Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Boston Atheist: December 16 - 22nd, 2007

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI spoke less well than his name promises (pun!), proclaiming in the second encyclical of his papacy that "the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" are properly attributed to atheism. Those that put their faith in human reason, he explicitly argues, are well-deserving of the "trail of appalling destruction" that followed the French and Communist revolutions. I thought you should know what we're shouldering the blame for now. Is Lucifer not pulling his weight these days?

Greg Beato writes in Reason Magazine that we Atheists aren't properly kitted out. Culture wars are waged in the marketplace, not only of ideas, but of crappy knick-knacks. "Atheists," he writes, "are still in the pop Dark Ages"...
Their T-shirts aren’t as visually appealing, their tchotchkes aren’t as diverse, and their rock bands aren’t spreading a 110-decibel message of rational humanism. It’s time to evolve past the Darwin Fish and fill up nonbelievers’ stockings with atheist junk that’s as gloriously profane as the junk blessed by Jesus.
So! Here's a few sources for godless gift gear:
* Mugs, T-shirts, stickers, emblems, and other progressive and freethought items from http://EvolveFISH.com
* A nice mix of irreverent, defiant, hostile, and proud products can be found at the Atheist Café Press shop
* Bart Meltzer from American Atheists recommends that we check out the Naughty & Nice list being circulated by the Christian conservative group Liberty Counsel, a group of lawyers who are devoted to "restoring the culture one case at a time by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family." Their Nice category is full of retailers who have not been cowed by us Atheists into denying their faith, and openly acknowledge and even celebrate Christmas in their stores. The Naughty category, on the other hand, is full of shops that instruct their employees to keep things on a more secular keel. This is very helpful; to think we might have had to do the work of finding all those Naughtily realty-based retailers on our own! Thanks, Liberty Counsel, for directing us to those businesses which value everyone’s ideas.
* If you were wondering were to find Atheist holiday cards, you might have some luck at http://www.atheistholidaycards.com. The American Atheists sell similarly themed cards, as well.
* Jon Gledstone's utterly PC nativity card is explained at The Sun.
-1. Finally, the Evangelical Atheist a few years ago compiled a nice list of thoughtful gifts for your Atheist loved ones. It's still a great source for ideas!

Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Beverly McPhail bravely ventures into the hypothetical minefield: "Suppose we elected an atheist president?" According to her analysis, "journalists and voters would have to focus on substantive policy positions held by candidates rather than their professed beliefs." Our political system, in short, would run to chaos.

NOT on my list of recommended holiday purchase: The Beginner's Bible Coloring Book, a sample of which can be seen at Flickr. I stumbled across this howler while browsing Dr. JonboyG's photo gallery of shots snapped off at the Creationist Museum. I especially enjoyed the triceratops wearing a saddle, for God so loved his children that he gave them herbivorous, ceratopsid ponies.

P. David Hornik, writing for The American Spectator, can't see what Atheism has to offer, other than negation: "do not feel what you feel, do not believe, do not hope, there's nothing out there, our (self-)limited minds comprehend everything there is and it's not much; above all, do not seek a consciousness beyond your own." His is an earnest, genuine, and I think sadly mistaken understanding of what Atheist represents as a worldview, and what kind of beliefs about itself the world is prepared to support with true facts. Give his article a read, and if you're feeling in an expository mood, I invite you to share with the mailing list what you think Atheism has to offer, other than negation.

A fundamental point that is often overlooked as believers battle nonbelievers over the existence of gods or the truth about human origins is that when you set aside our respective worldviews, we're all basically the same. This sameness mostly manifests itself at dysfunctional family get-togethers.

The Atheist Meetup of Greater Lowell is still in need of an Organizer. If you'd like to coordinate monthly meetings and additional activities as the occasion calls for it, let me know so I can put you in touch with members of the group and acquaint you more fully with the responsibilities involved.

Dinner parties, pub nights, movie screenings, book clubs, protests or teach-ins, trips to museums or speeches, or debates, the deployment of BA information tables at local festivals and public gatherings, charity or service events, special BA-only seminars on science, philosophy, or politics, meetings with government representatives to articulate the Atheist perspective on community and state issues... what do YOU want the Boston Atheists to do in 2008? Let me know, or contribute to the discussion on the mailing list. I've got plans in mind for quite a few activities, but I can't meet your needs and fulfill your expectations if I don't hear from you.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Conjecture

Is it the case that, because the burden of proof is carried by the party claiming the actuality of any event with low initial probability, atheism does not need prior demonstration? Discuss.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Boston Atheist: November 18 - 24, 2007

The last BA bulletin was too many weeks ago, and in compiling this one, I have discarded many notes and links which I had intended to share with the BA membership but which during that long interval grew stale. It was a bumpy start to the semester here at work, but I've emerged from the busyness and you'll be seeing regular newsletters once again. Part of the busyness was related to the BA: I've been working on the website, putting together pages and assembling content. I'd be grateful for any feedback, editorial or philosophical, I can get on my explanation of the asterisk as our logo.

