Thursday, March 12, 2015

Right-Wing Racist Dog Whistles (Apparently Only Audible to the Left)

Yesterday, I made the mistake of making what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment to a friend's Facebook post making fun of Obama's comments in SC about guns being more readily available in some neighborhoods than vegetables and books. The conversation in the comments had turned to the inability to find a political compromise to address gun violence in our society, with liberal commenters complaining about conservative resistance to what they categorized as "common sense gun laws".

I pointed out the incontrovertible fact that gun violence is disproportionately a problem amongst certain socioeconomic subcultures, that some African American communities were particularly impacted, that effective policies to stem gun violence needed to address the underlying causes of this disparity. In my opinion, broad brush gun law reform, whether arguably common sense or not, would not address this country's high rate of gun violence when compared to other developed democracies, because gun violence statistics are heavily influenced by criminal activity concentrated in these destructive American subcultures.

I further argued that these violent subcultures, whether they are inner city blacks or Appalachian whites, shared common characteristics, among them a heavy reliance on government welfare programs, and asked why progressives refused to consider whether their preferred policies contribute to the perpetuation and exacerbation of the "two Americas"
.
This resulted in a liberal poster labeling this a "blame the n*******" argument, and saying he wouldn't engage with thinly veiled racism.

Now, in my opinion, labeling someone a racist absent a compelling justification is just a step below actual racism. It is a personal assault on a person's character informed by nothing other than prejudice. In this case, an assumption that because I was arguing a conservative position, my argument was rooted in racism. I refuse to accept such slander without response, and I became increasingly vulgar and insulting as the so-called liberal doubled down on his accusations of racism. I don't regret or apologize for that; vulgar attacks sometimes deserve a vulgar response.

The belief that conservative ideology is, at its core, motivated by racial animosity, is a cancer infecting left-wing ideology and, in my opinion, a significant (if not the main) contributor to the deterioration of political discourse in this country. It is a conceit born of progressive propaganda, with little factual basis, and it needs to stop.

The idea that racism remains as prominent a feature in American politics today as it was prior to the Civil Rights movement relies on the widespread left-wing belief that southern racists simply switched parties following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, enticed by the Republican party's use of the so-called Southern Strategy, the substitution of racist code-words or "dog whistles" for overt racial appeals, neatly encapsulated by Lee Atwater's bombshell interview during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.

Except, that the damning quotes trumpeted by the left are taken wildly out of context.

To my liberal friends, I make this humble request. Read the attached, comprehensive assessment of Atwater's interview with an open mind. Don't get hung up on his coarse language, but consider the message he was trying to convey, that, thanks to the courage of the Civil Rights movement, appealing to white racism had lost its effectiveness as a political strategy, and that new issues, not racist dog whistles, could be used to appeal to Southern voters.

The Lee Atwater quotes trumpeted by the left are the smoking gun indicting the Republican Party and, by extension, conservatives, as the legacy of America's racist past. The fact that left-wing media have intentionally distorted those quotes to perpetuate a long-running slander should give any fair-minded liberal pause before they assume the moral high ground in political disagreements.

I am not arguing that racism is no longer a concern in this country, but I am arguing that applying 1960 labels to 21st century politics is both inaccurate and socially damaging. Conservatives and liberals prioritize social issues differently, but most Americans want to preserve and create the best possible society for our progeny, regardless of our political orientation.

Anyone who thinks they have all the answers is a fool. That is why we have to be willing to discuss issues across partisan boundaries, and why we need to listen to opposing arguments without making prejudicial assumptions that feed our own egos and sense of moral righteousness.

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2013/06/what-did-lee-atwater-really-say.php#!

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Bright Young Things"

It seems many people have noticed a  letter from one Reverend Evan Dolive of Houston, Texas, who is outraged by Victoria's Secret's latest effort to corrupt our innocent young daughters with what he calls
the "Bright Young Things" line of risque underwear aimed at "middle school aged children".

Most of the time, I don't pay much attention to these controversies. However, occasionally I'll come across an issue that is so outrageous that it demands my immediate and undivided attention. For example, when the news came out last week that Lululemon was recalling yoga pants because they were too "shear", I felt compelled to get the whole story. In the interest of being fully informed, I searched the internet for photos showing just how see-through these pants were. Quite transparent, I learned ... at least when one tries to stuff a size 20 frame into a pair of size 10 stretchy pants.

Despite this disappointment, I find myself once again enticed to exercise my sleuthing skills and get to the story behind (heh) this latest outrage. After enough research to be reasonably confident that I wouldn't inadvertently happen upon pictures of adolescent girls wearing thongs, and thereby land on an FBI watch list for sexual deviants, I headed over to Victoria's Secret to get to the, ahem, bottom of the matter.

Now, I can understand the Good Reverend's reticence to go trawling for lascivious photos of barely clothed young women. Lacking such decorum, I'm happy to supplement the information provided in Reverend Dolive's letter in the hope that a widespread boycott of Victoria's Secret will be avoided, and that they will  continue their regular delivery of their catalog to my humble abode.

As it turns out, "Bright Young Things" is an ad campaign focusing on the outer wear and accoutrements of Victoria's Secret's Pink line.  While the Pink line, and this ad campaign, is geared toward teenage customers, the ad campaign focuses on items of clothing you'd be more likely to see at the mall or the pool than the local Gentleman's Club. (Yes, Victoria's Secret sells clothing besides their crotchless panties and racy thongs. Who knew?).

To be fair to Reverend Dolive, the Pink line does include a wide selection of underwear. Because all of the models were well over the age of 18, I felt comfortable spending a significant amount of time poring over the photos until I reached what I considered an adequate level of outrage.

How outraged was I? Well, not very. Yes, as a father, I would toss any underwear that said "Call Me" into the garbage -- and until teenage girls start doing their own laundry, I expect many pairs of "Call Me" underwear will meet an early demise. Most of the underwear, while perhaps a little more sensual than the average parent of a teenage girl would prefer, is just, well, underwear. Until we come up with a way for men to not find nearly naked women appealing, we're just going to have to accept that, after puberty, our little angels have become young women, with all that entails.

Even the most libertine parent would shudder at the thought of their 14-year-old daughter exposing her unmentionables to anything but the bathroom mirror, so why should they be wearing "sexy" underwear? I don't know -- why do I insist on color coordinating my boxers with my clothes? Because, even though no one else will see them (assuming I remember to zip after hitting the john), I feel more comfortable knowing I'm not wearing my yellow happy face boxers under my business attire. Similarly, much to the chagrin of parents throughout history, sexuality is a pretty important part of human nature. Teenagers like to feel attractive, and for teenage girls, that may be easier in a pair of hip huggers than a pair of granny panties.  


