Friday, December 29, 2006

Intelligent Design vs. Evolution: The Board Game!!!

This is not a parody.

Evangelistic, educational, entertaining.

At last, a board game that reveals the insanity of perhaps the greatest hoax of our times -- the unscientific "theory of evolution."

"Intelligent Design vs Evolution" is unique in that the playing pieces are small rubber brains and each team plays for "brain" cards. Each player uses his or her brains to get more brains, and the team with the most brains wins. It has been designed to make people think . . . and that's exactly what it does.

"Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are doing much more than revealing the bankruptcy of molecules-to-man evolution. They have a greater purpose: proclaiming biblical authority and reaching the lost with the precious gospel message. Enjoy this wonderful family game as you also become better equipped to defend our precious Christian faith." -- Ken Ham, President, Answers in Genesis.

Emphasis original. Via Friendly Atheist.

Why Religious Morality Sucks

Traditional religions are hamstrung by their allegiance to dogma, and too scared to be flexible when necessary. They end up elevating dogma over people.

I posted recently about George W. Bush's kind words about Mary Cheney's pregnancy despite his previous anti-gay-parent statements and policies. I suspect he knows in his heart that Mary and her partner's decision to have a baby is a beautiful, moral thing. Yet he can't admit that gay marriage or gay adoption is a good thing because of dogma. (Whether it's his personal dogma or simply his base's I don't know.)

Most modern Orthodox Jews have sympathy towards gay people. Yet their dogma insists that male homosexual sex is sinful. Because they follow their dogma rather than their hearts, they cause so much pain.

The Catholic Church does so much to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Their hearts are clearly in the right place. Yet, because they are slaves to dogma, they can't take the easy and necessary step of advocating widespread condom usage. Yesterday, I posted about the Church's denial of a funeral to a man because he was a euthanasia advocate who asked to be removed from a ventilator he'd been on for years. He had advanced muscular dystrophy and was paralyzed. I have no doubt that in the absence of dogma, they would have felt no compulsion to punish this man and his family and loved ones.

For all their moaning about relative morality, orthodox religionists miss the fact that traditional religion's backwards, inflexible "objective" morality causes so much unnecessary pain and suffering. Time for them to take a look at that beam in their eye.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Catholic Church Denies Funeral to Euthanasia Advocate

ROME --Several thousand people, some chanting "shame, shame, shame," attended a lay funeral in a Rome square yesterday for a paralyzed man who was denied a Catholic service because he had asked to die.

Pope Benedict entered the debate over the death of Piergiorgio Welby by condemning euthanasia and saying life was sacred until its "natural sunset."

Welby died on Wednesday after a doctor gave him sedatives and detached a respirator that had kept the victim of advanced muscular dystrophy alive for years.

The lay service for the 60-year-old, an eloquent advocate of euthanasia, was held outside the parish where his family, particularly his devoutly religious mother, had wanted a religious funeral.


The local parish priest had favored a religious service but he was overruled by Rome's Vicariate, or bishop's office, which said Welby had repeatedly affirmed his desire to end his own life, which is against Catholic doctrine.


"I was shocked by the decision not to give him a religious funeral," Father Gianfranco Formenton, told Radio Radicale, the organ of the party that defended Welby's right to die.

"We [the Church] have allowed funerals for [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, [former Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and for mafiosi, but we refuse a funeral for a man just because he asked to die," the priest said.

Speaking at the Vatican on Christmas Eve, just as the lay funeral was ending on the other side of Rome, Pope Benedict underlined the Church's position on euthanasia.

"The birth of Christ helps us to understand how much value human life has, the life of every human being, from its first instant to its natural sunset," he told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

Welby was confined to his bed and communicated mostly via computer that interpreted his eye movements. He had been asking to die for months.

The crowd at the funeral applauded during speeches by those who supported his right to die, including his wife, Mina, and former European Commissioner Emma Bonino. His coffin was then driven away for a cremation.

"The Vatican's position appears incomprehensible and devoid of human pity," said Gavino Angius, a senator from the largest party in the ruling center-left coalition.

Mourners protest, via Religious Freaks.

"Natural sunset." There's nothing "natural" about keeping someone on a respirator against his will.

