Sunday, April 28, 2013

A series of Quotations from the late comedic genius George Carlin.

"I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it."

"Religion is just mind control."

"Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoes. If it makes you feel better, fine. Just don't ask me to wear your shoes."

"When it comes to BULLSHIT...BIG-TIME, MAJOR LEAGUE BULLSHIT... you have to stand IN AWE, IN AWE of the all time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion."

Hipster Jesus

The first thing that popped into my head when I came across this latest PR campaign of the Catholic church was a scene from the movie Dogma. The sketch that has George Carlin as a bishop pitching "Buddy Christ" is still incredibly funny but doesn't seem quite so absurd now. It also occurred to me that Jesus is the theological equivalent of a Ken doll. Christian theologians, clergy, and laity routinely dress the Christ figure up in whatever garb suits them without so much as a second thought. They ascribe whatever words and deeds fit the persona they want to believe in. It doesn't seem to be contradictory or an outright fabrication simply because the scriptures are so amorphous they can be made to justify whatever a believer wants to project onto their messiah action figure.

Setting aside the surrealistic/absurdist humor there are reasons to view this campaign in a more serious manner. I find it hard to believe that the Catholic hierarchy real thinks of Jesus as "the original hipster." According to the Penguin dictionary a hipster is "somebody who is keenly aware of and interested in new trends and unconventional patterns." The Catholic church has never been one to promote rebellion and non-comformity. So, why are they promoting this image? The simple answer is marketing. It is a PR ploy. A rather ridiculous one in light of what has preceded it. No amount of imaginary clothing can adequately cover the church's recent attack on its own nuns or the temper tantrum it has been throwing over insurance coverage of contraception for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

This hipster image, like the intentions of the hierarchy, is disingenuous. I have no doubt that it is all about keeping up the church's numbers in order to retain its power and influence. So long as the average believer and a complacent media are content to play dress up it will probably work, at least partially. This isn not so funny since the real world has real problems that fairy tales and folklore won't help solve.

Grow up!

Why Should Religion Have a Role in Public Life?

At the Huffington Post, Oleksandr Feldman goes on about "Finding a 'Third Way' on the Role of Religion in Public Life" and yet he never really questions whether it should have a public role at all. He also never demonstrates at any point that religion is actually capable of adding anything significant to society that can't just as easily be gained from other sources. It seems rather wasteful and pointless to commit so much energy, time, and resources to something that may not actually be of any real benefit.

Some of the assertions he makes throughout his piece seem to be somewhat self defeating. For instance, "What we aspire to achieve is a healthy democratic and pluralistic society strongly influenced by the eternal moral values advocated by all of the world's great religions; a society in which people of all backgrounds can live side by side in peace and security." This statement contains both contradiction and unfounded assumptions. Are "moral values" really advocated by all the worlds religions? Do they advocate the same values or even recognize each others values? In a pluralistic society how can religion be anything other than divisive? It seems to me that the only hope for tolerance and democracy amidst diversity is to keep religion out of the public sphere. If everyone is allowed to believe and worship their own way in private there is no reason for conflict or intolerance. Religion in public automatically leads to conflict. Each religion seeks special privileges that it then feels the need to deny others. This is not a matter of opinion. History has shown this to happen.

Religion is not a public good. Religion is not and should not be treated with any greater deference than any other institution. Freedom of religion is best served by strict adherence to separation of church and state.

"Interview an Atheist at Church Day"

I really like the idea of Christians interviewing atheists. It may help eliminate some of the more blatant myths and stereotypes that so many religious people seem to have about non-theists.

Though I appreciate Bob Seidensticker and Kile Jones' approach I do have a few concerns related to this idea. I am somewhat wary of the motivation behind those clergy interested in participating. Christianity, despite claims to the contrary, have not always been very honest or particularly nice when dealing with either non-believers or non-Christian believers. Given that these interviews are suppose to take place in church and even in some instances as part of a service I can easily see it as a hostile venue.

