Sunday, November 27, 2011

"As scarce as the truth is, the supply is always greater than the demand."
Josh Billings

Sin and Sinner

"Love the sinner, hate the sin."

Unfortunately, we will be hearing this ridiculous crap a lot more over the next several months. Maine will in all likelihood have a referendum on same-sex marriage. I have already heard various conservatives and narrow-minded theists drag out this old phrase as if it has any connection to reality. Science has a little way to go to definitively prove that homosexuality is biological but the link is very strong. A variety of studies on genetic and hormonal links have already produced a huge body of data that all leads to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a "choice."

Basically, religion's favorite dodge when it comes to discrimination, persecution, and just being assholes has been pretty well demolished. When it comes to homosexuals you cannot separate the "sin" from the "sinner."  Being homosexual is an innate part of their humanity. If you hate their supposed sin then you hate them. If opponents of gay marriage want to openly admit to being hateful I would be fine with that. It would make it easier to deal with them and their barrage of lies and bullshit.

I, however, am fed up with their denials of reality. If we had a functional media the general public might have a better idea of just how full of shit these purveyors of lies and hypocrisy are.

No Fury Like a Pissed-off Theist

I found Jonathan Ree's review of Navid Kermani's Terror of God pretty interesting. I may have to find a copy. I have never understood why theists insist on slamming atheists for criticizing religion and God when it is theists who tend to be the biggest whiners about all things theological. At least when we complain there tends to substance. When theists go at each other or some sacred text or God it tends to be over comparatively petty details. Theist critiques of religion also come across as rather silly to me since they're the ones who created what they then turn around bitch about.

God the Economist

It seems that God is not only a bungling creator and dead-beat dad he is also an incompetent economist. In another absurdly amusing piece on Huffington Post one of the more liberal theists blogging there attempts to connect God to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Rev. Lewis' "In God's Economy, Everyone Has Enough" suffers from the same predictable disconnect so rampant in most theistic thinking. She references wage discrepancies and violence but never in any way associates them with God (creator and source of all things) then turns around and makes the statement, "Just when I feel overwhelmed with the violence of poverty, I find inspiration and instigation in the picture of God's Economy in Christian Scriptures."

What?! First off, what is the source of this "violence of poverty"? The freewill dodge is old, tired, and thoroughly debunked. If God isn't the source how can any Christian even attempt to claim that God is perfect and all powerful. Second, the scriptures are not the shining example of equality that most Christians have deluded themselves into believing. Christ himself on more than one occasion acts like a selfish prick. He also endorses in a few places an "us and them" mentality which last I knew is not a particularly good way to promote equality. This all, of course, leads to the question that if "God's Economy" exists at all why is it not showing better results?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education."
Sir Walter Scott


Unity is an illusory but potentially useful goal. I would emphasize that it should always be viewed as a goal since it is itself not possible. The idea that any group or organization has ever been 100% united is a blatant myth. As human beings we are simply too individualistic to completely agree all the time. That is not a bad thing. We need diversity. Without differences there can be no change and no progress. However, it is also true that in order to make those very changes toward a positive change(s) we need to work together.

Why am I writing about this now? A column in the Novemeber-December 2011 issue of the Humanist brought to mind the various disagreements that the media has seen fit to harp on within the non-religious community. For instance, the argument between "accommodation" and confrontation is real but has been hyped. I favor a more confrontational approach but I do not view those with less confrontational approaches as accommodationists. Overall, I see the non-religious community as being very collegial not despite our difference but for the sake of them.

Michael Werner's Humanist column Humanism 101 talks about an incident that occurred between himself and a fellow humanist.  The individual he had a brief conversation with seemed upset that there has been more than one Humanist Manifesto. Werner's response is wonderful, "So, if we can't get our philosophy exactly "right" it's because we know that knowledge of the world is fallible, probabilistic, and tentative. The fallibility of our knowledge requires we admit that everything we know may actually be wrong. Accepting this requires humility and, at the same time, courage to stand up for what we best believe without dogmatism or fear of being proven wrong." He goes on in the column to comment on a major difference between attitudes among liberal and conservative believers. He does not talk much about, at least not directly, the differences between non-religious and religious humanists. There is a difference.

In terms of unity the difference does not have to be completely divisive but we do need to acknowledge the difference. I do not know whether the person he had the conversation with was religious or not. I assume the individual was a believer. It seems to be an innate assumption among the religious, liberal or not, that if something is true it is always and in all circumstances. If the religious and non-religious within any given group or cause are going to work together successfully these differences must be acknowledge. Cooperation does require a basic level of understanding among individuals. Werner's response is an excellent start but the individual it was aimed at probably did not have any sort of epiphany from it. It is essential that we repeat and restate such ideas. The non-religious may not accept our views but at least they will have a better understanding of where we are coming from and may be more willing to accept us as individuals. It could put us one step closer to unity.

