Saturday, November 28, 2009

Columnist Kristoff equates peace with liberal theology

In his recent column "The Religious Wars" (NY Times, November 26), Nicholas D Kristoff promotes as "more thoughtful" books written by Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong that advocate for liberal theism and religious belief. He expresses hopes that these books mark "an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance". However, the arguments for theism and religion made by Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong are actually less thoughtful than the competing arguments by the New Atheists. Furthermore, it is counterproductive to assert that such dubious beliefs are necessary for peace and tolerance.

For example, Mr. Wright's argument that "to the extent that 'god' grows, that is evidence - of higher purpose" is unconvincing. What goes on in peoples' heads regarding their definitions of gods, and the ways those definitions have changed over history, are no evidence for anything outside of people's heads other than maybe the influences on them of their contemporary experiences. His entire book, starting with the title, is built on conflating a fictional god with non-fictional concepts of god. He writes about the latter while referring to the former as if merely imagining something's existence suffices to confirm its existence. Ms. Armstrong makes this same fundamental error, arguing as if merely imagining concepts of god, and we all agree that such concepts really do exist in people's heads, evidences a non-fictional god's "ineffable presence". She skirts around the simpler and more obvious explanation for the only evidences of substance favoring her ill-defined god's presence being placebo effects: There is no god for us to understand.

If Mr. Kristoff is serious about wanting to promote more harmony between theists and atheists then he would do much better to refrain from calling our disagreements a "war" and mischaracterizing atheists as exhibiting "intolerance", being "combative", and being more "extreme" than liberal theists (or pantheists, agnostics, faitheists, or whatever they consider themselves to be), such as Wright and Armstrong, simply because those atheists sincerely and publicly disagree with liberal theists about the existence of a "higher purpose" and/or an "ineffable presence" deity. Atheists as a group are only guilty of expressing their conscience regarding the direction of the overall weight of the evidence on these questions. Liberal theists surely have beliefs that are on one end of the spectrum on other questions without self-labeling themselves to be "at the extremes". Liberal theists surely publicly disagree with other people over other questions without self-labeling themselves as intolerant and combative. Is it too much to ask of Mr. Kristoff not to label others as he wouldn't label himself?

Disbelief in all gods (of the "god did it" varieties, not the concepts of gods) is no more responsible for conflict than disbelief in Greek gods or than disbelief in other likely fictions, including Kristoff's own favored "more beneficent and universal deity". Its more modest, and more reasonable, to follow the evidence (verifiable, empirical, reproducible, evidence) wherever it takes us, instead of insisting on staying forever with a particular conclusion. Utilizing an evidence based approach makes it both easier to reach agreement and easier to disagree without mislabeling such disagreement as war and mislabeling as intolerant and combative the people with whom we disagree.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

AP news article slanted against atheist activism

The national religion reporter for Associated Press, Eric Gorski, apparently motivated by an increase in the number of campus affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance "from 80 in 2007 to 100 in 2008 and 174 this fall", authored a recently published article titled "Atheist student groups flower on college campuses". The news article is well written and presents facts about atheist campus clubs with a neutral, even sympathetic, tone. Yet the article's selection of quotations and focus also has a pronounced bias against non-establishment of monotheism activism. Mr. Eric Gorski selected quotes from atheists that promote the article's underlying theme that confrontational activism and anti-religion sentiment are positively correlated negatives, in contrast with a more cooperative, and therefore positive, example of activism disliked by anti-religion atheists that focuses on other general concerns of liberals (in this case more civic equality for gays).

Mr. Gorski asks "Should student atheist groups go it alone or build bridges with Christian groups? Organize political protests or quiet discussion groups? Adopt the militant posture of the new atheists? Or wave and smile?" If only because of time and resources constraints, these are some of the choices of focus and emphasis that atheist groups may, to some extent, confront. But Mr. Gorski over dramatizes these choices by presenting at least some of these choices as being in conflict with each other when, in fact, they are all mutually compatible and self-consistent.

The article cites one atheist campus club that decided to join a liberal religious group in supporting equal legal status for gays as exemplifying a controversy among atheists over whether to work with religious groups. Here the article focuses on an alleged conflict between such cooperative activism and the anti-religion sentiment of some atheists. It then cites that club's decision to avoid taking a position against a university chapel's religious symbols because some members "fear repercussions and don't think a fight is worth it." A club member who was identified at the start of the article as exemplifying the "wave and smile", "happy face of atheism" is quoted as supporting that decision on the grounds that she is uncomfortable with "calling out religion as wrong." That quote incorrectly conflates lobbying a secular educational institution to exhibit neutrality between various religious and non-religious viewpoints with "calling out religion as wrong".

