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Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Savage Exodus

April 30, 2012 1 comment

What kind of journalism student can’t tolerate listening to dissenting viewpoints?

Categories: gay rights Tags: ,

Everyone’s an Evangelical!

August 9, 2011 1 comment

Reza Aslan has another attack on “the new atheists” that repeats all the standard criticisms of the movement. He observers, along with every other detractor, that the new atheism is just like religious fundamentalism. Bus ads and other campaigns serve as his examples of proselytization. Critics find it endlessly clever to compare atheists to the evangelicals they often target. I’m always curious if they say that just because they know it will annoy atheists or if they actually think they’re offering a meaningful objection. Either way, the comparison is so broad as to be almost completely trivial.

You know who else has bus ads?

Zoos:

Flower shops:

Ambulance companies:

Aslan goes on to claim that the new atheism is a “particularly zealous form of fundamentalism.” He can’t be bothered to provide a single quote that demonstrates his allegation that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others believe “they are in sole possession of the truth.” The charge is almost self-evidently false; “the new atheists” disagree with each other on many issues. Sam Harris, arguably the first “new atheist,” regularly argues that everyone (and atheists in particular) have a lot to learn from the spiritual experiences of mystics. The new atheists simply argue that people should provide reasons for their beliefs – a standard that the On Faith section of the Washington Post would collapse under.

Aslan wistfully remembers the atheism of the past that didn’t give “atheism a bad name.” Yes, Reza is actually arguing that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett give atheism a bad name, but Marx and Nietzsche didn’t.

After that historically oblivious nostalgia, Aslan does his best liberal theologian impression:

What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?

I’m not sure what his first question is even asking, but I’m positive that “such a possibility” is, yes, more hypothetical than theoretical physics. This is due mainly to the fact those religious myths are either disproven already or completely untestable. Although many hypothesis in physics are indeed hypothetical they are qualitatively different from religious myths. Physicists construct them based on mathematical models that must be consistent with observable nature and rise and fall on the scientific method. Of course, scientists are often the harshest critics of theoretical physics. The models are also acknowledged to be hypothetical and won’t be fully scientifically accepted until they make accurate testable predictions. In a rhetorical move seemingly designed to embarrass the science-is-another-faith crowd, string theorist Brian Greene asks himself if he believes in string theory. His answer: “no.”

Do Christians, Hindus, and Muslims admit that their “religious phenomena” are hypothetical? Have they withheld believing in them until they clear standard evidentiary hurdles? Can Reza obscure the difference between science and religion any further?

Reza continues to push falsehoods about the positions of prominent new atheists. He writes, “new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence.” Again, no quotation is provided for the allegedly monolithic atheist view. In actuality, Sam Harris says that Jainism’s “core doctrine is nonviolence” and religions are as varied as sports. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything.” In his most famous polemic against religion, Christopher Hitchens explains that “Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize.” Hitchens and others openly acknowledge that nationalism and other non-religious ideologies can be dangerous; they just point out that faith-based beliefs are harder to correct and that no society has ever suffered from being too reasonable.

I’d love to see Aslan’s evidence for the “stock response” of the new atheists:

The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

Here’s Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan:

You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are “fools” or “idiots.” Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people. One of the horrors of religious dogmatism is that it can produce a Pascal–a brilliant man who was irretrievably self-deceived on matters of profound importance.

Here’s Hitchens in The Portable Atheist:

I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim–so modestly and so humbly–to possess. It is time to withdraw our “respect” from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.

Yes, many atheists think certain believers are dimwitted or ignorant of science, but they don’t make any across-the-board claims about the intelligence of religious believers.

For all the noise about atheists caricaturing the religious, I’ve yet to find a criticism that substantively attacks what the new atheist authors actually argue. Instead, pundits like Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan bumble around like media copycat criminals showcasing a version of the crimes that they fictionalize atheists having committed. Aslan’s stock criticisms, editorial proselytization, and accusations of ignorance litter every scene where he leaves his stamp.

Categories: Atheism Tags: , ,

The Right Side of History

June 24, 2011 5 comments

New York state lawmakers voted 33-29 to legally extend marriage rights same-sex couples. Now the sixth state in America treats its citizens as more important than dogma. Good people across the state of New York won’t allow the godly to settle for bigotry and moral poverty.

God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago. -Senator Ruben Diaz, the lone Democrat opponent

Everyone that fought for this bill should be joyous that we continue to write our own history.

Here are some of my past posts on same-sex marriage. Feel free to search around the blog for others.

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

The Wisdom of Silence

It’s All About Tradition, Right?

(photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking, Pt. III

Kirk Murphy’s mother became worried about her son’s behavior:

I was becoming a little concerned about playing with the girls’ toys and stroking the hair – ya know, the long hair and stuff. I was seeing effeminate mannerisms. That bothered me because I wanted Kirk to grow up and have a normal life.