That leads to my second concern. If a church in this area were to decide to participate in the May 5th interview day I'm not sure that I would actually participate. I'd like to but I'm not convinced I could overcome my instincts. I am not comfortable in a church setting. I've been to plenty of services over the years in a variety of denominations and have never felt very welcome. Being uneasy and potentially defensive is not a good formula for a productive interview. I see no reason clergy and/or laity could not meet with atheists in a restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, or some other non-sectarian locales.

Overall, it is an excellent idea. I hope it is successful and others take it further.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"They know enough who know how to learn."
Henry Adams
The Education of Henry Adams

Catholic by Tradition Alone

Thomas Moore's recent HuffPo piece, "Catholic Without a Church", seem to be quite representative of the attitudes/mindsets of many of the Catholics I have known over the years. Needless to say I have never really understood it, or them*. It is truly mind boggling to me that so many remain within the Catholic church since they do not seem to accept the doctrines or the leadership's views. Moore's very first sentence sets the tone that offers a minor and rather dissatisfying answer, "At a time when the world wasn't divided into liberals and conservatives, I was born into a devout Catholic family, went to a Catholic church and elementary school and then to a seminary, run by a community of friars -- monks in the world -- to study for the priesthood."
Nostalgia and tradition are powerful but can that really be the only rationale for sticking with an institution that neither represents or cares about you?

Setting aside the rather blatant fallacy that the world was ever united in anything, let alone religion, I can partially sympathize with becoming attached to something for reasons of nostalgia and tradition. There are a lot of aspects of my childhood that I value despite being able to see the flaws as an adult. However, I have no illusions about them and certainly don't seek to venerate them. Why do Catholics, and other religious individuals, continue to do so? Moore's further statement, "I still love the Catholic way, though I have no use for the pomp and authority", only adds to my confusion since it doesn't seem to connect with his criticism of the church. What is this "Catholic way" once you strip out the "pomp and authority"? What differentiates it from other faiths? For that matter, how are the appealing elements innate to Catholicism?

I just don't get it.

* I sometimes feel really bad about this. I can't help but view their beliefs as nonsensical and ridiculous yet they are very intelligent people. I tend to hesitate speaking my mind for fear of alienating or hurting those I care about. I also often worry that they will misinterpret my views and feelings. I don't think any less of them for believing things I think are complete crap and don't want them to ever think that I do. At the same time I cannot, and don't want to, suppress my own thinking. I have always tended towards curiosity and skepticism. Perhaps I do sometimes over think matters but that is a part of who I am. Overall I think my constant questioning has served me well.

Recent A.C. Grayling Interviews

In the past handful of weeks there have been a number of attacks and smears aimed at A.C. Grayling. I would emphasize that they are attacks rather than critiques since the majority of "criticisms" are either grossly exaggerated/skewed or outright fabrications. The uptick in focus on Grayling rather than the so-called New Atheists in general* is that he has a new book out. Though I have not yet read a copy of The God Argument there have been a few interviews with him recently.  I have included links to two such interviews below. I think they do an excellent job demonstrating the exceptional intelligence and reasonable nature of A.C. Grayling.

Point of Inquiry
A.C. Grayling - The God Argument
April 8, 2013

Culture Shocks
Jonathan Rieder, A C Grayling
April 11 . 2013

*If the media and/or public is paying any attention to us it is generally to marginalize, smear, or demonize us.

New Pope, Same as the Old Pope

How shocking is it that the media continues to prattle on about Pope Francis being some sort of reformer? Delusions mixed with wishful thinking is certainly nothing new to either the media or religion but is getting to be rather irritating. In the past few weeks Pope Francis has provided even further indication that he will be following the same path as those who came before him. There are two unofficial yet very telling policies that he has now confirmed to be ongoing.