The article then quotes an organizer for the Secular Student Alliance saying "college students can be a little more susceptible to the more reactionary anti-religion voices, partly because it's so new to them. My impression is after a couple of years, they mellow out." Maybe after a couple years a more pro-religion atheist will become more anti-religion in orientation? Like the question of atheism versus theism, answers to questions regarding the nature of the influences of religions on societies should not be regarded as predetermined, fixed conclusions, but subject to weight of the evidence evaluation and discussion. Either way, surely the sentiments for and against religion are separable, and indeed separate, from the sentiment for civic equality between different religions and between atheism and theism. Independently of how pro-religion or anti-religion we are individually, groups of atheists can be, and arguably we should be, willing to be a little confrontational, and even a little militant, on behalf of such civic equality while also waving and smiling and joining with theists of all religious orientations for debate and coalition politicking.

Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame and "a principal investigator on the youth and religion study" is quoted at the conclusion of this article. He is cited as asserting that campus atheist groups are better off without militancy. Young adults are taught their entire lives to be nonjudgmental, that different points of views are OK and that there is no one truth, he said. "If I were advising atheists and humanists, I would say their long-term prospects are much better if they can successfully create this space where people view them as happy, OK, cooperative, nice people."

Those atheists who appear to some people to be confrontational and militant on behalf of promoting more civic equality and/or who do think that what is true is sometimes singular and exclusive to multiple competing falsehoods are also happy, cooperative, nice people. Indeed, contrary to what Christian Smith says, most adults, young and old, including most religious adults and most theists, justifiably think truth is sometimes singular and exclusive to a competing multitude of falsehoods. Furthermore, most such adults justifiably prefer that others share their own insights regarding which is which. There should be no acceptable double standard here with regard to atheists. The real issue is not how firmly or exclusively one holds to any particular belief, but whether the belief is properly justified and held in proper proportion to the overall weight of the evidence.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to identify a history book not written for accuracy.

Why is it that professors with Phd's are still publishing academic books asserting as a historical fact that George Washington and "all of his successors" appended the phrase "so help me God" to their oath of office? In a brief recent correspondance with one such history book author I heard several of the common defenses. Here are the defenses and my reaction to them.

One response is that there are a number of eyewitness accounts. This is simply incorrect. There is insufficient reason to assume that Washington Irving's claim that GW appended that phrase was based on his hearing that phrase being appended as a six year old. The others who first made this claim in the mid to late 1850's, 65 years after the event, were either not born, illiterate infants, and/or not in the vicinity of the inaugural at that time, and were as a group in social contact with each other. We have one eyewitness account from the French minister that quotes the oath. I explain this in more detail below.

Another, more common response is that the presidents used religious themes and that this lends credence to accounts that they finished with SHMG. This is OK as an argument in defense of the opinion that all of the presidents appended SHMG, although as a defense of a such a sweeping opinion it is weak, especially since we have a audio recording proving that least one president did not append SHMG and eyewitness accounts of some presidents not appending SHMG. But putting the contrary evidence aside, that still does not even come close to justifying claiming that GW, let alone all presidents, appended SHMG as a historical fact. The bottom line is that there is no evidence that our presidents appended that phrase to the presidential oath of office prior to Confederate president Jefferson Davis doing so. It is my opinion, for example, that Jefferson Davis wanted to confer upon the Confederacy a sense of moral superiority by appending that phrase as a contrast with the United States presidential inaugurals which up to that time apparently did not include that phrase. I think the evidence supports my opinion much better than it supports the contrary opinion that all presidents appended SHMG. But professors with Doctorates of Philosophy who falsely publish that it is a historical fact that all presidents appended that phrase in serious acadamic reference books and textbooks for history and political science students are in effect suppressing the legitimacy of such justified opinions that are consistent with the evidence. This is a foul thing for such professors to be doing, they are in effect abusing their professional titles for the purpose of misleading propagandizing.

Another common response is to simply ignore the fact that there is no evidence that any other president, let alone that all of the other presidents, appended that phrase prior to the Civil War. Instead, the professor tries to change the subject and question the motives of the person protesting that there is no evidence at all, and/or emphasizes the catch all "you can't prove they didn't all say it" defense as if that is sufficient justification for claiming they did say it. The motives of the people criticizing the professors who make this assertion of historical fact, for which there is literally no evidence whatsoever, is to challenge the falsification of history by monotheists for sectarian political purposes. It is the professors responsibility to show that there is sufficient evidence to qualify this 'they all appended "SHMG"' assertion as a historical fact, not the critics responsibility to show that they are religious monotheists who support establishment of monotheism and have proof it was not said in order to have credibility as a critic.

Because I consider all email exchanges to be private unless both parties agree to publish them, I will not reveal the name of the professor or the academic reference book he authored that falsely claims it is a historical fact that all presidents appended this phrase. I will display the emails below with identifying information removed:

My initial email:

The following is from your book [removed]: [removed]

I am not aware of any contemporaneous eyewitness evidence that any president appended "SHMG" to their oath office prior to the Civil War. The confederate president, Jefferson Davis, appears to be the first who we can say with any confidence appended that phrase to a presidential oath of office. If you are aware of evidence that "all" presidents appended that phrase to their oath of office, or for that matter to anything else that they said during their inauguration, then please tell us know about that evidence. Otherwise, please refrain from publishing such a sweeping statement in a textbook as if it is a historical statement when it clearly is not.

