Sunday, February 19, 2012

Theism is an existence claim

By Mathew Goldstein

Janet Daley, writing for the British newspaper Telegraph, cites the "clash between President Obama and the Roman Catholic Church over the matter of whether Church institutions should be obliged by federal statute to provide free contraception. There can be no question of where the Constitution stands on this issue: if a case should ever come to the Supreme Court, it is the Church that will win." in her article "A good week for the smiting of the ungodly". Did Janet Daley miss the news that the Obama administration granted religiously affiliated Institutions an exemption that allows their employees to acquire the contraception coverage from the insurance companies without employer subsidies? Any lawsuits would now be against the contraception coverage subsidy required for institutions not affiliated with a religious institution. Legal precedent says that government can enforce a "neutral law of general applicability" that conflicts with some citizen's religious beliefs provided that the law can be shown to benefit the general welfare of citizens.

She then points out that there are questions whose answer is not based on evidence such as: Is it wrong to hurt people unnecessarily? She correctly points out that it is a mistake to require evidence for "those kinds of belief that do not rest on empirical evidence but which are still central to human experience." She then incorrectly concludes that theists are therefore correct to believe without evidence. That final therefore is incorrect because theism is not one of "those kinds of belief" that is exempted from the need for empirical evidence. Claims that theism has moral benefits are derivative, they come after acceptance of the existence claim. Therefore theism is not a moral axiom like the axiom that it is wrong to hurt people. Theism is an existence assertion like the claim that God the Holy Ghost exists as part of a Holy Trinity. So atheists are correct to look to evidence for evaluating the merit of theism.

She then calls it "a very odd kind of obtuseness in people who clearly see themselves as possessing superior intelligence. Do they really not understand what it is that it is so unsatisfactory about “scientific” accounts which reduce life to the ticking over of sensory apparatus?". This is also mistaken. First of all, atheists really do understand that both theists and atheists posses a full range of intelligence. The difference here is that atheists are applying their intelligence better on this question. Secondly, accurate explanations do not "reduce" that which is being explained. Life continues to be exactly the same phenomena, neither enhanced nor reduced, by the availability of previously unavailable explanations for how it originated and evolved. The obtuseness here is on the side of people like Janet Daley who have this very odd notion that an explanation should be rejected if it is subjectively deemed to change the value of that which is explained in a direction that some people decide is undesirable. We are obliged to follow the evidence wherever it takes us. Since we are not the creators of the universe we don't have carte blanche to redefine the explanations to match our preferences. When a preference conflicts with the evidence the proper way to resolve the conflict is to abandon the preference.

Janet Daley then asserts about Dawkins "Most to the point was the comment that he had failed to “understand the nature of faith”. It is that incomprehension which is perhaps the weakest element in the scientific rationalist atheist case." On the contrary, the irony is that it is the atheists who understand faith better than those who live by it. If the people of faith acknowledged how vacuous this reliance on faith is as a source of knowledge about what exists then they wouldn't be so proud to publicly assert their beliefs are faith-based as if that was a positive attribute or sufficient justification.
In defense of faith, Janet Daley returns again to questions of morality, asking: "Why do they, and we, feel such unbearable compassion even for those unknown to us – even, indeed, for hypothetical tortured children who have been invented for the purpose of argument? Why is sympathy, and revulsion at the pain of others, such a characteristic feature of our condition that it is actually called “humanity” and its lapses regarded as “inhuman”? Presumably, the Dawkins lobby would say it arose from the need to preserve our collective genes. What an impoverished view of life and its moral complexity, that is.". Having previously mischaracterized the correct insistence that evidence be provided to support the existence claims intrinsic to theism as " facile atheism", it is actually Janet Daley who is the one being facile here. The explanations for moral sensibility, and life, provided by biology are rich. They combine a deep simplicity with incredible complexity, have broad implications, and are anything but "impoverished". Most to the point, we are justified in believing that this "view of life", unlike theism, is true because the evidence tells us it is true. And that is what counts here, everything else is hot air.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Identity versus evidence

A common theme of those who argue in favor of government establishment of a majority's religion is "religious identity". In her speech against "militant secularists" promoting "totalitarian regimes" and "denying people the right to a religious identity", British Cabinet Minister without Portfolio, Sayeeda Warsi, mentioned identity three times in the first three minutes. "In order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their beliefs", "in a globalized world it is easy to think that, to relate to others, you must water down your religious identity", and "it demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes, denying people the right to a religious identity". What is the relationship between belief and identity and secularism?