Religion's just fine when it agrees with modern morality: don't murder, don't steal, great. Any idiot knows that. It's when moral questions become difficult -- i.e. when people actually crave guidance -- that it utterly fails. Slow to change, the world's religions have not kept up with changing technologies and scientific understanding. Euthanasia, stem-cell research, organ donation, condoms -- traditional religious leaders are stuck in the past.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

How Can I Be Jewish and an Atheist?

Judaism is not only a religion, as even the most religious Orthodox Jews recognize a non-practicing child of a Jewish mother as a Jew. It is not only a race, because Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and Yemenite Jews, for example, can not reasonably be included in the same racial category. It is not only a culture, because it both includes many cultures and includes many people who share cultures with non-Jews. To say that the Jews are a nation or a people only transfers the question to the definition of "nation" or "people."

By almost all definitions of Judaism, I am therefore Jewish. I see myself as Jewish and am often seen by others as Jewish.

Atheism, on the other hand, reflects simply a lack of belief -- or, in some cases, a disbelief -- in deities.

"Jewish Atheist" is therefore only a contradiction for those few (almost exclusively non-Jews) who would limit the definition of "Judaism" to a question of religious belief or practice.

In fact, there are a lot of Jewish atheists. According to a 2003 Harris interactive poll, 19% of American Jews believe there is no God. (Compare to 4% of those who affiliate with Protestantism, 8% of those who affiliate as Catholics, and only 52% of those who affiliate as "Atheist/Agnostic.") Another 33% are "not sure whether or not there is a God."In other words, a majority of American Jews are either atheistic or agnostic. In Israel, according to a YNET poll, 28% of Jews are atheistic. (N.b. Polls seem to vary substantially on the question of belief in God.)

Other atheist Jews include the (in?)famous thinkers Marx, Freud, and Chomsky as well as the comedians Woody Allen, David Cross, Lewis Black, and probably Sarah Silverman.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon Post

In honor of the tenth anniversary of astronomer and skeptical luminary Carl Sagan's death, Joel Schlosberg is hosting a Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. (Follow that link for dozens of other posts, including some by Sagan's wife and son.) Searching back through my posts, I found that I've already mentioned Sagan in nine posts. I think the best way to honor him is simply to point out how often I've already referred to him:

The Danger of Religious Thinking: American "Treatment" of Addiction
Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy... Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?

Beautiful Science
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
[T]he Bible describes a God who watches over one tiny world a few thousand years old. I look out there and see a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars... I mean burn me for a heretic, but your God seems awfully small. --Ellie Arroway, in Sagan's Contact

Baloney Detection Kit

Quote of the Day - Orthodoxy and the Suppression of Ideas
The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Quote of the Day: Science Vs. Religion
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

What Kind of Atheist am I?
  • In which I mention Sagan's role in my becoming an atheist.

Somehow I've never mentioned my favorite Sagan quote, which actually comes from his wife. When asked, "Didn't he want to believe?" she answered, "He didn't want to believe. He wanted to know."

Friday, December 15, 2006

George W. Bush, Hypocrite

In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, Bush said: "I believe children can receive love from gay couples but the ideal is -- and studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman."

He sidestepped the issue when questioned by People magazine about whether he still held that belief.

"Mary Cheney is going to make a fine mom and she's going to love this child a lot," he said, according to an excerpt from the interview.
(Reuters, via Andrew Sullivan

Of course they aren't anti-gay when it's one of their own who's gay. And Mary Cheney can afford great lawyers so she won't be too adversely affected by a lack of gay marriage, civil unions, or anti-discrimination law.

I'm reminded of a racist I knew in yeshiva who used to go on about n*****s. When I asked him, what about [a certain African-American mensch], he said, "Oh, I'm not talking about people like that!"

George Bush happily throws millions of gay Americans under the bus to win votes, but is nothing but supportive when it's someone close to him.

To his credit, he's better than Alan Keyes who kicked his daughter out and cut off her tuition money when she came out of the closet. Better hypocrite than 100% evil, I guess.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Our Cowardly Media

Glen Greenwald bemoans the total lack of adversarial press in America. He points to yesterday's New York Times article about the Holocaust denial conference in Iran as an example of what they should do on domestic stories as well. The Times bravely takes a stand against Holocaust denial:

The two-day meeting included no attempt to come to terms with the nature of the well-documented Nazi slaughter, offering only a platform to those pursuing the fantasy that it never happened.

