bookmark_borderGrowth

World population growth is in the 1-2% per year range. GDP growth is typically 2-3%; US economists consider about 3% the ideal.

Most of what is decent about modern life depends on growth. From biology, we might expect a nasty, Darwinian competition for resources. In Richard Dawkins’s words,

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Growth allows us to escape or postpone this state of misery. We can hope for the time of plenty to last, for the growth of available resources to outpace the growth of the population. Even in physics, an expanding set of possibilities is the most direct way to drive systems away from equilibrium and make space for interesting kinds of order to form.

The degree of secularism we have, the success of science, and the degree of breathing space for irreligion we enjoy, has a lot to do with growth in modern economies.

Economic growth as a paramount value is deeply embedded in secular politics, left or right wing.

And yet, imagine what an annual 2% growth rate would mean, whether due to population increase or increased resource use to a stable population becoming wealthier. Make some ridiculously optimistic assumptions: follow mainstream economists in assuming that human ingenuity, technology, resource substitutions etc. will overcome all problems of scarcity. Translate all this into a 2% growth rate for the sheer physical volume needed by humans. Pack all this into a sphere.

It takes only about 5000 years for the radius of this sphere to expand faster than the speed of light. (It’s a simple calculation.)

Continual exponential growth is insane.

This is a secular insanity. Economists don’t appeal to supernatural faith. They might express an Enlightenment faith in human abilities to overcome all limits, but that’s a secular leap of faith.

Yet growth is vital, especially for secularists. In the short term, in a small scale economy, it could even make sense. But now, human civilization—due to technological advances secularists justly celebrate—already has a planetary scale. We are a force of nature.

Our religions are not helping. They might not be capable of helping. But I wonder if our secular ideologies are, if anything, even more committed to growth. Religions might be accused of ignoring problems of scale due to their supernatural focus and archaic moral vision. Enlightenment secularism might be accused of fueling the problem, even if inadvertently. Secularism, certainly, seems more dependent on growth than religion.

bookmark_borderThe Suicide of Reason

I recently read The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment, by conservative commentator Lee Harris. It’s pretty worthless, except as evidence that anyone seems to feel free to write a book on Islam, without the benefit of research or experience.

Some of Harris’s points are sane enough. Liberal Enlightenment-based politics is different. It’s a historical accident, not some kind of natural default state. Neither is it a way of life that’s automatically appealing to people not specifically enculturated in a modern Western-derived mode. And this political culture can be fragile.

But beyond that, Harris is not really interested in the real world. He portrays the US as a polity corresponding to an ideal type of liberty (in the conservative sense), and peppers his arguments with assumptions that look asinine to anyone who isn’t an American nationalist. Then, to oppose this ideal type of “reason,” he presents a negative ideal type, that of “fanaticism,” now embodied by a monolithic mass called “Islam.” And that’s it. His view of both the “West” (represented by conservative aspects of the US) and “Islam” (represented by the suicide-bombing fringe) never rises above the crude stereotypes informing his ideal types, and he doesn’t seem to care about how actual countries or cultures might approximate or strongly deviate from the ideal types, even in cases where they might be ideologically committed to such ideals.

I guess there’s a market for this sort of tripe, especially among people who like to be praised as embodying “reason” while their (often imaginary) enemies get dehumanized as “fanatics.” I’d be hard pressed to say there’s a lot of reason in Muslim lands at present. But there’s plenty of fanaticism back here at home, and I’m inclined to think that in the end, Harris represents this fanaticism. There’s a scary aspect to conservative Islam-bashing, that goes beyond intellectual laziness and piss-poor scholarship.

bookmark_borderWomen, feminism, and religion

A short while ago I asked, Why is skepticism primarily a male thing?, and speculated on how traditional gender roles inclined women toward religiosity. There’s an interesting post on the feminist blog Pandagon, called “Feminism helps collapse religion,” that addresses some of the same questions. The comments on it are also interesting.

Still, there’s no convincing answer that I’ve come across. For example, in many situations (the US is an exception in this regard), women tend to be more politically conservative. French left-wingers, for example, refused to support votes for women until after World War II, because it was clear that women would give Catholic reactionaries an advantage. Religiosity has a strong correlation with political conservatism, but I’m damned if I can see if in such cases, women are more religious because they are more conservative, the other way around, if both religiosity and religion causally depend on a third factor such as lack of power, if both depend on a third factor I’m overlooking, or whatever.

bookmark_borderReligion as a social good

On the Touchstone web site, there’s an article by Logan Paul Gage, “Staying Power”, that is an interesting current example of the argument that religion is socially beneficial. Presumably this means that religion deserves public support of some kind.

