Stupid Is as Stupid Does: Creationism in my Backyard

Map of Louisiana highlighting Livingston Parish

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I think it’s been mentioned before on here, but I live in Louisiana.  I’ve been in New Orleans for just under a decade, though I’ve spent a good bit of my time very recently in Shreveport where most of my family lives.  For this reason it is of particular interest to me when nonsense pops up in the state, right on my own doorstep.

A few days ago it was announced that the school board of Livingston Parish was proclaiming their intent to get creationism into the science classes in public high schools.  To quote an article from the local paper, The Livingston Parish News:  “The School Board Thursday petitioned Livingston Parish Public Schools administrators to investigate options to study the teaching of creationism theory in high school science classes starting in the 2011-12 school year.”

For those of you unaware, the teaching of creationism is explicitly prohibited in public schools and for good reason.  It specifically violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  This isn’t something I’m just saying; that’s the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 is the case in question, and, in relation to the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act," it held that “The Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose,” that “The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of ‘protecting academic freedom," and “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

It’s difficult to get more clear than that.  And guess which state was responsible for above act that was struck down so decidedly by the highest court in the land…Louisiana.  Man, we just can’t learn even the simplest lessons here. I can’t help but marvel at the willingness of the people of this state, elected officials, people of power and supposed learning, to make themselves into full-on fools in the eyes of their neighbors and the country and world at large.

One has to wonder, then, what possible justification the school board could use in petitioning school administrators to figure out how to get creationism into the science class.  Let’s look at their own words.  Again from the LPN story linked above, “Board member Clint Mitchell said that teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.  ’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution’, Mitchell said.”

First, the Supreme Court clearly disagrees with Mitchell that “teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.”  Further, I can’t imagine how one can even attempt to make such a case when creationism, by definition, proposes that world is the world of a supernatural act of Creation by some Creator.  How can we get around that being religion?  Also, what does it even mean to say “’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution”?  What does prudence have to do with what is relevant to the teaching of evolution?  I can only guess that board member Mitchell has no idea what “prudence” is.  The idea that such a person is given the task of deciding what is appropriate to be taught should terrify everyone reading this, regardless of their position on the issue.

Fortunately (what an absurd situation it is when the following is considered “good fortune”), some of the other board members were much more forthright and honest.  Board member David Tate said, “We just sit up here and let them teach evolution and not take a stand about creationism. To me, how come we don’t look into this as people who are strong Christians and see what we can do to teach creationism in schools. We sit back and let the government tell us what to do. We don’t pray to the ACLU and all them people: we pray to God.”

There can be no misunderstanding as to Tate’s reasoning.  He is explicit that creationism should be taught because that’s what “strong Christians” should do because they “pray to God.”  One can only wonder what Tate’s response would be if it were some other religion’s creation story being put for as appropriate material for the science class.  I can’t help but think he would consider that an infringement upon his right to worship his own god as he sees fit.

Board president Keith Martin has perhaps the most interesting reason for bringing in creationism to the science classroom.  He said, “Kids are getting harder and harder to discipline. Without this kind of thought, it will get even harder.”  That’s right.  We need to teach creationism because kids are acting up in class.  Whether or not this is science or even true doesn’t matter.  What matters is getting kids in line.  And it’s got to be clear to everyone how teaching creationism will solve these disciplinary issues.  Right?  It’s because…well, because…just because, ok?!

Beyond the legal issue is the bigger issue of whether or not creationism is science.  It isn’t.  There’s no way around that.  There is no scientific evidence for anything like a supernatural creator, and that’s just the way things are.  Does that mean you can’t accept that as an article of faith?  Well, that’s a different issue.  What is at issue here is what is appropriate for the science classroom.  Since the class is about, you know, science, it would seem obvious that science is the appropriate subject matter.  Attempting to shoehorn religion in there is not just illegal, it’s stupid.

Come on, people.  Let’s not be so stupid about this.

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The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.


In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.


The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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Seriously, Man

god rockA couple of posts ago I mentioned the accommodationism debate, and I wrote then that I had said pretty much everything I had to say about it for while, so I skipped talking about my ideas on the subject. Well, now I’m going to say something about it again. This is not a response to one of the usual suspects, e.g. Chris Mooney, the many contributors to HuffPo, or anyone over at BioLogos. This is aimed at some clearly on “my side” in general, a couple of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m talking here about Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott.

