Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Article of Faith: Atheists Are Good; Believers Evil

"I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca—or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan."
--Richard Dawkins

For a guy who makes a big deal about having no beliefs, Dawkins takes a lot on faith. In this case, he confesses his belief that only religious people would do such dastardly things as destroy religious monuments or works of art, and he would like you to join him in this astonishingly blind faith.

That probably explains why, in his list of religious shrines and architecture, he failed to include the other Notre Dame, the massive, magnificent medieval church at the Abbey of Jumieges, its monks run off by ideological cleansing, its library burned and its walls turned into a stone quarry in the atheist spasm of the French Revolution. I don’t suppose Dawkins’s faith will restore the burnt manuscripts or erect those walls again, any more than it will restore the desecrated tombs of St. Denis, its defaced memorials and melted metal sarcophagi. But it is a faith, nonetheless.

Similarly, Dawkins’s faith blinds him to the atheist demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (photo above), the largest church in Russia, and one of the most magnificent Orthodox churches in the world. On December 5, 1931, the atheist Soviet regime began setting off dynamite at its footers. Like Bamiyan Buddhas, the Cathedral was denigrated as a sacrilege, a reminder that the people who once lived in that place held views the ruling regime considered heretical; like the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Cathedral withstood the first explosive assaults; and like the Bamiyan Buddhas, after repeated detonations it finally fell; unlike those statues, however, it fell in the middle of a city and its rubble had to be cleared away--a process which took over a year.

We have only skimmed the cream here. Thousands of churches and monasteries were expropriated in Russia and a huge number of them destroyed. In stark encyclopedic terms it looked like this:

“In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death.”

The historical record for atheist regimes is pretty clear, even if it is largely absent from these new atheist texts, these exhaustive catalogs of moral turpitude. The fact remains: This is what people with views like Dawkins’s have done when they have gotten political power.

“Admittedly,” Dawkins writes, “People of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true.” Of course, he is talking about other people here, but the choice of “admittedly” is an interesting slip.
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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dawkins Needs a Fact Checker

Early on in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins charges that society gives preferential treatment to religious groups, and that because of this inequity, traditional religions continue to exist in an era of science. A key piece of evidence for his argument is the case of a jerky Ohio boy who wore a shirt to school bearing those three ever-effective ice-breakers, “Abortion is murder, Islam is a lie, and Homosexuality is a sin.” The rest of the story is pretty predictable. The school asked him to change shirts, the boy refused, and the parents sued. To anyone with much familiarity with American jurisprudence, the outcome was also pretty predictable. The kid won.

Dawkins relates the surprising part:

The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't; indeed, they couldn't, because free speech is deemed not to include “hate speech.” But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. [italics original]

I was stunned when I read this. Did the court really say that these political and ethical judgments, even when rudely expressed, were “hate speech?” And how had I missed that critical juncture where we had sloughed off our first amendment rights and slithered away towards perfect harmony and politesse? I had to agree with Dawkins. It was plainly un-American that religious speech be allowed to offend, but not other types. How could this possibly be hap.... But then an entirely different thought arose: Is it possible that Richard Dawkins, renowned scientist, simply got the whole thing wrong, entirely backwards, and never bothered to check? Indeed, isn't that the only possibility? Less than a minute of Googling confirms it. There you will find the full text of the court opinion, which presents a typically American and wholly predictable affirmation of free-speech rights: the plaintiff asserts his freedom of expression was violated; the court agrees. There is no mention of the practice of religion, no religious exemption, no consideration of the kid’s religious rights at all; nor is there any mention of “hate speech.” All of these phantasms vanished in the crisp, dull prose of the court. The kid can wear the shirt because Americans—sinful homos and stumblefuck rednecks alike—can say whatever they goddamned well please.

It's a puzzle how Dawkins got this so wrong. Obviously, it starts with a defective cultural understanding of America. He is coming from a European tradition in which courts are much more willing to curtail free speech in order to keep everyone calmed down. And perhaps he had a bad source—a dubious web site or book that he never bothered to verify. Dawkins does this with surprising regularity, putting blind faith in friendly sources, as if he knows they are right merely because they agree with him. On more than one occasion in his book, he writes some version of “I know this is a specious form of data, but we should pay attention to it nonetheless.” Frankly, I get a little nervous when a prominent scientist starts telling us that we can learn a lot from bad data; it's kind of like Bernie Madoff telling us not to worry about the actual trade tickets. Dawkins never explains how he knows when exactly to pay attention to bad data, but I think the answer is pretty clear: whenever it helps you tell the kind of story you wanted to tell.

Continue Reading . . .

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dawkins's Brilliant Insight: If There Were a God, the FCC Would Have Shut Him Down!

The problem with God, you see, is that since he listens to everyone's prayers at once, he must be very complex--as well as being an enormous bandwidth hog--and since the universe must originate with very simple things, God cannot have been there at the beginning. How do we know the origin is simple? Because that's how things tend to work in the universe--complexity emerges from simplicity--and since we know that any God must be in the universe, we can then deduce that there is, in fact, no God.

Wait, God is something in the universe?

Isn't that like imagining that the author lives in the book or the programmer in the software or the cook in the soup? Remember, we're arguing about whether there is a creator, so we're arguing about something that, by definition, stands apart from the creation. What sense could it possibly make to talk about the putative God as if it were part of the universe and as if it were bound to follow the particular habits of that universe--complexity from simplicity, for instance. If there is a God, those habits of nature are something he made up, not something he is subject to. You don't expect the programmer to follow the rules of his program or the author to be bound by the rules of his fiction. It's impossible that TS Eliot wrote the Hollow Men, because it says that "between the conception and the creation...falls the shadow." Therefore, the poem, once concieved, could not possibly have been created; rather, it must have sprung naturally from a cactus.

