their status. The second theory is that it started by accident when someone ate hallucinogenic fungi, had epilepsy, or was just exhausted. Somehow those visions became institutionalized. I have seen some books on god and mushrooms, but none of them credible.

Then he says:

“The main key to the survival of all religions is their proselytization of the young. For good evolutionary reasons, children are highly credulous, believing everything from the tooth fairy and Father Christmas to whatever gods the adults in their circle tell them to believe in.”

Once again, he almost acknowledges that there is an evolutionary advantage to believing in fairy tales. If children were born skeptics, it would be pretty difficult to convince them that hitting their little sister is not a good idea before they had spent some time observing life, learning from their mistakes, and studying some of the philosophies of their ancestors. But Grayling does not acknowledge this. He moves quickly to accuse religion of taking advantage of this childish credulity, claiming it is a form of child abuse and connecting to “honor killings” in Afghanistan.

He also points out the psychological and social struggles that young people go through later in life, when they question the beliefs of their parents. This is a problem. I am thankful that my parents didn’t put me through this. I did experience it indirectly through friends and my extended family. I was lucky to have loving friends and family who respected my spiritual path. In terms of 200,000 years of evolution, a large number of people being exposed to a wide variety of belief systems and needing to synthesize all of them and reconcile them with their nuclear family, is a fairly recent phenomenon. I agree we need to find ways to support people in doing this. I don’t think throwing belief systems in the trash bin is a good start.

He moves to Enlightenment versus religion with:

“Enlightenment dispensations, in which it is not a crime but an obligation to think for oneself…”

I don’t know how he is measuring thinking for oneself. I have not seen a huge increase in that over the last couple centuries. Nor have I seen any particular method of encouraging it that is standing out above all others.

For such a scholarly essay, I’m surprised that he concludes with a rather crass quote from Steven Weinberg. He only uses part of it, but here it is in its entirety:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

Actually there are many ways to get good people to do bad things; sex, money, desire for revenge, threats to survival and inhibiting their ability to reason with drugs. Or just observe teenage boys. I think the hard part is getting just about anyone to do good things.


Friday, November 20, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - An okay starting point

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P310 Michael Tooley “Helping People to Think Critically About Their Religious Beliefs”

This essay might be a place to come for someone who wants to think critically about who Jesus was and what he taught, but definitely not a place to end that research. His suggested reading includes Dawkins and Harris and others in that group, exactly the type of material I was trying to get away from when I selected this book. He also mentions Michael Martin’s “The Case Against Christianity” more than once. I might look into that one.

In the first third of the essay, he makes some broad statements, and gives his opinion with no examination. This is the nature of a short essay, but he could have just left them out. For example he starts with,
“Most people in the world accept the religious beliefs of their parents, with relatively minor changes, and never think critically about those beliefs. This is a very unfortunate state.”
He never considers the value of early cultures that used ritual to honor the cycle of planting and harvesting. Rituals that held that culture together, allowed it to get through times of famine, gave it ways of dealing with inner conflict and threats from without. My blog is shorter than his essay, so I won’t provide a scholarly defense of this theory, but Tooley never even gives it a nod.

The closest he comes is when he acknowledges that Richard Dawkins, in the The God Delusion gives kudos to Jesus for saying “turn the other cheek” Matthew 5:39. Tooley considers this “badly misguided”. As evidence he says,
“few people would think, surely, that it would have been good if Winston Churchill had taken this injunction more seriously: great evils call for resistance,..”
The millions of civilians killed, injured and made homeless by the bombing of Germany would have thought it a great idea. I am not a pure pacifist, but a quick Google search finds many articles that consider this a controversy, not a slam dunk obvious decision.

I have found that many of the so-called “contradictions” found in the teachings of Jesus are actually views of either side of the coin. The New Testament does not dance around difficult moral choices. It calls on the reader to be perfect, to love those who hate you. How we go about accomplishing that is up to each of us individually and up to each generation to apply to whatever challenges arise.

