Thursday, February 17, 2011

Minority View of the Soul

Rachel Maddow is bringing the murder of Dr. Tiller back into the news. Wichita, KS is currently without any abortion providers, most likely because any potential providers are being terrorized and bullied. Maddow and myself are extremely progressive when it comes to reproductive rights but it seems to me that she’s asking the wrong question when she asks “Is this how we want to solve this issue?”

It’s certainly possible that those threatening and encouraging violence are somehow mistaken, that they could be made to realize that they are going about this the wrong way. I’m inclined to think otherwise. I don’t know how premeditated was the murder of Dr. Tiller but I’m confident the events surrounding it, such as “WANTED” posters, the release of his personal information, explicit calls for harassment, and on, were specifically designed with violence and the threat of it in mind. These acts in and of themselves involve deliberate planning which means that, for those who are threatening and bullying, the answer to Maddow’s big question–“Is this how we want to solve this issue?”–must be ‘yes’.

Then the next question to ask must be “Why?” I don’t think this is difficult to answer, either. Those who are threatening, bullying, and probably knowingly encouraging violence are doing so because they believe what they say they believe: that nothing less than a human being is created at conception, and that killing human beings who haven’t done anything to deserve death is equally wrong in all cases. These people believe they have run out of options for protecting innocent human beings from those who murder them.

This is the most extreme version of the Christian, Pro-Life stance. It is the one most often heard from inside Christianity (in my experience). I would bet, though, that most Christians don’t actually believe this. The arguments against the Christian view of Soul-at-Conception are as solid as they are boring (for a succinct, articulate survey, see Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation). Even if most Christian’s haven’t thought out what their view of a soul would mean for, say, identical twins, the majority of American Christians almost certainly support a woman’s right to an abortion if the pregnancy is a serious health risk or in the case of rape or incest. While I am not aware of any poll specifically targeting Christians, in every general poll less than %25 of Americans think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances while %76 of Americans call themselves Christians, supporting my wager.

Not only is the idea that a soul is created at conception obviously bogus but it's probably the minority viewpoint among Christians. What is it about Christianity, then, that allows obviously bogus, minority ideas to dominate the rhetoric?

Monday, September 13, 2010

God of the Gaps

I (we) do not know of and cannot imagine any explanation for X other than GOD, therefore X proves GOD.

See "the unimaginable vastness of our universe, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, to the breath-takingly complex micro-universe of individual cells, to the elaborate machinations in animal and plant physiologies and the diverse ecosystems the comprise" and “human consciousness, moral truths, the existence of beauty, mystical religious encounters, miraculous occurrences, and fulfilled biblical prophecies.” From the most unimaginative book I've ever read: The Making of an Atheist by James Spiegel.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Examined Life

The Campus Church and I are trying out a kind of dialogue. It will take place over a long period of time and will largely be about perspective. I, as an atheist, will participate in the Campus Church for a year. Alongside this, Dan Dewitt and I will maintain a blog, regularly writing back and forth about the experience. Hopefully you will not be surprised to find that this isn’t an argument (At least not a typical one). We intend to demonstrate that such opposing perspectives can share a peaceful, mutually beneficial dialogue. Each of us is already the kind of person who tries to live by Socrates’ credo ‘the unexamined live is not worth living’ and we wish to show by example that this holds true in practice.

PS This was supposed to go up two weeks ago. My bad.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Siren Song

I'm reading my first fiction in a long time: Contact by Carl Sagan. I ran across this:

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon
  than their song, namely their silence...
Someone might possibly have escaped from
  their singing;
but from their silence certainly never.

It's from the Parables of Franz Kafka. It struck a chord.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Religion without God?

I feel very uneducated sometimes. This is a good thing. I wrote this advocating a scientific alternative to religion before reading ‘Good without God’ by Greg Epstein (Harvard’s Humanist chaplain). Turns out, I was basically talking about Humanism.

While it might be true that there is no God and the holy books are more fiction than fact, they are still the basis of much of our culture, in a lot of ways they are required for us to function, and until we have something coherent to replace them with, atheism will never and perhaps should never catch on. But as a scientific approach to religion develops, preexisting religions will be great contributors.

I’m going to forget about convincing anyone that God doesn’t exist or that the Bible is rubbish for a moment and look at what religion means to society. Who cares if God doesn’t exist, as long the idea of God is needed for us to stay civil? As far as I’m concerned, the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) have made nearly airtight cases against God, cases that anyone who dares would understand. The problem is that very few dare to risk giving up God, to make the conscious decision to call into question the steady guiding force of their lives. I can’t say I blame them.

Religious leaders ranging from Rick Warren to Osama Bin Laden have suggested that not only will we not receive eternal salvation if we do not submit to their versions of the supernatural, but we cannot even live moral lives without God or some other version of him. The simple idea is that human beings will live exclusively according to their most immediate pleasures without the guiding force of Faith. I think I can show that they're wrong. We can have a moral religion based on the rational pursuit of truth without a belief in anything implausible.