Francis will continue both the attack on Nuns and the stage shows referred to as the "Courtyard of the Gentiles." These were initiated under Benedict for expressly political and public relations purposes. I fail to see how either of these can be viewed as reform. Attacking nuns is particularly baffling. That the Vatican is narrow minded is not surprising but being blind to this degree is astonishing even to someone as critical of the church as myself. The best I can come up with is that this is a weird extension of the approach many Christians take with the Bible. Cherry picking what you prefer to see and then self-deluding about what you don't like is a terrible way to view anything. Many of the "positions" the Nuns are supposed to have taken actually fit within some mainstream interpretations of the Gospels. Does the Pope really want to be seen as attacking the Gospels or a group of women the public sees as virtuous?

The Courtyard bullshit I can at least see as an internally rational move on the Holy Sees part. Appearing to be grossly bigoted is generally not well received by the public in general even when it is aimed at a distrusted and disliked minority. That does not, of course, mean that there is any substance to the Pope's claim to be reaching out to non-believers. From what little I have found about the upcoming stage shows in Mexico they seem to be following the same pattern as those already held in Europe (there's little information on those either).

The European PR shows involved atheists who were so touchy-feely that the only possible reason for having them on stage was to serve as props. All they seemed to do is affirm those positions the church wanted to be presented (ex. no conflict between science and religion). A few of the "atheists" were rather questionable since I could not find any public statement or hints as to their non-belief. It would not be the first time individuals have posed as atheists, through ignorance or intent. It also is not surprising since when Benedict announce the formation of the Courtyard he made it clear that any atheist who had ever criticized the church in any way would not be allowed to participate.

If you think about it for more than a minute it becomes quite obvious that PR is the only real reason for the Courtyard. If the Vatican truly wanted "dialogue" why wouldn't they make an effort to find individuals that atheists want to represent them? There are numerous organizations, not just atheist, that would be willing to conduct polls to find such representatives. The Vatican insisting on handpicking the "atheist" speakers is a red flag. It also should occur to most that if any atheist has been uninterested or unwilling to criticize religion then they probably are not all that interested in talking about it either.

There is no significant difference between this Pope and the last.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"To imagine that 'God moves in mysterious ways' is to put up a smokescreen of mystery behind which fantasy may survive in spite of all the facts."
Barbara Smoker
"So You Believe in God"
Women Without Superstition

Evaluating Critiques

I found a recent post on Patheos' Sermons from the Mound rather interesting. I was pleasantly surprised that Yvonne Aburrow was willing to concede as mach as she did in her "Atheist critiques of religion" piece. I agree with quite a bit that she writes but she does hedge a bit even within her concessions and she misunderstands a few of the critiques she presents as being from an atheist perspective. And, of course, there is a certain amount of self-deception involved.

In "Critique 1: 'It’s all irrational'" She accepts that religion is mostly irrational but then tries a little special pleading. Aburrow claims:
"However, my religion has to be compatible with reason and experience. When it goes beyond the empirical evidence, those bits are marked 'working hypothesis' and 'conjecture'.
There are degrees of irrationality; not all “woo” is equally irrational. Just because I posit the possibility of earth energies as a working hypothesis to explain certain experiences that I have had, does not mean that I also believe in ley lines, homoeopathy, or other forms of “woo”. I’d quite like to believe in homoeopathy, but having examined the evidence against it, can only conclude that it doesn’t work."

Actually, it does not have to be anything. Whether something is compatible with reason is not dependent on whether we want it to be or not. It seems that her idea of what constitutes evidence is as flimsy as her understanding of logic and reasoning. She creates an artificial distinction between the unfounded believes she accepts from the ones she does not. "Earth energies" has no more merit in terms of science than "ley lines." There is no evidence for it. She accepts evidence that homeopathy is crap but doesn't see the need to acknowledge or apply the evidence that makes "earth energies" as ridiculous to believe.

