(Dis)Proving the Necessity of God

Matthew pointed me to this article by Dennis Prager on the need for belief in God (and by God he means a conflation of the Biblical Hebraic god with the Deistic god of the US Framers).

Now as a religious person myself I find this line of argument he takes up so counterproductive to the defense of faith. It’s full of so many partial truths overblown, no truths, it’s a mess.

This will be long as he makes numerous point each of which requires rebuttal, but the overall way of stating my general disagreement with Prager’s view is: 1) it unnecessarily drives a wedge between Judeo-Christians and secular individuals in America as well as Judeo-Christians and believers of other religions who are upstanding American citizens 2)it rightly condemns moral relativism but incorrectly asserts without God (and his God in particular) moral relativism is the inevitable end result. (more…)


non-theistic kids camp

Michael D at Balloon Juice points to this ad for Camp Inquiry ’08 whose mission is as follows:

This is a place where kids can be themselves. We work toward helping youth confront the challenges of living a non-theistic/secular lifestyle in a world dominated by religious belief and pseudoscience. Grounded on the conviction that kids can begin establishing habits of the good and ethical life early on, Camp Inquiry 2008 adopts a three-part focus: The arts and sciences, the skeptical perspective, and ethical character development comprise an integrated approach to this “Age of Discovery.” Campers, counselors, and teachers will address key issues around individual identity, forging trusting relationships, establishing a sense of local and global community, and living with respect for the natural world. (my emphasis)

Now as I’ve said many times before I have no problem with (in fact I support) the building up of atheist religions. Or better a secular humanist religion. Insofar as they see themselves as not out to be anti-religion but rather simply themselves and work in a liberal society respecting differences towards some common good buildup.

A couple of things are clear here. This isn’t science camp. Science camp would be about science only. Again I think it’s interesting to explore the arts and ethics as well as science but what we are really discussing here is a worldview. In other words, it’s just like church camp. So the idea (contra Michael D.) that this is about teaching kids “inquiry” versus “dogmatism” is just atheist dogmatism itself. The children are still being taught what to think and even how to think. Just described as “inquiry” versus (according to this logic) the evils of religion. The idea that you can teach context (how to think) but not content (what to think) is highly problematic if not complete BS, especially in the minds of youth. The two are inherently intertwined. (more…)

Pinker’s Dignified Stupidity?

Steven Pinker has a new article up in The New Republic savaging a new report by the President’s Council on Bioethics on Human Dignity. The report is here.

As background, Pinker notes the influence of this editorial by Ruth Macklin at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx (great place btw, I used to live very close it) where Macklin argues that the concept of dignity is either too vague to be useful or is simply no different than legal notions of autonomy.

If the latter of course, then Pinker’s real aim (which is clear from the essay) to argue for a John Stuart Mill-esque utilitarian ethics hitched with a libertarian legal outlook, then Macklin’s thesis that dignity is no different than autonomy wraps up the debate.

The recent Bioethics Report on Dignity is for Pinker (and I haven’t seen any commentary disagreeing with this particular point of the argument) a response to Macklin.

There are a lot of responses that could be made.  Like Yuval Levin on the paranoid style of Pinker’s attack or its apocalyptic discourse from Douthat.

But I’d like to take a different tact. But what none of these criticisms point out is that Pinker by dint of his philosophical (and by extension political) pov has no choice but to argue for an ethic of utilitarianism.  The reason, following Ken Wilber’s AQAL integral outlook, is as follows.  Pinker argues against the reality of consciousness.  He is a materialist.  He is the author of a book entitled The Stuff of Thought–clearly expressing his primary metaphor of thought as material object.  As opposed to a book entitled something like The Quality of Thought.  Or the Depth of Thought.  Or the Meaning of Thought.

In Wilber’s terminology this is the reduction of the rich Kosmos (left and right hand quadrants) into the flat cosmos (right-hand only quadrants).  When reducing all thought/consciousness (codeword:  dignity) to material, biological reality, then the only ethic is only of increasing pleasure/comfort and decreasing pain/discomfort.  Link that up with Pinker as one in a long line of Anglo-American individualist scientist-philosophers like Hume, Mill, Darwin, Dawkins, and voila you have his view.  His attack particularly focuses as a result on Catholics because of the communitarian-social emphasis (LL as opposed to UL/UR Pinker).