With all due respect to Reverend Dolive, I think he's a little off-base with his complaint, and I don't think a boycott of Victoria's Secret is called for. However, they might want to rethink the "Call Me" option for their undergarments ... although, I suppose that's preferrable to having "Hot Stuff" plastered on the seat of teenagers' shorts.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reading The God Delusion

Because of an ongoing conversation with my friend, James, (see earlier post), I recently decided to read The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, which is currently the most widely read popular argument against religion. This post covers some of my reactions to Dawkins’ arguments.
Dawkins justifies the use of the term “delusion”, which is almost certainly used hyperbolically, by arguing that religion not only holds on to beliefs absent evidence to support them, but even when those beliefs are clearly and verifiably contradicted by direct evidence.  Dawkins acknowledges that his use of the term is not technically correct (although it was a shrewd bit of marketing), except when applied to people who claim to have had a real two-way conversation with God or Angels, who may very well be suffering from delusions.
Some aspects of religious dogma, such as young earth creationism, could certainly be called delusional as Dawkins uses the term. Additionally, belief in supernatural miracles or a personally and existentially intercessional God is not only problematic from a rational basis, but, in the Christian tradition, requires a belief that God is transcendentally good, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent yet intercedes only arbitrarily and controvertibly in human affairs.
These, and other inconsistencies in religious practice, provide the basis for Dawkins “delusional” claim, but I don’t need Richard Dawkins to point out the contradictions in Christian dogma as if he’s providing some revelation that I, in my small-mindedness, failed to consider. I’m fully aware the contradictions exist, even though I may still be enlightened on specific details. The examples of such contradictions argue against dogmatic fundamentalism, not against theism in general or Christianity in particular.
I am not completely panning Dawkins work. Dawkins arguments may be particularly germane to a person who bases their faith solely on a rigid belief in religious dogma instilled as a child, and who has never seriously examined or challenged that dogma. I have no idea how prevalent this type of faith is, but readily concede that it exists. Additionally, as I’ve already mentioned, pointing out self-evident flaws in religious dogma may be beneficial to someone who takes a more open-minded approach to faith, as it would be the rare person, indeed, who is aware of them all.
However, because of the sophistry of his argument (of which, more below), The God Delusion cannot be considered more than a compilation of the deductive arguments against God. Combined with the self-satisfied conceit of the tone, and the ridicule directed at religion, The God Delusion should only be read by people who have either carefully examined and are fully comfortable with their religious faith, or those who have already rejected religion and are anxious to have someone tell them how intelligent and enlightened they are (and how stupid almost everyone else is by comparison).
Dawkins does his argument disservice by ignoring the philosophical underpinnings of faith, and focusing instead on ridiculing religion as a “delusion” – indeed, he claims that religion has no connections to philosophy, and is merely superstition. Further, he contradicts himself by (rightfully) pointing out that the Bible, as a historical work, is grossly deficient, then digging into the minutiae of the Biblical canon and applying a literal interpretation to demonstrate that the Christian God (conceding the infinitesimal chance that he does exist) is an entity so vile that to worship him entails a moral abdication.
Dawkins provides an out for “enlightened spirituality” by stating up front that he does not argue against what he calls Einsteinian religion, or metaphorically finding God in the wonder of the natural universe. Instead, he argues against the supernatural God or gods. From the rest of his argument, while it is quite clear that he rejects supernatural explanations for existence in all their forms, he simplifies his argument by wrongfully equating “supernatural” with “mystical” and “magical”. Obviously, it’s much easier to equate a belief in magical beings (when that belief is held in the face of clear contradicting evidence) as delusional than it is to call the philosophical opinion that the nature of existence cannot be fully explained through natural processes the mark of deficient thinking.
My response to his argument is to ask, what about atheism? Is it any more rational to reject the possibility of God, or does atheism require its own delusional thinking? More importantly, is that delusion more fundamental and, by extension, more devastating to the validity of the Atheist argument?
The validity of a belief in God, in my opinion, rests on a core assumption about the nature of existence, which Dawkins ignores; namely, on the nature of consciousness and how the “individual” is conceived.
In this discussion, I’m going to use the following definitions from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
1.       On the question of the nature of consciousness, there two competing philosophical schools:
a.       Dualism:  Generally holds that the conscious mind or conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense (i.e., embraces the concept of the “soul”).
b.      Materialism:  Asserts that consciousness is merely the product of natural processes (e.g., the firing of neurons) and rejects the concept of the soul.
2.       Atheism can be categorized as follows (Anthony Flew, 1984):
a.       Positive Atheism:  Affirmative belief that God does not exist.
b.      Negative Atheism: A lack of belief in God (which differs from agnosticism only in degree).
c.       Further, atheism can be “wide” or “narrow” in scope (and, presumably, somewhere in between), from rejecting monotheism to categorically rejecting of the existence of God and gods in all their manifestations.
Dawkins arguments clearly embrace the philosophy of wide and positive atheism. There is no place for equivocation, he argues (in his words) against “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”
RenĂ© Descartes (“cogito ergo sum”) laid out the principles of dualism in the 17th century with the “mind-body distinction”. They are:
1.       I am aware of myself as a distinct individual (“the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing”).
2.       I am aware of myself as having a physical body that extends into and interacts with the physical world.
3.       It follows, that if the sense of self and the physical body are distinct entities, that consciousness can exist outside of the body.
It’s important to realize that, until the 19th century, philosophy was viewed as the central science. Descartes described science as a tree, in which the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is philosophy, and all other sciences (including the natural sciences) branch off.
Modern science is not structured this way. Instead of the metaphysical informing our understanding of the physical, the natural sciences are viewed as standing on their own. To the extent they interact with philosophy, it is to inform philosophic inquiry.  Largely, this inversion of the method of scientific inquiry has been a good thing for scientific progress (for example, it leads to the “scientific method”), and also led to the broad adoption of analytic philosophy, especially in the west. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is now largely left to religion and mystics, and is viewed by many scientists, including Dawkins, as irrelevant superstition.
I believe there are significant ethical and moral problems with strictly adhering to this model. Undoubtedly, it informs modern conceptions in the United States about the “separation of church and state” and the restrictions on religious expression (which, in my opinion, is a mixture of progress and regression). However, in this post I want to focus on how this view informs the atheist views on the nature of existence, consciousness, and the individual.
Positive atheism, in the Richard Dawkins vein, sees a natural explanation for everything. Even when that explanation is not known, he assumes it exists and will one day be known. There is no place for the supernatural in Dawkins view.
The anthropic principle lies at the heart of Dawkins’ argument. Simply put, the anthropic principle is the self-evident conclusion that, because we exist, the laws of the universe that we observe must support that existence. From the anthropic principle, Dawkins fleshes out his argument by contrasting analogies of the crane (the naturalist view of the universe) and the skyhook (the supernatural view of the universe). A crane is built by progression from a firm foundation; a skyhook must be put wholly into place. If God is the skyhook, where did he come from?
The answer, of course, is the same answer that has been given by theologians for centuries. God came from nowhere, because he is, was, and always will be, without beginning or end. To know the nature of the universe is to learn something of God, because the universe is part of His fabric. The Christian view of God is inconsistent with Einsteinian religion only in that it embraces a personal God who is directly involved in our existence.
This response is hardly scientific or conclusive, but if you subscribe to the dualism view of consciousness, it is consistent with the anthropic principle. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of, as Descartes pointed out, is our own conscious existence.  The one thing we know about the universe is that it supports conscious existence (everything else, even our vaunted scientific knowledge, is just an interpretation of what we perceive). It is reasonable to believe (not know; I don't argue that God's existence is a "fact" or that attempts to "prove" his existence are worthwhile) that all of reality is built on the foundation of an ultimate consciousness.

As a positive atheist, Dawkins necessarily embraces the materialistic view of consciousness. That is, his awareness of existence results only from the physical processes within his brain, and his sense of individuality is, in fact, an illusion created by the mind for the benefit or the myriad cells composing his body and the genes that he carries. So you feel like the same person every morning when you wake up? Nope, not true. You are a completely different person every second of every day; your brain synthesizes your memories to give you a sense of consciousness.
Now, as an insight into the nature of the brain, this is enlightening. Imagining the implications as an intellectual exercise can be entertaining. As an explanation for the nature of human existence, it is far from edifying.

