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  • Is Secular Humanism a Religion? Is Secular Humanist Morality Really Subjective?

    Posted on April 21st, 2019 Helian 5 comments

    John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke, recently published an article at Quillette entitled Is Secular Humanism a Religion?  The question of whether secular humanism is a religion is, of course, a matter of how one defines religion. According to Staddon, religions are defined by three elements they possess in common, including,

    1. Belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds, and processes – like God, heaven miracles, reincarnation, and the soul.
    2. Potentially verifiable claims about the real world, such as Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, etc.
    3. Rules for action – prohibitions and requirements – a morality

    Many of the commenters on the article leapt to the conclusion that he was answering the question in the affirmative – that secular humanism actually is a religion. In fact, that’s not the case. Staddon actually claims that secular humanism fits only one of the three elements, namely, the third. As he puts it, “In terms of moral rules, secular humanism is indistinguishable from a religion.” However, in his opinion, that’s a very important similarity, because the first two elements have “no bearing on action,” including the very significant matter of action on “legal matters.” That is actually the whole point of the article. Staddon doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether secular humanism is a religion one way or the other. He limits himself to the claim that, as far as the only element of the three that has a significant bearing on action, including legal action, is concerned, secular humanists are no different from religious believers. He’s right.

    In fact, I would go even further. I would throw in the first element as well. Secular humanists do believe in invisible or hidden things. Whether they admit it or not, they perceive good and evil as real things, and they act, often very passionately, as if they believe they are real things. In fact, to be a secular humanist is to believe in these illusions. Based on these fantasies, secular humanists assume a right to dictate to others how they should or should not behave, and what the law that applies not just to themselves, but to everyone else, should be.

    As Staddon points out, this is a problem, because, even though secular humanists are at least as passionate and fanatical in defense of their moral illusions as the religious, “secular morality is not written down in a single identifiable source. It is not easily accessible.” That’s for sure! It also has the unsettling habit of changing from one day to the next, and is often defended as “the truth” in spite of that. Secular humanist morality has also become almost completely disconnected from the reasons that the emotions that give rise to it exist to begin with. I know of not a single humanist out there who could give a coherent, rational answer to the question of why they hold their moral beliefs, and what those moral beliefs have to do with the reasons they exist. “Coherent” and “rational” are the key words here. In other words, in general they are ignorant of the fact that the existence of morality is explained by natural selection, they are incapable of explaining whether their version of morality will accomplish ends similar to those that account for the existence of morality to begin with, and they are incapable of citing any authority for their morality’s unsettling ability to jump out of their skull, fasten itself on someone else’s back, and begin dictating how they ought or ought not to behave.

    Prof. Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the excellent Why Evolution is True website and one of the most effective debunkers of the God myth around, was infuriated by the article, blasting back at it with one of his own entitled, “The worst article to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a religion. Apparently he thought his ox had been gored, and ended up writing one of his own “worst articles” as a result. In the first place, he, too, jumped to the conclusion that Staddon actually did claim that secular humanism is a religion. As noted above, that’s not true. More importantly, however, Prof. Coyne completely missed the point about the third “element,” the one about morality. The point is, quoting Staddon, that when it comes to morality, secular humanists “…have just as many ‘unprovable beliefs'” as religious believers. The only difference between them is that seculars lack even the fig leaf of a God to provide an authority for their beliefs. Their “authority” is simply assumed, floating out there in the vacuum somewhere. In spite of that, again quoting Staddon, “…many passionate, ‘religious’ beliefs of secular candidates (for political office, ed.) go undetected and unquestioned. Thus they become law by stealth.”

    That is, in fact, a major theme of this blog. From my own point of view, it’s bad enough that secular humanists have delusional beliefs about morality that are no different in kind from the superstitions of religious believers. The real problem is, however, that they insist on forcing the rest of us to pretend their illusions are true, and intimidating us into acting and speaking as if they were true. As Staddon notes, they also insist on giving their illusions, which have no natural authority whatever beyond their own emotional whims, the force of law.

    According to Prof. Coyne, “…there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond ‘Do what benefits other people.'” It’s beyond me how anyone with any experience of the real world can believe something so preposterous. There may not be “a” morality of secular humanism. There are, in fact, a variety, generally quite similar, but, whatever the details, they are often passionately defended. They are also very well defined. Secular humanists tend to belong to ingroups that are defined by ideological shibboleths, many of them consisting of moral “goods” and “bads.” The fact that, as Prof. Coyne puts it, “…secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule,” is completely beside the point.

    Prof. Coyne himself is no exception. He claims to believe that morality is subjective. Many other secular humanists do as well. In fact, secular humanism and subjective morality are mutually exclusive. Read some of the articles on his website. He makes moral judgments all the time. If pressed, he will claim that they are just his opinion, but he never states them that way. He claims to be a scientist and an atheist. If so, his behavior, in common with that of every other secular humanist I’m aware of, is fundamentally irrational.

