bookmark_borderAn Illusion of Harmony

It’s out! An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam is now available in bookstores, amazon.com, etc. etc. Just in time, John Gray has a full-length review in the latest New Scientist. With any luck, An Illusion of Harmony will benefit from the current public interest in all things Islamic.

Buy the book! It won’t make me rich, but if you want decent, accessible critiques of religion to be available to the general public, you should support books like this when they are published. (OK, shameless plug over.)

bookmark_borderSecular Islam Summit

On March 4, 5, in St Petersburg, Florida, a “Secular Islam Summit” appears to be scheduled. Nice idea. It wouldn’t hurt to have more discussion of secularist ideas in a Muslim context. And it could be interesting to see what comes out of a gathering of secular-oriented dissidents with Muslim roots.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the summit as shaping up that way. Right now, it’s bringing together too many people who confuse desire for a more secular Islamic culture with praise of American and Israeli neoconservative agendas in the Middle East. The summit seems to have some US nationalist associations, such as the Intelligence Summit and so forth.

So I’ll be surprised if much useful comes out of this. It’s difficult enough to get a hearing for criticism of Islam in the Muslim world; one of the roadblocks is the common suspicion that critics give aid and comfort to Western imperial ambitions. Very often, that suspicion just serves to deflect legitimate criticism by changing the subject. It should be possible to talk about Muslim problems without being paranoid or shifting blame onto outside forces all the time. But here is a case where it looks like even the paranoid is correct about his enemies once in a while.

Honestly, this is starting to piss me off. We always seem to get caught between multicultural lefties who cannot conceive of anything the Muslim “Other” does than can go wrong and that portion of right-wingers who think Islam is The Great Threat to Western Civilization. So invariably, it’s hard to come across anything about Islam that in our current media landscape that rises above the level of bullshit. Always, but always, their picture of “Islam” ends up as a mirror of their own ideological preoccupations. Sigh…

bookmark_borderForthcoming books

My Science and Nonbelief came out in 2006. Unfortunately, the hardcover costs $65, which is absurdly expensive. Too bad, because it’s a damn good book, and I like that I was able to include a good number of illustrations to help the text along.

Anyway, the good news is that Prometheus picked up the paperback rights, and the new edition will be coming out this November, for $18.95. Much more reasonable.

While I’m at it, I have a completely new book coming out in just a couple of weeks: An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam. I think anyone interested in a critique of Islam should enjoy this one.

bookmark_borderThose Crazy Jewish Evolutionists

International Jewish conspiracies and anti-evolution screeds all rolled into one [link]. The money quote:

The memo points to “indisputable evidence” that “evolution science has a very specific religious agenda” and refers readers to a Web site that asserts the universe revolves around the earth. It also suggests that Jewish physicists are part of the force behind a “centuries-old conspiracy” to destroy the Christian teachings of Earth’s origins.

bookmark_borderFundamentalist scientists

A previous student of mine pointed out an interesting article in The New York Times, on a fundamentalist Ph.D. geologist who is a young earther. Now there’s someone who’s going to have an interesting career.

Not that this sort of thing is hugely unusual. Back when I was in graduate school (almost 20 years ago now—urh) I knew another physics Ph.D. student who was very conservatively religious and was inclined toward a young-earth position. It’s a crazy position to hold if you’re going to be a physicist of any breadth, but if you’re planning to hunker down and just build experimental equipment and take data you might be able to get away with it. I figure any religious scientist has to engage in some intellectual compartmentalization, but fundamentalist scientists must have to engage in an extreme version.

bookmark_borderThe Greek gods are back

Or rather, are being worshipped again in Greece:

To the astonishment of onlookers, [Doreta] Peppa also began babbling Orphic hymns, before thrusting her arms upwards into the Attic skies and proceeding, somewhat deliriously, to warble her love for the gods of Mount Olympus. But, then, for the motley group of modern pagans coalesced around the temple’s giant Corinthian columns, this was a special moment. Not since the late fourth century AD, when the newly Christian Roman state outlawed all forms of pagan worship, had a high priestess officiated on the sacred site.