The notion that George Washington added "So help me God" to his presidential oath made its debut in the mid-nineteenth century and was first promoted in a published format by Rufus W. Griswold (February 13, 1815 – August 27, 1857) in his book, Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of George Washington, pgs 140-141 (1854). A website maintained by the Edgar Allen Poe Society identifies Griswold as "a failed Baptist minister turned editor" who slandered Poe after Poe died, claiming that "he forged letters by Poe and made changes in the texts of Poe's work to support his lies, portraying Poe as a fiend and a drug addict."

Here's how the debut took place. Early on in Griswold's inaugural narrative, just after Washington had completed pronouncing the words of the oath, he writes:

The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss the sacred pages, he said, audibly, 'I swear,' and he added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in supplication, 'So help me God.'

Soon afterwards, when Griswold has finished describing Washington's inaugural ceremony, he then adds this tidbit about Washington Irving:

Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but walking, not many months ago, near the middle of a night of unusual beauty, through Broadway - at that hour scarcely disturbed by any voices or footfalls except our own - Washington Irving related to Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis [1789 - 1861] and myself his recollections of these scenes, with that graceful conversational eloquence of which he is one of the greatest of living masters. He had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street [a sideway's location about 200 feet away] had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony.

One may want to assume that Griswold had used Washington Irving as his source for asserting that Washington had added the "supplication, 'So help me God'," to his presidential oath, but if that is the case, it is not spelled out by Griswold. Furthermore, could six year old Washington Irving, from a distance of 200 feet in a crowd, have seen George Washington momentarily close his eye and then accurately recalled this sixty years latter? Irving's nephew's long biography of his uncle, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, by Pierre Monroe Irving, 1869, G.P. Putnam's sons, doesn't mention Washington Irving viewing the first presidential inauguration, even briefly, although it did describe Irving's personal encounter with Washington as a young boy. Irving had discussed his biography project with his nephew since the 1840s, and Pierre was assisting his uncle with writing it in the mid-1850s. So if Irving was recalling the inaugural based on his personally witnessing the events then Pierre would certainly have been privy to this and presumably would have recognized its importance to his project. This lack of confirmation that Irving witnessed the first presidential inauguration thus leaves room for doubt that six year old Irving really was a witness to the inauguration as Griswold claimed.

Three years later, when Washington Irving's narrative describing the inaugural ceremony was published, he, too, left out any reference to a source he might have used. That may not be unusual by itself for historians of that period, but what is extremely problematic for Irving's reliability as a credible historian is that he apparently stole his narrative (with the exception of GW adding SHMG) from the Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy. Here is the footnote at bottom of page 52:

The previous pages, which describe the entrance and inauguration of Washington, were sent to Mr. Irving, in 1856, at his request, by the Editor, and are inserted in his "Life of Washington," vol iv. pp. 510, 513, 514, but without reference to their source.

Elsewhere in Irving's GW biography, Irving says that two horses pulled GW's Carriage of State. Newspapers of the day said that the Carriage of State, loaned out by the Beekman family, was pulled by four horses. It was one of the few carriages that had four horses. So much for Irving having "watched the procession" while it moved, out of his sight, along Broad Street. Indeed, Irving apparently did little if any original research for his popular biography of George Washington. According to The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, by Franklin Steiner, 1936, most of Washington Irving's biography of George Washington is copied from the biography written by historian Sparks. Similarly, in his article on Washington in the Dictionary of American Biography (1936), J C Fitzpatrick wrote, "Washington Irving, Life of GW (5 vols., 1855-1859) is satisfactory from most viewpoints, though its reliance on [Jared] Sparks lessens the confidence it would otherwise command."

For more information see the January 12, 2009 History News Network article, “So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded, by Professor Peter Henriques.

Furthermore, the notion that George Washington initiated a precedent, tradition, or custom by adding SHMG to his oath that other presidents have followed appears to have first materialized in the middle of the 1900's during the height of the Cold War! The earliest document we have found that explicitly characterizes appending shmG to the presidential oath as an inaugural tradition is from an article in the Herald Press, January 20, 1953 . This particular notion appears to be a twentieth century invention. A book The Soul of George Washington by Joseph Buffington, (1936) page 144 says 'When he took it in that form and he then bowed his head and kissed the Sacred Book and, with the deepest feeling, uttered the words "so help me God." These latter words, now accompanying the foregoing one in official oaths we owe to George Washington.' In other words, he is claiming that the post-Civil War legal oaths that "now" included that phrase were following a GW precedent, but he did not claim it set an earlier precedent for presidential oaths. As far as we have been able to determine it appears nowhere in anything published in the 1800's.

