Saturday, January 16, 2016

Religion and the rise and fall of Islamic science

One of the questions people have been asking lately is the significance of the dominance of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages and its subsequent decline.  Some people claim that they know the answer.  For example, Reza Aslan claims that religion is not to be blamed for the decline because it functions as nothing more than a Rorschach test, so that whatever people claim that they find in their religion to influence their behavior is actually instead a reflection of them and not of their religion.  Some people assert that it is an indisputable fact that any decline can be attributed entirely to rapacious non-Muslims invaders who militarily conquered and then destroyed Islamic civilization. This is a factual, and therefore potentially empirically resolvable, question. We should look to evidence to measure if there was a decline over time to answer this question.  Then we can align evidence of decline with contemporaneous events to see if we can uncover the most likely culprits via consistent chronological correlation.

The question now becomes one of how to measure the rise and fall of Islamic civilization using available historical data.  Eric Chaney, an Economist at Harvard University, figured that he may be able to measure the success of Islamic civilization by counting the number of scientific books published over time by authors with Muslim names.  Harvard University is famous for the size of its library which has many books from past centuries.

He identified 21,275 books written by 3,784 authors with Muslim names who died between the years 250 and 1799.  When there was no death date he substituted birth date plus 69 years or initial publication date of the author's final book if there was no birth or death date.  He grouped the statistic into century intervals.  During the two centuries from 900 to 1100 an average of 12% of the published books were on scientific subjects and 30% on religious subjects.  This was followed by a decline in the percentage of books on scientific subjects.  By 1300 7% of the books cover a science subject and by 1700 it is 2% while the percentage books on religious subjects rose to 40%.

To better pinpoint the correlation of this decline in scientific output with other historical events, Chaney divided the results geographically into three regions: East (Chaney refers to this region as "Iran"), Levant, and West.  The East region experienced the Mongol invasions, the Levant experienced the Crusader invasions, the West experienced the invasions of European colonialists. He found that the decline in publication of science subject books began in the East and spread from there to the Levant and subsequently to the West.  The scientific decline in the East began a century before the Mongol invasion.  The subsequent decline in the Levant and West similarly began centuries before the Crusader and European colonist conquests.  The Levant experienced an anomalous increase in publication of science books (as a percentage of overall book publications) during the Crusader invasions.

In his draft study titled Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science, Eric Chaney concludes that the role of Islamic civilization in world affairs correlates best with the relative dominance of the rationalist versus the traditionalist strains of Islam.  The Mu`tazila movement was one example of rationalist Islam. They believed that good and evil were not determined by revealed scripture or interpretation of scripture, but are rational categories that could be established through unaided reason.  These rationalist movements first emerged in the preceding Umayyad Era and reached their height in the Abbasid period.  During Islam's "Golden Age" the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate forceably favored a rationalist Islam over the competing traditionalist Islam, they tortured traditionalists. The Abbasid Caliphate systematically translated every available science text into Arabic (their motive may have been to equip theologians with knowledge to win debates for the purpose of converting people to Islam).  After the 10th century the Islamic rationalist movement declined.

Why did the Islamic rationalist movement lose its influence?  One possible reason is that they had angered people by being extreme in their intolerance of Muslims with opposing beliefs and by linking themselves to the brutality of the rulers.  Another reason was a demographic change.  During the Abbasid period the population of large parts of the Caliphate were non-Muslim.  Muslims were initially a minority of citizens overall.  This changed as a result of conversions to Islam with Muslims becoming the majority first in what is now Iran and Iraq, later in the Levant, and then in the West.  By the start of the eleventh century the Abbasid Caliphate had switched sides, outlawing rationalist Islam as heresy and endorsing traditionalist Islam (by then the Caliphate was weak and had little temporal power).  The number of madrasas, which are schools of Islam, increased.  Traditionalist Islam, which emphasizes the importance of revelation and opposes rationalist Islam, became increasingly dominant.  The number of authors employed by government declined and the number employed by madrasas increased.  The relatively more secular state bureaucracy that pre-dated Islam was replaced by Islamic religious institutions.  

Although a partial dose of rationalism was advantageous for converting non-Muslims to Islam, a full dose of rationalism was corrosive towards religious faith, promoting skepticism, agnosticism, deism, and atheism.  That is why rationalism was abandoned.  Today rationalist Islam is often deemed heretical by scholars in mainstream Islamic theology.

Islam itself contained the anti-rationalist seeds that contributed to the diminished role of Islam in world affairs.  Contrary to what apologists for Islam say, there is good reason to think that the religion of Islam has been, and continues to be, its own worst enemy.  No foreign interventions caused this weakness.  The weakness resulted from rationalism being disfavored when the influence of Islam increased following a majority of citizens self-identifying as Muslim.  A diminishment of the negative influence of traditionalist Islam's anti-rationalism is the way forward.  That is also a good prescription for everyone, everywhere.  A good place to start is a willingness to abandon religion altogether.  We need fewer people who fear not being religious (secularophobia?), including fewer people who fear atheism (atheismophobia?).

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

We require evidence, mere argument fails

Mr. Deity (Brian Keith Dalton) ably explains in this video (the first in what he promises will be a series of videos) why we should all reject efforts to determine the truth or falsity of existence claims, including the existence claims of theisms, that rely on argument (such as the Kalam argument) instead of evidence: We require evidence, mere argument fails.  Some philosophy, and especially theology, has a tendency to rely far too much on the unsuccessful method of logical argument from human intuitions and asserted first principles (over reliance on first principle correlates with ideology which increases the probability of error) instead of the successful method of seeking the frequently non-intuitive best logical fit with the overall available evidence.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Secularizing Maryland Health Care

Many health care facilities in the United States are owned or operated by religious institutions.  About twenty percent of all hospital beds in the United States are owned or controlled by the Catholic church.  Religious health care facilities sometimes opt to give their religious authorities the final say over the provision of health care services.  Religious restrictions on the provision of health care are enforced not only on hospitals, but also on HMOs, universities, and social services agencies, which provides a significant amount of care to poor and lower income communities.  

Enforcing equal standards of care has been further hindered by an increase in the number of states with health provider conscience laws.  Maryland is one of the states with a health provider conscience law. Both individual and institutional health care providers in Maryland can refuse to provide their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy" [MD. CODE ANN., HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214].  