From my favorite source, Wikipedia: A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that a belief in God or anything supernatural is not a necessary part of religion (neither is calling it 'religion' if we've developed an allergy to this word.)

Atheism, even at its barest, is a set of beliefs concerning the cause and nature of the universe. (A supernatural being did not cause the universe, and there are no supernatural forces.) But what atheism at its barest is missing is a set of beliefs concerning the purpose of the universe, devotional and ritual observances, and a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Atheism does not necessarily preclude purpose of the universe, devotional and ritual observances, and a human moral code, there just aren’t any commonly connected with atheism yet.

Let’s take a glance at what seems to be the most important missing piece, purpose. (It seems that once we have a declared purpose, a moral code would develop around what promotes this purpose and what impedes it.) Can we find a purpose for the universe without God? I actually don’t think so; it would be the height of presumption to begin attributing purpose to something we understand as poorly as the universe. But this doesn’t mean that atheists must be without purpose altogether. Many of the religious perspectives on the universe were developed during a time when humanity considered itself the primary force, so the universe’s purpose was humanity’s. In light of a less flattering but more accurate perspective on the universe, we may now manage to find a purpose for humanity without attributing any purpose to the universe.

Perhaps the purpose of humanity is to seek purpose in the universe, perhaps it is to reduce the suffering of sentient beings, or perhaps it is to expand the scope of human knowledge and the grasp of human technology so that we might better reduce suffering, understand the universe, or both. I’m inclined to each of these; they are not mutually exclusive, and seem already to be a driving force of humanity. These ideas have been more or less present in every major religion and secular movement. Without the conventional sky-god, though, humanity’s purpose suddenly becomes no more than what humanity has made it. This might be unsettling to some, but, to atheists, this has always been the case, whether we realized it or not.

When religion is understood as an emergent phenomenon of human civilization we find two important points. First of all, there is almost certainly a complicated interplay where the nature of mankind has influenced the development of religion and religion, in turn, has influenced the nature of mankind. Following from this, past and present religious traditions may contain crucial information for the development of a scientific religion. Let’s look at meme theory to understand how religious traditions may be a source of valuable information.

Again, from Wikipedia:
meme (rhymes with cream) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (From the Greek word μιμητισμός ([mɪmetɪsmos]) for "something imitated".) Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.

The idea is that we can glean useful information from memes just as we do already with genes. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins is one of the first to consider meme theory (he’s also responsible for the clever name), and Daniel Dennett does an impressive job fleshing out meme theory’s importance in the development of religions (This will be an oversimplification. If you are at all interested in the idea you really should check out Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and Dennett’s Breaking The Spell.)

Obviously, a creature’s genetic data gives us information about how it will produce proteins and more indirectly how it will develop. If we were smart enough, or had enough processing power, we could theoretically translate this information directly from the language of C, A, T, G, and some other, less understood factors into information about what a creature would look like, and how it would function in awesome detail without ever leaving the computer. We could even similarly decode a creature’s ancestral past straight from its genome. We can look at a few clues (both raw genetic clues and fossil records, or indirect genetic clues) and see that whales share ancestors with the first sea creatures to undergo extensive adaptation and travel onto land and also share ancestors with mammals who underwent another round of extensive adaption to go back into the sea. And so, we can look at clues and make educated guesses about religion.

If it is true that religions have undergone even a broad, loose trend from many heavily anthropomorphized gods to a single, less tangible, more vague, more ‘perfect’ monotheistic God, then what does that tell us? Whatever it tells us, it must explain why such a meme is more fit than competing memes. It could tell us that God is somehow working in small ways, guiding our concept of the cosmos closer to the true understanding of him. It may mean that a broader vision of God creates a closer connection among believes than a complex pantheon and the believer’s are therefore more likely to survive. Why do nearly all of the major religions with deanthropomorphized monotheistic Gods provide a human or human-like example to follow? It could be because in reality there is a good God, and he is providing this example out of the goodness of his ethereal heart so that we might better know how to be good. It could be that a meme that provides an example of goodness for its followers and better encourages charitable acts in its followers is more fit for survival.

Memetics might offer more questions than answers, but it’s not totally devoid of useful information. Here’s my central takeaway. A major factor of meme fitness must be benefit to its host, though there also must be memes that survive temporarily to their host’s detriment. So we can look at the history of religion as a millennia-long experiment whose data we would be foolish to discard.

