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.