If you truly believe that your very existence is a delusion, your willingness to give into that delusion should be limited to the extent required to ensure your survival and the propagation of your genes. Ego is part and parcel with our concept of ourselves as unique individuals and, as such, should only be allowed to express itself in those extreme survival situations. Certainly, the fact that someone believes in a silly concept like “God” shouldn’t offend that ego. Yet, Dawkins is but a more well known example of countless atheists who are not simply satisfied with their rejection of God, but insist that theirs is a better philosophy that should be adopted by all.

One explanation for the irrational expression of ego by supposedly enlightened atheists is the simple fact that humans often react instinctively, and those instincts are practically impossible to control. That explains retorts; it doesn’t explain the existence of atheist organizations that are as insular as any religious cult.

Another possible explanation is that their reaction is to offenses against logic, which they view as an existential threat. However, a belief in God is illogical only if you completely reject Descartes’ conception of consciousness. If proving the materialistic view of consciousness (or some yet to be proposed improved theory) is even possible, it is far beyond our current level of knowledge, so we’re left with two equally plausible theories. We should certainly pursue knowledge, and be willing to change our perspectives in the face of compelling evidence. However, as I already noted, the one thing that each of us can be currently absolutely certain of is that we exist as distinct, individual consciousnesses. It certainly seems much less illogical to rest your understanding of existence on that one indisputable fact than it is to rely on outlandish hypotheses, as entertaining and intellectually compelling as they may be.

The only other possible justification I can think of for the intensity of their beliefs would be a reasoned conclusion that it’s not a belief in God, necessarily, that poses an existential threat, but religion itself … an argument that Dawkins, and many atheists, in fact make. That argument is, however, so laughably prejudiced and uninformed about human history that it defeats itself just by being made. The claim that atheists are more “enlightened”, and therefore less susceptible to the baser aspects of human nature, can be readily rebutted by simply visiting an atheist message board and watching the vultures eagerly and angrily pounce on anyone who dares to question their deeply held beliefs.

That leads us to what I think is the most likely conclusion – that positive Atheists hold their beliefs so strongly not because of reasoned enlightenment, but because of unreasoned ego. So, not only do they claim to embrace the fact that their very existence is a delusion, they are, in fact, deluding themselves that they believe what they claim to believe.
Don’t believe me? Simply take a look at the documented prejudice against atheists Dawkins refers to in his book. Jokes about “no atheists in foxholes,” offense at prayers e-mailed out following 9/11, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there are real examples of prejudice at the link, but they are greatly outnumbered by the petty complaints that would make even the most hypersensitive grievance-monger roll their eyes. Visit any atheist message board and marvel at the circular indulgence of cosseted egos with corseted intellect – the very traits atheists claim to find so repugnant among the religious – and ask yourself if this is a product of people who truly embrace the materialist view of consciousness. Ask yourself also, as you read the arguments about the atrocities committed in God’s name, if the world these “enlightened” individuals envision is actually an improvement.
People are insular by nature. We do not like having our most closely held beliefs challenged. You will find the same intolerance for Christian beliefs within a group of atheists that you will find for atheism within a group of Christians. This doesn’t argue for the correctness of either belief system, but it does argue against dismissing religion as delusional. It also undermines the argument that religion is incompatible with modern, secular society.
I realize this is argumentum ad absurdum. It is only directed at Dawkins argument that belief in God is a “delusion”, his contention that religion, not human nature, is source of many of history's injustices, and his advocacy of atheism as an enlightened improvement on ancient superstitions. Other aspects of his argument I find both entertaining and informative. Atheism is certainly a valid point of view, one that certainly has a much stronger empirical basis than any religion, and the inevitable conclusion if you are fully convinced of the materialist view of consciousness. On the other hand, dogmatic atheism, which is only a degree beyond positive atheism (and far closer to Dawkins’ beliefs than he’s willing to admit), is as “delusional” as dogmatic theism, far more culpable for crimes against humanity (at least in the 20th century), and is based on assumptions about the nature of existence that are not only no more valid or provable than Descartes' insights more than 300 years ago, but directly contradict what our own lying brains tell us.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy - Questions Need to be Answered

 

Miami-Dade teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot Feb. 26 by the head of a neighborhood watch group in the Orlando suburb of Sanford. Courtesy of Sybrina Fulton.
Photo of Trayvon Martin (Age 13-14) circa 2008.
Provided by Sybrina Martin to the Miami Herald.
What we do know is a 17-year old boy was walking home, and now he's dead...when you have questions like that, they need to be answered. - Pam Bondi, Florida Attorney General
I first became aware of George Zimmerman's slaying of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in a March 17 column by Leonard Pitt.
It happened like this. He was visting his father watching hoops on television. At halftime, he left his dad's townhouse in a gated community and walked to a 7-Eleven for snacks. There was a light drizzle, and he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. On the way back, he drew the attention of George Zimmerman, captain of the Neighborhood Watch. Zimmerman, who is white, called police from his SUV and told them he was following a "suspicious" character. The dispatcher promised to send a prowl car and told Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle.
He didn't. When police arrived, they found him with a bloody nose and Martin face down on the grass not far from his father's door, a gunshot wound in his chest. Zimmerman said he shot the boy in self-defense. The police did not arrest him. . . .
. . . All of which raises a number of pressing questions:
How can you get out of your truck against police advice, instigate a fight, get your nose bloodied in said fight, shoot the person you were fighting with, and claim self defense? If anyone was defending himself, wasn't it Trayvon Martin?
Over the next several days, we were bombarded with images such as this one, calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman.










































Or this one, courtesy of the New Black Panther Party:

George-Zimmerman-Wanted-Poster

Of course, the photo of both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin were from several years ago. Trayvon appears about 13 in the photo, and is described as weighing 140 pounds, emphasizing the image of a young child killed by a grown man with no provocation other than the color of his skin. Zimmerman, on the other hand, is presented using a booking photo from seven years ago (when he is 21 years old), and is described as weighing more than 240 pounds. In fact, Trayvon is described as six feet tall and 160 pounds in the police incident report, and George is, in reality, 5' 9" tall and between 170 and 180 pounds.

White supremacists countered the spin over the weekend with the following photo sourced from the Stormfront website, which received wide distribution thanks to Michelle Malkin:


Of course, one should always be careful when sourcing information from white supremacists, and the handy narrative encapsulated in this nice piece of propaganda quickly fell apart when it was revealed that the photo of Trayvon Martin, which was sourced from "his" facebook page was, in fact, a completely different Trayvon Martin who apparently lives in Georgia. The photo of George Zimmerman, on the other hand, is a recent photo and clearly shows that he weighs far less than he did when he was 21.

Beyond the spin, Trayvon Martin appears to be a perfectly normal, and normally troubled, teenager. A little bit of pot, occasional acts of vandalism, cutting class, and chatting with his buds on twitter using the handle @no_limit_nigga.

Trayvon Martin
Recent Photo of Trayvon Martin from his Twitter Profile


Trayvon's family, quite properly, reacted strongly to the new negative information about their slain son. Trayvon's supporters, which apparently includes everyone but a few deranged right-wing racists (Why is racism an exclusively right-wing phenomenon, I wonder?), also pointed out that Trayvon's past behavioral problems do not in any way, shape, or form justify his death.

Quite right. Regardless of what Trayvon may have done in the past and exactly what happened on the night of February 26, Trayvon Martin should not be dead. He was in a neighborhood he had every right to be in and apparently minding his own business when he was spotted by George Zimmerman. Trayvon's death is a tragedy, any way you slice it.

