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Better to be an Atheist?

February 28, 2017 Leave a comment

I suppose it’s what I deserve for skipping a week. Last Monday I had a mini-conference on fake news at the University where I teach. It was rather informative though I think they could have spent more time concentrating on the purpose of fake news rather than just some techniques on how to teach students to avoid it. After that, I had a doctor’s appointment (everything is fine), and by the time I returned home I was too exhausted to write my entry. The thing about habits, with me anyway, is that if I miss the day I normally do something then it’s pretty likely that I won’t get to it. Still though, I persisted, and went to work searching subjects.

Then the Pope made the news. This is usually what I call a ‘freebie.’ I’ll spend only a paragraph so as to not bore long time readers familiar with my perspective on him. Pope Francis has this annoying habit of doing one thing right and then within a few days negating the net gain with a wrong thing. For instance in the same week news broke that he endorsed both the theory of evolution and the big bang (the latter if we remember, first theorized by a Catholic priest), he then authorized the ordination of a whole bunch of new exorcists (science/reality +1, -1). One step forward, one back.

Last week he said that (paraphrasing) it would be better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian. I agree, and I spent three weeks on this blog posting about Christian hypocrisy towards refugees. I claimed, by quoting their book, that Christians have a command by god to welcome refugees and help those in need. Further that they can’t say they are against homosexuality because of their book and simultaneously be against immigration because that’s abject hypocrisy. Cherry picking your moral commands isn’t morality. Not only did I say that but the three leading Christian denominations in the US agreed (Catholic church included).

Pope Francis was referring to those types of people who dutifully go to church, join advocacy groups, donate their money and time to the church, but then ignore the needs of the poor, immigrants, and other causes the church believes Jesus would have advocated for. It’s in line with what he said a few years ago regarding us non-believers: that as long as we’re decent people we can win too. Now, he’s gotten some kind of shit storm about this from the Trump supporters who think he’s attacking their icon (and they’re probably right about that). It’s the usual sound and fury, from this group of people that attack anyone who criticizes their dear leader. I doubt the Pope is chain smoking in the Vatican wondering what canon law he needs to exercise in order to return things back to the 15th century in order to get revenge.

One might wish to argue that this isn’t a step forward. That it’s just like the atheists can be good people too comment. However that person has to realize that he’s not making the proclamation to us atheists but rather saying that the standard isn’t just belief. Which is a good call because it impresses on the faithful that merely having faith doesn’t make you good. An idea that is so prevalent in this country that atheists are at the bottom of the pile when you ask about trustworthiness among believers. Even in Trump’s America, Muslims are viewed as being more trustworthy simply by virtue that they believe in something.

However that wasn’t enough for a full post. So, knowing history, and having the pattern recognition that has been essential to our survival as a species I waited. Then, with the predictability of Newtonian mechanics it happened: he took a step back. Yesterday the news broke that he was now lessening the punishments for priests convicted of pedophilia. This isn’t a blanket order, it applies to a handful of cases, and he’s doing it as part of an atmosphere of mercy that he wants the church to represent.

The problem here is that there is a certain measure of justice that needs to be put in place if we’re supposed to be trusting these people. Benedict was more stringent, and even Francis’ own words on this matter have been one of “zero tolerance.” However, just as the Medieval church was resistant to the very concept of zero so apparently is Pope Francis. I’m not claiming that he needs to send these people to the square to roast inside an iron bull, but the very least you could do is remove them from your organization as well as those that hide them. Instead of, you know, promoting them to the position of Chief Financial advisor or just telling them that they now have to do a lifetime of penance and prayers.

I was raised Catholic, a lifetime of penance and prayers is kind of the default. They’re priests so a lifetime of penance was going to be more their thing than otherwise. So how is this at all a punishment? Well they can no longer perform public ministry, which is a big deal for them, and they can’t be around children, which isn’t a punishment but rather a safety measure for any future victims. Five years of psychological counseling? I’m sure that’s the minimum, and this one I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, yes absolutely, since we aren’t sure what is causing this and why the percentage rate among Catholic priests doesn’t track with incident rate among the general population. Getting to the bottom of what the causal mechanism is should be a priority. However, not doing this from the inside of a prison but rather the full protection of the Vatican seems to be, again, on the outside of the concept of justice. I get the mercy thing, but there needs to be justice for the victims.

You almost made it a week buddy.

 

Reality

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Philosopher Daniel Dennet, on a tour promoting his new books, wonder is the philosophical movement known as “post modernism” has in some way contributed to the rise of Trump. He claims that the post modernists are the ones that introduced the concept that truth is relative to each person. That the individual ascents to the truth they want and that is how reality is determined. In other words, truth is subjective.

