Jun 4, 2009

Theologians from Space

From this story about the flight of a group of objects that are unidentified is an insightful tidbit of how alike are those who believe in the sci-fi paranormal with those who believe in God:

The eerie extra-terrestrial crafts were hovering in the night sky over the town moving in different directions before eventually shooting straight up into the atmosphere.
Phil Hoyle, from UK-based UFO Investigation Unit, said the way the UFOs had moved indicated a form of intelligence.
He said: "If these objects were circling one another you would have to rule out that they were fireworks.
"If they were dodging and darting around each other it would indicate intelligent movement."

So not only does the "intelligent design" argument work to offer proof of God's existence, it offers proof of... space aliens! How scientific! (Nevermind that objects darting around each other could be caused by non-intelligent movement.)

Actually, a 'space alien' use of the I.D. argument would be a pretty good reductio ad absurdum of the Christian position - problem is, the "UFOlogists" applied it to their "field"!

Then again, this should not be surprising. That a religious believer can look at the universe and take the identity and cause-effect that inheres in it as proof that it is a "design" which implies an "intelligent designer" of a supernatural nature, and that someone like Mr. Hoyle can see unidentified lights moving in the night sky and can assert their movement is "intelligent," eloquently demonstrates how similar these two mentalities are. Neither has independent proof of their various "intelligent designers." Both argue for their "intelligent designers" from ignorance - they do not know how to explain the phenomena they are concerned with so they posit other-worldly "intelligent designers" as the answer. Both concoct untestable but impressive-sounding rationalizations to believe what they want to believe.

If Mr. Hoyle was alive before men developed knowledge to build fuel-propelled, electronically-lighted aircraft and saw objects in the night sky (like some natural phenomena appears in our day and then gets reported as "UFO's") would he say, "They are angels, proof of God!"?

Most probably.

Apr 6, 2009

The Audacity of Independence

My other philosophical and intellectual interests are about defending individualism and freedom from some of the more noxious forms of altruist-collectivist-statism, which in many ways are just secular offshoots of religion. Now with this administration and congress individualism, freedom, and the Constitution are endangered as never before by the collectivists. We've got our work cut out defending them, so to that end I've just started another blog, The Audacity of Independence. Check it out.

Mar 25, 2009

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 2

Here is a brief review of an old, out-of-print book by a scholar of long ago, just one of many, many great, old books I have acquired that do not deserve to be forgotten. I started these reviews because I am sure there are other bibliophiles out there who can enjoy learning from them as much as I have.

I believe that the inexpensive old books I have discovered in used book stores and library sales are, in both the subject matter itself and in how it is presented, superior to what scholars and intellectuals publish today. Old books offer a dirt cheap way to give oneself a great education. I have learned from old books so much important material that, if I read only newer books, I would hardly be aware of, if at all; material that is essential to a good education.

For instance, it was mainly not through my formal education, but through my self-education that I came to see how history is often distorted and misrepresented by people and groups who have certain social/cultural/political agendas, such as Christians responding to the new rise of atheism by claiming that atheism leads to totalitarianism and mass-slaughter as in Soviet Russia. Well, here is one book that thoroughly and comprehensively looks at Russia's path to communism - and it is a history that does not quite corroborate what the Christians like to assert about the matter.

Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky; Collier Books, 1971; 349 pp.

The road to Lenin’s communist Russia of 1917 actually began in 1790 when Alexander Radischev’s book, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, was published. “While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book [A Journey] is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed” including “that the gaudy fa├žade of Catherine’s rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime” (13).

Radischev was an official in the Russian government. As a teenager he was sent to Germany to study and he eagerly absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment‘s thinkers, especially the French philosophes. Radischev, though part of the nobility, was an egalitarian democrat who wanted the serfs emancipated and he saw industrialism as evil. He believed it was for the future generations to make his vision of Russia a reality.

It is not known why the official censor let the book slip by and be published but the consequences of his neglect were tremendous and far-reaching for his country. Radischev was sentenced to Siberia but the ideas of revolution were planted.

The explosive nature of Radischev’s book is evident by seeing the historical setting it was in, which was that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In Russia, Catherine II “opened schools, encouraged book publishing, sponsored a periodical press, though only as long as the satire in which it indulged remained innocuous. A peasant uprising at home and the turn events were taking in France helped put an end to her flirtation with liberalism. The regime which started out as enlightened despotism ended as despotism tout court. But she could not wholly undo, what was, in part, the work of her own hands“ (18-19). After the French king was executed Catherine wanted everything French “exterminated.”

Western liberal ideas were penetrating Russia, especially in its army after the war with Napoleon. Yarmolinsky tells how in 1820 that “the French ambassador wrote that he could not think without horror of what would happen to Europe if forty million Russians, still half savage and brutalized by slavery, conceived a desire for freedom and proceeded to shake off their chains. True, the dangerous notion hadn’t yet entered the heads of the lower orders, but it was already inflaming the well-born” (31).

Secret societies began forming, mostly of military officers. These societies were born of disapproval with sundry political and military matters and were the forerunners of the later communist/anarchist terrorist and revolutionary groups.

A group of insurgent army officers who planned to overthrow the czar in December, 1825 (the “Decembrists“) composed a tract called The Orthodox Catechism. The text is vaguely reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence but is heavily religious and collectivist. In it all Russia’s misfortunes are attributed to its government so the authors call for the formation of a republic because that is the form of government consistent with divine law. They assert that Jesus Christ must reign on earth as he does in Heaven; and the death of the czar is a sign from God for the Russians to free themselves from their slavery. The establishing of a new government is the army’s responsibility.

At the same time, among the Russian intellectuals two schools of thought about Russia’s direction developed, the Westernists and the Slavophiles.

The Westernists thought that Russia would progress similarly as the Western Europeans had. They strongly favored institutional reform as a means of progress. Vissarion Belinsky was the most prominent of them. He called the Orthodox Church a “toady to despotism” that was “foreign to Christ, who was the first to teach mankind the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (72).

The Slavophiles “were romantic doctrinaires who found in German philosophy sanction for their distrust of the intellect, their religiosity, their traditionalism. They believed that Russia possessed a culture distinct from and superior to that of the West” (69). They were populists in claiming that the Russian peasantry embodied the Orthodox faith and its sense of equality and brotherhood. Slavophiles held the lofty conviction that Russia could achieve no less than her own and the world’s salvation.

Alexander Herzen, who was prominent among the revolutionaries’ thinkers, was in the Westernist camp, envisaged a secular Armageddon in Europe that would bring in a new socialist society consisting of a centralized state, order (instead of freedom), and collectivism.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky was also one of the most important thinkers among the revolutionaries. He advocated enlightened self-interest, which meant identifying one’s happiness with the happiness of all. Man is the plaything of circumstances so his society is morally responsible for what he becomes. He also loathed laissez-faire and wanted to see the people living in phalansteries similar to those dreamt of by Fourier. After the publication in 1863 of Chernyshevsky’s fictional story, What’s to be Done?, about the heroically selfless “new men” of the future communism, his influence on radicals and revolutionaries - including on Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the next century - became tremendous.

Of the many terrorist groups in Road to Revolution, one was especially fanatical: “Half a dozen of the more audacious spirits discussed at length a plan for forming a terrorist band. They called it Hell. Each member of this secrecy-shrouded body was to be a dedicated and doomed man. He had to give up his friends, his family, his personal life, his very name” (137).

Dmitry Karakozov was a youth who was considered for the group and was fascinated by the possibility of daring action and self-immolation. “The cause of the common people was his ruling passion” (138). He tried to assassinate the czar but his pistol shot missed. This episode ended in much delicious irony.

That the czar’s life was saved was taken as proof of divine favor falling on him and the Russian people believed Karakozov was an angry serf-owner seeking revenge. Even a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress congratulating the czar for surviving the assassination attempt condemned his would-be assassin as an “enemy of emancipation.” Karakozov’s comrades were arrested and while in jail he vainly wrote to the czar pleading for his life to be spared. “On 3 September, two days after the verdict had been pronounced, Karakozov was hanged by one of the peasant’s for whom he wished to lay down his life” (141).

Like many of the early groups of Russian terrorists and revolutionaries, the Karakozov episode shows how they were often amateurishly inept to the point of hilarity. Often they were more dangerous to themselves than to their intended targets, and their many attempts to “rouse the masses” to revolt simply fell flat.