Aburrow ends up falling prey to an all too common misinterpretation of an atheist argument "Critique 2: 'The moderates give shelter to the extremists'" It is true that "The moderates do not 'give shelter' to the extremists." But that essentially side steps the real critique. Most atheists understand that moderate and liberal theists do not personally condone or agree with extremists. The fact that they themselves believe in a variety of superstitions and supernatural concepts and/or practices is the problem. Since religion has no real standards you cannot make a useful distinction between them. If you accept one set of unfounded believes how can you honestly criticize another set of metaphysical interpretations? You can't. In that sense liberal and moderate believers indirectly contribute to an atmosphere that allows for extremism to flourish. Assuming that someone can rise from the dead is no more logical or valid a belief than being rewarded in some type of after-life for killing people here on earth. That is the essence of the critique.

She gets into delusional territory in "Critique 6: Religions indoctrinate people." Aburrow creates another false distinction when she claims, "Fundamentalist religions indoctrinate people; liberal religions don’t." They may not be as blatant or focused on indoctrination but that does not mean it does not occur. How do contemporary Pagans (Aburrow is a Pagan) establish and maintain doctrines, rites, and rituals? The same way other faiths do it: indoctrination. I have met a number of Pagans and though I'm not familiar with all forms of Paganism I can certainly say with confidence that those who claim a direct to Celtic cosmology are full of shit. I have heard them make claims that contradict all known historical research regarding ancient Celtic beliefs and practices. How did they come to such conclusion? It was definitely not through anything resembling research. It was through what they were taught by other Pagans. Abuurow's only argument against indoctrination is that people switch faiths. If that were adequate proof then it should be concluded that no religion, not just liberal variations, use indoctrination. It's a bogus premise.

"Critique 7: 'Liberal religion is just moving the goalposts'”reveals yet another common fallacy. In this section Aburrow quips, "One aspect of the atheist critique of religion that has me completely baffled is the objection to classifying the obviously mythical aspects of religion as a metaphor." Really? I have yet to come across an atheist who does not acknowledge the use of metaphor and symbolism even among self-proclaimed fundamentalists and "literalists." It is not a lack of understanding on our part. Most of us simply see the underlying mentality and meaning being unchanged. Even symbolically most religious concepts and practices are ridiculous nonsense. Here's a thought, spraying perfume on a mound of shit may hide the hideous stench for a little while but it does not change the decaying unhealthy mass underneath. Sure you can make use of it in some specific ways (fertilizer) but that also does not allay its potential dangers. Think Aburrow will see that those sentence can be taken literally or metaphorically? Does my purpose or meaning change in either case?

Overall, Aburrow is far more fair and tolerant of atheists views than many of her fellow theists but she still misses the mark in a number of ways. If she really wants to get it accurate and think more about atheist arguments she should spend more time reviewing what atheist actually write and say.

Notable Papal Portrait

That's a portrait of the Pope I can definitely approve of. I am going to have to look that Milwaukee artist up if for no other reason than to find out how they managed to put together all those condoms.

"reasonable observer" Does not include the Court

Yet another court has made it clear that atheists have a long way to go before they are no longer viewed and treated as second class citizens. This hypocritical bigot also makes it equally obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that the country is still dominated by ignorance and delusions when it comes to what role religion should play in the public sphere and what our constitution actually says about such matters. Charles Haynes at the Washington Post's On Faith section approvingly reports on the courts disgusting decision on the "Ground Zero Cross." 

Deborah Batts reached the ludicrous decision that since a "reasonable observer" would see the cross as part of a larger secular display it does not violate the First Amendment's Establishment clause. Bullshit! Who is this "reasonable observer" and just how fucking stupid are they? The whole reason proponents want the cross beam referred to as the "Ground Zero Cross" in the memorial is because of its symbolism. The cross, like it or not, is a symbol that carries a lot of power and influence. That it is not only an expressly religious symbol but specifically a Christian one defies Batts' claim. Haynes piece acknowledges that religious services have been held around this hunk of metal and that clergy have made a fuss over it. How would a "reasonable observer" miss that its only significance is as a religious symbol. There are plenty of other pieces of debris that could be incorporated into the memorial. Claiming that the cross isn't the point of contention is at best disingenuous.

