Friday, February 26, 2010

50 blogs on disbeleif - Wonder

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. 28 J. L. Schellenberg “Why I am a Nonbeliever? – I Wonder…”

I would recommend this book for this essay alone.

You can buy this article individually here. 50 Voices - I Wonder

I haven’t found any free articles by this author, but there are plenty of reviews that might give you a sense of what he has to say. I will keep looking and attempt to summarize it. I don’t know if I can do it justice.

“Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder.”

So begins this essay, rather innocently telling the story of his very religious upbringing in rural Manitoba. He felt the wonder of the world through the lens of Christianity. Through post secondary education he discovered,

“The New Testament was a decidedly human construction, a shining record of personal liberation in places, but also pockmarked with all the prejudices and proselytizing aims of it authors,…”

He goes on to tell about his discovery of Buddhist and Taoist wisdom as well as others. He spent time in the library and discovering new people on the streets of the city. He knew he had learned humility, honesty and commitment from his Christian upbringing and he struggled to integrate this with his new found knowledge. As he says,

“It hurts to have your neat picture of the world torn to shreds; your emotions left jangling. But no one said that a commitment to live in wonder, straining for real insight and understanding, comes without cost.”

His new views of the world brought the problem of evil and hiddenness argument for atheism into focus. At the time he was asking these questions the term “hiddenness argument” hadn’t been coined. Up to this point, this seemed like just another essay. It seemed he was going to miss the point about the value of his upbringing and how it led to his later insight, but he did give it a nod. Then he started talking about his recent thoughts and said,

“And through yet another strange twist that I am still in the midst of navigating, it appears that in the depths of evolutionary religious skepticism can be found the seeds of new life for religion.”

I had to read that a couple times, “evolutionary” what? To clarify it, he first covers some basic science. Scientists pretty well agree that the earth will be around for another billion years. Let’s put that into perspective.

Earliest human ancestor walking upright 6,000,000 million years ago
Homo Erectus (walking upright) humans 2,000,000 million years ago
Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that’s us) about 130,000 years ago
Oldest beads 80,000 years ago
Cave painting 30,000 years ago – that is, scribbling on a wall
Human agriculture 10,000 years ago
Pyramids built 4,780 year ago

Years remaining that we can continue to create a better world

30,000 years to get from scratching on a wall to watching Avatar in the palm of your hand. What could we do in 30,000 more years? How about 30,000 times 30,000 years?

Getting back to the essay, he says, “Apply this now to religion.” Although we have dominated and altered the planet, our maturity is still questionable and our propensity to violence hard to excuse. Those cave paintings are evidence that we humans started thinking about something beyond our own existence long before we could preserve those thoughts in writing and at a time that violence was the solution to most of our problems.

Given that we have created not only language but ways of communicating across language barriers, including instant communication around the globe, we can not only think about how we might evolve, we can affect the course of our evolution, setting a pace of evolution faster than previous generations.

He says all of this better than I ever could. I have added a few of his books to my reading list

Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion 2005
Available in Google books
Divine hiddenness and human reason 2006
The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticisim 2007
The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion 2009

See Review Review of Will to Imagine

I will try to find some more of his works.

Friday, February 19, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Benevolence

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. 16 Nicholas Everitt “How Benevolent is God? An Argument from Suffering to Atheism”

This is an excellent essay. If everyone came to this discussion with the same level of intellectual honesty that Nicholas does, we could wrap this situation up toot sweet. He carefully frames his words and uses qualifiers like “so defined” when necessary. This makes it clear that his statements are directed to a particular definition of God, as he calls it, the “standard” one, the one used in these essays. At the end of the essay, he talks about his own life and how he became atheist. This is also an admirable reflection on his personal thoughts.

The bulk of the essay itself is another discussion on the problem of evil, but breaks it down better than any I have read so far. For some, there may be too much logic and it may seem petty, but it leads to a conclusion that makes it worth sticking with it. I have covered what the problem of evil is already, so let’s jump to his discussion.

He looks at how it is defended, first with the “greater good” argument. This says that evil has to exist as a counter balance or we couldn’t have good. In other words, “I don’t know why God sent that tsunami, but he must have a reason, because I know he is good.” Further explanations break off into, “we just don’t know what the reasons are”, and “we are limited beings, we can’t know” or “God is revealing himself to us over time, we will eventually know”. Mr. Everitt pretty well rejects these.

Nicholas acknowledges that it is a tribute to a good sense of morality that people don’t attempt to explain evil. If you followed the recent comments by Pat Robertson about the earthquake in Haiti being God’s retribution for some evil done by people 200 years ago, and the reaction by most religious people that it was crazy talk, you get the sense that most people understand that God is not an angry man in the sky sending down fire bolts.

