Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Ultimate Post

No, not ultimate as in "last." Ultimate as in "this post is about the idea of an ultimate [insert concept here]."

So often in my discussions/arguments online with theists of various stripes I run into one of the following statements:

"If there's no God, then there's no ultimate source of morality. Everything would be subjective."
"If there's no God, then there's no ultimate meaning to life."

I find these arguments more than a bit bizarre. For one thing, they seem to assert that we absolutely, 100% know that there is an ultimate source of morality, or an ultimate meaning to life. For another, they seem to be a strange use of "ultimate." When did "ultimate" come to mean "given to us by a supernatural creator?"

Yes, if there's no God, then there's no ultimate source of morality. But this does absolutely nothing to support either the existence of God or the existence of an ultimate source of morality! It's essentially an argument based on the idea that there is some self-evident objective moral standard. But if were objective and self-evident, there wouldn't be any argument. People who disagreed with it would be viewed with the same uneasy suspicion as people who disagreed with gravity. Instead, we live on a planet where people are constantly arguing over morality, and while we often find common ground, it's rarely beyond the bare minimum standards we need to maintain social cohesion.

As for an ultimate meaning to life: Why would the meaning have to be ultimate? Why isn't it enough for life to have current meaning? And what sort of value would the "meaning" have if it were dictated to us? If life's meaning came only from some sort of ever-present quasi-benevolent universal dictator, then it would no longer be meaning - it would be purpose. And when you have a purpose, you're not free - you're a tool to be used for the desired ends of some other being. (Cue Rick Warren.)

I have absolutely no problem with the idea that ultimate morality and ultimate meaning don't actually exist. To argue that God must exist because these things are self-evidently real is to do nothing but beg the question. I'm not a nihilist; I just think it's silly to assume that something exists because its existence would support your preconceived beliefs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Charlie Crist, Defender of Florida

Apparently Florida governor Charlie Crist stuck a written prayer into the Western Wall in Jersualem asking God to protect Florida from hurricanes.

Crist said he isn't trying to take credit, but he told a group of real estate agents Friday that he's had prayer notes placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem each year and no major storms have hit Florida.

Crist noted that just before his election in 2006, Florida had been affected by a total of eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

"Do you know the last time it was we had a hurricane in Florida? It's been awhile. In 2007, I took my first trade mission. Do you know where I went?" said Crist, a Methodist, referring to a trip to Israel.

He then told of going to the Western Wall and inserting a note with a prayer. He said it read, "Dear God, please protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. Charlie."

"Time goes on — May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December — no hurricanes," Crist said. "Thank God."

Maybe Charlie could expand a bit and ask God to keep hurricanes away from the entire country. Wouldn't that be nice?

Wonder what he's going to say when Florida is inevitably hit by a hurricane, considering that the years 2000 to 2008 have had more recorded tropical or subtropical cyclones than any decade on record. I'm sure he'll come up with some sort of rationalization...

The Friendly Atheist Under Attack

Hemant Mehta, one of the most tolerant, genial, and patient atheists I've ever seen, is currently under attack from a thinly-veiled far-right Christian hate group calling itself the Illinois Family Institute, which has a history of saying some pretty nutty stuff. And I'm not just calling them a hate group, either; for a while, the Southern Poverty Law Center had them listed as one, specifically for their strident anti-gay stance, comments, and leadership. Here's a sample:

The conference boiled down to a veritable jihad against gay rights. No fewer than 18 presenters railed against homosexuals and the "gay agenda." It seemed that the speakers, many of whom were ostensibly there to talk about the virtues of a Christian nation, just couldn't help but take repeated swipes at gays and lesbians.