Personally, I think it is being fought over for more dubious reasons. I have no doubt that a number of proponents actively want to keep atheists as well as other non-Christians as marginalized as possible. The implication that Non-Christians, especially non-theists, are less important is unmistakeable. Even if you could prove that every person who died and all their family and friends left behind to mourn them were all Christian, which you can't, it is still grossly inappropriate to have this "Ground Zero Cross" part of the display. The memorial is meant to be a national monument that all Americans can turn to. It is no such thing and won't be so long as religious bigots get their way.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"As man's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ironically Infuriated

I have to admit I was a little confused by this piece when I first read it. I am not that familiar with Craig Brown but have heard of him and have come across a few of his TV specials (I'm a big fan of British comedy). I couldn't find any hints that he meant his recent Daily Mail piece, "Hell hath no fury like an atheist scorned", to be satirical. How a person who in other circumstances seems to be so thoughtful could slip into such blatant ignorance laden bigotry is mind boggling. Without any indication that it is suppose to be farcical it cannot be seen as anything other than a petty narrow minded piece of shit.

It seems to be meant as a criticism of a piece written by AC Grayling. Unfortunately, I could not find a free full-text copy (I did find a few excerpts and abstracts) of "Apes and Atheism." It is in the current issue of Prospect. It will probably be a few months before I'll be able to get a copy. From the excerpt it looks like it is a review of Frans de Waal's latest book. It only takes a few paragraphs of Brown's piece to realize that it is really just a pretext to attack both atheists in general and a few specific ones.

Right from the start he seems to mischaracterize Grayling. He claims that the piece is meant to be in "support of atheism." From what little I was able to read it was a critique of a specific book on specific grounds. I am quite familiar with Grayling's work and I can't imagine his objections being any different even if the book made atheist look like the most amazing group of people on the face of the planet. It sounds like he took issue with de Waal's faulty reasoning and inconsistencies more than anything else. I also found Brown's seventh paragraph rather interesting.

 "But Grayling is highly selective with his statistics, and only manages to whittle the percentage of Anglicans down to 3 per cent by defining as an Anglican someone who goes regularly to services. In fact, a recent survey showed that 22.2 per cent of people in the UK describe themselves as Anglican (and 59.3 per cent of people in England and Wales call themselves Christian)."

Assuming Grayling's numbers are wrong, there are two points that jump out. The first is that Grayling does define his terms. He makes it clear what he is talking about. Theists have a tendency to avoid clear definitions which makes any discussion virtually impossible. Also, he is not the only one to note that there is a difference between practicing a faith and identifying with one. Theologians, clergy, and even average believers have at times not only acknowledge the distinction but made it an issue. Double standard? I'd say it is.

His piece rapidly devolves from there. Just two paragraphs later Brown continues,
"Elsewhere, Grayling’s footwork is even more deft. At one point, he counters those who point out that Hitler and Stalin were atheists by sighing ‘The usual replies have wearily to be given’, as though those who disagree with him are being pig-headedly dim-witted. Almost as an afterthought, he adds that ‘Incidentally, Hitler was not an atheist — “Gott mit uns” (God with us) said the legend on Wehrmacht belt buckles — and Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks’."
And compounds his stupidity with,
"So there we have it: Stalin WAS an atheist, or as Grayling’s colleague Richard Dawkins himself once conceded, ‘There seems no doubt that, as a matter of fact, Stalin was an atheist.’ And so, too, was Hitler. ‘Gott mit uns’ predated Nazism by 300 years. It was employed for the first time by the Teutonic Order in the 17th century, and was inscribed on the helmets of German soldiers in World War I. For Hitler, it represented the historic rallying cry of the German nation. Even Dawkins, in The God Delusion, concedes that this reference to God on Nazi buckles ‘does not prove anything’."