The role of religious institutions in trying to restrict citizen access to health care options does not stop with conscience clauses.  Some religious institutions object to allowing doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of barbiturates for the purpose of hastening the voluntary death of terminally ill people.  For some people, their religious beliefs only make sense to them if length of life always takes priority over the quality of life.  Other people think surviving as long as possible will sometimes be a misplaced goal for terminally ill people.  The strength of the religious lobby in the U.S. ensures that the only way most states can pass and enforce a law to accommodate the latter people is by including a conscience clause to accommodate the former group of people who also work in health care.

An "End of Life Options Act" bill that would legalize physician assisted dying is expected to be introduced in the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session.  Maryland patients and their families should be allowed to make their own health care decisions and need to be informed which health organizations and providers will refuse to honor their decisions.  Concerns like this make statewide action on health care laws a priority.

Oregon has been collecting data on physician assisted dying for 21 years.  Under Oregon’s law, every step of the process is in the hands of the patient, and those who interfere with or coerce the patient can face criminal prosecution.  About 0.3% of deaths in Oregon are physician assisted.  About one third of terminally ill patients who receive the barbiturates do not consume them.  People with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) are the most likely to deliberately hasten their death with prescribed drugs.  Loss of dignity, inability to enjoy life, and lack of autonomy, are the leading motives.  Similar laws were enacted in Washington in 2008, Vermont in 2013, and California in 2015.  The Montana Supreme Court legalized physician aid in dying there in 2009.

The provisions of the Maryland End of Life Options Act bill are expected to be similar to those in the other states.  To qualify the patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of death within six months, be mentally competent, and be able to self-administer the drugs.  The qualifying patient makes two oral requests to the prescribing physician separated by at least 15 days.  A written request to the prescribing physician must be signed in the presence of two eyewitness, at least one of whom is not a relative.  A prescribing and consulting physician must agree on diagnosis, prognosis, patient capability,  and the patient lacking any psychiatric or psychological disorder that would impair judgement.  Either doctor can refer the patient for psychological examination.  The patient must be informed of alternatives by the prescribing physician (comfort care, hospice care, and pain control).  The prescribing physician must talk privately with the patient to verify that the patient is freely opting to hastening their own death.  

The current draft of the End of Life Options Act specifies that the death certificate identify cause of death as pharmacological accelerated imminent death.  Some states allow death certificates to be issued without cause of death.  Maryland lawmakers may want to consider enacting a law to publish death certificates without cause of death and to restrict access to the full death certificates containing cause of death.  An option to omit cause of death helps to allay privacy concerns that may otherwise dissuade people from seeking physician aid in dying.  The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should be directed to publish a booklet that explains end of life options in Maryland.

To better protect the ability of patients to obtain appropriate health care there is also a need to enact a state law protecting patients’ right to know when a health care provider does not provide certain care based on religious or philosophical beliefs.  Such a law could require any health care provider who refuses to follow standard medical guidelines and practices, thereby resulting in any health care options being omitted, to inform patients in writing of health care services that are not available to the patients through this particular provider.  Patients could be required to provide signed consent acknowledging they have received this information. Additionally, this law could require health care providers to inform health insurance companies of the specific health care options that are not provided.  Health insurance companies will share that information with their enrollees and insured participants.

Maryland's health provider conscience law should be amended to clarify that the clauses granting institutions a conscience right to refusal apply only when the institution is privately controlled.   Also, health provider institutions should be allowed to mandate that their employees agree in their employment contracts to provide the medical procedures that the conscience laws otherwise render optional.  Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to the people who adopt one side of the two opposing sides.  Whenever institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it necessarily follows that institutions that support those same medical procedures have the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Can leftism be saved from Jeff Sparrow?

The Guardian newspaper has been on the attack against New Atheism for some time, and the latest salvo from Jeff Sparrow, titled "We Can Save Atheism From the New Atheists" begins with the question "Why are the New Atheists such jerks?". The provided explanation for the New Atheist's "dickishness" is "anti-Muslim bigotry" and "paranoid, racist shit".

To prove his characterization he cites Dawkins' comments regarding the 14-year-old who was "humiliated in school" and "falsely accused of terrorism on the basis of his religion".  The boy was arrested for carrying a briefcase with wires containing a clock that resembled a briefcase bomb.  There are school employees who feel that they have some responsibility for the safety of the staff, teachers, and students at the school.  It is easy for someone sitting and typing in London to declare this was a racist incident, but if the same thing happened in a London school there is a high likelihood that the reaction would have been similar.  

If the boy was not Muslim then my guess is that the likelihood of arrest would decrease, but still be substantial.  This has not happened often so anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's.  Does the possibility that people in both the US and Britain may be more wary of, and suspicious of, Muslims, demonstrate racist, anti-Muslim bigotry?  In the unreal world of leftism maybe it does.  In the real world such greater suspicion of Muslims reflects the fact that on social media, and in some publications, and in some mosques, etc. there is an ongoing, organized, effort by groups of people to incite violence against the citizens of Britain, the US, and other countries for the stated purpose of promoting Islam.  This is a highly relevant fact, but we will rarely, if ever, hear the left acknowledge this fact, let alone properly incorporate this fact into their analysis of current events.

I think President Obama made a mistake when he invited Ahmad to the White House.  Nevertheless, I think I can understand why he did that. The right wing in the US is somewhat crazy, they over generalize, they fear monger, and much of what they do is unfortunately counter-productive.  So maybe the president wants to communicate we welcome people of all religions. But then the left should not therefore be excused for reacting by going crazy in the opposite direction.  Ahmad provoked his arrest by his actions and his being Muslim maybe made his arrest even more likely.  Maybe he was treated unfairly by government employees after his arrest, the details of what happened may be in dispute.  We may never know if he was an innocent boy or a provocateur.  People who argue either way on this question are not therefore on the left or the right.  Not unless we define "left" and "right" narrowly and intolerantly.

