What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common

Writing to you from my vacation in lovely Bor, Serbia — when I saw this, it was just too interesting/funny/worrisome to ignore! The following graphic is from a recent article at Gallup called “What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common

And here it is:

gallup8

I’ll not be providing any powerful or penetrating analysis of the above facts. That’s your job!

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The Fallacy of God and Art

Picture yourself given the following question: A woman becomes pregnant. She has tuberculosis and the father has syphilis. As a result she has already had four miscarriages. In fact, their only surviving child is deaf and intellectually impaired. You, as a doctor, are asked to decide whether they should terminate the current pregnancy. Yes, it is (one of the versions of) the Great Beethoven Fallacy. Would you answer “yes” your questioner would triumphantly announce “Congratulations, you have just murdered Beethoven”. Of course the queerness of the argument should be obvious (if not I can readily point them out in a comment), but this is just the introduction to my subject.

This tale, it doesn’t correspond to Beethoven’s real situation by the way, is an example of the Argument from Beauty which tries to affirm the existence of god. The argument is that since beauty transcends an object’s material state, and beauty is a quality of god, then god must exist. And from this there is also an argument that all great art must come from, or be inspired by, religion. But this is of course an incorrect assumption. To see why lets first look at some examples of explicitly religious art and architecture:

 

notredamedeparisgod2-sistine_chapel


uppsala_domkyrka_front

Of course these are impressive examples but is it impossible to find something that at least rivals these works? Of course not.

Statue of Liberty

hemispheric_-_valencia_spain_-_jan_2007

library_of_alexandria

sydney_opera_house_-_dec_2008

None of these examples have anything to do with religion, yet most would agree they are quite esthetically satisfying.

There are two things one can say about this. The most likely reason artists, architects, musicians and others almost exclusivly created religious art in the past ages were that churches were the only one who could support the creation of such works. God is apparently not a requirement for appreciating the wounderful and spiritual (for lack of a better word). One can also notice the fallacy of defining god as direct responsibility for certain properties in the world. If god is the beauty in a painting, the gentle surface of a lake, and in so many other things, what god is there left to talk about?

Steven Weinberg sums it up perfectly in his Dreams of a Final Theory, “Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is out better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’ Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.”

Will the Holocaust Denying “Bishop” Deny his Denial?

Bishop Richard Williams, the fake British Bishop that Pope Benedict recently readmitted into the Catholic fold, is going to have to eat some crow it seems:

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Vatican Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson “must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah,” or Holocaust, or else he would not be allowed to serve as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.

The guy has balls, that’s for sure — first he had himself  ordained without the Vatican’s permission, then he gets himself excommunicated by Pope John Paul II — all the while walking around saying things like this: 

There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies. The Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new State of Israel…. Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil, and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism.

But will he have the balls (or is it spinelessness?) to stand up and recant his years of anti-semitism? Oh, I’d love to see it — is that petty of me?

In any case, here’s a clip that shows just how smug and dismally uninformed (or is it “in denial”) the guy is:

For a far more thoughtful and complete account of the situation, I recommend going here.

How I Became an Atheist, by Roger

Since many of you would be wondering where I had gone by now, I thought I’d show some life signs. So let us not waste time and get down to business…

Now that Tyson has opened his heart for us by sharing his transition of thought on religion, I feel compelled to do the same. I now consider myself not only an atheist, but as regular readers know, I’m “aggressively” so.

I have never been religious, but I once thought most things the bible described were true, in that common cherry-picking way. From when I was young we went to church on Sundays. Sure, listening to the preacher was sometimes dull and boring, but I didn’t complain, I had enough patience for an hour or two.

I am the kind of person who values knowledge and reasoning and because of that I started to realize something wasn’t right. Christianity was described by this book, the bible. However, I started to understand that just because something was written down didn’t mean it was evidence, since it might not correspond how things really are. And the statements themselves seemed either very improbable or quite opposed to our modern life. My assurance of both the validity and usefulness of religion started to diminish.

Although this happened gradually there was a defining moment when, like a switch, my disbelief was affirmed. One of the members of the congregation had sustained a rare illness during the night of a hospital visit to which cause I am unaware. This illness is in normal cases fatal but he survived, but not without permanent disability. The “price” of being alive was a paralysis of most of the body and loss of speaking; he now communicates by (slowly) typing a keyboard which accompanies his mobility scooter. During the night he also had a near-death experience which strengthened his belief further. As a result he started missioning in our town.

One day, I was about 13 years old at the time, he found me in my usual neutral but slightly bored state in the church waiting for the church service to start. He asked me, with the help of his computer generated voice, “Do you believe in god?”. I actually knew he couldn’t know I wasn’t too sure of this god concept any longer, this was one of his preprogrammed questions I had seen him use in town. But the question taxed me. I remember asking myself what to answer. I could not make myself answer yes… I then knew I could not believe.

At that point my parents only occasionally required me to go to church, and they had me attending a public elementary school, not a religious school from the start — of both I am very grateful. This meant I had a free environment for contemplating the facts and arguments. I chose to call myself agnostic, and still do in a particular sense, because of the following: The existence or non-existence of a god have no bearing on the human situation. We would be humans, with the same conditions and possibilities, no matter what. God doesn’t matter (but would he reveal himself he is welcome to join us as our peer).

The last stop is a very resent one. The reading of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith a few years ago made me realize the cause and effect in religion was more involved than meets the eye. By reading books from the so called “New Atheists” I came to understand that I was atheistic by definition. Agnostic just didn’t suffice because when it comes to the assertions themselves –e.g. the existence of a god — there is an infinite number of unverifiable things, yet we don’t believe them. I also had to be, by the believers sense, aggressive. Of course this doesn’t mean “stop believing, or else… ” but rather “we have to talk… NOW”.

