The Problem of Silence

There is an activity popular amongst those who consider themselves tolerant or “enlightened” that occurs at meetings and gatherings both public and private.  This is is known as a “moment of silence.”  It takes place at the same time as what would traditionally be a prayer.  However, those demanding this moment of silence believe that a prayer to any particular god is an act of prejudice as there may well be those in attendance who worship a god other than the one to whom the majority would be praying.  In their benevolence and understanding, in their supreme tolerance of others, these people choose the moment of silence as a way to show their respect for all faiths.  I think this practice is at best foolish and at worst insulting.

This video should highlight the problem, but let me make it as clear as possible.  There is little in the way of “respect” shown to someone’s god when you 1) don’t let them say it’s name out loud, and 2) grant equal “respect” to other gods, you know, the ones who don’t exist for the believers.  All you can succeed in doing is belittling the beliefs of the devout, and this should not be surprising.  After all, how other than a veiled insult can someone take the suggestion that their god, the real one(s), is the same as all the false gods that adherents to other religions think exist?  It is ridiculous to think that anyone even could take such a situation any differently if they’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening.

Think about it.  Say that you’re a Muslim, and you believe Allah is the One True God.  What you have is a situation where the people leading the moment of silence saying both that it is appropriate for others to pray to false gods, to flaunt their status as an infidel in your face, and that you yourself should afford such behavior some measure of respect.  Who are these people to demand something so absurd of someone?  Of course, the same goes for an adherent to any religion that holds that it is wrong to worship false gods, that being most of them.  Certainly, Christianity is one of those religions, the first one, two, or three (depending on how you count them) of the Ten Commandments dealing with that very thing.  It is foolish to think that any Christian who takes the Ten Commandments seriously would be comfortable with this moment of silence that grants false gods the same respect as God.  I mean, duh.

Worse, the only people who might not be upset about this, the only people who might appreciate such a situation, are the very ones for whom such a demonstration of “respect” is wholly unnecessary.  That is, it is only those people who are comfortable with other people worshiping different gods, who take no offense at such activity, that would be okay with this generic “moment” in the first place.  I mean, if I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god, then I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god!  For that reason, this attempt at pacification and tolerance is pointless in relation to the only people for whom it might be acceptable.

Then we have the issue of non-believers and those who might believe in a god but just don’t like him.  For atheists, the demand that they take a moment to show respect for nothing is just strange.  What could the point of that be?  Surely it can’t be to show respect for gods they don’t think exist.  How insulting, how patronizing and condescending, it would be for an atheist to pat someone on the back and say, “You go ahead and pray to your imaginary friend.”  Even worse, if that’s possible, would be for the individual who believes but refuses to give respect to the deity.  Imagine someone who looks at the world with its various catastrophes, e.g. the floods, hurricanes, genocide, raping of babies, and the burying of women up to their necks in the sand for the purpose of crushing her skull with rocks until she is dead, out of “respect” for a god no less, and has concluded that no amount of evil could exist without a designer, an infinitely powerful fiend whose sole desire is to torment and cause suffering.  That person almost certainly has no desire to show respect for that god, and yet this is exactly what this moment of silence demands of her.  That’s absurdity of cosmic levels.

This demand for a moment of silence can only be made by those who are woefully ignorant or just jerks who don’t care about or respect the actual beliefs of others.  Let’s cut this crap out.

*Lest there is any confusion, I do not have in mind here anything like the similarly-called “moment of silence” used as an opportunity to remember the dead at funerals and memorial services or anything of that nature.

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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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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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Good Without God

Mitch Daniels after an award ceremony

Image via Wikipedia

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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Ron Rosenbaum’s New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.”  It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism.  In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.

Rosenbaum opens with this gem:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.”  Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means.  Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible.  At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize.  As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.

The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph.  He writes,

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed.  The “certitudes” of atheism?  What might those be?  How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything?  Groan.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding.  First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all.  It is a lack of a belief in any deity.  Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist.  Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god.  If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist.  It’s just that simple.  In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well.  Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.

But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”  I can’t see that it is.  Seriously, who holds that view?  We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will?  I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view.  And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet?  Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer.  Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing.  Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason:  no one has said this.

Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared.  They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing.  In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously.  I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.”  I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything.  What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place?  Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all?  Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case.  Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay?  You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.

I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point.  Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold.  In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:

Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions.  The hubris here could take down an elephant.  Seriously, Ron?  You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course?  Really?  Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.


Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.”  Nice pat on the back there, Ron.  It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world.  That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.

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Who are the Accommodationists Accommodating?

Though it has been going on for a while, there is a tension in the skeptical community that seems to have captured a lot of interest lately over the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims.  In as much as we can say there are sides, the divide is often described as the accommodationists vs. the purists.  I doubt either side is entirely comfortable with those titles, but those are the ones being used, so I will use them here as well.