It is crazy to equate Dawkins' questioning the integrity of Ahmad's claim that he assembled the clock with "a 9/11 truther obsessing about jet fuel".   There is good evidence that the clock in the briefcase was purchased already assembled and then relocated to the briefcase.  This discrepancy between what the boy and his family claimed the boy did and what the boy probably actually did has some relevance here as it raises a question about their honesty.  This is another example of a fact that some on the left do not deal with sensibly because it does not comport with their desired story line.  The effort to point out that there is substantial evidence that the science project may be fraudulent is thusly rejected by Jeff Sparrow as an "effort to discredit".  No, it is an effort to spread information that is relevant, an activity people on the left like Jeff Sparrow routinely also do.   Apparently, for some on the left, evidence does not matter, or it only matters when it is evidence that favors their preferred conclusion.  When evidence favors a conclusion contrary to theirs the same activity of publicizing that evidence is declared by some people on the left to be motivated by ill-will.

Then the attack against New Atheism proceeds to Sam Harris.  Sam Harris is critical of some on the left for not taking the threat from people claiming to be fighting for Islam as seriously as he thinks it should be taken.  He bemoans that the people who take this threat seriously are crazy right wingers who spout a lot of nonsense.  Some on the left then strike back by saying Sam Harris is a paranoid racist.  President Obama, who is not a right wing nut, recently paired fighters for Islam together with global warming as two major problems that the international community needs to confront.  We can disagree about how big a threat the fighters for Islam are, but such blatantly false ad hominem attacks against Sam Harris are uncivil and beyond the pale.  This is not the way to carry on a discussion. It is not reasonable, it is not responsible. It is pure, unadulterated, bile and slander of the sort that has no resemblance to anything liberal or humanistic.  This kind of nasty name calling by Jeff Sparrow reveals that his brand of leftism is infected with anti-intellectualism and intolerance.

He then goes on to criticize the New Atheists as "privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots".  This is a cheap, below the belt, accusation.  In the U.S. religious believers spend more money, by far, on political lobbying and political candidates than do atheists.  Some of the wealthiest American billionaires are religious.  The same is probably true in the Muslim world. Adults who are poor are not therefore mentally deficient, or child like, or somehow entitled to live in special safe zones unexposed to debate.  All argument involves one person claiming that his arguments are superior to someone else's contrary arguments.  A similar accusation of "superiority" can thus be leveled against anyone in any context of disagreement.  Does Jeff Sparrow make this universally applicable accusation against everyone who argues over anything or only against the New Atheists?  He then argues that all such debate should be focused on acceptance of all religious beliefs.  No sir, beliefs are to be discussed and debated, and Jeff Sparrow's insistence that there is a special exemption for religious beliefs is without merit and is illiberal.

Then he goes on to falsely claim that "the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim".  This is crazy false.  We do not have to do a study to recognize that most New Atheists are very likely spending more time speaking to, and about, other people who share their language and live in their own countries. The result is we who live in the U.S. and Britain most often argue with Christians, and lampooning is infrequent.  Given all of the nasty personal attacks thrown around by the dozens like pennies by Jeff Sparrow in his article, his criticism that New Atheists are lampooning is hypocritical.  New Atheists have many different occupations, many different levels of education, from all different races and religious backgrounds.  And if we are mostly white then therefore what?  Therefore we are tainted?  Therefore we are wrong?

Finally, towards the end of his article, Jeff Sparrow almost deals with a question of substance.  He points out that Hitchens and Harris think that problems in the Middle East stemmed from Islam, and they thus both parted company with Chomsky who argued it stemmed from imperial meddling.  Then Jeff Sparrow immediately goes into closed minded ideological mode again, accusing Hitchens of aligning himself with the right.  Maybe Hitchens was aligning himself with what he genuinely was convinced was the truth?  No, no, no, Jeff Sparrow must impute nefarious motives to such traitors.  Jeff Sparrow says Hitchens argues "All religions are bad but some religions – especially those in the Middle East, by sheer coincidence! – are worse than others."  So does this criticism of Hitchens imply that the left insists that all religions must be equally bad and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is automatically wrong?  Is this a rationally tenable position?  Or is it a shallow presumption?

If Hitchens and Harris are guilty of arguing some religions are worse than others then maybe they are guilty of rational, evidenced based reasoning of the sort we need more of?  And ditto for the debate over the role of imperial meddling versus Islam as causes of problems in the Middle East.  Reading Jeff Sparrow it is difficult to avoid the impression that he considers merely asking whether Islam has a role in problems occurring in the Middle East to not even be a legitimate question open to debate.  For him, it appears that leftism is synonymous with declaring the cause of problems in the Middle East to be entirely the result of imperial meddling and therefore anyone who claims otherwise must be a crazy right winger, or in league with crazy right wingers.  Jeff Sparrow does not seem to be aware that there is evidence otherwise.  It is as if he never read Hitchens or Harris who have repeatedly cited evidence favoring their conclusions that Islam is itself contributing to Middle Eastern problems.  Or maybe the problem is deeper than this, maybe Jeff Sparrow and his cherished brand of leftism does not care if the evidence favors the conclusion that Islam has a primary role in problems in the Middle East.  In his article Jeff Sparrow never justified his insistence that Hitchens and Harris are wrong beyond citing Chomsky and making lots of false ad hominem and straw man attacks. For the anti-intellectual, ideological left, this is not about the evidence.  It is about closed, circular, fixed, leftist ideology and attacking anyone who challenges that ideology.  If this the best they can do then they have lost this argument by default.

Jeff Sparrow falsely equates criticizing bad beliefs in Islam with "old-fashioned imperialism: the people we just happen to be bombing are simple-minded savages, impervious to reason and civilisation."  People who seek to open a debate about bad beliefs in Islam, and about the veracity of religion more generally, are seeking dialogue and are treating all people, including Muslims, like adults who can reason.  It is some people on the left who desperately want to shut down this discussion, and we all know why although many will not admit it.  It is on the left where the bigots really reside.  It is this left that conceives of religionists as incompetent children and that employs one standard for Christians and a different standard for Muslims.  This brand of leftism then falsely accuses the New Atheists of what they are themselves guilty of.  This left fears Muslims, more than they fear Christians, and they seek to shut down public conversations advocating for atheism out of cowardice.  Jeff Sparrow cites something Marx said dismissing religion as easily refutable, but the truth is that refuting religion takes effort and advocacy.  If we shut down this conversation then what?  Then we still have bullets and bombs?  Maybe for some on the left we should not care who wins or who gets hurt along the way because all religions are equally bad anyway.  This leftism is not liberalism, it is not humanism, it is not factual.  It is ill-tempered, bilious, slanderous, censorious, and anti-intellectual.  What we really need is to save liberalism from bigoted regressive leftist dickish know-it-all jerks like Jeff Sparrow.  And it is a shame that the Guardian publishes such crappy commentary.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sam Harris argues bad religion should be blamed

By Mathew Goldstein

Interesting interview of Sam Harris by Sean Illing in Salon magazine. Sam Harris shares his insights regarding recent events including Islam, religion, and Daesh, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, and GOP madness, Greenwald, Aslan, Kristof, Chomsky, and regressive leftism, and more. He also sharply criticized Salon magazine for irresponsibly publishing false attacks against him that Salon magazine redacted but can be read here on his blog.



Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to an argument that atheism is unreasonable

A recent opinion article in the University of Louisiana student newspaper titled Atheism is Unreasonable defends the Catholic "knowledge of God by revelation" as enabling "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on."   It is a brief article, citing Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas as the philosophers to follow, and speaks mostly in generalities.  Yet the content expresses perspectives that are common among theists and makes a good basis for a discussion to explain the atheist perspective, which the author of that article does not appear to understand well.  So here follows a criticism of that theist perspective from an atheist perspective.
The author of the article says that contemporary philosophy has gone astray because by rejecting God it fails to answer the why questions.  She says "This is unreasonable because as rational creatures, we desire to know why."  Since "we see cause and effect in our world all the time. Why wouldn’t there be cause and effect for our existence or regarding morality and virtues? And isn’t it reasonable that God would reveal Himself to us and help us understand these things and our purpose?"  Atheists, she says, dispute "fundamentalist arguments" but Catholicism (unlike most other Christian denominations) "isn't fundamentalistic."
Because we desire to know why, it does not follow that why questions have an answer that is distinct from the answer to the corresponding how questions.  It is improper to start with an a-priori assumption that the universe is about us when trying to understand how the universe functions.  Addressing our desires on the one hand, and understanding how the universe functions on the other hand, are different goals.  We do not get to create the universe according to our desires, we are merely born into the universe such as is it.  Atheists recognize this distinction, theists too often do not.
The centrality of cause and effect is evidence that our universe is mechanical, physical, and material. A hypothetical God could transcend the mechanical, physical, and material. There is no good evidence for such divine intervention, which is a major problem for theism. All of the explanations that we uncover remain within the constraints imposed by naturalism.  Biological evolution, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics, appear to be sufficient to explain our existence and to explain both our commitments to, and lack of commitments to, morality and virtues.  As for the "why not nothing?" question, we have no definitive answer.  But we can speculate that nothingness may be a fictional condition because a nothingness condition in the universe is unstable according to quantum mechanics.
The non-evidenced, a-priori assumption by many theists that absolute nothingness is the initial cosmic condition illustrates the disagreement between theists and atheists.  For atheists, following the empirical evidence and modeling the universe on a best fit with empirical evidence is the best we can do in our effort to understand how the universe functions.  There is nothing beyond the empirical evidence that gets us to non-fiction.  Not faith, not logic, not reason, not intuition, not desire, not first principle, not metaphysics, not Aristotle nor St Thomas Aquinas, not the Christian bible nor the Catholic Church, not best fit with cosmic meaningfulness nor purposefulness, nothing.  When we use logic and reason, as we all must, we must apply it to, and anchor it in, the empirical evidence.  When it really matters, as when our own physical welfare is at stake, for example when driving a car, or walking near cliffs, or walking near walls, everyone respects the empirical evidence.  There is no good reason to abandon that uniquely successfully strategy when the stakes are lower, such as when evaluating the veracity of holy books.
Since we are not all knowing or all present it is unsurprising that there are questions we are unable to answer.  Full stop.  We do not pretend to find answers by looking "beyond the physical" or by accepting the answers provided by any metaphysical philosophers who died before the germ theory of disease became general knowledge. We do not do that because we know, from the history of humanity, that methods of determining how the universe functions that are not rooted in best fit with the empirical evidence produce fiction.  Given that the available empirical evidence indicates that nothingness is an unstable condition, unless one day additional evidence is uncovered that says something more, that is literally the best answer we have to the question why there is something instead of nothing.
Arguments that Catholicism, or any other religion, or any metaphysical philosopher from the past, are the best sources for ultimate knowledge regarding how the universe functions, including "knowledge of God by revelation" that enables "understandings about the perfection of man and the universe, the origins of morality and the role of things such as ethics, science and so on" are unimpressive.  Metaphysical naturalism, a.k.a. atheism, is more reasonable because it fits better overall with the available empirical evidence.

Monday, October 05, 2015

This is the place to find god

The equations of physics, because they are comprehensive (although incomplete) and accurate in modeling our universe, are strong evidence that we live in a material, physical, mechanical universe.  From this result we conclude, without needing to know the functions shown below or how to calculate with them, that our purpose is found in our individual lives and not in the overall functioning of the universe.

A common criticism of the above argument is that it is a "fallacy" called "scientism".  Actually, the above argument is a good example of an empirical argument and empirical arguments are the strongest possible type of argument.  The universe communicates to us how it functions via empirical evidence and it is from empirical evidence that the above equation is derived. Philosophical arguments which rely on assertions of first principles and appeals to intuition are among the weakest type of arguments.  Those kind of arguments, which are very common in theology and religion, and are also found in philosophy and outside of any religious context, consist of people talking to themselves about themselves while mistakenly claiming that they are talking about an objective reality outside of themselves.  Talk about the transcendent cosmic purpose that is not firmly anchored in our best current understanding of how the universe functions as derived from from physics and biology is more likely than not to be disconnected from reality. Arguments from first principles and intuition can be highly intellectual, but conclusions are not true merely because they are supported by intellectual arguments.  Philosophy can be, and is, very valuable provided that it relies upon factual statements about how the universe works that the overall available empirical evidence properly supports.