Many religious followers might be upset by the reduction of present religion to information to be mined but this is simply the idea that there is much to learn from religions, both past and present. Furthermore, as brave atheists such as Sam Harris (author of End of Faith who is currently working on The Moral Landscape—scheduled to be released Fall 2010, it will explore how science will determine human values) blaze the way for a reason-based religion, we have a time-tested framework to build around. We can remove components we find structurally unsound as we fill in the holes with the firm support of fresh developments of reason.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Christianity: True or False

Christianity, if false, is of no importance and, if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. --C. S. Lewis

As I understood it, here are Dr. Timothy Paul Jones' main points from his talk Sunday:
  • Believing because of Faith is not as good as believing because one knows the gospels to be verifiably and historically factual.
  • When we look at the historical evidence for Jesus Christ, it is as compelling or more compelling than similar historical events that occurred at similar times.
  • If this were not true, then Christianity would not just be unimportant, but pernicious, actively negative.
I must note that I have not had the opportunity to read his book “Conspiracies and the Cross” or Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus” to which Dr. Jones was replying. At this moment, I am giving my reactions to his talk, and if any misunderstanding of Dr. Jones arguments is the result of the inadequate 30 minute presentation format, that will be corrected in the future. I’ll start with his assertion that the ideal way to approach belief is objective skeptical inquiry.

The idea of a Doubting Thomas has been quite symbolic for me for years. In my experience, the apostle Thomas is an example both of the unavoidable skeptical nature of human beings and what Christianity has painted as a failure to deal with this (a lack of Faith). To the Catholic Church in which I was raised, ‘Doubting Thomas’ is a caution, not a compliment. What is "blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" supposed to mean if not that faith is a better alternative to skepticism?

Faith in Christianity and allegorical interpretations seem to be the results of the fact that it is understandably difficult to be convinced that a woman who never encountered a Y-chromosome gave birth to a male, that 12 baskets and 5,000 people can be filled with a few loafs and fish, or that human beings can reanimate after days of decomposition. Especially when such convincing is based on mutually contradictory accounts written down as early as 3 decades or as late as 7 decades after the fact or when these accounts are more likely than not based not on primary sources (eye witness accounts), but instead on an oral tradition that had developed in the years since the man in question died (or ascended).

Maybe I should find this a welcome development--on it’s face I surely do. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything else going on here. I just cannot understand how Dr. Jones has taken the path he says he’s taken (objective and skeptical inquiry) and arrived at the destination he says he’s arrived at (total acceptance of Jesus Christ in the Gospel). Nonetheless I will continue to evaluate with as open a mind as I can manage.

It is my assumption that the Jesus Dr. Jones is claiming to be well supported is the full monty, Jesus + His miracles + the resurrection though he failed to distinguish exactly which he claimed the Gospels, the Epistles and the oral tradition on which they are based historically and reliably verify. What I mean is that proving that a rabbi named Jesus taught in the 30s AD is one thing. Proving that he taught the novel morality we find in the Gospel is a slightly different thing. Proving that people were under the impression he was a miracle worker is still different. And proving that this man actually died and rose to atone for my transgressions whether I like it or not is an entirely different thing. The evidence, and more importantly the quality of evidence, required to support these different claims is as different as the plausibility and significance of each.

The idea that evidence should scale with both significance and implausibility is common sense. If your straight-laced father told you that he played bass for the sex-metal band Death Screw in college (something quite implausible), you would want to see pictures. If someone came to your family’s door saying that you were being evicted (something quite significant), you would want to see papers.

So when Dr. Jones compares the historical evidence for Alexander the Great with that for Jesus the Christ, this analogy is not only being stretched because the type of evidence offered is quite different, but also because the evidence required to make a compelling historical argument for each is quite different.

Dr. Jones looked at the historical records of Alexander the Great. The earliest we have available was penned 300 years after his death by Diodorus (there were other, more proximal sources that have since been lost). As you may know, the Synoptic Gospels are the earliest record of Jesus’ life other than Paul’s letters (which contain almost no historical information beyond birth, death and resurrection) and they were written at least 30 years after Jesus’ death. But this one-dimensional glance at the issue ignores so much. Alexander’s life was most likely detailed in many historical records that, while now lost, were well preserved at the time our oldest available record was written. Additionally, he directly influenced the lives of perhaps millions at the time and the cultural impact of his conquests can still be seen.

What we have to realize is that the records that we have of each man are not factual details of their lives as a biographer would write today but representations of what effects of each man’s life were present as the historical record was written. Saint Paul never witnessed Jesus Christ, so the evidence for Jesus in the Epistles reflects the oral tradition present as the letters were written. Additionally, it is very unlikely if not impossible that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels; the Gospels most likely are a record of the oral tradition that resulted from Jesus’ ministry.

What I’m getting at is that the missing link in his argument is the sub argument: “the oral traditions of the 30s AD are reliable enough to support even the most incredible claims”. Dr. Jones made a compelling case that such an oral tradition is more accurate than we might think, but that still doesn’t bridge the great gulf.

If the oral tradition can’t get something as simple as the nativity story right, how am I to believe it whenever it contradicts the firmest knowledge I hold about how the world around me works? Without resorting to Faith this seems impossible.

Furthermore, if Dr. Jones and C. S Lewis are to be believed, then he is staking the total importance and even potential perniciousness of the Christian project, which has, perhaps, affected more lives for good or bad than any other human project on the testimony of this oral tradition.

I’d like to share my gratitude toward the Campus Church. I’ve attended U of L for 3 years and I’ve been invited to two talks that encouraged skeptical inquiry of religion, both were put on by the Campus Church.