To me, the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims seems to be, in almost all cases, an obvious “yes.”  Are there some claims that are out of the reach of science and reason?  I don’t think so.  How about just science?  Well, sure, but, as it turns out, I think the overwhelming majority of religious claims just happen to eventually have some kinds of empirical implications as they involve the supernatural acting upon the physical world in some way.  Looking at the various types of claims science can address:  any story having to do with the origin of humanity is fair game; any story about the origin of the world in general is fair game; any story about the nature of the mind is fair game; any claim about historical figures or events is fair game; any claim about any physical process at all is fair game.

So what kinds of religious claims are left?  Mostly those that never touch the world.  For example, science cannot say anything about the various kinds of angels that might exist in a purely non-physical world that never touches or interacts with the physical.  The problem is that very few of the people described as purists worry about that kind of stuff.  So far as I can tell, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, nor any of the other “new atheists” are griping about those kinds of claims.  Rather, the issues over which they worry are things that affect the world.  And this, I think, begins to get to what I find so odd about this debate. 

The accommodationists seem to want to privilege religious claims as beyond the reach of science.  How do they do this?  Let’s look at a couple of specifics.  Recently, Massimo Pigliucci (whose blog that you should be reading has long been linked in the blogroll in the sidebar) addressed this issue on his blog and podcast, both entitled “Rationally Speaking.”  In the podcast Pigliucci is concerned that purists are wrong when they suggest that "science is sufficient to debunk or disprove or reject religious claims." He allows that science can reject specific empirical claims that come out of religion, but he does not think that this is the issue at hand. To demonstrate the insufficiency of science to address religious claims he leans on the idea of “Last Thursdayism.”  Last Thursdayism is the hypothetical belief that the entire world was created last Thursday to look as if it were the result of wholly natural processes identical to the ones science posits now.   He also says he’s heard Creationists actually making this claim. I’d like to see that referenced as I personally know lots of Creationists, and none of them would say anything of the sort. Further, I have never heard any of the prominent Creationists say anything like this. Indeed, it seems to be explicitly contrary to any of the well-discussed notions of Creationism, all of which require that the world was created as laid out in some religious text. Now, they might well concede that their god could do such a thing, but they don’t actually think that such is the way it was done.  In fact, it is the assertion of all the prominent Creationist that the world looks exactly as one would expect if God created it.  This, of course, is absolutely something science can address.

But let’s allow that someone does believe such a thing as Last Thursdayism. That puts them in the strange position believing something that is indistinguishable from its not being true. Pigliucci correctly points out that such a position is unfalsifiable, but he then claims that this moves such a question beyond the realm of any kind of scientific reasoning.  I do not think this is right.  While Last Thursdayism may not technically be falsifiable, the notion of parsimony is still active in scientific reasoning. That gives one good scientific reason to reject the unnecessarily complicated hypothesis of Last Thursdayism, even if it is, technically, unfalsifiable.  An analogy would be useful here.  Let us imagine that some scientist claims that, contrary to the understanding of carbon we have now, something else is happening.  In fact, there is some other element that is completely undetectable by any instrument, and, moreover, it has the uncanny property of doing everything carbon is thought to do.  The scientists further asserts that, as it happens, carbon has some set of properties that allow it to look like it has the properties of this newly posited element, but it really has none of the properties we now think it to have.  Further, this new element is always connected to carbon in some way such that it is always present when carbon is but never when carbon is not.  The result of all this is that it is that everything looks exactly as it does now, but it is actually the case that there is some undetectable element doing everything carbon is thought to do while carbon does something completely different.

The above description is completely unfalsifiable, and it is completely consistent with all possible observations.  That being the case, would it be appropriate for other scientists to rule out such a claim?  I imagine that most of you are thinking to yourself, “Of course.”  But this is exactly the same kind of claim as Last Thursdayism.  It is a difference that makes no difference, is completely superfluous, and for which there is no good reason to believe it at all.  In such a case, there is nothing that prohibits science from tossing this claim.  Parsimony is as much a part of science as anything else, and in this case it dictates that the Non-Carbon theory be discarded along with Last Thursayism.

Let us now turn to a recent post by Steven Novella (who writes for several of the blogs linked in the blogroll).  Here Novella says that religious claims cannot be examined as they fall outside the bounds of methodological naturalism, the process assumed for scientific activity.  He writes,

Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

Now, he does say that some religious claims are, in fact, testable.  He further says, “They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game.”  It just turns out that, according to Novella, very few of the claims of religion are of this type.

