bookmark_borderWould we want divine intervention?

One reason I don’t fully trust arguments against God that revolve around the problem of evil is that I don’t have that clear an idea about what a more perfect world would look like. Sure, I can suggest some improvements to the universe. But if I were able to fundamentally mess with the way the world works, I would still have very little hope to calculate what all the unintended consequences would be.

For example, I have no idea whether I would like the opportunity to have supernatural knowledge about certain things.

Say I could pray to an appropriate deity or make a Faustian bargain with a devil to solve some problem in physics. I’d be tempted. I’ve spent half of today—one of many occasional such days—essentially gazing at the wall, getting ever more frustrated with my inability to come up with a foothold that would let me tackle a nasty mathematical problem. I need a solution, to see if some wild idea I have corresponds to any real physics or is merely crazy. If a mathematician were to come by and offer to sell me a solution, I’d immediately be checking what’s in my bank account. (Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if some mathematician has already done what I want. But it’s easier to reinvent the wheel sometimes than to try to find something that if it exists might be buried in an obscure mathematical journal. Especially since I’m a physicist, and mathematics is only neighboring territory, not my home ground.)

But somehow, buying that proof from a supernatural source would not be the same, even if the price was reasonable. I like the idea of science and math being a human accomplishment. Somehow it would cheapen the enterprise if when we got stuck, we would have the possibility to perform some ritual or call on some higher power, and there we have our answers.

And maybe something similar goes for other possibilities for divine intervention as well. In many cases, we’d get what we want, but somehow it would be cheapened. Mind you, if I had cancer, and a faith healer could cure me, I wouldn’t be griping about how it would be more satisfying if human medicine would have saved me.

In other words, when speaking of divine intervention improving the world, I find that I am of two minds, confused, ambivalent. I begin to think that when a theologian wants to block the force of the problem of evil, the best move they can make is to point out the limitations of our knowledge. It’s taking refuge in obscurity, to be sure. But in this case, at least some of the fog seems to be real.

bookmark_borderSecularism bashed by foreign policy group

According to the Washington Post, a foreign policy task force has decided that “Western secularism” is impeding US foreign policy goals. The US needs to make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”

Some of this might be based on a degree of reality. If our imperial masters have been ignoring religion as a major cultural force in the world, then, they’ve been screwing up. I doubt that this is the case, but I don’t really know.

What worries me is the notion of explicitly disavowing secularism becoming tied to military and foreign policy. In the US, “national defense” (in the sense of the best defense being a good offense, I assume) is politically untouchable. We even build highways and fund science because these are supposed to be national security imperatives. So if “excessive secularism” becomes perceived as a problem in this corner of public life, that would be anti-secularism with some serious teeth. In a time when the US military is taking on an increasingly evangelical color, and casual Islamophobia is rampant, I worry that it is not just awareness of religion but flat-out religiosity that will become an integral part of US foreign policy.

bookmark_borderOld Testament in action

With conservative religious people, you always have to worry that they actually believe what they say.

Today’s example: State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas, Virginia.

The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children. . . In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.

Now, there’s a claim that calls for a controlled statistical study.

bookmark_borderYoung Americans remain believers

The Pew Research Center has a new report out, entitled “Religion Among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional In Other Ways.”

Short summary: the younger generation of Americans are weaker in their institutional religious affiliations, though the vast majority is still tied to a religion. Where supernatural beliefs are concerned, however, most young Americans remain thorough believers, even when not attached to older institutional forms. There is a slightly increased percentage of outright nonbelievers, and their part of the population is likely to remain stable rather than drifting into churches as they age.

Media spin: “Young Americans less religious than their parents (CNN), or “Study on religion finds young adults less affiliated but not less believing” (LA Times).

My take: secularist arguments that the US is following Europe in the sense of its population becoming less religious are not supported by the Pew report. It may, somehow, be true. (There may be even something buried in the data somewhere; I’m not a social scientist, after all.) Maybe there is something to the somewhat larger nonbelieving population. But the notion that the US is secularizing smacks of wishful thinking.

bookmark_borderHuman rights and universal human interests

Much of liberal secular moral thought, including notions of human rights, seeks common ground between people who might have differing comprehensive moral or religious convictions. We want secular government, because we think that everyone’s interests would be best served by a government that does not play favorites. We want human rights to be respected, because everyone has an interest in not being tortured, not being jailed for political or religious convictions, and so forth.

I usually side with those who argue that such liberal conceptions are not all that neutral, since they disadvantage conservative, communal forms of religiosity. So let me air another concern: how much of human rights depend on a certain shared common picture of the world: a minimal set of facts about common human interests that can command agreement?

