Blog Archives

Atheist Runs for Congress

There’s a person by the name of Cecil Bothwell who is running for Congress in 2012 in North Carolina’s 11th District. He is a fellow WordPress blogger, and he has the following to say about his beliefs.

Like about 1 in 5 Americans I don’t profess to believe in God…

I’d note that there isn’t anything easier to lie about than one’s personal beliefs. Given the number of people who hold a poor opinion of atheists, it might be politically expedient for me to claim some sort of theism, but truth-telling is part of who I am. When I look at politicians like Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford, who loudly professed deep Christian faith, and then look at their duplicitous actions, I’m not much impressed with their declarations of belief. In this world I think it better to judge people by their actions than by their assertions.

He recognizes the following concept.

At the same time, freedom of religion necessarily includes freedom from religion, otherwise the idea is meaningless.

His morals don’t come from one of a few ancient books; rather, he lives by a simple rule:

As for my personal beliefs, I try my best to live up to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I have never heard of any moral code that surpasses that rule, and a world in which the Golden Rule held sway would surely be something like heaven on earth.

The sad thing is that all of this is going to become controversial. He’s going to make the news for absolutely no reason at all. He won’t be singled out for his political ideas, but because he holds common sense, reasonable ideas about religion and morality that happen to differ from the other candidates.

You see, the norm in America is that you have to profess a faith in some supernatural entity, most preferably Yahweh. You get points when you say that you support some level of entanglement between church and state, or that you get your morals from an old book.

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Telling the Truth about Science and Religion

Thank you PZ Myers for telling it as it is. Science is, on a fundamental level, as incompatible with religion as truth is with bullshit.

He destroys the common belief that science and religion can support each other. Myers has no respect for people who merely compartmentalize their conflicting beliefs.

He agrees with me when I say that you either believe that evolution occurred as it is empirically observed–a natural process with no apparent direction and purpose–or you don’t. You don’t get to say that “Yahweh supervised it” or “Allah guided it,” or make any pseudoscientific and unfalsifiable assertion that somehow this process was directed to create homo sapiens in particular. Theistic evolution is a vulgar perversion of science.

There is to be no compromise on the part of science to accommodate the religious. Christians can pervert their religious beliefs, can change their interpretations of the Bible, can twist and change their positions in astronomy, geology, biology, medicine, etc. all they want. They can make Adam and Eve not literal people but metaphors for homo sapiens. They can say the flood was a myth. They can pervert their religion all they want to fit in with modern, secular science.

Scientists should never return the favor.

Citation Needed

Citation needed?

Various Authors. The New Testament. Copyright: 20-100 years after the Resurrection (33 AD plus minus 10 years).

Christian Admits He Was Wrong

Salon has a piece by Murray Richmond, a minister who spent his career preaching that homosexuality was a sin. Now he has changed his mind.

As a Presbyterian minister, I believed it was a sin. Then I met people who really understood the stakes: Gay men

These experiences shook my worldview. It became clear to me that none of these men had chosen to be gay, just as I had never chosen to be heterosexual. How could I condemn someone for something that was really not their fault?

I don’t know Mr. Richmond, how could you? Because you thought that a book written by human beings in the desert was divinely inspired and therefore had to have contained truth?

People like Mr. Richmond are initially certain about the truth of the Bible, but once they go out into the real world, when they meet people and look at evidence, when they actually test the truth of what they are taught, their own worldviews are suddenly shattered. How do they reconcile this shock without admitting the obvious truth that Christianity is a human invention?

Free from the constraints of a congregation, I could spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality, and I was surprised to find they were not as clear as I had supposed they were. At this point, I have done a 180 on the topic. And I believe it’s a change for the good.

Tada! People start seeing the Bible as a fuzzy, “unclear” thing, something that needs further interpretation (to align itself with 21st century values). But they only do so after they start to suspect that there’s something terribly wrong here.

It’s a very funny thing, isn’t it? The inspirational for full, equal, and respectful treatment of homosexuals comes from human experience and general humanistic values. It certainly does not come from the Bible; Mr. Richmond’s benevolent heart just makes his reading of the “Good Book” oh-so-blurry.