Public Faith = Public Problem

I am more than happy to concede that Reverend Howard Bess is an intelligent well intentioned gentleman. However, it is rare that I agree with much he writes about for Consortium News. Recently, I found myself agreeing with him on one important point but with an equally important caveat. In "The GOP's Unasked 'Religious' Questions" he points out that since all the candidates have at some point emphasized their faith that the public has a right to know how that faith will impact policy decisions.

He is absolutely correct that since they have made their faith so public that the public has every right to ask questions about their faith. However, Bess implies a number of things in the course of the article that I would take issue with. The title itself is somewhat pointed. Putting religion in quotations implies that the candidates may not be as faithful as they claimed. I see no reason to do that. Just because their views are not the same as Bess' does not mean they are less religious. Bess also does not seem to have a problem injecting his own faith into public policy. It seems to come down to the false notion that only "true" or "authentic" faith should be used to make policy.  That is the caveat I referred to above. Faith should be left out of public policy entirely. It should be a completely private matter. It should not matter what a person's personal religious views are unless those views are going to be used in a way that will end up affecting others.

I say let people believe whatever they want so long as they do not use it harass others or make policy that will impact others.

Humanist/Atheist Military Chaplains

The notion of Humanist/Atheist chaplains makes me rather uneasy. I do understand why those pushing for it find it necessary to do so. I do not want to belittle those intentions and efforts but there are some serious issues that should not be set aside.

I would start by pointing out that a common definition for chaplain (in terms of military) is, "a priest, minister, or rabbi attached to the armed forces." This has been expanded over the years to include a wider variety of religions but all chaplains represent a religion. This is where my first concern comes in. Atheism is not a true "ism" let alone a religion. I can easily see the push for chaplains being used to confirm and further push the myth that atheism is really just another faith. By definition it not only is not a religion it can not become one. It is the absence of a supernatural belief system featuring a god or gods. Some may argue it is a game of semantics but they would be wrong. Words have meaning for a reason. We could not communicate and express anything without them. Outright changing the definition of something to suite your own specific goals is not a matter of semantics.

The other major problem I have is that this push could also be used to further blur the concept of separation of church and state. I have never been comfortable with taxpayers footing the bill for military chaplains. I understand that our soldiers have a right to worship and stay connected to their faith no matter where they are performing their military duties. But, why should we pay for it? The various churches, mosques, etc. should be paying. After all, it is their faith community being served by the chaplains.

With those two objections in mind I would point out that I do agree with many points made by the advocates of Humanist/Atheist chaplains. Our servicemen and women are themselves grossly under-served. In many instances the only thing resembling psychological or social services are being performed by chaplains. If a soldier or officer is in need of counseling of any type they should have access. It should not be by chaplains unless the individual sees the problem/issue as one of faith. I also acknowledge that the chaplaincy can convey a number of privileges that would otherwise be lacking. Non-religious personnel should not be deprived simply because they are non-religious. There are issues of equality that need to be addressed. I just don't think it should be through chaplains.

I realize that many of the services and privileges non-religious military personnel currently are lacking are not likely to be gained through any source other than the chaplaincy until military policy and practice are changed.
Perhaps the push for including non-believers will lead to greater reforms in military personnel services. I hope it will. If that does not occur I fear that if non-religious gain their own chaplains it will end up hurting the non-religious community in the long run.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"People who believe in absurdities are in danger of committing atrocities."

Not the definition of a Rabbi

Most definitions of Rabbi include something along the lines of a religious scholar. Though, I do not doubt that Rabbi Adam Jacobs is religious is he is certainly not a scholar. As his most recent piece, "The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes," on the Huffington Post makes clear he is not only incredibly ignorant he lacks even rudimentary critical thinking skills. Most of the arguments he makes are so preposterous it is hard to believe the man can walk and talk at the same time.

Right from the start he makes assertions that are blatantly foolish. His complete lack of thinking is clear early on. In the first paragraph he offers this gem, "Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone at any level?" What?! Apparently, if you do not accept a one-size-fits-all meaning of life your life can not possibly have any meaning at all. It seems that Jacobs can not grasp that atheists have family, friends, interests, causes, etc... He goes on in much the same vein. The implication is that atheists must, by their nature, be miserable nihilists or else emotionless robots. I seem to recall that being a favorite tactic among anti-semites. Characterize Jews as less than human so you can then attack them with impunity.