Here’s Jon Stewart, an atheist of Jewish descent, sorting that out:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Haiti Earthquake Reactions
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

The other argument is “free will”. We are free to exercise our sense of good, but we often abuse that and create evil. Of course in practice, one person exercising their free will often harms a perfectly innocent person. Nor does this speak to natural disasters that inflict evil consequences on good and bad alike. There really is very little counter balancing going on here.

So he makes his argument very well, that the existence of suffering “therefore remains a compelling reason for denying the existence of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.” I did not get the sense that he had considered alternative definitions of God. I still have some essays to work through, but I hope to get to that soon. One other important comment gets slipped in at the end of this essay. It is a significant statement and the basis of much of the debate about morality and universal laws. It comes at the end of the discussion of suffering in nature, something that appears to be natural and inevitable, but as he points out:

“At least in the case of humans, the flourishing of some does not require the suffering of others, even if in practice the two go hand in hand.”

With increased pressures of population and increases in consequences of the creation of our own creature comforts, we have to deal the NYMBY phenomenon every day (Not In My BackYard). Early tribes just moved further up river after they had polluted one area. We can’t do that anymore. Domesticating wild boar in a few places in Europe and Asia might have made sense at one time, but now my simple choice of bacon or no bacon at Perkins has world-wide ramifications.

A lion has to kill to survive. I don’t. That may be debatable. How we will handle that debate will determine our future.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Blind Side

Did you catch the movie “The Blind Side” in the theater? It should be out on DVD soon. I wasn’t too excited about it going in, but there aren’t too many movies with heartwarming drama and football, so it was a good date movie. It turned out better than I expected. It did what a movie should do, which is make me forget it was a movie and feel like I was sitting with these people, having their experience.

On the surface, it is a story of a white family taking in a black boy and making his life better. It’s hard to believe there still could be a story like that to tell in 2009, but it is a true story, so there it is. It is set in the South, where they love football. There is also prejudice there, but it takes a movie to really expose it. You have to get into the luncheon with the ladies at the private club to hear what they really think. Bringing an African American boy into an all white High School also helps bring it to the surface. But the movie is not about race, and the family that took the boy in didn’t do it because of the color of his skin.

When they first see him walking in the rain and offer to give him a ride, they do it just because it is the right thing to do. Michael Oher, the boy who ends up a professional football player, remains a steady character throughout while the family and the town struggle with this experience. He seems to have a mature sense of right and wrong, although he doesn’t talk much, and everyone else talks a lot trying to figure out what to do.

On his first night in their home, he opens a coffee table book of Norman Rockwell pictures and sees the one with a family gathered around a Thanksgiving table. The next day is Thanksgiving and the mother gets their dinner take out and the family gathers around the TV to watch football. Michael brings his to the big dining room table and sits down by himself. The mother sees this and realizes he is trying to find something that he never had the option to choose and that she has choosen to give up something she could easily have. The dining room table becomes a scene of important family meetings later.

What I like most about this movie is that there is nothing that is shoved in your face. Any discomfort you may feel during a scene in Michael’s neighborhood full of crack dealers is your discomfort. If the scene with the loud mouth parents at the High School football game seems familiar, it’s for you to judge where you fit. The movie doesn’t make that judgment for you. Family values are depicted, and Sandra Bullock wears a cross around her neck, but this is obviously not a traditional family unit, not even a traditional adoption.

Michael’s biological mother was perhaps the most difficult character. They could have easily depicted her as completely evil or tried to make you sympathize with her. I don’t think they did either. The movie also spends quite a bit of time showing the controversy around his recruitment to the alma mater of the family that took him in. Some may see this as excessive, but I think it brings the questions raised about race to the societal level. Every character in the movie has to ask themselves about their motivation.

I should mention that while researching for this blog, I came across a review that ripped the movie, but said the book was one of the best books on college football this decade. So, read the book if you want. I like movies.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Respect

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. 33 John Harris – Wicked or Dead? Reflections on the Moral Character and Existential Status of God.

Intriguing title. It is based on what he thought after his father died when he was 12. He was curious about philosophical questions, but never found reason to believe in God.

He starts off saying he won’t provide arguments against existence, a welcome break from some of the recent ones I have read. He provides a very good reading list if you want to look into that:

“Why I Am Not Christian” by Bertrand Russell
“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens
“Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett
And for comic relief
“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams

In this essay I found out why there are so many that start out with “if God is an all-powerful, omniscient, good entity running the universe”. It is because the editors asked them to explain why they do not subscribe to that view. Maybe a future book will start with the question, “Now what?” As Nietzsche asked, now that we have declared God dead, what do we do?

