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A New Insight

January 18, 2011 3 comments

I love challenge. My competitive streak is widely known amongst my friends and I’ve become accustomed to others’ apprehension about playing even trivial games with me. Of course, others enjoy that side of me (if they’re on my team and like winning, for example). But that (honestly, good natured) aspect of me is a microcosm of how I seek much of the pleasure in my life. I seek gratification in attaining professional success, dreaming up novel or strong arguments, looking superficially good, finding a great romantic partner – for the most part, standard goals.

In my quest for strong arguments I find it useful to immerse myself in the arguments of contrary opinion. So I’ve been thinking about attempting a contrary path to pleasure for a while now. I’ve researched a bit on The Insight Mediation Center and am tempted to try it out. It seems so opposite me without being antagonistic to me that I think it might be a healthy new experience.

Honestly, this wasn’t me having an epiphany or me challenging myself by trying out creationism or communism. Among some other people I hugely respect, Sam Harris has been pushing nonbelievers to open themselves up to “spirituality” without the woo. In this otherwise unremarkable Nightline interview with Sam, it is revealed that he’s planning on writing a book on spirituality “devoid of God.” I couldn’t be more excited to read something like that.

Furthermore, in his response to Edge’s latest question, Sam explains how thought is the “primary source of human suffering and confusion.”

I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.

Andreas Kluth also frequently points out the benefits of a “still mind” – he even nominated Patanji, who expressed this notion, as the greatest thinker in history. Blogging demands a mind cleanse every so often as well.

Do any readers have any insights or advice they’d like to share about my search for a new perspective?

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New Atheists Hurting Science Literacy?

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a common critique made of “the New Atheists” that they harm their own cause of science literacy by so harshly attacking the religion that supports inaccurate beliefs about the world. These critics (e.g. here and here) argue that we shouldn’t attack religion but rather should frame science in a way that seems more compatible with faith. Despite that this is what the scientific community has been trying to do for decades with no apparent success, any deviation from the status quo is presumed to be automatically counterproductive.

The New Atheist movement, if one insists on calling it that, started around 2004 with Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and propelled to increasing popularity with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006. So let’s check to see if the popularity of their approach had any obvious negative effects on the acceptance of evolution like critics like Robert Wright and Chris Mooney assume.

1982-2010 Trend: Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form)(from here)

Now it is possible that the upward trend in acceptance would be higher or the drop in hard creationism would be steeper had Dawkins and Coyne never written their books, but it is clear that there isn’t any positive evidence that the New Atheism is harming the cause of science. The reality of course is that this movement’s effect on science literacy is likely extremely minor. For critics to insist that atheists shut up because they are harming science is ridiculous.

Is Religion a Force for Good?

November 30, 2010 7 comments

I encourage everyone to watch this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world. I’ve watched Hitchens debate and speak on the topic of religion countless times and this might be his best performance.

Start at 3:50 to get past the introductions.

The rest of the debate can be found (at least temporarily) here.

Homily

Of course religion inspires people to do good works and to commit evil acts. Apologists like to point out all the good parts of the religious traditions – Sermon on the Mount, love thy neighbor, etc – while opponents point out the barbarous portions – Leviticus, Crusades, etc. I have no problem admitting that religion motivates acts of compassion and no problem recognizing the cruelty religion animates. The trouble with religion is precisely the nature of that malleability. The traditions, texts, rites, and dogmas are still part of a set – you get the good and the bad yoked together pulling the fracturing cart where you sit.  Reason works differently: there are good ideas and bad ideas. Do nonreligious people commit acts of wickedness because of nonreligious reasons? Of course. But as reasonable people we’re free to reject bad ideas in favor of good ones.

Faith in any religion (or secular ideology) makes it impossible to successfully arbitrate between the epistemological truth of one interpretation over another. Not only that, but the more faithful one is to these ancient texts cruelty often becomes easier to justify. Apologists like Tony Blair believe his peaceful and tolerant form of religion is true, but he has no recourse in faith to undermine more extreme strains. God, for some reason, seems content to remain mute. By contrast, ideas held by reason are amenable to correction in light of new evidence and argument.

You might be tempted to counter that religious people ignore the bad bits in their religion despite, for example, the bible reminding Christians that every jot and tittle of the word of God should be fulfilled and Muslims believing the Quran is the perfect unalterable word of the Creator. Certainly the religious often neglect to carry out every commend of their holy book, but notice that it is precisely because they are dismissing part of their religion that the religion becomes more benign. I’m always surprised how often religions’ apologists argue that people doing good by ignoring religion shouldn’t be counted as a strike against religion.