So why is Dawkins carrying on his silly circularity? Why does he argue against, not any real person's perception of divinity, but his own idiot God who floats around out there doing feats of signal processing?

Ah, now I remember. It is a point of faith for Dawkins that there can't be anything outside the universe. Well, once again, we have to say, "If that is your one inviolable assumption, fine, but then why pretend to carry out a deductive argument about whether it is true?"

Really, why embarrass yourself with stuff like this: "Such Bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain of the largest computer we know." Again, he assumes that God is "constructed" by the universe. Weird place to find the universe's creator.

Christopher Hitchens carries on in just as silly a manner with a homunculus God of his own creation, but where Hitchens's God is cast by John Cleese and the boys, Dawkins's is drawn from Star Trek. God is an extra special deluxe computer, like V-ger. And how the hell did a crummy old space probe get enough memory to record everything that is happening in the universe, anyway? Similarly, how does God have enough processor to keep it all running. And who can have built such a thing. Cray? The Military? Xenu?

In other words, if one posits a God with characteristics that are absurd enough (he lives somewhere out in space, for instance), why bother with the whole long-assed argument? I suppose it's just a little bait and switch he's running, where you begin talking about the God discerned by other people and then impute to that God a set of ridiculous properties of your own invention. After all, it's always easier to win an argument when you get to state the other guy's positions for him.

But here's a question I have for our ultrabright scientific con artist from across the pond: Can it really be true that mathematics exists, and that its numbers go on infinitely? Well do tell then, where can all those numbers possibly be stored? Awful dang big hard drive, ain't it?
Continue Reading . . .

Sunday, February 6, 2011

News Flash: Nazareth Really Did Exist!

According to a story by the Associated Press, there really was a Nazareth when Jesus was alive.
Archaeologists on Monday unveiled what may have been the home of one of Jesus' childhood neighbors. The humble dwelling is the first dating to the era of Jesus to be discovered in Nazareth, then a hamlet of around 50 impoverished Jewish families where Jesus spent his boyhood.
This may not come as much of a surprise to you, since this fact is chronicled in the 1900-year-old texts of New Testament and has generally been accepted since that time. But the New Atheists, like Frank Zindler, editor of the American Atheist, have their doubts--rather, they have their certainties, and one they seem to enjoy pulling from the carpet bag from time to time is the idea that Jesus' Nazareth simply did not exist.
Zindler's argument relied on the fact that no contemporary texts beyond Luke's gospel mention the little town, and that no archaeological evidence had been uncovered--until now, that is.

Ah, well, most likely Zindler and his Ultrabright friends will jettison this little bit of con artistry with nary a mention. There will be no retraction, no "oops," no perturbance of any kind. Their vast assurance will continue to sail on through time and space with a machine-like lack of self-awareness. But it is instructive for the rest of us--those who are actually interested in an honest assessment of our peculiar existence here--to look at how Zindler went wrong, because the style of argument is common to many Ultrabright sophistries.

The salient feature of these canards is that the speaker exist at a knoll of perfect acuity, from which he can look down on the ignorance of prior eras. This kind of parochialism is fraught with intellectual risk, but especially when one's arrogance extends, not just to the past, but to the future as well. Consider the general format of the argument to see what I mean:
  1. We haven't found archaeological evidence [for some Biblical claim].
  2. We haven't found a second textual source [for that claim].
  3. Therefore, we know that the Bible is wrong.

In order for this argument to make sense, you must assume that the phrase "and we never will" has been lopped off the ends of statements 1 & 2. You must, in other words, accept that we know all there is to know about the subject, and that we have made all the discoveries that will ever be made about it, almost as if history has come to an end with us. That sense of being at the culmination of human history has ever bedeviled utopians and megalomaniacs, and the Ultrabrights often display characteristics of both.

We should also note that this style of argument would never be made in the reverse direction. No other ancient text would be considered invalid just because it does not find support in a second source. Normally only multiple contradictory sources would cause you to dismiss a text. But the Bible is just as special for the Ultrabrights as it is for the most credulous fundamentalist. The book must be considered false until corroborating evidence confirms it.
Continue Reading . . .

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The New Atheists: We Believe We Have No Beliefs

The new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens go to great lengths to insist that they don't believe in anything. They're purely rational, unlike you, the backward, the superstitious, the illogical. This is their first article of faith, and it's a pretty stupid one, because almost immediately after confessing it they proceed to tell you exactly what they believe.

Richard Dawkins writes, on page 14 of The God Delusion, that an atheist "is someone who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence."

Hey, it's a free country. Believe whatever you want. But if it's a belief, as Dawkins admits, why carry on the supremacist rant about how your views are categorically superior because they don't rely on faith? Indeed, consider just how amazingly rational Dawkins is: his belief in material reductionism is the one presupposition of his argument--which then goes on for 400-odd pages trying to prove . . . material reductionism. If you assume there can be nothing immaterial, then you don't have to prove that God doesn't exist. You've already assumed it. So why not give the friggin' trees a break?

And remember, this is supposed to be more rational than religion.

Dawkins continues: "If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural." This hope is the primary intellectual virtue in Dawkins's world. But is this how a scientist should behave, hoping for a certain outcome? Shouldn't a scientist merely follow the data wherever they lead? Why should it be the business of science to take a stand on whether there is or is not a metaphysics beyond the material world? Why should a scientist be promoting his beliefs on such matters as if they too were science?

In any event, Dawkins has his faith and he has his hope, but according to my particular system of belief, there is a third element, charity, without which these two are worthless.

And as you explore the works of the Ultrabrights more fully, you will see that this is precisely the problem. They despise love, because love, on the backside of which is written "forever," always testifies to an origin beyond chemistry and a destiny beyond death.
Continue Reading . . .