At first, it seems there are such common interests. We do want to avoid torture. But again, if we bring conservative, communal religion into the picture, things get more ambiguous. After all, we all also have an interest in avoiding the tortures of hell. And for many religious people, hell is such a calamity that avoiding it is an interest that overrides many worldly concerns. So it’s not clear to me that finding a noncontroversial list of basic human interests is that easy.

Once again, it seems to me that implicitly, liberal politics depends on some view about what is reasonable, and what it might be reasonable to disagree about, that puts conservative religiosity at a disadvantage. This doesn’t bother me, naturally enough. It’s not my ox that gets gored. But I wish we could defend this view without pretending neutrality—fully acknowledging that conservative religious oxes get gored, and that that’s how we prefer things.

bookmark_borderDeriving morality

A student who took an internet quiz and got diagnosed as a “secular humanist” emailed me, asking me what I thought secular humanism was all about. Good question.

I said that “‘Secular humanist’ is most often a label adopted by people who are skeptical of supernatural entities, and who identify with political and moral views deriving from the tradition of the European Enlightenment.” I added that “Secular humanists are less interested in finding a unified functional substitute for religion,” and that “Agnosticism and atheism are positions regarding the existence of some sort of God. Most secular humanists are, indeed, doubtful about the reality of any God. But they also do not think a position on God is such an important thing as to tell us a lot about a person. Many humanists put as much emphasis on the ethical aspects of living without gods.”

Now, thinking about it, I didn’t add something that bothers me about some morality-talk by people who identify as secular humanists. And that’s the notion of having a moral outlook that is in some sense derived from rejection of the supernatural. It strikes me that closely linking morality to ones stand on gods and demons is (or should be) more of a theistic preoccupation.

I’d say that secular humanists—or whatever you want to call religious skeptics with roots in the Enlightenment tradition— don’t derive their secular liberal moral outlook from any metaphysical principles or such nonsense. This is a tradition of political and moral reflection, and much of what goes on with it is a product of a particular historical and cultural experience.

bookmark_borderThe Vatican has an economist

Here’s a nice lead paragraph to a story:

Bankers are not the cause of the global economic crisis, according to the president of the Institute for the Works of Religion. Rather, the cause is ordinary people who do not “believe in the future” and have few or no children.

We owe this insight to Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, a “Vatican economist.”

OK, I’ll admit I’m already prejudiced against economists. Usually, what goes under the name of economics is a little too tangled with ideology for my liking, and my teeth are really set on edge when anyone claims economics is a science. (Economists have an irritating habit of taking something that might work as an approximation at a small scale, and generalizing it to a point where it becomes apparent they don’t believe in the second law of thermodynamics.)

But a Vatican economist? I just have to imagine an economist who combines the worst aspects of two very ugly ideologies: conservative Catholicism and free-market dogmatics. And yes, to the extent that it is possible to judge from the rest of the story, the results are just about as insane as I’d expect.

bookmark_borderMinister who converted to Islam

It’s easy to run into conversion and deconversion narratives: atheist becomes Christian, Christian loses faith, so on and so forth. Where nonbelief is involved, however, I’m probably too partisan. Maybe looking at conversions between different religions is a better way to get a handle on what is going on.

Here’s an interesting example: Jerald F. Dirks, a Minister of the United Methodist Church who converted to Islam. It seems he became very impressed with what he perceived as the moral integrity of the Muslims around him. It’s fascinating to me, as it seems Dirks’s mentality and mine, where supernatural beliefs are concerned, has very little overlap. I don’t know if we would have anything relevant to say to one another. That’s disconcerting.

Such “reversion to Islam” narratives are very popular among Muslims, as you might imagine. But then again, that’s true for just about any group with opinions about religion.

bookmark_borderCardiologists losing it

There is a very popular form of apologetic literature among Muslims, based on the notion that modern science and technology is congruent with, or even foreshadowed in, the sacred sources of Islam. It’s bad enough that this species of pseudoscience has a large following among the general public. What is worse is that significant numbers of devout Muslim professionals, particularly in the applied sciences, believe and promote this dreck. (See An Illusion of Harmony.)

One consequence of this, however, is that devout Muslim authors will often submit lower-key versions of this apologetic literature to international applied science journals. (Almost always lower tier journals, as you would expect.) Now, I don’t know much about rejection rates in such journals; my reviewing experience is in entirely different fields. But knowing, as anyone in academia does, about the imperfections of peer review, I’m not surprised a couple occasionally get through.

Interestingly, two cardiology papers of this apologetic nature have just been brought to my attention. One is “The heart and cardiovascular system in the Qur’an and Hadeeth,” by mostly US-based Muslim medical people. The other is less serious, since it’s only a letter to the editor: “Islamic legacy of cardiology: Inspirations from the holy sources” by three Turkish academic cardiologists.

Soon I expect half the Islamic apologists on the Internet will be citing these as Western academic confirmation of the miraculous knowledge contained in the Quran and other sacred sources. So it goes…