Not being religious doesn’t compel a secular thinker to repudiate the positive messages found within religious texts. I need not refuse to be a good samaritan. I need not rebuke the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita.  I need not rebuff non-violence because it is practiced by the Jains. Inspiration can be drawn from Shakespeare or Dickens, from Bentham or Kant, from Jesus or the Buddha. Skepticism just repels treating any book as inherently superior or moral. It is a component of religion that appraises its message as unearthly. Admit it or not a religion is, among other things, a set of beliefs supposedly divinely inspired. Once someone accepts that a set of beliefs came from God or from a prophet of God only skepticism of those beliefs or our innate and culturally formed compassion can temper any of the pernicious dogmas of that faith.

Religion cleaved from its superstitions and creeds is not religion. If you insist that you are still a Catholic if you don’t believe in Catholic dogmas, the divinity of Jesus, or the holiness of the bible you’re not actually religious. You might identify with that culture, but that’s not religion. It’s for that reason a Jewish atheist, for example, isn’t an oxymoron. Subverting the supernatural need not crumble our communities.

So ask yourself, would the world be better off if people became more religious or more reasonable?

Don’t Pray? Don’t Tell.

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

That there are no atheists in foxholes is a myth. Veteran Kathleen Johnson tells us why religious coercion is bad for the military.

In both combat theaters, I recall endless and constant mandatory prayer circles being held by small units before military operations at which unit members who elected not to participate risked harassment, rebukes from their peers and supervisors, and even punishments. I recall dining halls decorated with bible verses, units adorned with bibles, and meetings started with Christian prayers. I recall the panic in a young soldier’s voice when he called me to tell me how his approved social meeting of military atheists was intentionally disrupted by an Army officer (a self-described “prayer warrior”) and that he was receiving threats against his life.

Guest Post: Religious Apologists and their Role in Oppression

October 13, 2010 4 comments

Many activists today hate their own societies so much that they defend barbaric customs typical to religious cultures because they feel guilty recognising the ethical superiority of secularism.  There’s a disturbing trend amongst these activists to label themselves progressives, when more accurate labels would be “religious apologists” and “religious pluralists.”

These are people—including “atheists,” agnostics, and theists of all kinds—who argue that religious faiths are reasonable and defensible, and that all religions are equally valid.  They’re usually only concerned with defending human rights when they personally feel oppressed, or when they believe their own societies oppress others.

However, as religious cultures violate the human rights of millions of people, apologists and theists defend these crimes with the two-faced shield of normative relativism and argue that we have no right to judge other cultures.  More specifically, apologists argue that we have no right to judge religions in general, even though religions themselves claim superiority over all others.

Many theists have thus invented an imaginary right to not be mocked or criticised for their ridiculous beliefs, claiming that religion serves the interests of the abject, impoverished and despairing.  However, theism only serves to empower despots.  In fact, theism itself is so fundamentally authoritarian that it threatens our most basic rights to life, liberty, and security of person.

Disgusted by imperialism and xenophobic rednecks, apologists fancy themselves anti-nationalists and resort to normative relativism to make sense of the differences between Western culture and those of the “colonised.”  Such apologists are most commonly young college students or recent graduates, and they typically have developed their relativist philosophy as a means of rebelling against the bigotry of their parents or other people they have come to hate.

Combined with the questionable ideal of multiculturalism—i.e. diversity for diversity’s sake—these apologists have resorted to an unreasonable tolerance that compels them to defend all sorts of dysfunctional cultures despite the overwhelming evidence that they are harmful, barbaric and incompatible with our own.

For example, Daniel Bragança recently argued that the West has “the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.”  Bragança criticised Afghanistan’s culture for its ingrained paedophilia: Afghan men regularly keep underage boys as lovers and status symbols because misogynist Islamic principles require women to be covered from head to toe.  However, as clearly wrong and ill-conceived this practice is, Bragança was met with a chorus of apologists—some atheist, some agnostic, and some theist—who claimed that his criticism of Afghan culture was radical and misguided.  Seriously?  Is it seriously radical to point out that sexual molestation and misogyny is wrong no matter where it happens?  Is it radical then to not mutilate a child’s genitals?  Is it radical to believe that you shouldn’t rape kids, kill people you dislike, or pretend to know things that you don’t?

There’s an inherent irony in using relativism to defend theism and its by-products because religions themselves are straightforwardly objectivist: to the religious, right and wrong are matters of divine authority, and are not susceptible to the whims of forward-thinking philosophers like the Founding Fathers or Enlightenment thinkers.  Christian theists proclaim their absolutist objectivism on a regular basis: “Homosexuality is an abomination!”  “Premarital sex is a sin!”  “Nobody reaches God except through Christ Jesus!”  But as soon as a secular thinker applies reason and scientific inquiry to religion, theists and their apologists claim critical immunity: “If it’s right for us or them, who are you to judge?”