For years, Orthodox clerics believed that they had defeated Greeks wishing to embrace the customs and beliefs of the ancient past. But increasingly the church, a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, has been confronted by the spectre of polytheists making a comeback in the land of the gods. Last year, Peppa’s group, Ellinais, succeeded in gaining legal recognition as a cultural association in a country where all non-Christian religions, bar Islam and Judaism, are prohibited. As a result of the ruling, which devotees say paves the way for the Greek gods to be worshipped openly, the organisation hopes to win government approval for a temple in Athens where pagan baptisms, marriages and funerals could be performed. Taking the battle to archaeological sites deemed to be “sacred” is also part of an increasingly vociferous campaign.

But Ellinais, whose members range from elderly academics to young professionals, is not the only sect to practise the ethnic Hellenic faith. Those who claim to “defend the genuine traditions, religion and ethos” of pre-Christians say there are at least 2,000 hard-core followers and, nationwide, more than 100,000 sympathisers. Nationalist extremists, attracted by the creed’s emphasis on Hellenic glories, are helping to boost the revival.

More at Guardian Unlimited.

bookmark_borderSilly Arguments

Taner Edis lists one of Harris’ “silly arguments” against atheism in which “religion is used as a rationale for other aims.” He concludes, correctly I think, that “paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.” I agree. After all, the Abolitionist Movement in the U.S. probably would not have gotten very far in the North if its early adherents did not fashion a religious argument to bolster the main secular case. That’s hardly a silly argument. However I imagine that if we took a poll most of our fellow atheists would come down on Harris’ side. Indeed, maybe it’s because I’m reading Dawkin’s new book and so I’m sensing the new angrier tone but there seems to be a strong feeling right now that religious ideas are at the root of all evil in the world. This seems way too simplistic. As Jane Galt asks:

[I]s it reasonable for atheist/agnostic types to add an extra special layer of dislike to ideas that are held for religious reasons? People hold ideas for all sorts of reasons that are not, to me, obviously more attractive than plucking them out of the sacred book that has guided your culture for several thousand years. The basic theorems of your religion have at least stood the test of time, unlike Angelina Jolie’s oeuvre. Sure, maybe God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean His pronouncements must be stupider than Alec Baldwin’s, or your college roommate with delusions of Derrida.

I can’t meet her all the way here and agree that religion’s “basic theorems” have “stood the test of time.” Clearly (as she admits) the basic theorem of God’s existence isn’t exactly passing that test of time. However, I take her basic point to be true. Today, an idea’s merits should rest more on its pragmatic fit in the complex web of a society rather than whether or not its derivation is secular or sectarian. I’d like to see atheists accept or reject an idea on its merits alone rather than because it came out of theism. Too far in that direction and we become ideologues ourselves, losing sight of the critical thinking techniques for which even our critics admire us. If theists propose some horrible idea based on religious notions then I’ll be the first to condemn it. However, if they propose an idea which is sound but couched in religious language then I would want to support it for the underlying reasons that make it a good idea rather than discard it as tainted.

bookmark_border“Silly retorts to atheism”: Really?

In his latest column in Free Inquiry, Sam Harris gives a list of “silly retorts to atheism” made by atheists reluctant to oppose religion, and announces a contest to come up with short replies.

Now, the four items on Harris’s list are indeed dubious. Nonetheless, I think most of them bring up good questions, which are obscured by Harris’s caricature. Let me go through them one by one.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

I don’t know about “wrong.” But it surely makes sense to ask why we should aggressively promote nonbelief to those who appear to benefit from their religion and who also do not interfere with the lives of skeptics. There seem to be many such people. I doubt anyone can make the case that most people would be better off without their supernatural beliefs. Most of the evidence that I know of suggests the opposite: that religious belief and activity benefit most believers. It seems at least defensible to say that many people need religion. Acknowledging this does not mean refraining from criticizing religion, only paying attention to context. There are social enterprises—academic life in particular—in which subjecting beliefs and institutions to criticism is normal and proper. Why should we expect that public life in general should fit the same mold?