He goes on to examine the actual teachings of Jesus. I am not a Biblical scholar, and as much as I would like to take each one of his points and examine it, I don’t have time to do that right now. Some of these are the same as those I discussed in an earlier blog. Some of them can be understood simply by reading the entire passage and finding the part that says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like” and similar verses that tell you that the verses to follow are parables, not actually suggesting that someone should be thrown in a fire.

He does cover passages that demonstrate Jesus had apocalyptic visions, believed in demonic possession and had a puritanical view of marriage. Hopefully you had some idea of that before deciding to go to church. Hopefully you also know that not everyone agrees on those interpretations. The Bible itself includes Peter and Paul arguing about what Jesus meant. Although many verses can speak directly to a modern person, when reading the Bible, you need to remember that psychology had not been invented, neuroscience could not have been conceived of, they had no way of knowing what was above the clouds, and couldn’t have known that someday we would know. They only way to talk about those things was by using symbols like “demons”.

Too often Tooley engages in hyperbole. For example, while going through his 7 point examination of Jesus’ character, he says, “Jesus was very intolerant toward those who disagreed with his teachings.” (his italics) and offers this passage:

And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them. (Mark 6:11)

Apparently Michael has never tried to solicit money for a charity or enroll some volunteers. When you try to get people to do something good, you are going to get a lot of “no’s”. People are too busy, they are doing other good things, they are selfish and don’t care, whatever the reason, you need to know when a “no” is a “no” and move on, shake it off. That last bit about “for a testimony against them” is a bit of a flip-off. I don’t advocate that, but I don’t see this passage as evidence for intolerance.

A critical examination, yes, in need of a lot more examination, definitely. Some of that examination can be done through further reading and discussion with your own support circles, some of it will need to be done by and for yourself.


50 blogs on disbelief - An excellent start

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P86 Phillip Kitcher “Beyond Disbelief”

This one will be hard to top. I mean that in a good way. He names several authors and titles that are now on my “must read” list. He weaves his own journey from choir boy to atheist with the history and philosophy of religion, and includes important stepping stones that readers may find themselves on. He provides a lot of historical analysis of the early church in a very short space.

He almost concludes that the world would be better off without religion then shifts to a well measured discussion of what might be worth preserving and the danger of simply eliminating something so entwined in our culture. Near the end he says,

“The temporary eradication of superstition, unaccompanied by attention to the functions religion serves, creates a vacuum into which the crudest forms of literalist mythology can easily intrude themselves . . .” then suggests, “…reflecting on ways to disentangle what is valuable from what is inevitably corrupted by falsehoods and absurdities.”

Good suggestion.


50 blogs on disbelief - Intolerance

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P300 Peter Thatchell “My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism”

This could be a hard one to take for some. Peter started life in a very strict evangelical church in Australia. He saw all of the vengeance of God, and very little compassion. Fortunately he worked through it and is now an advocate for peace and justice issues. He lists the questions posed by Franco-German philosopher Baron D’Holbach as part of his reasoning process. He lists many crimes by religious groups against women and homosexuals.

The quantity of his evidence does not, in my opinion, support his conclusion that,
“overall, organized religion and the clerical establishment are, in most parts of the world, synonymous with intolerance and the abuse of human rights.”
I support him in his work, and understand his anger, but a list of abuses is not enough to support that broad of a conclusion. Those abuses do need to be purged from religion, and I think Peter and many others are doing just that.


50 blogs on disbelief - Dr. Who

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P294 Sean Williams “Doctor Who and Legacy of Rationalism”

A fun romp through a long lasting science fiction series. A good explanation of Clarke’s Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”


50 blogs on disbelief - Plato, morality and history

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.

P288 Peter Singer and Marc Hauser

As soon as it came in the mail, I sat down to read the first essay. Peter Singer had convinced me to become a vegetarian with his book Animal Liberation, so I started with that one, “Why Morality Doesn’t Need God”. It starts out with a discussion of does God support morality, did he create it, or did morality already exist and he is just pointing us to it. A decent philosophical discussion, including a mention of Plato’s Euthyphro.