I propose that we attend next month's opening of "The Golden Compass" en masse. To be clear, my own motivation would not be to affirm Pullman's message against organized religion, however much that mission aligns with my own beliefs. Instead, it would be my goal to shore up the box office despite the campaign against it. Religions that campaign against their critics, instead of embracing and responding to criticism, are contrary to the principles of free inquiry and dissent that are the strength of American culture.

In a news release dated Nov. 2, the Catholic League president Bill Donohue decried Pullman's "appalling deceit." He said:
The last thing Pullman trusts is the people. That is why he tries to sneak his atheism in back-door to kids. If he had any courage, he’d defend his work, but instead he continues to do what he does best—practice deceit. This is the same man who boldly exclaimed a few years ago, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.’ Now he says that it is undemocratic of us to issue a consumer’s alert (we've published a booklet on his work) that exposes his hatred of all things Catholic. We at the Catholic League never had to run from our work. How pitiful it is to see a grown man slip kids his poisonous pill and then pretend he trusts the reader. We are so happy to have ripped the mask off his face. And the movie doesn't even open for another five weeks! This is going to be a good ride. Hope Pullman is up to it.”
It isn't hard for us to recognize that his group's "consumer alert" is unapologetic censorship; but what of those million subject to such repressive messages every week at Mass? Pullman's comment on the League's furor, incidentally, is impressively respectful of independent thinking:
“Well, you know I always mistrust people who tell us how we should understand something. They know better than we do what the book means or what this means and how we should read it and whether we should read it or not. I don’t think that’s democratic. I prefer to trust the reader. I prefer to trust what I call the democracy of reading. When everybody has the right to form their own opinion and read what they like and come to their own conclusion about it. So I trust the reader.”
I've added this event to our Meetup calendar for December.

In another sign of progress as we move toward the January roll-out of the new Boston Atheists website, I've posted the first of our frequently-asked-questions for the Ask An Atheist page. I'm continually adding to these, so email me whenever you have the urge to add to what I expect will become a compendious resource. Many thanks to our own Ken Granderson and Patrick Julius, president of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Michigan, for being the first to contribute.

[By James Randi, excerpted from the SWIFT newsletter, Nov. 15 2007]
You just can’t make Scientology look sillier than it already is. To prove that contention, I ask you to read the following seven sentences written by L. Ron Hubbard, excerpted from his “Route to Infinity” lectures – which title, alone, shows the inanity of the man and his words. I opened a Hubbard book at random just to show an inquirer at the JREF that none of Hubbard made any sense, and got this:
In interpersonal relations, you will notice that when you have a person agreeing on a decision, you will get action.[1] If a person agrees on a decision, you will get action if it’s an action decision, and if it’s a "not to be" or an inaction decision, you will also get the inaction.[2] In other words, you get what you want by bringing to pass an agreement.[3] This is very, very important in interpersonal relations and is actually the one problem of interpersonal relations.[4] You’ll find all arguments are based upon an inability to agree.[5] You will find that all friction which occurs between an individual and a group, an individual and another individual or a group and a group is simply on this basis of disagreement.[6] And this disagreement comes about because of a divergence of decision.[7]
A simple analysis, by the numbers:

1. Well, maybe. But hardly surprising.
2. Yep, that’s so very true, but I believe you just said that...
3. Also very true, but you also just said that…
4. You mean there’s only one problem in interpersonal relations? Now, that’s real news!
5. Seems to me that I also already knew that.
6. Also, maybe.
7. Well! I knew we’d arrive at a momentous conclusion, after all!

(As an aside, I think that in this text and what follows, L. Ron really meant to say, “relationships,” rather than “relations” – but he was the writer, not I.)