Peter LaBarbera, head of the Illinois Family Institute and a discredited "researcher" whose work has been denounced by the American Psychological Association for producing bogus data "proving" homosexual behavior is deleterious to health and welfare, called homosexuality "disgusting." LaBarbera, who "investigates" this lifestyle by hanging out in gay chat rooms, insisted that good Christians must "stand up to homosexual aggression" and stop using "that hoary euphemism" -- "sexual orientation." He called for the repeal of all "sexual orientation laws" -- laws that ban discrimination against gays -- because they violate religious freedom. He demanded the closing down of all "homosexual establishments." And he spoke of the "need to find ways to bring back shame to those practicing homosexual behavior."

(Researching homosexual behavior by hanging out in gay chat rooms? Wow. Yeah. Not that there's anything wrong with that...)

Back to the main story. Primarily at issue is a sarcastic remark from Hemant regarding comments made by Laurie Higgins, director of the Division of School Advocacy (read: anti-church/state separation) for IFI.

The story really begins with the arrest of two gay men (for trespassing, apparently) who - GASP! - kissed each other in front of a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, and the subsequent nationwide kiss-in protests. One of the protests took place in Chicago, and the IFI certainly wasn't happy about that. Higgins said:
An adult kissing a pre-pubescent child or a high school-age adolescent in a sexual or romantic manner is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two consenting adults who are in love and who are closely related by blood is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of defenders of incest to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing among “multi-partner” unions, like those profiled in a recent Newsweek article, are both obscene and inappropriate despite the protests of polyamorists to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two people of the same biological sex is both obscene and inappropriate despite the voluble, vigorous, and often vitriolic protests of homosexuals to the contrary.
To which Hemant said:
The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins’ house.
So terrible, I know! Of course, to everyone but Higgins, this is obvious sarcasm. He was not seriously endorsing the idea of holding a kiss-in protest in front of her house. Regardless, it's time to cue the Christian persecution complex:

... Mr. Mehta doesn't merely expatiate philosophically, he gets personal too.

Last week, Mr. Mehta made an unfriendly comment on his Friendly Atheist blog that I found troubling enough that I shared it with some of the District 204's administrators and the members of the school board--something I have not done on the other occasions he has written about me.

He wrote the following in response to my IFI article about the homosexual kiss-in: "The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins' house."

In my email, I expressed my disappointment that a role model for students would make such a vindictive, irresponsible, and unprofessional public statement. My hope was that someone in the administration would have a conversation with Mr. Mehta regarding his influential role in students' lives and his inappropriate comment.
That's right; she e-mailed the people who sign his paycheck. She's applying a little pressure. Heaven forbid that anyone should think she's trying to get him fired! Just because she sent the e-mail to everyone but him and specifically to the folks who could decide whether or not his employment should be terminated, that doesn't mean she wants him gone. His higher-ups have his back, anyways:
Not surprisingly, everything is fine at work. My superiors respect my right to free speech and their concern is with my professional work, not my private life. For what it’s worth, my teaching evaluations over the past couple years have been excellent, thank you very much.

Anyway, school officially begins tomorrow. And I still have my job.
But that's not enough for Ms. Higgins. She has since posted at least two other articles on the IFI's home page attacking Hemant:
District 204 parents really should spend some time perusing Neuqua Valley math teacher, Hemant Mehta's website to determine whether he is the kind of man with whom they want their children to spend a school year. He absolutely has a First Amendment right to promote any feckless, destructive, and offensive ideas he wants via his blog, but, as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children.
Okay, it's time to cut the sarcasm. Combine this with another of her spewings:
... Parents have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling.
What Higgins is really saying is that anyone with a lifestyle or viewpoint that any parent considers factually or morally wrong shouldn’t have the right to teach. Her e-mail to Hemant’s administrators proved that much. Were she simply worried about parents’ choices, she would have e-mailed the parents and left it at that. Instead, she attempted to pressure Hemant's bosses into reprimanding or firing him. She doesn’t think he should be allowed to teach.

