bookmark_borderAnti-religious hysteria

An interesting article came to my attention this morning. Frank Furedi’s The Curious Rise of Anti-religious Hysteria, argues that British and American cultural elites are in a panic about religion and are tempted to develop vapid appeals to morality in their politics. Furedi’s not religious himself; he does not write as a religiously-inspired moralist.

The essay’s overblown, I think, but worth thinking about. Especially because Furedi finds a negative sort of elitism behind anti-religious attitudes, arguing that elites perceive especially American true believers as morally and culturally inferior. No doubt this is partly true. Hell, it’s not entirely wrong in my case. I’m convinced that the variety of nonbelief that I hold to — science-minded, naturalistic nonbelief — is no more accessible to most ordinary people than a grasp of quantum mechanics or Darwinian evolution. By its nature, such nonbelief has to be confined to a well-educated elite. But I find it hard to argue that this conveys any social superiority to nonbelief. And I have often argued that there are significant costs associated with science-minded nonbelief, and even that it is pragmatically rational for most people to hold some religious beliefs.

Still, if my sort of nonbelief is destined to be confined to a small elite for the forseeable future, it is also politically vulnerable because of this. I can’t help but react to the sort of religiously-colored populism that has become so influential in the United States with concern, even some fear. I care about certain things that do not fare well when the seriously devout (as opposed to those of a watered-down liberal faith) enjoy power.

bookmark_borderIs-Ought Problem

Frank Walton writes: “Evolutionist Dr. Massimo Pigliucci writes, ‘It has been pretty obvious since Darwin that we, indeed, are nothing but machines.’ Obviously, then, there wouldn’t be a problem if one machine ‘kills’ another machine. When an automobile slams and crashes into another automobile do we say that the cars murdered one another?”

Walton makes a very common mistake here, one that was first recognized by David Hume and which philosophers call the “is-ought problem” after Hume’s comment in Book 3 of his Treatise:

“In every system of morality… the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning… [and then] instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.”

Hume goes on to say that an ought or ought not can never be deduced from an is or is not. In other words, a statement about a fact (or what is the case) does not entail a moral conclusion of what should be done or how we ought to react to the fact. In this case, Pigliucci’s ontological remark that human beings are machine-like does not lead to the moral conclusion that murder is justifiable. Walton inappropriately derives an ought from an is. This faulty thinking is another reason Kahlo was asked 17 times “If you don’t believe in God, why care about anything?”

bookmark_borderThe Absurdity of a Christian Home Business

I have to say, it’s interesting to notice the small, usually Christian advertisements just above on this blog. Right now one of them says, “God Wants You To Be Rich: Earn $7,000 Over & Over Again. Christian Home Business. Be Blessed.”

A bad joke, but perhaps also a hopeful sign for secularists. It’s very attractive to think of religion as an all-encompassing point of view and way of life. But in the modern world, trying to do Christian music, Christian psychology, Christian finance and all in the end reaches the absurdity of a Christian Home Business. You can talk about Christian faith and morality illuminating all aspects of your life, but almost inevitably, the fragmentation of modern life takes over and people do the same secular things as their neighbors but with an asinine “Christian” or ‘Muslim” label slapped on them. It makes the faithful feel better, and that’s fine. But it also suggests that religion can’t take over everything.

bookmark_borderTrilemma Revisited

My old friend J. P. Holding thinks I have committed a category mistake and provides a counter-argument of his own:

Peter claims that Jesus was God incarnate. He makes this claim based upon what he considers to be justifiable evidence. Jesus told him that He was God incarnate. Further, Jesus has fond memories of being God and when asked, His mother supports Jesus’s claim. Jesus even passes a lie-detector test when asked whether or not He is God. Peter is also convinced that Jesus is a sane person and not prone to telling lies. Therefore, Peter’s third-person claim to knowledge demonstrates that Jesus is (1) telling the truth, (2) not purposefully lying, and it is clear that (3) he does not misunderstand Jesus’s assertion. Unfortunately, Jesus was actually Zeus incarnate rather than God incarnate. Jesus was actually descended from Zeus and His mother does not want Him to learn of His true origins.