To ignore a result declare it to be a presupposition

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. He is associated with Princeton University's Witherspoon Institute.  He promotes the views of Thomas Aquinas and expresses views similar to those backed by the Vatican on his blog and in his books.  He has a loyal following among like minded theists.  Let's examine some of what he says in his recent article Scientists Should Tell Lawrence Krauss to Shut Up Already.

He starts by pointing out that the lack of mention of God in the game of checkers does not suggest that God does not exist and then he argues that likewise "the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful."  This is a good illustration of a bad analogy.  Checkers has nothing to say about what is true or false about how the world works while science addresses that very question.  So in this context they are opposites, not equivalents.  What checkers says is indeed irrelevant to this question while what science says is very relevant.

He writes ".... science cannot answer the question why there is any world at all, or any laws at all. To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.... Krauss is looking in the wrong place when he confines himself to science to find some reason to affirm a divine uncaused cause."  While it is true that we need more than a "mere" foundation to build a house, it is nevertheless also true that we should build houses anchored securely in a solid foundation.  Although it is not immediately apparent, professor Feser starts with this reasonable observation that physics, like a foundation for a house, is incomplete, and then quietly segues into the untenable position that physics is irrelevant.  He articulates the reasonable first position but then he adopts the unreasonable second position.  And all along the way professor Feser falsely stereotypes Lawrence Krauss as someone who fails to acknowledge that there is more to life than physics.

He says "The reason is that physics confines itself to describing the mathematical structure of the world, since only what can be so captured is susceptible of strict prediction and control. The inner nature of the reality that has that structure necessarily falls through physics’ methodological net."  There are emergent features of our universe not captured by the equations of physics.  This is one reason that we also have chemistry and biology.  We similarly have social sciences like economics and law and philosophy.  And we have food, music, art, recreation, etc.  All are important.   Not even atheist physicists like Lawrence Krauss claim otherwise.  But when it comes to the ultimate questions about how our universe works at the foundational level, a.k.a. "the inner nature of reality", we have no better alternative than physics.

He then says "It is thus comically inept for Krauss to assert in his recent article that 'the more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.'"  Krauss is correct.  Any answer to the second question of whether the universe has some human centered purpose is dependent on first determining the workings of the universe.  Philosophers like Feser who insist on disconnecting their answer to the first question from the answer to the second question are the ones who are being comically inept.

He says: "The reason is that purpose—what philosophers call teleology or final causality—is an irreducibly qualitative notion. Hence it cannot be captured in quantitative concepts."  Contrary to what Feser keeps saying, physics is not a-priori confined to finding equations or to quantitative concepts.  If the universe is mechanical then it can be described quantitatively by equations, otherwise it cannot be so described.  As it turns out, through no fault of the innocent physicists, our universe is mechanical and therefore it can be described by equations.  In other words, the pervasiveness of equations in physics is a result of a qualitative property of the universe.  This is a lucky result from the point of view of professional scientists but it did not a-priori have to be this way. If the universe were not mechanical, not material, not physical, then there would not be equations describing its function and physicists, along with the rest of humanity, would have to manage the best we could with that result.

Physics is about more than quantitative concepts.  The equations of physics describe the mechanical functioning of our universe.  Understanding that our universe functions mechanically is a necessary starting point for evaluating its purpose.  The irony here is that theism is built upon a recognition of the centrality of understanding the function of the universe to determining its purpose.  This is a primary reason theists keep insisting there is a god.  Theism reasons backwards, starting with a demand for cosmic purpose and then inserting an imaginary god into the functioning of the universe to provide the cosmic purpose.  So when theists like Feser complain that physics tells us only about the functioning of the universe and therefore tells us nothing about the purpose of the universe they are employing an inconsistent double standard.

He then says: "If you confine yourself to quantitative concepts—as physics does—then you are guaranteed not to find purpose even if it is there."  This is false.  If the functioning of the universe exhibits cosmic purpose then physicists, and scientists more generally, are capable of discovering this fact.  If, for example, the weather is better where more people spend more time worshipping in a Catholic church then this pattern can be detected and once detected will be reported.  When we quantify the weather with high, low, and average temperature, humidity, etc., we are enabling, not obstructing, a qualitative understanding of the weather.  The equations of physics are a result of our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  The resulting equations are powerful evidence that our universe is self-confined to being mechanical and material.  But professor Feser will not admit this because his theism takes priority over the facts, so he declares this result to be a presupposition.

Friday, October 02, 2015

A scientific theology for a god on skeptics.com

A recent article from Skeptic magazine 20.3 (2015) titled 'THE “GOD” CONSTRUCT: A Testable Hypothesis for Unifying Science and Theology', written by California State University, Fullerton Psychology Professor Douglas J. Navarick, argues that the empirical evidence is best fit with the conclusion that life is a supernatural phenomena.  He claims that the available evidence favors vitalism, which is the conclusion that a supernatural force animates the machinery of all living cells.  He posits that this supernatural force acts both through, and independently of, natural laws and is consistent with theism.

He cites the fact of biogenesis as evidence for vitalism.  He contrasts this with the evidence for abiogenesis which he claims is of the same poor quantity and quality as the evidence for extra-sensory perception.  In both cases, he claims, there is no established mechanism through which the phenomena could occur.  He also claims that the available evidence favors the conclusion that life started once in one place and this is a better fit with biogenesis via supernatural vitalism than with abiogenesis via naturalism.

The available evidence that suggests life may have started only once in one place is limited and inconclusive.  It is possible that life started more than once, but then went extinct before leaving evidence of its multiple origin events.  Or that multiple origins of life resulted in similar biochemistry with subsequent exchanges of genetic material further blurring the distinct origins over time.  Or that life started different times on different planets but this alien life, because it is physically distant, remains undetected.  We do not know how often and in how many places life originated.

His claim that abiogenesis and extra-sensory perception are both equally lacking a plausible mechanism is so exaggerated that it warrants being considered false.  Life functions within the constraints of known natural laws, while extra-sensory perception would function outside of the constraints of known natural laws.  The laws of nature are an archetype of established mechanisms.  When we examine life closely we always find organic chemistry abiding by all known laws of nature, thus evidencing that biology is itself a product of the laws of nature.  

