Wednesday, January 10, 2007

From a Jewish Atheist

Robert Wolfe contacted me last week, asking that I spread the word about his new project: The Jewish Atheist Website, He writes:
I see a need for a better understanding of Jewish history and tradition within the atheist movement. Because both Christianity and Islam are derived in one way or another from Judaism, there is a certain tendency among atheists to blame the Jews for the power and appeal of the God idea. Yet despite its theistic image, Jewish tradition also contains a powerful anti-theistic current, one which is reflected in the considerable percentage of Jews who consider themselves atheists or agnostics. My website seeks to explore the roots of this anti-theistic current and bring out some of its aspects and manifestations.
There'll be more from Robert, as well as a commentary on his website, in the forthcoming issue of Boston Freethought. If you are not already on the mailing list, please send a message to bostonatheists[at] and let us know to which email or mailing address you'd like the newsletter to be sent.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Tasteless Attack in WSJ

Sam Schulman's column, "Without God, Gall Is Permitted" from Friday's Wall Street Journal is a litany of misquotes, misunderstandings, and invective. I submitted a response through the WSJ online form, but I am not optimistic about the chance of my comments being posted. Many thanks to Steve Berthiaume of the Atheists of Greater Lowell for bringing this article to our attention. Those of you that believe snarky dogmatism is tasteless will find it ironic that it was published as a "Taste Commentary." Mr. Schulman's diatribe is a litany of misquotes, misunderstandings, and sneers. Though practically every sentence is weasely and chock full of fallacy, I'll responsd to just four points. I encourage readers to respond to the WSJ as well! Let them know that the audience gets ticked off when the editors allow invective to displace intelligent opinion.

1. "The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody."
Dawkins et al are not grappling with your straw-man, Mr. Schulman. Their discussion of the psychosocial, neurological and philosophical dimensions of worship is deep and demanding. The writing in the recent crop of books is clear, forceful, and elegant; we should be so lucky to have such authors make every complex subject seem so simple! The suggestion that these "new atheists" are debunking a caricature suggests that the critic has not personally read The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and other recent books that smartly and stylishly critique religiosity.

2. "It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo..."
     Mr. Schulman is correct: religion has been indeed the preoccupation of great minds. Do not the accomplishments of Avicenna — physician, scholar, philosopher — demonstrate the sublimity of Islam? Is not the veracity of Buddhism proven by the genius of Bhavaviveka? That persons of intelligence — indoctrinated since birth, educated by religious teachers and offered no alternative to a supernatural worldview — have thought about religion does not mean their god exists. A number of luminaries have thought long and hard about Hamlet, as well.

     In the same paragraph Mr. Schulman falsely ascribes religious belief to Albert Einstein. I hope that in his prominent publishing position, his example does not encourage business leaders to likewise pass on received wisdom without checking sources.

3. "The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill."
     We should applaud, not deride, advocates who rely upon logic. Mr. Schulman's criticism here is self-serving, for he knows that his own position is defensible only if rhetoric can persuade without reference to fact. Unfortunately, that's the standard tolerated in our public space. I myself prefer truth to charm, and I am deeply suspicious of anyone who prefers a genial manner to rational thought. Of course, this is no sacrifice; Richard Dawkins' lively writing fairly crackles with wit.

4. "When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age..."
     Well, if you believe that the creation of the universe was only ~6,000 years ago, it stands to reason that you'd have to bump up the appearance of freethinkers. Don't tell Democritus; he's rather infatuated with the idea of having lived in ancient Greece. Now, I don't believe that Mr. Schulman is a creationist, but he does seem laughably unfamiliar with the powerful intellects that shrugged off supersitution long before Lyell, Darwin, Wallace, and Dawkins.

Note: This Sam Schulman is not the now-deceased former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics; this Sam is a pundit whose writing appears frequently in Commentary and the Spectator. (Among other questionably-reasoned positions, he asserts that a person cannot marry a member of the same sex for the same reason that a man cannot be brother to a dog.)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How We Fight Baloney

In a gladdening demonstration of federal intelligence, the FTC hit four marketers of weight-loss pills with $25 million in fines for falsely advertised health benefits. In a Houston Chronicle article, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras is reported to have said, "Testimonials from individuals are not a substitute for science ... And that's what Americans need to understand." This sounds pretty good, but I'm not exactly cheering. How is it that worthless products remain in stores as long as manufacturers admit their medicinal impotence? Shouldn't there be some public mechanism by which snake-oil salesmen are booed from the marketplace, even if their sham is technically legal?

In another news item -- I'll explain how these are related -- a petition was submitted last month to the British PM "to make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16." Richard Dawkins signed the petition but later asked that his name be struck from the roll after he read a fuller description:
In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.
Though Dawkins is quick with a mea culpa for not having read more carefully, his involvement has been jumped upon by critics in the ID community and self-designated paladins defending religion from rabid secularists. No surprise!

So, how are quack therapies like religious inculcation? Both problems require a solution in the form of cultural pressure instead of legal force.

If we are serious in our collective effort to expunge as much as possible the irrational from the public space, shame sure is a savvy tactic. Embarrassment is by far a more effective motivator than federal intervention or philosophical rigor:
"The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few religious dogmas have ever faced it and survived." -H. L. Mencken
Though it is of course necessary to be both legally correct and philosophically sound! Dawkins identifies his campaign as one of consciousness-raising; Sam Harris in The End of Faith asked that we become "conversationally intolerant" of religious -- and by extension -- irrational beliefs. I think James Randi sounds a similar clarion call: that individuals find the courage to confront flim-flam, baloney, and the propagation of dangerous norms anywhere we see them. His weekly SWIFT newsletter is a handbook for identifying the enemy and his critical commentary is a training manual for dispatching it.

Whether our chief personal concern is with dogmatic religion, malfeasant drug-peddlers, wonky politicos, or any other threat to civic health, the fight against baloney might begin with a sense of humor. Wherever the absurd takes sanctuary, let us laugh in its face. It's difficult to take seriously what has been exposed as incredibly, indefensibly, mind-numbingly ridiculous. E.g. immaculate conception; intelligent design; natural cures; or political piety.

[This post is modified from a letter sent to James Randi]