The Academic Tyranny

Having been a student of almost three years at the University of Chicago, a place known for its commitment to living the “life of the mind” and its receptiveness to rigorous, intellectual debate, I never would have thought that I would be criticizing the very “business” of the people who make up such a community.

I’m writing this for two reasons. One is because I was especially intrigued by Hawking’s claim that the philosophy of science is dead. Hawking’s argument is that philosophers have not caught up with the latest advances in science. I think his argument, which may be true, is nonetheless a very bad reason for why we should regard the philosophy of science to be irrelevant. However, I think his claim may have some truth to it.

Note that this is coming from a big fan of the philosophy of science. My favorite writers on this topic include people like Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kuhn, and of course, David Hume. Many problems—important ones in philosophy—are still in the air, and I doubt they will ever be conclusively solved. After all, it was C.D. Broad who noted that induction, the basis for all scientific inquiry, remains “the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy.”

Yet, science as we know it today is largely separate from philosophical circles. Scientists in general are not involved in ceaseless debates over predictive models and Bayesian inference. They work overtime not in philosophy discussion groups but on labs and journals, and they follow the most practical standard: do the theories work, and are the results consistent? That’s it. It matters not if we can’t prove the existence of cause and effect in the philosophy department. Science will continue, and it will keep working.

The separation between the philosophy of science and science itself is a healthy one, and it resists the academic tyranny of well-meaning thinkers of philosophy. These are people who often clog the practical, real-world side of things. Even the venerated Karl Popper, for example, had to ruin it for everyone else by arguing that Darwinian evolution was on the level of psychoanalysis, a sort of untestable, wishy-washy pseudoscientific paradigm. Note he wasn’t arguing from the point of view of a scientist (looking at the evidence); instead, he was arguing from the standpoint of somebody who wanted to solve problems of epistemology. Fortunately, he retracted his criticism later on.

The second reason I’m writing this is that there’s a real academic tyranny going on, and that’s in the field of religious studies. It goes something like this:

4 Claims of the Academic Tyrant:

1. Academia, and western academia in particular, is one of the best and most enlightened places to understand religion and religious texts.

2. You most likely don’t have an informed opinion of religion without participating in the academic activities of the circle above.

3. Religion is often practiced in an unenlightened, fundamentalist, and narrow-minded way by those who are outside academia.

4. The existence of disagreements within academia should stop all others from reaching any practical conclusions about religion.


Let’s take a trite example. There are many people who warn me to not even talk about this, at least not in a way that paints Christianity in any broad brush.

I would argue that in all practical circumstances, the idea that God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac makes God an cruel murderer. It directly implies that Christianity, as represented by this god, is a immoral religion that celebrates credulity and the willingness to kill your own child to show your love for God. It’s a call, in other words, to religious insanity and violence.

Not so fast, says the academic tyrant. After all, there are disagreements about how to interpret this, aren’t there? Have you read the latest opinion from [fill-in-the-blank] theology school? Have you read the latest philosophy? How about older writers like Kierkegaard, who argued that there’s a vast difference between the transcendental morality of the Bible and worldly morality that we judge God by? What about people who don’t take this literally, people who just think it is a nice metaphor for the intensity of love and faith for God? And what about all the other love and peace stories from Jesus?

Oh, and there’s more. We must read all the other theologians, people who are all incidentally part of the same westernized, liberalized academic circle before we should even mutter anything about Christianity. We just shouldn’t say anything. Really.

I hope you are getting the picture. There’s a very large disconnect between people in academia and religious people in the real world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, confusion, and misunderstanding too:

A. Religion is supposed to be an individualized conception of lived experience and religious texts, but academics often see religion only through the lens of peer-reviewed debate and critical textual analysis. They don’t acknowledge the possibility that people can get real and valid conclusions by reading it outside of the academic environment.

B. Religious texts, as you may know already, are self-contradictory and inconsistent sources of information. Yet, academics are often confused by this when they assume that there must be differing valid opinions about interpretations. They think these differing opinions come from differences in people, not from the contradicting, man-made nature of the books themselves.