Since there has been such a response to her comments (with several hundred comments on Hemant's blog, calls coming in from the local media, and numerous e-mails to the IFI), she attempted to clarify her "true" intentions:
I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.
It bears repeating that this is a transparent lie. If this were all she was concerned about, she would have left the school administration out of this entirely. Her goal is to get Hemant fired, because she thinks anyone with views she disagrees with is dangerous and shouldn’t have the right to teach children. She did not contact the parents to "warn" them about Hemant. She contacted his superiors and her mailing list. The choices of the parents did not enter into it.
You fail to acknowledge a central point that I addressed in my articles, which is many teens are unduly influenced by emotion or the cult of personality and are therefore predisposed to look favorably on the ideas of teachers whom they find cool or charismatic or funny or kind or iconoclastic.

If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you—as happens often in high school—they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have no connection with you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
Yes, Ms. Higgins, let’s warn those parents about the terribly dangerous and potentially harmful different ideas that people have. Different ideas are inherently bad and should be quashed as subversive. Parents should be terrified that such things are allowed in schools. Through all this bluster all I can see is her continued assertion that since Hemant is an atheist, he must be actively promoting atheism in his classroom. Care to give us some proof? Something we can sink our teeth into? Something more than just scare tactics?

Of course not. Ms. Higgins isn't about reality here. She's about dogma and rhetoric. We're talking about a woman who endorsed the bullying of gay students on the basis that homosexuality is wrong and immoral and shouldn't be coddled, so no insult is too strong.

Ms. Higgins is so terrified of the idea that children might learn about different lifestyles and beliefs that normal standards of morality and decency have no bearing on what she's willing to do to stop Hemant's oh-so-dangerous actions and speech. She's not pro-censorship, oh no! She just wants parents to know what teachers do in their private lives:
Those parents are entitled to sufficient information to make informed choices about the very public activities of their children’s teachers–something that for some odd reason seems to offend you.

No, Miss Higgins, they are not entitled to know what goes on in teachers' personal time, no matter how public it is. Parents are entitled to know what teachers do in school. Outside of school is none of their damn business.

This sort of behavior is the double-edged sword to the phrase "If God be with us, who can be against us?". On the one hand, it is saying that nobody can oppress you if God is on your side. On the other hand, it is also saying that if God is on your side, nobody can possibly have any real or valid objections to anything you do, since you've got divine endorsement. Higgins thinks that anything she does, no matter how venomous or slimy, is justified in the promotion of her beliefs.

What's absolutely insane about this is that she was removed from her job at a high school because of anti-gay comments she made on her personal time on talk radio:
If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you--as happens often in high school--they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have little or no personal connection to you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
It's probably the same reason that three years ago a well-known homosexual blogger informed my former superintendent that I had been interviewed on Moody Radio on the topic of homosexuality. During my last three years at Deerfield High School, there were more than a few supporters of the normalization of homosexuality who wrote publicly and contacted my administration about what they believed was my unfitness as a role model for students--and I worked in the writing center where I had no classes.
So, clearly, she's an utter hypocrite. She's out for revenge. Two wrongs make a right, in her mind. She's turning the tables, rather than turning the other cheek. What a Christlike thing to do.

I'm sure the story isn't over yet. To get the full perspective straight from the source, keep up with Hemant's blog: Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

His previous posts on this subject:
His excellent book: I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Church Visit: Trinity Baptist Church

Today I managed to wrangle a couple of co-heathens from my atheist/agnostic meetup group into going to church with me. We went to Trinity Baptist, which is affiliated with (among other groups) the extremely conservative Southern Baptist Convention. It was quite an experience.