Jacobs' piece only gets more absurd from there. He list three major points that he seems to think make his case that we atheists must either really believe or else be less than human. The points are framed in rather childish scenarios. The first is entitled, "Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?" It seems that respect for the recently deceased requires belief in God. He seems to think that atheist have to think simply in terms of unemotional uses and needs. Atheist do have personal ethics and morals. In fact, I'd argue ours are stronger since they are primarily internal. We do not require any sort of external force to make us behave. The "God is watching" scenario is not necessary for us to do what is right. As for bodies, I personally do see burial and/or cremation as a waste. But I do not feel that I have any say over what happens to other peoples bodies. My own, I intend to be made useful. I am an organ donor and have thought about donating what can not be harvested for medical or scientific purposes. To me this "argument" is a rather negative reflection on Rabbi Jacobs both in terms of ethics and reasoning.

His other scenarios are no better. The next has to do with the imminent death of two enemies who happen to be stranded together on a desert island. A natural disaster is going to kill both men. Jacob asks whether it matters if they comfort each other or kill each other directly. He asks, "As no one will ever know what transpired and it will soon be over in any event..." Basically, he's gone back to the idea that you need some sort of big sky daddy to make you behave. He fails to see that in fact some one will know, at least briefly. The two men will know how they behaved in the face of their deaths. What they choose will matter to them. As a human being, I see that every choice I make matters. It matters regardless of there being no God.

His last point is probably one of the older canards routinely dredged up by fools like the Rabbi Jacobs. "Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?" Yes, and it does not require belief in God to think so. He tries to use, in a rather distorted way, a naturalist perspective to show that if we are just "an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces..." that atheists should not find such things valuable. In terms of the big picture they do not have any ultimate value or meaning. But, once again, from the point of view of an individual they most certainly do. We have minds. Our perceptions are what give us meaning. It is from the individual point of view that love and all our emotions gain their power over our lives. That does not imply nor does it require the divine. It also does not mean that a materialistic/naturalist view is wrong. Try feeling anything with a severely damage brain.

I'm left with the impression that Rabbi Jacobs article is more about soothing his own fears by childishly attacking others than it is about making any points of substance. He does seem to dwell on death quite a bit. Whether it is his direct intention or not he also in various places implies that atheist are devoid of some of humanities most basic traits, that we are sub-human. The piece is essentially a work of bigotry without any support outside of myths, stereotypes, and other baseless misguided opinions. He is not a scholar and not, as best as I can tell, a very happy person.

Slow and Steady But not Guaranteed

I tend to read Huffington Post's Religion section for a variety of reasons. It is a fairly decent gathering of liberal views on religion. There is an odd notion that liberal forms of religion are more tolerant and reasonable. They are not. But if you want to be informed about a variety of religious views this is one of the sites that should be perused. It is rare that I find a piece that I mostly agree with but recently I found such a piece.

Nigel Barber's "When Will Atheism Prevail Over Religion?" is pretty good. It is not because of any new or original insights. He references a handful of individuals who have conduct research on religious belief. He does a good job reviewing their work and I appreciate his positive outlook. Unfortunately, I'm not as convinced as he is that non-belief will at some point in the near future be the majority view. There is one passage in particular that I would suggest holds the key to whether this future ever materializes or not. Barber states, "If we assume that prosperity is responsible for declining religiosity in the world, and that prosperity will continue to increase, it is possible to estimate the date at which the world will switch over from being a majority believing in God to majority atheist." I would not "assume" anything about "prosperity."

According to the studies, many noted by Barber, prosperity does diminish religious belief. That is the problem. Prosperity is not guaranteed. The wealthy seem determined to corner prosperity for themselves. Many of these greedy assholes are either themselves religious or have found that religion can be a useful tool. It is in their short term interest to continue to prevent the masses from becoming prosperous and to continue to encourage religious belief, or at least public displays of belief. I think it is in the best interest of atheists to fight for economic equality as much as it is to oppose religion with rational arguments.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"It is only the ignorant who despise education."
Pubilius Syrus

Even Opinion Pieces Should Be Fact-Checked

A recent post on CNN's Belief Blog was so ludicrous that I found it hard to believe that I was actually reading what was written. When I was still teaching I used to point out that opinions are in fact not always valid. There are two ways to hold a false or wrong opinion. Either you express an opinion that contradicts known facts or you in no way provide support for your opinion. Dan Merica's opinion in "In age of political vitriol, opposing Christians call for civility" proves to be false on both counts. He certainly didn't do any fact checking. If he had he wouldn't have taken Richard Land at his word that he favored civility in political discourse. Anyone who has followed Land's career would be well aware that he is rarely civil when it comes to preaching against those he doesn't like. There are plenty of people he doesn't like. He has outright demonized Muslims and Homosexuals, among others. You also would know right away that Land's agreement that faith should not be associated with a particular political party runs counter to everything he has done. He is a staunch Republican activist and always has been. The piece defies all known facts. So what is it based on? Apparently, a single discussion. Not much to base such a far reaching assessment on.