The remaining question for abiogenesis is filling in the details regarding a viable pathway for the organic chemistry to become sufficiently complex to draw in the energy needed to be self-sustaining and to become self-replicating.  There are multiple proposed origin of life scenarios that are taken seriously by biochemists because there is supporting empirical evidence for those scenarios.  Professor Navarick, by dismissing all such scenarios out of hand because they are conjectures, is ignoring the empirical evidence that supports those conjectures.  He is also mistaken when he claims these scientists are adopting a lopsided top down approach while reasoning about naturalism, they are equally following the evidence bottom up.  The fact that a virus exhibits at least some of the capabilities we associate with life and a functional infectious virus has been manually built by physically placing RNA in "cell-free juice" is significant evidence that life is a strictly material phenomena.

His claim that the ubiquity of biogenesis is evidence for supernaturalism is a weak argument.  Biogenesis prevails because of reproduction.  Reproduction, like metabolism, is a natural process.  There is a strong correlation between death and material deterioration or destruction from aging or injury. This is exactly the correlation we expect when the mechanisms underlying life are physical and material.  Vitalism, in contrast, requires that the supernatural force be acquired by every newly living cell and removed from every cell that dies.  The only mechanism for these transfers suggested by Professor Navarick is undetectable magic by a hidden god.

Why would a god hide a massive ongoing divine intervention on earth that animates all living cells, including all deadly human disease bacteria and all fungus and insects that killed crops and livestock that caused human starvation, by so intervening only within the constraints of natural laws?  And why would this god do this only on one lonely planet in one randomly selected galaxy in the vast universe?  If such a capricious god exists than that god is an amoral god who is effectively hiding from us.  Professor Navarick's claim that his vitalism hypothesis is rationally consistent with theism is dubious. People who are rational obtain their beliefs by following the available empirical evidence because that is the one method that has a solid track record of success.  Therefore rational people should not believe in a hidden god undetectably intervening only on earth even if this imagined god exists.

Biogenesis always starts with a complete set of the physical machinery needed for life to function within the laws of nature.  What explains the existence of the initial cell containing all of the requisite machinery for it to be supernaturally animated while otherwise operating within the constraints of natural law?  The moment Professor Navarick concedes that the first living cell was built supernaturally he contradicts his premise that the supernatural force acts only through the laws of nature.  The moment he concedes that the first living cell assembled itself naturally before it could be supernaturally animated we will be left wondering - what is the value added of biogenesis over abiogenesis as an origin of life hypothesis and where is the evidence that this final divine animation step was also needed?  He argues that abiogenesis is implausible because the machinery of life is too complex to start naturally yet he completely ignores that his vitalism hypothesis for the origin of life, because it functions through natural law to animate already existing cells, fails to resolve this same problem.
Our lack of knowledge of the details of abiogenesis is not surprising and therefore does not qualify as evidence for the absence of abiogenesis.  We have multiple plausible explanations for this lack of evidence.  Conditions on early earth when life first appeared were substantially different from conditions that prevailed later.  Life may have started billions of years ago as a result of those temporarily existing past conditions.  After life populated the oceans the presence of life could interfere with the origin of life process or with the survival of newly started life. The evidence of the abiogenesis event or events is lost in history.  The inability to create life appears to reflect the needle in a haystack complexity of finding a viable path to life given the much larger set of non-viable paths.

The lack of radio signals from other planets is indeed puzzling if we assume that the universe should be teeming with intelligent life.  But this is far from sufficient to justify supernaturalism over naturalism.  After all, if supernatural vitalism is true then why wouldn't there be many other habital planets all featuring intelligent life, both in our galaxy and in many other galaxies?  If naturalism is true then there are plausible explanations for why we have so far not found indications of intelligent life elsewhere.

The conditions that prevail in our universe overall are inhospitable to intelligent life.  Radiation bursts from nova, supernova, and black holes, and collisions with meteors, comets, and asteroids promote repeated extinction events.  Earth has had a magnetic field that shields it from the sun's radiation since its infancy, our solar system has large middle orbit planets that reduces the number of earth collisions with large meteors, we are located out in one arm of the Milky Way distant from other exploding stars in the more crowded Galaxy interior, we have plate tectonics and oceans, there are heavier elements needed to support life from prior supernova.  Yet it took billions of years to go from single celled life to multiple celled life to intelligent life on earth.  Multi-celled life could be much rarer than single celled life.  Furthermore, intelligent life can destroy itself by war or by environmental destabilization, and it could rely on technology that does not produce radio waves.  Intelligent life may opt to try to hide its presence to avoid risking conflict with other intelligent life that may travel within or between galaxies.

We do not know much about the origin of life or how frequently life is residing elsewhere in our universe.  We know that life on our single planet appears to have a common ancestor and intelligent life with technology may be rare.  Professor Navarick claims there is sufficient evidence here for concluding there is a supernatural, life giving force.  His unbalanced argument is rooted in underestimating what is possible within the constraints of naturalism.  He is also understating the large distance between the existence of such an animistic supernatural force and the existence of a god that humans are properly justified to believe exists, let alone that humans should worship.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Petition the University of Warwick students union

Update: The Warwick SU now says they made a mistake and they apologized to Ms. Namazie who apparently had consulted with lawyers to discuss the feasibility of taking legal action against the student union or the university.

The Warwick Students Union made a pusillanimous decision to bar Maryam Namazie from giving a talk on campus to Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists, apparently because her apostasy offends some Muslims.  For those unfamiliar with Maryam, she is a secularist, a human-rights campaigner, a voice for reason, and leader of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.  There have been a string of such ugly double standard decisions over the past year by various university organizations in multiple different countries to refuse speakers who abandoned Islam.  People who abandoned Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion are never rejected as speakers by these same university organizations.  Tell the student union that they should not be coddling people who hold their religion to be sacred by forbidding speakers who reject religions as false and harmful. 

https://www.change.org/p/warwick-students-union-allow-maryam-namazie-to-speak-at-the-university-of-warwick?recruiter=1838688&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

This policy has the pope's blessing

Advocacy emails, blogs, articles, web sites, petitions, by the hundreds are citing statements by the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.  He is often referred to as the Holy Father by other Catholics,  but we non-Catholics more often refer to him simply as the Pope (a colloquial substitute for the Latin word for father). He tells us that we should welcome refugees, protect the environment, abolish the death penalty, equalize income, stop manufacturing and selling weapons, etc.  Congress recently listened to him speak at the invitation of the Catholic Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Good policy needs champions and bad policy needs opponents.  Yet a policy is not good because someone supports it nor bad because someone opposes it.  Pope Francis must make the argument for why any policy he favors would be good in competition with the people who argue that the policy would be bad, like every other advocate must do.  The Catholic Church has millions of members in he United States, and many millions more throughout the world, yet all popes speak merely as human representatives of a human institution with no special insights or authorities.

