bookmark_borderExtraterrestrial Cattle

My brother just passed on a bit of weirdness to me, knowing I like this sort of stuff.

A British psychiatrist, Imad Hassan, is promoting a Muslim blend of creation and evolution. He accepts common descent, even denouncing Harun Yahya. Humans, however, are a partial exception, and he is convinced intelligent design is the overarching reason behind common descent.

That much is not at all unusual. Hassan says that Darwin died a Muslim, interpreting the fact that Darwin described himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist as an indication that he was a generic monotheist and hence “Muslim.” Fine—strange, but not hugely unusual for a Muslim.

But then, he gets seriously weird. There’s all sorts of crazy Quran-decoding, weird scenarios about what the Adam and Eve story was all about, and denunciations of Richard Dawkins. The crowning glory, however, is where he talks about extraterrestrial cattle. Yes,

Camels, cows, sheep and goats were created outside this planet and were brought down to the ape man ‘ Adams ’ after they were converted to intelligent beings.

That explains a lot.

I sometimes suspect that whenever you have belief in a sacred text communicated by God, you must have some substantial craziness lurking in the background.

bookmark_borderThe Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Politically aware American nonbelievers worry a lot about religious right politics. And this worry centers on evangelicals, though conservative Catholics also have a very important part in the Religious Right.

In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, journalist Christine Wicker suggests that we need not worry so much. Looking at US evangelicals, she sees not a religious powerhouse and political juggernaut but a subculture showing serious signs of decline.

Wicker says that the perception of evangelical power is partly a product of media manipulation. In reality, only about 7% of Americans belong to the very observant, hard-core, Religious Right faction of evangelicals. Most churches and denominations, including megachurches, are either in decline or have already reached limits to their growth. And in the background, modern American individualism and consumer culture continues to eat away at the cultural plausibility of Biblical literalism and the notion that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to avoid hell.

Much of what Wicker says is plausible, and fits well with what I know from writings by sociologists of religion. The evangelical subculture may well be losing ground. In the long run, the United States might not be able to avoid European-style secularization. This is not necessarily because of increased awareness of science (though Wicker does give this a role), but mainly because of religious individualism, cultural pluralism, and outright relativism. Old-fashioned, rule-bound, demanding religion will have less opportunity to reproduce itself. But Americans will not turn into scientific naturalists any more than Europeans. Wicker livens up the picture by avoiding long discussions of data and providing journalist-style stories of representative people who remain evangelicals or who have dropped out.

Not all the evidence she presents is equally persuasive. For example, she makes a lot of the fact that the more rigorous evangelicals are a minority among born-again Protestants as a whole, never mind the whole US population. But that need not be too significant. Many religions show a similar pattern of a small minority being the most observant followers, while a larger population of more worldly believers do not follow all the rules or show the same devotion. Most Muslim populations I know about are similar: only a relatively small population is rigorously observant. The rest typically acknowledge that the observant ones are the better Muslims, like the fact that at least some in the community are holding up the more rigorous ideals, but are generally happy to go through life as sinners. A similar relationship is true for many Jewish populations, where the Orthodox are acknowledged as the more authentic representation of the faith but do not get too many converts from among more worldly Jews. This pattern seems to be stable, and could remain so for American evangelicals.

The political significance of this pattern of religious overachievers and more lukewarm masses of less committed believers is less clear. I think it depends a lot on the context. Every now and then, the lukewarm masses get caught in a moral panic, and look favorably on the more morally pure taking charge. For example, many Muslims support hardline Islamists in an election even if they don’t like the full package—they’re just sick of all the corruption and think a more religious leadership will be less interested in lining their own pockets. In the US, however, a similar consideration may work against the Religious Right. After all, they are hypercapitalists as well as Jesus people, and their political ascendance with the Republican party has coincided with one of the most disastrous periods of institutionalized corruption in American history. Indeed, Wicker points out many in the evangelical religious orbit who have become disillusioned with politics and carry their disaffection in a religious direction as well.

Read the book. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced evangelical religion is in trouble, since it historically seems very good at reviving itself through new institutions. And even if the churches decline, evangelical Protestantism is too deeply ingrained in American culture for its influence to fall too deep below the surface. But Wicker does show that not all is well with evangelical religion. Those of us who prefer a more secular politics would do well to think about what opportunities this may present.

bookmark_borderRejecting hell

In a book I’m reading, I came across the story of an evangelical woman who one day realized she didn’t believe in hell. I found this interesting, particularly because a former student recently emailed me that he had come to the conclusion that there is no hell, and had in fact been drifting away not just from evangelical but Christian orthodoxy.

Now, clearly hell, and other nasty bits in monotheistic traditions, bother many people. Some occasionally decide they can’t believe in all that any more. I’m not sure how to interpret such events, however. I can see it as a kind of secularization, in that there’s a kind of individualism and dropping out of organized religion involved. But people who let go of hell typically don’t give up on supernatural convictions. A more common result seems to be drifting in the direction of an individualized spirituality, keeping God but rejecting hell, and maybe the Devil.

