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, 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

STOMP OUT ANTI-ATHEISM, 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 Funding for the series comes from the Metanexus Institute ( and the John Templeton Foundation ( 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.