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!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Craft the Vote!

From a Slate feature by Jessica Vitkus, showcasing the ways to increase civic participation via handicrafts.

The Boston Atheist: August 12 - August 18, 2007

Roger Scruton, writing in Prospect Magazine, is not surprised that "decent, skeptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others." Is he right, do we need an intervention by true reason, lest we be pushed by demagoguery into a irreligious nightmare.

The title of Scruton's essay is "The sacred and the human." I take his point to be that when the rabid 'new atheists' denounce religion, they are attacking a straw man that bears no functional resemblance to the mature and measured practices of actual believers. Biologist PZ Myers calls this a courtier's reply, referring to the rationalizations sputtered by the members of the Emperor's court when confronted by someone so audacious as to point out His Majesty's nakedness. Gordon Lynch, writing on The Guardian group blog "Comment is free", makes just this kind of mistake when he leaps from the observation that Dawkins writes books to the conclusion that the new atheism is of a kind with the media-savvy televangelists: "The sheer ferocity of many of the atheist critiques of religion also suggests that we are not in the territory of reasoned debate, but witnessing the birth pangs of a new, anti-religious cultural identity."

In the comments following Lynch's article, one writer says it is difficult to imagine an atheist hijacking an airplane or blowing up a bus. That's not true at all. Who among us can't imagine an anti-religious zealot with the poisoned will enough to build a bomb and explode it among Catholics in Mass or Muslims in mosque? I am surprised that Scruton doesn't predict this scenario as one of the monsters brought forth in the sleep of our collective reason.

This evening, I'd like to consider the increasing visibility of atheism, aspects of which are touched upon by all of the above authors. We will gather at seven in the private dining room at MC2 American Bistro in the Cambridge Marriott; ask for our group or my name at the hostess station when you arrive to be taken there. I shall have brought copies of the several articles mentioned here, and will read out a brief response, my own hope for a secular future -- which looks very little like Scruton's patronizing caricature. When we talk tonight, let us talk about what role atheists should take in deciding the future structure of the state and culture, and what principles should govern that future. Anyone wishing to step up on the soapbox to give their own thoughts on the matter will be invited to do so, before we table discussion and enjoy our usual relaxed godless gossip. You'll find these several articles related to this theme at http://atheists.meetup.com/59/files/, in PDF format.

Would anyone like to host a viewing of "The God Who Wasn't There" at their home in the first week of September? The next scheduled dinner meeting will be September 18th, at Boston Beerworks. Please suggest your preferred alternative location! RSVP at http://atheists.meetup.com/59/calendar/6159830/.

CHECK OUT: The Atheist Discussion Group (ADG) of Greater Boston.

In a blog post, the aforementioned Myers makes the point that people who kneel in prayer are NOT behaving metaphorically: "... if this god is a metaphor, why are people always building real monuments and cathedrals to him, and donating real money and effort to his worship? Why not just stay home on Sundays, watch football, and say you're metaphorically being religious?" The faithful really do tithe, vote according to the convictions of their faith, and infect their children with the toxic idea of original sin. [Source: Pharyngula, 07/18/07]

From Roger Zelazny's novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, 1969. The book was just reprinted after being notoriously hard to get ahold of for many years. This sacred muttering might be the most famous prayer in all of science fiction and fantasy.
Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

This article, about the stability of Canada's atheism population, makes the important point that atheists represent all socioeconomic classes, and come from every walk of life. The affirming message I see in this demographic data is that no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do, there's no reason to think you can't begin to think more rationally about the meaning of life. A gem of a quote from the study's author, sociologist Reg Bibby: "You may be a non-believer but that doesn't mean you're going to trash your grandma's long-held beliefs when you get together for a family reunion." [Source: Canada.com, 08/13/07]

Episcopal priest Borden Painter wants to block our movement into an increasingly rational, secular future. The inevitable outcome of such a campaign, he argues, is genocide and oppression. He feigns a willingness to consider his opponents, quoting Hitchens' "god Is Not Great": "All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse - the need to worship - can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed." Thus we return to Scruton's argument, that religion isn't about God, it's about the inborn need to be worship the sacred. By the way, Painter's opinion is ignorant, angry, prejudicial rubbish -- check the comments for confirmation, where the words "disingenuous," "dumb," and "yikes" are characteristic of readers' responses. [Source: Hartford Courant, 08/05/07]

Monday, August 06, 2007

Evolution, Religion and Free Will

I've uploaded to the Meetup files directory a fascinating article about belief among prominent scientists. In "Evolution, Religion and Free Will," authors Gregory Graffin and William Province examine the surprising views on how religion relates to evolution, as are held by some of the most eminent evolutionary scientists. One interesting finding: "Evolutionary scientists are strongly motivated to ameliorate conflict between evolution and religion." Though such professionals discount the existence of personal gods or the possibility of life after death, they nonetheless see no incompatibility between scientific knowledge and religious beliefs. Goes to show that social and cultural pressures to conform to and not confront the prevailing "wisdom" can lead to all kinds of dissonant cognition among those persons who most deeply understand the nature and origin of our human selves, the

If you have difficulty accessing the article, please contact me at bostonatheists@gmail.com, and I will be glad to send the PDF to you directly.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Boston Atheist: July 29 - August 4, 2007