Here is where I am deeply puzzled.  What are these claims that are being made that never touch the physical world, that are, in principle, untestable?  As I said above, I can imagine some class of claims that fall into this category, but they make up almost none of the actual claims made by believers of various stripes.  Almost all claims of genuine interest to believers have to do with things that touch the world science examines.  And this gets to the title of this post.  Who are these people being accommodated?  They are not the overwhelming majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or even Buddhists.  The overwhelming majority of the claims made by these religions, and certainly the ones that are of interest to the overwhelming majority of adherents, end up being testable in some way.  In fact, the only group that seems to genuinely make the kinds of claims that really make no difference are deists.  While it is certainly not the case that there are no deists in the world, it certainly is the case that there are very few, and none of the purists seem to care at all about them.  Rather, the purists are concerned about the majority of religious believers, those who believe that the supernatural interacts in detectable ways with the natural world.  But, as both Pigliucci and Novella explicitly say, those kinds of claims are fair game for science to examine.  In which case it appears that everyone is on the same side.  Except, of course, they aren’t, because the accommodationists keep chastising the purists by telling them that religious claims are out of bounds.

So what are the accommodationists really doing?  In the end, it is hard for me to think that accommodationism is not merely a political move.  Its advocates all concede that science can address religious claims that have a discernable effect, but those are the only kinds of claims about which the purists cared anyway.  Questions about the ranks of wholly non-material angels were simply never a concern.  That makes it look like the accommodationists are simply trying to avoid offending theists as a way of keeping their assistance in terms of fighting other issues they believe to be more problematic, like science education.  And this might be a very practical concern.  I am not sure about that, but it might be, and that too is an empirical claim that we could test.  However, if that is the case, they should be explicit about it and not couch their arguments for accommodation in arguments about the limits of scientific reasoning.  The most such arguments can do is “protect” articles of faith that cannot possibly affect the world in any way.  But, of course, those beliefs were never under any serious attack, so that kind of move is a dead end.


I want to say here at the end that it seems some people have misunderstood some of the things I’ve said on here before even though I tried to be clear.  I’m not trying to convince everyone that they should be attacking theists.  I’m not making a case for atheism at all.  All I’m doing is addressing this issue of various people saying that religious claims are somehow off limits for discussion.  That seems both perplexing and worrying.  I don’t think anything should be off limits.  That’s my whole point.  It is not that atheists rule and theists drool.  If that’s what you got out of my posts, you have seriously misread me.

Oh, and before someone feels the need to address the grammar of the title, I am well aware that it should be ‘whom’.  However, colloquially, that sounds odd, and I’m not the kind of pedantic bastard who feels the need to correct colloquial phrasing.

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What’s Good for the Goose…

Recently on here I’ve been critical of some people with whom I generally agree.  I picked on Michael Ruse for not getting the point of Dawkins’ argument and, while apparently attempting to defend them, patronizing a large set of believers.  I picked on Daniel Loxton for unnecessarily bringing religion into science, and, while apparently attempting to appease them, also patronizing a large set of believers.  Well, now it’s time for me to pick on someone with whom I likely agree on very little.  Stephen Ames is an Anglican priest with PhDs in physics and philosophy of science.  He has written a review of the 2010 Global Atheist Convention that recently took place in Australia.  Though he is clearly attempting to appease everyone, he manages to patronize all those involved in the dialogue he says wants to have.

PZ Myers notes that Ames makes a wholly illegitimate move when he attempts to suggest that the ideals that the atheists at the convention want to hold up as virtuous are really Christian ideals.  At the end of his post, Ames writes,

At the end of her vivid, witty segment Catherine Deveney gave us this word: “Seek the truth and the truth will make you free. Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of never having really lived.  Peace be with you.”  These are also deeply Christian themes, at least one being a direct quote.   CD says ‘God is bullshit’ – that is her gig at the comedy festival.  Taking a line from Dan Barker, a speaker at the Convention, this is culturally resonant with speaking about God as a shepherd in Jesus’ own day. But could the truth, life and peace she commends to us enter into a conversation with the truth, life and peace that Christians value?  Catherine Deveney, would you be interested in another gig?

In response to this, Myers says,

There was a phrase I heard all the time when I was living in Utah. If I did something friendly or helpful, the good Mormon would tell me that was mighty “white” of me. It’s the same thing when someone appropriates truth and justice and reason as Christian virtues, and sits around trying to be nice to atheists by telling them how close they come to a Christian ideal.

And they call us the arrogant ones.

I think he nails it, here.  It is absolutely absurd to suggest that truth, justice, and reason, ideas with which all cultures are and have been been concerned long before the rise of Christianity or even Judaism, are somehow uniquely Christian, yet this is what Ames seems to imply.  Even worse, there is no consideration here by Ames of what Deveney had in mind when she spoke of “truth.”  It is highly unlikely that she had in mind anything that is faith-based, and that distinction matters.  By refusing to acknowledge that distinction, and, worse, attempting to hide it by making it equivalent to an explicitly Christian notion of truth, which, of course, is faith-based, Ames is both patronizing and intellectually dishonest.  And this is all for the sake of attempting to find some “common ground,” some way for everyone to just get along.  The problem with this kind of “getting along,” as I’ve said repeatedly, is that you’re not really doing any such thing.  Mischaracterizing and mangling the ideas of those with whom you disagree just so you can obfuscate the disagreement is not getting along at all.