Thus the analogy does not hold, and the problem remains: How could one be mistaken about being God incarnate? The very thing that needs to be answered is not even touched upon! The character and nature of the claims of Jesus are such that proof of being mistaken would all too easily come to pass! Still’s comparison is completely irrelevant.
Incredibly Holding cannot imagine that someone with aspirations of divinity could be mistaken. Presumably they must either be lying through their teeth or certifiably insane. Was David Koresh insane to believe himself to be the Messiah? I wouldn’t say so. Sadly mistaken with visions of grandeur certainly but not insane. There’s also the late Grand Rabbi Menachem Schneerson who behaved the way the messiah should and did nothing to dissuade the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Brooklyn and around the world from believing otherwise. Or how about Sun Myung Moon who proclaimed in the 2002 Clouds of Witnesses statement that he is the “Savior, Messiah, Second Coming and True Parent,” i.e., God, of all humanity? These are just three of our contemporaries. There have been dozens of such figures throughout history–just like these three and Jesus–who believed themselves to be sons of gods, messiahs, demi-gods, or the Big Guy himself. I’m quite sure that many of these characters really were con-artists or just plain wacky. These are the people that C. S. Lewis no doubt had in mind when he formulated the trilemma. Like Holding and many others, Lewis gave too much benefit of the doubt to Jesus and too little to all others. But the truth is not so simple. Among the very devout there have been numerous serious, committed, sober and sane religious leaders who firmly believe themselves to be divine incarnations of one or another deity. Jesus joins that proud line of would-be saviors.

bookmark_borderGod and Values

Jim posted on Lya Kahlo’s fascinating experiment in which she visited Christian forums as an open atheist. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. She was asked, “If you don’t believe in God, why care about anything?” a total of 17 times. Some of us have been tempted to switch into full rant mode when naïve questions like these pop up. But I think it’s important for us nonbelievers to understand the motivation behind this question.
First, in my experience to “believe in God” typically conflates two things. To believe in God is to believe that God exists and further to believe that such a being ought to be our ultimate concern. In the absence of this ultimate concern, then presumably nothing is of concern, nothing matters, and all is lost. Therefore for anything to have value, the implicit thinking goes, God must exist.
I think the way to go about responding to this question is to nudge the theist into seeing his or her mistaken assumption that without God nothing can have value. Ask the theist this hypothetical: “Let’s just suppose for a moment that God didn’t exist. Would you still love your parents?” Obviously everyone is going to say that they would. So there is at least one thing to care about even in the absence of God. The truth is, none of us know whether God exists or not and yet this ignorance doesn’t stop any of us from valuing family, friendships, and our communities. All of us care about an enormous number of things in our lives.
Hopefully, the naïve question of the believer can be a teaching moment. With luck they will come to see that we largely value the same things that they value and that our values have little or nothing to do with the existence of God. The question won’t go away anytime soon but we can help guide theists who ask it to a greater understanding of atheism. Or we can switch into rant mode and reinforce all of their stereotypes about atheists.

bookmark_border16% nonbelievers?

I was trying out the Center for Inquiry‘s new podcast, Point of Inquiry. Pretty decent programs, actually. Well worth listening to.
One thing, however, rubbed me the wrong way. They used this by now infamous “according to blah blah poll, 16% of Americans are nonreligious” statement, with the implication that this 16% were nonbelievers, almost-humanists, whatever. No. That poll is pretty well known, and it doesn’t show this at all. Most of these 16% have strong supernatural beliefs, either of a quite conventional theistic sort or a more more eclectic New Age variety. They might not go to church regularly, they might think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” but they are certainly not godless infidels by any stretch of the imagination. The best information I can find puts the number of Americans truly without supernatural beliefs between 1 and 6%. That’s it. And if I remember right, magazines asociated with the CFI (Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer) have already made this point anyway.
I don’t know what the motivation is here — security in numbers, the “I’m not alone” feeling? Whatever it is, I wish this whole numbers-exaggeration business would stop.