FOXHOLE ATHEISTS FACE FRIENDLY FIRE: Bart Meltzer, coordinator of state and regional operations for American Atheists, asked that I send along a message from AA Military Director Kathleen Johnson, who is currently serving on active duty in Iraq. Following her report you'll find a link to the article she mentions from Stars and Stripes.
Per Kathleen's request, please send any emails of encouragement to the brave young soldier mentioned below via Kathleen. Kudos to this brave young soldier for having the courage to stand up for his beliefs and right to express them freely in the face of such drastic opposition. Kudos to the other brave soldiers who had the courage to participate. Let him know he's doing work in the service of a far greater good than the shockingly tyrannical, and unsurprisingly pious, officer who disrupted their meeting. If you have a perspective on this report, I strongly encourage you to forward it to the Boston Atheists mailing list by sending an email to atheists-59@meetup.com. We know how unwelcome vocal atheism can be in the workplace, academe, and civic life -- it should be no surprise that members of the military can be just as hostile toward nonbelievers.
Bart shared his opinion on the matter: "If all Atheists stood up for their beliefs and were as vocal as these soldiers we would not be facing the discrimination we are facing today. We would be perceived as a much larger majority that should not be trifled with. I'm proud to be a part of the national organization that fights for the civil rights of Atheists in the face of this discrimination." The large majority Bart mentions is that eclectic group of forty million Americans, united only by disbelief. If there is to be a future in which religious institutions are displaced by civic organizations, in which faith is rightly disenfranchised, and in which belief is become only a historical fact, those forty million Americans need to coordinate their desire to work against the nearly-universal fallacy that religion is necessary. Give this young soldier your encouragement and your support; let your atheist neighbors know that you share their intolerance of this kind of bigotry. If we're going to come out of the woodwork, an email is an easy way to start. Here's Kathleen's report:
One of our members, a young Atheist enlisted soldier, thought he would like to see if he could generate some interest in MAAF [Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers] meetings at his Forward Operating Base (FOB) here in Iraq (not the base I'm at, by the way). He got things coordinated and started hanging flyers, and after weeks of having to re-hang his flyers almost daily because some vandal kept tearing them down, he finally succeeded in having a small MAAF meeting. I wasn't there because the meeting wasn't on my FOB, but I knew he was holding it and was expecting to hear from him after the meeting. Keep in mind that this young soldier did everything right - he went through the Chaplain's office and jumped through all the hoops it takes to legally hold meetings that are religiously or philosophically based. Four soldiers attended this meeting - all of them very junior enlisted soldiers with the exception of one Major (an O-4), who claimed to be a "freethinker". Well, to make a very long story a little shorter, the Major turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian who verbally berated the other attendees, accused them of plotting against Christians and disrespecting soldiers who have died protecting the Constitution, and threatened them with punishment under the UCMJ for their activities (said they were "going down") and said he would do whatever it took to shut the meetings down. Keep in mind that by this point, he had two of the attendees (one soldier fled when the shouting started) standing at the position of attention so that he could yell at them, berate them, and humiliate them. This apparently went on for several minutes at which time the Major shut down the meeting by saying he wasn't some "push-over Chaplain" and that he would not tolerate the meetings to continue. The young MAAF member who hosted the meeting is absolutely freaked out about what happened, but he said he's going to continue with the meetings and isn't going to be bullied by the prayer warriors. I've advised him to immediately notify the Chaplain sponsor of what happened to get guidance while I try to figure out what to do next. I should hear something back from him tonight sometime and there's even a small possibility I might be able to score a mission to his FOB and attend one of his meetings in the next few weeks (if I do, I'll meet with the Chaplain in person). As for immediate action, he's going to get me the names of his Chaplain sponsor and the name of the officer who disrupted the meeting. My intent right now is to make a formal report to the most senior Chaplain I can find along with possibly an Equal Opportunity complaint against the officer if we can get him fully identified. I may not be eligible to make that complaint because I wasn't there, but I can at least smooth the way for this young troop to make one if he elects to. At the very least, I can make the EO office formally aware of what happened there. More info will follow when I get it, but right now, feel free to disseminate this information since I've intentionally sanitized it for names and locations.
Related items include Staff Sgt. Gene Horrigan's letter "Read the Constitution" in response to Spc. Matthew B. Cravens' letter "Atheist 'revival' bad for U.S." Also of interest are "Camp Quest is legal"by Spc. Jeremy Hall; "Religions' 'dangerous attitude'" by Senior Airman Matthew Frazee; and "Our country's values" by Michael Breslin, all at this page. Please let me know if anyone finds a link to the original article, "Atheists are happy campers at Ohio retreat," which appeared in the July 8th issue of that paper.
  • COMING EVENTS: The Boston Atheists will take to the lanes next Friday, August 10th, at Boston Bowl. (RSVP) Guests are of course welcome. The following Tuesday, the 14th, we'll be meeting at the MC2 American Bistro in Cambridge for a salon-style discussion of a topic to-be-determined this weekend. (RSVP)
  • "A TEACHER WITH FAITH AND REASON": Jeff Jacoby is an inimitable columnist, though for reasons of taste rather than skill. In this latest dispatch from the hinterlands of intellectual credibility, he wistfully wishes for a science as informed by spirituality as was Newton's, thus confusing cause with coincidence and suggesting that his awareness of the scientific enterprise is about 330 years behind the times. Boston Globe, 07/22/07
  • "CREATION SCIENCE 101": Tongue-in-cheekiness by guitar-totin' teacher Roy Zimmerman.
  • THE OUT CAMPAIGN: Says Fark.com: "Atheists urge atheists to come out of the closet by wearing an 'A' to make it even easier for fundies to round them up and stone them as required by the Old Testament." Do any designers want to try designing an atheist pride shirt that is just a little less ugly?
  • HELP WANTED: Camp Quest of Michigan is seeking one or two responsible males or females who are unafraid of commitment to volunteer as camp counselors for one week this August. Atheists preferred, but will consider all freethinking applicants. Immediate openings available due to 11th-hour cancellations by soft, spineless wannabes. If you are interested, contact Len Zanger, Director of Camp Quest: 248-330-5061. Spread the word as you see fit.