What’s really funny about Ames is that the atheists aren’t the only people on the end of his patronizing stick.  He also acts as if there is nothing legitimate to the idea that Christians believe that non-Christians, like atheists, are going to Hell.  He writes,

There were many speakers who clearly felt that Christians could not affirm the truly good character of an atheist.  This is partly because of questions put to atheists about ‘why be good if there is no God’ or the idea that it is impossible to be good without God.  One of the emotional currents running in the Convention showed up in the cheering and applause whenever a speaker affirmed the possibility of living a good life without religion and especially without the denigration of this possibility by religion.  I have some sympathy for the atheist objection.   It resonates with the scene in Matthew’s gospel, concerning the last judgement.  The sheep and the goats are on the right and left hand of Christ.  The sheep are saved, the goats are not.  This will already be too much for many people.  But I ask you to wait.  It is the criterion that is of interest.  Those who end up at the right hand of God are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison.  The key point is that the text shows these people as never having heard the gospel, as acting without reference to God or Christ or even their own salvation.  The person in need was sufficient motivation.   Atheist friends say to me that this is not the message they have received from the church.  Well there is more to say of course.  But an ensuing conversation would not deprive us of this point from Matthew.

Without getting into a debate on the interpretation of Matthew 25, though it is only fair to point out that many people read this differently, it is simply a fact that it is a central tenet of mainstream Christianity that those who have not accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior are damned to Hell.  There is no way around that.  For Ames to here suggest that all that is needed is more conversation to get past this is quite odd.  It is unclear just how such dialogue could make any difference at all about that.  There does not seem to be any clear way to dismiss the talk of damnation and hellfire in the Bible, and it is a simple fact that lots of religions, not just Christianity, are explicit that there is no way to be good without God, this being the case because being good explicitly involves obeying God’s will.  If you don’t believe in God, it doesn’t look like you can work to put your will in line with His.  As such, there is no way for your to every really be good.  To suggest otherwise is not only patronizing to atheists but also to Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.  This isn’t a problem that can be talked out.  It’s a genuine disagreement.  Pretending otherwise is, again, just dishonest.

What is most annoying about this kind of response is that Ames thinks that he’s the one being rational.  Somehow, somewhere, he got the idea that rationality involved this kind attempt to artificially smooth away tensions.  But that’s not rational at all.  In fact, it’s very irrational.  There is absolutely nothing rational about misrepresenting ideas to make contradictions less apparent.  That’s deception.  Such actions only ensure that no genuine dialogue is even possible, thus defeating the stated purpose of such behavior in the first place.

I want to say something about why I think these people keep falling into this trap, why they keep coming off as patronizing and condescending.  As I’ve said before, it’s because they just aren’t taking these ideas seriously.  It just turns out that some ideas are opposed to each other, and attempting to accommodate all sides only results in being unfair to all sides.  That in no way means we should necessarily be angry or hostile to those with whom we disagree.  But, if all one does is try to cover up the disagreement by changing and distorting the actual content of the ideas in question, then no genuine dialogue or even accommodation has actually occurred.  All you’ve succeeded in doing is showing that you don’t really understand the issues at hand and, worse, that you don’t really respect the players involved at all.  Genuine respect means dealing with ideas as they are actually presented.  That might mean tearing them apart, but there’s nothing necessarily disrespectful about that.  On the contrary, it might be the only way to show genuine respect for both the ideas and the people espousing them.

As an aside, I’ll quickly mention something not so much related to the above but that really annoys me from Ames’ post.  At one point he writes,

And by the way, if someone says God is the source of all that exists, it is not logically possible to ask, ‘what created God?’ There is nothing prior to God to do that creating.  Other objections to this saying about God may be offered but not this one.

But that misrepresents the kind of reasoning that goes on here.  The question “what created God?” comes about whenever someone attempts to justify claim that God is the source of everything.  The claim normally comes about at the end of a line of reasoning from something like the Cosmological argument.  That is, everything needs a cause, and God is the First Cause.  Once that is said, then someone asks “what caused God?”  The reason it is legitimate to ask such a question is because of the premise that led to God being First Cause is that “everything needs a cause.”  If that’s true, then everything needs a cause!  If it’s not true, then there is no need to resort to God as the First Cause.  The point is that the very thing that leads one to say something like “God is the source of all things that exists,” the thing that justifies such an assertion, then requires God, as something that exists, to have a source.  Ames should know this.  That makes the quote above either ridiculously ignorant or ridiculously dishonest.  I can’t tell of which Ames is guilty.

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