They try to compare all religions and atheists and agnostics and look at its effect on different cultures. I think it breaks down for a bit here.

What they do not address is the question of whether or not, at some earlier point in our evolution, did religion contribute to our survival or would morality have survived as well without it, back when the world was not so rapidly changing. They also treat atheism as if it is some sort of genetic trait, referring to an online test of morality that showed that atheist or not, we all make very similar moral judgments when it comes to saving drowning babies and such. I don’t think that proves anything other than most of us were raised well in a moral society. It doesn’t say how that morality was passed on to us.

I don’t think a study is needed to determine what is moral and what is not. We know we should risk getting wet to save a drowning a baby. A poll can't make a complex moral decision. We all have to decide for ourselves if America should have used the atom bomb, for example.

The line that really bugged me was this one:

“If there is no evidence that religion generally makes people more likely to do the right thing, there is ample evidence that religion has led people to commit a litany of horrendous crimes.” and then lists the usual OT wars, the crusades and suicide bombers and others.

This is just bad science. When wanting to show that religion can’t be proven to be good, they look at the big picture and say America with lots of Christians is in some important moral ways worse than Europe, which is less religious. When wanting to say religion can be proven bad, suddenly they are inside individual’s heads and know that their motivations are specifically due to religion. I find it odd that anyone is still using the wars in the Old Testament as evidence of anything since the archeological evidence, or lack thereof, is proving they didn’t happen.

The essay was okay, but I’m hoping others are better. Much of it seems directed to someone who has never considered the sociological or evolutionary reasons for morality. I wonder how many people like that will be picking up this book? Here is their conclusion, with which I agree:

“We inherit from our ancestors a set of moral intuitions that, presumably, contributed to their survival… Some of them, no doubt, still survive, but others may be poorly adapted to our rapidly changing world. It is our task to work out which of them need to be changed.”



Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Yaqui Way of Knowing

I bought this poster recently, with 13 different disciplines and their version of the golden rule. You can get one at, along with other related material.

Native Spirituality is lumped into one group. The symbol looks a little like the Great Wheel from the Lakotas. I don’t recognize the quote or the name of the chief who said it. I did notice that the poster does not mention shamans or Carlos Castaneda. I read a couple of the “Don Juan” books in college and wondered for years if there was anything to it. I have met a few people who claimed to have gone to Mexico and found shamans who trained them and now call themselves shamans. I haven’t met one that particularly impressed me.

Castaneda was an anthropoloy student when he wrote his first three books. Maybe if I knew that I would have been a little more skeptical, or if I had read the Time magazine article that described him as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a tortilla.” But that would have required going to the library at the time. Now I can just look it up in Wikipedia, where you can find support for whatever opinion you want to adopt. In my defense, he did earn his degree as an anthropologist and was acclaimed by some noted scholars. But before I even knew of the books, he had already been accused of plagarism and the existence of the main subject for his study was called into question.

Taken as a fictional account of a conglomeration of a variety of shamanistic teachings, it is still a worthwhile read. Any study of a spiritual culture with a long history will have some jewels of wisdom and something worth pondering contained within. Taken as something that you might be able to obtain yourself if you follow this spiritual path, I’m pretty sure is a waste of time. And by “pretty sure” I mean it like I’m pretty sure I can’t fly. I have tried a couple times by running really fast down a steep hill and flapping my arms, but I’m not going to jump off a tall building until I figure out how to gain some altitude.

Unfortunately some people read books like this and start right out with an experiment that doesn’t test the assumptions in a way that allows for failure. I’m all for experimentation. There has been some excellent scientific work done with hallucinogenics, one of my earliest blogs discusses it. A bunch of people taking peyote and running around in the desert does not constitute scientific work however.

I also encourage recreation, and finding ways to expand one’s mind. Just don’t fool yourself. If you want to see the result of years of that type of research, I suggest reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The final words of that book are, “we blew it”.