Religious conservatives have a tendency to assert that a primary purpose of belief is to define individual and group identity. However, that isn't generally true. We believe that cows exist and dragons do not exist, not as a means to give ourselves an identity, but as a result of the evidence for the existence of cows and against the existence of dragons. What religious conservatives are doing here is inconsistent. They are insisting on two conflicting standards for belief justification, one rational, based on the evidence, and another arational, based on maintaining a self-confident identity.

Maintaining self-confidence isn't an issue with rational beliefs. We are self-confident in our rational beliefs in proportion to the evidence. Because rational beliefs are not about self-identity, there is no need for a preset and never changing self-confidence in our beliefs. As additional evidence is accumulated over time, rational beliefs adjust to fit the available evidence. The past is not the future, and rational beliefs are flexible enough to respect and accommodate future changes. Neither self-identity nor self-confidence are dependent on rational beliefs.

In contrast, the religious belief based self-identity, having thus entangled itself with self-confidence, does not like being confined to individual expression. Because religious belief is insecure and entangled with self-confidence, it seeks support from the nation as a whole. Without active and ongoing governmental expression of the majority's religious practice, the otherwise insecure majority religious beliefs are "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded" in the words of Ms. Warsi. Confidence in religious beliefs merges with self-confidence, religious beliefs merge with self-identity, self-identity merges with national identity, and the government sphere merges with the non-governmental sphere. There is then just one comprehensive and indivisible identity and public sphere, and that identity and public sphere are themselves merged together with, and defined for everyone by, a majority religious belief.

Thus, according to Ms. Warsi, merely forbidding a prayer ritual at the start of government meetings becomes a denial of "the right to a religious identity" for people generally. But of course, it is no such thing. Government meeting prayer rituals are not even a denial of the right to an atheist identity. If not having a prayer ritual were a denial of the right to a religious identity then the right to a religious identity would necessarily be incompatible with the right to an atheist identity, or to any conflicting, unrepresented minority religious identity, since the government meeting cannot simultaneously have an opening ritual affirming all conflicting beliefs. That is nonsense, and that is the real core problem here. The people who are insisting on government establishments of their preferred religions are in effect asserting a right to impose promotion of their insecure and arational religious self-identity, practices, and beliefs on all the citizens of the nation through the common government. There is no such right.

Starting with the false foundations that individual identity is the same identity as national identity, government actions are the same public actions as non-government actions, confidence in a particular set of beliefs is the same confidence as self-confidence in one's self, and the purpose and function of beliefs is to define and maintain an identity, is it any surprise that arguments for establishment of religion go awry, descending into bombast and ending in self-contradiction?

The applicable right here is for individuals to freely form and express their own beliefs and identities without government interference. This requires unbiased government with no religious identity. Practice your religion as you wish, in public or privately, government has nothing to say about which religious beliefs, or identities, or rituals and practices, are preferred or patriotic. People do not need their government to practice their religious beliefs for them, or define a national religious identity for them, and there is no civic right to a government favoring your own religious beliefs or identities over competing beliefs or identities. If Ms. Warsi really thinks that is an intolerant prescription that is reminiscent of totalitarian regimes then she is a very confused lady representing a very confused government.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Clergy Project's Evolution Weekend

By Mathew Goldstein

The goals of the Clergy Project's Evolution Weekend are to support the teaching of science in public schools and promote moderate religion. Yet the founder of the Clergy Project, Michael Zimmerman, indulges in superficial, false, negative caricatures of the "new atheists" that are irrelevant to, or at cross-purpose to, these goals.