Mathew Goldstein

The professors first response:

Aside from the considerable number of eyewitness accounts (you mention several, although you have decided they are not credible), you also might take a look at Washington's first inaugural address, which goes on and on at great length about the Deity. Even if you are correct (I don't see how you could prove it, but that's a question about the logic of social science and historical inquiry) on the particular SHMG issue, the fact that Washington and other presidents used religious themes at their inaugural is simply a matter of historical fact, easily developed through a simple reading of their addresses. This lends credence to accounts that they finished up with SHMG.

So I wonder what point you are trying to make. If it is some point about separation of church and state at the time, the historical record indicates that such separation, while existing under the Constitution ("No religious test...") for certain purposes, did not generally prevent people from swearing oaths to God at judicial and political ceremonies.

My second attempt to get the professor to address the issue of the evidence for his assertion:

Thank you for your quick response.

The 1850's publications claiming GW said "SHMG" are not eyewitness accounts, only one of the authors was alive, old enough to be fluent in English, and in the vicinity. That one author, Washington Irving, did not self-claim to be recalling an oath recitation he heard as a six year old. Again, Irving's published account of the event was copied without attribution from an eyewitness, Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, who, like all of the other known eyewitnesses, didn't claim that GW appended that phrase (someone else later added the "SHMG" to her original account about a decade after she had died, a copy of which, without the SHMG, can be found in The Inauguration of Washington, by Clarence Winthrop Bowen). The best eyewitness account we have of the oath recitation, the only one that actually quotes the oath recitation, was written by a French minister who stood on the stage near GW. That account does not mention GW appending "SHMG".

Donald Ritchie, co-author of the Oxford Guide to the US Gov't, made this statement to Lisa Miller in a Jan 20, 2009 newsweek article titled God and the Oath of Office
Did Washington swear to God? That legend may be as apocryphal as the one about the cherry tree
: "The fact is, according to Donald Ritchie, a historian at the Senate Historical Office, we have no idea what most 19th-century presidents have said about God as they were sworn in because for most of American history there were no microphones and no recording devices." Maybe you had a secret "recording device" hidden away somewhere to support your claim about "all his successors"?

If Donald Ritchie can publically make this modest statement then so can you. Of course we shouldn't hide or disguise the fact that most presidents, including GW, utilized religious themes at their inaugurations, just please confine yourself to the evidence when doing so. We have no evidence, for example, that GW made any reference to deity during his second inaugural, which, unlike his first inaugural, was conducted according to GW's direction. In the first inaugural the presence of a bible, the lifting of the bible to his face, the church service, even the writing of the inaugural speech, were actions initiated by or carried out by others on short notice, which is why the absence of any religious references during his second inauguration is significant. Regardless of any other history, the significance of the oath history stands on its own and shouldn't be modified to match the religious preferences of the textbook's author(s) or the potential readership or purchasers.

Given that it is your textbook that asserts GW appending "SHMG" set a precedent that was followed by all other presidents, it seems to me kind of hypocritical for you to accuse me of making too big a deal about this. Are you going to continue to spout this so-called history as real or are you going to fess up to the fact that there are no, zero, known eyewitness accounts that GW ever said "SHMG" during either of his inaugurations?

The professors refusal to engage the issue of the evidence is final:

Please don't e-mail me or contact me again. I am not interested in exchanges with people who are obnoxious. Go write your own reference book if you don't like ours.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Supreme Court threatens to undermine our political free speech rights

The Supreme Court is currently weighing a free speech dispute. At its narrowest, the case tests whether it is constitutional to prohibit the primary election season broadcasting by a cable television video-on-demand service of a movie attacking candidate Hillary Clinton that was promoted by a non-profit organization. Congressional law restricts the spending of money by corporations and labor unions for partisan purposes during elections. Money and speech are linked since money buys access to billboards, pamphlets, signs, research, letters, radio, television, internet web pages, transportation, hotels, meeting hall rentals, telephone calls, etc. The Supreme Court could just rule on the specifics of this case, but the conservative Supreme Court majority appears to be eager to make a sweeping first amendment free speech decision against the existing court precedents upholding congressional restrictions on partisan spending by corporations and labor unions.

All free speech law should be firmly rooted in giving priority to the speech of individuals because all speech originates as an action of individuals and because civil rights are people-centered. Corporations, as legal constructs, should not have free speech priority over individuals, particularly with regard to political speech which has civil rights priority over other forms of speech. Individuals have free speech rights to associate with others of like mind and pool their resources to promote their shared viewpoint. Accordingly, corporations and labor unions in the United States can sponsor Political Action Committees, or PACs, which are associations of individuals to promote the partisan political interests of the corporation or labor union. PACs fulfill the requirement of rooting free speech in individuals and give both for-profit and non-profit organizations, including corporations and labor unions, equal opportunity to influence the political process with all other associations of individuals.

The conservative judges on the Supreme Court are endorsing weak arguments that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individuals. They are claiming that somehow the 1st amendment free speech right for individuals is being denied when corporations and labor unions can't spend their general funds on political parties and candidates. Those are strange arguments, they defy common sense.