Pigliucci, along with Julia Galef, does a very good podcast called Rationally Speaking.  The episode from a couple of weeks ago, number 11, had Eugenie Scott from the NCSE discussing the usual NCSE stuff, mostly how creationists are still a problem when it comes to teaching good science in public schools.  Everything was fine right up to the end where the discussion briefly shifted to whether or not science could say anything about the supernatural.  The question is relevant as, if it is “no,” then there is good reason to accommodate believers in the supernatural as their beliefs are perfectly in line with scientific inquiry (or not, but this seems to be the suggestion).  This is the position that both Pigliucci and Scott take, and it strikes me as both weird and, well, a little intellectually dishonest.  If it’s not dishonest, then it’s naïve.  Very naïve. (EDIT:  I should have been more clear about this,  so I’ll do so now.  I do not personally think dishonesty is the issue here.  Rather, I think the issue stems from a naivety that results from not taking the beliefs of the groups in question seriously, hence the title of the post.  That said, it is the case that intellectual dishonesty is a charge regularly leveled at accommodationists, and the charge is at least plausible.  That’s why I mentioned it, but, rereading what I wrote, it looks like I’m offering that as what I think to be most likely, and this is not the case.  My bad.)

Before I go further, let me put out the usual disclaimer here.  I support the mission of the NCSE, I have huge respect for Scott, and I greatly admire Pigliucci.  I own books by both, and I would recommend them without hesitation to others.  Really, I can’t say enough good things about both individuals.

That said, this position they take here is just wrong, and it’s wrong for a very simple reason.  Toward the end of the podcast, Pigliucci says, “The supernatural essentially means that anything goes. You have no reliability, no repeatability, because it can do whatever the hell it wants for whatever reason.”  Scott immediately agrees saying that the supernatural is “not constrained.”  The point that both are trying to express is that, in order to perform a scientific experiment, one must be able to hold variables fixed.  The concern here is that because the supernatural is not natural, because it does not follow natural law, it can do anything.  As such, there is no way to effectively study it in any empirical way as it doesn’t allow for holding specific variables fixed as a way of determining what’s happening elsewhere.  And, indeed, there might be some way of conceptualizing the “supernatural” such that this is an apt description.  The problem here is that it just isn’t a good description for the beliefs of any of the opponents of things like evolutionary biology that this accommodating position is supposed to address.

As the dominant opponents of the teaching of evolution in the classroom here in the US are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, those are the people at whom such concerns are most properly directed.  The question, then, is whether or not it is appropriate to describe this Christian notion of the supernatural as a case where “anything goes,” and the answer there is a very, very clear and resounding “No!”  Christians may believe that God is all-powerful, and, as such, it is technically possible for Him to do anything, but this is not the way they believe He handles His affairs (Affairs?).  On the contrary, God has made several covenants with humanity, and, as He is perfectly Good, He will never betray those covenants.  In fact, for Christians, God is the only thing that can be counted on to always act the same way.  Things here on Earth might change, but God does not.  He is the only one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV).  He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV).  Etc, etc; I could list lots of verses saying something similar.  The point is that it is simply not the case that the Christian god, God, is conceived of as an entity who is constantly changing with “no reliability.”  On the contrary, ask these Christians, and I am certain they will tell that God is the only thing that is completely reliable.

This, then, is exactly why it is possible for science to examine the claims about the world made by these Christians.  What’s weird about this is that this should never have been in question, and Eugenie Scott knows this all too well.  The creationists think science is on their side!  The don’t go around saying that science can’t say anything about the many, many empirical claims their religion makes.  On the contrary, they are explicit that science is a fantastic means of discovering exactly what God has done, and that fact is exactly my point here.

Whoever the believers that are addressed by Pigliucci’s and Scott’s claims about the supernatural are, they are not the evangelical Christians who have fought tooth and nail to keep evolution out of the schools.  As such, this approach of attempting to accommodate and placate them by invoking a NOMA-like division is doomed to failure.  It is doomed because it does not take the believers seriously! At some point the bulk of the science community is going to have to get this.  Sure, lots of Christians accept that evolutionary biology is an accurate science, but they are not the problem.  They are already on the side of science, so the attempt to accommodate as a means of placation so as to get them on board with a genuine science curriculum cannot be directed at them.  Clearly, it is directed at those who oppose the teaching of evolution, and those people do not believe in a god who changes with the wind.  Their god, God, is exactly the opposite of that characterization.  He is Constant.