In his Feb. 9 Huffington Post article, "Evolution Weekend: Protecting Both Religion and Science", he writes "These new atheists will attack the clergy who are participating in Evolution Weekend even though those very same clergy should be their biggest allies when it comes to combating the assault on science taking place in our public schools. But these new atheists can't see past their own biases and recognize that only a combined effort will protect science."

There is something odd and revealing about the words "should be" in the phrase "those very same clergy should be their biggest allies when it comes to combating the assault on science". Either we are allies, or we are not allies. If we agree then we are allies. We do agree here, therefore we are allies here. Why is the organizer of this project expressing doubt about this alliance? In the next sentence he asserts that the new atheists fail to "recognize only a combined effort will protect science". I have seen no evidence whatsoever that the new atheists oppose a combined effort to protect science. In fact, every new atheist I know of supports alliances with all people, including the people that we otherwise disagree with, to support all common goals. On what grounds is this incredible accusation otherwise being made? It is the pot calling the kettle black.

Now it is true, obviously, that new atheists and the clergy attending this Evolution Weekend have substantial differences on the question of religious faith. For example, Michael Zimmerman also says of the participants "they understand that a deeper understanding of the natural world will only enhance their faith. And they are not so insecure in their faith that they feel compelled to condemn all other belief as false and demand that everyone else be forced to accept their singular perspective." On the contrary, a deeper understanding of the natural world enhances atheism and being compelled to declare false those beliefs that are counter-evidenced is rational and proper. Furthermore, there is no proper basis for Zimmerman's correlating the "condemning" as false those beliefs that are counter-evidenced on the one hand with the "demanding" everyone else be "forced to" accept a singular perspective on the other hand. .

No one has any obligation to never criticize (a.k.a. "attack") other people's mistaken beliefs as a pre-condition to working together with those same people for a shared goal. Sincere differences over the proper role of faith (including the disagreement over whether faith is itself incompatible with a scientific approach), the direction of the evidence, proper epistemology, and the like, do not translate into substantial reasons for refusing to combine efforts to defend science education. New atheists, like all thoughtful people of good will, agree that people should be encouraged to adopt the better justified perspectives by argument and persuasion.

Michael Zimmerman also slanders the new atheists with this additional absurd accusation: 'Some of the attacks on participants in Evolution Weekend 2012 will also undoubtedly come from "new atheists" who like to lump all religious individuals in with fanatical fundamentalists. In their eyes, anyone who expresses religious sentiments to even the slightest degree is no different from a Biblical literalist.' We lump them together only as theists who believe with no supporting evidence, and despite substantial contrary evidence, in a parental deity that created the world and takes a special interest in human affairs. As anyone with eyes can see (or who reads Braille or hears or whatever the case may be), in all other respects theists are a very diverse group. Their beliefs are so diverse because theisms are a free-floating fiction lacking the anchor of empirical evidence that produces the voluntary international consensus seen among scientists. But by pointing out the differences between religion and science we atheists are failing to combine our efforts to "support science" under Zimmerman's theological re-definition and mis-definition of that concept.

If Michael Zimmerman was really as fully committed to a combined effort on behalf of "protecting science" as he self-declares himself to be then why is he restricting the discussion of strategies to defeat anti-evolution laws to religious congregations? He advocates for diversity and pluralism as a strength while excluding atheists and the non-religious from the discussion. This self-contradiction is blatant and damning. All these different religions have no single religious belief in common. He acknowledges that they are meeting to promote a secular goal that is shared with atheists and the non-religious. If the commitment of these clerics to pluralism is the basis for his proud claim that they "are not so insecure in their faith" then, again, why the exclusion of the non-religious and atheists? And how is blaming atheist's atheism for this decision by theists to exclude atheists ethical? This is akin to men excluding women from participating in group discussions while blaming the female voice.