I do not know what motivated Land to claim he favors civility beyond potential gains in the are of public relations. I would speculate that whichever of the Republican candidates he favors has taken more of a political beating than he cares for. I admit I have not paid as much attention to Land during this election cycle so I do not know which candidate he is endorsing. I do know that he does seem to be following his usual routine. He did attend this years Values Voter Summit, which is a Religious Right and Republican event. I have no reason to believe his behavior has changed in the least.

Science Vs. Religion

It seems that this debate will never end. I think part of the problem is that there are actually two very different perspectives that people tend to argue from without being aware or acknowledging it. Those who insist that there either is no conflict or does not need to be one tend to argue from an individualistic perspective while those that insist there is and must be a conflict argue from an institutional perspective.

When approaching the question of whether science and religion oppose each other from an individualistic perspective the answer becomes as varied as there are individuals making the argument. It is true that from this view the two do not need to conflict. However, it is very subjective and misleading. We, as human beings, are capable of rationalizing and harmonizing what ever we want. This does not mean the conflict does not exist it just means for specific individuals the conflict does not exist. A scientist may be very good at conducting research within their given field without ever mixing personal views into it. It is possible to compartmentalize different aspects of our lives. It amounts to keeping two aspects as separate as possible. If they never intermingle or only mix to the slightest degree then avoiding conflict is rather easy.

If you look at the argument from an institutional perspective there really can be no argument. The two conflict and must conflict. In most respects science and religion are opposites. In terms of structure, religion is top down while science is bottom up. Most religions do not allow the average believer any say in who leads the religion or in what doctrines or rites are to be followed. It is determined at the top and those below are simply expected to adhere. Without multiple individuals and groups constantly conducting research and experiments there is no science. Constant testing and review by those within a field create the consensus that leads to further developments. It is this process of constantly reviewing what has come before while seeking further information that makes science what it is.

Science is as much a process as it is a body of knowledge. It is constantly self-correcting and therefore changing, progressing. Religion does change but very slowly and usually with a great deal of resistance and difficulty. It is not self-correcting. In fact it tends to be self-insulating. It frequently claims infallibility and that it possesses eternal unchanging truths. When forced to change most religions rarely admit to error they just make a preposterous claim that it has found new insights or perspectives based on the old one. Usually, this new "insight" amounts to a semantics game. The terminology and presentation change but the underlying philosophy is essentially the same.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Science does not have any sacred texts. Origin of the Species is not the bible of evolutionary biologists. It is an important work for historical reasons but the theory of Evolution has progressed far beyond what that one book contains. Every work of science no matter how important a role it may have played is subject to scrutiny. Virtually every religion has at least one sacred text. Religions may seek to interpret the text in slightly different ways over time but in the end it is never question that the text is divinely inspired and therefore must contain truth. Scrutiny is generally avoided if not outright forbidden. In science, the very notion of "received wisdom" is abhorrent. Wisdom can not simply be handed out like a door prize. Simply following a text, doctrine, or leader is no way to discover what is true.

Science has no holy men. Those who are afforded considerable respect are done so for their work. If they do not follow the strict standards of scientific research they will lose respect. Clergy are given respect simply because they are clergy. They need never demonstrate any insight or skill. That isn't to say there are not talented clergy. I know there are but that is not the same as earning respect rather than having it handed to you simply because of the position you hold.

In the end the knowledge gained from science is tested and reviewed constantly. It is based on objective standards. the "knowledge" from religion is based on faith. it is based on blindly following those who happen to be in leadership positions or have gained a following. Religion is highly subjective and therefore with little foundation. From an institutional perspective, science and religion really are opposites and do conflict. In this way the argument is foolish. Individual rationalizations do not make religion rational. Religion is simply a matter of opinion and can never rise beyond it. Its structure does not allow it to ever rise above its own subjectivity.

Science must conflict with religion. I only hope that it will eventually supplant religion entirely. Religion is one of our species dead ends.