Yarmolinsky’s history of Russian radicalism ends in the 1890’s with the emergence of the major Marxist political parties.

Of nearly all the Russian revolutionaries, from the intellectuals down to the terrorists, three characteristics of them are salient.

First is how they saw their revolution in religious terms.

A few brief but very interesting examples from the book are representative of the communist revolutionaries' religious mentalities. In the early 1830’s when they were university students, Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogarev were seduced by the ideas of French socialist thinkers Saint-Simon and Fourier (whose socialist ideas were inspired by and meant to replace Christianity). They swore on the Bible “to dedicate their lives to the people and the cause of liberty ‘upon the basis of socialism‘” by forming a secret society (67). There was Vera Figner with her “ideal of the prophets and martyrs of the socialist evangel” (180). Michael Bakunin’s followers held “a dream of freedom and equality on earth which was a substitute for a lost faith in heaven” (184). In the 1870’s were one group of revolutionary propagandists who pored over the New Testament and “dreamed of a new faith that would at once steel the intellectuals with fresh courage and enlist the religious sentiment of the masses on the side of revolution.” They believed “a revolutionary was most effective when he suffered for the cause“(187). Yarmolinsky quotes one terrorist after an assassination: “Let my blood, too, be the seed of Socialism, just as the blood of the early martyrs was the seed of the Christian Church” (257).

Secondly, just like contemporary terrorists they were fanatical nihilists who reveled in death, destruction, and martyrdom. For instance one revolutionary pamphlet stated, “We must devote ourselves wholly to destruction, constant, ceaseless, relentless, until there is nothing left of existing institutions.” And here is another especially evil quote from the terrorists’ literature: “We prize thought only in so far as it can serve the great cause of radical and ubiquitous destruction” (152). Then there is Sergey Nechayev’s infamous, The Catechism of the Revolutionary, which describes the revolutionary as a “doomed man” who has, literally, only one interest: revolution, so he can “destroy this vile order.” Some of this rhetoric, also like statements of terrorists since then, is undoubtedly hyperbolic bravado and propaganda - but it expresses some amount of profoundly held conviction, nonetheless.

Thirdly, they were second-handers, some of them abjectly so. Nechayev was a basket-case of second-handedness.

In order to be seen as a hero by his comrades he faked his imprisonment, faked his escape from his faked imprisonment, and even faked being killed by the police. “His ascetic habits - he lived on bread and milk, and slept on bare boards, at least while staying at the homes of his followers - could not but make an impression. Those he did not fascinate he ruled by fear…He arrogated to himself the right to destroy those who did not see eye to eye with him” (157).

One cell member was disobedient to Nechayev and doubted the existence of a mysterious, secret “Central Committee” Nechayev claimed he attended and would then give them orders from (he was, indeed, its only member). Nechayev and three other cell members murdered him. “For years the cry to kill the people’s enemies had repeatedly been raised by the handful of would-be liberators. The only victim turned out to be one of their own small number who had aroused the leader’s hostility” (159).

Nechayev was eventually arrested and was to be sentenced to Siberia, but his pseudo-heroics only made things worse for himself. During his sentencing he shouted, “Down with the Czar!” and “Long live the free Russian people!” and similar insults to the authorities. “As a result, the Emperor changed the court sentence to solitary incarceration for life in the Fortress of Peter and Paul” (165).

Road to Revolution is a very interesting, informative, and readable book on the Russian revolutionaries before Lenin, from their intellectual theories and religious inspirations to their bloody actions. For anyone wanting to learn about this subject, Yarmolinsky’s book is required reading. More important, considering how often Christians attempt to tie atheism, rationality, and secularism to the totalitarian bloodbath of communism, Yarmolinsky’s book is an effective (although unintended by him) debunking of that assertion. Russian communism and its horrors were, to a very large extent, clearly consequences of irrationalism and secularizing the Christian religion.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 1

Mar 11, 2009

"Jesus, Interrupted", Reviewed

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), by Bart D. Ehrman; Harper One; 2009; 292 pp.

In any legitimate field of human study, be it physics of the material world or psychology of the mind’s world, there is something as a subject of study that can be pointed to, so to say, that is independent of the person studying it. Even if a physicist’s, or psychologist’s, or economist’s, or philosopher’s theory or idea is dead wrong there is at least something in reality we all (at least in principle, if not in actual practice) can experience, have access to, observe for ourselves, be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. If so, we can see how his theory or idea is dead wrong and therefore, correct it. For example, anyone can, in principle, look to economic reality and see how the economics of Karl Marx were dead wrong. The subject matter is there to be seen and understood - or even misunderstood again, but it is there and independent of the mind. It is no profound observation to state that men will always find more to learn about the subject matter of physics, economics, psychology, etc.

There is one subject of a long and tremendous amount of “studying” to which, the above, however, does not apply. That is religion.

Go to the origins of any religion or religious concept and what one will find is the historical and cultural context of the person(s) who originated that particular religious idea. One can certainly see how it satisfied their specific religious, political, or cultural need, question, or concern of that time in that place - but of the actual religious (i.e., supernatural) being, entity, process, etc., one will find utterly and absolutely nothing in reality that the mind can be connected to or be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. Nothing. One can see that it was an arbitrary assertion pulled out of thin air by the originator of some god, messiah, other-worldly realm, revelation, or whatever because it suited some need. That’s it; find an exception to this in religion’s long history. Instead of finding any subject matter that is external to the mind and in principle accessible by others there is in religion a pathetic and shabby substitute: those others who believe and act as if the religious concept is a proven fact. Their “authority” said so, so it is true. That does not place us any closer in reality to the actual subject matter of any religious idea. It only places us that many minds removed from the mind that religious idea originated in. The subject matter of religion is based solely on someone’s say-so, not anything in reality independent of his say-so.

I learned this based on much studying of religion. At first religion may be seen as having a formidable appearance to penetrate that maybe, at bottom, has something to it somehow. Afterall it has existed for so long with so many adherents and defenders. There is so much of religion all around us with so much built upon it including entire civilizations, and yet eventually I found how arbitrarily man-made it is. Religion, however dominant and far-reaching it may be, ultimately, rests on nothing in reality apart from beliefs in the minds of men. That is the nature of the subject matter of religious beliefs - they are beliefs that are not legitimately derived from reality but are applied to reality.

This taught me a principle that I have come to consider a universal “law,” which is that one will find, the more and more one studies religion, the less and less there is to religion. Perhaps we should call this “The First Law of Religion.”

The eminent biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, has an interesting and revealing new book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) - and it substantially backs up the First Law of Religion.

Jesus, Interrupted is about Jesus, the New Testament, and the development of Christianity. What is in the book, Ehrman states, is actually nothing new - to scholars, or those who have attended a seminary, that is. There is, though, plenty in the book that would be new to the man “on the street and in the pew,” like that the Bible actually contains forgeries and most of the New Testament authors are really unknown, and that Jesus saw himself as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, not as God’s offspring, and plenty more like that - facts that challenge the version of Christianity most people accept. Ehrman’s thesis is that the Bible is a very human book and the Christianity we have inherited is very human-made. Prof. Ehrman, who was an evangelical Christian who turned agnostic, does not, however, intend to attack the Christian faith as such. He does intend to “let the cat out of the bag” as he puts it, about what scholars, theologians, and pastors have known for two or three centuries about the Bible and early Christian history but have kept from the public for whatever reasons. What Ehrman does is show the layman how to look at the Bible from the “historic-critical” approach apart from the usual “devotional” approach and explain what scholars using the historic-critical approach have learned about the Bible.

The way to find the contradictions, discrepancies, and other problems in the Bible is to use “horizontal” reading, which Ehrman distinguishes from “vertical reading.” Vertical reading means to start reading the gospels with Matthew, reading it from beginning to end, then on to the next gospel from beginning to end, and so on. Read that way they pretty much seem alike. “In a horizontal reading you read a story in one of the gospels, and then read the same story as told by another gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail. Reading the Gospels horizontally reveals all sorts of differences and discrepancies” (21). Horizontal reading clearly shows the discrepancies between the four gospels on the matters of Jesus’ birth, his ministry, what he taught, his death, etc. that a vertical reading might overlook.

