Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bar Republicans from Adopting!

State Sen. Robert Hagan sent out e-mails to fellow lawmakers late Wednesday night, stating that he intends to "introduce legislation in the near future that would ban households with one or more Republican voters from adopting children or acting as foster parents." The e-mail ended with a request for co-sponsorship...

Hagan said his "tongue was planted firmly in cheek" when he drafted the proposed legislation. However, Hagan said that the point he is trying to make is nonetheless very serious.

Hagan said his legislation was written in response to a bill introduced in the Ohio House this month by state Rep. Ron Hood, R-Ashville, that is aimed at prohibiting gay adoption...

Hood's bill, which does not have support of House leadership, seeks to ban children from being placed for adoption or foster care in homes where the prospective parent or a roommate is homosexual, bisexual or transgender.

To further lampoon Hood's bill, Hagan wrote in his mock proposal that "credible research" shows that adopted children raised in Republican households are more at risk for developing "emotional problems, social stigmas, inflated egos, and alarming lack of tolerance for others they deem different than themselves and an air of overconfidence to mask their insecurities."

However, Hagan admitted that he has no scientific evidence to support the above claims.

Just as "Hood had no scientific evidence" to back his assertion that having gay parents was detrimental to children, Hagan said. (Emphasis added.)

Sometimes parody is the best argument. And the bolded paragraph strikes me as more likely than the worries about gay parents.

(Link: Lawmaker's proposal: Bar Republicans from adopting)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

My Opposite Day Entry: Why Christianity is True

Okay, I guess I'll argue for Christianity. (For an explanation of Opposite Day, see my previous post.)

First, there seems to be no plausible explanation for true free will without the supernatural. Although it's therefore tempting to argue that there is no free will, it's obvious from everyday experience that there is. (Studies which purport to show that our decisions are made before we consciously make them only demonstrate an interesting point about how our consciousness works, not about whether we are ultimately free to make decisions. The experiments prove nothing about whatever began the build-up to the decision.)

If there is a supernatural being behind every human, it stands to reason that there is an even greater supernatural being of which the smaller beings are a part, or are split off of somehow. This is exactly what Christianity teaches. What is Christ if not part of the Greater Spirit (God) combined with a human one? In fact, the very notion of the Trinity reflects the metaphysics which makes most sense based on simple observation. God, or the Spirit, is united but at the same time has different manifestations. God is God the Father, the Creator, while at the same time the Son, the human. There is also the pervasive Holy Spirit which fills all of Creation.

It's clear that the Old Testament began with a people who were prepared only for a tribal Deity, not the real Monotheism of later Christianity. In the Old testament, God acts like a polytheistic God - angry, jealous, loving, vengeful... in other words, human, but bigger. He is a nations's God, rather than the only God. He says, "worship no other Gods before me," not "I am the only God who exists."

Judaism paved the way for Christ's message. Jesus was himself both God and Jew, and so formed a new covenant, this time not with one nation, but with anyone willing to accept Him. At this point, the people had been weaned off of primitive, pagan-like sacrifices and ritual laws of kashrut and the like were no longer necessary. Christ showed people how to interact directly with God without needing such primitive intermediaries.

Some claim that Jesus did not exist. This is almost certainly untrue. He is a recent enough figure and he shows up not just in the four gospels, but in extra-Biblical documents like Josephus and the Talmud. Some point out that the gospels contradict each other in places, for example with the details in the story of His resurrection. I agree that there are contradictions, but that this is to be expected when hearing a story from four different sources. I don't believe that the NT (or the OT) were dictated from God, but it's clear they were inspired from the comfort they give to millions.

The OT paved the way for Jesus Christ. There are many prophets before Jesus, but the OT also speaks of the Messiah. If the Old Testament has any truth to it, there's no way the Second Temple could have been destroyed with no Messiah coming for over two thousand years. Even when the nation of Israel was being punished, it was only for four hundred years! It's clear from the OT that the Messiah would be coming sooner rather than later.

Arguments against the Old Testament from science are irrelevant. The Old Testament was never supposed to be a literal history of the Universe. It was an introduction to God for a people who did not yet know Him. He spoke in their language, according to what they could accept at that time. Later, in Jesus's time, he updated the teachings to include the rest of humanity.