Folks, though this seems a very juvenile technique, it’s very effective. The evangelists discovered this very basic system, long ago: Tell people things that are perfectly obvious, things with which they’ll certainly agree, tell them the same thing more than once, and then when you present them with your concluding point, it appears to have been arrived at from building on the previous statements, while in actuality it has no more status or import than the inane points made in leading up to it. Hubbard’s next paragraph, even more obscure than the last one just quoted, reads:
Now, a decision is very difficult, sometime [sic], to reach. But this is one of these hidden things, actually, in an argument. You are arguing with somebody. If you will isolate out of the argument the decisions for action or inaction – you see, a decision can be for action or a decision can be for inaction – and if you have selected out the action and inaction decisions which you want effected, the argumentation will be minimal because you have clarified the problem of interpersonal relations before you have tried to practice interpersonal relations on this problem. You've clarified the problem. "Exactly what do I want this person to do?" or "Exactly what do I want this person not to do?" And from there you base your arguments....
This is typical of what you’ll find in Hubbard’s ramblings, almost incoherent platitudes that give a superficial appearance of profundity, but are excellent examples of what Shakespeare described in Macbeth:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Writing in the Autumn 2007 issue of City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple argues that to regret religion is to regret Western civilization. What a rich, fallacious, and argumentatively sneaky a claim! Christopher Hitchens has a response: "How horrible it would be if we were condemned to live in this posture of gratitude, permanent gratitude, to an unalterable dictatorship, in whose installation we had had no say, and let me add, the worst of that would be if that dictatorship was benign -- that is what would make it insufferable. The story is a fairy tale made up by fallible and opportunistic human beings."

Dalia Nammari, reporting for the Associated Press in the Boston Globe, writes that squads of Ramadan police have been deployed in the cosmopolitan city of Ramallah on the West Bank. The members of the squad "appear to be an attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government to challenge the monopoly on religious righteousness claimed by the militant group Hamas, the rival ruler of Gaza." Police spokesman Adnan al-Damari explains that "The duty of the morality police is to preserve public manners in public places and to preserve the feelings of the people who are fasting ... Violating the holiness of Ramadan is a violation of people's freedom." (Whose freedom is being violated by my neighbor's garish Christmas light display? Lock 'em up! They're suspect, I tells you.) This news from Palestine should be a reminder that it is not religion per se that is an obstacle to freedom in society, but religion as a power wielded by politicians over their constituents and against their opponents, by adults over youth, by majorities against minorities. Religion without power is just a kind of private silliness. Religion in the public sphere is prejudice with a club. [Source: Boston Globe, 9/28/07]

I was led to the piety squad article after reading a post at meetanatheist.com, run by Alan, "a Southern bohemian artist and Mensan living a religion-free life in the Bible Belt of America." Alan also links to YouTube, where a someone remixed a biased report from CNN earlier this year about the persecution of atheists. In the original CNN broadcast, the panel excoriates non-believers.

In his review of Christopher Hitchens' god is not great for the Times Literary Supplement, Richard Dawkins calls the book "a splendid, boisterously virile broadside." Another reason to keep it in mind for the gift-giving season!

You are hereby reminded to support the soon-to-be-award-wining call-in Internet radio show Answers in Atheism, streaming live from Union, Kentucky, thus dispelling at least one myth about the mindset of folks in that lovely part of the country. AIA streams almost every Thursday evening, 7:00pm to 8:00pm ET. Listeners have the enticing opportunity to call-in for questions, conversations, and shout-outs ("Hey Bahston!") by calling toll-free 877.814.9287. You can also send comments to be read on-air by emailing theshow@answersinatheism.net

Snopes.com, the urban legends investigation clearing house, posted in September a saber-rattling letter to the editor, in which the author suggested we "stomp out atheists in America." Although the Snopes team determined that the author meant the letter as a spoof, they report that the sentiment is not uncommon:
Given the plenitude of e-mails we've received over the years expressing the very same sentiments as this letter, it apparently does reflect the genuine opinions of a not insubstantial readership base.