However, it appears Trayvon's death may, in fact, be a tragedy he precipitated. That perspective should not be lost in evaluating this case.

George Zimmerman called police at 7:09:34 PM on February 26 according to the Sanford Police 911 records to report a person he described as a "real suspicious guy" who was "up to no good...on drugs or something." At 1:38 in the call, George says "These assholes, they always get away," and appears to get out of his vehicle (you can hear what seems to be a car door opening, and the quality of the audio changes). At 2:07, he tells the dispatcher, "He's running," and you can hear the sound of wind as George apparently takes off after him and starts to sound slightly out of breath. At 2:28, the dispatcher asks Zimmerman, "Are you following him?" When Zimmerman replies in the affirmative, the dispatcher tells him, "OK, we don't need you to do that." Zimmerman responds, "OK", and by 2:40 (corresponding to 7:12:14 PM) in the call you can no longer hear the sound of wind and Zimmerman's breathing starts to return to normal. He then continues to talk to the dispatcher for another minute and a half. At 4:10, the call ends.

On March 20, ABC news reported that Trayvon was on the phone with his girlfriend minutes before he was shot, and told her that a strange guy was following him. The photo of the call log accompanying the story showed an incoming call from a number we can assume to be Trayvon's at 7:12 PM. This call has been touted by the Martin family's attorney as the "smoking gun" that will convict George Zimmerman, but I'm not convinced. The audio of George Zimmerman's 911 call suggests that he followed the dispatcher's advice and had stopped chasing Trayvon about the time Trayvon called his girlfriend. Nothing in the accounts of the call between Trayvon and his girlfriend contradicts George Zimmerman's account of the incident.

George Zimmerman claims he was walking back to his truck when Trayvon confronted, then attacked, him. This claim has been largely panned by those protesting Trayvon's death. After all, we know George Zimmerman initially chased Trayvon, who was running away. However, George Zimmerman's account is not inconsistent with the facts as they're known at this point, and can actually be supported with a reasonable speculation about what actually happened.

The following aerial of the neighborhood where Trayvon was killed shows key locations in the narrative:


In his 911 call, George Zimmerman initially says he is near the clubhouse. When Trayvon runs, he tells the dispatcher he's running toward the back entrance to the neighborhood. The most likely path for the ensuing pursuit, given where Trayvon was ultimately shot, would have been along the sidewalk between the two rows of townhouses. George says he lost sight of the teen, and seems to stop running. It's reasonable to assume Trayvon had turned the corner at the south end of the townhouses. That means that to get back to where his confrontation with George Zimmerman took place, he would have had to walked back past the townhouse where he was reportedly staying. Which more reasonably explains how that could have happened; Trayvon was angry at having been chased (which fits George Zimmerman's account) or Trayvon was scared (which fits the popular narrative)?

Since news reports of a witness who supported George Zimmerman's account that he was attacked and was, to put it plainly, getting his butt kicked, the media has been spinning like crazy to regain control of the narrative (anger is good for ratings, I suppose). Yesterday (March 29), we learned that video from Sanford Police surveillance cameras doesn't support Zimmerman's claim that he was injured (I thought the outrage was that he wasn't arrested? Oh, nevermind...) Today, new "witnesses" come forward to contradict Zimmerman's claim of self defense.

Human memory is a fickle thing, as our brain processes information to fit our pre-existing biases, and even modifies memories to help our self-esteem. As more time passes, eye witnesses (incredibly unreliable to begin with) become less reliable as they incorporate what they read and hear into their memory of what actually happened.

Fortunately, we live in a nation of laws, and George Zimmerman will most likely have his day in court (at this point, the only vindication he can hope for is full disclosure of the facts at trial). What someone may or may not have seen in a grainy surveillance video that only partially shows George Zimmerman's face, or what someone may have heard or thought they heard through a closed window as they hid in their closet and called 911, ultimately won't matter. What will matter is the physical evidence collected by the Sanford Police department, which includes treating George Zimmerman for injuries he claims to have received from Trayvon Martin.

I expect that a trial, when it comes, will answer some of the questions I have, such as:

1. The closest 7-Eleven to where Trayvon was shot is more than two miles away, yet the family claims he simply stepped out to grab a snack and was on his way home. Really? He walked more than four miles in the rain to get a Tea and Skittles during halftime of an NBA game?
2. How could his family not have known about his being killed until the next day, when he was shot 100 feet from the back door of the townhouse where he was reportedly staying? They didn't notice something was going on? Were there any adults at the house with him? If not, how could they know why he left the house?
3. Was George Zimmerman's suspicion justified? Was Trayvon, in fact, on drugs, which would explain why Zimmerman viewed him as suspicious?
Eventually, I'm sure, these and other questions will be answered. By that time, however, I doubt if anyone will be paying attention.
I don't know if Zimmerman is justified in claiming self-defense. Like Pam Bondi, the Florida Attorney General, I do know that a young man is dead who shouldn't be, and his family deserves answers.

I also feel that the media's performance in this case has been deplorable, and that there is no possible justification for the way this story has been spun to generate outrage.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Faith, Reason, and Morality

This (very long) post is a conversation I've been having with my good friend James, who is an atheist (at least at the moment), about the role of faith and reason in defining morality. I approach the discussion from a Christian, albeit not fundamentalist, perspective. I'm posting this conversation here to allow my friends who may be interested in contributing to this debate to add their perspective. The only guidelines for posting comments is to present your arguments respectfully and avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. I will edit or remove any comments that do not stick to these rules, and may block further comments from the offending party.

James: 
It ain't easy not believing in the God of Abraham until you really examine what horrors are being done in his name today, then it becomes easy to oppose religion in general. The real difficulty for me is that I can't prove that the universe wasn't created by some kind of creator, so I might be a deist. I don't know.

Me: 
I share your frustration with those whose dogmatic rigidity causes them to reject any knowledge that may force them out of their comfort zone. In my opinion, far too many American Christians reject evolution, for example, despite the overwhelming evidence for it. I think your main goal is to encourage people to rethink that kind of close-mindedness, which I find admirable. What I object to is the presumption and ridicule that I see so often from atheists ... faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. Knowing you, I know ridicule is not your intent. However, when you make comments such as "God is the world's greatest abortionist" or subject quotes from the old testament to ridicule (of which, I'll admit, there is a rich supply), I think you're stepping onto the wrong side of a fine line.

I am not a fundamentalist. I see nothing wrong with pointing out that the biblical canon is compiled by men, which makes a rigid belief in its literal infallibility a questionable position to hold. I also think it's valuable to examine how our understanding of morality has evolved (as a society, and within the church), and certainly passages from the bible can be used to illustrate that evolution.

I do not believe religion is the only basis for a moral existence. However, I do believe pure reason leads to immorality, or at least amorality. At some point, all of us rely on faith - the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen - to help make sense of our existence. That faith may be in a higher purpose, a unifying order to existence, or a shared obligation or commitment.

Personally, my conception of God could be categorized within the Deist tradition. However, I have found comfort and a sense of purpose within the Christian faith. At the same time, I do not view the Church as infallible (what human institution is?), and I believe an honest appraisal of the Church's failings is necessary for spiritual growth.

Certainly, horrors have been committed in God's name. As you're aware, horrors have also been committed in the name of reason ... forced abortions, sterilizations, mass imprisonments and genocide. In general, I would argue the Church (in the broadest sense) has been a restraining force on mankind's baser instincts.