But moderate religionists claim to be better than that. Unlike narrow-minded and exclusionary religious fundamentalists, they wouldn't play blame the victim games to avoid taking responsibility for their own self-centered intolerance, right? Science does not have to support, or even co-exist comfortably with, religious beliefs to be defensible or to merit being taught, learned, and actively supported. If scientific results conflict with, or otherwise undermine, religious beliefs then the loser is the religious beliefs, not the science. Anyone who doesn't recognize this doesn't really understand why science should be taught in the first place. Don't you agree Dr. Zimmerman?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Non-religious religious institutions and the law

The conflicts between religious beliefs and secular laws are numerous. Our taxes pay for alcohol production and sales regulation enforcement, but alcohol consumption is prohibited under Mormonism. Businesses are open on Saturday, but working on Saturday is prohibited by Judaism. Tattooing regulation is funded by taxes, but Islam prohibits tattoos. Regulation of hair cutting businesses is funded by taxes, but cutting hair is prohibited by Sikhism. Meat production and sales regulation is funded by taxes, but meat consumption is prohibited by Hinduism.

The empirical evidence demonstrates that availability of contraception correlates positively with better health outcomes for women and children such that the additional cost of covering contraception in health plans is more than offset by the overall health benefits. So government has an obligation to require that employer health insurance covers contraception. But some religions prohibit contraception, so isn't such a law a violation of the Free Exercise clause? The Catholic church, among others, argues that it is whenever the employer is affiliated with their church.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary's, to give two examples, are Catholic universities. Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies are exempt from the federal laws that EEOC enforces when it comes to the employment of individuals based on their particular religion. So can government require that Notre Dame and Saint Mary's subsidize health insurance that covers contraception?

No statement of faith is required to attend or teach at Notre Dame or Saint Mary's. There is no doctrinal control over what is taught in the classroom. Faculty, staff and students are encouraged to seek the truth in whatever form it takes, including that of scientific research.

Institutions like Notre Dame and Saint Mary's must make a choice. Either they commit to being modern universities and accept all that entails, or they commit to being primarily Catholic. They cannot plead special exemptions from generally applicable laws on the grounds that they are a religious institution on the one hand while placing no religious restrictions on the beliefs of employees and students on the other hand. Religious institutions have no free exercise right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees against the will of those employees when those institutions do not require their employees to profess or practice those religious beliefs in the first place.

Criminal blasphemy laws

By Mathew Goldstein

Human Rights First’s 2011 report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” documents over 100 incidents from 18 countries. They include "Outbreaks of Mob Violence as a Direct Consequence of Blasphemy Laws" in their count of blasphemy law incidents. Their report cites over 40 incidents in Pakistan. Other countries with governments that are cited for abusing their power by making criticism of religious beliefs a punishable offense are Kuwait, Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, India, Sri-Lanka, Palestinian Authority, and Algeria. There are also a few Christian majority countries cited for imposing fines: Austria fined a citizen for asserting that Islam's prophet Muhammed would today be considered a pedophile for marrying a six year old and Poland fined a citizen (a popular singer) for characterizing the authors of the bible as writing as if they were intoxicated by alcohol and marijuana.

One of the victims is an atheist. Walid Husayin was arrested in Oct 2010 for his criticisms of theism on Facebook and in his blog posts. He correctly observed that all religions are "a bunch of mind-blowing legends and a pile of nonsense that compete with each other in terms of stupidity". At its peak, Husayin's psuedonymous Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors. He also posted English language translations of his essays in the blog "Proud Atheist". His lawyer asserts "there are limits to freedom of speech" and that he faces a sentence of up to three years, although the law actually has a maximum penalty of life in prison. Public opinion in his home town appears to be universally against him, with some residents calling for his death. His own family expresses shame. Several months after his arrest, Husayin apologized for offending Muslims and characterized his Internet writings as " stupidity".

He remains in prison more than a year after his arrest with no trial and no end to his detention in sight. France, to it's credit, dared to go so far as to publically express "concern" after his arrest. Apparently worried about their own credibility with public opinion in the Islamic world, the United States and other countries have not commented publically about this incident. Will Western countries find their voice if he is convicted or if his detention continues indefinitely without trial?