Did evolution happen? Of course it did. Is the universe billions of years old and unimaginably vast? Of course. These things only prove God's existence all the more so! Evolution is far too intricate to lead to a being as astounding as the human without being guided somehow. A 4-billion year old Earth with a long, winding path towards the human reveals an incomprehensibly powerful God.

And what of Christ's teachings? Can anyone deny that his words carry immense wisdom?
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children
of God... Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also... I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite-fully use you, and persecute you; --Matthew 5
If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her. --John 8:7
Do not judge, lest you too be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. --Matthew 7:1-2

Were not these teachings shown to be wise by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who among modern figures are more revered than those two who so closely followed Jesus's teachings.

Oh, you will say, so much harm has been done in Jesus's name. This is true, I agree, but those so-called followers of Christ aren't doing any following. Christ predicted such hypocrisy and gave us the only test we need for discovering who the real Christians are. He said, "By their fruits you shall know them." In other words, if one praises Jesus but steals from the poor, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but agitates for war, he's not a Christian. If one praises Jesus but bilks the faithful out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, he's not a Christian.

Mankind is flawed, and Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves. His sacrifice mirrors the primitive use of the (literal) scapegoat in the old testament, but reinvents it for a more enlightened humanity. Even to the gravest suffering, stand up for what's right, is his message. In the OT, the faithful kill the scapegoat. In the NT, the most faithful one IS the scapegoat. Don't strike, but turn the other cheek. When we all follow Jesus, there will be no war.

And what of our sins? What does it mean to say Jesus died to save us? By his death he teaches that living isn't the most important thing, how you live is. He modeled for us even as he was dying the perfect behavior. "Forgive them Father," he says, referring to his murderers, "they know not what they do." Christ died teaches us the alternative to hatred.

Opposite Day!

I was thinking it might be fun to have an opposite day, where the atheists do their best to argue that theism is correct and the theists do their best to argue that atheism is correct. Perhaps some Jews can argue that Christianity is correct and vice versa. The point is to get you to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see what the logic looks like from that side.

It'll only work if you really try, though. You must resist mocking or parodying the position you're supposed to be fighting for.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Religion vs. Dogma, Part II

In my last post, Chana asked me, "How would you, if you had the power or ability, change the system so that it yielded more open-minded thinkers as opposed to dogmatic followers?" I'd like to expand upon my answer there.

I think it might be useful to look at the Twelve Traditions of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Although it's debatable whether Twelve Step groups are religious institutions, I believe that all religions and religious institutions can learn from their focus on achieving a goal ("to carry [AA's] message to the alcoholic who still suffers") while avoiding distractions.

They are:
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.

2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority - a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

5. Each group has but one primary purpose - to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Perhaps religious bodies could adapt the Twelve Traditions to ensure that religion never strays from its original purpose and never becomes ensnared in the dogmatic. Here are some of my suggestions that any honest religious body should have no problem endorsing:

1. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority - [insert "God" / "our consciences" / "God as we understand Him or Her or It or Them/etc." / "the Torah" as appropriate.] Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

2. The only requirement for membership in our religion is [having a Jewish mother / believing in Jesus / wanting to be a better person.]

3. A group associated with [our religion] ought never endorse, finance or lend the [religion's] name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

4. Every [religious] group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

5. [The religion] has no opinion on outside issues; hence the [religion's] name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

6. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

If religions followed these six traditions, there would be no Jerry Falwell (#3, #5, and #6), no religious interference with government (#3 and #5), no commercialized books/red string bracelets/Left Behind movies (#3 and #6), no Intelligent Design movement (#3 and #5), no discrimination against those of other faiths or no faith (#5), no excommunication (#2), and, finally, no enforcing of dogma (#1 and #2).

And what will we have lost besides dogma, commercialism, and egotism?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dogma: The Real Enemy

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought. --Nanzan Daishi
Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. --Thomas Jefferson
Under attack, sentiments harden into dogma. --Mason Cooley

I have no quarrel with religion held sincerely but loosely. The problem is that religion tends almost invariable towards the dogmatic. For every ten sophisticated religious thinkers, there are a hundred who mindlessly follow an ossified, thoughtless shell of religion. True religious thinkers adapt to new ideas and new discoveries; dogmatists shut their eyes and plug their ears. Worse, they often try to shut our eyes and plug our ears. The true religious thinker always seeks the truth; the dogmatist is sure he already has it.

