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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

"Xenophanes used to say wittily that if the animals made gods for themselves, 
as is likely they do, they certainly make them like themselves, and glorify themselves as we do."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

La Ontología de Hugo

El librepensador

Duda razonable

La investigacíon vence la fe.

El escéptico

Falta de evidencia empírica

El descubrimiento vence la revelación.

El secularista

Revelaciones inconsistentes

La razón vence la costumbre. 

El humanista 

El problema del mal

La autonomía vence la piedad.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Presidents Day

The Freethinkers

Inquiry trumps faith.

The Skeptics

Discovery trumps revelation.

The Secularists

Reason trumps custom.

The Humanists

Autonomy trumps piety.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Debate Post Mortem

Like most humanists, I struggle to temper my antitheism with compassion for believers. I enjoy being challenged by viewpoints that help me to calibrate that balance, but accommodationist arguments too often strike me as intellectually dishonest. After the debate, the only change I think I'd  make to my opening statement would be to add some statistics on the preponderance of religious fundamentalism.

My opening statement holds up because I'd already considered the arguments my opponent raised. My opponent read of a list of authors who presumably would disagree with my point of view and asked me to stop him when I recognized one. He got no further than the first name. I knew three others and could have expanded his list.

My opponent and I have similar religious backgrounds. Both of us converted to Judaism as atheists, having been influenced by a metaphorical understanding of the supernatural. It really shouldn't surprise anyone that we'd read many of the same books. He knew the works of the four horsemen, but took a postmodernist stance against the hegemony of reason and science.

My opponent charged me with ignoring the diversity of religion, even though I’d addressed everything from religious fundamentalism to vague spiritual determinism. My opponent ignored rthe diversity of religion in characterizing my case against supernaturalism as a case against fundamentalism. As one member of my humanist contingent commented, "That doesn't make sense."

It’s hard to say how productive last night’s debate was. I was privy only to the reactions of my posse and to the show of hands that declared my opponent the winner. I'd predicted in my opening statement that my argument wouldn't resonate with believers. I had advocated for gauging agreement with the resolution before and after the debate, but a last-minute schedule change cost us our moderator. Another member of my humanist posse had this to say about the outcome: “I think many in the audience forgot what the goal of the debate was before considering who won the debate.”

My opponent's opening statement gave the impression that it was an improvised rebuttal of my own. His straw-man arguments made me wonder—out loud—whether he’d actually been paying attention. He took my critique of faith to mean that we must never take anything on faith—such as the structural integrity of the Interfaith Center. An astute audience member—also from my humanist posse—took him to task on his use of the word “faith.” That same audience member called my opponent's answer to his question "nonsense," and we on to say that my opponent "said a lot of words but with very little content."

My opponent and I were clearly working with very different definitions of religion. An audience member looked up a definition of religion on his mobile phone and asked us both how our respective arguments related to it. It was the same definition I'd used in my opening statement. My opponent’s definition, that religion is the means we have developed to cope with “radical interdependence,” didn't square at all.

I took the opportunity to stress the importance of using words in the way that they are most commonly understood. Another member of my humanist contingent had this to say about our divergent definitions: “This debate demonstrated a problem that occurs in most conversations about religion: that terms like faith and religion are slippery in their definitions, and it becomes too easy to talk past each other.”

Which definition is right? Plato's "noble lie" was an origin myth designed to make citizens more compliant. Myth and solidarity are both essential elements. As Seneca (4-65 CE) said, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." The noble lie insults the intelligence of the public and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the U.S. 46%  believe that that Jesus will return in their lifetime and 41% believe that God created humans in our present form.

In his opening statement, my opponent stated that neither he nor I had the right to instruct anyone in how to cope with their own radical interdependence. I couldn't agree more, but I don't think either of us was that presumptuous. In defining religion this way, he did precisely what I had implored religious moderates not to do. He appropriated for religion what is universally human.

It would have been absurd to argue that religion should be abandoned abruptly because that contingency is not in the realm of possibility. Even Hitchens said that he wouldn't eradicate religion by fiat. He argued that people need to reason it out for themselves. I reminded the audience that I had not asked anyone to do anything contrary to their beliefs or before they are ready.

