Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Passionate Atheistic Blow Back (The New Atheists)

Books such as these are blowback, or unintended consequences of careless and overreaching religious teachings and structure. There is much in these books that I agree with but I want to comment on a few things that concern me about them.

Technically, Bertrand Russell is not a "New Atheist" but I do want to mention his famous book wherein he endeavors to list all the major mistakes made by Christianity over the last 2000 years, I merely want to point out that a similar list also could be made of all the mistakes made by governments over the last 2000 years, but notwithstanding all the mistakes that governments have made, some form of government has always been needed and will continue to be needed. Likewise, some form of religion will always be needed. Just as government is an evolutionary emergent, so is religion. Both serve necessary purposes in the evolution of the world.

Libertarians like to think of a world without governments but their views are extreme and do not convince most people that libertarianism would not lead to anarchy. Libertarians make the ideological mistake of wanting to minimize the size of governments when the goal rather should be to optimize the size of governments. Passionate atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins remind me of Libertarians in that these authors seem unconcerned about any resultant anarchy that no doubt would follow from a mass and rapid exodus of people from their traditional religious structures. So far Dawkins, Hitchins, and similar proselytizing atheists have not persuaded me that their brand of atheism would not also lead to some kind of anarchy (at least in the short run).

Dawkins wrote in his 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow:
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
This statement by Dawkins reminds me of the time I served as a juror. After the trial was over, the jurors assembled in the jury room and almost immediately one confident man volunteered to be the jury foreman and was elected by the others. We then took a preliminary vote of guilty or not guilty. There were two that voted not guilty--then commenced a long effort to persuade these two holdouts to change their vote. For a while the ten jurors were patient but soon some of the more dominant jurors became frustrated and let the tone of their voices become sarcastic and derisive. Of course the two holdouts reacted to this disrespect by not wanting to agree with their “enemies.” Next the amazing part: after a long and tiresome deliberation process, the hitherto less outspoken jurors began to take their turns at persuading the two holdouts. The gentle jurors succeeded. Case closed. For days afterwards I kept pondering in my mind the power of gentle persuasion and I vowed that if I ever served as a juror again I would not show my cards too soon but would wait for the bullies to talk themselves out first.

Sometimes Dawkins and Hitchens are bullies.

Hitchens wrote:
Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. (p. 9)
I say, however, so what if religion is man made? So are governments, disposable diapers and the scientific method. Even if science ultimately replaces religion, it is not prepared to do so yet. I prefer Voltaire's logic when he wrote "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." And Einstein said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

There is still an important role for religion to play in the world which I hope to explore more fully in other posts.

Hitchens also wrote:
If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world. (p. 220)" He is right about that one but I am not sure that it would be a better world.
All three of these authors are superbly talented individuals whose arguments should be studied even though their books are not balanced. I highly recommend Russell’s, “A History of Western Philosophy” instead. Dawkins is superb when he talks about evolution. Hitchens can make me wince and laugh out loud by his belligerent sarcasm (but so can Howard Stearn whose style I find to be despicable, albeit captivating). I hope that all the creationists, Islamists, and all kinds of fundamentalist zealots will read these authors but to most people, my children included, I recommend being careful with this kind of book that can leave you feeling angry, because when you are angry your judgment is impaired. I recommend reading Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Peter Hitchens, or Krista Tippett, for starters. (Listen to Tippett in audio. Her style and tone set the standard for seekers with a religious background.)


Five days after I wrote this post, al Qaeda-affiliated gunmen killed 52 Christians and Police inside of a Baghdad church in an attempt to empty Iraq of Christians. This kind of religious extremism makes me angry too and helps me to understand the rudeness of the above mentioned authors. Yet it would be an imprudent indulgence to lash back without calculating all the consequences.

So I say, exterminate the murderous religious extremists but leave the rest of religion to be enlightened by education and diplomacy. And do not make the mistake of shooting back at everything religious or spiritual.

The following authors are among the prime movers of the New Atheism movement: Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and Christopher Hitchens.

Religions are both True and False

Here is an internationally recognized symbol of an atom. I ask you, dear reader, if this symbol is true or false? Please answer this question in your mind before reading further.

In the first chapter of my economics textbook there is a page about conceptual models as they relate to economic theories. I teach my students that a model is an abstract and simplistic representation of a greater truth. A model is a simplistic way of thinking about something more complicated. A scientific theory is a model, a set of coherent logic that is useful in portraying a bigger reality. Such scientific models are imperfect, and subject to scrutiny and modification. There is typically much resistance to changing established models or theories but paradigm shifts do occur over time as more knowledge is obtained and as the most staunch and established proponents of obsolete models die off.