“We have a right to not be mocked or offended,” the religious say, as was the case with Muslims in response to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy of 2005, or with Christians in response to any sort of social progress in the United States.  Luckily for the West, we know how to define human rights: they are are legal, social or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement which apply to all humans.  Human rights are conceived entirely within an egalitarian context—all people have equal rights and should be treated as equals in certain respects—and the only atmosphere that is conducive to these human rights is one that is free and democratic.  Anything that threatens that atmosphere, such as the moral dictatorship of theism, threatens human rights in general.  Thus, anything that requires the curtailing of freedom and democracy—such as “a right to not be mocked or offended”—cannot possibly qualify as a human right.  Nonetheless, religious apologists argue that religion does the weak and the disenfranchised some sort of good that atheists should acknowledge and respect.

In a speech dubbed “The Tyranny of a Callous God,” Christopher Hitchens asks what it means to believe:

[T]hat there is a divinely supervising father […], that there is someone who knows, and watches and cares.  What does it mean to believe that?  I think it has two very disagreeable implications.  One is that we are subjected all the time to a permanent, unending, ’round-the-clock surveillance that begins at least when we’re born, some would say before, and doesn’t even quit when we die.  There’s no privacy, there’s no freedom, there’s nothing you do that isn’t watched over, and that you can be convicted of thought crime.  You are already guilty, because we know you at least were going to think about it.  This is an absolute definition of unfreedom—it’s what Orwell means when he says that all totalitarianism is essentially theocratic.  Is this for the weak?  No, it postulates a hideous strength, to borrow a C.S. Lewis term, a horrible, unchallengeable despotism that could never be voted out or overthrown or transcended.  [Theism] is not the small voice of compassion—it’s the utter arrogance of absolute power.

It’s a mistake to separate the cultural authoritarianism of religion—the dogma that morality is a product of divine authority—and political authoritarianism, as Kevin Carson explains in his recent article:

Cultural authoritarianism—such as occurs in the family, church and workplace—tends to exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship with political authoritarianism. Authoritarianism isn’t easily compartmentalized. People who are in the habit of unquestioning obedience to authority in a major part of their lives, and have their freedom of judgment subordinated to the will of others, are unlikely to fight very vigorously for their personal liberties against the claimed authority of the state.

In a world where religion is accessory to oppression, to shield it from criticism and mockery is to forsake the lives of the millions oppressed, and to pervert the very idea of a human right.  That’s why I confidently criticise, mock and offend the sensibilities of theists and their apologists.  I can’t help that they get offended because of their childish, backward insecurities and medieval morality.  Their true discomfort, though they won’t admit it, is with my belief in universal human rights and with my adherence to reason.  In some cases, they’re offended by reason itself, and in the words of Jonathan Swift, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

This is why I support Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.  It’s why I support charging and trying the Pope and members of the Catholic Church for the child abuses they have committed, concealed and denied.  It is why I oppose arranged marriages and criticise other cultural practises that violate human rights.  It’s why I argue with the supposed “liberals” who defend such barbaric customs.  Theism—religious faith, by any other name—opposes freedom itself.

And thus, I reject God.

Thomas Iodine is a political writer from New England living in California.  The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Daniel Bragança.

Belief In Nothing

September 28, 2010 6 comments

Completely to the surprise of everyone except atheists and agnostics, it turns out that nonbelievers actually know more about religion than the religious. It’s almost as if nonbelievers looked at the claims of religion, investigated them, and concluded they are astonishingly unconvincing.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

This level of ignorance should be deeply embarrassing to anyone that considers themselves to be a particular religion. It seems to confirm the human bias to form tribes. The importance for most people isn’t in the content of the beliefs just their homogeneity with others in their group. This same type of ignorance I’m sure mirrors political beliefs to a certain extent. 

Looking at this survey, it is unclear whether increasing the level of religious knowledge is casual to being a nonbeliever. Policy proposals (you can start around the 4:00 mark) by atheists like Dan Dennett to increase comparative religious knowledge seem to rest somewhat on the assumption that learning about religion in a secular way amplifies skepticism. Surveys like this help that case, but don’t prove it – after all it’s not like Jews and Mormons did that much worse than atheists and agnostics. Also, given that these numbers are an average, some atheists and agnostics probably have pretty poor competency as well. Yet, I’m never really against raising knowledge as a good in itself. At the least, you’d expect people learning about other religions would be able to better empathize with other groups which could lead to less sectarianism. Dennett seems to believe the same, and remarks that informed consent is essential to democracy. He’s right about the importance of knowledge and I support his proposal despite my worries about abuse of religious curriculum.  