We need to take people seriously in their claims if we hope to get anywhere.  I feel like I’ve run this point into the ground on this blog, but it’s a huge point.  Funny enough, the skeptic community understands this about most the other paranormal claims.  Science-based paranormal investigators try to investigate in good faith.  The various skeptic publications are full of such investigations, and they almost always try to approach the issue without a preconceived conclusion.  They don’t approach a haunting or UFO sighting presuming they outcome.  They take the case seriously. But when it comes to religion, so many are willing to not look closely at the actual beliefs of the people in question.  That’s especially true for these accommodationists.  They want to point to people who already agree with them on the science stuff, like the BioLogos crew, and rely on their theology as a basis for what is believed generally.  But it could not be more obvious that this is an absolutely terrible approach.  Again, those people are not the ones fighting the NCSE.  If you want to figure out how to address those people, you need to look at their beliefs, and you need to take those beliefs seriously.

Until we get serious about taking people seriously, all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.

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I’m the One Full of Love, You Jerk!

castanza7For those who don’t know, Christopher Hitchens has cancer.  It’s become this weird kind of big deal as a lot of the people who have been his intellectual adversaries have been fumbling all over themselves to let everyone know that they are praying for him.  I find that odd in the first place because I don’t see 1) why they presume that anyone would think otherwise, and 2) why they would think that if someone did think otherwise that their coming out and saying anything would change that person’s mind.  I mean, if I thought you were the kind of bastard who would wish someone dead by way of a terrible disease that causes a great deal of suffering over an intellectual disagreement, strenuous though it might be, why would I believe you when you tell me that you’re really not a bastard at all? 

Regardless, a quick web search would tell you all you need to know about that.  But then there’s a new thing that occurred on Wednesday.  David Brog, a long-time critic of Hitchens, came out over at HuffPo to tell everyone that not only is he praying for Hitchens, but that he, and other Christians, are all better than Hitchens, too.  After talking about how it is only natural that he and his fellow Christians in the media would wish Hitchens well and pray for him, Brog take the opportunity to get in the amazingly low blow.  He writes,

I doubt we’ll ever hear Hitchens apologize for blaming almost every evil in human history on those with whom he disagrees: Christians, Jews, and other assorted faithful. Hitchens is fierce and downright ugly in his attacks on religion and the religious. He and the generation of new atheists he lead don’t just disagree; they demonize and dehumanize.

Don’t hurt yourself with all that Christian “charity” there, buddy.  Yea, it’s not just Hitchens who is a jerk.  It’s all the “new atheists.”  You’d never catch them wishing anyone well if they got cancer!  Jerks!

Then it gets even more strange.  Brog writes,

The fact is that people of faith have been the driving force behind every one of the West’s most important human rights struggles. It was devout Christians — and only devout Christians — who fought the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the American Indian. It was believing Christians — and only believing Christians — who fought to end the slave trade and then slavery itself in both Great Britain and America. Our civil rights movement was largely a movement of the churches led by pastors. And today, those at the forefront of the struggle to relieve the debt and disease of Africa are typically committed Christians and Jews.

That’s right, it was ONLY devout, believing Christians who opposed the wars against American Indians, opposed slavery, and who fought for civil rights for minorities here in the US.  None of those jerk atheists, self-described agnostics, deists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus (fuck you, Gandhi!), Buddhists, or anyone else ever stood with Christians on those issues!  Jerks!

Groan.  All I can hear is Weird Al singing “Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?  Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!” from “Amish Paradise.”

It’s difficult not to wonder if this is some kind of bizarre joke.  I can’t help but be curious if Brog even showed this to anyone else before he published it.  It’s hard to imagine that no one noticed the irony of the piece before it was published, that it’s quite an odd juxtaposition to claim the moral high ground while attacking a guy who likely won’t have much time to respond seeing as he’s battling throat cancer.  Basically, Brog is telling us that he is better than Hitchens because he would never attack someone personally the way Hitchens does, but in doing so he’s not criticizing any particular argument Hitchens has made or even his larger position.  Rather, he’s just saying that he thinks Hitchens, and all “new atheists,” is a jerk, he’s attacking Hitchens personally, and he’s doing so while patting himself on the back for being big enough to pray for Hitchens while he has cancer.  Man, what a jerk move.