Here's Greenwald:

The media abdicates its function, and becomes a propaganda arm of the government, when it simply repeats verifiably false Government claims without pointing out, as the Times did with respect to holocaust denial arguments, that the statements are false and objectively contradicted by clear evidence. And our media does that all the time.

It fails in its function to report objectively when it simply conveys claims from the Government that we invaded Iraq once Saddam refused to allow inspectors, that Democrats oppose eavesdropping on terrorists (rather than oppose eavesdropping without warrants), that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda, that Denny Hastert forced Mark Foley to resign once he learned about his IMs with pages, that the President only decided to fire Rumsfeld after the midterm election, etc...

There were many times, in 2002 and 2003, when I read The New York Times in hard-copy form delivered to my door, where the entire front page would be nothing but articles which began with "The Bush administration yesterday said" or "A senior administration official told The New York Times yesterday that . . . " And the story wasn't just that "the Government said X." The story was "X" itself, reported as fact, with the only source being what the Government said (a classic case of such "reporting" is here, from the Post). That is when the media is indistinguishable, by definition, from Pravda.

The old joke is that if Bush said the Earth is flat, the Times would write, "Earth Flat? View Differ."

One of his commenters imagines what the Times or Washington Post would print if Bush denied the Holocaust:

The politically charged controversy over whether Nazi Germany engaged in the large-scale killing of European Jews during World War II, an alleged historical event referred to as the "Holocaust" by those who believe it occurred, became the subject of partisan bickering after a reporter asked President Bush for his view on the subject. Never afraid to take a stand, the president stated firmly that "If the Nazis were really killin' all them Jews, my granddaddy wouldn't have stood for it."

Democrats eagerly pounced on Bush's statement in an effort to score political points by claiming that the "Holocaust" did in fact occur and is well documented. But the president's press secretary countered that some people also believe evolution is well documented, even though the jury is still out. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is Jewish, said that he personally believes that the "Holocaust" may have occurred, but warned Democrats not to "play politics" with the issue by criticizing the Commander in Chief in a time of war. Lieberman also pointed to Bush's support for Israel as evidence of the president's high regard for Jews, notwithstanding the "honest difference of opinion" regarding the fate of some Jews many years ago.

Also disagreeing with Bush was Sophie Wasserman, 89, who claimed to have personally witnessed the murder of her husband and children in a Nazi "concentration camp" in the German city of Dachau. However, conservative humorist Ann Coulter disputed Wasserman's account. Coulter, using her trademark tongue-in-cheek cleverness, described Wasserman as a "vicious, senile whore" whose husband and children "probably committed suicide to get away from her."

Big Bible Business

Tyler Cowen links to this New Yorker article:



The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, forty-seven per cent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers manage to sell twenty-five million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has. Thomas Nelson’s Bible sales increased more than fifteen per cent last year, and such commercial possibilities have begun to attract mainstream publishers to an area dominated by a half-dozen Christian houses. Penguin published two new editions of the Bible this fall, and in July HarperSanFrancisco, part of HarperCollins, announced the creation of a Bible imprint. In June, Thomas Nelson, which last changed hands thirty-seven years ago, for $2.6 million, was purchased by a private investment firm for four hundred and seventy-three million dollars...

Every year, Nelson Bible executives analyze their product line for shortcomings, scrutinize the competition’s offerings, and talk with consumers, retailers, and pastors about their needs.

Nelson categorizes “Grace for the Moment” as an everyday-life Bible, whereas “Family Foundations” is a study Bible. The distinction points to one way in which publishers sell multiple copies of the Bible to the same customers. “They each have a different purpose,” Hatfield told me. “It’s kind of like a tool chest. All the tools are tools, but they’re designed for doing different things.” And there are distinctions within each category. There are study Bibles that focus on theology, on historical context, or on practical applications of Biblical teachings. There are devotional Bibles for new believers, couples, brides, and cowboys. On an air-plane recently, I saw a woman reading a surfers’ Bible very similar to the proposed skaters’ one. The variety is seemingly limitless. Nelson Bible Group’s 2006 catalogue lists more than a hundred titles...