Some of you were fortunate to attend Dr. Wesley Wildman's lecture, "Spirituality and the Brain: A Revolutionary Scientific Approach to Religious Experience," at the beginning of October. That talk was part of a year-long series on religious experience sponsored by the Psychological and Religious Well-Being Project at Boston University. More information and streaming of the lectures can be found at www.bu.edu/danielsen/research/trl. Funding for the series comes from the Metanexus Institute (http://www.metanexus.net/Institute/) and the John Templeton Foundation (http://www.templeton.org/). Both institutions are often seen contorting the results of otherwise respectable researches into alignment with the pronouncements of the faithful. This untenable habit has been declaimed throughout its long history; to give just one sufficient response, here's Joseph McCabe in 1933: "The truth is that science and religion are permanent rivals, and will continue to be so as long as the belief in God and immortality is based upon realities which also fall under the consideration of science." Incidentally, the revolutionary approach advocated by Dr. Wildman was not a new methodology, but a new terminology. He made quick work of the notion that advancements in imaging technology and our increasing sophisticated knowledge of the brain have led to a confirmation of the spiritual component of religious experience. The revolution he proposes is a rebranding of experience as di-polar monism. Monism, since experience is a single kind of phenomenon -- an interior process of the brain, modulated by stimuli, and mediated by nervous tissue -- with two aspects, the material and the phenomenological or experiential. Depending on whether you approach religious experience from the top, studying the self-reports of meditators and true believers, or whether you take the bottom-up route and investigate the neural correlates of ecstasy, out-of-body moments, etc., you're looking at the same thing, says Wildman. I think di-polar monism is a savvy position to stake out, one that defuses the outrage of theists who rally against marauding materialism, and one which accommodates the perceived complexity of our inner life.

Over at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, cartoonist Zach Weiner argues that archaeopteryx would not have been very patient with the claims of contemporary Creationism.

The Washington Post is sponsoring an online panel discussion of Christopher Hitchens' claim that "Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children. There is a lot to sort through there, with responses by Richard Dawkins and Greg Epstein, ongoing blog commentary by BU assistant professor of religion Donna Freitas (local color!) and Columbia University professor Randal Balmer, who cautions that we should beware secular fundamentalism. Which phrasing, by the way, I find terrifically dishonest rhetoric that dismisses without consideration the reasonable disagreement atheists have with theists.

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.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Responding to Mary Fairchild

In this post, I don't tackle theology or politics, analyze current affairs or ask questions of ultimate concern. In this post, I'm going to talk about vent about an email I got this morning from About.com: Christianity moderator Mary Fairchild; for such venting was the blog invented.

Mary is sweating bloody bullets -- it seems the Church is once again being threatened by the cosmic might of U.S. representatives. One wonders why her omnipotent deity doesn't simply smite the armies of secularization, instead of waiting for the pleading prayer of the pious to pass a critical threshold before acting to preserve religious liberty. Mary's panicked report:
If the plan proposed in H.R. 1592 (The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007) is passed in Congress tomorrow (May 3, 2007), according to its opponents, it will severely hinder religious freedoms, including the ability to openly express the doctrines and beliefs of the Christian faith.

Already on the website poll, more of the About.com Christians have voted that H.R. 1592 is not going to undermine freedom. Now, I don't think it's prudent to legislate civic values, but I am bemused by the spectacle of Mary's histrionic performance. She writes:

What happened to America? I thought we had religious freedoms here, not to mention free speech? What do you think? Is it a crime to be a Christian now? Should believers be prosecuted for expressing the convictions of their faith?

One hopes that the answer to her question, "What has happened to America?", is that we are beginning to want to shrug off the cloak of idiocy called dogma. Just as we have religious freedom, there is a freedom from religion -- don't be surprised if the modern population realizes is far more free without religion than with. We have free speech -- don't be surprised if others exercise that freedom by making speeches declaiming the untruth of the Bible (and the Torah, and the Book of Mormon, and the Vedas, and the Qu'ran, etc).

I wrote a little note to Mary, confront her with a different perspective:
I fully believe that adults should have religious freedom. For if I would grant myself the authority to permit or prohibit certain actions as a campaign against nonsense, I'd be hard put to explain why my neighbors would not have a similar authority. And surely they'd soon begin to call my habits nonsensical and therefore prohibited as well. As I do not trust the voting public to leave me unmolested, I shall continue to support the broad protection of civil liberties. So believe what you will; worship as you like. But don't expect that I'll be as willing to acknowledge your "right" to cultivate in your children all the old superstitions, prejudices, and cosmological confusion that we call "church," or that I see some compelling legal reason to exclude anti-gay and anti-female (to name two of many biases) from public criticism.

Believers should, indeed, be prosecuted for expressing their convictions -- for those convictions are medieval, false, and injurious to civic health, and deserve to be prosecuted in the court of public reason. Let us hope that judgment is passed in favor of reality, and that religion can finally be sentence to eternal ignominy, as one of those curious institutions that any society must grow out of if it is to call itself truly civilized.
I don't think this bill should pass, but neither should we be afraid to be increasingly intolerant of rationally indefensible belief in our daily private lives.

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, http://www.kofersite.com. 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]gmail.com 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]