About this time I draw the symbol of an atom on the board and I tell my students that this is a model. Then I ask them if it is true. Pause. Is this really what an atom looks like? Has anyone ever seen an atom? No, and no. If no one has ever seen an atom then how can this be a true picture of an atom? Do scientists believe that electrons orbit the nucleus (planetary model of an atom)? No. Then why do scientists who know better still use this inaccurate symbol and model of an atom when teaching children about atoms?

The answer is simple. A teacher cannot very well begin to teach the concept of an atom by teaching quantum electrodynamics. Rather, the teacher must employ some pedagogical strategy that usually includes some historical background and a graspable visual picture, a model. Years of teaching experience have confirmed to educators that teaching something that is not exactly true or up to date, such as the planetary model of the atom, may indeed be the best way to teach a greater truth, if it is a stepping stone in the right direction. Then I talk about the usefulness of models in spite of their limitations. Of course models also may contain errors and need to be updated.

Now, to answer my first question, the planetary symbol of the atom is both true AND false. It is “true” in the sense that it is “useful” to teach this model first before continuing to more complex models. It is “false” because it is not exactly what an atom looks like (electrons do not orbit the nucleus on planes).

After the class is dismissed and I am alone I continue the lecture in my head. I say that religions are also models, both true and false. They are true inasmuch as they are useful and adequately capture the ineffable truths that science and philosophy have heretofore not been able to capture. For instance, philosophers have come up with existentialism, a philosophy that is obsessed with the themes of absurdity, anguish, void, dread, and despair but have not yet come up with its opposite; until that day there is a place for religion in this world.

Just as scientific models need to be updated as a matter of course, so also religious models need to be updated too, but it seems to be the propensity of religions to resist change which ironically leads to their becoming less relevant in the world.

Religions are their own worst enemy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Am a Seeker of Truth (Don't Label Me)

Would you dare label Derrida? Nor should you label me. Would you categorize Kant? Would you look at Sarte and objectify him? Nor should you do these things unto me.

On several occasions I have told my kids that my favorite clothing style is “invisible.” That is, whatever clothing draws the least attention to myself is what I like to wear. All this is not to say that I do not enjoy fashion. In fact, I can offer some good evidence of my love for fashion--I have watched all the seasons (eight so far) of Project Runway with my family. I would love to be more fashionable in my life but I am usually too preoccupied with other thoughts and as a result my desire for fashion is suppressed by my greater love of philosophy. I tell my kids that I do not want tattoos for the same reason; I don't want to be branded. I don’t want to be noticed (unless I want to be noticed). I do not want to be categorized. I don’t want to be looked at and objectified. And I do not want to be labeled.

I dislike “labeling” questions: Are you a Christian? Mormon? Republican? American? From California?

I dislike these questions because by answering a simple yes or no, then the questioner will make many assumptions about me that are not necessarily true. For instance, if someone were to ask me if I am a Mormon and I say yes, then that person would probably assume that I do not believe in evolution and that I take the stories in the scriptures as mostly literally true, among many other things. All this would be false.

If someone were to ask me if I am pro-union or anti-union, then of course I again would be immediately labeled in that person’s mind even though in my mind there are circumstances under which I would be pro-union and other circumstances under which I would be anti-union or ambivalent about unions. For instance, If I were living 100 years ago in a small town with one employer, say, a copper mine, then I would likely be more pro union than when there is a more perfect labor market. Sometimes unions themselves can be the abusers. So I am neither for nor against unions at all times but I am either for or against unions under different circumstances.

If when I am lecturing I perceive that my audience is to the right of the truth, I might try to move them to the left, closer to the truth and I would do just the opposite with a liberal audience.

I teach my students that it does not really matter if a person starts out as a Democrat or a Republican, male or female, or any particular ethnicity or religion. What matters most is that they should try to be objective seekers of the truth and the truth is above petty sub-groupings. What matters most, is not the opinions you have when you start thinking in life but that you steadily improve your opinions all throughout your life.

I am a registered Republican; I was born that way. I am also a male (also born that way). But just because I am a male republican does not mean that I am beholden to the Republican Party and chauvinistic. So even though one may label me as a WASP (white Anglo Saxon protestant) or a Mormon, or a white male, or whatever, does not mean that I am any of these things. These are all just labels that ignorant people may ascribe to me. When I was a child these labels were probably more accurate but now that I have grown up intellectually, there is no stereotype that accurately defines me.

So who am I? What am I? How should I be labeled?

I am a seeker of Truth (Period). Everything else about me is a footnote.

The truth is at the center and I am always willing to move towards it in any direction I need to get there.