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

At face value, this is clearly false. Religion is not merely “superstructure” or a disguise for real motivations. Nevertheless, people who might say this do, I suspect, also have a point. Religions vary widely; religious movements can even claim to defend the same scriptures and doctrines and yet interpret them to produce significantly different political and moral orientations. Understanding religion in the real world requires much more than a critique of an idealized orthodox doctrine; paying attention to the political, economic, and social background of religious groups is indispensable.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

Again, false at face value. But it does not hurt to recognize that much, probably even most of religious activity is not directly concerned with claims about reality. Take, for example, creationism. It would be absurd to suggest that it is only metaphor, or that it is not a serious form of conflict between science and the conservative Abrahamic religions. But any visitor to a conservative Christian bookstore can see that creationism, while important, is a comparatively minor preoccupation of the faithful. The bulk of Christian literature has other interests. It is a mistake to think that religion is always focused on supernatural claims. Religious people usually take the supernatural for granted and apply religion to very practical interests.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

I wouldn’t put it so strongly, but I think there is considerable truth here. All the evidence suggests that supernatural perceptions are deeply rooted in human brains and that religion is ingrained in human societies. Expecting that belief in supernatural agents can be overcome without some serious reconfiguring of human nature does, indeed, border on the delusional. If Dawkins is not wasting his time, it is not because he can expect any great success for his hopes of a nonreligious human future, but because his efforts at consciousness-raising can help among populations that are already inclined toward nonbelief. Reflective, science-minded nonreligious people will likely remain a small social minority. Many of us value a social space for skepticism, and a healthy, confident minority of reflective nonbelievers helps provide this space. Moreover, this is a realistic goal. I can see how some nonbelievers could worry that a quixotic crusade against all religion could distract from more attainable ends.

I wish Harris would start behaving more sensibly, particularly as he seems to have become some kind of media spokesperson for atheism. He has an irritating tendency to insinuate that less aggressive forms of nonbelief are associated with intellectual cowardice. Nonsense. People have reasons for holding back; at the very least these need to be argued against, not caricatured and countered with slogan contests.

bookmark_borderBelief, behavior, and bumper sticker religion

I’ve occasionally remarked that I don’t care so much what people believe as I do how they act. The people I enjoy spending time with are not always those who share my beliefs, but are those who demonstrate integrity, respect, honesty, and other virtues. These virtues are associated with not just holding beliefs in the sense of a mere tendency to agree with a statement, but a deeper belief that actually has consequences for one’s behavior. When I was a born-again Christian, I heard many sermons to the effect that many Christians were Christian in name only, paying only lip service to the doctrines while not living their lives in accordance with them. Clearly, there are a lot of such people out there.

There are a number of arguments that have been made by atheists to the effect that typical Christian behavior demonstrates that they do not really believe what they purport to believe. One such argument (a relatively weak one) is that Christians grieve at the funerals of fellow Christians.

Another is one that I’ve used myself, that applies to Christians of the sort who have bumper stickers on their cars that say “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” If these people really believed in an imminent pre-tribulation rapture, they would not just be putting stickers on their cars, they would refrain from engaging in activity that would put others at risk of not just death but condemnation to hell. Specifically, these people are purporting to believe that

(1) We are living in the End Times. Armageddon is near, and the rapture may occur at any moment.
(2) At the rapture, all believing Christians will be taken bodily up into heaven, while nonbelievers are left behind.

They also typically believe that

(3) During the seven-year tribulation that will follow the rapture, nonbelievers who convert to Christianity will achieve salvation and make it to heaven (though they will likely suffer persecution at the hands of the Antichrist and be martyred).

and

(4) Those who die without converting to Christianity will suffer eternal torment in hell.

But combine this with the following common sense belief that I think most would agree with:

(5) Driving an automobile, flying a plane, or operating heavy equipment while in a state in which one may lose control at any moment (e.g., being intoxicated, being subject to epileptic seizures or narcolepsy) recklessly endangers the lives of other human beings and is immoral.

and you get a problem for anyone who actually believes their own bumper sticker slogan yet thinks that they are not doing anything wrong by driving, that

(6) Christians do not act immorally by driving an automobile, flying a plane, or operating heavy equipment.

The items (1)-(5) cannot be held consistently with (6). At least one of them has to give in order for (6) to be the case. I suspect that most Christians don’t really believe (1), and hold that the probability of the occurrence of the rapture during the immediate future (such as within the duration of a drive or airplane flight) to be significantly lower than the probability of an accident due to the other factors listed in (5).