There are more people working lately to find sources of valuable insights that are common across many cultures. The idea that someone is going to go on a trek into the wilderness and return with some bit of wisdom that will change the world is fading as we continue to choke off what little wilderness there is. It is fading too because we are losing our sense of “tribe”, our sense that the people we grew up with are the ones who know the best way to survive, and that we are better than those other tribes. That could be a good thing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Brief History of God

I have been spending too much time watching YouTubes and chatting on forums lately, so I’m getting behind in blogging. This will be a cross-over of all of that.

I spend some of my time on a site that is mostly populated with atheists. Occasionally an evangelist of some sort comes along with what they think is a bullet-proof explanation for the existence of God. Watching them get blasted is like trying to turn your head when there is an accident on the highway.

A recent one of these had several links to published papers by F. J. Tipler. Tipler is a physicist with a Theory of Everything. I won’t provide the links because I don’t think it is worth it. I have no way of evaluating if his theory is any better than anybody else, other than that he has been peer reviewed and his methods appear sound. I can’t correct his math however. His theory happened to contain a trinity, and he has made some allusions to how it could be compared to Christianity.

Obviously this is a huge leap, but the guy posting at this forum felt it was an obvious correlation and kept repeating his claim. I spent a few years believing that quantum mechanics had some spiritual aspect to it. I learned a lot about physics, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but there is no connection. This guy really went overboard, claiming that the universe was coming to an end within 50 years and that his interpretation of Tipler’s theory would allow all of us to live forever. As alluring as that is, I won’t repeat any of it, because it is not worth my time.

In my attempt to debate him, I needed to explain how I think humans got to where we are now, including some humans that have a need to use science to prove Christianity. I wrote this brief history of religion, hope you like it.

So here’s my understanding of how we got to the kind of logic you are claiming. Religion developed as a psychological response to the unknown. Before language, humans started to perceive a past, present and future and attempted to make sense of it. Every teenager who has any sense of responsibility goes through this still today. They realize someone went to a lot of trouble to get them to adulthood and that someone before that did it for their parents and so on. And many (unfortunately not all) also understand that there is a planet that supported all of them and a universe in which it exists.

I called it a psychological response, but this is perfectly consistent with the idea that the Christian God is slowly revealing himself to us, if you want to express it that way. Not everybody sees it that way, as you are well aware. Some people feel the awesomeness of creation and simply take pleasure in it and can see the humor in the odd things that came out of it, like males and females and the awkward fumbling that goes into procreation. Some people see the mystery and want to figure it out. Some people have a need to tell stories to relate to it. Sometimes one person can see it from all perspectives.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

George Carlin's 3 Commandments

This is a response to George Carlin’s bit on the 10 commandments. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not hard to find. It was in his book, “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops”. My Mom got me that for Christmas one year.

This is only bleeped version I have found on YouTube It is a televised version of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Part 7 of 8. About 5 and a half minutes in.

First off, I love George Carlin. I have been following him ever since he wore a tie and had short hair when Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show and he did the ippy dippy weather man with all the ippy dippy weather, man. He is a comic genius, a hard worker, and I wish I would have thought of doing this before he died. This is not addressed to George anyway, besides he himself said that he wouldn’t care, he wasn’t trying to create any system of beliefs. This is addressed to you, his audience.

So let’s get started, George’s first question is, why 10? I agree with it being a marketing decision. Designed to control? Well, I’d like to control anyone who wants to come into my house, covet my stuff, including my wife, so maybe agreeing not to do that is not such a bad idea. Let’s look at the list.

The first three are dismissed without much discussion because of “spookey language”, “designed to intimidate”. Okay, but let’s look at what’s was going on at the time. It’s kinda important. It takes 6 verses just to cover the first two commandments. This is a time when Gods are related to tribes and to places. Your tribe has a God, and you assume that the tribe down the river has a different God. Your God is better of course and protects you from theirs. You make sacrifices to make that God happy, and you make idols so you can talk to it. But this new God won’t even tell you know his name, and he says he’s the only one, and he doesn’t want idols.