IThe problem with my opponent's definition of religion is that it is contrived, sentimental, esoteric and self-serving. Liberal supernaturalists might claim to agree with it for the sake of identifying common ground with nonbelievers, but such a concession amounts to putting lipstick on a god. Fundamentalists are unlikely to agree with the definition at all, and they have the same right to define religion for themselves. Being more faithful to the fundamentals of their respective religions, fundamentalists are arguably more authentically religious.

t seems reasonable to question what our response to radical interdependence gains from the belief that we are at the mercy of a cosmic intelligence. If turning to each other is the solution, who needs gods? A response to radical interdependence without supernaturalism is distinct enough from the common understanding of religion to be called by another name. Such a response already exists. It's known as humanism.

My opponent's arguments reminded me why I’d left a highly secularized form of religion behind. Identifying as religious just didn't feel intellectually honest. I've come to see antitheism as a call for intellectual honesty. That’s why I’m especially gratified by the following take-away from the humanist contingent.
I think the only thing that enhances well-being is truth. Tony argued for truth while revealing evidence that religion often uses methods that cannot achieve this. [My opponent] argued citing subjective ideals that cannot be known to find truth and can be found to facilitate delusion. 
Determining whether the debate led anyone to change from one position to another is more meaningful than asking who won. People will tend to leave sympathetic to the same position they had when they arrived—especially in questions of religion. The few who are swayed one way or the other are the best measure of success.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Against Religion

Resolved: Human Well-Being Would Be Significantly Enhanced If Religion Were Abandoned

Religion is generally understood as a belief in and reverence for supernatural forces. Most of us can agree that religious fundamentalism is a problem. Many of us will agree that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural. Some will see religion as a harmless delusion. My challenge will be to convince you that the problem with religion is bigger than religious fundamentalism. The problem is the basic nature of religion.

We are told that faith is a virtue. At best, faith is superfluous. We don’t need faith to affirm what already stands to reason or what the evidence supports. We only need it to affirm what does not correspond with our knowledge and experience. Faith, then, is a bias in favor of what we choose to believe—whether or not it happens to be true. The more outrageous a claim, the more faith is required to affirm it. Only in matters of religion is it considered a virtue to believe in the absence of evidence.

Unconditional reverence for any belief, supernatural or otherwise, creates a society in which ideas do not rise and fall on their own merits. A society that reveres any beliefs unconditionally is not only inhospitable to dissenters, but sells the faithful short as well. To never be challenged is to be deprived of opportunities to grow. As Salman Rushdie said, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it turns other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.” Rushdie’s (1988) novel, The Satanic Verses, led the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwah calling for the author’s death.

The consequences of faith are dire: the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Vatican support for 20th century fascism, Vatican sovereignty that shields criminal behavior from prosecution, misogyny, homophobia, terrorism, honor killings, genital mutilation, child marriage, the criminalization of blasphemy and consensual sex, creationism taught as science, and revisionist history that excludes the Enlightenment.

Church father St. Augustine denied himself the guilty pleasure of reading philosophy, knowing that it would challenge his faith. He somehow knew Christianity to be true without understanding how it could be true. It is disingenuous to profess to believe without understanding. It’s like agreeing in advance to a statement that hasn't yet been formulated. In this regard, belief in the ineffable is at best incoherent and at worst insincere.

Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) said "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe." As predicted, knowledge has continually moved us away from supernatural explanations toward natural ones. Electricity has replaced the wrath of God as an explanation for lightening; germ theory has replaced witchcraft as an explanation for disease; evolution has rendered creationism untenable; mind-brain dependence is displacing the eternal soul as an explanation of consciousness; and gravity is competing with God as the force that propels the cosmos and binds matter. The god who governs the gaps in our knowledge is receding. There may be no better index of human progress than the triumph of knowledge over magic and superstition.

Religious faith and knowledge have always been at cross purposes. If not for the suppression of philosophy, we might associate the heliocentric model of the solar system with Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus (~310-230 BCE) instead of Copernicus who lived more than a millennium and a half later. We might have worked out evolution before Darwin’s time taking cues from the Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BCE). Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was put to death by the Inquisition for another heresy inspired by Lucretius—a boundless universe with no center.

Theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) demonstrated the impulse to explain miracles in natural terms when he applied Aristotle’s physics to transubstantiation. He explained that the accidents of matter—what we experience—was bread, but the substance was flesh. In modern physics, Aristotle’s accidents of matter correspond to secondary properties—such as color and wetness. His substance of matter corresponds to primary properties—such as atomic mass. If a miracle is, by definition, the suspension of natural law, why did Aquinas need a natural explanation to understand transubstantiation? Aquinas demonstrated instinctive skepticism toward supernatural claims. He also demonstrated the willingness to take other presuppositions on faith.