    As Darwin, Westermarck, and many others before them pointed out, morality is by its very nature an expression of emotions. Where do those emotions come from, and why do they exist? If one is truly an atheist and a scientist worthy of the name, one must admit they exist by virtue of natural selection. How does natural selection work? When it comes to morality, does it work by selecting for actions that “benefit other people”? No, it doesn’t work by selecting for those things, or for anything even close to them. Among other things, it has selected for hatred of outgroups, a trait that all human beings have in common. Secular humanists are fond of ignoring that trait, although their hatred of outgroups, generally consisting of people who disagree with them about what “ought” to be, is often deeper and more bitter than the outgroup hatred of religious people. Have a look, for example, at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, one of Prof. Coyne’s favorite fellow secular humanists. Therein you will find expressions of hatred directed at Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and Friedrich Nietzsche on the other that utterly fly in the face of the claim that secular humanism is all about “benefiting others.” If one is to take Pinker seriously, one must believe that people like Trump and Nietzsche wake up every morning wracking their brains to come up with a list of bad deeds they can do that day. Are we to seriously believe that there is nothing even remotely coercive in such shaming and vilification by prominent public intellectuals? When it comes to the law, are we to believe that such whimsical pronunciamientos have never had any effect on legislation regarding, for example, gay marriage, who may use what bathrooms, and who must bake what sort of cakes for whom?

    Natural selection, the source of the emotions that account for the existence of morality, is a natural process that favors traits that enhance the odds that the genes responsible for those traits will survive and reproduce. Moral emotions are included among those traits. When someone tells us that they want to “benefit other people,” or they want to “create a harmonious world,” they are telling us, after devoting more or less thought to the subject, what they think their moral emotions are trying to tell them. They are utterly wrong. That is not what their moral emotions are trying to tell them. To the extent that their moral emotions are trying to “tell” them anything, it is “Survive and reproduce!” When secular humanists tell us that they want to “benefit other people” and “create a harmonious world,” they are actually blindly responding to emotions in ways whose connection with the reason the emotions exist to begin with is purely coincidental. When they attempt to force the rest of us to swallow their prescriptions for “benefiting other people,” and “creating a harmonious world,” is it unreasonable for the rest of us to ask, “On what authority?” and to demand that they explain why we should be constrained to pay attention to any of their dyfunctional emotional whims whatsoever? What on earth gives them the right to arbitrarily reprogram human morality, and then bully the rest of us and denounce us as “evil” if we don’t blindly follow suit? That, in a nutshell, is the secular humanist agenda. I know of not a single one who isn’t on board with that agenda, and certainly none of them of any prominence is an exception to the rule.

    It is questions like these that Staddon is actually posing in his Quillette article, and that is the reason why it is anything but “the worst” they’ve ever published. We can’t ignore human moral emotions, whether we’re speaking of the law or of simple rules and conventions relating to social behavior. However, it seems to me there must be some better way of establishing those laws and conventions then simply allowing whatever ingroup happens to be best at manipulating emotions to dictate them to the rest of us. We might start by actually seeking to understand our moral behavior, including the potential dangers it poses. It might also behoove us to pose the question to anyone seeking to “improve” our social or legal rules, “How will the change affect the odds that the genes you carry will survive and reproduce? If it will not enhance those odds, why do you want to make the change?” Circular answers such as “It will do good” will not be accepted. I’m sorry, Prof. Coyne, but this time you got it wrong. You missed the point of the article, and if you think your version of morality is truly “subjective,” you have some explaining to do.

     

  • Touching on the Question of Who will Fry in Hell for Quadrillions and Quintillions of Years, Just for Starters; Christians or Muslims

    Posted on November 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    One hears little about the subject of hell in Christian churches these days. Perhaps things are different in the Moslem madrassahs. Regardless, I have it on good authority that, for both religions, hell is pretty much the same. It is a place where the wicked will burn in living flames for all eternity. When I speak of “authorities,” it’s perfectly clear who I’m referring to in the case of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is the ultimate authority. Furthermore, he expressed himself with perfect clarity on the subject. He did not speak in allegories. As noted in the Quran, for example,

    We have not taught him (Muhammad) poetry, nor would it beseem him. The Book is no other than a warning and a clear Quran. (Sura XXXVI)

    Now have We set before man in this Quran every kind of parable for their warning: An Arabic Quran, free from tortuous wording, to the intent that they may fear God. (Sura XXXIX)

    In the Quran, Muhammad also makes it clear that Christianity is not just a kinder, gentler version of Islam, as some of our current “sophisticated” Christians would have us believe. Moslems are warned that they must not so much as have Christians and other infidels as friends:

    Let not believers take infidels for their friends rather than believers: whoso shall do this hath nothing to hope from God. (Sura III)

    They desire that ye should be infidels as they are infidels, and that ye should be alike. Take therefore none of them for friends, till they have fled their homes for the cause of God. (Sura IV)

    O believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends. If any one of you taketh them for his friends, he surely is one of them! God will not guide the evil doers. (Sura V)