I’m happy this Pew Survey undermines the notion that atheists aren’t believers because they’re religious “know-nothings.” Apologists pursued the wrong target lecturing nonbelievers about their assumed ignorance – the more troubling problem is theists willing to believe while being ignorant of those very beliefs or of alternative doctrines. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “It was the schoolboy who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell wrote, “We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Both were wrong. Faith seems to be worse, it allows one to accept dogma without even awareness. Faith isn’t blind, it’s mindless. After all, if someone doesn’t know about something you’d expect them to not believe in it. But the unconscious credulity of the faithful is consequential and common. “Belief in nothing” is no longer a slur appropriate for atheists. It’s the definition of faith.

Tell Me Again That Some Cultures Aren’t Better

September 2, 2010 2 comments

After my friend Dave posted an article by Susan Jacoby which targets her fellow “political liberals” for excusing horrible cultural practices for the mistaken idea that we have no right to judge any culture as better than another.

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

An interesting discussion ensued. I’ll just remark that I’m firmly on the side that says we have the ability, the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.  It’s often argued that to claim a faith or a culture is worse than another is to argue that the people within that culture are worse. Since I’m on my fantasy football kick, let me repeat my loose analogy I used to demonstrate the flaw with this argument.

Take a football team. In Team A the quarterback is the best in the game. Team B’s quarterback is therefore inferior to Team A’s QB. We can go down the list of every player on the roster. It is even possible that every player on Team A is better than the corresponding player on Team B. Most football fans should have already noticed that just because one team has a better player or better players overall doesn’t mean that the team is better as a whole. Football is a game of players, but also of strategy, execution, and will. If the culture/strategy of Team B is superior to that of Team A, Team B might ultimately be better. Obviously, the comparison with football teams and human societies is imprecise. But recognize that to criticize a culture is not to say that the people living with in that culture are necessarily worse people.


In my reading today I came across a cultural practice that results from the religious and cultural beliefs of the people. Don’t bother trying, as many often do, to divorce the beliefs of people to their actions, it’s a foolish endeavor.



For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it. 

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

[…]

Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.

“How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face,” 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. “We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

Can someone really tell me seriously that a culture that mainstreams the rape of young boys, treats women as “unclean” and unequal, forces them into cloth bags is not worse than a culture that sends pedophiles to prison and therapy, strives to give women equality under law, and allows them to dress as they please? Notice that nothing in this argument excuses mistreatment of sex offenders, lapses in practical gender equality, or the over-sexualization of women in Western liberal culture. Fortunately, our culture also promotes freedom of speech which allows us to stay vigilant in fighting for our greater ideals. But that is just the thing, the ideal that it isn’t ok that children and women are used as sexual objects and that all humans regardless of gender or race have equal rights is a better ideal than the opposite. It is not impossible to say that, even if not perfect, the ideals of the Enlightenment are better than the ideals found in the Bible or the Qur’an. It’s also not just that the ideals are better but by almost every metric the lives as they are lived are qualitatively better for those of us living in liberal cultures compared to religious cultures.

The next most common argument I get is, well even if that is true, we should stick to criticizing the specific cultural practices and not the culture as a whole or that we shouldn’t criticize “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims or Christians because they are the ones we need on our side to fight the extremists.

I concede that as a strategic and tactical matter this argument may be correct. But recognize that even if it is true, it does not mean that in principle we can’t appraise different cultures and value systems. However, I have my doubts about the practical argument as well. This argument is utterly condescending to religious liberals and moderates – are we suggesting they’ll stop standing up against terrorism if they hear criticism or that they’ll become terrorists!? How liberal or moderate are they really if that is the concern?

Aside from the condescension, the argument lacks strong evidence and logical foundation. If religious faith and strict adherence to an ancient and barbaric book(s) are roots of the cultural practices we find abhorrent, shouldn’t we cut the root from under the poisonous and invasive plants? The plants are the cultural practices not the people for the record. Edmund Standing writing at Butterflies & Wheels explains, “On the Validity and Necessity of Atheist Criticism of Islam.”

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.

[…]

Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome. (my emphasis)

Should we be careful not to demonize groups of people? Of course. But arguing that some cultures do a better job at improving human well-being is perfectly valid and possible. The American Left often has no problem arguing that it is our culture that leads to eating disorders, or stigmatizes the poor or homosexuals, or “commercializes” other cultures. It may be lack of nerve or lack of sufficient time thinking about it, but their failure to recognize that certain cultures are the cause of the cultural practices that lead to greater suffering is dangerous and insensitive. Real compassion is a concern for the well-being of the people that suffer within these cultures, not for the feelings of those that buttress the continuation of avoidable misery.

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