As a philosopher by trade, I have to address post modernism and I usually do in the beginning of each one of my courses. The first day I tell the students that I not only fail to appreciate post-modernism but that I am openly hostile to it. What can they really do? If they take offense it means that they believe in the view, and the circle is completed: my subjective reality is that post-modernism is a garbage philosophy and who are they to criticize my truth? If they are not offended, or do not think that I am wrong, then I win because they agree.

Physicist Alain Sokal once tested the problem with Post Modernism, he submitted a paper to “Social Text” a post-modernist/deconstructivist journal with the assumption that if it hit the right tone, had the right assertions, and was trendy enough among leftist intellectuals in the liberal arts that it would be published without criticism. I do not pretend to understand the editorial process of “Social Text” but they did publish the paper under the assumption that it was in earnest by a physicist looking to establish credibility from the post-modernist philosophies. Sokal later admitted to the hoax saying that his experiment proved his hypothesis correct. He purposely conflated terms between disciplines, and his conclusion was that physical reality was merely a construct of language. I want to be as clear as he was: not our  perception of reality, but reality itself. For example, gravity only works because of our language and social perceptions, not because of objective laws of the universe. If there were no people, according to this paper, gravity may function quite differently.

My own personal experience with Post Modernism came from my Master’s Program as some of the professors were trying to get famous deconstructivist Jacques Derrida, who was quite famous to come for a talk. Some of the professors, in the discussion, claimed that they couldn’t understand what he meant and that he was definitely over their heads. I found this interesting, but as a first year grad student, I borrowed a paper of his and tried to read it. At first I thought that I didn’t understand it because it was too advanced, but then, after another attempt I realized that he isn’t saying anything of any real value or meaning. His work was peppered with foreign phrases and words, which is normal-especially to someone like me reading Roman and Greek Philosophers, but the words that he used had no translation, no meaning outside of the line specific context. I began to think that people were unwilling to criticize him. To me, it was an Emperor’s New Clothes situation, but it didn’t matter–he was asking far too much money for my department to book him.

Subsequently, I took one class in my current school’s comparative literature department. I was asked a few times if we (there was another Philosophy student in the course) read Derrida. I asked ‘why would we, we’re a philosophy department?’ This got a nervous chuckle.

So is Dennet right in his assertion that Philosophy has led the way in questioning the existence of facts? It makes sense, but here’s the long chain of causation if it did. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are often considered the precursors to post-modernism, though I have a strong disagreement with this. However once can see how Nietzsche gets this accusation due to his attack on ethical norms. This is the beginning of the movement, but in the end it’s the Trump followers that have readily welded themselves to the alternative fact position and I think Dennet has a lot of work to do in order to make the link between Nietzschean proto-philosophy and a group of political followers who are possibly to the right of the Tea Party.

This would mean that an academic position which is largely niche to a few humanities departments, a section of academia that the right usually has nothing but disdain for, has been adopted by those who believe in “alternative facts.” I think the motivation is less about adopting an intellectual course but rather seeking to justify a pattern of beliefs that are in direct contradiction to objective reality.

I am of the opinion that the real culprit in this mess is not post-modernism (of which, remember, I have nothing but disdain for) rather religious zealotry that we have seen openly disregarding objective scientific facts regarding the world. Perhaps post-modernism has given some of the intellectuals on that side some weapons but in large part they haven’t been trying to discredit evolution for the last two decades.

I want to be clear, this isn’t some philosophy apologetic (mainly because Post-Modernism isn’t philosophy), but that you can’t assign blame for a position on an ideology that is rejected by those people holding that position. Especially when the competing ideology is one that specifically rejects objective facts in favor of a preferred belief. Evolution has the gold standard scientific consensus. The only dispute about it is how the mechanism of adaption occurs. For the last twenty years the contradictorily named “Discovery Institute” has been trying to shoehorn in Creationism (and its thinly veiled child “Intelligent Design”) into public schools and raising the spectre of persecution whenever it has been kicked out. This is despite the mountains of evidence that evolution not only takes place, but is the best explanation for life on this planet–a position that even the Catholic Church endorses. This is merely one example, but the fact that this denial of reality exists has not been pushed on anyone from the miniscule post modernist departments across the nation.

Dennet is right that they haven’t helped. That cannot be denied either. However, it’s very unlikely to the point of being laughably absurd that the Michael Behes and Rick Santorums of the world have been reading the post-modernist literature of Derrida, Foucault, and Nietzsche.