    The inmates of hell will include anyone who does not accept the teaching of the Prophet:

    But they who shall not believe, and treat our signs as falsehoods, these shall be inmates of the Fire; in it shall they remain forever. (Sura II)

    As for those who are infidels, and die infidels, from no one of them shall as much gold as the earth could contain be accepted, though he should offer it in ransom. These! a grievous punishment awaiteth them; and they shall have none to help them. (Sura II)

    But they who charge our signs with falsehood, and turn away from them in their pride, shall be inmates of the Fire: for ever shall they abide therein. (Sura VII)

    Should anyone be dense enough to doubt that Christians aren’t included among the damned, the Quran makes it crystal clear:

    We will cast a dread into hearts of the infidels because they have joined gods with God without warranty sent down; their abode shall be the Fire; and wretched shall be the mansion of the evil doers. (Sura II)

    They surely are infidels who say, “God is the third of three:” for there is no God but one God: and if they refrain not from what they say, a grievous chastisement shall light on such of them as are infidels. (Sura V)

    And when God shall say – “O Jesus, son of Mary: hast thou said unto mankind – ‘Take me and my mother as two gods, beside God?’ ” He shall say – “Glory be unto Thee! It is not for me to say that which I know to be not the truth.” (Sura V)

    The Jews say, “Ezra (Ozair) is a son of God”; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is a son of God.” Such the sayings in their mouths! They resemble the sayings of the infidels of old! God do battle with them! How are they misguided! (Sura IX)

    They say, “God hath begotten children.” No! by His glory! He is the self-sufficient. All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth is His! Have ye warranty for that assertion? What! Speak ye of God that which ye know not? (Sura X)

    Of course, “Joining gods to God,” and “God is the third of three,” refer to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and all Christians associate the word “begotten” with Christ. The Quran also clears up any misconceptions about how long the wicked will be punished, and what their punishment in hell will consist of:

    (Speaking of the wicked), Doubled to him shall be the torment on the Day of Resurrection; and in it shall he remain, disgraced, for ever. (Sura XXV)

    Those who disbelieve Our signs We will in the end cast into the Fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, We will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. (Sura IV)

    Christian teaching on the subject of hell is somewhat less explicit than the Moslem version, but is clear enough nevertheless.  Both agree that the wicked will exist in the midst of flames, and that the torture will endure forever. Unfortunately, in the case of Christianity, many of the mainstream churches are now controlled by social justice warriors, who have converted them into little more than leftist political clubs. In general, hell is either left unmentioned, or the original doctrine of the church on the subject has been subverted and bowdlerized, to the point that now hell is merely a matter of experiencing the humiliation and mortification of not being invited to God’s special “members only” afternoon tea parties. As I find no mention in the Bible of such “enlightened” and “sophisticated” versions of hell, I will rely on what the book actually says, as set forth by no less an authority than St. Augustine.

    Like most of the biblical scholars of late antiquity, Augustine knew the Bible inside and out. He could point with precision to the verses in the book of Obadiah that predict the coming of Christ. I have my doubts about whether the current pope has ever even read the book of Obadiah. Many of Augustine’s comments on hell may be found in Book XXI of his The City of God.  He begins by citing some of the relevant passages in the Bible, such as Matthew 13:41-42,

    41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
    42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    and Matthew 25:41&46,

    41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

    46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

    The most recent translations of the Bible “correct” Christianity, and “bring it up to date” by substituting milder terms such as “cutting off” for “punishment,” after the fashion in which, for example, they have “retranslated” the word “firmament” to “sky” in Genesis. Augustine saw no need for such impostures, and took the Bible at its word. He writes,

    What, then, can I adduce to convince those who refuse to believe that human bodies, animated and living, can not only survive death, but also last in the torments of everlasting fires?

    He notes the example of salamanders, of which some claimed, as noted by Aristotle, that they could live in the midst of flames without the least inconvenience. He then points out that, just because flames cause mortal bodies to die in this life, the same hardly applies to the hereafter:

    Our opponents, too, make much of this, that in this world there is no flesh which can suffer pain and cannot die; while they make nothing of the fact that there is something which is greater than the body. For the spirit, whose presence animates and rules the body, can both suffer pain and cannot die. Here then is something which, though it can feel pain, is immoral. And this capacity, which we now see in the spirit of all, shall be hereafter in the bodies of the damned.

    It turns out that there were “sophisticated” Christians in Augustine’s day as well as our own who, like the current version, insisted that all the talk of fire in the Bible is mere allegory. Augustine devotes Chapter 9 of Book XXI citing several examples from scripture which demonstrate that, when the Bible says “fire,” it means “fire.” In Chapter 12 he notes that, by virtue of original sin, “eternal punishment is due to all who are not within the pale of the Savior’s grace.” Needless to say, this does not include Moslems. In Chapter 17 he refutes those who claim that punishment in the flames will not be eternal.

