A prominent skeptics’ podcast I regularly listen to, Point of Inquiry, just had me on today for an interview about my latest book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.
It went well, and the result is interesting to listen to. (I hope.)
People seem to be looking because the Wiccan symbol has just been added to the list amid some controversy, but apparently the US Department of Veterans Affairs has an atheist emblem on the list of symbols to be used on gravestones:
plus a Humanist symbol:
Interesting. Especially the atheist symbol. It must be an American Atheists kind of organization-specific thing; I have no knowledge of any symbol generally associated with atheism, let alone the whole atom business.
I like Greg Saunders’s comment on it.
There’s a question that surfaces when reflecting on the beliefs of unfamiliar cultures, and especially their religions. “Do they really believe that?”, we may ask, when encountering beliefs about witchcraft or the evil eye. Such beliefs might seem not just wildly incongruent with reality, but somewhat incoherent, even inconsistent with the other convictions of religious believers who are perfectly competent in navigating the world in their daily lives. A Christian may wonder what a Muslim sees in the Quran that makes it seem such an obviously divine communication; a Muslim may be amazed at how a Christian can think of a wafer and wine as literally the body and blood of their prophet and their God.
Now, nonbelievers often perceive all supernatural claims to be eyebrow-raising in a similar way. But I wonder if the attitude of religious skepticism also inspires a “do they really believe that?” response from religious people in quite the same way. I regularly come across very similar questions, but their implication is typically not so much a worry about cognitive weirdness or incoherence as a worry about psychological coping. That is, I often encounter a “how can nonbelievers live like that?” question, with the implication that without Jesus, God, whatever, skeptics must be condemned to a cold and meaningless existence that might be constantly poised on the brink of suicide if not for the empty pleasures of the flesh that dull their existential terror. (OK, an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) But I do not see a “what the hell is going on here?” response analogous to a Muslim trying to wrap their minds around transubstantiation, for example.
I don’t know if this is true, or even all that significant, but it just kind of struck me now, and I don’t quite know what to make of it…
If US news has lately been dominated by the Virginia Tech shootings, news from Turkey has been full of the recent murders of three Christians. It appears that five students staying at a religiously-based dorm got outraged by the missionary activity linked to a local Christian publishing house. So they decided to do something about it: torture and then murder a German missionary and two converted Turks associated with the publisher. The Turkish media is full of expressions of shock and anger that such barbarism can be committed in the name of Islam. (Turkish Islam is usually a lot more easygoing than puritan varieties found in places like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.)
There’s all sorts of weird and nasty stuff involved here. First, lots of youths get radicalized by political Islamist movements, some which explicitly condone violence, a lot more which are just full of praise of extreme action in defense of the faith without thinking through how impressionable idiots might interpret striving for the faith. Then there is the widespread resentment againt missionaries — not hugely surprising, given how missionary activity often means an attempt to replace a centerpiece of the local culture with a foreign imposition. And, well, I guess there’s the sheer on-edge nature of much of politics and religion in Turkey today. Bad combination.
I wonder if religiously colored violence especially bothers me because from my perspective there’s an extra air of pointlessness and even stupidity about it. But that’s not all. In many parts of the world events such as murders of the representatives of a rival religion signal the possibility of serious communal clashes down the road. They’re often bloodbaths, and you don’t want to get caught in them.
Dinesh D’Souza opens mouth and inserts foot essentially hijacking the Virginia Tech tragedy to attack atheism in general and Richard Dawkins in particular. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when he suggests that “we need something more than modern science.” Clearly, following his latest disaster of a book in which he blames the secular state for the September 11 bombing, D’Souza is not keeping the first rule of holes firmly in mind.
If recent history is any guide, expect the leaders of the religious right to blame the tragic shooting in Virginia yesterday on our so-called corrupt secular culture. In Adele Stan’s fantastic summary of the recent “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said:
“[A]ll the pinks,” Land said, “have become chartreuse; that’s the environmental crowd.” In an America run by “secularists,” Land’s hand-out reads, “[h]uman life would become more commoditized.” There would be clone farms and polygamy, all part of “a neo-paganist triumph.”
Got that? If you’re concerned about global warming and recycle those empties then you’re just about a communist. And you probably support neo-pagan polygamy too (whatever that is). This coming from a man who was a co-signer of a letter to President Bush in 2002 urging him to invade Iraq.
Finally, consider the current national reaction to the tragedy of 33 students shot dead yesterday. On any given day in Iraq sectarian violence is responsible for about that many deaths. To put that into perspective, and given that Iraq’s population is around 27 million and the U.S. is around 400 million, imagine if the U.S. had regular shootings like yesterday with about 480 casualities for every occurrence. As horrific as that sounds, that’s what it’s like in Iraq right now.
Most Americans have turned against the war; however, evangelicals are still overwhelmingly its biggest gung ho supporters. What has evangelical Christianity become?
Here’s a sample of the occasional public pressure you get when you teach in a public university. The Missouri General Assembly will be debating a bill calling for “intellectual diversity.” The full text is interesting enough, but the most important bit is:
(e) Include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution’s guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant;
Now, there’s very little chance that something like this would be enacted, stand up to a court challenge, etc. etc. But it’s interesting to see how religious conservatives are using “diversity” language. To a certain extent, we in liberal academia have been asking for it, the way we’ve made a fetish out of diversity and representation (sometimes to the extent of ignoring distorting power imbalances that can’t be shoehorned into someone’s identity politics). So, it might make a kind of perverse sense. Definitely, in the halls of our science departments at least, Bible-inspired pseudoscience gets very little respect. So why not make a hue and cry about “viewpoint discrimination” and demand representation for a rather large constituent group?
Then again, maybe this sort of thing is just how it always is. Research and scholarship are always embedded in particular cultures. Perhaps we’ll always face demands to assimilate intellectual concerns into politics or salesmanship. Pressure to always produce knowledge that fits “practical” (commercial or military) needs, to treat students as “customers,” and to spend most your time scrounging for funding can be just as bad as explicit interference by the Religious Right.
Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. Just after I griped about some things he’s said recently. I feel bad. A great novelist and a great social critic; occasional griping aside, I will sorely miss him.
The AHA has set up a web site for those who would like to make a contribution in Vonnegut’s memory.
Complementing Jim Still’s post about “The Family,” Ed Brayton writes at Dispatches from the Culture Wars about how Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School, a 4th-tier law school barely half of whose graduates pass the bar exam, has managed to be the source of at least 150 appointees to the Bush administration. Perhaps the fact that Bush appointed former Regent University law school dean Kay Coles James as the director of the Office of Personnel Management has something to do with it?
Not surprisingly, these appointees seem to have been chosen for ideological loyalty rather than competence, a longstanding pattern for the Bush administration.
Hullabalo provides a fantastic update on the intriguing story of The Family, the secretive fundamentalist group that organizes the National Prayer Breakfast and enjoys a powerful influence over U.S. national leaders.