Sunday, January 31, 2010

50 blogs on disbelieft - Strange Bedfellows

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 323 Udo Schuklenk - "Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God"

Udo took the time to make a comment on an earlier blog, so I thought I would start the second phase of this project with his essay. He begins with two questions:

“Why am I an atheist? Why do I think it is important to speak out against the harmful consequences of religious interpretations of the world and of our place in it?”

I think his focus is more on the second question, and the answers to it lead to the answer of his answer of the first question. He prayed to God when he was young for youthful wishes such as help with his homework and, regarding God, figured that,

"If you are omnipotent and omniscient, helping a desperate teenage out of the claws of 'malevolent' Latin teachers should be a walk in the park."

His thoughts on God became more sophisticated and led him to the big theological question of “why is so much going so wrong so often?” In later studies he found that many people had asked the same question. Eventually he could not reconcile the existence of a God and the facts of events such as the Holocaust. He refused a Leibnizian interpretation.

I had to look up Gottfied Leibniz. He was 17th century philosopher and mathematician who had met Baruch Spinoza. I hope to find the time to study more of Spinoza, but the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument did not appear to offer much. Udo Schuklenk recommends Voltaire’s “Candide” whose character Pangloss has this view of the world. Udo would have been at peace just leaving it at that, but he could not ignore the “harmful consequences” of those who continue to believe. He goes on to list a few of these consequences.

He starts with abortion, and tells of Catholic hospitals that are prepared to sacrifice pregnant women’s lives for the purpose of rescuing embryos. I have never heard of this before, and he does provide a footnote (Judith Hendrick, “Law and Ethics in Nursing and Health Care” [New York: Nelson Thornes Ltd, 2005] p. 54), so I could research it myself. He has another footnote when he states that Muslim women “frequently” die in labor because their husbands do not permit a c-section.

Both of these cases seem extreme to me and say very little about 6,000 years of human history. By citing extreme examples, he skirts the issue of whether or not it is ethical for a couple to agree to abort their pregnancy. Our laws vary from state to state regarding how old a fetus can be when it is aborted and people’s responses to questions of abortion vary when a pregnancy is caused by incest or rape. These moral questions do not have definitive secular answers. Claiming that religion muddies the waters appears more like avoiding the question to me.

His next set of reasons for having a problem with religion I am in partial agreement with, but again, he takes an extreme position, which I think weakens his overall argument. He brings up the issue of homosexuality. I agree the United States has been slow to deal this and the church has been on the wrong side of if for too long. I also agree that the religious justifications for not doing stem cell research are just plain crazy (that is my extreme language, not his).

He then makes a statement that I can’t really argue with, “Churches routinely campaign against civil right protections that would guarantee the equal and fair treatment of all of a country’s citizens”. HOWEVER, I don’t attend those churches. I attend the churches that have a Peace with Justice Committee, the ones that march in the Gay Pride parade, the ones that organize campaigns to raise awareness about the School of the Americas and in the tradition of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., support civil rights.

He goes on to discuss “conscientious objection”. This is a law that allows for protection of professionals who choose, for religious reasons, not to provide services. Again I had never heard of this before, and he provides many footnotes for those who would wish to look into it. This goes beyond just not serving in the military, it extends to not providing services, such as abortions or even condoms because you object to them on religious grounds. Apparently precedence has been set in the US and UK. Then he provides a hypothetical example that gets a bit tough to swallow:

“An Aryan Nation church might well give its members a conscientious reason to refuse treating Black patients. Why should their conscientious objection be any less acceptable than that of members of any other church?”

He does not answer his rhetorical question, but I will. That would not be acceptable because it would violate laws that were fought for and debated over for generations by citizens of this country, many of them good Christians. I don’t think choosing not to abort a potential life and refusing to help a grown person even belong in the same class. This is a “slippery slope” argument, a logical fallacy.