A scientist, just to be competent, must be a methodological naturalist. That is to say that even a scientist who believes in the supernatural must proceed as if everything has a natural explanation. A neuroscientist, for example, may not recur to the soul as an explanation for consciousness. But to suspend belief in a “ghost in the machine” in order to provisionally accept mind-brain dependence is to compartmentalize knowledge from faith—to leave cognitive dissonance unresolved in order to preserve a bias. We all have biases and unresolved cognitive dissonance. In extolling faith, religion makes cognitive dissonance an aspiration—suppressing the desire to self-correct for bias.

Reconciling faith with reason and evidence always costs religion its most outrageous claims and categorical rules. Religious reform is a step in the right direction, but it comes at a cost. Secularism—not religious reform—is the antidote for religious fundamentalism. While religious moderates put a friendlier face on religion, they also embolden fundamentalists by extolling the virtue of faith. Consider the fact that fundamentalists so often justify their theocratic ambitions by claiming that America is a Christian nation with “In God We Trust” on the currency and “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.

The secular is merely that which does not pertain to religion. Secular law liberates us from arbitrary rules based on sectarian religious traditions. Secularism is universal, inclusive and neutral. Interfaith is inclusive of people of faith, but it does not resonate with nonbelievers. There’s nothing wrong with getting your own house in order, but let’s not pretend that Interfaith is the ultimate form of inclusiveness.

The difference between religious fundamentalists and moderates is that moderate religion is secularized. You can’t even begin the work of Interfaith until you've put aside the particulars that differentiate religions. If religion is improved only when it is secularized, why not leave it behind? Religious reform is a laborious and circuitous route to secularism. As long as religion struggles to reconcile itself with reason, it will exercise veto power on progress.

Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro, argued that what is good must be inherently so by its very nature. The gods do not make something good by divine command. Good is what enhances material existence for material beings. Only material beings can know advantage and adversity. Understanding right from wrong does not require supernatural pretensions. Empathy is such a universal human quality that we have developed the language of psycho-pathology to label the aberrations.

It seems doubtful that fundamentalists are capable of relenting. Would you submit to secular laws if you were convinced that divine law had higher authority? How can we uphold the rule of law if we grant exemptions based on religious convictions? Nonbelievers enjoy no such freedom of conscience. We must adhere to the law. How many discrepancies must we find between sacred texts and reality before we conclude that they are not inspired by an omniscient, infallible being? How many more before we stop revering them out of a sentimental attachment to our superstitious heritage?

Supernatural faith is not where the problem ends. Reverence for the supernatural is an encumbrance to personal autonomy. Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) cosmological argument, that there must have been a first cause, has been religious orthodoxy since the middle ages. The cosmological argument answers the question, “Who created God?” and seeks to avert infinite regress. But positing a creator more complex than the creation does nothing to explain the origin of matter.

To argue that the world was intelligently designed ignores the question of whether suffering is part of the design. To insist that God had a hand in creation is to ignore the evidence of a mostly inanimate universe in which life evolved by random mutation and natural selection. This evidence includes redundancies, dead ends, and imperfections in the fossil record as well as the genetic code that links all living organisms. Did God really see fit to endow only one species of primates with free will and a soul?

If we claim that God answers the prayers of the faithful, do we not also have to accept that others deserve their misfortunes? God's "mysterious ways" suggest a lower standard of justice than we maintain for ourselves. What atrocities are people capable of committing once they have decided that the bulk of humanity has been judged by divine authority to be unworthy of redemption? Even the vaguely spiritual and seemingly benign notion that everything happens for a reason betrays a parochial view of the universe that flies in the face of the evidence.

My case to abandon religion will not resonate with those who are convinced that it holds any truth. If I can dissuade believers—for the sake of universal human values—from attributing the products of our shared humanity to your particular faith, I will count that as a victory. If you were of the opinion that supernaturalism is a relatively harmless fiction, I would have you consider that supernatural religious faith is superfluous as a force for good, but it emboldens immeasurable harm. The difference between religious fundamentalism, vague supernatural determinism, and everything in between is the point at which reality becomes inconvenient.

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