The fortune 100 companies in 2007 reported over 500 billion in profits. The profits of major United States corporations is no doubt well over a trillion a year. Political parties and candidates in the United States take in about 3 billion dollars a year. The numbers demonstrate that when corporate general funds start flowing to political parties and candidates they can, and probably will, dominate over the speech of individuals. Corporations tend to favor more freedom to sell anything, no matter the costs to health and future generations, using any means, no matter how dishonest, while paying the least salaries and benefits to workers, without accountability to anyone else and without paying taxes. They also favor unfair restrictions on and advantages over competitors. Corporations will contribute their profits to the political party and candidates who agree to favor laws that will impose such skewed outcomes. Giving the same legal privileges to labor unions doesn't create a balance here, corporations have much more money to spend than labor unions do.

For most people, the bulk of their stock ownership is in publicly traded stock. Shareholders get to vote for the corporate board of directors, but its far from an epitome of a democratic process. The board of directors nominating committee selects the candidates and shareholders can only vote yes or no for the nominees. Furthermore, voting is weighted by number of shares, and retirement, insurance, and investment funds, who collectively hold a large portion of corporate stock, neither disclose their votes nor ask the individual investors who own the shares how to vote their shares. Most corporations either do not issue public stock or place all ownership of the company's stock in the hand of a relatively small number of people who do not trade the stock publicly on the stock market, so there isn't even the pretense of larger public democratic control over how such corporate profits are spent.

Even if shareholders did have control over the policies of the corporation, which in practice they mostly do not, the fact remains that shareholders own stock because they want to make a profit, or at least not lose money to inflation. Similarly, the employees, who enable the corporation to accumulate profits, are working for the corporation to earn money. Employees usually own little or no stock in the corporations that employ them. Unlike contributors to corporate and union PACs, shareholders and employees are not a group of like minded individuals associating for the purpose of promoting or opposing political parties and candidates. It is anti-democratic to place investors and employees and union members in the coerced inferior position of having some portion of their investments and earnings that are under the control of corporate and union executives spent by those corporate and union executives on behalf of (or against) political parties and candidates.

If the Supreme Court rules that corporations and labor unions have a first amendment political free speech right to spend their general funds on political parties and candidates then they will be undermining the political free speech rights of individuals.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Robert Wright's defense of theism falls short

I recently encountered part of a Huffington Post interview titled "Q&A with Robert Wright (Part 2): Is Belief in God Any Weirder Than Belief in Electrons?" Robert Wright, author of a book entitled "evolution of God, exemplifies the weak nature of the arguments that some intelligent liberal monotheists use to defend theism against atheism.

Robert Wright starts by pointing out that electrons have internally contradictory wave and particle properties from which he concludes that belief in God is not weirder than belief in electrons. The weirdness of electron's dual character is a symptom of our lack of an explanation for the particle and wave properties being simultaneously present, but we know the properties are true because we have excellent empirical evidence for it. We have no similar empirical evidence for God and that is a key difference here. If we were to one day find an explanation for the electron's combination of properties then its weirdness would be diminished. Robert Wright mistakenly forecloses that possibility by asserting that the electron's properties are "beyond human comprehension." Of course, what we don't understand is, ipso facto, beyond our current comprehension. Maybe it is also beyond human comprehension forever, but we don't know that it is. We actually have good reason to think that one day we will have an explanation for the dual particle and wave properties of electrons. What is that good reason? Its the history of science and the surprising and unanticipated nature of many of the explanations that have been identified. For example, no one imagined nuclear fusion as the source of the sun's heat and light before it was discovered. There are many historical examples of phenomena which we didn't even know existed and which once discovered were very puzzling but were later explained in ways that no one had previously imagined.

Robert Wright then answers affirmatively this question: "If thinking of divinity as something that exists leads people to behave in a morally progressive fashion, might that give validity to a conception of divinity?" The correct answer is no, because any benefits derived from thinking that a deity exists is an entirely distinct and separate phenomena from the fact of that, or any other, deity existing. If you believe you will be punished by god for violating some rule then you may be more likely to respect that rule even though, in fact, you will never be punished by a god for violating that rule because there is no god. Again, Robert Wright defends his conclusion by making an inappropriate comparison with electrons, citing an unnamed physicist who allegedly said "I'm not sure electrons per se really exist. It is, however, useful to talk as if electrons exist. You get good scientific results using that kind of language." The physicist here probably is expressing the fact that our empirically based representation of electrons is an oversimplification, and thus strictly speaking incorrect, because it is at best incompletely explained. Again, the electron existence question is substantially different than the God existence question because for the latter there is no supporting empirical evidence.