In the first third of the book Ehrman goes over the inconsistencies on the more important matters in the four gospels and Paul's writings. From this the overall lesson is that “each author of the bible needs to be allowed to have his own say, since in many instances what one author has to say on a subject is not what another says. Sometimes the differences are a matter of stress and emphasis; sometimes they are discrepancies in different narratives or between different writers’ thoughts; and sometimes these discrepancies are quite large, affecting not only the small details of the text but the very big issues that these authors were addressing” (99).The contradictions are much to an atheist’s delight and even amusement, so I shall not divulge the details here like a “spoiler.” The point is, the material is all pretty shocking and is great intellectual ammo to use against Christians - right out of their own book!

Ehrman draws three conclusions from the horizontal reading of the gospels and Paul’s letters. The first is the belief in biblical inerrancy is simply not true. Secondly, the reader should “let each author speak for himself and not pretend that he is saying the same thing as another”(60). Thirdly, that there are discrepancies means that we “can’t read these books as disinterested historical accounts. None of them is that”(60).

Ehrman moves on to biblical authorship, a subject that will be very surprising to many. “Though it is evidently not the sort of thing pastors normally tell their congregations, for over a century there has been a broad consensus among scholars that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people whose names are attached to them. So if that is the case, who did write them?” (102)

Most New Testament books fall into three groups. Misattributed writings is the first group, which includes the four gospels. They were actually written anonymously. Then there are homonymous writings. These have the same name on them as someone famous, but are not written by that famous person. The book of James was written by someone named James, but not James, the brother of Jesus, as the church fathers assumed. Lastly are the pseudepigraphic writings which are forgeries written under someone else’s name, like many of the letters attributed to Paul. They were written by later followers using his name and thus giving his authority to their writings.

After spending a fascinating chapter on who did and did not write the New Testament texts, Ehrman moves on to the center of it all, Jesus. This is even more fascinating and revealing. A careful analysis of what the biblical authors say about Jesus placed in the context of history at that time brings conclusions as convincing as they are startling; and that are quite different from how Christians now view Jesus. Again, this is so good that I do not want to spoil this chapter for any readers so I will only pull this quote from the chapter: “For over a century now… the majority of scholars in Europe and North America have understood Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet”(156). Based on the evidence they do not believe that Jesus saw himself as the son of God, but merely another prophet. Like Ehrman said, he’s letting the cat out of the bag - and it is one big cat.

The next cat to leap out of the bag is how the New Testament canon was formed. "The problem in the development in the canon of scripture was that each and every one of the competitive groups of Christians - each of them insisting they were right, each trying to win converts - had sacred books that authorized their points of view. And most of these books claimed to be written by apostles. Who was right? The canon that emerged from these debates represented the books favored by the group that ended up winning. It did not happen overnight. In fact, it took centuries”(191).

Ehrman surveys some of the major Christian sects and how they differed and argued with each other, and as the centuries went by the Christianity that finally won out was far removed from the original Christian beliefs. “The group that won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man‘… as the fourth-century Nicene Creed maintained”(215).

Ehrman concludes the book by considering the question of how biblical scholarship may impact a believer’s faith. It is an interesting chapter and Ehrman explains the role it played in his loss of faith, which was important but not decisive. He does not see his book with its historic-critical approach as an attack on Christianity - nor he says, do many Christians. Instead, what biblical scholars have learned has given some Christians a better historical understanding of their religion. As impressed as I am with Ehrman’s knowledge and analysis of early Christianity I find that I cannot agree much with him philosophically. That Christians, be they biblical scholars (most are Christian) or their students, can retain their faith anyhow in light of what biblical criticism has revealed only demonstrates what faith really means: holding a belief despite lack of evidence and contrary to reason.
Ehrman's book and others like it are, by their nature, regardless of their intent, overwhelming attacks on Christianity simply by virtue of reporting and explaining the facts and realities that Christian beliefs fly in the face of. If I were a Christian, learning what is in books like Jesus, Interrupted would end my faith. For me they would be painfully clear in explaining how man-made religion is.

Examining the Bible and early Christianity like any other area of study as done in Jesus, Interrupted shows us, as Ehrman intends to show us, they are very man-made. We have this holy book that has been of foremost importance in Western civilization, yet the original texts that comprise it are lost, the surviving texts are copies that are from centuries later and are all different; also there is the problem of forgeries and later additions and omissions to the biblical texts; much of the history in it is inaccurate; and beliefs about God, Jesus, heaven and hell, etc., are known to be very man-made. Ehrman does a great job of explaining all that and more. Jesus, Interrupted offers one a thorough look into the origins and history of the most significant Christian beliefs - and the bottom line is there is not much there, just the say-so of the religion’s originators. "The Bible is not a unity, it is a massive plurality. God did not write the Bible, people did“(279).

Mar 8, 2009

Pawlenty: Gov't Is Not Protected from People of Faith

In this brief story, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is quoted at the Conservative Political Action Conference:
It all starts with acknowledging that God is our Creator and it is from God that we receive our values and principles.”Pawlenty noted that the freedom of religion protections in the U.S. Constitution were “designed to protect people of faith from government not government from people of faith.”

This is troubling because, obviously, if people of faith govern according to God-given values and principles then the people being governed are subjected to and not protected from a government of faith. If government is not protected from people of faith, government is not protected from faith.

Re-writing Pawlenty’s statement as separate sentences helps uncover what he may really mean:
(1) Religious protections in the Constitution were designed to protect people of faith from government.
(2) Religious protections in the Constitution were not designed to protect government from people of faith.

Is Pawlenty using “protection” in the same way? We cannot tell because he does not specify the “what“ that needs and does not need the protecting from. Pawlenty, however, seems to imply in (1) that people of faith are protected from being persecuted by government for their faith. We will assume that is his meaning.

What about (2) though? He is religious so why would he say that government does not have “protection from” people like him? Is it that they are benign to government and therefore the idea of “protection” from people of faith is not a real concern? Or, does he mean that those who want the protection of church-state separation have no constitutional ground to stand on? That is more likely the case.

Considering that in his quoted statement Pawlenty emphasizes (2), that government is not protected from people of faith, only implies we should have government according to faith.

Pawlenty’s statement is a sophistry that is intended to imply that there is no church-state separation. He will not say so explicitly for obvious reasons.

It is both immoral and contrary to individual liberty for religious believers to use government - which is essentially coercion institutionalized - to make laws and policies that intervene in the lives of the governed which are based on “values and principles” that are “God-given,” meaning: non-demonstrable, non-provable, non-valid; in short, imaginary. In a free country under a constitution that is built on principles of political science which are derived from experience in reality, those with imaginary beliefs should keep them to themselves where politics is concerned.

Lastly, a question for Pawlenty is, do people without faith deserve protection from a government of people of faith?

I think I can predict the answer.

Feb 11, 2009

Christianity Is Not Great, Pt. 2

What's So Great about Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza; Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; 2008; 348pp.

Part 1: The Future of Christianity
Ch.1 The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of Christianity

Dinesh D‘Souza begins his popular apologia by taking a big-picture view of religion and secularism that convinces him it is time to declare that “God has come back to life,” and “Nietzsche is dead“(3).

If true, that is not good for the future if one is secular-minded - the resurrection of God; that is; Nietzsche’s death - that is a benefit to rational secularists. And that should be very much to the dismay of the resurrected God.

Nonetheless, as D’Souza explains in his big-picture view, around the world religion has an active role to play in people’s lives, partly due to the failures of secularism. The “secular thesis” formulated in the early 20th century held that reason, science, progress, and modernization will lead to a more secular West and entire world. Secularization, however, is failing to meet important needs, needs which (supposedly) only religion can fulfill. Secularism is not important to the long-term big picture because its leading of civilization to inevitable progress has been shown to be untrue in many ways, from totalitarian regimes to the inner emptiness felt in people. D’Souza further shows that the future belongs to religion for reasons like religious societies having high birth rates, interest in “traditional religion” is on the rise, religions are spreading to new territory because of globalization, etc.

D’Souza tries to separate the resurgence of religion from the rise in religious militancy. He does this by making a distinction between fundamentalism and militancy. According to some analysts, the growth of religion around the world is largely a growth of religious fundamentalism, but this is an incorrect analysis by D’Souza‘s reading. After pointing out that the term, “fundamentalism,” originally identified certain Protestant groups in America who read the Bible literally, he writes, “[f]undamentalism is a meaningless term outside this context”(4). What is described as an increase in fundamentalism is really an increase in “traditional religion.” He states, “the growth of religious militancy and the growth of religion are very different”(4).