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So…I was Right

February 7, 2017 Leave a comment

I rarely get to gloat on this blog. Most of the time I have to shrug and then be sad, but this time I get to claim a victory though pyrrhic as it may be. Last week’s post concerned my analysis of a passages from the bible regarding how to treat immigrants, concluding that the Bible is pretty clear about how that should be undertaken, which is with welcoming kindness. I wondered at how the religious right, who are pretty uniformly in favor of keeping the Muslims out could rectify their position with the position of their book. In short, immigration/immigrants/strangers in your land are mentioned an astonishing 53 times in the bible. I found 11 times, they were the most explicit and obvious times that it was mentioned, and I highlighted these passages because they were pretty explicit about their point. General translation problems aside there’s not wiggle room for what is meant by the spirit of the law because it aligns with the letter of the law pretty well. It’s also important to note that this is one of few subjects the Bible addresses that is both a moral principle and consistent.

My point last week was that you can’t maintain a devotion to Christian principles laid forth by the holy book and be for this ban. If a person does, it means that they are either ignorant of what the book says or they are just picking and choosing the principles they will adhere to in accordance with some other higher principle that appeals to them more. I was essentially saying, I’ve read your book it says X but you’re doing Y–so which is it: ignorance or selective adherence? If it’s the former then the problem should have gone away as the reader now knows the book is against banning immigrants. If they now know and continue to support the ban then it’s the latter.

I was raised Catholic, know a great deal of what is actually in the Bible, but sometimes my interpretation is wrong. I get that, but in this case I looked for passages that condemned immigration and could only find one veiled reference to it, which had to do more with unbelievers than it had to do with immigrants. One could argue context here. Old Testament god is a tribal god, and the Bible makes reference to all of the other gods being identified with different tribes, so therefore “a stranger” might well be someone who believes in a different god. It’s a twisted form of argument, but it wouldn’t apply to Muslims anyway. See Muslims believe in the same god as the Christians they just have a different prophet and they don’t believe Jesus was the son of god. Having read about half of the Quran, I can assure you it’s the same deity. All of the Old Testament heroes are there, the same stories are recounted–in some cases with more detail than the Old Testament itself and in some cases less. None of that matters because the OT and Quran are clearly talking about the same being. On average the Muslim and the Christian have the same belief at the top of the list it’s just some different details and practices which separate them. When the Bible talks about non-believers, it’s talking about different gods entirely not just a different name for the same god. I’m more applicable to the “run them out of town” and “kill them with great destruction.” All of this comes from Deuteronomy 7:1-10, and this is me being generous because the “word of god” here is specific about who the people are: people that the Israelites invaded. So unless the Christians are going to invade these Muslim countries they really can’t apply this passage to the current ban.

(In full disclosure there’s also a different passage in Numbers about killing strangers as well; 1:51, 3:10, 3:38, 18:7. Again this is context specific and refers to allowing unbelievers to approach the tabernacle. So unless one believes that the Muslim refugees are going to start going to church then it’s not applicable. I’ve also been in one of these Mega Churches the Christian Right loves so much and there’s nothing there which could be loosely defined as a “tabernacle.”)

Then mid-last week, I found out that I was not alone in my interpretation. Sure the Atheists are, in general, against the ban. For the simple reason that it’s religious discrimination. The Muslim groups are against it for obvious reasons. The Jewish groups are against it because they’ve seen this kind of thing before. By mid-week though I found out that the major Christian groups in the US were also against it. This includes the Catholic Church, The Mormon Church, and the Southern Baptist Convention all expressed encouragement to their followers to help with the resettlement of refugees and to express the love and compassion of these people as children made in god’s image. The latter two groups expressed that there be the checking of individuals, which already occurs, but decried the blanket ban. The Mormon statement was explicit about condemning the condemnation of entire groups of people in agreement with the Catholic statement.

Basically, what this means as that three major groups for which I share profound disagreements with all looked at the same Executive Order and said that this is wrong. I know that this agreement between all the major religious organizations and myself is going to do little to sway high Trump devotees scoring high on the RWA scale, but it’s worth pointing out. I’ve seen some interesting hoop jumping to try and rectify this: from claiming that it’s not a Muslim ban even though his campaign website explicitly called it that (but at least he’s keeping his promises) to some calls that the 53 passages don’t actually mean what I, and other Christians, say they mean. If the supporters just said, I support the ban because I’m afraid of Muslim immigrants damn what my religion says, it would at least be honest. Instead they are trying to have the moral high ground of being religious while at the same time being complete and utter hypocrites about it.