Robert Wright expresses incomprehension for atheists: "Strictly speaking, I don't understand how people can call themselves atheists, if the term means you're sure there's no God. I don't see how you can be sure of anything in this world. I'm technically an agnostic, although one with spiritual and religious leanings. But I don't know anything, and I don't know how anyone can say they know there's no God." But the term atheist doesn't mean certainty by absolute proof that we know there is no God. Atheism is a viewpoint that the weight of the evidence justifies the conviction that there is no God (my view), or at least it doesn't justify the conviction that there is a God. Atheists are also often agnostic (I am).

Robert Wright expresses understanding for theists: "If you have a religious experience and God appears, I can see how you'd be pretty convinced. Strictly speaking you still don't know that it's not an illusion, but it's easier for me to understand someone who says they're a religious believer than somebody who says they're an atheist. Because the religious believer says, 'I saw it.'" If a God existed that made its presence known via religious experience, which would be an inefficient way for such a God to make its presence known when it presumably could utilize a more direct and confirmable method for making its presence known, then why do Hindus experience Hindu gods and Muslims experience an Islamic god and Catholics experience a Catholic god and Africans experience tribal African gods when many of these gods have incompatible attributes and identities? The well studied and documented pattern of people experiencing the particular and specific gods that they already know is strong evidence that those experiences are driven by their pre-existing beliefs and as such are strictly mental experiences, much like the experience of imagining monsters under one's bed or behind the nearest closet after watching an alien monster invasion movie. Thus, on closer examination, the religious experience phenomena evidence favors atheism over theisms.

Robert Wright ends by discussing meditation: "This gets at another thing William James said, that our ordinary state of consciousness, the one we use to drive to work and get through life, is just one possible state of consciousness, and there's no reason to assume that it's any more valid than a lot of other possible states. I think in some ways it's manifestly less valid, because our ordinary state of consciousness was designed by natural selection to serve our own interests. And it is an illusion." If a state of conscience serves our own interests then it is validated against something external to ourselves. That is a far from perfect form of validation, but it is also far better than nothing. If a state of conscience does not serve our own interest then it isn't validated against anything external to ourselves. So which is less trustworthy? Logically the unvalidated form of conscience is less trustworthy. Robert Wright isn't particularly logical when it comes to justifying theism.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Netroots National Convention and Bruce Ledewitz promote bad EC arguments

The Netroots Nation Convention panel meeting in Pittsburgh drafted a proposal concerning the future of the separation of church and state in America. The proposal blatantly first assumes the conclusion that government establishment of monotheism is constitutional and then tries to justify that conclusion instead of starting with the constitutional principle and then trying to reach the proper conclusion:

"The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed--one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like 'under God' in universal terms. For example, the word 'God' can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition."

Before proceeding I must digress a little to blast the call for "without criticism" censorship in the above paragraph. The fact is that when anyone proposes public policies based on religious beliefs those religious beliefs necessarily become part of the public debate and thus subject to criticism. This notion that somehow religious motivations for public policies, unlike all other public policy motivations, are immune from public criticism when debating the policy is an indefensible double standard. That is an intolerant and one-sided censorship on the debate and is completely unreasonable and unrealistic.

The Establishment Clause is not about religious believers and their religious beliefs, its about government and the law, so the burden here is on the law and government to avoid unnecessary religious partisanship in word and deed, the burden is not on religious believers to assert the universality of religious expressions and practices in the laws and government actions by substituting non-religious language that derives from their particular partisan religious beliefs. That should be obvious. Yet somehow a Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law named Bruce Ledewitz actually endorses this unbalanced and superficial approach. According to the Professor “As long as government plausibly justifies religious imagery in nonreligious terms, its use would be constitutional.” He gives an example:

1) The phrase “In God We Trust” can also mean that we acknowledge that there are binding standards of right and wrong.
2) IGWT is constitutional.

For a monotheist who believes that God is the source of morality, but not the source of immorality, and that God must be obeyed, it is indeed plausible to assert that almost any religious imagery consistent with those religious beliefs serves the dual purpose of upholding "moral standards". It is worth pointing out here that exactly what those "moral" standards are is going to vary with the religious beliefs and may not actually be ethical at all, there is much content in the bible and other holy books that is nasty, cruel, ugly and brutal. The key point here, however, is that Ledewitz is applying a partisan Christian compatible monotheistic methodology to constitutional interpretation of the Establishment Clause and consequently undermines his assertion of achieving universality to comply with Equality before the Law and the related Establishment Clauses of the constitution. As an atheist the notion that God is the source of morality and therefore references to God belief are synonymous with references to upholding morality is simply mistaken, its a non-starter, its not at all plausible just like the gods beliefs they are rooted in are not plausible. Furthermore, those theists who think gods are the source of immorality or that god(s) should not be obeyed would consider it wrong to assert IGWT. Bah humbug to the arrogant and ridiculous claim of universiality for his own partisan IGWT religious belief.