Some of the article is basic conservative spin. But it’s not entirely so easy to dismiss. The social science research Gage mentions is quite mainstream, as far as I can make it. There is real (if ambiguous) evidence that religiosity is associated with all sorts of things that may be good for human communities.

Now, all this is irrelevant to arguments concerning the truth of supernatural claims. We may even suspect that when defenders of religion resort to saying that religion should be supported for secular reasons, that is a sign that the gods are not as plausible as they once seemed. There’s a difference between saying that you should believe in Jesus because God commands it and this will save your soul, and saying that we should believe because it helps the crime rate or our blood pressure.

I should add that secularizing trends also need not mean much. Gage points to research by Robert Wuthnow to support his position, but Wuthnow’s “Myths About American Religion” seems to indicate a slight secular trend in the US, if anything. But this appears to be connected to intellectually irrelevant considerations such as people marrying and having children later in life. This sort of thing is common in social scientific explanations of religion in general. If people become more religiously indifferent, this typically has nothing to do with increasing awareness of science or spreading Enlightenment attitudes or anything like that.

bookmark_borderAtheist web site blocked in Turkey

A Turkish-language atheist web site has been rendered inaccessible to Turkish readers, due to a court order obtained by a leading Muslim creationist movement. I’ve received a plea for help, in the form of protests against Turkish institutions. The full text of the plea has also been posted on a blog page.

Here are some highlights:

Ateizm.org, the most prominent non-profit Turkish web site on atheism and religions was closed for the second time in December 2007, under orders from a Turkish court. Ateizm.org was established in 2000 by three young Turkish atheists who devoted themselves to the enlightenment of Turkish people. Ateizm.org hosts an online discussion board named Ateistforum (forum.ateizm.org), one of the busiest forums for the Turkish speaking online community over the Internet. Ateizm.org received 1000 visits a day at its peak when it was open. . . .

. . . If we hired a lawyer and challenged the court order, we probably would have won our case. But we do not want to disclose our identities. This is our biggest weakness. According to our lawyer, there is no way to take a legal action in Turkey and remain anonymous at the same time. Many Turkish intellectuals who were against Islam and outspoken about their views on religion were murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in the past. We do not want to risk our lives. . . .

The ban on ateizm.org in Turkey is yet another example of fundamentalist Islam gaining ground in a country survived as a secular democracy for well over half a century. Today secular forces in Turkey are struggling to protect democracy. Fundamentalist Islam aided by vast local and foreign financial resources is rapidly gaining ground. Therefore in Turkey, forces of “Secularism”, “Democracy” and “Freedom of Speech” need all the help they can get. . . .

bookmark_borderCatholicism and science

Catholicism is interesting in the way it can be such a big tent. Protestants go their separate ways when they disagree, which I guess gives them some clarity at the expense of unity. But especially the way Catholics respond to science in so many different ways is fascinating.

There are plenty of Catholic conservatives who strenuously oppose a modern scientific picture of reality. Many conservative Catholics reliably support distortions of science that promise to restore a God-centered view of the universe. So you get plenty of Catholics involved in the intelligent design style of creationism. See, for example, this review of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, by British Christian anti-evolutionist and philosopher Lohn Lennox. I haven’t read the book, but my acquaintance with Lennox so far leads me to believe that it’s typical intelligent design tripe.

But then, for every Catholic intelligent design proponent like Michael Behe, there’s also a Catholic defender of science such as Ken Miller. Mind you, I can’t be fully enthusiastic about Miller, as he seems to merely displace intelligent design onto cosmology. But even with his own misinterpretations of science, Miller is at least a strong and reliable voice for proper science education. And for every Catholic cardinal or theologian making antiscience noises, there’s a Catholic theologian speaking up for science, such as John Haught who was a very effective witness in the Dover ID trial. Again, I can find plenty to gripe about in Haught’s work, such as the way he struggles to read some progressive qualities into evolution. But in the end, he’s relatively harmless. If all theologians produced warm and fuzzy but insubstantial anti-materialist writings like Haught, we could just ignore theology and get on with the serious business of acquiring knowledge about nature.

