bookmark_borderRobert Wright with Bill Moyer’s Transcript Available

Bill Moyer's interview with Robert Wright, which aired last Friday, is now available on transcript here. My favorite part was when Moyer's challenged his Platonism:

ROBERT WRIGHT: No. And I think, you know, in a way we shouldn't. I mean I think if there is you know, something out there called moral truth. And we should continue to try to relate to it in a way that brings us closer to it. And it–

BILL MOYERS: I don't understand what you mean. Out there?


BILL MOYERS: What did–

ROBERT WRIGHT: Did I say that?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you've said it several times. I mean–

ROBERT WRIGHT: I should be careful.

BILL MOYERS: –if you don't–

ROBERT WRIGHT: Because I don't– what do I mean. I don't–I mean what. Transcendent is a very tricky word…. I don't know exactly what I mean by transcendent. I may mean beyond our comprehension. I may mean you know, I may mean prior to the creation of the universe or something. I don't know.

Tricky indeed! It's easy for theists to be metaphysical realists with respect to moral truth because they can say that truth derives from God. (The "good" is that which pleases God and the "bad" is that which displeases Him.) But if you begin with the premise that God is an illusion, as Wright did early in the show, then it's difficult to say that moral truth is transcendent while in the next breath suggesting that it it beyond our comprehension.

bookmark_borderWhence Physical Laws?

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, physicist and Templeton Laureate Paul Davies revisits an age-old question:

“The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?”

Essentially Davies is asking his physicist colleagues not to explain how the laws work but to provide an answer for why they exist. Or not that they are but why they are. Those who hold that this question is outside the realm of science, he asserts, are saying that the laws of the universe “exist reasonlessly,” which is a “deeply anti-rational” view to hold. Therefore he concludes that science is founded on faith. Like religion, science is founded “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws.”

I’m not sure how he concludes that to pass on the question is to suggest that physical laws exist without reason or that one’s position is therefore not rational. Why can’t we take physicists at their word when they say that the question is outside the domain of science? As for the assertion that scientists have groundless faith in the same way that a Christian has faith that God created the universe, well that seems like an abuse of language to me. Every time I sit down in a chair I believe groundlessly that it will hold my weight. I have faith that this time, like all other times, the chair will not collapse beneath me. But who would wish to conflate this sort of pedestrian faith in a sturdy chair with religious faith in God? It destroys the common-sense meaning of the former and trivializes the latter.

“Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Martin Heidegger asked in his Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger considered this question to be “originary,” a philosophical brain teaser that pushed beyond the limits of being itself. Heidegger (and Wittgenstein after him) argued that the scope of the question was so broad that it pushed beyond the bounds of what can be thought. We cannot answer the question he concluded because we can never exceed it. Any being or cause to which we might look as a possible solution will always invite us to go one step further. For example, to decide that God is the original ground of the laws of physics — indeed of the universe itself — is to put God into the set of causes and effects.

That’s why Schopenhauer compared God to a “hired cab” that we dismiss once we reach our desired destination. And of course we atheists are fond of throwing a monkey wrench into the works by asking “what caused God?” I guess we’re not ready to get out of the taxi just yet. Or more accurately we strongly suspect that it is beyond human ability to regress back infinitely looking for an answer to the mother of all questions. It is a funny question and there’s something disturbing there when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and think long and hard about it. But at the end of the day it is certainly not the domain of science to dabble in metaphysics. Davies should realize this fundamental truth rather than tilt at windmills.

bookmark_borderKarl Rove an Atheist?

I’m not sure what to make of this blog post over at TPM. Neoconservative writer Christopher Hitchens says that White House political advisor Karl Rove is an atheist. Hitchens (an atheist himself) told the New Yorker that Rove “is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly.” I wonder if James Dobson ever asked? If not, he’ll be picking up the phone now. If true it explains a lot. I could never quite see Rove as a fellow religious warrior, arm-in-arm with George W. Bush against the “evildoers” and “killers” who threatened Christendom itself. He was too Machiavellian to believe the propaganda dished out for the healthy consumption of the useful idiots on the religious right. Which would mean, like Machiavelli before him, Rove might instead believe that religion should be in the service of the state. Or as Machiavelli put it, to use religion as a convenient cloak to fool the masses into supporting war.

Update: Atheist Revolution has more details on this story.

bookmark_borderD’Souza Attacks Atheists

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.

bookmark_borderClone Farms, Polygamy, and Pinkos

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?

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_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_borderAnother Gay Evangelical Minister

Just over a month ago New Life mega-evangelical Ted Haggard was outed by his gay lover. Now another evangelical preacher has resigned after being confronted by church elders. Paul Barnes of Grace Chapel in tony Englewood, Colorado recorded a taped confession that was played last Sunday for the 2,100 member congregation. According to the Reuters story and the Denver Post, Barnes was outed when an anonymous tipster told church leaders that he heard someone threaten “to go public with the names of Barnes and other evangelical leaders who engaged in homosexual behavior.” So if this tipster’s source is credible I guess that closet door will be swinging wide open in the weeks or months to come.

While it’s tempting to do so nonbelievers should refrain from gloating over this sad event. Where Haggard was cocksure and politically active against gays and lesbians — for instance publicly supporting Colorado’s Amendment 43 to prevent gay marriage — Barnes is described as being very private and introverted. An associate pastor said that he had never heard him preach about politics from the pulpit. I truly hope he is able to put his life back together and work things out with his family and community.

One of the church elders in the Post story was asked if this opened up the evangelical community to charges of hypocrisy. He had an interesting reply, saying hypocrisy is valid only “if you look at perfection being the mark, because the next person who stands at our pulpit is going to be guilty of not being perfect as well. Does that mean we have to change what we say about the word of God? We can’t do that.”

This is the same argument that gets evangelicals in trouble time and time again. The Church used to believe that the Bible taught that the Earth was at the center of the universe. They fought bitterly against Copernicus’ heliocentric theory even long after it fell into general acceptance by those without a religious agenda. On most matters Christians can never agree on what the so-called word of God says. They often read into the biblical texts whatever they want it to say or think it might say. Then they form a hundred denominations for a hundred interpretations. Several million southern evangelicals found support in Scripture for the institution of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now strangely no evangelical understands the word of God to support slavery.

Now it’s homosexuality’s turn. Like the heliocentric theory and slavery before it, most folks don’t see being gay as a sinful indulgence, Satanic possession, or a lifestyle choice but simply a condition into which one is born. Barnes himself said he struggled with being gay since he was 5 years old. It just won’t do for evangelicals to ignore this reality, throw up their arms and say, “What can we do? God says it’s wrong so it’s wrong; nothing we can do about it.”

Of course God says no such thing. It’s The authors of the Torah who insist that God told Moses about certain priestly rules and what people ought and ought not to do. And we have absolutely no idea who wrote Leviticus — scholarly consensus at this point suggests the documentary hypothesis of Torah authorship in which four or five different authors over several centuries wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. I can tell you this: the words didn’t come from a burning bush. They came from men. At most we know that some priests several centuries before Christ thought that being gay was an abomination. Wow. Tell me something I didn’t know. As for the Apostle Paul, all we learn in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians is that Paul thinks being gay is being disobedient to God and such people won’t go to heaven. Again tell me something I didn’t know. This is coming from the guy who goes on to celebrate the virtues of celibacy. It’s no surprise he’s against sex.

It’s time for evangelicals to face reality and consider the possibility that human sexuality is a lot more complicated than the written opinions of certain priests in the ancient world.