A central purpose of the EC is to carve out a sphere of freedom for everyone, especially for minorities in a democracy that tends to favor majorities, to be themselves without the interference of unnecessary government favoritism for or against their religious beliefs. We are not achieving that purpose if we start to call the exclusivist religious beliefs of a majority universal for no other reason that they can be rephrased into non-religious language by the people who hold those religious beliefs because those religious beliefs also claim various roles in the secular world. If most Americans believe that poverty, or illness, or natural disaster, is due to failure to worship the God properly then according to Professor Ledewitz we have a plausible secular justification for government to justify religious imagery promoting proper worship. Religious believers thus get to have their majoritarian religious beliefs laundered by the law into secular beliefs by self-declaration.

Isn’t it obvious that these are not secular justifications at all? They are partisan religious justifications for partisan religious phrases rooted in assigning a god particular attributes. It is only by making the partisan religious assumptions inherent in assigning particular attributes to a personal god that people can generalize that a partisan religious phrase is equivalent in meaning to a non-religious condition or event or outcome in the first place. And it is only by giving special privilege to majoritarian religious beliefs over the beliefs of minorities that such religiously partisan imagery backed by religious partisan arguments can be adopted into law.

Ledewitz’s method gets us nowhere with regard to first amendment jurisprudence, its a closed circle that starts and ends with the same legal privileging of majoritarian partisan religious beliefs it falsely claims to discard for EC purposes via the all-purpose, catch-all contrivance of substituting religious imagery with religiously derived non-religious imagery. Then, with a wink and crossed fingers held behind one’s back, Ledewitz's approach disregards the actual exclusivist religious imagery in dispute and the exclusivist religious derivation of the transformation to non-religious imagery while pointing to the remaining non-religious substitute in isolation and insisting that it be labeled as universal and be judged as constitutional as a proxy for the actual religious imagery. If would be a shame to our nation if our Supreme Court were to adopt Professor Ledewitz's blatantly disingenuous contrivance to avoid upholding the EC no less than it would be shame to our nation if our Supreme Court were to more directly endorse the same unfair result by adopting Scalia's unprincipled endorsement of inequality before the law with respect to the EC for "nonbelievers", Buddhists and Hindus.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Why Mooney is wrong about improving scientific literacy

Chris Mooney's argument is as follows:

For instance, if evolution is true, but also in some sense leads to or entails atheism (the Coyne/New Atheist view), then we are going to have a vastly harder time getting much of religious America ever to accept evolution.

I believe the central reason we have such massive problems with the teaching of evolution to be precisely this—millions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it. This misconception is highly prevalent, and is regularly reinforced in a number of ways: Through the media, by church leaders, by the New Atheists, and so on.

If this incorrect view could somehow be dislodged, then, we might also have a better chance of defusing tensions over the teaching of evolution, and thereby improving “scientific literacy” (a term we define in more detail in the book, but that I won’t get bogged down with here). Such are some of the premises that I’m working from….

It really is harder for religious America to accept evolution because evolution does in some sense lead towards atheism. There can be no doubt about this, Mr. Mooney's "if" equivocation regarding evolution favoring atheism is mistaken. We know why religionists don't devote much effort to disputing the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics. It is the theory of Evolution that directly challenges the central role for their gods in creating everything. Indeed, there is arguably no place left for gods outside of fiction and questionable speculation once we properly give evidence pride of place in determining what is factual, as Coyne and the New Atheists correctly argue.

Traditional religion is an all-encompassing (and therefore also fragile) world-view that people consider foundational and central to not only their own happiness but to world justice, peace and future utopia. Somewhat impolitely, we can accuse traditional religion of being a dogma. According to this closed minded religious world view, atheism is not just wrong, it is bad, and not just bad, it is evil. Evolution in particular, and science more generally, are therefore a threat to what is good, they are steps towards evil, whenever they contradict or just encourage doubts about the factual assertions of traditional religions.

Mooney's argument relies on scapegoating Coyne and the "New Atheists" as if they were responsible for this state of affairs. The conflict between religious faith and evolution exists in the real world such as it is because religions, including our most popular religions, make assertions about the world that conflict with the evidence. Accordingly, step one in a realistic approach to scientific literacy must be to accept the obvious reality that this conflict is intrinsic to traditional religious beliefs. Religionists may be mistaken about some things, such as their fear of atheism, but this conflict between their religion's factual assertions and evolution is not one of the things that they are mistaken about.

Denying the reality of conflict between traditional religion and scientific literacy and hoping that the conflict will resolve itself if we don't identify its source, as Mr. Mooney is doing, may be a good strategy for the Catholic church and various other religious institutions, but it is a poor strategy for resolving conflict. By what passes for intellectualism within the Catholic church and among liberal religionists, it suffices to just declare that theistic evolution is consistent with contingency because god is great and all the divine intervention that made the recent appearance of humans on earth inevitable is hidden beyond the veil of quantum uncertainty. This modern divine hiddenness is fundamentally inconsistent with the talking god of the bible who actively makes visible and instanteneous macro-scale changes to our environment and deploying the declaration that god is great as a catch-all resolution for any logical inconsistency is insufficient. For the rest of us, theists and atheists alike, the conflict between scientific literacy and religious faith is not a misconception of the media, church leaders, the New Atheists, and so on.