Given that he has destroyed the possibility of making evaluations of depth, then Pinker like any other materialist is still doing the best he reasonably can ethically.  It ends him up transparently shilling for the myths of liberal Enlightenment modernity:  progress, reason, achievement, freedom.  Not that those are bad, just hardly the end all be all he needs them to be to fulfill his thesis.  Not that there aren’t other pieces of evidence for the destruction of modernity, “rational” social organizational ethos, and the like.  [See Postmodernity among many others for any number of these criticisms].

This fundamental monkey wrench in his machine comes out in the following quotation:

Almost every essayist concedes that the concept [dignity] remains slippery and ambiguous. In fact, it spawns outright contradictions at every turn. We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone’s dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away.

Actually a moment’s reflection would reveal I think it really isn’t that hard to see how both of those seemingly contradictory things can both be true.  If I had a slave and beat the hell out of him and branded his body like the cattle he would be, then I would have destroyed the dignity of his physical body.  I would have damaged his dignity on an emotional and psychological level because of the abuse.  The status of slave would leave him “undignified” in social ranking.  And yet, again following a notion of Consciousness (which is Ultimately Free even beyond relative political freedom of the kind Pinker and I support), he would be dignified and is dignified inherently, intrinsically in his core.  As a being of consciousness. He would still have a choice how to act (obviously within the confines of slavery) that could be construed as dignified or undignified in the face of cruel slavery, with a great degree of sympathy no doubt to be maintained for the possibility of “undignified” activity as not unrelated to the indignities perpetrated upon his person.

That latter point is important to point out because the Ultimately Free from the perspective of Consciousness (or in more theological terms as child of God) can be either a support, a la abolitionists, to argue for the emancipation of slaves AND a la Southern Christian segregationists that they will get their reward in the after life so we don’t have to bother hurting them in this one.

But if dignity is nothing other autonomy and capacity to reason (as Pinker argues) which would obviously preclude torture or medical experimentation upon someone who chooses in full use of faculties to not have some procedure bio-ethically or otherwise, done to them.  But obviously what about those who do not have such a voice?  Anti-abortion advocates would of course point out the voiceless as including fetuses.  On the other end of the life spectrum, the possibility of euthanasia contrary the will of someone who no longer has faculties of reason and autonomy but whose being would still arguably have dignity and worth.

Those are legitimate questions to be raised and not so easily dismissed as the evil right-wing Christians who hate science and take delight in death.

I will repeat my criticism of (so-called) pro-life elements to show how fair and balanced I am.  Everyone ethically is choosing life and death.  The relevant questions are what kinds of life and death, to what degree, how are they imposed, and how do we reason with one another and keep tabs on our actions in a way that is not mandated by the social-moral police or whatever.  Pinker (just as those he opposes, at least their more radical shrilly elements) wants to imagine himself as pro-life and the enemy as pro-death.  Everyone is combinations of both.


Here’s Dan Dennett talking at TED on his new book (Breaking the Spell) where he calls for teaching religion (all religions) to children as a natural phenomenon. The Spell is not religion as such but the taboo against treating it as a natural phenomenon.

Though to be fair, sociology of religion, psychology of religion, folkloric studies, anthropology of religion has been treating religion as a natural phenomenon for nearly 200 years. But this would be the application of Natural Selection to religion.

I’m not totally against it. I think religion as a subject should (non-confessionally) be taught in schools. Stephen Prothero, Camille Paglia, Thomas Berry among many others have called for something similar. I think there are however major issues with the proposal that have not been deeply examined. (more…)

Published in: on December 8, 2007 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

If Sam Harris Doesn’t Want to be Called An Atheist….

Then I do. (On Harris here).

Early Christians were called atheists (a-theos “without gods/god”) not, as with the so-called New Atheists, because they were without any and all god/gods.  It was because they did not follow the civic gods/customs of the people.  In the ancient world one’s identity was determined by one’s cultic devotion.  Christians who refused to make sacrifices or light incense to the image of the Emperor were crucified or thrown to the lions.  Not because they were Christians. The gods needed sacrifice in order to be pleased and therefore give blessings to the urbs.  By breaking that bond, Christians were (it was argued) bringing down evils upon the people (famine, war, childlessness, disease, etc.).