To get you started, Mr. Harris provides a few excerpts from the above list and some of his own entertaining commentary. He then shifts to a conversation of respect for people’s beliefs. This was another pleasant break from some of the recent believer bashing. He quotes Voltaire,

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And also Bentham,

“each counts for one and none for more than one.”

Two simple guidelines for treating everyone as if they matter, physically and morally. We are creatures that are aware that it matters if our existence continues. We should respect each other simply because we exist. He then distinguishes that this does not mean that what you do or what you believe is automatically deserving of respect. Every person has dignity, but beliefs must be judged independently of those that hold them. He says,

“If, by respect for beliefs, we mean an individual’s entitlement to form, hold, and express whatever beliefs they like, so long as the expression or observance of those beliefs does not involve the violation of the rights or disregard of the important interests of other persons, then of course we should respect anyone and everyone’s beliefs…”

Hard to argue with that.

Friday, February 12, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Hidden God

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. 23 Ophelia Benson “A Deal-Breaker”

This one comes early in the book and I wonder if I had read them in order if I would have found it more interesting. What I mean by that is, it fits the mold that I expected to find in this book. I have been surprised by the variety this book has offered, but I have not mentioned how many times an essay has based its argument on “ if God is the eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient creator of the universe…”. This is another one. Her deal breaker is that God is hidden, that we don’t really know what he is even though he could easily reveal himself. Oh yeah, she has trouble with it being a “he” also.

Historically, I realize these ideas are persistent, but theologically I can’t support them. Much of it comes from Greek culture when they conquered the Middle East and mixed with the people of the desert. The Hebrew Bible (sometimes called the Old Testament) has several stories of men arguing with God and getting him to change his mind. God tells people that He needs their help. I know the Bible also has quotes about God being perfect, but I never said the Bible was inerrant.

I don’t want to defend the Bible any further than this. I only want to make a case against this essay. The arguments for belief that she has problems with are the kinds that are made by televangelists and hucksters. I have about as much problem with them as she does. I think a lot of regular church goers do too.

50 blogs on disbelief - Believing you believe

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. 41 Adele Mercier “Religious Belief and Self-Deception”

I didn’t particularly enjoy this essay, although it had a few good points. Much of it was spent discussing how we think about our own beliefs. It included a lot of statements like, “knowing that I know” and “believing that one believes”. Interesting if you are interested in epistemology. She does apply all this in ways that make you say “hmm”, for example when she says,

“…whatever they may think or say about what they believe, most people believe that life ends at death”

This is one of those odd things about religion. So much is made about how great the after life is, but no one seems to want to hasten their way there. Suicide could get you to the wrong place, but heroic measures to add a few years to the end of a long and good life just don’t seem to be in tune with an eternity in heaven. Adele spends some time discussing this and gets a bit crass at times, so I’ll skip on.

She compares this idea of believing that you believe to membership in a country club. It is more about social status, not one’s golf game. What matters is that others believe you believe, not what the beliefs are. As she says,

“This is shown by the fact that people spend a lot of more time defending and justifying their right to religion than defining and justifying their purported beliefs.”

Consider also wars with religious roots. However they might be justified or whatever has come out of them, they have always been out of step with the beliefs of the religion they claim to be defending.

I happened to be reading Garrison’s Keillor’s “Homegrown Democrat” at the same time I was reading this essay, and I think Keillor puts this much better:

Everyone has to look in his own heart and ask, “Do I really believe or do I not.” Jews do it in the Fall, Christians in the Spring during Lent. Most people do not believe. They’ve tried to believe and they wish they did and they are sorry they don’t because they like to be around people who do so they come to church and enjoy the music and the d├ęcor and the hallowedness of it all, but the faith is not in them. They don’t need to tell me about it, they only need to answer to God on this, and he will understand. If they do not believe, He already knew that. The tragedy is when people who don’t believe are so tortured by their unbelief that they set out to scourge their fellow unbelievers”.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - An African Seminarian

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. 226 Peter Agedoke – Kicking Religion Goodbye…

Continuing the multi-cultural theme, Peter is from Nigeria, a very religious nation. He admits his scientific education was stunted. Somehow his creative mind developed skepticism at early age. His cultural bias was strong however and at 19 he went to Pentecostal Baptist Bible College hoping to discover the truth of Christianity. He loved the orchestra of the Apostolic Faith Church, but was disturbed when he read of a woman who died because of birth complications because that church chose divine healing over a medical doctor.

