Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Boston Atheist: August 26 - September 1, 2007

In the last Boston Atheist bulletin, I directed your attention to Roger Scruton’s discussion in Prospect Magazine of the connection of the human and the sacred. I enjoyed batting around some responses to his article when we last met. My main objection is mainly to his assertion that there is a valuable “kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us through the experience of sacred things.” Begging the question, the knowledge that comes from which kind of sacredness? The world’s religions have diverse and incompatible means for connecting to the sacred: animal sacrifice vs. animal veneration; peyote vs. temperance; erotic congress vs. abstinence. Maybe different kinds of sacredness pass on different kinds of knowledge, but if that’s the case, what kind of sacred knowledge should be obeyed in the halls of power, in the boardroom, the courtroom, the legislative chamber, the Oval Office? If we go to the sacred as a source of useful knowledge, we shall have to choose between two unattractive options:

1) a theological relativism in direct competition with scientific empiricism, so that the contradictory knowledge of different sacred traditions are resolved by fiat as being ‘different paths to the truth’ and sacred diversity is valued over truth

2) a Balkanized society in which different communities form around different sacred truths and compete with each other; pity those secularists among them whose only source of knowledge is objective inquiry, and who must hope that their faith-filled leaders are accommodating of their unbelief.

Either we are a single culture united in diffidence toward the truth, or a culture divided by our allegiance to incompatible truths. Neither option is attractive.

That there are so many potential sources of the sacred (and that the term itself can be applied to whatever experience blows the believer’s hair back) means that sacredness is a poor source for the sort of knowledge that we need in order to make important decisions. The three situations Scruton gives as examples of sacredness—birth, copulation, and death—are rich with meaning that has nothing to do with consecration. I think Scruton loves believing; I think he is addicted to the private satisfaction known only by those who are assured of possessing the rare and subtle Truth, and doesn’t realize he gets it’s the wrong way around. The intensity of love, sex, birth and death isn't important because it's sacred; rather we call it sacred because it's important. If Roger Scruton were as scrupulous a philosopher as he is an Anglican, he’d have never made this elementary mistake.

Down in New Zealand, Paul Gilbert has started a music station devoted to Atheism. It's called The Pagan Station and is freely available on live365 internet radio. Paul has many hundreds of Atheist, Free-Thinker & Pro-Science songs in his library, so there's plenty of variety already, but new material is being added every week thanks to the help and generosity of listeners worldwide. To have a listen, go straight to http://www.live365.com/stations/paganstation. Registration is free and straightforward. In keeping with the sciencey theme, I've uploaded two music files to the BA Meetup site: They Might Be Giants' "Why Does The Sun Shine?" and Tom Lehrer's "The Elements." Download them from http://atheists.meetup.com/59/files.

Jonathan Gottschall reviews a tempting new book in his essay “Burn Down the Thinkeries!,” appearing in this week’s Skeptics’ Society newsletter. He begins by starts by reminding us of Aristophanes’ 5th century comedy The Clouds, in which the playwright lays satirical waste to the phrontistera operated by Socrates and other Sophists. In these “Thinkeries,” “any ambitious young scoundrel” can be taught to “seem right in any argument, no matter how wrong. The play ends with an ex-student, who has come to understand the institution’s true nature, setting fire to the Thinkery and inciting his fellow citizens to drive the sooty knaves from town with stones.” According to Gottschall, author Frederick Crews, in his new collection of essays Follies of the Wise, “performs a similar public service, figuratively speaking: he sets fire to corrupted Thinkeries.” The modern-day Thinkeries that Crews is set to skewer are those institutions manifesting “most of the features that characterize religious fanaticism, such as undue deference to authority, hostility toward dissenters, and, most basically, an assumption that intuitively held certitude is somehow more precious and profound than the hard-won gains of trial and error”; they have a ruinous penchant for guruism and question-begging, and little regard for the basic lessons of Reasoning 101.” [Source: eSkeptic, 08/29/07]

Brian Quail of Glasgow wrote a letter to the editor of the Scottish paper, The Herald, defending the reasonableness of belief: "Following Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas gives five proofs for the existence of God. The first is the argument from causality, to which I have referred. To argue against causality is to argue against all science and rational thought." Aquinas argument, known to Muslim philosophers as the Kalam cosmological argument, and by other names in other traditions, isn't the slam dunk Mr. Quail thinks it is, nor does the Big Bang 'mirror and triumphantly vindicate' Aquinas's logic. The comments are a hoot. [Source: Canada.com, 08/13/07]

The Skeptigator blog had a different response to the same editorial:
In question is the comment by Dawkins of Gould, “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages.” This bothers me as much as Hitchens claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr. was some kind of secular humanist cloaked as a pastor. No Hitchens, MLK Jr. was a Christian pastor whose beliefs (while certainly humanist) were informed by his religion (at least his interpretation of his religion). Claiming MLK Jr. is a humanist first and second only consequentially Christian is a bit disingenious, IMO.

Steven Plaut, a professor of business administration at Haifa University, is a regular contributor to FrontPage. This week in The Jewish Press, he launches a comically disordered and abusive attack on Richard Dawkins and the spate of "Three Cheers for Atheism" books. It's rife with straw man arguments, no true Scotsman evasiveness, and other familiar fallacies. I encourage everyone to read his head-shakingly confused essay as part of our campaign to better know the anti-rational enemy. In his discussion of Dawkins' argument that theology is not needed to foster morality, Plaut perplexingly dismisses benign secular alternatives to the Ten Commandments, such as "Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice", with a single derogatory syllable: "Yawn." This from the author that accuses Dawkins of failing to take seriously the arguments of his opponent. Near the end of his diatribe, Plaut briefly mentions Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, who has been critical of Intelligent Design's attempts to argue for God’s existence from the gaps in scientific knowledge. Slifkin argues that there is "proof of God and His presence in the parts of the universe that have been understood and explained; that is, in the miracles of mundane and ordinary life." Therefore, Slifkin would conclude, a superfluous god is a necessary god. QED. Such are the astounding feats of rationalization possible when you absolutely gotta believe. [Source: The Jewish Press, 08/29/07]

If some of you are in the mood for travel, or are already near there, consider stopping by the September meeting of the The Atheists of Greater Lowell at The Java Room on September 5th, at 7 PM. Ginger Ale Plaza, Route 110, 14 Littleton Road, Chelmsford. The organizer of their group, which like ours is an affiliate of American Atheists, is Steve Berthiaume. He posts news and commentary at http://lowellatheists.blogspot.com.

CHECK OUT: Steve B is also one of the contributors to AtheistParents.org. The site has not been updated recently, but the forums are active and of certain interest to those of you who are currently raising or considering producing offspring. Spread those skeptical genes!

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