In this manner, I believe the atheist* is more a true religious thinker than the dogmatist. If God exists, we are wrong, but at least we aren't worshipping the idol that is religious dogma. For isn't that exactly what dogma is? Being dogmatic, at its best, is worshipping a man-made approximation of God. You might as well believe that a statue of Jesus created the Earth as be a young-Earth Creationist living in 21st century America.

* By "atheist" I refer to one who, like myself, believes that there is no God, but holds that belief tentatively, prepared to change his or her mind should new evidence arise in the same way that he or she would change his/her mind about the non-existence of unicorns if one were discovered. Certainly some atheists suffer from dogmatism as much as any Roman Catholic.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Unintelligent Design, or Do We Come From Viruses?

In the discussions of intelligent design, one hears a yearning for an old-fashioned creation story, in which some singular, inchoate entity stepped in to give rise to complex life-forms—humans in particular. Now the viruses appear to present a creation story of their own: a stirring, topsy-turvy, and decidedly unintelligent design wherein life arose more by reckless accident than original intent, through an accumulation of genetic accounting errors committed by hordes of mindless, microscopic replication machines. Our descent from apes is the least of it. With the discovery of Mimi, scientists are close to ascribing to viruses the last role that anyone would have conceived for them: that of life's prime mover.

Many theists are willing to admit that evolution is at least possible, but remain convinced that the formation of our very first ancestor was too improbable to have happened by chance. Indeed it seems impossible that something as complex as a cell could have formed by chance and it's unclear what the precursor to a cell could be. However, if we start from a sea of amino acids and try to figure out the simplest possible replicator which could have eventually evolved into... well, us, than we might come up with something that looks a lot like a virus -- basically a strand of genetic material wrapped in a protective protein shell.

According to this fascinating article, some scientists are starting to believe that viruses may in fact be our ancestors. Also, even if the first replicator wasn't something like a virus, viruses may have played a key role in the development of the first cell nucleus.

Now, with the recent discovery of a truly monstrous virus, scientists are again casting about for how best to characterize these spectral life-forms. The new virus, officially known as Mimivirus (because it mimics a bacterium), is a creature "so bizarre," as The London Telegraph described it, "and unlike anything else seen by scientists . . . that . . . it could qualify for a new domain in the tree of life." Indeed, Mimivirus is so much more genetically complex than all previously known viruses, not to mention a number of bacteria, that it seems to call for a dramatic redrawing of the tree of life.

"This thing shows that some viruses are organisms that have an ancestor that was much more complex than they are now," says Didier Raoult, one of the leaders of the research team at the Mediterranean University in Marseille, France, that identified the virus. "We have a lot of evidence with Mimivirus that the virus phylum is at least as old as the other branches of life and that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life."

That represents a radical change in thinking about life's origins: Viruses, long thought to be biology's hitchhikers, turn out to have been biology's formative force.

This is striking news, especially at a moment when the basic facts of origins and evolution seem to have fallen under a shroud. In the discussions of intelligent design, one hears a yearning for an old-fashioned creation story, in which some singular, inchoate entity stepped in to give rise to complex life-forms—humans in particular. Now the viruses appear to present a creation story of their own: a stirring, topsy-turvy, and decidedly unintelligent design wherein life arose more by reckless accident than original intent, through an accumulation of genetic accounting errors committed by hordes of mindless, microscopic replication machines. Our descent from apes is the least of it. With the discovery of Mimi, scientists are close to ascribing to viruses the last role that anyone would have conceived for them: that of life's prime mover...

Now, with the recent discovery of a truly monstrous virus, scientists are again casting about for how best to characterize these spectral life-forms. The new virus, officially known as Mimivirus (because it mimics a bacterium), is a creature "so bizarre," as The London Telegraph described it, "and unlike anything else seen by scientists . . . that . . . it could qualify for a new domain in the tree of life." Indeed, Mimivirus is so much more genetically complex than all previously known viruses, not to mention a number of bacteria, that it seems to call for a dramatic redrawing of the tree of life.