Though the congregants had a wide range of ages and ethnicities, the church was also very, very conservative, and it appeared that they took the Bible literally. What I find fascinating about this is that, despite that fact that I took it literally at one point, the conclusions they reached about a lot of things were entirely different. I suppose this isn't really all that surprising; Christians have been debating the finer points of doctrinal differences for centuries. But the differences weren't entirely minor. For example, in the church I attended in college, we were taught that this was a fallen world that God had turned his back on, and that our only chance of salvation was to turn toward Jesus and away from worldly needs. "Mission work" had nothing to do with going to impoverished countries and helping people; it was entirely focused on spreading the gospel and 'winning souls for Christ'. In this church, however, they felt it was important to nourish both body and soul. And though they do emphasize the idea that spiritual needs trump material needs, they recognize that material needs can be important as well. Their approach is to say that God will provide for any material needs, going so far as to say that they don't need to worry about the recession because God will get us through. (Remind me not to hire one of them as a financial consultant.)

They seemed to be a congregation of global warming deniers. The minister made a joke about how this was "the year without summer," and asked where Al Gore was this year. It was nice not to be the only one rolling my eyes at that; bringing friends along has its benefits.

The minister said a lot about what people should be praying about. He said that "God is not a go-fer", and that our "external, felt needs" aren't the sort of things we should be praying for - rather, that we should pray for increased faith and spiritual knowledge. That's pretty convenient, really; if we don't pray for tangible things, there's no way anyone can say our prayers weren't answered.

Honestly, the service itself didn't intrigue me all that much. Their theology was your basic evangelical Christianity: Jesus is the only way to escape punishment in hell for your sins, all other faiths (they specifically mentioned Buddhism and Islam) are false and futile, and anyone who doesn't know Jesus is 'lost'. There were a couple of high points. For example, someone must've seen my 'Atheist' bumper sticker, and reported it to the higher-ups. They spent about five minutes praying for "anyone out there who doesn't know the Lord", asking them (me) to recite a Sinner's Prayer (i.e. the whole "I admit I'm a sinner and I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior" bit), to give up my religion for a relationship with Jesus, and to empty the anger out of my hateful heart. He asked that the whole congregation pray for this, which was an interesting test of scripture, since Matthew 18:19-20 says:
Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
Apparently the combined prayers of the entire congregation don't count as either two or three gathered together in Jesus' name, or as "anything that they ask," because... lo and behold... still an atheist.

The minister, in this little bit of targeted prayer, made mention of the idea that "[I] never knew anything about a relationship like [one with Jesus]." I couldn't help but shake my head; the assumptions that they make in this sort of statement are mind-boggling. Behind the friendly, inviting faces we saw in the church was the idea that anyone who isn't a Christian is still somehow afraid of their hell, knows absolutely nothing about Christianity, is angry and hateful, and believes in their God and his authority over things. What a weird mindset to work from.

Another high point was when a girl came up and told a story about how her parents, who had separated, got together again because of events in their lives that brought them back to Jesus. Her parents weren't present; they apparently go to another church. Most interestingly, she mentioned that her mother was an alcoholic who was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that that's where she had her moment of 'revelation'. (AA, of course, is a strongly evangelical Christian - or, at least, evangelically theistic - organization, promoting the idea that the only way to overcome alcoholism is through submission to a higher power.) I was shocked that this girl was willing to say something so personal and embarrassing in front of this group of people, including (obviously) some people she didn't know. It reminded me of the way the Church of Scientology keeps records on all the confessions people make during their 'auditing' sessions, so they can use them to coerce anyone who wants to leave. I was also unsurprised to hear the girl say that God had been behind the whole chain of events that led to her parents' reunion; is she saying that she thinks it's what God planned all along, or that God intervened and controlled people in a way such that things would work out? Neither sounds very appealing to me; it's predestination versus the suspension of free will. One thing that gave me a chuckle was that she talked about how her dad was worrying for a long time about a lot of things, and then he heard a sermon about worry, and saw it as a sign. What a surprise! A sermon about one of the most prevalent elements of the common human experience. Must be divinely inspired.