In the end, I guess we just have to hope that the more liberal Catholics get the upper hand over their stricter colleagues.

Update: The Vatican is shutting down the observatory at the Pope’s summer residence. This news story finds some symbolic significance in this act, but I don’t know enough about the whole context to be able to say anything about it. There’s also a protest against a Papal visit by Italian scientists, due to the antiscientific stance of the present Pope. Again, I don’t know enough about the context to comment. But clearly not all is well between official Catholicism and scientific institutions.

bookmark_borderMoral certitude in politics

Religious studies professor Ira Chernus has an interesting article, “Is Religion a Threat to Democracy?,” in which he says:

In itself, faith in politics poses no great danger to democracy as long as the debates are really about policies — and religious values are translated into political values, articulated in ways that can be rationally debated by people who don’t share them. The challenge is not to get religion out of politics. It’s to get the quest for certitude out of politics.

He also says many other reasonable things.

Yet I wonder. Refraining from going on a quest for certainty is not easy, and not just for voters stressed by social change. Indeed, abandoning the quest for certainty is particularly difficult in a religious context. So, does a view like that expressed by Chernus mean, in practice, that faith in politics very often will be a danger for democracy? (Or rather, liberal democracy.) Probably not what he had in mind…

bookmark_borderThe Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

I recently noticed, on the new books stand in a Borders bookstore, a small book called The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. By French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, it looked like a user-friendly popular book designed to cash in on the improbable success of some recent atheist books. Indeed, I picked it up to browse, expecting to encounter something more akin to New Age “spirituality” literature—entertaining, but in an eye-rolling sort of way.

It turned out to be much better, which led me to get hold of it and read it through properly. Yes, it’s a popular, non-academic book. And yes, it is concerned with those fuzzier questions about how to live life that often go under the heading of “spirituality.” But it’s also a rich, thought-provoking book that is good both for people looking for a non-confrontational introduction to religious nonbelief and for skeptics who enjoy books that prompt serious reflection.

I am not saying I agree with every theme of the book:

  • Comte-Sponville’s defense of “fidelity” to Christian tradition while denying its theological claims is welcome as a corrective to overly hostile atheist views of religion. It recognizes how labels such as “Jewish” or “Christian” stand for a history and a civilization that can be valued regardless of dogmas attached to them. Nevertheless, those of us who are attracted to the tradition of the European Enlightenment precisely because it promises a break from such traditions won’t be entirely satisfied.
  • Comte-Sponville lists some good arguments supporting atheism, and not only the usual suspects like the failure of the classical arguments for theism. But those of us who think scientific naturalism is the most serious reason to doubt God will not agree with the short shrift science gets in Comte-Sponville’s account. We’ll find his emphasis on the mainstream philosophical tradition dubious, remembering how easy it is to turn this tradition into empty metaphysical handwaving and a handmaiden to theology.
  • It’s nice how Comte-Sponville reminds readers that “spiritual” practices and mysticism do not have to come with supernatural commitments. But some of us will remain cold, suspecting that there is good reason that mysticism so regularly comes attached to religious and often antiscientific attitudes.

Nonetheless, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality is definitely worthwhile to read and to recommend. One reason is its tone. The recent crop of atheist bestsellers have attracted much criticism for their hostile attitude. Much of this criticism is unjust, not to mention knee-jerk. Still, the unfortunate stereotype of the angry atheist has ended up being reinforced. It would be very difficult to misread Comte-Sponville as being anything but the most sympathetic of critics.

More important, I should reiterate how reading the book is a very rewarding experience, because of the intriguing questions it raises throughout. If you want a solid introduction to scientific naturalism, pick up a copy of my Science and Nonbelief; for a more in-depth defense of scientific naturalism, see my The Ghost in the Universe. But even if you’re convinced by a naturalistic big-picture view of the world, that is only the starting point for many questions, a lot of them usually discussed in a context of “spirituality.” And here, I admit that the philosophical tradition is most useful in raising the right questions and exploring some possible paths. In that context, Comte-Sponville is an admirable guide.

bookmark_border“Teen atheist” newspaper story

I’m in Chicago at the moment, and in the Chicago Tribune, I noticed a story about a 14-year old Illinois atheist fighting a “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.”

It seems to treat nonbelief as a curiosity rather than as a menace, though there’s the “lawsuit-happy infidel being a nuisance for the community” media stereotype as a subtext through the story as well. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.