Just so I consider myself an atheist in this way.

Even our modern day atheists are really only not following the civic gods of America (in this case, or France with Michel Onfrey).  The god that is of mythic Christianity (or Judaism & Islam).  Atheism is then only another stage in religious evolution, and Harris may be on to this but unfortunately spends so much of his time revealing 16 year old rationality against 10 year mythicism, it degrades his otherwise high intellect.  He’s smart, but not wise.  The others (neither very smart not wise) worship reason.  Small r not Big R, which Harris at least has glimpsed.  Reason, Capital R=Logos (The Word/Rationale of Existence) or Rigpa, Presence.

Everyone has a god; everyone a belief.  Atheism is the negate/transcend movement.  But in its modern incarnation, it does not generally understand include/preserve.

I think Christian atheism does that double movement much better.

Iow (in other words), my atheism is to be without the god of Caesar or of fundies.  Nor the naturally selected god of the New Atheists.  It is to be without any of the conventional gods that society believes are the only ones possible.  On the other side of that is not a belief in nothing/no-god or nihilism or secularism, but rather Godhead.  The Isness of any and all, theists, gods, atheists, no gods, bad gods, good gods, etc.

Published in: on December 4, 2007 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitchens once more

On a separate issue, Hitchens brings up this point he raises elsewhere…..a thought experiment. He asks: Can you think of anything a secular person could not say or do that only a religious person could? Conversely, it is obvious he says: You can think of something only a religious person would do that a secular person would not (e.g. murder someone because they do not accept “the true God”, i.e. their version of God).

Now, it’s a clever question but not really that clever on a second level. It is true that I can’t think of anything that a non-religious person couldn’t say that a religious person only could. And of course yes, religious people (bad religious ones) say and do all sorts of inhumane things that sane non-religious would never do–specifically motivated by their extremist religious viewpoints.

On the other hand, think of these great events in human history.

–The Civil Rights Movement, as Taylor Branch’s multi-volume history (the best on the subject) has shown, was a RELIGIOUS AWAKENING. The secular press/academia teach that MLK was a political reformer (give him a day!!!) and the Civil Rights movement was a political movement. It was a religious movement that had political effects.

–Ditto, the abolitionist movement. It is was part and parcel of the Evangelical Awakening (2nd Awakening in US).

–Ditto Gandhi’s movement to overthrow British colonialism in India. A religious movement that had political effects.

–Aung San Su Kyi, influenced by Thich Naht Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk) who himself learned from Christians (notably the Catholic monk Thomas Merton) to apply Buddhism to the social and political realm. The Burmese protest movement’s backbone is religious.

–Solidarity, the Polish labor union that precipitated the Fall of the Soviet Empire was a Roman Catholic movement. Vaclev Havel was writing prayers to God in jail and the Eastern Orthodox Church’s part in the Velvet Revolutions in 1989 has yet to be properly told.

–Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa.

So yes non-religious could say or individually act in such ways. But I can’t think of such a group taking it to that level.

Published in: on November 6, 2007 at 9:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Great God Smackdown…Part MCMXXIII

This time Dinesh D’Souza vs. Christopher Hitchens (here) on BookTv.

Religion–specifically Christianity–is the topic of this debate, which is better than whether or not God exists. Religion at least exists and therefore can be debated.

I’ll only deal with two brief examples out of many to prove my hypothesis on the two (in short: D’Souza Christianity is all good, Hitchens Christianity is all bad).

They raise the question of Russia/Soviet Union (communism). For DD communism is the proof of atheist marxism as itself the worst killer of humanity. Hitchens responds by pointing out that Orthodox Russian Christianity spent a thousand years inculcating absolute devotion to the ruler as a handpicked by God, as God’s emissary on earth, not to mention aristocracy and peasant slave labor (preventing any revolt against the rule). So that when Stalin took power, the Soviet Party used that submissiveness to dominate the Russian people.

On the question of the West, DD points out that science and rule of law/liberal politics only arose within Western Christianity. Which he argues means that these things could only have come about because Christianity inculcated values that supported their growth. As opposed to later medieval Sunni Islam, which arguably on the whole did not, and have left the Arab world in a worse position by these criteria. Hitchens, argues of course from the line of Voltaire and Auguste de Comte, that modernity is about humans awakening from their self-imposed slumber. And that the modern turn was a turn against the Church.

