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.