The popularization of the Bible entered a new phase in 2003, when Thomas Nelson created the BibleZine. Wayne Hastings described a meeting in which a young editor, who had conducted numerous focus groups and online surveys, presented the idea. “She brought in a variety of teen-girl magazines and threw them out on the table,” he recalled. “And then she threw a black bonded-leather Bible on the table and said, ‘Which would you rather read if you were sixteen years old?’” The result was “Revolve,” a New Testament that looked indistinguishable from a glossy girls’ magazine. The 2007 edition features cover lines like “Guys Speak Their Minds” and “Do U Rush to Crush?” Inside, the Gospels are surrounded by quizzes, photos of beaming teen-agers, and sidebars offering Bible-themed beauty secrets:

Have you ever had a white stain appear underneath the arms of your favorite dark blouse? Don’t freak out. You can quickly give deodorant spots the boot. Just grab a spare toothbrush, dampen with a little water and liquid soap, and gently scrub until the stain fades away. As you wash away the stain, praise God for cleansing us from all the wrong things we have done. (1 John 1:9)

“Revolve” was immediately popular with teen-agers. “They weren’t embarrassed anymore,” Hastings said. “They could carry it around school, and nobody was going to ask them what in the world it is.” Nelson quickly followed up with other titles, including “Refuel,” for boys; “Blossom,” for tweens; “Real,” for the “vibrant urban crowd” (it comes bundled with a CD of Christian rap); and “Divine Health,” which has notes by the author of the best-selling diet book “What Would Jesus Eat?” To date, Nelson has sold well over a million BibleZines...

It is easy to ascribe a cynical motive to publishers’ embrace of commercial trends. Tim Jordan, of B. & H., concedes, “You do get some folks that say you shouldn’t treat the Bible as a fashion accessory or a throwaway.” Nonetheless, he feels that, from the point of view of a serious religious publisher, fashion can’t be ignored as a way of reaching new audiences. The point, he says, is “to expose as many people as you can, because we believe that it’s God’s word, we believe that it’s life-changing, and we don’t take that lightly.”

Update: Don't miss the slideshow! Via Metafilter.

The slideshow includes this gem:

“Jesus Loves Porn Stars” (NavPress; $8.99). Created by XXXchurch, which ministers to the pornography industry. Another publisher rejected the title as inappropriate, if theologically sound.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Thoughts on Iraq

I think it's all over but the blame.

Virtually everybody who doesn't work in the White House -- and many who do -- agree that we are losing in Iraq. There are only bad options left. If the administration were responsible, they would admit this fact, delineate the possible options, and choose the least bad one.

Unfortunately, they have a long track record of dishonesty. They and their toadies smeared for a long time those who dared to speak the truth -- that we are losing. Finally, after getting pummeled in the recent election, they've allowed that perhaps we aren't winning quickly enough.

Tim P. (via Andrew Sullivan) makes this prediction:

My feeling is that Iraq will play out just like the “preparations” for insurgency did. For political reasons withdrawal will be treated as a naughty word, stifling discussion and heading off planning until it becomes absolutely unavoidable. Then when the light finally goes on we will have a chaotic bugout with huge, avoidable losses of men and materiel.

Unfortunately, I suspect he's dead-on. The administration will smear anyone who suggests we might have to cut our losses and leave. (The dreaded "cut and run.") They'll do so right until there is absolutely no other option. Then it will be an unplanned, "chaotic bugout with huge, avoidable losses of men and materiel." Then they'll blame the Democrats.

If they're responsible, we can minimize the damage we do by leaving. We can set a timetable and do our best to prepare the Iraqi army. We can take other diplomatic and military options to make our inevitable withdrawal less harmful. But they're not responsible. They're going to wait and wait and soldiers are going to keep dying until finally the truth is absolutely undeniable, and then they'll bug out in an awful mess and blame the Democrats.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On my Future as a Jewish Atheist

When I was a child, it was easy to picture what my life would be like as an adult. My community was warm and vibrant and the rhythms of life were stable and comforting. It was so easy to picture living a life like that as an adult, stepping into my father's role in a similar family, living on a similar street, participating in a similar community. Marry a woman after college, have a few kids, go to a nice shul, have Shabbos lunch every week with one or two of the dozens of families we're friends with who live within ten minute's walk, gorge on food and nap away the Yom Tov afternoons...