James:
If it were not for the immorality of religion, I would have no reason to oppose it. Abortion is an excellent example, and I stand up for the observation (it isn't mine, it is a standard paradox of faith) that god is responsibe for more terminated pregnancies than any other. All other reasons for terminated pregancies are so insignificant compared to natural (God-caused) terminations that God is clearly the greatest abortionist of all.

Why should this cause a difficulty for a religious devotee? If I am simply wrong, then it wouldn't raise the emotions of one who believes in a loving God, any more than my being wrong about his existence. No, there is a deeper reason why this observation draws out emotion from the faithful. What do you think that reason is?

Ridiculing faith is not my direct intention. My puropse is to challenge the basis of people's poor judgement. However, I don't know of any other topic which has this taboo against ridicule. Good ideas stand up admirably to ridicule. It is only bad ideas which crumble in the heat of ridicule. Satire is a powerful solvent to dogma. Some countries are so acutely aware of the power of ridicule to debunk dogma that they make it illegal.

"Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."
Section 295-C, Pakistan Penal Code.

Should it be illegal to ridicule any idea, ideology, political agenda, organization or faith that asserts a moral or ethical standard with which a single would-be satirist disagrees?

I struggle with the prospect of taking people's faith. You say that you get a sense of purpose from it. Do you really get that sense of purpose from the faith, or has the faith merely been the means by which you have found that purpose? If God does not exist, does your purpose have no meaning?

I worry that the faithful waste their real lives by dreaming about their non-existent after life. I don't have time to waste planning for, and qualifying myself for, a make-believe after life. I am simply too busy with making sure I accomplish whatever I can in real life that turns it from meaninglessness (or even a source of a worse existence for other conscious creatures and myself) into a source of a better existence for other conscious creatures and myself. I also want to help ensure that our species does not wipe itself out and I consider religion to be the biggest threat to our continued existance about which we can currently do anything. If we can at least survive ourselves, there is a chance that we will have time to work out how to survive our sun's supernova.

Life is too precious to waste it on false hope. The morality of the Bible continues to cause suffering and hatred. Religion poisons everything. It is time that humanity woke up from its religious coma and faced up to the challenges of existence.

There will always be those for whom reality is just too difficult to deal with. Those people need faith like some other people need valium or lithium or booze. Faith is an anesthetic to reality, providing false hope. No wonder so many addicts are able to kick their drug of choice through the alternative drug of faith. Why trust one drug and not another?

It isn't easy taking on the reality of existence, finding meaning from meaninglessness, finding a purpose that ends in nothing. However, nobody said life would be easy. Anyhow, if life was easy, it would be boring, and thus even more in need of anesthetic.

Me:
How can hope in the unknowable be false? The term "false hope" has no applicability to the spiritual. I can have false hope that someone will invent a youth serum before I die of old age. The hope in a greater meaning to existence is simply that - a hope that those I love have not been lost to me when they die, a hope that there is true meaning in acts of kindness, a hope that this universe is not simply an accident of physics. If that hope is not realized, I will simply one day cease to exist, and I have lost nothing.

On what evidence do you worry that the faithful do not enjoy life, that they simply waste away their years pining for their heavenly reward? That has not been my experience.

On what evidence do you judge all religion as immoral? You can certainly judge and argue that aspects of dogma are immoral . . . for example, condemnation of homosexuality, edicts to kill the unfaithful, etc. Argue those points to which you object. Ascribing those views to all believers is nothing but prejudice.

As for whether faith gives me purpose, or provides a means to finding purpose, I judge that a distinction without a difference. I'm fully aware that most of what I believe is undoubtedly wrong. That my sense of ethics and morality, as well as my choice of religion, is driven by my own culture, judgement and experience. I'm also aware that the benefit I get from my faith may simply be a biochemical reaction. So what?

I wish you well in your journey to find meaning in the meaningless, and a purpose that ends in nothing. It does seem to me, however, to be a lot of effort to find something that you could more easily find through more traditional means.

I'm really looking forward to our next get-together. This conversation could get pretty profound after a few margharitas. Who knows, we may solve all the mysteries of the universe. :)


P.S. I've been thinking about this conversation, and you've certainly given me much to think about. I hope my responses haven't come across as dismissing your views, nor do I think that you don't respect mine. I enjoyed reading your analysis of morality. As always, when it comes to things you write, it was thoughtful, well-reasoned, and bordering on the profound. I'm happy to continue this conversation, but I just want you to know that even when I disagree, I respect your opinions and the reasoning behind them.

James:
I have the deepest respect for you and please take anything I spout with that underlying principle in mind! Respect for views is an interesting one; if you were to say that you thought my opinions were silly or immoral or that you did not respect them, it wouldn't affect my respect for you. On the contrary, it is a sign of respect in my opinion to tell others when you judge that their views are in need of review. The standard Islamic mantra is "you have to respect my religious views!" and I profoundly disagree that we ought to have to respect anybody's view on anything that might affect conscious beings other than themselves, if we have reason not to.

Me:
I agree that respect for others views is directly proportional to their willingness to critically examine those views. Respect for the person expressing their views, on the other hand, is directly proportional to their ability to recognize reasonable people can disagree, especially when the views being expressed relate to the esoteric.

I also agree that criticizing religious beliefs should not be taboo. I do think courtesy demands that criticism be offered respectfully. I object to the assumption that I've seen time and again from atheists that reason and religion are incompatible. Too often, the criticisms of religion are offered as ridicule (e.g., religious people are irrational). That demonstrates to me an unwillingness to engage, a blind adherence to a secular dogma, which I find difficult to distinguish from religious dogma. If there is no desire to engage or persuade those who hold differing views (along with a willingness for critical self-examination), I can think of no purpose to ridicule than to have like-minded people reinforce your belief -- which must be reinforced precisely because it is a belief, not a fact. That, I believe, illustrates the inadequacy of the philosophy of rationalism. At our current level of knowledge, some things have to be taken on faith.

I would also say that a demand that religious people be open to criticism from those outside their religion should be accompanied by an accommodation of expressions of faith from the secular society. The "culture wars" are grounded in intolerance, on all sides. Is excluding people whose only purpose is to persuade Christians that their religion is irrational from a Christian message board really less tolerant than one person demanding the removal of a generic prayer from the gymnasium of a public school because it contains the words "Heavenly Father?" The former seems to me to be perfectly reasonable -- after all, you can engage those issues in different forums. The latter, on the other hand, strikes me as a completely ludicrous hang-up over semantics.


James:
The question of whether reason and religion are compatible is answerable by considering if humans are able to hold beliefs in the supernatural based on authority sources alongside knowledge of the universe based on reason. Clearly the human mind is capable of keeping conflicting beliefs and knowledge simultaneously, and clever humans have been creating ingenious rationalizations to cope with the accompanying dissonance since the brain evolved pattern seeking perception alongside both value-based and logic-based reasoning.

Would it be morally any different for a believer to proselytize to a non-believer, than for a non-believer to proselytize to a believer? In principle, no. This is one of the reasons I do not go to Jewish forums for my arguments. The Jews don't proselytize to gentiles. (The reason being that according to their faith, membership is genetically-based and not available to those with the wrong genes. Institutionalized racism basically.) If I had a beef with the Jews, it would not be to do with their faith in God (which they keep to themselves) but their immoral discrimination and I am not ready to tackle that right now, I am too busy tackling human judgement! If I get this right, then I won't have to tackle any immorality because it will tackle itself (bold statement I know, but I don't do things by halves).