    In short, then, the Moslem and Christian versions of hell are quite similar. As noted in my title, in both cases the “wicked” will suffer torture in the midst of living flames for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters. Indeed, such a period would not even represent so much as a start. Quadrillions and quintillions of years are an infinitesimal period compared to “forever.” The main difference between the two is the answer to the question, “Who constitute the wicked?” As an atheist, of course, the question is moot as far as I’m concerned. If either side is right, I will be spending eternity in a climate decidedly more tropical than the one I became accustomed to growing up in Wisconsin. For theists, however, there is a greater incentive to get it right. I quote the following passage from a sermon of the American clergyman Jonathan Edwards to “encourage” them, as Voltaire would put it:

    The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: ‘Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up: There is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to Hell since you have sat here in the House of God, provoking his pure Eyes by your sinful wicked Manner of attending his solemn Worship: Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a Reason why you don’t this very Moment drop down into Hell.

    and

    O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the Flames of Wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment.

    There. Are you encouraged? I have a few questions for the true believers. Is the distance between us and God not much greater than that between humans and ants? What are we to think of a human who would devote all of eternity to torturing ants because they displeased him for a few moments? If an immortal super being did much the same thing, would it be rational to describe that being as “benevolent,” or “merciful?” Just asking.

  • The “Islamophobia” of Richard Dawkins; Have We Reached Peak Insanity Yet?

    Posted on July 24th, 2017 Helian No comments

    KPFA radio in Berkeley recently invited Richard Dawkins to discuss his latest book, Science in the Soul:  Collected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.”  Now, however, he has been disinvited.  The reason given by the sponsors, along with an abject apology that is now a familiar feature of such self-humiliation rituals, was as follows:

    We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people. KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins views much earlier. We also apologize to all those inconvenienced by this cancellation.

    Really?  KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech?  Right!  The kind of free speech a Communist apparatchik in eastern Europe would have joyfully embraced in the 1950’s.  Whether you like Richard Dawkins or not, there is no denying that the author of books such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion is one of foremost scientific writers and thinkers of our time.  Denial of a public forum to someone like him is a particularly egregious form of censorship, and the very opposite of “support for serious free speech.”  The idea that KPFA has a problem with hurtful and offensive speech is beyond ludicrous.  As I write this, the lead story on their website includes the following:

    Trump is Appallingly Ignorant on Healthcare; Puts Greed Above Human Lives; David Cay Johnston: GOP Budget Redistributes Money to the Rich; Helps Make U.S. a Police State; Rights Advocates: Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity Set Up as a Pretext for Voter Suppression; Trump and the Russian Money Trail: Trump’s Ties to Oligarchs Go Back Decades; Married to the Mob: Investigative Journalist Craig Unger on What Trump Owes the Russian Mafia.

    Nothing Dawkins has ever written about Islam even comes close to being as “hurtful” and “offensive” as the above.  Obviously KPFA has no problem whatsoever with hurtful and offensive language per se.  They do have a problem with any criticism, no matter how mild, and how truthful, of any of the identity groups that are deemed “good,” and are therefore protected by the regressive Left ingroup.

    If the whole “Islamophobia” charade hasn’t reached peak insanity, it must be approaching it very quickly.  Recently a flash mob of Moslems rioted and sexually assaulted several women at a fair in the German City of Schorndorf.  I could find not a single headline or byline in the German legacy media the day after the event that identified the attackers as other than “youth.”  The US media were similarly coy about identifying the Minnesota policeman who shot and killed an Australian woman who was unarmed, dressed in pajamas, and merely trying to report a sexual assault, as a Somali Moslem.  One could cite countless other examples of the legacy media “protecting” the rest of us from the truth in this way.  Any criticism of Islam, no matter how mild, is deemed “Islamophobia.”

    The weird nexus between the regressive Left and Islam is remarkable in its own right.  Many of the former tend to be fascinated by radical mass movements that peddle promises of a paradise to come.  Communism was a natural fit, but its formerly powerful appeal has been drowned in oceans of blood.  Now, at least for the time being, the only game in town for those whose tastes run to rabid fanaticism on behalf of messianic worldviews is radical Islam.  Hence this odd couple’s incongruous love affair.

    Is there really even such a thing as completely irrational and unjustified “Islamophobia,” or is there really some reasonable basis for being wary of Moslems and their ongoing penetration of western societies?  After all, freedom of religion is considered a fundamental principle in most western democracies.  One of the best known statements thereof is the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and became state law in 1786.  The text included the following:

    Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

    However, according to another clause in the law,

    That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.

    Well, principles have broken out into overt acts against peace and good order on numerous occasions, most notably on September 11, 2001.  The usual rationalization of this fact is that Islam is a “religion of peace,” and the persons committing these acts simply don’t understand their own religion.  This is a dubious assertion in view of the fact that the “persons committing these acts” have often been schooled in Islamic madrassas, and have been steeped in the religion their whole lives, whereas the peddlers of the “religion of peace” nostrum have seldom even read the Quran.