His third and final reason regards death with dignity. Here we are in agreement again. The strange relationship Christians in particular have with death was demonstrated in 2005 when Pope John Paul II was on his death bed. At the same time, in Florida, people were arguing over keeping Terry Schiavo alive, someone who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years. Many people could not accept that we should “play God” and decide if she should live or die. The Pope, who lived 85 wonderful years, had deteriorated to the point that heroic attempts to resuscitate him and prolong his life would have been cruel. His final words were, ““Let me go to the house of the Father”.

So Udo is one of the strange partners that I have in a very confused world. We live in a world where thousands are mobilized to keep a feeding tube in someone who has no recognizable brain function, but just a few hundred miles away children are dying of hunger and none of them notice. We live in a world where criticizing a Muslim for abusing the women in his life is misconstrued as racism. I agree with him that we should vigorously confront the political activism of these fundamentalist regardless of race, creed or color. Church should not interfere with human rights. Mr. Schuklenk and I part company when he claims the solution is to confront belief.

My recent reading of David James Duncan’s “God laughs and plays” has helped me understand this form of atheism. He abhorrence with stories of a God that are sometimes violent and followers that feel it is there duty to choose how grace is distributed led him to reject anything related to religion and find and expose the worst of it. He does this in honor of his humanity. I hope he can understand the humanity of those who continue to honor the traditions.


  1. Wow, thanks so much - again - for taking the time to reflect on yet another chapter form the book, and also for your thoughtful comments.

    I suspect you kind of expected me to reply to your notes on my own chapter, and I shouldn't dodge that request.

    Let me begin, perhaps, with what I take to be your first major concern about the chapter, namely my stance in the abortion controversy. I did not spell out what my precise views are on the matter and what my reasons are for holding them. I meant (and might not have succeeded in doing so) to suggest that religious stances muddy the waters because the use rationales that are implausible criteria for determining the moral status of embryos. Claiming personhood when all there is are a few hundred cells, no central nervous system and no capacity to suffer is implausible. Grounding sanctity of life claims on implausible premises about the soul (no evidence exists for its existence) muddies the waters. Secular analyses offer more reasonable and easier to defend public criteria for moral standing (eg if the fetus is capable of feeling pain, it matters morally that whatever you propose to do to it would cause suffering). To my mind, in multicultural societies you need to aim for criteria that don't require people to accept implausible metaphysical assumptions such as ensoulment, after-life and whatnot. This is the point I tried to make in this context, and I tried to show that the consequences of buying into the God crowd's stance lead to severe human suffering.

    Your next big question mark seems to have to do with my conscientious objection argument. You seem to be sympathetic, to some extent, to my worries that accepting the conscientious objection logic could lead to abuses in terms of access to health care services, but you don't accept my example of the Aryan church member asking for conscientious objection exemption on patients belonging to ethnic minorities. Your point seems to be about law (ie this would be illegal today), while my point is about the analytical force of the conscientious objection argument. My point is that if the only thing that matters is how strongly someone FEELS the provision of a particular health service would challenge/violate his or her strongly felt religious beliefs, we end up with a health care system that's akin to a lottery. Patients should not ever find themselves in a situation where they are at the receiving end of such a lottery.

    I suspect we might still disagree substantively on some issues, but I do hope this clarifies my views. I think you're spot on when you imply that there are important occasions where progressive religious people and non-believers should be capable of finding common ground...

  2. Thanks for checking in Udo and for the clarifications and especially for looking for common ground. This was one of my strongest statements so far and the issues you are raise are some of humankinds most difficult. I will need some time to reflect before commenting further, and I will take your comments under consideration.

  3. Reading your comments again today, I noticed that I also do a bit of a dodge on the abortion issue. Your comments about an early fetus not having the capacity to suffer are important. I'm not exactly sure where abortion starts to get uncomfortable for me, but it is somewhere in the first trimester. Until science does a better job of explaining what is a viable human life or when does consciousness begin, I will continue to have questions. And I think it will be science that helps us settle this issue, not religion.