It seems to me that most people that follow a religion do it because they have been taught to do so by their parents. But in the end all societies are secular, they just doesn’t know it yet. It only takes them to understand what they gain and what they liberate themselves from in order to accept advancement.

My “Blind Faith” in Science

 I am accused of having all sorts of faiths and religions. Not believing in God is one of my religions (they say)  counting the things I see, hear, and taste as evidence is among my faiths. Opining the divisive nature of Holy Books is a further article in my faith-pantheon — being willing to express that opinion is my zealous religiosity. Defending unbelievers’ rights to advertise their views makes me an intrusive and righteous missionary — criticizing the dangerous beliefs of others casts me as an agent of intolerance and a fanatic for my faith.    

Interestingly, these accusations come from those who openly have (and feel free to express) their faith in God — that is, from people who have religion. Now I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do wonder, why do minds prepared and conditioned to think religiously find in all other minds religious thinking? The response to a belief about the non-existence of God? Religion they say. An opinion about the role of religious belief in a modern society? That’s nothing more than a faith position.

And here’s the topper — they say these things to denigrate the unbelieving view. It is as if they are saying, “Your position is a load of crap because it’s just like mine.”

Er… what?!

But okay, I hear ya…  I mean, we’re talking about positions that are (at least for the moment) pretty darn unprovable. Sure, God could step-up and kill the debate should He, in His eternal wisdom, choose to do so — but then, that’s difficult to do if you don’t exist…  I mean, not for God of course — He could prove His existence while not actually existing, He is, after all, God 

Anyway, my point is that they can call my unbelief in God “faith” — that’s cool, but can’t we just stop there? Do believers really need to stretch the term faith to include what is (and ought to be) the antithesis of faith? Do they have to render in faith-terms the discoveries and successes of science? More and more I see references to the “Church of Darwinism” or the “Temples of Science.” Not only do religious folks wish to categorize any belief statement as faith, but also those statements that are grounded in the most rigorously and fully-tested discoveries of science.

Why does this way of viewing science persist? In my opinion it stems primarily from peoples’ lack of awareness as to how science “is done.” It is not obvious to people that a free-market of ideas goes on in science (for grant money, for status, for fame). As in other fields of human endeavor, scientists are working to be first — they often treat fellow scientists as foes and are competitive even among those with whom they are in agreement There is no monolithic “science” — it is a profession whose participants have distinct and various personalities, ethics, motivations, desires, etc…

But from the perspective of regular people (non-experts, non-professionals) it is difficult to know where to put one’s trust — especially with all this competition and non-aligning motivations that crowd the laboratory (and the newsroom) of science. Meanwhile the language and ideas of the professionals have become so specialized (and will only become more so) that even those who wish to untangle the “truth” can become hopelessly lost without the guide of a PhD. In other words, the folks who believe in “science” may know no more about a given topic than folks who have blind faith in their religion — adding to this quandary, sometimes science gets things wrong.

Yet key and fundamental differences separate science and religion. First, when science does get it wrong, it works to get it right — even when it gets it right, it works to getting it righter. Science never sleeps — science, as a foundational principle, is never satisfied. Furthermore, upheavals and overthrows in science, though common in media headlines, are rather rare. The achievements of science are more like a camera further ratcheting down its lens — bringing things (most often called reality) into a sharper and tighter focus. Newton’s theory of gravity worked for the level of clarity the science of his day was able to achieve. Einstein’s theory replaced Newton’s — the focus was tightened — but Newton’s math is still “right” for the kinds of objects he was working with.

The kind of trust that many have in science and scientific achievement is deserved in a way that cannot be paralleled by religion. Every day we enjoy the fruits of science, that is, technology. We know that science has proved itself — modern medicine has doubled our life-expectancy, we’ve got plasma TV and robot-vacuums, we can communicate anytime and everywhere (though we sometimes wish to be out of touch), we can fly across the ocean doing open-heart surgery on cloned sheep — we have the proof of millions of technological advancements that science, generally, makes accurate predictions and give us the ability to gain (at least some) control over our lives and the things in it…

So what of the original question — is this faith?

It seems to me that faith (as I have stated elsewhere) is belief in something without or in-spite-of evidence. While I call what we have in science trust — that is, belief based on past evidence of success. Science has been successful at making predictions and understanding our world far more than Priests, Shaman, Rabbis, Ministers, or Witch Doctors ever have. One may reply, however, that no scientist can give comfort to a dying woman or a man searching for his “spiritual” center. I disagree.

A scientific understanding of the world does not include merely wires and machinery. It includes psychiatry and psychology, sociology and anthropology. It includes an understanding of how biology impacts our moods and thoughts — and it includes therapies to affect them. I really and truly find comfort in understanding my evolutionary past and the effects of environment on young children — that is, why I feel how I feel, why morals become dilemmas, and why emotions give my life meaning. Understanding the history behind the being that I am helps me to be more complete, and it helps me to be more patient and understanding of others. I am almost certain that I fear death no more than the most eager martyr for Islam or Christian hungry to be with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

Trust in science is not faith because science gives us a reason to trust it, and it is not blind because it lets us see, should we look. Science produces for us, whether we comprehend the technicalities or we just “accept” them. Science does not lurk behind vestments, and the only truths it hides are those I am not willing to work toward understanding. We should not have blind faith in science — nor in anything, and though I cannot evaluate every claim made in every field of study, I don’t need to. I can see the results of our efforts, I enjoy them every day, and not see those successes takes the kind of blindness one usually finds only in religion.

 

Holy Coincidence, I Was Just Talking about This!