"This thing shows that some viruses are organisms that have an ancestor that was much more complex than they are now," says Didier Raoult, one of the leaders of the research team at the Mediterranean University in Marseille, France, that identified the virus. "We have a lot of evidence with Mimivirus that the virus phylum is at least as old as the other branches of life and that viruses were involved very early on in the evolutionary emergence of life..."

Even as Darwinism has come under attack from the theology of the intelligent design movement, scientists have never been closer to divining life's origins. With DNA evidence as solid as that used to convict criminals, researchers can trace the shared genetic lineage of life's different branches back to the very base of the tree, some 4 billion years ago, when the interaction between primordial bacteria and viruses culminated in the "mother cell," the common ancestor of all life on Earth. Although the remoteness and complexity of those events makes them difficult to piece together, viruses like Mimi are emerging as the key players in the picture...

How the first nucleus came to be is a question that has intrigued scientists ever since Scottish botanist Robert Brown first detected a cell nucleus while peering at orchids under a microscope one day in 1824.

The discovery of Mimivirus lends weight to one of the more compelling theories discussed at Les Treilles. Back when the three domains of life were emerging, a large DNA virus very much like Mimi may have made its way inside a bacterium or an archaean and, rather than killing it, harmlessly persisted there. The eukaryotic cell nucleus and large, complex DNA viruses like Mimi share a compelling number of biological traits. They both replicate in the cell cytoplasm, and on doing so, each uses the same machinery within the cytoplasm to form a new membrane around itself. They both have certain enzymes for capping messenger RNA, and they both have linear chromosomes rather than the circular ones typically found in a bacterium.

"If this is true," Forterre has said of the viral-nucleus hypothesis, "then we are all basically descended from viruses..."

We have been looking for our designer in all the wrong places. It seems we owe our existence to viruses, the least of semiliving forms, and about the only thing they have in common with any sort of theological prime mover is their omnipresence and invisibility. Once again, viruses have altered the way that we view them and, by extension, ourselves. As it turns out, they are not the little breakaway shards of our biology—we are, of theirs.

(via digg)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted

From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.

"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."

A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.

"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error...

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."

Interestingly, the person who made the discovery is a former Bishop in the church.

In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.

"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."

Echoes of Orthodox Jews reinterpreting Genesis abound:

Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.

"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."

The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.

Reactions have varied among the faithful. One said, "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers. I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week." Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who grew up believing he was a Hebrew had a different reaction: "Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity. I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."

(Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted, via digg)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Truth, Beauty, Meaning, Morality

How is it that smart people with similar values can come up with such different worldviews and belief systems? What makes one person become an atheist while another becomes a deist and still another turns towards a more traditional religion? I've written before about the powerful influence of inertia on religious affiliation -- the single most predictive factor in religious choice is the religion of one's parents and a close second is the religion of one's country, if different than the parents'.

In this post, I'd like to look at what might be the next most important factor. That is, what is the question that most informs your choice of worldview? People who ask different questions will reach different answers. I think each of us has a primary question, although it may be unconscious. Everybody asks pretty much all of the questions, but the order in which we rank their importance will inform our most important decisions.

What is true?

This is the question of the skeptic, who wants to know the truth regardless of its consequences. If her entire life has been a lie, if her husband has been cheating, if she's got six months to live, she wants to know. Ignorance is never bliss as long as she's aware that she's ignorant. The skeptic doesn't do denial. These are the atheists, the agnostics, the religious skeptics, some of the theologians and philosophers.

What is beautiful?

This person prefers the beautiful answer, even if it's not necessarily the literal truth. He prefers the dramatic response over the most effective one, the storybook version of history over the nitty-gritty details, the poetic description rather than the reductionist one. He thinks of the flower turning towards the light as an act of love or worship rather than an unfeeling response to stimulus. These are the religious mystics, the wiccans, the blissed-out holy men.

What is meaningful?

This person craves purpose. She's not satisfied with the how but demands to know the why. She doesn't do anything for its own sake but rather for its part in some larger project. She finds meaning in the shulkhan aruch's instructions on how to tie one's shoes. These are the ones who "talk" to God, the millenialists, the eschatologists, the Purpose-Driven Life readers.