Brog finishes with this:

Christopher Hitchens’ arguments have never persuaded me. But it is his behavior — especially when contrasted with that of believers — that has done the most to convince me of the limited value of his ideas.

Wow.  Irony.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s going to come back to bite him.


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What’s So Bad about Science?

Karl Giberson, science-and-religion scholar

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The debate over the compatibility of science and religion is something about which I’ve written frequently on here.  In particular, I have repeatedly addressed the arguments from the accommodationists, those who think religion and science are perfectly compatible.  As such, and as they keep saying the same thing over and over, I don’t particularly feel like repeating myself today.  However, Karl Giberson of BioLogos has recently written a piece over at HuffPo addressing this issue, and in it he expresses a concern that I don’t particularly understand.

Giberson writes,

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

I want to address this issue of “scientism” and the kind of caricature that is painted by the term when it is used to describe the position of the non-accommodationists.  First, I’m not aware of anyone saying they are in favor of a position that “denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.”  In that sense, the position presented seems to apply to almost no one.  There might be all sorts of things that science cannot know that are, in fact, true.  This is obvious in practice as there are literally innumerable things that we don’t currently know, and it seems very, very likely that there will always be things we don’t know.  There are possibly even things we cannot know in principle via science, though it seems wise to avoid specifying what those might be as science seems to have a way of constantly closing the gaps we have imagined to be forever uncrossable.  Still, it is absolutely possible that there are things for which the method of science is simply ill-suited, hence things which are, in principle, shut off forever from scientific inquiry.  And, again, all the big names on the side of the non-accommodationists have said things of that very nature.  In this way, the worry of “scientism” is simply a strawman.

Now would be a good time to talk about how this is irrelevant to the science/religion compatibility discussion at all for numerous reasons, one big one being that the fact that science cannot reach something does not in any way mean that religion can, and, indeed, I keep meaning to write something on that subject.  But that’s not what I want to address, either.  No, what I want to hit is the concern that if it did turn out to be the case that all things can be known by science, this would, in some sense, be bad.  But for the life of me I cannot see the worry here.  What if it were true that science could know everything and there were no place for religion?  So what? 

Presumably, religious folk, and non-religious folk who are sympathetic to the religious in the sense that they are accommodationists, are interested in the way things are.  Let’s say they are interested in truth.  If that’s their concern, and if it were true that science was a way to know about everything, I cannot see how this would cause anyone to be unhappy.  That would mean we would have a way to get just what they wanted, namely the truth.  That would seem to be a good thing.

Now, I do understand that most, if not all, of those expressing such concern do so because they think that there are things science cannot know which religion can.  But there is typically something more than that to their worry.  It is that something would be lost, that it would be a bad thing, if there were nothing other than wholly natural processes of the type that science describes going on in the world.  And that’s what I don’t get; that’s what leaves me puzzled.  I just cannot see what would be lost.  In fact, it would look like something amazing would be gained.  Specifically, this means of acquiring knowledge that has been so massively successful would be the same way we could acquire all knowledge.  Yay!  Good for us!  At least, that’s the way it looks to me, and I will readily admit that I don’t understand the urge to pooh-pooh the knowledge we get from science as somehow less important than some other kind of knowledge.  If you’re interested in something like the truth, it seems cool that you get it however you can.  If you’re not interested in the truth, then I’ll admit that I’m not really clear on what your concern is.  Whatever it is, I would appreciate it if it were made clear so I would know how to address it.

I get thinking that something like scientism is wrong, but I don’t get the desire for it to be wrong.  If that’s all there is, then that’s all there is, and I don’t see what’s so bad about it.  I don’t get what is lost.  And, so far, no one has been able to explain that one to me at all.

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Good Without God

Mitch Daniels after an award ceremony

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There is a common argument used against atheists by theists of various types that concerns the supposed inability of an atheist to do the right thing without the belief in some sort of deity that is looking down and keeping watch over all of us.  It is so common, in fact, that it seems to me that the people who use it do so without being aware of the consequences of such an argument, that they themselves would be doing all sorts of awful things if they didn’t think that some god were somewhere keeping track of all they do.  Or maybe they do get it, but, if this is the case, that, to me, makes those making such an argument simply terrifying individuals.