He continued to read and visit other denominations, eventually landing at CAC Theological Seminary. There he had a common experience of 20th century seminary students. He learned the difference of actual church history and what most people think. For example, that there is no “original Christianity”, it did not start as an organized movement, it had “a lot of colorations” and influences from Eastern and Western cultures. It was influenced by the works of Plato and shaped by Constantine.

This and the behavior of classmates and teachers exposed him to hypocrisy. Already frustrated with the classic problem of evil and seeing poverty all around him with no sign of salvation, he kicked religion goodbye.

I can’t say that I blame him. In John Shelby Spong’s book, “Jesus for the Non-religious”, he discusses how seminaries came to this curious situation where they teach things about Christianity that very few preachers repeat to their congregations. Most of this is now freely available although without the context of 4 years of study, I think it causes confusion for many. Spong makes some recommendations on how the Church needs to change its message in a more enlightened world. If it doesn’t, the world will go the way of Mr. Agedoke.

50 blogs on disbelief - Bollywood

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. 263 Prabir Ghosh – Why I Am NOT a Theist

Prabir Ghosh talks of what he calls his “crusade against blind faith.” The essay is interesting for its insight into the culture of India. He tells the story of some clay idols of Lord Ganesha (a popular Hindu god, the one that looks like an elephant) appearing to drink the milk that is offered to them.

He selects four common arguments in favor of theism and how he has tackled them. I did not find the discussion edifying. In the first one, he compares the feeling of being loved by God to a boy’s experience of feeling that a Bollywood star loved him. The boy was taken to a psychiatrist. I see no value to this comparison.

The other three are variations on “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist”. Most of the other essays are way beyond this level of discussion.

Friday, February 5, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Humanism in India

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. 259 Sumitra Padmanabhan – Humanism as Religion: An Indian Alternative

Over half way through these essays and I am amazed at the continuing variety. I was also happy to finally hear:

“We therefore start with that utmost difficult task of facing the question of religion with an open mind.”
She gives a dictionary definition and notes that it comes in many variations. She tells of her Brahmo (a form of Hindu) parents and her mostly atheist father. She asks, if God is the essence of all that is Good, then why did we need all the prayers and the rituals? She never got an answer for that.

I would say that is the result of her parents not knowing the answer or the leaders of her religion doing a poor job of explaining what they were doing. If you enjoy Christmas then you know what ritual is for, and I don’t mean the ritual of getting up at 5:00 am to go shopping. Rituals help us remember what is important, and the people who helped create the culture we live in. They can also keep our desires in check. A ritual glass of wine with dinner is very different than downing a bottle just because it is there. I will have to do more on this in the future.

She grew up with the caste system, and I can’t argue that there are some serious problems with that. These problems are not gone, although some would like to believe that everyone in India has equal opportunity now.

Sumitra’s response was to try to preach atheism. Her message was a historical analysis of how religion grew out of our tribal identities but when those tribes were forced into contact with each other by growing populations the reasons for the rituals were forgotten along with its unifying purpose. Religion became a tool for exploitation. As she says, “we are imprisoned within our own creation.”

I have had similar thoughts on this summarization of thousands of years of human history. I recently came across a sociologist by the name of Peter Berger. I think what she is saying is expounded upon in his book, “The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion”, but I haven’t read it, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. However I don’t think I need to read any further to agree with Sumitra Padmanabhan when she says,

“Faith without knowledge leads us to blindness – and blindness to fanaticism.”
In India, the term “atheism” has too much weight, so she has since started calling her special faith, “Humanism”. This has been gaining popularity. I acknowledge her for being willing to consider how to frame her message to make it more appealing. I also acknowledge that, although she sees people in her country still hold many superstitions, she says,
“For this, we do not blame the people entirely. It is the state with its pacifist policies, soft-pedaling people’s religious sentiment, that is responsible in a big way. And for this, all the political parties, left or rightist, are to be blamed.”

Although I can agree with some of her conclusion about the waste of rupees spent on religious TV and activities and there is no single text to follow, I can’t completely go along with her. She asks these questions near the end of her essay,
“Do we not have the laws to guide us? Can we not spread the ideas of democracy, of the social and natural sciences? Can we not teach people how to combine personal liberty with a sense of social responsibility that is possible only with a strong ethical foundation?”
If I had the answers to those questions, I wouldn’t be doing this blog and I wouldn’t be searching back through the words of philosophers and priests. If someone has those answers, please let me know.