What is moral?

This is the rule-abider. He believes that every action must be guided by morality, that we must live by strict rules. These are the people adopting the latest stringencies, the fans of Dr. Laura, the judgemental of others.

What makes me feel safe?

(Edited to add.)


Maybe we talk past each other because we're answering different questions. People searching for morality won't be touched by evolution while people searching for truth will be mystified by the "beautiful sunset" proof of God. People looking for meaning won't like scientific materialism while those looking for beauty won't be moved by legalistic or nit-picky argumentation.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Search for Religious Truth

People don't realize religion is never a search for truth. Religion is a search for security. Now, we have theological enterprises that try to shape truth. But the bedrock of our religion is a search for security. And that comes out of the very dawning of self-consciousness. --Bishop John Shelby Spong

Religion, being primarily theoretical rather than empirical, generally raises more questions than answers. This in itself is perfectly okay -- questions can be valuable tools to understanding. The problem is twofold: (1) there is no sure-fire method for testing candidate answers, and (2) people aren't satisfied with questions; they want answers.

It's interesting to see the various ways different religions (and other non-empirical thought systems like many branches of philosophy) go about satisfying the thirst for answers.

Biblical "Literalists"

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. --Unknown.
First, you have the Biblical literalists who, uncomfortable with the fact that no text can be completely unambiguous, pretend that the Bible always says exactly what it means and no more. The problem they face is that the Bible is at times ambiguous, self-contradictory, or in defiance of the facts. Literalists generally either ignore such problems or develop convoluted apologetics to explain them away.

People Followers

[Many of my students] act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. --Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Others try to resolve the problem by finding a person and treating every word he utters as "the gospel truth." The biggest such group are Catholics who have made their Pope infallible. Also included in this category are various Hasidic groups as well as most cults.

Tradition Followers

Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past. --Lewis Mumford
Many people believe that weight should be given to authority figures of the past. As a bonus, there are always many authority figures to choose from, so this neatly overcomes the problem of self-contradiction. If Rabbi Hillel's students disagreed with Rabbi Shamai's students, they can accept both traditions as valid and just pick one to run with. Obviously a great many Orthodox Jews take this path, leading to a great diversity of opinions and practices. As they say, "Two Jews, three opinions." However, even the richest of traditions can't contain answers for all questions (particularly new ones) so people in this camp must be in other ones as well.

Personal Truth Followers

With the rise of the self in the West, combined with the advent of widespread literacy and the move away from the Catholic Church, many people have turned inward for answers. Some believe that they can speak directly with God via intuition (and sometimes voices in their heads, presumably) and others are comfortable with interpreting the various holy texts for themselves. Many of these people take another practical approach, picking and choosing cafeteria-style aspects of various religions and philosophies which resonate with them.


And Jesus said unto them, "And whom do you say that I am?"

They replied, "You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed."

And Jesus replied, "What?" --Unknown
Theologians are much like the literalists in that they engage in tortured apologetics. However, being better educated, they can usually arrive at religious philosophies which are unfalsifiable. They will generally redefine terms so that they are completely at odds with the common understanding of them. This last group is perhaps the least objectionable of contemporary religious thinkers since they keep working until their beliefs are at least internally consistent and usually consistent with the world as well. However, their explanations are unsatisfying to the (fictional, of course) objective observer since they violate Occam's razor. Moreover, considering themselves members of their religion rather than members of a distinct one provides cover for all the believers in the other groups. Many a lay-person will take pride in the fact that a religious theologian is nominally of the same religion, but more often than not, the only similarity is in the label. In fact, if some of these theologians spoke their true views to the people, they would likely be kicked out of their communities.


Skeptics exist within religious traditions as well as with atheism and agnosticism. Religious skeptics are content to live without some answers, but either believe that the answers they do have are sufficient to act upon or simply choose to be religious in the absence of evidence.


In a recent thread, Orthoprax told me, "If Judaism were the ideological 'search for God' rather than a dogmatic assertion of the same, it could much more easily retain people like you, I think." I think that this is correct and, moreover, that such a Judaism would be a much more meaningful and thoughtful religion. However, it would also be much smaller and would run the risk of dying out within a few generations.