    The idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” is absurd on the face of it.  The populations of Egypt and the rest of North Africa as well as much of the Middle East, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel were formerly predominantly Christian, Jewish, and/or Zoroastrian.  They did not become Moslem by peaceful penetration, but by the most extensive and successful campaign of military aggression and colonialism the world has ever seen.  At one time Spain and much of southeastern Europe as well as Sicily, Crete, Cyprus and many other large and small Mediterranean islands also fell victim to Moslem aggression, but managed to expel their conquerors, sometimes with and sometimes without outside help.

    As for the Quran itself, it hardly supports the notion that Islam is a “religion of peace.”  One can certainly cherry pick verses that seem to suggest that Moslems and infidels can live at peace with one another.  However, these periods of peace are, at best, only breathing spells in a campaign of violence that must continue until the whole world is Moslem.  Peace is certainly not an option if Moslems have the upper hand.  For example, from verse 38 of Sura 57,

    Be not fainthearted then; and invite not the infidels to peace when ye have the upper hand:  for God is with you, and will not defraud you of the recompense of your works.

    and verse 4 of the same Sura,

    When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters.

    From Sura 9, verse 124,

    Believers!  wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous:  and know that God is with those who fear him.

    and finally, from Sura 8, verse 40,

    Fight against them till strife be at an end, and the religion be all of it God’s.

    Homosexuals are condemned to hellfire in several places.  See, for example, Sura 27, Verses 55-60.  The Quran condones slavery, and particularly the sexual slavery of women.  See for example, Sura 23, Verse 6, which praises those,

    who restrain their appetites, save with their wives, or the slaves whom their right hands possess.

    and, from Sura 4, Verse 28,

    Forbidden to you also are married women, except those who are in your hands as slaves; This is the law of God for you.

    Western feminists are strangely silent about the plight of their sisters in Moslem countries in spite of such passages such as the following from Sura 4 (Women), Verse 38,

    Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other.

    And, according to Sura 4, Verse 12,

    God commandeth you to give the male the portion of two females.

    Christians, or at any rate those who associate the word “begotten” with Christ and those who believe in the Trinity are considered so evil that they will burn in hell forever.  For example, from Sura 10, verses 69-71,

    They say, “God hath begotten children.”  No! by His glory!  He is the self-sufficient.  All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth is His!  Have ye warranty for that assertion?  What! speak ye of God that which ye know not?  Say:  “Verily, they who devise this lie concerning God shall fare ill.”  A portion have they in this world!  Then to Us they return!  Then make We them to taste the vehement torment, for they were unbelievers.

    As for the Trinity, from Sura 9, Verse 6,

    Attack those who join gods with God in all, as they attack you in all:  and know that God is with those who fear Him.

    and from Sura 5, Verse 77,

    They surely are infidels who say, “God is the third of three:”  for there is no God but one God:  and if they refrain not from what they say, a grievous chastisement shall light on such of them as are infidels.

    Moslems are explicitly forbidden from taking Jews or Christians as friends, hardly a promising recommendation for a thriving, multicultural society.  For example, from Sura 5, Verse 56,

    O believers!  take not the Jews or Christians as friends.  They are but one another’s friends.  If any one of you taketh them for his friends, he surely is one of them!  God will not guide the evil doers.

    and, from Sura 4, Verse 91,

    They desire that ye should be infidels as they are infidels, and that ye should be alike.  Take therefore none of them for friends.

    There are several other similar passages in the Quran.  Moslems, who are quick to claim freedom of religion for themselves, deny it to others, and particularly to those who may have been born to Moslem parents but reject Moslem teachings.  For example, from Sura 3, Verses 84-85,

    As for those who become infidels, after having believed, and then increase their infidelity – their repentance shall never be accepted.  These! they are the erring ones.  As for those who are infidels, and die infidels, from no one of them shall as much gold as the earth could contain be accepted, though he should offer it in ransom.  These! a grievous punishment awaiteth them; and they shall have none to help them.

    Early Moslem visitors to western countries were often nonplussed by the existence of parliaments and other secular legislative bodies.  After all, the law had been handed down by Muhammed in the form of Sharia.  Surveys consistently show that large percentages of Moslems still believe that Sharia should be the basis of all law.  In other words, Islam is not just another religion.  Its dogmas apply as much in the realm of politics as they do in theology.  As Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in his book, Dangerous,

    Islam is not like other religions.  It’s more inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political.

    He also notes the disconnect between the principles the Left is supposed to stand for and its support for Islam:

    There is nothing else which better exposes the modern Left’s rank hypocrisy, their disregard for the facts, and their hatred for the West and all it stands for than their attitude to Islam.  Every noble principle the Left claims to uphold, from rights for women to gay liberation, even diversity itself, dies on the altar of its sycophantic defense of Islam.