C. Academics rashly insist that fundamentalism is not a valid way of understanding religions and texts. They assert this, saying that there should be context, but they provide no context of their own. They think the Koran is a historical document, for example, just like any other. They read it in their academic sort of way, ignoring the fact that, as Ibn Warraq notes, “the Koran remains the infallible word of God, the immediate word of God sent down, through the intermediary of a ‘spirit’ or ‘holy spirit’ or Gabriel, to Muhammad in perfect pure Arabic; and everything contained therein is eternal and uncreated.” Academic tyrants, in other words, want to bind the hands of people who want to criticize Islam on its own terms.

I really want to ask my fellow readers: what kind of world do most people live in? A world dominated by liberalized theology schools and enlightened philosophical circles, or a world of real darkness and superstition? There are people who willingly look at religion through a glass darkly and can’t really understand why there are so many fundamentalists, why so much is wrong with the world precisely because of religion.

I think we need to step back a little and open our eyes, not as westernized academics but as human beings.

Keep Trying and Never Give Up

If there’s anything that new-age Christians and “liberal” religious people do, it is that they keep trying and they never give up.

I’m writing this somewhat in response to the graduate advisor for the UChicago Secular Student Alliance. He writes a blog called Sleeping in Sundays, and apparently this Sunday, he couldn’t find a better example of ignorance and dishonesty than from a post by Sam Harris, who, after citing a myriad of verses from it, merely concluded that the Quran gives “a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred” and that Muslims who deny this are being dishonest.

Note that this in no way obstructs what Muslims in particular and religious people in general want to do anyways: interpret and metaphorize every verse that conflicts with 21st century morals. There’s no denying that this is what religious people do. But should this impress us?

The usual argument goes like this:

The reason that we have so many crazies (creationists, genital mutilators, suicide bombers, etc.) and backwards societies (theocracies, religious laws, religious education, etc.) is that there are a few fundamentalists. Why do millions and millions of people take to the streets to call for governments to shut down newspapers? Why do religious societies treat women so horribly? Why do we open therapy camps in this country to treat homosexuality? It’s the fundamentalists. They ruin it for everyone else. Simple as that.

How do they ruin it for everyone else? Fundamentalists: they aren’t as fancy and sophisticated as us. They don’t think about the text. They don’t look at context. They don’t look at history. And most important of all: they don’t “struggle” and “wrestle” with the text. They just give up.

The solution? Let’s have the determination to wrestle with the text. When there’s something in the Bible that is outrageous, you must be reading it wrong. When there are entire stories in the Quran that show the overwhelming superiority of Muslims over atheists, you must be ignoring history. Indeed, if you ever ever have an interpretation of a Holy Book that is upsetting, you just aren’t trying hard enough to contextualize it. The solution to all these social ills is to keep trying, to never ever give up.

When countless societies and millions and millions of religious people fail again and again and again at reaching the “correct” interpretation (one in line with secular humanistic values), let’s keep trying again and again and again to fix it, by wrestling with the text.

Is Civil Discourse Possible in a Christian Society?

A very intriguing person calls into the Atheist Experience. Matt Dillahunty says some things that I think are worth more than a moment’s reflection.

 

Humbled by God, or Not.

As you all know, this a great blog with no secular bias whatsoever, which is exactly why I want to show you the religious perspective on inspiration. My last post demonstrated the incomprehensible size of stars and how they should humble us, but this is how Christians view the exact same thing:

So he gets a nice sinking feel, huh? And all our false feelings of importance? They come from sin, right?

Remember that this is coming from a religion that for centuries insisted that we really were at the center of the Universe, that we were really the special creation of God completely separate from animals, that everything was tweaked just right for human life.

But let us forget about that. The guy is a Christian, and he claims to be humbled by the awesome size of stars in the Universe.