I believe that we must always choose to accept uncertainty over false truths and that we should encourage others to do the same. We must teach people that it's okay not to know the answer to every question and that saying "I don't know" is preferable to saying "I know" when they don't.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life."

"For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority," the statement said. "Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough."

I've got to give credit where credit is due. I've long complained about prominent Christians focusing on stupid issues like preventing civil unions and boycotting t.v. shows, but these guys are stepping up to the plate.

Not all the evangelical leaders are on board, though:

Some of the nation's most high-profile evangelical leaders, however, have tried to derail such action. Twenty-two of them signed a letter in January declaring, "Global warming is not a consensus issue." Among the signers were Charles W. Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

All quotes from the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Behe Responds to the Kitzmiller Decision

ID proponent Behe responds to the Kitzmiller decision (previously discussed here and here ). Specifically, he responds to the Court's finding that "intelligent design (ID) is not science."

Here is his conclusion:
The Court's... reasoning is premised on: a cramped view of science; the conflation of intelligent design with creationism; an incapacity to distinguish the implications of a theory with the theory itself; a failure to differentiate evolution from Darwinism; and strawman arguments against ID.

Via The Panda's Thumb, who points out the following:

Most often, Behe’s answers consist of simply repeating the arguments he made at trial, as if the Judge was just hard-of-hearing instead of utterly unconvinced by them. And when Behe does try to explain himself, the outcome is often worse.

But go ahead, read it for yourself.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Which God Do You Believe In?

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. --Stephen Roberts

The [God] that can be described is not the eternal [God]. --Tao Te Ching

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it --Michelangelo

As far as I can tell, no two theists believe in the same God.

Does God have a gender?
Does or did God literally speak to people?
Is God a trickster who created a universe to look billions of years older than it is?
Did God dictate the Bible word for word?
Is Genesis literal truth, truth in the language of its day, or mythology?
Does God want anything of us?
Is there a Heaven?
A hell?
Do dead people come back to life?
Is God the same thing as the Universe or the Multiverse?
Is God loving? Wrathful? Both? Neither?
Are we God?
Is God in everything?

I could come up with hundreds of these questions. Maimonedes came up with 13 answers which he (sort of?) believed all Jews needed to believe, but even those are controversial.

In short, the theists are right when they say that God is unknowable. As an atheist, I agree. :)

But what's an atheist? Do I disbelieve every possible definition of God? No, I believe in love and in the Universe and some people say God is love or God is the Universe.

All I can do is describe what I don't believe in.

Perhaps that's ultimately a path to a God.

When I was a smart-assed computer science student, I was faced with a test question which I was sure had a mistake in it. Instead of trying to figure out if I was misunderstanding it or asking for clarification, I decided to set out disproving the question's consistency.

I wrote a page and a half of text, numbers, and equations trying to prove that the question was wrong. Half an hour later, though, I reached the end of my calculations and found that not only was the question right, but I'd reached the correct answer by trying to disprove it.

Maybe theism is the same way. Maybe some theists just saw the question "What is God?" and quickly reached the right answer.

But for me, all I can see right now is that the question rests on a false assumption. Perhaps by trying to disprove it, I'll return to theism. (I doubt it, but I must admit it's possible.) For now, all I can do is figure out all of the gods and religious claims I don't believe in.

Theists who want to know God should take atheists seriously. We might turn out to be your best allies.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Quote of the Day: Religion as Theater

I don't think there's any difference between the pope wearing a large hat and parading around with a smoking purse and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock. --Howard Stern

(Disclaimer: not a big Howard Stern fan.)

Stern could just as well have said "I don't think there's any difference between [an Orthodox Jew waving a lulav and esrog | a Mormon wearing special underwear | a Pentacostal speaking in tongues | a Baptist dunking a baby underwater | a Muslim kneeling on a praying rug] and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock."

On this blog, we often debate creationism vs. evolution, divine revelation vs. the documentary hypothesis, and absolute vs. relative morality, but sometimes I have to just marvel in the sheer wackiness of religion.

Sometimes I just want to throw out all the arguments and just point and say, "Look how ludicrous this stuff is!" But everybody thinks their religion's unique and true. It's just everybody else who's crazy.