    I doubt that any sincere Moslem, at least to the extent that he is honest, could claim that any of the above is “hurtful,” or “offensive,” unless they are “hurt” and “offended” by facts.  It is simply a truthful accounting of relevant historical events and a summary of some of the things the Quran actually teaches.  The Left can dream as much as it wants about a future border-free paradise of perfect equality and human brotherhood.  That dream will be shattered by a much grimmer reality in any country where Moslems get the upper hand.

    Leftist are masters at manipulating moral emotions to get what they want.  They claim that the rest of us are “immoral” for resisting the “paradise” they have in store for us.  That’s why, when it comes to morality, its always a good idea to go back to basics.  Always consider why the moral emotions exist to begin with.  They exist because they happened to enhance the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce.  Those genes are the root cause for the existence of all human moralities, in all their gaudy variations.

    Does tolerating the unlimited immigration of culturally and/or genetically alien hordes enhance or diminish the odds that those same genes will survive and reproduce in the existing population?  The answer is the latter – it will diminish the odds.  It will lead to all the social disorder potentially ending in civil war that history has taught us to expect when ingroups are brought in close proximity to their outgroups.  Beyond that, it will greatly increase the environmental damage the Left claims to be so concerned about, exacerbating it by further increasing what are clearly already excessive populations in terms of the health of the planet we all depend on for survival.  In fact, if one takes the facts of human nature into account, enabling such unlimited immigration is nothing short of suicidal.

    Of course, there is nothing inherently “evil” about the Left’s version of morality.  In the end, it amounts to manipulating moral emotions to accomplish ends that are the exact opposite of the reasons those emotions exist to begin with.  I personally prefer to pursue goals that are in harmony with those reasons, if only for the sake of consistency.  Objectively speaking, that doesn’t make me morally better or morally worse than the most Islamophilic Leftist you can imagine.  However, it strikes me that any life form that pursues its own destruction is dysfunctional, and I find it unaesthetic to consider myself dysfunctional.  In short, I haven’t adopted the Left’s version of morality for the same reason that I don’t try to walk on my hands instead of my feet, or smell with my ears instead of my nose.

    As for Dawkins, he’s said some “hurtful” and “offensive” things about all religions, not just Islam.  However, regardless of who they happen to “hurt,” or “offend,” those things may just happen to be true.  Whether in reading his books or listening to his talks, it would be useful to at least consider that possibility.

  • Life Among the Mormons

    Posted on February 18th, 2017 Helian 8 comments

    A few years ago I moved into an almost entirely Mormon neighborhood.  It turns out that Mormons are a great deal more tolerant than the average atheist Social Justice Warrior.  As a result I was able to learn some things about them that certainly won’t be news to other Mormons, but may interest the readers of this blog.

    One day, shortly after my arrival, I was chatting with my next door neighbor, and she mentioned that some of the neighbors in our age group were in the habit of getting together socially every other week, and wondered if I would like to tag along.  I said, “Sure.”  She suggested I ride along with her and her husband, as the group rotated from house to house, and they knew the neighborhood.  Well, when we were underway, she casually slipped me a large Bible.  It turns out that the “social gathering” was what the Mormons call Family Home Evening, or FHE.  The host is responsible for coming up with a program that relates to the church in some way.  This time around it involved each guest reading passages from the Bible with a common theme, which the group would then discuss.  At other times the Book of Mormon or other Mormon religious books might be substituted for the Bible.  Once we were to act out different parables, and the others would try to guess what they were.  On another occasion there was a presentation about the Mormon system of indexing genealogical records, and how volunteers might help with the process.  I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable with any of this, as I attended Sunday School regularly and went to church camps as a child, and still know my Bible fairly well.

    After the first meeting I e-mailed my neighbor to thank her for taking me to FHE, but told her that I had no intention of changing my religion.  I quoted my favorite Bible passage, Ephesians 2: 8-9 in self defense.  It goes like this:

    For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:  It is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.

    I strongly recommend it to my fellow atheists.  It’s great for warding off pesky proselytizers.  After all, if you’ve read the Bible and have an open mind, then nothing more can be done for you by human agency.  The rest depends on God, “lest any man should boast.”  It usually works, but not this time.  It turns out my neighbor was something of an activist in the Mormon community, and was bound and determined to make sure that when “grace” came, I would be standing close enough to the source to notice it.  She said that I’d made a very favorable impression on the other neighbors, and they would be very disappointed if I stopped coming to FHE.  They knew I wasn’t a Mormon, but it didn’t matter.

    Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I agreed to keep coming.  I must admit with a certain degree of shame that I never flat out said I was an atheist.  I mentioned that an ancestor had been a Baptist preacher, and I think they took me for some kind of a hard core Protestant, probably with a distinct Calvinist bent.  As an extenuating circumstance I might mention that I’m not much of a cook, and delicious snacks were served at the end of each meeting.  I’m not talking potato chips.  I’m not sure if “my” FHE was typical, but these people were real gourmets.  They laid out some goodies that gladdened my heart, and were a welcome relief from the hamburgers and bologna sandwiches that were my usual fare.  It’s possible my FHE was an outlier in things other than food as well.  My boss was a Mormon, and seemed surprised when he heard that I attended.  He said I’d better watch out.  I was getting pretty close to the fire!