And “remember the sabbath”, you gotta keep that. First of all, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble so we could have weekends. If I have to claim to be religious just so I can have Sunday off, I’ll do it. Besides, how else am I going to know when football is on? You take away the Sabbath, and the next thing you know football looks like baseball with games on Wednesday afternoon. Nobody wants that, it stays.

These people were creating something new, Moses’ people, they just broke the bonds of slavery, that was something really new. If they had not done that, chances are yours and my life would be very different. These are people defining themselves by something other than who they can defeat and enslave. Take this out and you mess with history. And I’m not saying the book of Exodus is historically accurate. It doesn’t matter who begat whom or when the story was finally written down. The story was being told in a time when there were Kings with slaves, and for a bunch of people to be telling stories about how they didn’t need a King, they answered to a higher power, that would have made those Kings kinda nervous. That’s what the first three are about. We keep the first three, if for nothing else, sentimental purposes.

Okay, what’s next, I’m going to stick to the order,“Thou shalt honor thy mother and father”. Controlling, can’t argue with that on this one. And George rightly points out that respect is earned, not dictated. Instead of throwing this one out, let’s take a cue from George and modernize it, and make the language positive, “Thou shalt honor the roles of mothering and fathering”. That means all of you, and puts the responsibility of effective parenting on the adults as well as the children. This is covered in other parts of the Bible. Never had kids, doesn’t matter, the next generation is still your responsibility. Your kids are all grown up, you’re not off the hook, vote for that tax increase to support your schools, somebody paid for your school when you were just starting out, it’s your turn. The kids in your neighborhood are holy terrors, have you tried talking to them instead of yelling at them? Enough said.

Oh boy, next one is the big one, “Thou shalt not kill”. George says “murder”, then quickly moves on, but this is an important point. The interpretation from the Hebrew is possibly “murder”. That makes this one harder to understand, kill is too broad, murder needs definition. Our Western laws allow for killing under certain circumstances, including times of war, if done under the rules of war. We also have guidelines for a just war, guidelines that have not been followed so well typically. We also have rules for when to engage in war. Look up just war theory. Anyone who claims to be fighting a war simply because God told them to should be critically questioned, and historically they have been. Doesn’t always stop them….

I know this phrase, “more killing has been done in the name of God than anything else” has been bandied about for such a long time, that it’s just accepted as true, but the facts don’t support it. Taking the conflicts that George rattles off rapidly, one by one, let’s start with Northern Ireland. Take a look at a map of the furthest extent of the Roman Empire in about 350 AD and note that Ireland is not included. As Rome fell, much of the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was taken there and preserved as the rest of Europe fell in to the Dark Ages. This is what we celebrate on St. Patrick’s day by the way. Ireland has enjoyed a long tradition of self-rule.

Where do you want to start anyway, with Strongbow, or how about a little more recently, the nicely named Plantation of Ulster? This was the beginning of Protestant and Catholic conflict that still continues. But was it strictly a matter of whose God was better than the other’s or who worshipped the right way? I don’t think so. This has always been a matter of sovereignty and the right to self-govern. Kashmir, pretty much the same, except they are in a cross roads of many governments and cultures and have a long history of changing rulers. Empires such as China, Britain and the United States have tried to get control over this area. Saying this is simply some conflict over whose God can beat up the others is a gross over simplification.

The crusades, wow this one is blown way out of proportion. Yes, it was decreed by a Pope that they would start this war, but where was it to be fought? Were they a world power, seeking to expand their territory and force their beliefs on others? No, the 1st crusade was another in a long line of cultures putting a claim on Jerusalem. In this case the Roman Catholics were the most recently expelled, trying to get it back. If they had done a little negotiating the whole thing probably would have worked out much better, but Emperor Alexius got more than he bargained for when he asked for an army, and the knights took a lot of initiative well beyond the control of King and church. This is more a story of a military out of control than a religion controlling who should kill whom.