Everything was so simple there. Life was waiting for you. You go to YU or one of the other schools with high Orthodox populations, and you find your wife. You move your family into a neighborhood and -- BAM -- instant community. You've got family, friends, community, a support system, forced downtime. Beautiful.

I can see why even people with serious theological questions stay. I couldn't. I couldn't sit in shul and pretend or keep quiet when I felt Orthodoxy was wrong. Seems kind of like a dumb reason to give up all that, but I needed to be somewhere were I could be proud of who I am instead of pretending to be someone else. I felt like a hypocrite wearing a kippah to work already believing most of the things I now write on this blog. Christian Morganstern wrote, "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you," and the frum community did not understand me.

So I left, and now I'm out here, figuring things out on my own. I'm not trying to act like I'm some kind of hero -- this is probably how most middle/upper-middle class Americans live their lives. But compared to how I grew up, it's a lot harder. I still want to get married someday, but I couldn't have done it right after college. I'm pretty sure I want to have kids, but how can I provide them the community I grew up in? I had probably 20 friends whose houses I could walk to on Shabbos afternoon without even an invitation. I went to school with most of them practically from the time I could walk.

It seems that people "out here" form much smaller communities with extended families, a couple of neighbors, and a few random friends picked up here and there. These communities are not just small but loose, often dispersed geographically across a region or even the country. In some important ways, it's not a community at all.

So it's hard to picture my future. I'm trying to figure it out as I go, but I don't know if I'll ever find something like where I grew up. I think I understand now why so many of my real-life friends who slacked in their practice in their early twenties went back to Orthodoxy when they married. I'm not them, though. I don't fit there.

The Gadol Hador and Me

The venerable Gadol/XGH:

Jewish Atheist was originally a commenter here, but then went off and started his own blog. Of course back then, he and I didn’t agree on anything much. Maybe he even started his own blog just to counter all the nasty anti-skeptic things I used to write Nowadays though, at least intellectually, there’s not a huge difference between us.

However, having said that, we still choose to lead our lives very differently. I’m still frum, while he is out eating lobster and enjoying other fine aveiros. What gives? You might say, he has the courage of his convictions, whereas I’m a wus. He’s still single, whereas I’m married and tied to all the commitments that marriage and community brings. But I don’t think that’s it, or at least it’s not the whole story.

Here is how I responded:

I think the difference between you and me is that you're willing to act as if Orthodox Judaism is true in order to get what it offers and I'm not. I'm pretty sure I've always been incapable of doing what you do, but maybe if I'd gotten married and settled into a community as an adult before I reached my intellectual conclusions, I'd have made the same decisions you have.

Anyway, here's to hoping both our paths work out. :-)

Two completely unrelated thoughts:

1) There's a difference between theory and practice. In theory, Gadol/XGH and I sort of have similar beliefs. He makes all the same arguments against Orthodox Judaism that I do, although he stops short of making the obvious (to me) conclusion. In practice, we're at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. I think the gulf between theory and practice is something we bloggers should keep in mind when debating online. It's sometimes hard to picture the disembodied debaters as people.

2) I'm tempted to believe that Orthodox Judaism encourages its members to marry so early partly to increase retention. (It also works the other angle by encouraging high birthrates.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What if America Tortured During WWII?

Andrew Sullivan has the quote from Scott Horton:

Now I'd like you to use your imagination for a second. Let's assume the unthinkable: that America had embraced Mr. Bush's "Program" in the Second World War; that German, Italian and Japanese fighters had been waterboarded, subjected to the cold cell and techniques like "long time standing." Do any of you think for even a second that these nations would have been our allies and friends in the following generations? Think of how much darker, colder and more hate-filled our world would be than it is today...

