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.