    In the meetings that followed I always felt accepted by the group, and never “othered” for not being a Mormon.  None of them ever came to my door to engage in spiritual arm twisting (that was limited to the local Jehovah’s Witnesses), nor was I ever subjected to any heavy-handed attempts at conversion.  They did let me know on occasion that, if I had any questions about the church, they would be glad to answer them.  They also encouraged me to come to church to see what it was like, and always invited me to other Mormon social affairs.  These included a barn dance, “Trick or Trunk,” a convenient substitute for trick or treating on Halloween at which candy is passed out from the trunks of cars parked side by side, Christmas dinner at the church, a Christmas pageant, etc.  The atmosphere at these affairs always reminded me of the church I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s.  Now it is a typical mainstream Protestant church, attended mainly by people who appear to be well over 70, but in those days it was a great deal more vibrant, with a big congregation that included many children.  So it was in the Mormon church.  There were members of all ages, and there must have been 50 boys and girls in the children’s choir.  In a word, you didn’t get the feeling that the church was dying.

    I did attend church on one occasion, and it was quite different from a typical Protestant service.  To begin, there are no regular pastors.  Everything is done by lay people.  The church services last about three hours.  Ours was divided into a general service, another lesson delivered by one of the lay people, and another period in which the men and women were divided into separate groups.  Of course, there’s also Sunday school for the children.

    Each church is attended by one or more “wards,”  and there are several wards in a “stake.”  Each ward has a lay “Bishop,” who is appointed for a period of five years, give or take.  The stake is headed by a lay “President,” also appointed for a limited time.  These part time clergymen aren’t paid, don’t get to wear any gorgeous vestments, and certainly nothing like the Pope’s Gucci slippers, but they still have all the counseling, visiting, and other duties of more conventional clergy.  I was familiar with both my ward Bishop and stake President.  Both were intelligent and capable professional men.  They were respected by the rest of the congregation, but the ones I knew weren’t patronizing or in any way “stuck up.”  They were just members of the congregation at the service I attended, but perhaps they occasionally play a more active role.

    Hard core Mormons give ten percent of their gross income to the church.  I’m not sure what percentage is “hard core,” and I’m also not sure what the church does with all the money.  That question has probably been asked ever since the days of Joseph Smith.  I suspect the IRS is reasonably well informed, but otherwise they keep financial matters pretty close to the vest.  In any case, only members who tithe are allowed to attend services at or be married in a Mormon Temple.

    Mormons are a great deal more “moral” when it comes to reproduction than the average atheist.  In other words, their behavior in such matters is consistent with what the relevant predispositions accomplished at the time they evolved.  For example, the lady who tossed the Bible in my lap had 11 children and 37 grandchildren.  Large families were the rule in our neighborhood.  I can’t really understand the objections of the “anti-breeders” to such behavior in a country where the population would be declining if it weren’t for massive illegal immigration.  In any case, all those grandchildren and great grandchildren will have inherited the earth long after the mouths of those who criticized their ancestors have been stopped with dust.

    The people in my ward included some who were brought up in the Mormon faith, and some, including my zealous neighbor lady, who had been converted later in life.  Among the former there were some older people who still had a lively memory of the days when polygamy was a great deal more common than it is now.  They recall that there were federal “revenuers” who were on the lookout for such arrangements just as their more familiar peers were snooping after moonshine stills.  A neighbor, aged about 80, recounted a story of one such family she had heard as a child.  A baby had been born to a man with several wives, but died soon after birth.  The “revenuers” were aware of the fact.  Soon, however, the stork arrived again, and this time delivered a healthy baby.  Shortly thereafter the man was sitting at the dinner table holding the new arrival when he was warned that inspectors were on the way to pay him a visit.  He took it on the lam out the back door, and hid in the family cemetery were the first child was buried.  When the inspectors arrived, they asked the wife who happened to be in the house where they could find her husband.  With a downcast look she replied, “He’s up in the cemetery with the baby.”  That statement was, of course, perfectly true.  The embarrassed “revenuers” muttered their condolences and left!

    I must say I had to clench my teeth occasionally on listening to some of the passages from the Book of Mormon.  On the other hand, there’s really nothing there that’s any more fantastic than the similar stories you can read in the Bible, or the lives of the saints.  In any case, what they believe strikes me as a great deal less dangerous than the equally fantastic belief held by the “men of science” for half a century that there is no such thing as human nature, not to mention “scientific” Marxism-Leninism.  According to some atheists, indoctrinating children with stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon constitutes “child abuse.”  I have my doubts given the fact that they seem to accomplish those most “moral” of all goals, survival and reproduction, a great deal better than most of my fellow infidels.  Many of my fellow atheists have managed to convince themselves that they’ve swallowed the “red pill,” but in reality they’re just as delusional as the Mormons, and their delusions are arguably more destructive.  I personally would rather see my children become Mormons than dour, barren, intolerant, and ultra-Puritanical Social Justice Warriors, striding down the path to genetic suicide with a self-righteous scowl.  I would also much rather live among spiritual Mormons than secular Communists.

