Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: August, 2009

They’ll Probably Blame Atheists When the Asteroid Hits…

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these words were spoken by a liberal environmentalist and/or a humanist:

How important it is . . . that the international community and the different governments be able to give the appropriate indications to their own citizens to address in an effective manner the ways of utilizing the environment that turn out to be harmful. The economic and social costs stemming from the use of shared environmental resources, recognized in a transparent way, must be assumed by those who use them, and not by other populations or by future generations. Protection of the environment and the safeguarding of the resources and climate call for all leaders to act jointly, respecting the law and promoting solidarity, above all in the weaker regions of the earth. . . .

. . . Together we can build an integral human development beneficial to present and future peoples, a development inspired by the values of charity in truth. For this to happen it is indispensable that the present model of global development be transformed through a greater and shared responsibility . . . This is demanded not only by environmental emergencies, but also by the scandal of hunger and poverty.

But no, this is not a speech by Al Gore, it’s from He of the Astounding Hat, Pope Benedict XVI. Sounds great, doesn’t it? There’s nothing I would quibble with in this message in the least. His pope-ish-ness has hit the nail on the head. I feel like there’s a real chance for nonbelievers and Christians to reach a real understanding based on shared val…

…what’s that?

He said what…?

Ahem:

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.

According to Joey Ratz here, atheism is a cause of environmental rape. It’s the usual false equation usually made about atheists and morality–if there’s no God telling you how to behave, how do you know not to kill? Or in this case, how do you know not to selfishly ravage our earthly habitat? But here, he even goes a step further, and implicates people who simply don’t have God as a central part of their lives, “where God is marginalized,” not always at the forefront of thought. That’s rough.

The heavy dose of anti-atheist bigotry in this message is not only on the surface, blaming atheists for the plunder of the planet. Worse yet, those heads of corporations and governments who couldn’t give two Hail Marys about our current habitat or what our children will inherit are primarily religious believers. In America, mostly Christian. And by “mostly,” I mean “for all intents and purposes all of them.” These folks are not denying God’s existence–in many instances God is used as a justification for insane waste, exploitation, and brain-dead policy.

Just on the political end, remember it was Republican Rep. John Shimkus who told us that, on the question of global warming, the world will end when God says so; it won’t have anything to do with us. It’s Michele Bachmann and John Boehner, Christians both, who tell us that carbon dioxide isn’t harmful.

So to blame these problems on atheists is one level of insult. But to do so, knowing that the prime perpetrators of planetary pillage are principally the practicing pious, well, that’s another thing altogether.

P.S. – Hat tip to the National Secular Society, whose president, Terry Sanderson, lays the sacramental smackdown in their response:

This is rich coming from the leader of an organisation that has plundered the world to enrich itself. As he sits in his golden palaces, surrounded by unimaginable luxury and material wealth, he lectures the rest of us about restraint and greed. We have nothing to learn about environmentalism from this hypocrite.

Yeah. That, too!

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Accomodationism: A Position of No Ambition

I gave the LA Times op-ed by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum a fresh read today as it is republished in the Guardian (see Miranda Celeste Hale’s energetic takedown here), and two new things about it struck me.

First, and less importantly, it seems so half-hearted in its tone. Going into it the first time, I knew essentially what to expect, and understood the underlying thesis before I ever read a word. Reading it anew, I now notice that the thesis as presented here is remarkably, well, soft. Mooney and Kirshenbaum don’t seem to be stating any hard and fast conclusions, but appear merely to want the mean New Atheists to think about what they’ve done — which is, of course, upset religious people.

As their trump card and exemplar, they cite Charles Darwin’s reticence to accept a shout-out from an atheist author who wanted to dedicate a book to him. This hardly seems an apt comparison, as public association with out-and-out atheism in the late 19th century (as opposed to the firey agnosticism of Robert Ingeroll) was far more taboo than it is even today — it makes perfect sense that Darwin, already sensitive to his own wife’s religious sensibilities, would not want to be brought further into the fray. Regardless, we oughtn’t necessarily be looking to the atmosphere of that era (an era in which evolution was a brand new notion and no one had ever heard of DNA) for behavior to copy today.

But beyond the tepid superiority of the piece’s tone, (as I don’t fundamentally disagree that atheists have a hefty PR challenge in winning allies) I am more taken aback by a darker underlying message that is being sent. It’s not simply that science and religion ought to find more common ground. If anything, Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to believe, to my mind, that such an enterprise is mostly pointless. Rather, this op-ed tells me that the practice of persuasion should be wholly abandoned. Those who are religious will always be religious, those who do not accept the fact of evolution will almost always reject it. All there is to do is for those who do happen to overlap in some opinion or other to hold hands as they weather the storm of attacks from fundamentalists as militant atheists, safe and cozy with their morally superior, if intellectually fuzzy version of tolerance.

More harshly, those who cast their lot with reason and science should stop trying to convince anyone else. They write:

. . . the New Atheists have chosen their course: confrontation. And groups like the NCSE have chosen the opposite route: Work with all who support the teaching of evolution regardless of their beliefs, and attempt to sway those who are uncertain but perhaps convincible.

I take from this that it’s perfectly acceptable to add to someone’s existing beliefs, but never, ever try to change them. If they’re religious, all we’re allowed to do (in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s world) is to tell them that it’s cool if they also bring evolution into the mix. But asking them to critically reevaluate their superstitions, to consider embracing reason instead of religion, is forbidden.