He’s so incredibly humbled that he, while holding the Bible in one hand, can probably answer the following:

1. Whether God certainly exists or not.

2. How many Gods there are.

3. Whether this God cares about what happens in some negligible nanoscopic alley in the Universe.

4. Which God, out of the millions that humans have believed, is the one true God.

5. Whether or not God really chose to save us by sending Jesus to some backwards part of the Middle East.

6. Whether there is an afterlife or not.

7. What the afterlife consists of, and what thoughts and beliefs (or rituals) you must have to get there.

8. Who you may have sex with.

9. What divine instructions God gave thousands of years ago.

10. Which parts of the Bible are literally true, and which ones are metaphor.

11. Whether God really answers prayers.


As a human being, I maintain that anyone who even remotely claims that they have the answers to some of the questions above are, at the least, extremely suspect and, at worst, complete frauds. The obvious fact, of course, is that anyone who claims to know with some clarity all or most of the answers above are claiming things that human beings cannot possibly know.

This is exactly why I don’t want to see my President having breakfast with people who make a living out of making the claims above. I especially don’t want to hear him saying how faith is about being humble and understanding the limits of your own knowledge.

The problem with faith is that it makes people so incredibly, unbelievably, astronomically, and galatically arrogant, while at the same time making them not realize it.

The inspiration of the day, therefore, comes from Carl Sagan:

We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.

Inspiration in a Place of Darkness

We are all shocked and saddened by the death of David Kato, a marked gay rights activist in Uganda who bravely fought for change in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Lately, there have been many questions about the influence of U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and Scott Lively in Uganda, all of whom have had deep and long friendships with prominent local religious leaders and government officials.

What we absolutely don’t need now is more religious rationalization and apology for the explosion of ignorance and hate in arguably the most Christian country in Africa. As I’ve written about before, religious moral arguments aren’t arguments because they have often have nothing to do with the reality of the objective world. Turning to the Bible or any other religious text for guidance on moral issues at a time like this is as useless as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy advice.

In fact, I don’t actually think that someone like Scott Lively, who actually organized a conference in Uganda to oppose homosexuality, added that much fuel to an already burning fire. What I want to point out, however, is irony of his position: Lively might have thought he was washing the people of Uganda with the blood of Jesus, but who thought that he might soon do it with the blood of actual people?

You see, the only source of inspiration I can find in this mess is never covered in the media and always ignored by the religious. I’m talking about the secular community of Uganda, which is a very real thing, and a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. After all we’ve seen on the news, shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say?

As a tribute to the community and as something to remember Kato by, I’ll post some of the official core beliefs and goals found on the website of the Uganda Humanist Association.

Beliefs:

We believe in human rights for all people including the despised minorities.
We believe in the right of human beings to make individual choices as they determine the course of their lives.

Goals:

To oppose religious, racial and ethnic fanaticism and fundamentalism.
To educate people about humanism as a free, rational, humane, skeptical/scientific, liberal and democratic life stance and approach to human life challenges.
To carry out projects that promote social welfare and environmental concern.

Commitments

To building a non- superstitious, rational and scientifically minded society in Uganda.
To promoting unity and tolerance among people.
To instil a culture of human rights concern and activism.
To build confidence in our fellow Ugandans to live the one life they have, purposely and with dignity.

If every Ugandan could hear these simple words, I’m sure they’ll be more beautiful than anything they’ve heard from their pastors lately. That’ll be the inspirational material for the day.

Let us remember that we can always rebuild and change societies. One person. One idea. One day at a time.

How to tell if you aren’t serious about your religion

1. You cannot make a coherent, intelligible argument for your beliefs.

2. You don’t even attempt to do (1).

3. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if that part looks morally upsetting.

4. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if scientific discoveries contradict it.

5. You believe all that matters in your religion is charity and good works.

6. You think multiple religions can be true.

7. You don’t really believe in the miracles of your religion.

8. You don’t really believe in the afterlife (and how your religion says you can get there).

9. You mainly stay in your religion to reap the benefits of community and the feeling that there is something greater than you.

10. You have serious doubts about what you’ve been told by a religious leader (rabbi, priest, etc.)

11. You prioritize things in your life as if your religion isn’t true.