I guess in the long term, the result may be more secularization. After all, hell does have its place in the monotheistic intellectual economy. Without hell, there’s less of a motivation to believe at all costs, or, more importantly, to evangelize others. An individualized smattering of supernatural beliefs is less easy to reproduce in the next generation. Certainly it’s hard to make a coherent political force out of a diffuse, newagey supernaturalism. But I can also see this sort of pick-and-choose spirituality remaining as a kind of social default. I don’t know.

In any case, rejecting hell alone doesn’t turn anyone into any sort of nonbeliever. This is one problem I have with moral critiques of religious doctrines in general. The obvious solution is to make up a kinder and gentler religion. Which is fine with me, but it has no bearing on the truth of anything.

bookmark_borderGodless in North Carolina elections

The North Carolina Republican party is attacking Democratic candidate for the US Senate, Kay Hagan, for ties to that ultimate evil in US politics, atheists. Much of it is political misrepresentation, because Hagan, by all appearances, fits most standards of devoutness American politicians are measured against. She did, however, meet with representatives of a “Godless Americans PAC,” which I imagine takes some liberal-mindedness, not to mention courage.

You can find out more on the “I’m important and smart” blog, including scans of the Republican flyer accusing the Democrat of associating with atheists.

We already knew about polls that show atheists to be the people most despised by Americans, least likely to get their votes. Nice to see politicians putting such useful information into action.

bookmark_borderOf Love and Unknowns

There is a species of apologetic moves that I seriously dislike, mainly because they seem so empty on the face of it that when intelligent people say such things, I wonder if there is any point to the conversation any more. I run into these moves coming more from thoughtful, liberal religious people than from conservatives, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have universal appeal.

A recent article by Lisa Miller on Newsweek has two of these moves on display. First,

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don’t know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.

Arggh! The unknown is just the unknown, not a sign of the supernatural!

In physics, for example, we get plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with the unknown as yet (but we’re working on it), the unknown but we don’t have much of a clue (but we can speculate), the unknown but we don’t care (not interesting), the unknown because there is probably nothing to be known (random), the unknown because we forgot, and more in a large taxonomy of varieties of the unknown. None of these unknowns are something we worship, something we look to for cosmic meaning, something that grants eternal life, or something that creates the universe. An unknown is not an excuse for anthropomorphism. An unknown is not a mystery—not in the religious, “mystification” sense of mystery. An unknown is not a void in our being crying out for a leap of faith. It’s just bleeding unknown.

And then, Miller quotes Lorenzo Albacete, one of the strange breed who are priest-physicist combinations. A lot of them are real experts at mystification, but Albacete goes for one of the old favorites:

Faith is like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you have fallen in love with so-and-so. They have all the arguments, and you can understand what they’re saying, but you can’t help it, you’re in love.

Sigh. From where I stand, faith is more like explaining to your uncomprehending family why you’re forty and still have an imaginary friend, but let that pass. What I want to know is why this love vs. evidence juxtaposition is such a popular apologetic move.

Maybe it’s because faith is like love—a species of insanity. I’m serious. I love my wife, but that’s a different feeling than the utter brainless infatuation I endured when I first fell in love with her. Half my brain, I think, shut down at the time. I can see it’s useful for pair-bonding and propagation of the species and so forth, but I never want to live through anything like that again. What the apologetic move relies on, I guess, must be a sense of “knowing” that might accompany love, that may seem unrelated to any normal cognitive process but infused with certainty, especially if you’re suffering from the condition. You damn well know, and to hell with any consideration of evidence. All I can say is that thankfully, you get over infatuation eventually. Mature love and trust requires a lot more than acting like a hormone-addled idiot.

Then there’s the idea that acting lovingly in a relationship of trust requires us to disregard evidence. The issue is trust, and a skeptical evaluation of evidence demands an unacceptable distancing of ones self from the relationship. Even briefly setting aside trust eventually undermines trust. Maybe. (I’m not convinced.) But again, I don’t see how this kind of blind trust has much to do with the well-earned trust within a solid relationship, never mind that cognitively it’s still bleeding useless.

I suspect that one reason for the popularity of such apologetic moves is that they’re conversation-stoppers. The skeptic gets reduced to a state of sputtering incomprehension when faced with the inanity of the statement, and the believer walks off with a beatific smile.

bookmark_borderSpeaking on ID

Tomorrow, I give one of my occasional talks about Intelligent Design, in Columbia, MO. I stay away from religious questions at such events, unless someone in the audience explicitly brings one up. Evolution and ID are not religiously neutral topics, but whether Darwinian evolution succeeds as a scientific explanation and what this implies about the gods are different questions.

Most scientists and science educators would agree with this approach. After all, the primary reasons for resistance to evolution are religious, and the best way to dampen opposition to evolution is not to play into anxieties that accepting evolution will turn you into a godless infidel.

But then, I also have to wonder how my audience reacts to what I say when criticizing ID, especially if it’s a public event. If how people react is heavily dependent on what they perceive as the religious implications of what I say, where does that leave me? Should I worry that what a good number of people hear will be quite different than what I intend to say, because I do not really understand the context in which they interpret my words?

I really don’t know. And since I don’t know, I’ll go ahead and speak the way I am accustomed to. But when I think about it, this bothers me.