In order to give her child the most normal life possible she subjected Kirk to experimental behavioral control therpy, emotionally neglected him, and allowed her husband to beat him as part of a reward/punishment plan. His brother says he became empty, couldn’t relate to people, and was never a happy child again after the age of 4. Kirk killed himself at 38.

Watch the beginning of Anderson Cooper’s 3-part series on George Rekers’ homosexual cure therapy.

Categories: Anderson Cooper, Religion Tags:

An Imperfect Argument

April 21, 2011 8 comments

I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.

To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.

Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.

Where does good come from?

Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”

Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?

Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”

Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?

Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”

Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?

Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”

Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?

Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”

Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.

All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.

This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.

When Cruelty is Kosher, ctd

February 21, 2011 4 comments

Back in November I explained that kosher and halal slaughter methods are needlessly cruel. Well, here’s a video to prove it.

It starts off with the comparatively “humane” bolt killing of a cow – then we get to see the ways god is satisfied by animals writhing in pain as they drown in their own blood after having their throats “naturally” slit. It’s just another example of how faith and dogma can get well-meaning people to proudly support gratuitous barbarism.

(video via Pharyngula)

Categories: Animal Rights, Religion Tags:

The Corrosion of Normal Moral Thinking, ctd

January 31, 2011 2 comments

In his New York Times opinion piece Nicholas Kristof highlights how religious thinking can cause people to care more about dogma than living human beings.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives.

Of course, stalwart apologist of the liberal religious Kristof champions his version of Jesus against those rule-sticklingly traditionalists.

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.

I happen to agree with Kristof about the absurdity and callousness of the Church’s excommunication of a nun for saving a woman’s life, but how does he justify his judgement on religious grounds? Many sincere believers consider an embryo or a fetus to be an unborn human child equally deserving of moral compassion as a fully conscious adult. From their premises, they are being perfectly rational. Yet, Kristof summons the Nazarene in his court of moral opinion even though Jesus never told us what he thinks on this issue. However, there is certainly some biblical warrant to suppose God isn’t supportive of abortion. It’s not my burden to resolve this issue for either side. This thick haze just doesn’t obscure morally normal vision – there is no need to try to look through it. An unconscious blastocyst does not have the same moral weight as a breathing pregnant woman.

Sadly, it appears the Republican Party is lost in the fog and continues to exhibit more symptoms of moral vertigo with their push to redefine “the definition of rape and incest” in order to limit federal assistance for abortion.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.”

The sooner we abandon the notion that religion has a purchase on morality the better.

(1st piece)

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?

When Cruelty is Kosher

November 20, 2010 3 comments

I always considered a bit of intellectual cowardice from myself to not fully consider and acknowledge the cruelty that one is responsible for when eating meat. I eat meat and I have no strong case for not abstaining from eating meat, but I do hope and expect that our farmers (and their regulators) at least attempt to minimize the suffering of these animals as much as possible. Most people, I imagine, are with me in the belief that we shouldn’t purposefully slaughter animals with methods that needlessly increase pain and terror. Yet, as Johann Hari explains, we allow exactly this to happen if the butcher wants to appease an invisible deity.

There’s a good example of this religious modus operandi playing out on a dinner table near you – and this week, we found out it is becoming more and more common. In Britain, it is a crime to kill a conscious cow or sheep or chicken for meat by slashing its throat without numbing it first. The reasons are obvious. If you don’t numb an animal, it screams as you hack through its skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and major nerve trunks, and then it remains conscious as it slowly drowns in its own blood – a process that can take up to six minutes. So we insist that an animal is stunned before its throat is slashed, to ensure it is deeply unconscious. There isn’t much humanity in our factory farming system, but this is – at least – a tiny sliver of it, at the end.

But there is a loophole in the law. You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it “halal”, and if you are Jewish you call it “kosher”. Back in the Bronze Age, or the deserts of sixth-century Arabia, it was sensible to act this way. You needed to know your meat was fresh and the animal was not sick, so you made sure it was alive and alert when you killed it. As Woody Allen once said, it wasn’t so much a commandment as “advice on how to eat out safely in Jerusalem”. But we have much better ways of making sure meat is fresh and healthy now. Yet for many religious people it has hardened into a dogma, to be followed simply because it was laid down in their “holy” texts long ago by “God”.

I get if you want to follow some sort of traditional diet in order to impose discipline on yourself or you just enjoy the sense of connection customs can bring. But there are plenty of customs that can be practiced without torturing animals. Also, what kind of God is it that would continue to mandate such a practice in the 21st century?

Categories: Johann Hari, Religion Tags:

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.

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