Unlike the Jews, the Christians and Muslims have a very active habit of proselytizing, according to which many of them would not consider themselves worthy of their faith without trying to bring non-believers in at every opportunity. I therefore judge it reasonable not just to decline their offers of redemption, but to offer them freedom from dogma in their real lives. When Jehovah's witnesses knock on my door, I invite them in and don't let them leave until they renounce their faith. (They have stopped coming - presumably because I have cured them all.)

Your example of a comparison between my having been censored from a forum and the prayer banner being taken down is interesting. You think it's OK to kick me out of a web forum for expressing certain views but wrong that the banner should have been taken down. I take the following view of this: Dealing with the banner, it was right according to the law but wrong according to freedom of expression to take the banner down. It was also bad to take the banner down because it was aparently a beautiful and historical piece of art. So in my view, taking the banner down on the basis of separation of church and state completely missed the more important principle of freedom of expression. On the basis of the court's ruling on the banner, every dollar bill should have the words "In God we trust" removed.

Kicking me off the forum is insignificant in terms of any damage done to society by censorship, but it is significant as an example of how religious dogma suppresses freedom of thought, deed and word. They didn't kick me off for breaking forum rules (whatever they claim). They kicked me off for giving their readership reason to doubt their faith. They are quite happy to let atheists post on their forum until the atheist wins a discussion, at which point they censor the atheist's opinions. This is exactly the same basis as the inquisition. I have been electronically burned at the stake because my views shook the faith of the forum moderator.

Need things be taken on faith?

I accept that we are early on in the dawn of human awakening to the "truth" whatever that is. There are plenty of things we as humans collectively do not know. On an individual basis, especially when we are young, we must take almost everything on faith to avoid repeating the often fatal mistakes of our forebears. This is why we evolved with value-based reasoning, to give us "something to hang our hat on" until we were equipped with the knowledge and skill to perform our own logic-based reasoning to get answers to things that we could derive by ourselves. We didn't put man on the moon by value-based reasoning, and we couldn't appreciate the beauty of our child by logic-based reasoning. We need both. We need belief and knowledge, faith and theory.

What we do not need, but we crave, do our detriment, is a willingness to accept on faith the best available answer we have at that time to questions that can't be yet answered. Some of these beliefs and faiths lead us to immoral judgements because of the cognitive biases that accompany the beliefs and faiths.

Let me explain: if we begin by accepting on faith that God created the universe, then it is easy to accept that God provided a book of useful information for us. From that point forth, we have a cognitive bias to accept the advice in the book, and to reject information that conflicts with the book. This is cognitive bias in action. In the extreme it leads people to auto-reject any concept not in accordance with their religious belief. In my book I call this the religious firewall. It is a self-sustaining spiral to delusion.

The extreme cases of these are easy to see - things like suicide murder. The every-day things are less easy to see (and less harmful) - things like not permitting a shipment of condoms to an AIDS-stricken village in Africa, missionaries telling Africans that condoms cause AIDS, teaching pseudoscience to children and confusing them about how we make scientific judgements, blaming God for our shortcomings ("If it is God's will...") and so forth. My mission on the forums is to ask people on what basis they hold various convictions and how they know they can trust those bases.

If we must take something on faith (and indeed we sometimes must), we still have the opportunity to vet the reliability of the source of that faith. Which airline shall I choose? The cheapo one or the one with a clean safety record that costs twice as much? If all our faith was in God and God alone, we would have no reason to choose any airline over any other airline except cost. Yet some supposedly faithful people opt for more expensive airline tickets because they vet the reliability of the authority sources (airlines) in whom they entrust their safety.

Why don't the faithful vet the reliability of the authority source of their faith? Why don't people simply ask themselves the question, "Did God really create the universe? How do I know? What is the source of that authority?" The answer to these questions reveals the circular logic of faith - God created the Universe according to the Bible. The Bible was written by God - according to the Bible. Round and round. So, the Bible is the authority source. If you vet it objectively for reliability the same way you vet an airline, you quickly discover that it isn't reliable at all. It is full of nonsense that was written by men whose knowledge of the world and the universe is now far out-shone by Jess's. Yet we cling on to it, because of the cognitive bias we developed as a child repeatedly accepting God as the creator during our indoctrination to faith.

To an atheist, it seems a simple enough proposition to recognize reason and abandon faith. To the devout, it is an absurd proposition. Belief is nothing like knowledge; belief has an emotional value, it is derived from feelings, it is chemically part of the workings of the mind, not simple valueless thought like relativity or evolution. Furthermore, for most religious people, it might only be possible to abandon their belief along with abandoning friends, family, culture, and country. In some cases, even life is in jeopardy if belief is publicly abandoned. Worse still, hope in an afterlife will vanish - too uncomfortable a proposition for all but the toughest most independent-minded, stubborn, confident humans who are able to find sufficient meaning in the remaining speck of existence afforded by reality.


Me:
To clarify, my argument is that it's more defensible to kick you out of an online chat room whose stated purpose is to provide people of faith a forum to explore that faith than it is to demand the removal of a historic banner because it contains the words "Heavenly Father". The point of the comparison was to defend against charges of religious intolerance, and that somehow secular rationalism guards against that intolerance.Your reply clearly indicates that comparison does not apply to your world view. Similarly, I think it's a mistake to exclude people who challenge people to think critically about their faith. However, I think your claims of "censorship" are a bit hyperbolic. There are plenty of other forums where you can argue your views.

I understand your frustration with Christians who feel it's their God-given obligation to convert others, and that view is certainly prevalent within the American Christian community (it is certainly consistent with the interpretation of ministry in the churches of my youth). It is not consistent with the theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which I belong (although you could certainly find individual churches within within the association that take a different view). Instead, our call to ministry is to provide service to our communities. Conversion, if it comes, is an individual choice based on personal conviction, perhaps aided by observing our example. This interpretation of Christ's directive to spread the gospel is consistent with the writings of Paul, who admonished the church to not judge or criticize the practices of the gentiles. It is also consistent with the ministry of many other mainstream Christian churches, through hospitals, adoption agencies, women shelters, soup kitchens, etc.

I have to admit, though, I chuckled at your description of inviting Jehovah's witnesses into your home and refusing to let them leave until they denounce their faith.

In my opinion, your argument for reason does not necessitate abandoning faith, which, as you point out, is very difficult for people to do for a variety of reasons. Certainly, my embrace of the Christian faith has cultural and family roots, and I often bite my tongue at family gatherings to avoid offending people I care about. If I understand your argument correctly, you view it as a moral imperative to correct others' beliefs that you can disprove with clear and verifiable evidence. It's certainly a vast undertaking, but as you stated, you don't do anything by halves. Optimism springs eternal . . . nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps there is no rational basis to arrive at a belief in God, but neither is that belief irrational. There is no rational basis for existence, yet we exist (when I say there is no rational basis for existance, I am speaking metaphysically . . . certainly, there is a rational explanation for why physical objects behave the way they do). Physics tells us we owe that existance to the Big Bang, the expansion of a singularity in space-time that exists only as a mathematical artefact beyond our ability to understand in physical terms. That's fine, as far as it goes, but it does little to help us understand who we are and why we are here.

Is your objection to religion primarily because it is used to rationalize bad judgement? That, as you pointed out, it has been used as a basis to prevent common-sense methods to help control the spread of AIDS in Africa (I vaguely recall reading something about this, but I seem to remember it was homegrown superstition. I don't believe the Catholic church, despite it's objections to contraceptives, opposes the use of condoms to help control the AIDS epidemic in Africa.)? Is that a fair argument? Couldn't a similar argument be made against secular rationalism? Without excusing religious ignorance, the number of deaths attributed to religious fanaticism in the past century is barely a blip when compared to the millions sacrificed in the name of secular rationalism by the Nazis and the Communists.