After the service, my friends and I did a little "post-mortem" discussion of our experiences. Of the three of us, I was the only one who'd ever been deeply religious, so it was interesting to hear their perspectives on things. I'd spent much of the service thinking about their interpretations of scripture, and constantly coming up with other parts of the Bible that went almost directly opposite of what they were saying. For example, they talked about how you should love your life, but John 12:25 says that if you love your life in this world, you'll lose it - you have to hate your life here to gain eternal life. My accomplices, on the other hand, were considering much broader concepts. One brought up that the friendly exterior they put up reminded them of grizzlies - they may seem cuddly and playful, but if you step out of line even the slightest bit they'll disembowel you. She found it odd that in one breath they were condemning people for having a judgmental spirit and not being loving of their fellow man, and then in the next they were talking about how anyone who isn't a Christian has a futile faith and will spend eternity roasting in hell. Our discussion turned to the subject of our various religious backgrounds, the influence of supernatural thinking on rational inquiry, ways we can work to promote reason and logic in society, why we think science is losing ground in America, and dozens of other things.

Then I went home, and I opened the 'goodie bag' the church had given us as visitors. It's really pretty bizarre stuff. There's a booklet about Awana, which I'd never heard of before, but from the sounds of it it seems to be a hardcore evangelical fundamentalist "camp" for kids. From the back of the booklet:
"[Awana] is built on rock-solid ministry principles: clearly presenting the gospel, focusing on Scripture memory, and applying the unchanging truth of the Bible to the changes and challenges of life."
Some of the things the booklet mentions make me very uneasy; mostly the fact that it targets kids as young as two years old, but also that they play on a child's need for positive reinforcement by rewarding different levels of indoctrination with trophies and awards. It talks about teaching kids about "God's love," which isn't surprising. If you teach a kid that God's love is really a sacrifice aimed at saving them from eternal torture, you're going to lose them, but if you just give them the candy-coated, feel-good theology, you've got them in the palm of your hand. Hit them with the soft, nice, warm and fuzzy stuff when they're young, then gradually dial up the crazy-nasty, and they'll never notice. It'll all seem like a natural progression.

The goodie bag also included a directory of local Christian businesses (the Shepherd's Guide). It contains some absolutely hilarious ads, such as one for "Biblical Hygine [sic] for Health & Protection," a Christian chiropractor ("Gentle Chiropractic Using Activator Technique"), some company selling "Earth-frindly [sic] cleaning products" (which is apparently a multi-level marketing scheme), and a "Christ-Centered Internet Network Data Center (Guaranteed pornography-free web hosting!):"
Nehemiah had a burden to rebuild the walls and post watchmen at the gates of Jerusalem to control invaders, prevent attacks on God's people and provide security. The Christian Interactive Network has followed that vision to secure God's data and ministry networks. Protecting God's people and the Gospel from the digital warfare that we face today.
They also included a couple of daily devotional books, a list of church service opportunities, a bookmark listing (some) of the names used for God and Jesus in the Bible, a pen with their church's name and address on it, a notepad and pen with a Bible verse on them, a booklet describing the plan of salvation ("How to Live Forever," which I can't seem to find anywhere online), and a votive candle.

All in all, the whole visit went really well, and our discussion afterward was easily as long as the service. I'll have to plan this earlier next time, so more than just three of us can go.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Francis Collins, Evangelical Christianity, and the NIH

So President Obama nominated Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. I've been debating whether or not to blog about this, because I'm ambivalent about the decision and because it's been so heavily covered already by other atheist bloggers and writers. But I read this story in Newsweek and felt that I should speak my peace about the subject.

On the one hand, we have a man who, through his passionate dedication to the study of evolution, puts the lie to the claim that 'Darwinism' draws a direct line to atheism. His attitude could give some creationists (ID supporters and otherwise) pause; in fact, it was partly through reading his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief that I was forced to (re-)recognize the validity of evolution and give up being a young-earth creationist. And his views on certain key issues are promising; for example, he supports the use of discarded embryonic tissue from fertility clinics for stem cell research, a practice which many Christians view as tantamount to murder (regardless of the fact that the tissue was already on its way to an incinerator).