A short time ago, in Germany, I spoke with one of the senior advisors of Chancellor Angela Merkel. I noted that a criminal complaint had been filed against Donald Rumsfeld and a number of others invoking universal jurisdiction for war crimes offenses. How would the chancellor see this, I asked? There was a long pause, and I fully expected to get a brush-off response. But what came was very surprising. "You must remember," said the advisor, "that my chancellor was born and raised in a totalitarian state. She cannot be indifferent to questions of this sort. In fact, she views them as matters of the utmost gravity and they will be treated that way. The Nuremberg process happened in my country. It was painful for us. But we absorbed it. It became a part of our legacy. An important part of our legacy. We will not forget it. But I have to ask you: why has your country forgotten?"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Deeply Disturbing Case in the "War on Drugs"

Today, Richard Paey sits in a wheelchair behind high walls and razor wire in a high-security prison near Daytona Beach. Paey is a 46-year-old father of three, and a paraplegic. His condition is the result of a car accident, a botched back surgery, and a case of multiple sclerosis — three setbacks that have left him in a chronic, debilitating state of pain. After moving to Florida from New Jersey, Paey found it increasingly difficult to get prescriptions for the pain medication he needed to function normally — to support his family, and to be a parent to his children.

Paey's difficulties finding treatment were in large part due to federal- and state-government efforts to prevent the illegal use — or "diversion," as the feds call it — of prescription pain medicine. Doctors today face fines, suspension, the loss of license or practice, the seizure of property, or even prison time in the event that drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decide they are prescribing too many painkillers. As a result, physicians are understandably apprehensive about aggressively treating pain.

Like many pain patients, Paey found himself on the blunt end of such policies. He went from doctor to doctor, looking for someone to give him the medication he needed. By the time he eventually turned to his old New Jersey doctor for help, he had already attracted the attention of Florida drug-control authorities. What happened next is disputed, but it ended with Paey getting arrested, getting his home raided, and eventually getting convicted of drug distribution.

Paey insists his old doctor wrote him the prescriptions he needed. The Florida pharmacists who testified at his trial back him up. But the doctor says he forged the prescriptions. For his part, Paey holds no animus against his former doctor. Cops gave the doctor a devil's bargain — give Paey up, or face 25-years-to-life imprisonment for the excessive proscribing [sic, I assume --JA] of painkillers. Paey still maintains the prescriptions were legitimate, but understands why his doctor turned against him...

State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug-war statutes, these prosecutors could pursue distribution charges against him based solely on the amount of medication he possessed (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify a person as a "drug trafficker").

After three trials, Richard Paey was convicted and put in prison for 25 years, effectively a life sentence for someone in his condition. Ironically, the state of Florida now pays for a morphine pump connected to Paey's spine which delivers the same class of medication at the same doses the state of Florida told him wasn't necessary, and put him in prison for trying to obtain.

(The National Review, via TheAgitator)

There's much more, including the admission that he was given a harsher sentence for turning down a plea bargain and alleged severe retaliation by the state of Florida for talking to reporters.

I'll let the National Review do my editorializing:

The Paey case has already cast a good deal of shame on the state of Florida. Just how much more shame his story brings to the state depends on whether political leaders move to rectify his plight, or rather choose simply to ignore him, and continue to intimidate him into spending the rest of his 25-year prison term in silence.

Governor Bush should free Richard Paey. And Florida lawmakers should pass reforms to ensure that drug-war fanaticism no longer prevents sick people from getting the medication they need.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What's Theology Got to do with Religion?

There's a great discussion over at Mixing Memory about the common claim that critics of religion are bashing a strawman rather than the sophisticated theology that intelligent theists believe in. Mixing Memory's Chris takes issue with PZ Myers, who wrote elsewhere:

"Nuance"? Sweet jebus, where is the nuance in religion and superstition and piety that we're supposed to defend?

I keep hearing these claims that religion is really far more nuanced and sophisticated and clever than we give it credit for, but seriously, every time I turn around and look at the actual practice of the silly business, I'm gobsmacked.

Chris argues that it would just take some reading of this list to learn about religious nuance. And then the comments arrive. Some excerpts:

coturnix: What is there to understand about theology except that it is a great excercise in twisted logic wrapped in a taco-shell of pretty rhetorics? Trying to save face by using big words. If that is nuance...