Anyone else notice a glaring omission on D’Souza’s part? He has no explanation why the literal reading of holy texts in other religions is not also “fundamentalism.” That is a perfectly legitimate concept that need not be confined to describing some American Protestants. So, by D’Souza’s definition, Islamic fundamentalists, for instance, do not exist after all…yet they do exist.

D’Souza argues that secularism has been tried and its deficiencies have contributed to a global resurgence of what he calls, “traditional religion,” which he defines as “religion as it has been understood and practiced over the centuries”(5).

This is not a good definition because there is, for the most, part, no monolithic way that religions has been practiced over the centuries. Some religions standstill for centuries; many change fairly often, producing offshoots that may or may not last. Nonetheless, D’Souza believes “traditional religions” - whatever that means - are growing and are going to significantly shape this century.

The convergence of religion and secularism is being best handled by oriental peoples. D’Souza seems to approve of how Asians want “Western” prosperity and technology and to also retain their traditional religions and way of life. Their slogan is “modernization without Westernization”(8).

That may be the goal of many in Asia but it is not that simple.

Prosperity and technology are not products of other-worldly mysticism and tribal tradition. Prosperity and technology are possible to minds that are reality-oriented and rational, meaning, fundamentally secular. In the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe we find two precedents of this phenomena of countries wanting to have Western-like prosperity and technology without changing their other-worldly and tribal mindsets, deliberately rejecting in philosophical terms reason and the mind’s adherence to reality. Those countries were Germany and Russia, the two countries that supposedly embodied the worst of secularism. Asian countries along with any sympathizers in the West who call for “modernization without Westernization” would do well to learn from the examples of Germany and Russia. But that is a subject to visit later.

“Western” is a type of culture and society, one significant aspect of it is its grounding in reality-oriented, rational thinking. That can and should be a trait of any and all cultures. Prosperity as such is not merely a cultural trait, nor is technology, like some tradition is. Prosperity and technology are the effects of deeper causes. This is a point that seems to be lost on D’Souza as much as it was lost on the Germans and Russians back then - and I do not know if it is lost on any of the Asians now. If Asians want modernization without Westernization, that is fine as long as they understand and are ready to commit themselves to being rational and reality-oriented, regardless of how that conflicts with and undermines their inherited traditions and religions - that is modernization, period. That is what their slogan actually means, whether they realize it or not. Much of what is “traditional” in a society that has not advanced itself toward a rational orientation to the world is darn well going to be lost to modernization. That is a good thing.

The major mistake D’Souza makes is failing to realize the triumph of religion in this century is no more inevitable than secularism’s triumph or decline. Long-term factors and trends cannot be discounted in predicting the future, but there is an equally important variable factor to understand as well: the human mind. Men can choose to think and live either religiously or secularly because men have free will. If men choose to abandon living by their minds, they doom themselves to the living death of religion. If they choose to live by reason they will be secular and progress will be inevitable - as long as the choice to be rational and worldly is committed to. Lack of that commitment to reason has been the problem of Western secularism.

Actually, if D’Souza’s projection of the future is right it makes the case for the importance of another Enlightenment - a new Enlightenment that learns from the first one’s mistakes - before human civilization is again swallowed up by that great obstructer of life and progress: religion; like it was in the world before the Enlightenment. Those who do not learn from history…

Next post: Ch. 2 Survival of the Sacred: Why Religion Is Winning
Christianity Is Not Great, Pt. 1

Feb 7, 2009

The Christian Sick "Moral Teaching" of the Day

Just a little while ago I got in my truck and because there is nothing else on the radio, turned on the local Christian AM station and heard host Chuck Bentley on his show "Moneylife" talking about the topic of suffering in the context of job loss and hard financial times. (I should point out that I missed some of the minor details in the following because I had to pay attention to traffic.) So Bentley read from the Bible a letter by Paul about the sufferings and persecutions he went through as he spread the Christian religion to others. Bentley's point was that this was important because Paul's example showed other Christians how to "suffer well" when they have to. I think, okay, fine, when times are tough one has to cope with it, perhaps to the point of finding strength within oneself one did not even know was there. What does anyone need a guy on the radio to point that out for? Well, it got better... or should I say, worse? This is religion after all.

Bentley then related a story about an older man who lost his job and the pastor went to see him. The older man said that as he lost his job he had no fear or worry because he "knew" that God was there watching him and this is part of God's plan so it will all work out in the end, or something like that. So here Bentley gets to his point: God has us suffer so we can be an example to others of how to suffer well.

Beliefs like that are imaginary rationalizations to help religious believers cope. This gives them a positive attitude, no doubt, so they can persevere. Meaning, as well, is projected on their suffering so it seems more than just a loss without reason. But more important, what does that rationalization really mean? Would one do to one's own children what God did to His "children" - make them suffer so they are good examples to their siblings of how to suffer well?

Imagine your child comes to you all distraught with a tale of how his life is suddenly turned upside-down in some way and you say to your child, "I love you and I know you are strong and can suffer well until you make things right again. By the way, I am responsible for turning your life upside-down. I did it so that you can serve an example to your brothers and the other children of how to suffer well. Be comforted by that until you make things right again."

Should the response to that parent be heaping on him praise and love - or is it perhaps time to call social services (to say nothing of a psychotherapist)?

I do not think I need to articulate just how irrational and immoral that parent is. It should be pretty evident. If, however, God does that same thing it demonstrates how wise and wonderful He is and how good it is to believe in Him.

I do not know who is more morally and psychologically depraved: a God who acts like that or Chuck Bentley who praises and worships that God.

Feb 4, 2009

Christianity Is Not Great, Pt.1

Dinesh D’Souza is one of the most prominent intellectual defenders of religion against the new surge of outspoken atheism D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great about Christianity?, is intended to provide Christians with the knowledge and understanding to effectively answer attacks by atheists on their religion. The book’s scope is fairly broad and includes topics like “intelligent design,” religion and atheism in political theory, and defending faith as reasonable. In these topics D’Souza gives me so much to strongly disagree with that I shall write a series of posts arguing against his book, chapter by chapter.

What's So Great about Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza; Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; 2008; 348pp.

Preface: A Challenge to Believers - and Unbelievers
Here, D’Souza’s point is that Christians should understand and be ready to defend their faith. Many Christians are not able to do this, though they should be. “Without realizing it Christians have become postmodernists of a sort: they live by the gospel of the two truths. There is religious truth, reserved for Sundays and days of worship, and there is secular truth, which applies the rest of the time” (xiv).

He next points out that according to the Bible, Christians should not be of the world with its “distorted priorities,” but they have a mission to be fully engaged in it (xiv).

By what standard are the world’s priorities considered distorted? What distorts them? If the world’s nature is what it is, then how are priorities in it “distorted”? If the standard is something in the world, that in turn implies they can be non-distorted; or are they “distorted” according to a standard not of this world? If so, how is that that standard even known?

People can have distorted priorities in this world and they can have non-distorted priorities. People are not infallible and can have mistaken or irrational priorities, or they can have correct, rational priorities. In time the consequences of their priorities will indicate whether they are distorted or not; and if they are, then it is up to the individual to recognize that his priorities are distorted and to figure out what to do about it. Such is life. Is D’Souza conflating these possibilities in an undifferentiated concept of the world having, by its nature, “distorted priorities”?

The “easy” alternative, however, is taken by religionists in their expecting - or inventing - automatic, infallible, authoritative priorities in the forms of scripture, commandments, dogmas, etc., to simply obey and always believe no matter what. The real distorter of anything in the world is belief in the supernatural. Having otherworldly notions and applying them to life distorts it.

D’Souza continues. He sees the atheists as no longer content with being tolerated (when atheists have been tolerated in America, he neglects to mention) but are now intent on “taking over the public square” and evicting Christians from it. They want to make religion disappear altogether (xv). As if Christians do not now or never had wanted to make atheism disappear!

D'Souza writes that most people "sense there is something out there that provides a grounding and an ultimate explanation for their deepest questions, yet that something eludes them. They feel the need for a higher sense of purpose in their lives, but they are unsure where to find it." (xvi).

Yes, Dinesh, most thinking people do need a grounding for their deepest questions and they also need a clearly defined higher purpose for their lives. That is exactly what philosophy is supposed to do. A rational, reality-based philosophy like Objectivism achieves that; an imaginary philosophy like the Christian religion only pretends to achieve that.