I guess the crux of my argument is this: If abandoning faith is not necessary to embrace reason, wouldn't it be more effective to argue for reason without attacking people's personal beliefs, at least when those beliefs do not directly contradict what can be rationally demonstrated? You assume people of faith begin with a belief in God, and all else follows. Many people who believe in God, like me, came to that belief only after years of introspection and skepticism. As I've said, I recognize that the Bible was written and compiled by men, and its contents should be judged accordingly. The accounts of Jesus' life most directly impact my understanding of faith, yet they were all written well after his death, by people who were not there. Some accounts of his life were eliminated from the canon by a bunch of priests in the 4th century, so the Bible we know today is both flawed, a product of the time it was written, and an incomplete account. In my experience, it can still be the source of much wisdom. Not the only source, but a remarkably consistent blueprint for living a meaningful life.


James:
The religious forums are there for the faithful to further strengthen their faith and for the faithful to mission amongst the heathen. They have discussion boards for atheists inviting us to ask questions and give our opinions. These are the boards I post on, and I have been censored not for breaking any of their rules but for causing doubt in the minds of the faithful, as is my stated intention for being there.

Faith exists because of value-based reason. A recent fMRI study has shown that in order to feel faith, people do not open their minds, but close down the logic-based judgement parts of their brains.
http://m.scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/03/12/scan.nsq023.full

The community service you do with the Lutheran Church is wonderful, and requires exactly zero faith in God or Holy input. There are numerous non-religious organizations doing similar good works across the globe without God's help. I have no beef whatsoever with the good works of the church.

My beef is with the bad works of the church.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/17/pope-africa-condoms-aids

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDAQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thedivineconspiracy.org%2FZ5259U.pdf&ei=IetHT4i-GoHJsQKt8u3qCA&usg=AFQjCNHFt8aALW2sWVGwDlXrF7bIB8y1iQ&sig2=pRxppWFQvUwgrY4OZaJEqQ

Religion stands in the way of world peace. It is the main source of hatred in the world.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY8fjFKAC5k

Me:
I have completely embraced your point of view on being banned from the Christian forum. :)

Based on my reading of the Oxford study, I would expect an music lover's brain would react the same way while attending a symphony. Hardly a damning indictment of faith. To equate the results of the study with a conflict between faith and reason (in general terms) seems to be a prejudice in interpretation.

Based on the article in the Guardian, the Pope seemed to be making the point that the teachings of the church about the sacredness of the male/female union would more effectively prevent the spread of AIDS than a philosophy of promiscuity combined with free condoms. That seems pretty common sense to me.

Christopher Hitchens, as he often did, makes interesting and provocative points in the You Tube clip. I disagree that religion is the main source of hatred in the world. Instead, human prejudice and intolerance are the main sources of hatred in the world. That this prejudice and intolerance exists in religion is hardly surprising, and I don't argue that point. However, I challenge you to offer a single human enterprise that isn't hampered by these emotions.


Oh, and I read Richard Dawkins acknowledged the "slim possibility" (1.5%!) that God exists. Convert quickly, my friend. The end is near. :)

James:
I am gladdened that you have embraced my point-of-view on being censored. Hooray!

Your analogy of music lover's brain's reaction to a symphony prompted me to research the idea. Early indications are that music has an effect on the brain (unsurprisingly), but not that it causes the prefrontal cortex - the logical judgement areas of the brain - to cease activity.
http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/12/21/music-fires-up-emotions-in-the-brain/22034.html

The pope's message has directly inspired lies and myths about condoms. As a result of his dogma, many Africans believe that it is possible to cure AIDS in men by having sex with a virgin. Check out how his message inspires his followers in this guardian article:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/oct/09/aids

I agree that human prejudice and intolerance are the main sources of hatred in the world. However, I agree with Hitchens that the main source of the prejudice and intolerance is religion. Very few human enterprises are not hampered by these emotions. Unfortunately, monotheism, because of its rules on who is good and who is evil, cannot avoid being a font of prejudice and intolerance. My Dad, for example, has fallen out with me; he told me my cat can't go to heaven; I said I am not interested in heaven without my cat and would rather be with my cat in hell. It is the main reason I finally embraced atheism. No description of heaven I have ever heard, when carefully considered, gives me the slightest interest in going there!

Me:
Sorry, James. Cats go to hell. Not to worry, though ... they run the joint. Dogs, on the other hand, definitely go to heaven. So, if you ever decide to go to be a dog person, heaven may be more appealing. :)
In retrospect, the fact that my music comparison doesn't hold up isn't surprising since the Oxford study was looking at people who "believe" in faith healing. I wonder what secular activity might stimulate similar activity...perhaps skydiving?

I suppose we're getting into a "chicken or the egg" argument as to whether prejudice and intolerance result from religion, or if they are present in religion because they are part of human nature. The fact that you can find examples of prejudice and intolerance in just about every human interaction tends to point to the latter explanation.

Having said that, religion has an obligation to guard against those aspects of human nature that reasonable people would agree are harmful. That the church has not guarded against those emotions, and has in many cases exacerbated them, is a stain on its history.

James:
We are on the same frequency.

Me:
I came across this example of the dangers of secular rationalism and morality based solely on reason.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9113394/Killing-babies-no-different-from-abortion-experts-say.html

James:
Fascinating article. Apparently, birth makes no difference to a child's moral right to existence. In which case the same moral basis can be used to argue that abortion is immoral.

It is about line drawing. We could be absolute, and draw the line at "every sperm is sacred" which makes me the unthinking butcher of a trillion people. That makes no sense. Or we could draw the line at the other extreme - the point a child reaches "self-awareness" or even awareness of the potential of death, so it knows what it has to lose by being killed. That certainly makes no sense either, I guess it would be around 18-24 months of age.

The only thing I do know is that I don't want the line drawn by someone who decided to become a priest and feels that he is good enough at interpreting an ancient book to be able to decide for all of us where this line should be drawn.


Me:
Fair enough. I agree there should not be absolutes, join you in condemning dogmatic beliefs, and will enthusiastically pummel anyone who disagrees with us.

James:
Let's be dogmatically antidogmatic.

Me:
If it wasn't already clear in our discussion, the point of my argument is not to convince you to reject atheism and embrace Christianity . . . ultimately, that's a personal choice, and human psychology is far too complex and diverse to make a sweeping judgement oubout how valuable faith would be to a person.

Instead, the crux of my argument is that the disdain I often see from atheists is at least as dangerous as the worst malfeasance done in the name of Christ.

All you have to do is scan through the posts from atheists on the Reasons for God page to see several examples of an "open-minded" unwillingess to engage civilly.

James:
Yes... but atheism never made someone fly a passenger plane into a building. Atheists certainly fling plenty of sour remarks at theists, but they don't kill people in the name of their authority source - because they don't have one. I don't enjoy reading the worst examples of atheistic dogma, it doesn't help people find the truth. In fact it usually serves to bolster the faithfuls' resolve to believe; it gives the faithful encouragement that atheists are a hateful bunch of nihilists.

Me:
Another point, so you don't think I'm willing to condemn you to hell, is that in reconciling my Christian faith with my personal judgement, I came to the understanding that faith is God's gift to us, and not a basis for condemnation.

So you don't see any parallels between the communist pogroms agains the church as a threat to state authority and modern secular demands for freedom "from" religion?