There's a more substantive point here, though, and that is this: religious ritual is theater. It's designed to produce an emotional reaction in the observer/audience. In and of itself, it's meaningless. Turn on your television one Sunday morning and watch a televangelist with his fire and brimstone and sing-song voice and emotional arguments disguising logical fallacies. It's simply a tool for the leader/entertainer to manipulate his/her audience.

How many people would believe in religion if their emotions weren't manipulated by calculated showiness? What if you had to sit down each potential convert (or ba'al teshuva) and explain logically what your religion was all about without any singing or kugels or fancy garments? How many people would become religious? People fall in love first with the rituals and the lofty promises; they accept the rationalizations later.

Children, too are raised into religion more by emotions than by reason. Some of this is unavoidable, of course. Children simply don't have the capacity to reason at an adult level. But look how much effort is put into directed emotional manipulation for religion. There's ritual and Bible stories and Left Beind movies and Santa for Christians and Elijah for Jews. ("Look! Can't you see the wine receding!") And how much is put into emotionally manipulating children into believing in the Big Bang or evolution or relativity? Basically none.

Perhaps we skeptics should fight fire with fire. Maybe we should make up a bunch of stories about science and skepticism to tell our children at night. We could a write a skeptic's Bible with stories loosely based on the destruction of the library at Alexandria and Marie Curie's discovery of radium. We should tell them that Einstein was ten feet tall and Newton lived until 200. Galileo could move the planets just by whispering some magical equations. Once, Mendel created a bean pod that was four hundred feet long!

It would be ironic, for sure, to teach science by manipulating their emotions, but maybe we need to look at the ends instead of the means. Maybe we should create rituals involving altars to Darwin and giant turtles as his priests. We should make bracelets in the form of the double helix and tell our children that Watson and Crick will protect them from evil. (Or maybe they'd say "WWW&CD?") Perhaps we should have a day of rememberence every year for the dinosaurs who went extinct. We can celebrate the equinoxes by wearing elliptical hats and tilting ourselves a little to the left for the day.

It's always just facts and skepticism, facts and skepticism, with us skeptics. It's boring and anyway you'd need to live in an ivory tower to believe in that stuff. We need to get with the program.

(**extracts tongue from cheek**)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I Got Visited by Jehovah's Witnesses!

I argue with theists who are trying to convince me of their views online all the time, but it's rare I come across one in real life (other than old friends and family from Orthodox Judaism.)

Half an hour ago, two very nice older ladies rang my doorbell, introduced themselves, told me that they were Jehovah's Witnesses, and asked if they could talk to me about God.

I smiled and said, "No thanks, I'm not interested."

The apparent spokeswoman asked, "Can I ask why not?"

"Well... I'm an atheist."

"Oh!" She smiles at her companion. "We were just talking about that. Do you think that humanity will be able to overcome all the problems that the world is facing today?"

"Hmm... I hope so," I replied. (In hindsight, I'm sure we won't be able to overcome ALL of them.)

"So you do think about that sort of thing?" she asked.

"Yes, of course." I smile again.

"Can I ask why you're an atheist?"

Here I paused. I didn't want to launch into a rant and I was trying to end the conversation, so I sort of choked. "Well, you know, evolution and stuff."

No response. Then she gestures towards her companion and asks, "Well, if we find some literature that we think might be new to you, can we come back and give it to you?"

I smile again. "No thanks, I've done my research."

"Okay, well have a nice day!"

"Thanks, you too!"

I know I didn't change any minds. If I had wanted to get into it, I could have ranted about the immorality of refusing necessary blood transfusions for yourselves and your children, or about believing in a God that lets only 144,000 people out of 6 billion get into Heaven. But I'm not here to argue with little old ladies that their entire worldview is fraudulent and immoral.

That's why I have the internet. :)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Atheist Testimony, Free Verse Style

I Am An Atheist

A presentation given to the Key West Unitarian-Universalist fellowship. It is a 20 minute reading in verse and the title should be self explanatory. While it may offend some, many people find it entertaining and informative. I hope you are among them. I am available to do this presentation and others to be found through my home page. For more of these, go to http://alseye.com I would appreciate your comments.
presenter: Al Brenner

(via IIDB)