Mr. Mooney's strategy of denying that religious faith is 100% to blame for this conflict is a prescription for perpetuating the conflict between religion and scientific literacy. The justification for this denial appears to be that tackling the conflict more honestly and directly is too difficult. Mooney is insisting that everyone else should join him in refusing to blame religious faith because pretending that the conflict doesn't exist independently of the New Atheists is his idea of the best strategy for managing the conflict, because blaming faith in traditional religious dogma somehow isn't nice or civil, and because Catholics and liberal religionists mostly accept evolution even though that acceptance is compromised with various qualifications that are unsupported or even contradicted by evidence and arguably irrational. That is a defeatist strategy. Mr. Mooney shouldn't be surprised that his counsel of self-censorship will be rejected by people who have the gall to think worthwhile goals that are hard to achieve are still worthy of pursuing and that any strategy for overcoming conflict, to be effective, has to confront the real source of the conflict that it claims to be addressing. This is really a conflict about the role of evidence and how we determine what is true.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Library of Congress Historian promotes George Washington myths

In May 2005, Dr. Marvin Kranz, historical specialist, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, was interviewed by Senator Durbin about the history of presidential inaugurations. About three and half minutes into the interview Dr. Marvin Kranz says "George Washington took the first inaugural address, and when he was about to take the first inaugural address he said 'where is the bible?'. Nobody had a bible. He wanted to take it on a bible." About four minutes into a video on the Library of Congress web site page titled Presidential Inaugurations: Historical Insights, George Washington's First Inauguration Dr. Marvin Kranz says "Washington said he wanted to take the oath on the bible".

I don't think so. There is no eyewitness evidence that I am aware of that supports the assertion that George Washington "said he wanted to take the oath on the bible" or said "where is the bible?". If he had wanted a bible he could have brought one with him. The first chief justice of New York state, John Jay, was also the second president of the American Bible Society. It is possible that he thought that the swearing-in lacked legitimacy without a bible and made the initial request that one be provided for the ceremony. Chancellor Livingston, Grandmaster of the New York Masons, apparently sent someone, maybe fellow Mason Jacob Morton, to the nearby Masonic lodge to fetch a bible. George Washington's only role here was probably as spectator to all of this. Unfortunately, when it comes to George Washington, it appears that religionists have introduced a number of propaganda myths, and those myths have been repeated so many times that even PhD historians employed by our Library of Congress have been repeating them.

The truth is there is no known eyewitness account stating who requested the bible so we don't know. The first account that I know of which claims Jacob Morton was the person who obtained the bible and the red velvet cushion from the Masonic temple is found on page 124 of Washington and His Masonic Peers by Sidney Hayden, 1867. That is a long time after the fact, its not an eyewitness account, so it appears that we don't know who fetched the bible either. George Washington neither requested the bible nor did he append "so help me God" to his oath of office. Shame on Dr. Kranz for asserting otherwise while speaking as a government employee and historical expert on presidential inaugurations.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail.

Jerry Coyne convincingly argues that the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith in his aforereferenced article published in the February 4, 2009 edition of the The New Republic.

I think its fair to say that for almost 100% of theists, and most deists, one of their key arguments for their theism or deism is that god belief provides explanatory utility - it explains what otherwise is unexplained, and therefore theism or deism is rational. Whatever is explained by a hypothesis ipso facto connects that hypothesis to the corresponding elements of our knowledge base that are being explained. So if the theism hypothesis is defined as claiming to be a total explanation for "everything", as is often the case, particularly as asserted by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but also by many other monotheists and even many polytheists, then such theism must ipso facto be connected to all of our knowledge base.

The problem for theism is that its explanatory value added assertion is vacuous. The god did it concept is like spinning wheels, it is a mere declaration lacking any explanatory substance that advances us not an iota toward explaining anything, precisely because god, in fact, has no connection to our knowledge base. God is a "there is no need for this hypothesis" hypothesis that theists just arbitrarily insert into the discussion by relying on the Special Pleading fallacy. This is the insight that virtually all theists, including liberal monotheists like Kenneth R. Miller and Karl W. Giberson, who advocate full acceptance of our knowledge base by redefining god to fit somewhere in the remaining knowledge gaps, and conservative theists, who falsely keep selectively insisting that our knowledge base is wrong whenever it conflicts with their concept of god, keep missing.

Appeals to faith as a replacement for reasoning from knowledge to defend beliefs makes no sense because faith alone provides no intelligable way to distinquish what we should believe from what we should not believe. Faith alone provides no restrictions, no boundaries, no rules, no genuine justifications. Quoting from Steven Pinker, "The same standards of evidence that rule out unparisimonious, unfalsifiable, or empirically refuted hypotheses in science also rule out crackpot conspiracy theories, totalizing ideologies, and toxic policy nostrums."

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.
—Jerry Coyne