On both, both are partly right, partly wrong. (more…)

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sam Harris’ Buddhism

C4, the man on all things New Atheist, with this quotation from Sam Harris’ End of Faith (although to be fair as C4 and Harris point out New Atheist doesn’t really work for him per se)

“Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of faith–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism–and have not said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident. While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense. There are millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know this, and they can be found in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and even the West praying to Buddha as though he were a numinous incarnation of Santa Claus. This distortion of the tradition notwithstanding, it remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not saddled with certain dogmas (so are physicists) or that the Bushmen could not have formed some conception of the atom. Any person familiar with both literatures will know that the Bible does not contain a discernible fraction of the precises spiritual instructions that can be found in the Buddhist canon. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do not pretend to understand–as well as much that seems deeply implausible–it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instructions.”

Now, there’s a lot here, some intelligent, some less than.

The first point is that the comparison is not between say the description of meditation practices in the Buddhist Canon and the Bible.  Particularly say the New Testament for the Christian Bible.

The comparison would be between the handbooks of Buddhist meditation and the Christian mystical corpus that does in fact describe the practice, the reality/recognition/clues of mysticism, and possible illusions-pitfalls on the path.   Examples:  Dionysius’ Mystical TheologyThe Cloud of UnknowingGregory Palamas’ Triads.   St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila’s Inner Castle.  Etc. etc.

Not to mention say an Eckhart who goes toe to toe with Padmashambhava, Hui Neng, Vivekananda.

To take a prosaic example, the letters of St. Paul.  They are written to Christian communities about the problems they are having.  They are pastoral letters not meditative manuals.  Harris is comparing apples and oranges.  Compare the apples and apples, or else how am I supposed to take this guy that seriously? (more…)

Published in: on October 13, 2007 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why I Enjoy Studying Leprechauns

C4 linked this piece from Richard Dawkins, who calls theology comparable to the study of leprechauns and thinks it should not be accredited within the Oxford University system.  Since there is in fact no objectively discovered God (which btw the is true just not in the way Dawkins thinks it is).  Dawkins at least has the charity to say that qualified scholars of anthropology, sociology, literature, philosophy, and religion within theology departments could just move over to these other colleges and then all is well.

Two responses that I’ll mention but not follow up on, but are worth keeping in mind.

1)Who cares?  The world is racked by AIDS, the oppression of women/the poor, war, rumors of war, and Dawkins is harping on theology departments in Britain where nobody believes in God anyway.  Not even worth his fight if you ask me.  So neutered.  Charitably, that is Dawkins has a pretty English-centric pov.  Less charitably, he needs to go live in Africa or Asia and actually experience soul-crushing, heart-breaking trauma and existence, so he can get over his narcissistic viewpoint.  In all these New Atheists vs. God vs. Whatever debates, ever see any women?  (This response included).

2)A correct response (in the link) that goes thusly:

Sir: It is not often that a professor admits to poor scholarship, but that is what Richard Dawkins has done (letter, 17 September). Had I received an essay from a first-year undergraduate in which he admitted not having studied the position of his opponent, I would have insisted on it being rewritten. What is even more remarkable is that Dawkins seems unaware that the positivist account of science, which forms the main plank of his argument, is thoroughly discredited.

To argue for the position he advocates requires a working knowledge of the philosophy of science and religion, epistemology and metaphysics. While scientists of a previous generation, such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, have shown the application required to master these fields prior to publishing their philosophical work, Dawkins has so far shown himself unable or unwilling to do so.

The Revd Dr David Heywood
Lecturer in Pastoral Theology, Ripon College, Cuddesdon Oxfordshire digg_url = ‘http://richarddawkins.net/article,1698,Letters-Theology-has-no-place-in-a-university,Richard-Dawkins’; digg_bgcolor = ‘#FFFFFF’; digg_skin = ‘compact’; 

That isn’t going to matter to Dawkins of course (related to point #1 about his ego, but I’ll let that slide).  But worth remembering.  Dawkins has stated that St. Paul invented Christianity which would be like me in a debate with an astronomer saying that Copernicus was wrong and the earth is the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it.  I would correctly be laughed out of the room.  But Dawkins is allowed to get away with such ignorance.  So be it.