I have yet to meet an atheist who denies that Stalin was an atheist. However, it is a fact that Stalin never did anything in the name of/for the sake of atheism.* So, what does it matter that he was an atheist? Any identifiable group is bound to have assholes among them. As for Hitler, he was NOT an atheist. The belt buckle is precisely the type of sleight of hand he's trying to smear Grayling with. It's irrelevant and has nothing to do with why anyone with a functional brain cannot dispute that he was in fact a CHRISTIAN. Apparently, Brown has never read Mein Kampf, the book that served as a Nazi blueprint, or listened to or read transcripts of any of Hitler's major speeches. Hitler didn't just praise and reference God and religion he frequently, both verbally and in writing, claimed to be fulfilling God's will.

Facts, like intellectual integrity and basic professional ethics, don't seem to matter. Brown, for whatever reason, wants to smear atheists and any pretext seems to be sufficient. If this whole piece was meant as some type of farce it is a failure. Once you cross the line from hyperbole and absurd exaggeration into ideologically driven misrepresentation and out right fabrication you are no longer using humor.

* I challenge anyone to give even one example of writing, a speech, or any document (not forgeries like the Hitler Table talks) that demonstrates Stalin promoting atheism. And, I do mean atheism not communism, or his own cult of personality.

Is Taco Bell really Mexican?

If there are any theists, Christians in particular, out there reading this can you please explain this one to me,
"Poll: Americans love the Bible but don’t read it much." This is by no means new information but it still both fascinates and confuses me. Why do so many insist the Bible is such a wonderful book without actually have read or paid attention to what they have read? I don't know the percentage but many who have read the "Good Book" cover to cover have done so through some type of study group or similar program. So many who do read it seem to simply accept what they are being told they should take the meaning of a given passage to be. Basically, no real thought is involved with many religious peoples' reading of a book that is supposedly such a profound experience. Doesn't that negate the idea that it is so worthy?

To me this is no different than someone proclaiming their undying love of Mexican food and in the very next breath admitting the only "Mexican" they've ever eaten came from Taco Bell. I just don't get it. If anyone has a decent explanation for this beyond the standards (faith or delusion/wishful thinking, depending on your point of view) I would love to hear it.

Half-Hearted Theocracy

Apparently, a handful of minor Republican politicians in North Carolina think theocracy is good idea and a few Major figures within the party agree, sort of. It looks like these religious right nut-jobs started an attempt to allow North Carolina to declare Christianity that state's official religion. It doesn't look like they are going to see it through. That's great. However, it is not because they have come to their senses or acknowledged that it is unconstitutional. It looks like they have backed off in part because the bill is so unlikely to even make it out of committee. I have a feeling it also has to do with Carl Ford, one of the co-sponsors, developing cold feet for a variety of practical and political reasons, none of which include integrity or decency.

In any case, the fact that these assholes were even considering it is very disturbing.

Culture Shocks, March and April

I have previously made references to Barry Lynn's Culture Shocks podcast. There have been a handful of really good interviews over the past month or so. I would like to recommend  four in particular.

Jim Holt
April 4 . 2013
Author Jim Holt explores the greatest metaphysical mystery of all: why is there something rather than nothing? in Why Does the World Exist.

Ray Raphael
April 2 . 2013
By entering the world of the Constitution’s framers, and experiencing it one day after the next as they did, Ray Raphael helps us understand how and why they created the document they did in Constitutional Myths.

Candida Moss
March 28 . 2013
In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss, a leading expert on early Christianity, reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors.

Guy Harrison
March 25 . 2013
Guy Harrison’s, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian is an unique book which poses questions that will hopefully foster mutual understanding between Christians and non-Christians.

The entire archive of Culture Shocks interviews is well worth exploring. These four just happen to be the ones that have most impressed me over the past few months.