Too often religious leaders are deferred to.  They are perceived by too many people as speaking with more authority and wisdom than others.  Taught from childhood that faith in the truth of religious doctrines is a highest virtue, some people are all too happy to follow too uncritically their holy guru wearing white robes.  Religious leaders too often self-claim to have sacred insights into the will of an alleged deity who is the ultimate supernatural authority for all of humanity.  Pope Francis, not withstanding his efforts to convey an image of humbleness, unavoidably carries some of this haughty attitude, inextricably weaved into his position as religious head of the Catholic Church, with him.

Policy advocates should keep this in mind when they opportunistically cite this pope as favoring a policy that they also favor.  True liberals, whether they are religious or not, are freethinkers.  Policy can be defined as good or bad only on the secular criteria of merit and therefore must be identified from thinking and deliberation that is anchored as much as possible in what the available empirical evidence says regarding what best promotes human welfare. There are no shortcuts, there is no perfection, there are often trade-offs.  All religions are fictions, all gods are imaginary.  Advocacy groups that enthusiastically single out and cite this pope, as if his judgements should be understood to carry more weight than everyone else's, are not serving the public interest.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Kim Davis will lose

There is a legal distinction between policy making duties and ministerial duties.  The latter applies to contexts where the act or function is prescribed and involves following instructions to try to achieve uniformity and consistency of outcome and minimize discretion.  The function of issuing marriage licenses is ministerial.  

A court clerk must verify that a couple applying for a marriage license meets the requisite legal qualifications.  If the legal qualifications to be married are met then the court clerk has no discretion to deny the marriage license.  Conversely, if the legal qualifications to be married are not met then the court clerk has no discretion to issue the marriage license.  Whether the government bureaucrat is an elected official or not makes no difference, a ministerial duty is not discretionary.  Under Kentucky law, it is a class A misdemeanor for a government employee to refuse to carry out their ministerial duty.

Kim Davis has three honorable choices, and they are all bad.  She can carry out her ministerial duty against her will, resign, or spend the remainder of her days as the elected court clerk on an extended leave from her job under court order (possibly confined to her residence or jail).  While she is absent from work, one of her deputies will issue the marriage licenses, possibly without the court clerk's signature. The county attorney, the governor, and the state attorney general have publicly asserted that the marriage licenses issued without her signature are valid.  Kim Davis is litigating on behalf of her claim that she has discretion to refuse to authorize the issuance of licenses to legally qualified couples and licenses issued without her authorization are invalid.  This is a sweeping claim with negative implications for the rule of law and thus will be difficult for judges to accept.

Her attempts to have the licenses declared invalid could result in a court decision requiring her signature to appear on the licenses.  Maybe that is her real goal because with her signature on the licenses she can then try to make a freedom of expression violation claim.  But a free expression claim would still be weak because her signature technically communicates only her judgement that the couple qualifies for the license under the law, it does not communicate that she personally endorses the marriages.  Her claim that by authorizing the licenses while serving as court clerk she would be personally condoning same gender marriage, regardless of whether her signature appears on the license, is a dubious claim.  Unfortunately, some legal precedents are excessively accommodating of such religious belief burden claims, thus encouraging them.  But there is no room for judges to agree with Kim Davis without contradicting the Supreme Court decision mandating same gender marriage, so even the bad precedents will not help her case.

In my opinion, it would be better for the SCOTUS to impose an enforcement delay when they file controversial decisions like this that extend civic equality to disliked minorities.  The length of the enforcement delay can be set to the length of time it typically takes an employed person to find alternative employment.  Most government employees tasked with implementing the revised law will comply immediately.  Those that refuse would have time to look for other employment before being confronted with the bad choices confronting Kim Davis.  Misguided bigots, such as Kim Davis, are often otherwise law abiding citizens who need employment to pay their expenses.  Without the bad influence of bad religions maybe there would be fewer such reprehensible bigots.  Government employees who continue to refuse to carry out their ministerial duties or resign after the enforcement delay expires would then find themselves coerced by the state into absenting themselves from their government employment.  This strikes a balance between the short term protection of a civil right to employment opportunity for those government employees tasked with implementing the revised law on the one hand and the need to promptly revise the law to extend civic equality to those who have been unjustly denied civic equality for far too long on the other hand.

Such an enforcement delay could have postponed the day of reckoning until after the next Kentucky legislature session resumed.  The Kentucky legislature could revise the law to allow a court clerk deputy to authorize licenses and place their own signature on the license.  Kim Davis has indicated that she would not stand in the way of granting licenses if they were authorized and signed by someone else.

People must be qualified for their employment, just like people must be qualified to obtain a marriage license.  Whenever someone's beliefs disqualifies them from their current employment they become responsible for finding alternative employment.  Freedom of expression and belief is not synonymous with freedom from being burdened by any negative consequences that result from following our beliefs.  Nevertheless, government arguably does have some responsibility to give government employees an opportunity to find alternative employment before forcing them out when they become disqualified from their current employment due to a conflict with their beliefs as a result of a change in the law that they are tasked with implementing.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

Serious people should not cite David Barton

Bloomberg View published a new article by Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University, titled "What 'So Help Me God' Meant to George Washington", that tries to defend the claim that George Washington ended his initial presidential oath of office with the words "So help me God".  Mr. Feldman overlooks the fact that George Washington avoided using the word "God" in his speeches or in his public and private writing.  He also fails to notice that the oaths that frequently concluded with SHMG were usually administered as religious loyalty test oaths. The Constitution, with GW’s signature at the top, made a radical break from earlier American history by proscribing religious test oaths. An example of GW’s attitude against religious test oaths is his May 7, 1778 General Orders that left the trailing SHMG outside of the quotation marks so that the printed oath certificates did not include SHMG.