D'Souza goes on to say that the atheists have not been adequately rebutted and his book will do that. "Their arguments have gone largely unanswered." From D'Souza they will feel "the horse kick of a vigorous traditional Christianity."

I agree that their arguments have been unanswered. Even considering all the philosophical flaws in the arguments of the "new" atheists they can effectively attack religion, at least up to a point, because religion is, ultimately, void of intellectual substance. I will hold D'Souza to being different and actually delivering a "vigorous horse kick" to my atheism, unlike his fellow Christians. All the credit to him if he does!

After outlining his books agenda, D'Souza then concludes the preface by addressing atheists and their beliefs as he sees them, but it is in a way that I think is over-generalizing: "You have been engaged in the pursuit of happiness for a fairly long time; ever wonder why you haven't found it? How long do you intend to continue this joyless search for joy? Older societies had much less and felt abundant; why do you, in the midst of plenty, continue to feel scarcity pressing down upon you" (xvii)?

Maybe that is true of some atheists on the nihilistic left - I would not doubt that. I am sure it is certainly not true of Objectivists, who are atheists. It is not true of me as an Objectivist. D'Souza is mistaken in lumping all atheists together. "Atheism" is merely a negative concept. People can be atheists for many different reasons and have very different philosophies. One should therefore be cautious about generalizing about those who simply lack a specific belief.

As to the old, religious societies that had less but felt abundance, I reply that because they felt something does not mean they were right or that what they "felt" was real beyond the feeling. Of course, what he is hinting at is "feeling" the Holy Spirit or some such otherworldly being. I do not know, but I will bet that D'Souza - and this goes for many religious believers - cannot even conceive how an atheist can legitimately and genuinely "feel" an "inner abundance" (to use his terms). Here is a very sad consequence of holding a mind-body dichotomy. Such religious pre-conceptions are why that kind of an atheist is unthinkable, even undiscoverable, by their minds. (Then again, maybe not. Some Christians are discovering, after the initial conceptual shock, that one can be an atheist and actually be moral!)

So, in sum, the agenda for What's So Great about Christianity? is to educate and motivate the believers to challenge the atheists.

Christianity Is Not Great, Pt. 2

Feb 2, 2009

"Fairly Distributing Pain" - Human Flourishing According to Christianity

The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live. -Ayn Rand

Surreal - and absurd - describes this OneNewsNow story by Pete Chagnon on Christians contemplating the subject of human flourishing:
'Human flourishing' -- biblical? or humanistic?
InterVarsity's "Following Christ 2008" conference was held in Chicago on December 27-31. The conference, with the theme of "Human Flourishing," featured a bevy of speakers and was open for students, professors, faculty, and professionals.
"And the idea is that God has designed us in a certain way, and Jesus Christ was human flourishing epitomized -- the perfect example of human flourishing," [Gordon Govier] notes. "And all that he did was in service to God and reflected God as the creator, and we're able to do that in our professional lives that we have and the careers that we choose."

Jesus "epitomized" human flourishing?

According to these Christians, human flourishing means not independently pursuing one’s goals and values and not making oneself better at it and for it, but denying that and pursuing the interests of God instead. One chooses to be as much of a means to God’s ends as is possible. To call that “flourishing” is monstrous. It is a vicious deformation of human life and its potential. Adding insult to this injury is the notion that this God who is omnipotent and benevolent, yet is dependent on humans fully devoting their lives to serving Him. How “glorious” and “moral” would the Christians consider a man who demanded others devote their lives to serving him (i.e., a cult)? When God does or demands this, it is good; but that same thing done or demanded by a man is not good. Back to Socrates’ question: is something good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?

Granting for argument's sake that is true that Jesus flourished, there is then the not so small matter of him being God with Godly knowledge and powers, knowledge and powers that humans attempting to flourish, lack. So, Christians, how does God in human form epitomize human flourishing?

Putting that awkward question aside because attempting to answer it will only offer unproveable assertions and rationalizations of the supernatural persuasion, there arises a question whose answer can be safely limited to its own subject matter, that being the (supposed) life of Jesus. He could barely support himself by spreading his teachings, which attracted only a handful of followers and ultimately got him executed like a criminal at age 33. By what estimation is that a life "epitomizing" human flourishing?

I would hate to see what Govier regards as human failing.

Actually, there is a historical example of a man imitating Christ,
St. Francis. He renounced wealth, property, work so he could imitate Jesus. He “married” his “lady poverty” and lived with his followers as a wandering ascetic, dressed in rags and singing to birds. Did that constitute human flourishing? After all, he was living as Christ-like as a man can.

"All that Jesus did was in service to God." Why would an omnipotent God need mere mortal men to serve Him? Wait...but isn't Jesus...God himself? If Jesus is to be our model, this needs clarifying - do we serve God or ourselves? Do we accept altruism or egoism? We, unlike Jesus, are not part-God, and therefore unable to override nature's laws to selflessly serve ourselves... And, yet, even with that advantage he failed…Okay, this nonsense is not worth thinking about further.

We are next informed from this highly learned conference on human flourishing that the spread of pain is insufficient:
According to The Associated Press, key speakers at the conference questioned whether pain from the economic downturn is being fairly distributed...

To righteously advocate sadism, leave to religion.

Why is this sadistic Christian’s evil and irrational idea that somebody in government should be overseeing that “pain is fairly distributed” even being considered at a conference?

Who exactly "distributes" pain and by what means? If one person is feeling the consequences of his unsound financial practices the “pain” he feels is the effect. No-one “distributes” that pain to him - other than himself. Why should others who are not involved with his unsound financial practices share in the “pain”? Simply because they have the capacity to, financially, is the implication. That would be “fairness,” which is altruist-speak for “equality.” The bad thing about the downturn, according to the sadistic Christians, is that there is not enough people feeling the right amount of pain according to their ability to bear pain. Nevermind that they may well not deserve this pain The altruist morality implicit in what the sadistic Christians asked is only about giving and receiving undeservedly.

In this, the Christians subject us to more of their tortuously irrational thinking: pain is not good, but somehow it is good for it to be evenly “distributed,” implying that it is something to work for - instead of eliminating the cause of the pain.

...while two other speakers suggested that a restructuring of the world financial system is needed. Although Govier says his organization has no stance on the issue, he encouraged students and faculty to look to scripture for answers.

"There's a lot of things in God's Word about justice and being fair and taking care of the poor," he points out. "Those are all issues that world leaders today should be thinking about."

Did Govier never hear of the welfare state, international aid, and the federal laws and programs designed to privilege the poor in buying homes that caused this economic downturn and pain in the first place? We do not need to look to ancient, irrelevant scripture for answers, “answers” that that if we heeded would make things worse - we need to look to reality for answers (a mental endeavor quite alien to the religious mind) starting with accepting the reality of the folly and harm of government aid to the poor at the expense of others - and the need to end it. That is the needed “restructuring of the world financial system.”

"A document on InterVarsity's website discusses the concept of human flourishing in detail. However, the document concludes that studying the concept may leave one with more questions than answers."

Meaning, studying the concept from the standpoint of believing Christianity leaves one with more questions than answers. What a surprise.

T.A. McMahon, executive director of
The Berean Call, "As far as I'm concerned, human flourishing is not a goal that the Bible teaches. It is primarily a humanistic objective," he contends. "For the Christian, fruitfulness is a byproduct of completely submitting one's life to Christ, denying self, taking up one's cross and following him, doing things his way according to his Word -- and that's not a program academia has been interested in."

Wrong. Academia does not deserve that much credit - it is interested in that program, albeit by substituting society for Christ.

Besides, why would a good God inspire a book that teaches his creatures how to live successfully and flourish in the world He made for them? A trivial concern like that is obviously beneath such greatness and glory that is Him.

Human flourishing pertains to improving human life and that is not a concern of Christians, their Bible, or their God. Flourishing is what ethics is ultimately about and the Christian religion has no realistic guidance to offer in the matter, indeed, Christianity would end human flourishing as it has in the past (see the thousand years of the Dark and Middle Ages). Christians always loudly claim that we need God for morality, yet the above mix of depravity and imagination is what they call "morality": that we should model our lives on the most glorified of history's countless failed messiahs as how to flourish.

Sorry Christians, but I take life and ideas more seriously than that.

Lastly, and off on a tangent, we should not overlook this amusing tidbit from the story: McMahon also admitted he is troubled by some of the speakers featured at the conference. "Dr. Francis Collins -- who headed up the [Human] Genome Project -- he professes to be a Christian, but he also believes in evolution," he explains...