Richard: Well, I checked out the list that you linked to above, hoping that I would see something new, some writer that was unknown to the average university graduate. Are you trying to suggest that Dawkins, and Myers, are unfamiliar with those philosophers? Come on. You just revealed that there's nothing that they're missing.

Adam Huan: While I don't like Myers' attitude, his statement is fair -- religious practice is often shallow and overly fervent. How many American Christians have read Thomas Aquinas? I'd wager not many. Myers' crime isn't in calling out the believers, it's in feeling as strongly about their beliefs as they do.

Joshua: Honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to find a believer who's had exposure to the apologia on that "Top Twenty" list. Most Christians don't even known about Pascal's Wager (though they probably at some point came to it independently anyway), much less St. Anselm's ontological argument or the works of Augustine or Aquinas. Most of them haven't even read C.S. Lewis' apologia, though they might be familiar with his fiction. Hell, most Christians haven't even read the Bible, aside from maybe hearing a few selected quotations in church.

The fact is, apologia has absolutely no connection with the real practice of religion and belief. It exists in its own world, disconnected from the real world -- both the world of science and logic as well as the lives of the believers. I've never heard a good argument for why anybody should take it seriously. If somebody has one, I'd love to hear it.

And lest you think I don't have experience, I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. Later in life, I attended a Foursquare church with my dad. I went to Baptist grade school and an Episcopal high school. In high school, I took a required class on Biblical scholarship.

In short, I was surrounded by theists for most of my life. None of them ever mentioned Aquinas.

PZ Myers again: So I think we're still all waiting...where is the nuanced and sophisticated religion?

Whenever I ask this question, all I get is indignation, and maybe some handwaving at some convoluted bit of sophistry, like Anselm's ontological argument, but nothing at all persuasive, and nothing that deals with the reality. Theology has nothing to do with religion, near as I can tell -- it's a collection of post hoc rationalizations for the superstitions that people are brought up with.
Reality is the assembly of ancient, ossified rituals and traditions (the Catholic church) or the codification and celebration of ignorance (just about every evangelical church in the country) or sheer soul-purging emotionalism (charismatics of various stripes)...

There are great theists out there, but I think what happens when you look at them closely is that you discover that their religion is the framework through which they express humanist ideals...and it's the humanism, not the religion, that makes them appealing.

MarkP: One can also point out just how horrible the bulk of apologetics are. If you think Pascal's wager and the assertion-laden babbling of CS Lewis are challenging arguments, you need to find another hobby. That these otherwise very intelligent men had to twist themselves into irrational pretzels trying to defend religion is one of the strongest points against it...

The most honest comment about religion I ever heard from a believer came from Martin Gardner, who said something along the lines of, and I paraphase from memory, "I, by a completely illogical leap of faith, believe there is a supreme being with whom my consciousness will spend eternity." To that I cannot argue, believe what you will, and hell, you might just be right. Frankly, I hope you are. Just don't try to tell me you got there logically, and for the sake of all the gods, large and small, keep it out of the science classes.

Mark: I would venture a guess that the more people read of and about religion, the more likely they are to question the validity and reasonableness of religious belief - any religious belief. I suspect that in this case, familiarity will breed contempt. That's one reason I would wholeheartedly endorse the teaching of an unbiased comparative religion course in all public schools. You can bet the fundamentalist christians would blow their fuses at that one.

It's been my experience as well that for all the talk of sophisticated theology, most religious people in practice have simple, ritualistic religions and fall back on pat answers to difficult questions. Joshua's comment is worth repeating: The fact is, apologia has absolutely no connection with the real practice of religion and belief.

Theologians, from what I can tell, fall into two camps: those who dress up tired old arguments with big words and loose analogies (C.S. Lewis or worse) and those who are deists, agnostics, or atheists in Christian or Jewish clothing (Spong.)

How cool is the internet, by the way? In real life I've only once been in a room with as many smart atheists as were commenting in that thread, and that was at a Dawkins speech. I wonder how long religion can last once everybody's online and the rabbis, priests, and imams no longer get to keep their followers from seeing the competition's arguments.