    As one might expect, there were many non-Mormons in the local community who “othered” the Mormons, and vice versa.  Nothing is more natural for our species than to relegate those who are in any way different to the outgroup.  For example, Mormons, were supposed to stick together and favor each other in business dealings, government appointments, etc.  Unfortunately, there has never been a population of humans who consider themselves members of the same group that has not done precisely the same, at least to some extent.  Mormon religious beliefs were considered “crazy,” as opposed, apparently, to such “perfectly sane” stories as Noah’s ark, the loaves and the fishes, the magical conversion of bread and wine to flesh and blood, etc.   Mormons were supposed to imagine that they wore “magic clothes.”  In reality the Mormons don’t consider such garments any more “magical” than a nun’s habit or a Jew’s yarmulke.

    In general, I would prefer that people believe the truth.  I am an atheist, and don’t believe in the existence of any God or gods.  I’m not an “accommodationist,” and I don’t buy Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.”  On the other hand, when people treat me with kindness and generosity, as I was treated in the Mormon community, I’m not in the habit of responding with stones and brickbats, either.  The hard core Hobbesians out there will claim that all that kindness sprang from selfish motives, but hard core Hobbesians must also perforce admit that neither they nor anyone else acts any differently.

    If you want to get a fictional “taste” of what Mormons are like, I recommend the film “Once I was a Beehive.”  You can rent it at Amazon.  It’s about a teenage girl whose mom remarries to a Mormon.  The flavor of the Mormon community pictured in the film reflects my own impressions pretty accurately.  The Mormon Bishop, in particular, is very typical and true to life.

    As for me, in the fullness of time I left the land of the Mormons and now live among the heathen once again.  None of them has seen fit to follow me and pull me back from the fiery furnace by the scruff of my neck.  It may be that they finally realized I was a hopeless case, doomed to sizzle over the coals in the hereafter for the edification of the elect.  I’m afraid they’re right about that.  If they do come after me they’ll find me armed with my copy of Ephesians, as stubborn as ever.

  • The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

    Posted on January 30th, 2017 Helian 11 comments

    In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

    Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

    Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

    Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

    Richard Dawkins chimes in:

    “Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

    Sam Harris piles on:

    I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

    Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

    Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

    I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

    What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

    This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

    In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

  • The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

    Posted on May 12th, 2016 Helian 5 comments

    Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

    An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

    They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

    In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

    When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

    The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

    Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

    Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

    Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

    It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

    In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

    Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

    All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

  • More Fun with Moral Realism

    Posted on January 16th, 2016 Helian No comments

    What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

    Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

    Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

    Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

    I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

    Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

    Tännsjö replies,

    I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

    In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

    Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

    Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

    And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

    Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.

  • The Alternate Reality Fallacy

    Posted on September 18th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

    The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

    …that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

    all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

    …no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

    Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

    Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

    The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

    Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

    Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

    decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

    noting that culture is,

    an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

    In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

    These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

    Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

    But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

    …if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

    This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

    One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

    Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

    In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

  • Notes on “A Clergyman’s Daughter” – George Orwell’s Search for the Meaning of Life

    Posted on September 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same.  In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means.  Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance.  There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.

    Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable.  At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play.  At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket.  A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.)  In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.

    Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates.  At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984.  Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life.  Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible.  The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills.  Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked.  In Mrs. Creevy’s words,

    It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds.  It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it.  The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.

    Orwell later elaborates,

    There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.  Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.  At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.

    So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.  The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.

    Recall that the book was published in 1935.  The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936.  In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask.  The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work.  There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side.  Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t.  He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power.  The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984.  When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future.  It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.

    Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end.  There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life.  While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all.  In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off.  She suffers from no illusions.  As Orwell puts it,

    It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future.  She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women.  “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them.  She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.

    She was not the same women as before.  She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,

    Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.  And given only faith, how can anything else matter?  How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand?  Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.

    Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful.  No use trying to argue it away.  Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave.  Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?

    Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution.  There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete.  It is all or nothing.  Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.

    Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.”  And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void.  Dorothy considers,

    Where had she got to?  She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything.  Well, what then?

    At this point, the true believers chime in.  They know the answer.  Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled!  So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence.  They need absolute moral standards.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need a purpose in life.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need human existence to have meaning.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They must have unquestionable rights.  Therefore their faith must be true.  And so on, and so on.  Orwell is having none of it.  Dorothy muses on,

    And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.

    Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem.  Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying.  He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that.  As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:

    The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer.  She did not know this.  She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable.  She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them.  Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.

    and, finally,

    Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating.  The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.  It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

    Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs.  No doubt he considered it too immature.  We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career.  He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.”  Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication.  It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.

    And what of the Meaning of Life?  That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own.  None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search.  And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution.  It must be subjective and individual.  It need not be any less compelling for all that.

     

     

  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.