Jan 28, 2009

How Religion Insults Us and We Don't Even Know It

Never before did I feel so much resentment and contempt as I watched and listened to the little old man explaining to us kids of seven or eight years old how some biblical figure - I've long forgotten who - came to believe in God and did whatever he did because of his belief and that this should matter to us in our lives; that it should matter to me. Who is this strange man to tell me that I should believe or do something because some ancient sheep-herder in a far-away desert did so? Why should I care about this, I thought. What kind of guidance is that from an adult to a curious and wondering little kid who has to learn about life? I looked around the small classroom at the other kids' faces to see how they reacted to this. Do any of them think and feel as I do? Most seemed interested; some did not seem to care. I spent most of his little lecture staring at the desktop and wishing I could go home so I could then stop feeling all this contempt for someone. I thought Christianity's control over people's lives is repulsive and wasteful, as the lecture of the little old man made even clearer to me. Instead, after he finished some minutes later, we were taken to another room in the Catholic church to listen to another "teacher."

"Do any of them think and feel as I do?" I think that was a fascinating question I asked myself then, and it is a good question to re-ask today when there is a resurgence of religious belief. When confronted with a similar circumstance, does anybody now think and feel as I then did?

It is not that one has nothing to learn from the lives of others or should not have role models. One should learn from people who do great things and live great lives, be they statesmen. businessmen, scientists, composers, or one's parents.One's life on earth has a nature - and the nature of the lives on earth of biblical figures (real or imagined) are constraints and impediments to learning what that nature is and fulfilling it. Look at what religion teaches: one should imitate Jesus, emulate the faith of Job and Abraham, live like Daniel and Esther, etc. In Islam, the Muslims' ideal is to live and be like Mohammad. Their lives based on imaginary supernaturalism are not relevant to realistic matters of being all one can: creating, discovering, producing, leading, etc. (Biblical figures did much of those kinds of things, right?) Such are the things one must do with one's life to live it well. That is the reality we are in. Mimicking a biblical figure is not a plausible substitute.

What about the matter of how does one - especially as a child - best develop and become one's true and real self? Religion is no help there. Why were those other kids in the classroom not also insulted by the little old Catholic man imploring them to "be like somebody else" - which, at that young age I realized, means to surrender one's mind to that somebody else - a somebody else who lived long ago, who believed in a God who is as real as a comic book character? Just because this little old man and others like him merely say so. How, when they have their lives ahead of them to form, did they not take offense at such a cheap and phony substitute for genuine, intelligent, adult guidance?

People are often confronted by religionists saying, "you should live like/think like/be like/do like so-and-so in the Bible," and that is something with philosophic-like importance to one's life and outlook on it. The bad thing is, that really means one should not look at reality for oneself, think for oneself, act for oneself, be oneself. Instead, says the religionist, be Abraham; be Jesus. Neglect your mind, neglect the requirements of your life in reality, look to what they did and be a second-hander imitating ancient, superstitious peasants. You are better off that way.

Why are people not immensely insulted by such exhortations, especially adults who are better able to think about such matters than are little kids? Is it because most people have a mystical metaphysics to begin with? Are their minds that lacking in independence? Do they care that little about what they, as individuals, are? Or is it something else?

Jan 13, 2009

Back to the Middle Ages

(Just to preface: although undoubtedly worthy of it, I did not learn of this story from Coast to Coast AM. Perhaps it will be featured there soon.)

In what can be termed a 'little Inquisition' for the 21s century - and an eloquent demonstration of why religion is the imaginary philosophy - the Pope orders bishops to root out false claims of visions.
In some cases exorcists will be used to determine if a credible apparition is of divine origin or whether it is demonic.

The guidelines will come in a "vademecum", or handbook, which is in its final stages and will be published soon by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When a claim of heavenly apparitions occurs, the local bishop will need to set up a commission of psychiatrists, psychologists, theologians and priests who will investigate the claims systematically.

[Why go to all that bother when James Randi can do it?]

The first step will be to impose silence on the alleged visionaries and if they refuse to obey then this will be taken as a sign that their claims are false.

[What if the alleged visionary is actually Christ in his second coming - do they expect him to be silent as they say? If not, his claim is false? That would be an embarrassing situation, to say the least.]

The visionaries will next be visited by psychiatrists, either atheists or Catholics, to certify their mental health and to verify whether they are suffering from conditions of a hysterical or hallucinatory character or from delusions of leadership.

The third step will be to investigate the person's level of education and to determine if they have had access to material that could be used to falsely support their claims.

The new document will also instruct the bishops to see if the visionaries and their associates stand to gain financially from making their claims.

The content of any heavenly messages will also be scrutinised to see if it is harmony [sic] with the teachings of the Church.

None of their methods for determining the truth or falseness of a vision has the slightest thing to do with anything objective in reality (other than the subject's mental health, but they would do well to question their own for engaging in such investigations in the first place), regardless of how "systematically" they follow their procedures, but has everything to do with someone's mere say-so, from "Wizard Joe" (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) to bishops, to psychologists, to theologians, to demonologists, and finally to the words of ancient, ignorant peasants that comprise the scriptures that this pathetic charade is based on.

It would be amusing to watch Wizard Joe's mystical experts in their futile labor to distinguish "true" from "false" visions; claims which by their nature are neither true nor false, for they are arbitrary and unrelated to reality. Actually, their new Inquisition's arbitrarily made-up methods will likely give them, the authorities, the power trip of arbitrarily deciding what are "true" and "false" visions.

So goes the story of religion.

Jan 12, 2009

A Conservative Christian Evicts Facts from His Argument

In Evicting God from the Public Square Ken Connor writes against atheist Michael Newdow's lawsuit to get the phrase of "so help me God" removed from the upcoming presidential inauguration. The details of the matter aside, Connor concludes his column:
Newdow and company believe that man is the measure, that man is the center of the universe, and that the rights we enjoy come from government, not from God. They are certainly entitled to their own opinions, but, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, they are not entitled to their own facts. The fact is that American political history is inextricably bound up with religious tradition. All the denials in the world won't negate that fact.

The religionists' disparaging of atheists as arrogant for holding "man as the measure of all things" has been made irrelevant by Ayn Rand:
...Protagoras’ old dictum may be given a new meaning, the opposite of the one he intended: “Man is the measure of all things.” Man is the measure, epistemologically—not metaphysically. In regard to human knowledge, man has to be the measure, since he has to bring all things into the realm of the humanly knowable.

Attacking mens' arrogance, be it real or imagined, in that saying misses the point about the human mind's relationship to reality, a real relationship that prevents the mind from forming the mythical ideas of religion.

If anything, Ken Connor, like any religionist believing in the primacy of consciousness over reality, is trying to have his own facts.

Firstly, as for facts, God is definitely no fact; God and the supernatural are not within the realm of the humanly knowable.

Secondly, rights come from neither government nor God - rights are in human nature, and that is a fact. How is this assertion, that man's rights emanate from a supernatural cosmic consciousness, a "fact"?

Thirdly, that tradition, as conservatives believe, must be obeyed forever certainly is no fact; obedience to tradition is only second-handedness to ancestors and inherited, imaginary beliefs. Or, put another way, we can rephrase one of Connor's sentences and turn it against his position: "all the tradition in the world does not make it right." It is time to abandon these backwards religious beliefs in our politics, traditional or not. Ironically, for conservatives like Connor, religious tradition is the center of the universe and measure of all things, which, not so incidentally, reduces to: man as the center of the universe.

Connor's argument is intellectually empty, as can be demonstrated by a hypothetical counter-claim: what if there was no religious tradition in American political history, and a Christian sues so that the words, "so help me God," are included in the oath of office? Would conservative Christian Connor appeal to the sacred, infallible, authority of tradition then? How important would the facts of political tradition not being bound to religion be to him in that case?

Our Founding Fathers built a political system based on human nature and experience, in other words, based on observable, knowable, reality. Political science was a new field of study then - and that is what it was, a science. Rand may have restated Protagoras' old dictum, but the idea of her restatement - of bringing all things into the realm of the humanly knowable - was what characterized that period. The Founders (and other intellectuals of that era) studied the types of governments and laws Western man has lived under since antiquity and from that knowledge they established a government best suited to man's nature as a free and rational being. I am inclined to think this is ultimately why they established a government separate from religion: the "truth" of religious beliefs are not demonstrable nor provable when law and government are scientifically studied for their proper application in the real world (other than learning how the experience of theocracy, the divine right of kings and such are dangerous to liberty) so they are left out of the political realm. I do not know if our Founders explicitly viewed religion and government in that way, but it is certainly consistent with the intellectual atmosphere of their age and which they were products of.