As for torture and killing of people for their beliefs, what evidence of this do you have? Much of this mythology comes from Andrew Dickson White and William Draper, two authors who have been disproved by modern historians, but somehow their ideas have perpetuated. What atrocities actually occurred, and how do they compare with the prevailing morals of their time? And how do they compare with today’s system? If you live in America, you live in a country that does a lot of killing and lot of incarcerating. We throw people in jail for minor crimes, and they learn more about how to be criminals in jail than they ever knew while they were out. We are the only modern country that tries minors as if they are adults. Take a look at yourself before you judge any history of collective support for killing.

Finally, he throws in “flying planes into buildings”, the hot button issue of our time. First, they were Muslims, and we are talking about a Jewish document that Christians use but have overridden with the New Testament. Second, they were a tiny minority of Muslims, denounced by many of their same religion. And again, they are angry about a foreign invader coming into their ancient homeland and setting up military bases and taking their resources. Not a justification! Not saying that! They are abusing their own religion to reach a political end. They are violating universal laws of morality, not supported by any modern religion to achieve their goals. I would question if they even could define their own goals any more, or if they understand their own scriptures. “Thou shalt not murder” stays in!

Okay, let’s lighten it up a little now. George jumps around a little and looks at all the coveting going on. One that he actually keeps is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, he puts the positive spin on it, and combines it with lying and stealing and comes up with “Thou shalt always be honest and faithful”. I like it, you’ve covered most of the core values here. This is right up there with “love your neighbor”. This leads to “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”. I think George had a good marriage because he doesn’t spend much time here, so neither will I. Let’s keep the modern language in mind and include all definitions of family, so we’ve eliminated 3 by using George’s “especially to the provider of thou nooky.”

A little more time is spent on “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”. This is a good time to remember that George often used sarcasm. He had a bit on not washing your hands after you go to the bathroom, he said it was a waste of time, unless you get some on your hands, which for him was 2 maybe 3 times a week tops. I’m pretty sure he’s being sarcastic here when he says we should leave “coveting thy neighbor’s goods” alone, ….because that’s what keeps the economy going.” This may be true, and it may get a good laugh, but it’s also very sad. If you are not seeing that setting aside an acre of land, putting a big box on it to live in, burning stuff to keep it warm, filling it with plastic things, adding on another big box with more fuel burning machines in it and keeping them warm, is not working out so well, well then you and I just see things differently.

Competition and a little greed have made progress for a few hundred years, but what has it really got us? Are lights in sneakers really that important? Is spending more money on chewing gum than we do on books really a world in balance? The quality of our food has gone down, our schools are falling apart, and you can’t go anywhere and drink the water if it isn’t in a sealed plastic bottle. If you want to throw out all the other commandments and just focus on this one for a couple decades, I’d be alright with that. Definitely do not eliminate this one.

So, sorry, there are still seven. But I’m not adding on that one that George does, so that’s it.

You know, the one about “Thou shall keep thy religion to thyself”. I’m fine with that as long as you don’t impose on my right to tell a story any more than I impose on yours. No lying, no slander, no inciting people to riot, just telling our stories. All throughout the book of Exodus, it is repeated that the events are happening so the story can be told again and again. Not read, as if the exact words are important, but told, like a story. The New Testament also talks about sharing the story. I’m afraid story telling is an art that we have lost. The trouble starts when someone thinks that they not only should tell you the story, but they should get you to believe it. I think that is what George was saying, and I agree completely. Forcing beliefs on others has no place in the modern world. The roots of understanding that began at least 2,000 years ago, it’s about time we put that into practice. If we worked on understanding the spirit of these 7 guidelines instead of fighting about them, we’d all be a lot better off.

So here they are, and I took the liberty of modernizing some of the language:

Quit worrying about defining god.

Don’t worship any images of him, her or whatever you might visualize. No burning, bleeding or nailing. A little wine and bread and maybe a candle or some oil are okay. Singing is also good.

Take a day off once a week or so, it’s good for you, meditate or go for a walk.

Thou shalt honor the roles of mothering and fathering.

Thou shalt not murder.

Thou shalt always be honest and faithful, especially to the provider of thou nooky. (Thank you George for that one).
You shall not covet things. Have a goal, follow your bliss, but it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s about your passion, not other people’s stuff.