On the other hand, he adopts a distinctly anti-scientific approach to investigation of the universe. He has declared that certain realms of inquiry, such as those involving human emotion and morality, are definitionally inaccessible to naturalistic science - that they can only be made sense of by referring to God. Because Collins' worldview is based on the supernatural, it will color any discoveries or decisions he makes. If we allow for the existence of an omnipotent being as an explanation for phenomena, we put unnecessary and damaging limitations on scientific inquiry. In fact, by asserting that the supernatural could be an explanation, we run into a situation where we can never prove that something supernatural wasn't involved, at which point we can't ever truly claim to have explained a phenomenon. After all, angels might be involved somewhere, perhaps holding our feet fast to the ground or pushing the planets about in their orbits. We'd never be able to show that they weren't. Science has to work within a purely naturalistic framework, or it can't get anything done.

The Newsweek story claims that "there is no evidence that Collins has ever shied from the pursuit of scientific truth" as a result of his religious beliefs. This doesn't seem entirely accurate. In a debate with Richard Dawkins, he said that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain (such as the values of certain physical constants favoring life), and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. (This is just a cop-out, of course; Collins simply defines God as 'a being beyond the universe' and never bothers to explain why we should ever assume such a being exists since we have no evidence that there is anything 'beyond the universe'. But I digress.) Essentially, Collins is claiming that we will never be able to find a purely natural explanation for the origin of the universe. Whether or not this means that he thinks investigation into the origin is worthwhile or not is unclear; it's always possible that he'll say that whatever explanation we discover is just "how God did it."

I'm not sure how I feel about Francis Collins as director of the NIH. He's certainly qualified for the position, and he's made important contributions to the progress of the study of genetics and genomics, but he's approaching science as a means of coming to understand the mind of God rather than simply learning about how the world naturally works.

A comment on the Newsweek article makes an interesting point:
[The] premise, that Collins should be judged by his work and not his faith, is a good one. But [the] conclusion is simply wrong: If we judge Collins' work, INCLUDING his book about religion, "The Language of God," then his credentials as a scientist are not so impressive. Collins reputation as a scientist is only impressive if you divide his works into scientific / non-scientific and judge him only on his scientific achievements. But that is hardly fair, because his book uses his scientific credentials to bolster his religious agenda. In "Language of God," Collins makes so many logical errors and rationalizations masquerading as rational arguments, it's an embarrassment to scientists everywhere.

Replace Collins' Christianity with Wicca, or Voodoo, Greek Mythology, or any other non-mainstream religion, and imagine the peals of laughter that would follow his book everywhere, or the howls of outrage if he were appointed to head the NIH! Imagine the ridicule Collins would suffer at the hands of his fellow scientists, and of Christians! Yet, by espousing one particular brand of mythology, the Christian religion, Collins remains untouchable, and opinions from the likes of respected journalists ... gloss over the glaring flaws in Collins' philosophy. (Comments continued on Craig A. James' blog.)
The second paragraph seems true enough. In a nation where the majority of the population embraces some flavor of Christianity, being a Christian counts in your favor, regardless of what position you're nominated for. The public would view a person of any other faith (or no faith) askance and would pay much more attention to how their superstitions affect their behavior and their choices. Only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism) gets this free pass.

I think it's this that really bothers me. Collins' faith gives him an undue extra bit of respect and consideration that his atheist colleagues don't get. Sure, he's a decent scientist, but it's hard to imagine that President Obama's nomination of a man of sincere faith to an influential science-related post isn't a mostly political move. It smells to me like the decision was made mostly to assuage the fears of the religious right. I'm willing to withhold judgment until we see what sort of decisions Collins makes, but I'm not too optimistic that he's not going to use his scientific bona fides to promote Christianity.

(For an interesting review/dissection of Collins' book The Language of God, check out this review from evolutionary biologist/philosopher Gert Korthof. There's another rather scathing review from Sam Harris as well.)