Jan 5, 2009

D'Souza's Absentee Answer

In the opening of Dinesh D'Souza's column, An Absentee God?, his admission of being baffled by a debating opponent caught my interest by making me admire his intellectual honesty and determination to find an answer eventually, even if I would disagree with him. As it turned out, however, D'Souza would have been better off not attempting to answer his opponent, whose position he probably helped.

In my debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens... he raised a point that I did not know how to answer... Hitchens' argument bothered me.

Here's what Hitchens said. Homo sapiens has been on the planet for a long time, let's say 100,000 years. Apparently for 95,000 years God sat idly by, watching and perhaps enjoying man's horrible condition. After all, cave-man's plight was a miserable one: infant mortality, brutal massacres, horrible toothaches, and an early death. Evidently God didn't really care.

Then, a few thousand years ago, God said, "It's time to get involved." Even so God did not intervene in one of the civilized parts of the world. He didn't bother with China or Egypt or India. Rather, he decided to get his message to a group of nomadic people in the middle of nowhere. It took another thousand years or more for this message to get to places like India and China.

Here is the thrust of Hitchens' point: God seems to have been napping for 98 percent of human history, finally getting his act together only for the most recent 2 percent? What kind of a bizarre God acts like this?


[Erik] Kreps noters [sic] that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion. Of this number, about 2 percent were born in the 100,000 years before Christ came to earth.

"So in a sense," Kreps notes, "God's timing couldn't have been more perfect. If He'd come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world's population, so even though 98 percent of humanity's timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption."


Suddenly savage man gives way to historical man. Suddenly the naked ape gets his act together. We see civilizations sprouting in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and elsewhere. Suddenly there are wheels and agriculture and art and culture. Soon we have dramatic plays and philosophy and an explosion of inventions and novel forms of government and social organization.

So how did Homo sapiens, heretofore such a slacker, suddenly get so smart? Scholars have made strenuous efforts to account for this but no one has offered a persuasive account. If we compare man's trajectory on earth to an airplane, we see a long, long stretch of the airplane faltering on the ground, and then suddenly, a few thousand years ago, takeoff!

Well, there is one obvious way to account for this historical miracle. It seems as if some transcendent being or force reached down and breathed some kind of a spirit or soul into man, because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software.

So paradoxically Hitchens' argument becomes a boomerang. Hitchens has raised a problem that atheism cannot easily explain and one that seems better accounted for by biblical account of creation.

Excuse me? If atheism cannot easily explain something - man's recent progress - then the Bible easily explains it? That is a convincing answer? Perhaps for a Christian who reasons in circles, not for an atheist, though. The simplicity of "God caused it" is not a persuasive account, just an easy, imaginary answer.

Actually, D'Souza does not answer Hitchens question, but does answer a question that Hitchens did not ask.The question was not, why was there no progress for so long in mankind's span on earth? That, D'Souza answered. Nor was it, what happened when and after God finally intervened? D'Souza answered that also. The question, however, was why did God wait so long to intervene in man's life on earth and only in ancient Israel? That, D'Souza has not offered any answer to. One can say at its best D'Souza's answer is a lame excuse for God's intervention when it was - that only a small fraction of men missed out on it, but in the larger picture it was for the good of the greater amount of men - whatever the reason was for it not happening sooner.

What D'Souza thinks is an answer is flawed, anyhow.

Hitchens often asks this question and uses the 100,000 year figure of man's existence as a minimum that anybody has to accept, based on the science. This excludes the science-rejecting Biblical literalists who claim the earth itself is only 5,000 or so years old. Hitchens actually accepts the science that man has been around for much, much longer than 100,000 years. So what happens to D'Souza and Kreps' arithmetic based on science that man has been around for 500,000 years, say? Then how do they explain God's timing?

If they can say God's timing was nearly "perfect," with two percent of all men missing out on it, can D'Souza also claim with consistency that an intelligent designer made the universe? If He made a universe of fine-tuned, irreducible complexity, that same intelligent designer's intervention in man's existence failed by two percent. Two percent should fall well outside the quality specifications tolerance of such a supremely intelligent designer.

Furthermore, D'Souza does not answer Hitchens as to why God allowed 1,000 years to pass before His Word spread across the earth after Its arrival.

Man suddenly developing knowledge is a "historical miracle"? If a miracle is a violation of natural law, how does the correct use of the human mind qualify as one? "Because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software." (Never mind the dearth of knowledge in subsequent religious societies.) D'Souza offers that non-answer to Hitchens' question of "what kind of a bizarre God acts like this?" If anything, he elaborates on it! By D'Souza's admission, 98% of human existence passed by on a primitive level before God intervenes with the gift of knowledge. (Wait - isn't there a story about God and a forbidden tree?)

What D'Souza's "answer" consists of is merely recasting Hitchens' very question as a statement, albeit in Christian terms: "it is a miracle according to the biblical account of creation," and he is satisfied that he refuted Hitchens.

D'Souza and Kreps think they nailed Hitchens: "God's timing couldn't have been more perfect. If He'd come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world's population." Besides the fact that biblical scholarship has proved that the records of God's relationship with man are indeed unreliable despite God's intention, why would an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent designer allow His intervention into man's existence and its timing be dependent on man's circumstances? If He is responsible for the sudden surge in man's knowledge at this specific point in time, He could have made that happen sooner, like at the beginning of man's existence. Is that expecting too much from a fine-tuning, intelligent designer? Why would He do otherwise - which is what Hitchens' was asking!

Hitchens is not the one who threw a boomerang at himself, D'Souza.

How Science Emerged In a World of Faith: Reviewing "The Scientists"

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors, by John Gribbin (Random House, NY, 2006)

How science began is fascinating and there is much to learn from it - much more than just the science, there is the struggle, conflict, drama, danger, failure, triumph, and heroism that are inherent in the scientific pursuit - especially so in its originating struggle in a deeply religious, ignorant, superstitious, dictatorial, medieval Christendom. A very interesting and enlightening account of this history is in John Gribbin's book, The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greates Inventors,

Gribbin begins his history of the scientists in the medieval period and goes up through to contemporary science. It is a book for the educated layman, but having a decent background in history and philosophy is a great asset to bring to one's reading of this book as that sheds more relevant light on this subject than what happens to be within the author’s scope.

When science began it was not merely new knowledge; it was a new way of thinking and observing the world, indeed, a revolutionary way of thinking and observing. We take it for granted. At one time it was so revolutionary that it was dangerous for the early scientists because this new thinking led to discoveries threatening to the Church's version of the universe. A salient point I learned from reading Gribbin's dramatic history is that science had to be established from scratch by itself in an intellectual climate of a contrary nature. Like a frail infant, early science could have perished through its own weaknesses and feeble health - or it could have easily been killed by its stronger, experienced enemies, namely tradition, theology, or the Papacy. Fortunately, it managed to not succumb to either. If the scientists somehow failed then, medieval Christendom could have lasted far longer than it did. There lies the exciting drama of the history of science: so much was at stake. The discovery and use of scientific thinking took much time and application for the sciences as we now recognize them to be first of all, defined, and secondly, to be so situated as to be able to progress. The ceaseless labor of some scientists pointed the way forward into new areas to be discovered by their successors - without any guarantee that they would venture in those directions.

Furthermore, as Gribbin takes his reader to the initial understandings of vast areas of the natural world newly opened by a then-different method of thinking, the questions force themselves upon the reader as they more intensely must have upon the scientists: how to proceed successfully?; to what will this lead?; can it even be done at all?

All that we now possess of science and technology and take for granted - this was not inevitably to be ours; it could have been otherwise.

What the medievals believed about the world and the universe was preposterous, to be blunt. The earth was centered and encased in a large invisible sphere with the stars suspended from its ceiling and the planets were pushed around by angels. They seriously believed it. Why? It made perfect theological sense based on The Bible, of course.