Mr. Feldman cites David Barton's argument that GW said SHMG.  Mr. Barton identifies various federal government authorities who asserted in the past that president George Washington appended "So help me God" to his first oath of office.  That is exactly the problem.  To make a positive factual historical claim requires supporting evidence.  David Barton conveniently ignores that the federal authorities he listed have withdrawn this illegitimate factual assertion after it was pointed out that there is no such evidence.  

The books that first claimed that the first president uttered that phrase, which were published over 60 years later, after the adult eyewitnesses were dead, fail to identify an eyewitness.  Although the author of one of those books, Washington Irving, attended the ceremony in 1789 as a six year old child, he did not claim that he heard those words himself and from where he was standing at the time he would have been too far away to reliably hear anything that was spoken on the balcony.  Instead, Mr. Irving copied into his book a not yet published eyewitness account of the oath ceremony written by someone else (Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861,) without acknowledging the original author.  He then added the SHMG to that original account.

A detailed first hand account of the first presidential oath ceremony from the French ambassador, who was on the balcony with GW, quotes the words of the oath as he heard it (written in French).  We also have a statement from Mr. Samuel Otis saying he lifted the bible towards the new president's head.  Mr. Otis presumably did that because he knew they were following NY state law and kissing the bible was part of the usual mode of administering an oath in NY at that time.  Appending the divine codicil was not part of the NY state oath procedure, unlike in NJ and several other states which, conversely, did not instruct the oath taker to kiss a bible.

There is no evidence for either a bible or a divine codicil during the second inauguration oath ceremony, which was the first presidential inauguration under federal law.  Furthermore, contemporaneous eyewitness accounts consistently support the conclusion that no president appended this divine codicil until, at the earliest, maybe Lincoln during his second inauguration, although the evidence for this is thin and contradicted.  It appears more likely that the first president to say SHMG was Chester Arthur in 1881, based on the newspaper reports.  However, Chester Arthur did not recite the oath, he merely replied affirmatively to the Chief Justice's questioning if he agreed to the oath as recited by the Chief Justice.  FDR was the first president that we know recited the oath with the divine codicil appended.  No Chief Justice misrepresented the presidential oath by prompting for SHMG until the 20th century.  Contrary to what Mr. Feldman claims, there is every reason to think that eyewitnesses who reported on the presence and use of a bible would have also reported on a divine codicil.  That placing a hand on a bible and kissing a bible was standard practice did not discourage eyewitnesses from noting its use.

Mr. Feldman cites Mr. Barton as providing a counterargument to Professor Henriques who argues that we should stop declaring GW appended SHMG.  Mr. Henriques is a professor emeritus of history with impeccable academic credentials and integrity (he wrote 'Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington').  Mr. Barton is a many times over discredited professional propagandist with a long and ignoble track record of consistently promoting a biased, distorted, and misleading historical revisionism for the obvious purpose of advancing the political agenda of the religious right.  A little common sense is all that is needed to recognize whose argument merits be taking seriously and whose argument merits a large dose of skepticism.  People like Mr. Feldman who fail to make this distinction are unworthy of being published in any newspaper or magazine that is worthy of being taken seriously.  And the counterarguments appearing in the book by Mr. Church, who was not a historian and was also cited by Mr. Feldman, are mistaken.  See http://www.nonbeliever.org/commentary/inaugural_shmG.html.

Mr. Feldman does not ask what should be an obvious question:  Why would Washington add a personal statement to the Constitutional oath written at the Convention that he presided over?  Congress had already decided to remove the SHMG phrase from the proposed executive and legislative branch oaths bill prior to the presidential oath ceremony.  That the Chief Justice of the U.S. now makes SHMG part of the presidential oath when administered is an unconstitutional act because it takes it beyond being a personal statement on the part of the person being sworn in and makes it seem like it's part of the oath, which it is not.

Theism turns itself into a dependency and there are theists who think that good and pragmatic people everywhere recognize that dependency as being positive and want to nurture it in everyone.  Noah Feldman appears to be arguing from that perspective.  This perspective too often becomes a justification for the exclusion of non-theists from positions of authority or responsibility.  Mr. Feldman argues that secular oaths were about accommodating Quakers.  We agree that such accommodation played a significant role. However, there is evidence that civic equality for deists and atheists was on some people's minds even in the late 18th century.  Thomas Jefferson said atheism harms no one and merited consideration.   

As we learn more about how the universe functions we have a concomitant responsibility to apply that knowledge wherever it is relevant.  Relying on history to justify freezing in place old prejudices built on old ignorance via the law is a misuse of history.  Unfortunately, for people who are themselves still trapped in a prejudiced perspective, this can be difficult to understand.  So we need to point this out.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crediting liberal religion for their secularism

Many religious people evaluate public policy on the merits and reach the same public policy conclusions as non-religious people.  We non-religious folk are thankful that so many religious people have a secularist orientation.  We lobby together for our shared public policy goals.  So why would anyone publicly argue against religious belief?  Isn't religious belief the wrong target?

The ongoing Republican Party effort to defund Planned Parenthood illustrates why publicly arguing against religion is what we should be doing.  Almost 100% of the slander campaign against Planned Parenthood originates with religious institutions.  Some of the people who actively join this campaign against Planned Parenthood are not themselves religious.  These people are often career Republican party loyalists who probably could not care less if Planned Parenthood was funded or not and will advocate for whatever is popular among rank and file Republicans.  If we experience another government shutdown over defunding of Planned Parenthood, as Republicans are currently threatening, then everyone who voted for the majority Republican Congress will share responsibility for the negative consequences.

As for the religious institutions and believers who have a secularist outlook, they have a secularist outlook despite their religious belief, not because of it.  They may self-claim that their secularist outlook is rooted in their religious belief, but then they are mistaken.  If they abandoned their religious belief they would still have a secularist outlook.  To the extent abandoning religion has a political impact, the impact will be to move public opinion further towards secularism.

However, it is not any political calculus that justifies criticism of religious belief.  Religious belief and the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood both merit criticism because they are both built on false assertions and false premises.  To criticize religious belief only when it is anti-secularist is to politicize criticism of religious belief.  It is wrong to politicize everything this way.  There are such things as true and false, better and worse, good and bad.  Politics is important, but merit is even more important. After all, good politics is built on merit.