So no more no those.  I’ll take a different tack and admit that I am studying leprechauns and argue for it.  [This is to be read as irony btw :)]

The entire world is riding on nothing.  It is empty.  Dawkins and others of his ilk will never realize this.  The entire “debate” (quotations to indicate that there really is no debate to it) is falsely premised.

The mind is inherently dualistic.  That means some will always argue God exists and others that God does not.  And you can make a case that should be theology and you can make a case that religion is a humanistic study (a la Feuerbach) and that theology should be dismantled and the pieces/people sent to religion, comparative religion, and other departments.

It’s taste great/less filling writ cosmically large.  Great argument because it will NEVER end.  It’s a endemic “bug” in the system at that level whose role in the Universe (when seen from a higher vantage point) is to create the tension necessary to negate that stage of life.  If you follow it down the rabbit hole, the world gets quite wacky, beautiful, and painful insofar as you will never be able to explain this in a way that makes sense to anyone other than those who have already made the trip.

What in other words, is missed, is that reason is a kind of faith.  It’s a better kind of faith than myth taken literally.  Or more correctly, it is a more appropriate kind of faith at a more developed age/sense of self.

The weight of the modern world ideologically has leaned heavily to a naturalistic explanation of religion as argued for by Dawkins.  Or in postmodernism, as a narrative event, without grounding (like anything else) in supposed objectivity.  I think this has been very destructive for the West, particularly because it relegates almost all discussion of “values” to moral majority types.  Atheist tirades against all religion undercuts the most effective weapon against the bad form of a religion–namely its own better side.  But I’m biased.  Though I don’t believe in G, capital G, like that.  I’d rather study leprechauns.  At least that admits you are entering the realm of the imagination.

Remember atheists–at least the Dawkins kind–aren’t really after killing God.  They are unconsciously after the perpetuation of their own faith system.  Studying their own leprechauns of the mind you see.  If they killed God atheism would disappear.

It’s like in the Big Mind exercise, when the wounded child is asked will it ever be completely healed.  The answer of course is no–cuz then it would disappear and as much as it hates being wounded/hurt that is its nature and self-death is more frightening than the pain.  At least the pain is known.

No theism=no atheism.  Realize that and the entire house of cards collapses on both sides.

From a more awakened point of view, the leprechauns meditate us into seeing them.  This is the element of grace to the universe.  Something completely lacking in the prosaic Dawkins.  Even in usually in talk of a contemplative science and so forth, as much as I think that is valuable.  There is no grace, Godless grace even if you like, in this thought pattern.

It’s all riding on a dream.  To take the dream literally (mythic faith) or to mistake it for a rational-only process (rationalism) are equally bad forms of religion and belief.  Leprechaunology at its best helps you not take faith seriously (in the wrong way).

A post-metaphysical leprechaunology would add this flavor though—there is no pre-set pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow laddy.

I shouldn’t be too hard then on poor ol’ Professor Dawkins.  He would be crushed to realize he is just a pawn in the Game of Spirit.  A frightful reality to say the least.  One equal parts transcendentally loving and transcendentally horrific.

Oh Lord….

From the NyTimes:

A few months ago, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins received an e-mail message from a producer at Rampant Films inviting him to be interviewed for a documentary called “Crossroads.”

The film, with Ben Stein, the actor, economist and freelance columnist, as its host, is described on Rampant’s Web site as an examination of the intersection of science and religion. Dr. Dawkins was an obvious choice. An eminent scientist who teaches at Oxford University in England, he is also an outspoken atheist who has repeatedly likened religious faith to a mental defect.

But now, Dr. Dawkins and other scientists who agreed to be interviewed say they are surprised — and in some cases, angered — to find themselves not in “Crossroads” but in a film with a new name and one that makes the case for intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. The film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” also has a different producer, Premise Media.

The film is described in its online trailer as “a startling revelation that freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry have been expelled from publicly-funded high schools, universities and research institutions.” According to its Web site, the film asserts that people in academia who see evidence of a supernatural intelligence in biological processes have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Bueller? Bueller? Dawkins? Dawkins?

Published in: on September 28, 2007 at 11:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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