Some brief examples from astronomy's development especially illustrate the revolutionary and struggling nature of scientific thinking.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was an example of the mix between the dominant mysticism and the nascent science. He believed the heretical view that the earth revolved around the sun, but in a manner that was neat and tidy, or, "perfectly." Copernicus "wanted a model in which everything moved around a single centre at an unvarying rate, and he wanted this for aesthetic reasons (11)." Planetary rotations of perfect circles around the sun do not exist, but he wanted them to in conformity with theology, so he fit his data and their explanations into that model.

Martin Luther, his contemporary, was quite upset with this new thinking. He "objected to the Copernican model, thundering that the Bible tells us that it was the Sun, not the earth, that Joshua commanded to stand still (13)."

After Copernicus came Tycho Brahe. He took on the decades-long task of observing the planets to correct the tables of planetary motions. His discovery of a supernova was the beginning of the end of the theological dogma that the heavens are eternally perfect. Tycho was "the first astronomer to imagine the planets hanging unsupported in empty space (46)."

The first true scientist was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who wrote, "In disputes about natural phenomena one must not begin with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations (92)." In the end, he was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition for his heretical teachings that the sun is the center of the solar system.

Besides the heavens being totally misunderstood so was man's body and the earth under his feet. Inquiry and understanding of the physical world was virtually nil, as shown by the examples of the birth of two other areas of science.

Until the Renaissance, the accepted authority on human anatomy was Galen (Claudius Galenus) from the 2nd century. "Galen's work was regarded as the last word in human anatomy until well into the sixteenth century," (p.21). Andraes Vesalius (1514-1564), was the scientist who concluded that Galen must have done little dissecting of humans, and was therefore very wrong about human anatomy, so Vesalius took the initiative and produced an accurate book on the human anatomy, the Fabrica. In it, Gribbin writes, Vesalius "stressed the importance of accepting the evidence of your own eyes, rather than believing implicitly the words handed down from past generations - the ancients were not infallible." (25)

A contemporary of Vesalius was William Gilbert. After concluding that alchemy was a fantasy, Gilbert began studying magnetism and electricity, and like the instance of Vesalius and anatomy, this was "a feature of the world which had remained essentially neglected since the investigations (or rather, speculations) of the Greek philosophers some 2000 years earlier. (69)"

Fourteen centuries passed before man seriously studied his own anatomy; and even longer until magnetism and electricity were studied. They were known to exist but were not understood - other than superficially and superstitiously; that was sufficient in Christendom.

Scientists were not immune to making the error of accepting assertions based on authority, be it theological, the ancients - or one of their own even. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a mathematician, scientist and philosopher, could not bear the thought of a vacuum and argued against it. His influence was so strong that the further investigations into the nature of the vacuum ceased for about a century.

What Gribbin captures for his reader about the first few centuries of science's development is a two-fold joy and thrill. It is the joy and thrill of discovering something about nature for the very first time and realizing that right there is a valuable new path to travel upward. Secondly, it is also the joy and thrill of also discovering for the first time how the human mind can know reality, that its cognitive ability is metaphysically efficacious. The implication is that man need not tremble before an unknowable universe, nor be forever enslaved to the authority of other men; but that he is in a knowable universe that he can master and the proper use of his mind creates his independence, which is his proper, natural state.

The scientists in the course of their pursuits were to varying degrees burdened with unscientific thinking that retarded their scientific progress. The scientist’s mind, insofar as it was scientific, (it was also partly a product of the dominant non-scientific mentality) was dramatically different than the prevailing mentality and psychology. Pseudo-science, religious dogma, superstitious psychology and beliefs were everywhere. Developing, refining, and integrating the proper inductive, scientific methods had to be discovered in the face of various obstacles and even opposition - and it took centuries. It was a change of mind for an entire civilization that began with a few brave, independent, intensely curious individual minds.

The type of thinking the early scientists did, in its immaturity, that produced its first results was demonstrably far superior to the dominant alternative type of thinking based on mysticism, appeal to scripture, religious authority, and its false, groundless assertions about the nature of the world. The religious response against the scientists was all assertions, rationalizations, arrogant intimidation - and no substance. (Its essence has not changed, incidentally. Although what it claims as its special knowledge has been reduced proportionally to science's growth.) The religious way of "knowing" would be hysterically laughable were it not so destructive.

The most salient lesson from The Scientists that remains relevant is of the actual interplay of reason and faith, that they are fundamentally incompatible. They were so in science's beginnings and remain so today in the "intelligent design" and evolution controversies.

Another striking lesson to apply from Gribbin's book is how the Islamic world is still in the philosophical and psychological state that medieval Christendom was in. There are few indications that Islam will go through any Renaissance or Enlightenment soon, however. Muslims certainly want the products of the types of minds that made the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution - without changing to that type of mind, retaining their backwards, religious-type minds and ways.

Also, the West, especially America, is experiencing a resurgence of religion. How this will play out remains to be seen, but as long as science is at its best - without seriously flawed premises and methods - it will again soundly defeat religion.

All the technology we now have and take for granted springs ultimately from the efforts of the minds of a relatively small handful of men who, daring to think differently from their social environment of arrogant and ignorant Christian superstitions, desired to discover and know the nature of this universe mankind is in and put that knowledge to practical use, thereby elevating the quality of man’s life.

The least we could do for the scientists is understand their struggles and their triumphs - and give them a silent, solemn “thank you.”

ID: A Con of an Argument

The Intelligent Design argument has taken a good beating (here, here, and here Objectivists effectively shoot down ID), but because its proponents have faith, reason is hardly going to impress them. I have some questions I would love to have an ID’er answer for me; questions that this thought-provoking TJM post points toward. It is best to set the stage before I pose my questions; questions that would probably put an end to ID if they were asked.

The ID’ers argue that there is so much irreducible complexity in the natural world - analogous to a man-made watch’s complexity - that it had to be the result of an intelligent designer; that random chance could not produce it.

In both its agenda and its form, that so-called argument just riles me.

This argument is a thinly-disguised attempt by religionists to hijack science in order to put their religious beliefs on a par with scientific knowledge. My intelligence is insulted by their belief they think they can getaway with this. Throughout man’s history the purely and strictly religious mentality has been an enemy of science and now that science has brought men such tremendous knowledge and progress in just a few centuries - far more knowledge and progress than millennia of ignorance and stagnation that unchallenged religion imposed on men - the religionists want to benefit from science like a parasite on its host. There is no valid argument for God’s existence in philosophy’s history and science has obliterated the religious account of the world - but, suddenly, amidst all this rolling back of religious belief, the ID’ers claim that nature’s constitution, uncovered by science, indicates design by an intelligence (the God for which there is no proof). If that does not appear to be a desperate, last-ditch defense, I do not know what does - yet they expect to be taken with sober, scientific seriousness.

My foot.

The design argument's conclusion does not explain anything because - aside from, being untestable - it is not and cannot be put in the form of an abstract, universal law, that needs no further explanation. It is not irreducible in that sense; instead it actually raises more questions that, to be answered, need such an abstract, irreducibly universal law(s).

My Questions for ID'ers

ID'ers conclude - by scientific observation - that our universe is the product of an intelligent designer. That implies other scientific facts, if not laws, that they must know in order to say that. So,

  1. If the designer, by definition, has a consciousness, then how do you know that consciousness can create existence ex nihilo? On what scientific observation or demonstration can you warrant that belief?
  2. If science shows that nature has specific identity, lawful orderliness, and predictability, then what justifies your claim that there is too much complexity to be the result of 'random chance'? Where is this 'random chance' at work?
  3. If the universe was created by an intelligent designer - who, presumably, has the ability to make anything in any way - would it not make sense for that designer to make a universe simple in design?
  4. If the universe is so complex in its structure that there must be a designer, then for that to be true it implies that a universe that is simple in its structure would be undesigned. How do you know that?

When I hear the ID advocates, I cannot help but think of my last question - that is why ID riles me. Have they been to a simplistically designed universe and proved that it could not have been created by some mysterious, intelligent designer? Their claim implies this necessarily, and it is entirely arbitrary. Here is the condition their belief depends on: a universe of simple design must be undesigned. But, on the other hand, by virtue of their own argument, without a designer, there would be natural randomness, and chaos - and that would make for a highly complex, not simple, universe!

"Intelligent design" is not an argument as much as it is a con-job.

It seems that with those above questions ID is reduced back to the same old God and the same old God questions without any scientific camoflage - perhaps the religionists need another two-thousand years to try to think up some answers and proofs?