Though examples of this argument are ubiquitous, one such example, via Pharyngula, comes from an interview of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels on the site, a website for Channel 15 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  The relevant portion reads thus:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

I don’t want to venture too far into the idea that Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s actions were the result of their atheism.  Certainly, the idea that Hitler was an atheist has been refuted countless times along with his supposed commitment to Darwinian evolution.  Further, the assertion that any of these individuals’ actions were the result of some lack of a belief in gods just strikes me as bizarre.  But, really, the important point here is that the argument that these people represent atheists in general, as if there is some necessary connection between those actions and atheism, is clearly fallacious and patently wrong.  This can be easily demonstrated by the fact that these individuals are rare, but atheists are abundant.  Even the idea that these men are the solely responsible for “[a]ll the horrific crimes of the last century” is so obviously demonstrably wrong as to be laughable.  All that said, we can set that aside, because that’s not the main point I want to address here.

Daniels suggests that “if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.”  I cannot begin to imagine what the justification for such an assertion might be.  After all, if it is true, as Daniels clearly implies, that without some “eternal standard” there is no meaning, nothing that “matters,” then why would power matter?  Why is power the one thing that is valuable in the valueless world of the atheist that exists in Daniels’ imagination?  Surely it is not because there is something intrinsically valuable to power, for, according to Daniels, without some god there is no intrinsic value to anything.  So whence the value of power?

I’m guessing that Daniels would say that power is valuable to people, and that’s where the source of this value lies, in the subjective tastes of the individuals.  But then this entire argument falls apart.  People value all sorts of things besides power.  Most of all they value the relationships they have with others.  If there is one thing we know about our species, it is that we are groupish.  We are desperate for those relationships with others that are called things like family, friendship, and love.  We definitely value that stuff.  But, if that’s true (and it is), then this idea that we are all going to become tyrannical despots if we don’t believe that God (Allah, Zeus, whatever) is looking down from Heaven (wherever) is just bullshit.  It just turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain any sort of close relationships when you’re trying to control everyone around you.  Just look at Daniels’ own examples.  Man, was anyone more paranoid than those guys?  Was anyone more lacking in some sort of genuine friendship than Stalin and Hitler?  Those guys saw betrayal all around them both in the faces of betrayers and those most loyal to them.  Since most atheists are normal people with families and friends, it seems a safe bet that what they find valuable is the same thing as most all other humans:  relationships with others.  Power is simply further down the line in their interests.

Having said that, most atheists aren’t governors, either, a position for which “powerful” seems an apt description.  It might be that Daniels himself would be some maniacal dictator if he lacked a fear of God’s Wrath, that fear keeping him from merely seeking positions like governor and, potentially, president (Daniels’ name is one that is thrown around when considering future presidential candidates).  It might be a good thing that Daniels believes the way he does.  Or, better yet, it might be that we shouldn’t vote people obsessed with despotism into positions of great power.

And that leads me to my big point.  The people who say that we cannot be good if we do not believe in some god are suggesting that the only reason we don’t rape babies, stab mothers, commit genocide, etc is because of some kind of supernatural influence.  My response to these people is simple:  what kind of psychos are you hanging around?!  You are certainly hanging around some crazy psychos if your impression of people is that their belief in God is the only thing preventing them from killing you in your sleep.  If you make this argument without seeing this implication, then you should stop making it since you’ve now been explicitly shown the absurd position you’re taking.  If you already saw this, if you believe about yourself that you’d be a baby-raping, mommy-stabbing, genocide-committing monster if your god weren’t around, then, for your god’s sake, don’t move next door to me!  I don’t want you around my kids and mom when you happen to have a bad day and slip.  And if you are that kind of monster, I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you’re the freak, the one who is unusual, not those of us who don’t sit frustratingly fantasizing about all the horrible things we would do if only God weren’t around to stop us.

If the only thing preventing you from committing acts of tremendous horror is your belief in some deity, seek help, please, for all our sakes.  Regardless, I can tell you that while you might be teetering on the edge of committing acts of atrocity, most of us just don’t have some strong desire to put people in ovens, and, hence, just don’t need the Fear of God in us to prevent us from doing such things.

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