James:
Communist pogroms: I don't think that religion should be outlawed. Freedom of expression and all that. If you ban ideas you don't stop them spreading. Constantine tried it and eventually decided that the best thing to do was declare Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Must have recognized its usefulness in controlling the masses - provided he could control the leaders of the church, which he did.

Me:
My point is not whether you think religion should be outlawed. Obviously, I know you well enough to know that you respect people with different views. However, if you're going to contend that the ignorant comments of a racist priest in Africa undermine the validity of the Christian faith, it seems reasonable that the sentiment commonly expressed by atheists that they are entitled to freedom from religion, and the parallels to the rhetoric of totalitarian states that actually acted on those sentiments, undermines atheism as a social philosophy.

Your point about political leaders using the church is noted, but the history of religious freedom in the US, at least, undermines the utility of using the Church to consolidate political power. Not saying it doesn't happen, just pointing out that Christians are simply another interest group, and hardly a monolithic one. On the other hand, the push by the secular left to eliminate religion from the public square is a very real threat to individual freedom.


. . . . . . . . .
A quick review of Supreme Court decisions doesn't support my implication that secular assaults on religious expression have any greater standing than religious efforts to undermine secular government interests (eg, efforts to insert creationism into public schools' curriculum). That undermines my contention that the secular left poses an existential threat to freedom of expression. Instead, it's just anecdotal evidence that secular morality does not not improve on religion as a guard against the less appealing characteristics of human nature.

James:
All your points are well made.

My purpose is to question judgement. My purpose applies equally to matters like global warming or political affiliation. I chose religion as my vehicle for research into judgement because there are plenty of web forums with boards specifically set-up for atheists to make their points.

To your first point, name an atheist who has committed atheist crimes. Crimes like those of Stalin were not committed in the name of his atheist beliefs and you can't say Stalin would not have committed his crimes had he been a Christian. His targetting of the anybody was because they dissented from his plotical regime.

To your idea that religion is separated from politics in the US, I'm sorry to say that at this very moment, religion is shaping politics. It would not be possible to be successful in running for office in the USA as a Hindu or an atheist. The churches have enormous lobbying power and tax exemption; shouldn't they have one or the other? We may be about to get either an evangelical president who hates gays or one who believes he has magic underpants. That's not according to me, but according to the candidates themselves. Don't you think that their judgement ought to be questioned?


Me:
So, if I understand you correctly, Christians (and all people of faith) are on the hook for all atrocities committed in the name of God, but Atheists get a pass because they don't believe in anything but reason. Nevermind that the same rationale has formed the basis for social movements that advocated forced sterilization, forced abortions, infanticide, mass imprisonments and genocide. The fact that these were done toward a secular end isn't an argument against secular rationalism because I can't prove the same thing wouldn't have happened in the name of Christianity. Doesn't that meet the definition of a circular argument?

The fact is that people have been proven time and again to be willing to go to war and kill their fellow man for things that they believe passionately in, both secular and religious. That is not an argument against religion, any more than it's an argument against atheism. Instead, it's an argument for understanding, tolerance, and compassion...and, yes, a willingness to critically evaluate your "beliefs" from a rational and moral basis. I've already agreed with you that morality cannot be simply based on religious dogma. Similarly, it cannot be based on a secular dogma. Dismissing the possibility of God and the deeply held beliefs of the majority of your fellow man as delusional does not provide a firm foundation for treating them in a moral manner.

As to your point about religion in US politics, I agree that a passionate atheist could not be elected president. However, it would be hard to argue that Obama is overtly religious, and his attempts to integrate religion into his rhetoric have been ineptly and transparently cynical. Maybe today's primaries will prove me wrong, but I think the overt mixing of religion (per Rick Santorum) with political beliefs similarly limits the viability of a political candidate. Religious (and secular) beliefs in this country are simply so diverse that any dogmatism doesn't play well to the electorate. On the other hand, reference to Romney's "magical underpants" is a gratuitous slur that requires no further repudiation, and I certainly have not seen the same mixing of religious and political ideology from him that I've seen from Santorum.

The basis for churches' tax exemption is the perception (which I support) that they provide a social good. Similarly, organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU enjoy tax exempt status. Their tax exempt status does not force them to remove themselves from public discourse, nor should religious organizations be treated any differently.


James:
You again argue very soundly.

I should have called Romney's drawers "sacred underwear".

Morality sure is interesting. I've got 2 threads going on the Christian Forums web site on it at the moment. I am trying to work out what it is myself and so far the more I learn about it, the less I know about it.

Definitely, anyone who claims to have the answers looks silly. The ones who bleat on about the Bible providing all the moral answers we need, come across as too inflexible, but they cling on to the idea that without God there would be no objective morality.

There is an objective morality. It comes from man. In the west it's called law and it's formed by the democratic process - fundamentally, people vote for the morals they want enforced on others.

In other nations where it comes from holy texts, people get their hands cut off for stealing and women get stoned for being raped.

The first few paragraphs on morality in my book currently look like this:

Morality

Morality is an awareness that stems from consciousness and emotional intelligence. In particular, the conscious awareness of well-being and suffering, and the emotional intelligence to empathize with other conscious creatures. Words and deeds that have an effect on the well-being and suffering of conscious creatures have moral implications for beings who are aware of those effects.

A cat toying with a mouse is not committing an immoral act, because even if the cat is conscious of the fact that it is causing unnecessary harm and suffering to the mouse, it does not have the emotional intelligence to empathize with the mouse. If the cat developed both faculties then it might cease to toy with mice.

A human eating a chicken nugget who is not aware that the chicken lived and died in agony and suffering in a battery farm may not be aware that they are committing an immoral act. However, consider a human who first visits the battery farm and watches the chicken live an unnatural caged life, then die a violent mechanical death in the slaughterhouse. That human might feel empathy for the suffering of the chicken, and might become conscious of the contribution to the chicken’s suffering that buying the nugget comprises and thus might recognize the moral issue with eating the chicken nugget. Without conscious awareness of well-being and suffering and emotional intelligence to empathize with other conscious creatures, there is no morality.

Morality and Faith

As a basis for a discussion on morality, holy texts provide some interesting studies. However, choosing these authority sources as moral guides is unethical. The Bible, for example, explains how and when to buy, sell, punish and sexually abuse slaves; advocates corporal punishment of children; and proposes moral bases upon which Christians would not perform an abortion at the request of a 9-year-old raped pregnant girl. The trouble with theism is that the faith-based assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God persuades theists to assume that the morality of the Bible can be taken as objective, good and right morality. The writers of the Bible provided subjective moral answers but theists claim that those answers are actually objective moral rules. That is only true if God exists and the Bible is God's inerrant word. Since the existence of God can't be proved but may only be taken on faith, it is unethical to make life-changing moral declarations based on faith.


Me:
For once, I have nothing to argue, nor do I think a majority of Christians in the west would argue your fundamental points. They may approach morality from the perspective that a relationship with God helps guide moral judgement, but I consider that a minor difference in perspective. True prayer (most prayer is merely a show, but I'm in no position to distinguish true prayer from "show" prayer...hopefully you'll grasp the distinction I'm trying to make), after all, is merely a form of meditation, an attempt to put aside your prejudices and view your problems from a broader perspective. Anthropomorphizing that "broader perspective" as God may seem quaint in the age of quantum physics, but it does seem to fulfill a fundamental psychological need for the vast majority of people.

Rereading your paragraphs, I do have a minor suggestion. You state that the problem with theism is the belief that the bible is the inerrant word of God. Wouldn't "a fundamentalist approach to theism", or some variation thereof, be more accurate?