It probably goes without saying that this rule applies only to atheists. Religious believers are free to make their case to those of differing faiths or no faith, but preach the word that there is no Word, and a social crime is committed (and Mooney and Kirshenbaum are not the reason that this is the case, but they aren’t helping).

This is what is so sad about the position Mooney and Kirshenbaum have staked out. It is a position of no ambition. It says to make friends with those you already kind of agree with, and allow them to augment their irrationality with a small dose of fact–enough to get by in modernity. But in all other endeavors beyond that? Simply give up.

No thanks.

(Special thanks to Miranda Hale, now the new Church & State Examiner, for her help on this.)

Charlie Crist Convinces God Not to Lay Waste to Florida

Florida governor Charlie Crist seems to think that he and God are a superteam that has saved the Sunshine State from hurricanes.

No, really. Per the AP:

Could it be divine intervention that’s kept Florida safe from hurricanes since Gov. Charlie Crist took office?

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

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

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

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

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

True, Florida has not been leveled by any hurricanes, though during the Republican National Convention in 2008, Hurricane Gustav caused widespread damage throughout the gulf region of the South. It didn’t hit Florida directly, but four people were killed on Florida beaches due to resulting rip currents. So I suppose that means God was keen on the landmass of Florida, just not so much all the people living in it.

And it’s not as though Florida has seen no storm activity since Saint Charlie took office. In 2007 alone, Tropical or Subtropical Storms Andrea, Barry and Ingrid, plus another unnamed tropical depression, made landfall in Florida. And in 2008, Tropical Storm Fay hit Florida four times — a record — killing six Floridians.

Hey, maybe Gov. Crist and Yahweh (who, as you can see, share a family name) just compromised — it’s okay if you off a few folks here and there, do a little damage, but just don’t drown Miami, and we’ll call it square.

If only other governors had been smart enough to make similar requests, because I’m sure none of them have been praying to God to protect their states. They must all be bad Christians.

Side note: That the Associated Press’s Brendan Farrington even entertains the notion in the story’s lede is disturbing. Look at the opening sentence again:

Could it be divine intervention that’s kept Florida safe from hurricanes since Gov. Charlie Crist took office?

No. No, it couldn’t.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Fay in, um…oh yeah: Florida.

The Scarlet Name Tag

[As usual, this is a cross post from my Examiner column.]

Though he may not have walked a full mile in someone else’s shoes, Christian blogger Aaron Gardner did the next best thing: he walked through a museum with an atheist’s name tag.

Gardner, author of the blog A Great Work, had an eye-opening experience as he covertly joined the Secular Student Alliance’s visit to the astoundingly absurd it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-serious Creation Museum in Kentucky. This event generated a lot of news on its own, as the well-behaved atheists looked agog at the fake history on display at the museum. But Gardner, looking to see what it might be like to experience the museum through the nontheist perspective, blended himself into the secular crowd, and came away with a new understanding.

. . . it was obvious that there was a distinctive way that we were being treated because of the shared identification. There were hateful glances, exaggerated perceptions, waxing surveillance by security, and anxious but strong ‘amens’ accompanying a lecture on “The Ultimate Proof of Creation” by Dr. Jason Lisle.

Is this how Christians treat people? Is this how we follow Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? I cannot help but think that many Christians are fearful of atheists. It is a sort of xenophobia that runs along lines of faith and belief. What we tend to forget is that atheists, agnostics, and evolutionists are people too. If our attempt to preserve our belief means that we are treating these people like animals, are we really holding up principles that are based on a creation worldview?

There have rarely been times in my life that I have been ashamed of people that I call “brothers and sisters in Christ.” This was one of them. To be judged by people that share my beliefs because of the name tag I wore was appalling. We forget that Jesus not only commanded that we love our enemies and pray for them, but he also sought out people who were rejected by the religious order, embraced them, spent time with them, and partied with them.

It’s a fantastic revelation (no pun intended) by an obviously already well-intentioned believer. Though Gardner feels that many of us atheists have been, in his words, “rude and dismissive,” it’s no excuse for Christians to behave rudely or with prejudice, particularly if their interpretation of Christianity is more along the love-thy-neighbor lines. Not only do we have here a believer who does not out-and-out dismiss atheists as fools or as evil, but makes a good hearted attempt to understand them and even feel sincere empathy for our experience of life as a marginalized minority. (Indeed, he experienced that alienation even in the midst of 300 “fellow” atheists!)

I do, however, think we need to be careful about utterly ruling out the idea of judging a person “for their beliefs.” This is not to say that if you know someone is of a different religious outlook than you that it’s a free pass to loathe them. But if someone wears a name tag that indicates that they proudly assert that President Obama is a Nazi, if that is their belief, I have no problem judging them personally, and harshly so.

But obviously, that’s not what Gardner is getting at. His message, and its one folks on both sides of the theological divide should heed, is that one’s religious alignment is not necessarily the alpha and omega of who they are. Just as Gardner wants his fellow Christians to recognize the common humanity (and common morality) of their atheist neighbors, there are times when we nonbelievers could stand to remember that there is more to a person than what we see as their unjustifiable belief in the supernatural. We can certainly have strong feelings and opinions about our differing beliefs, and we ought to argue, discuss and debate over them, vigorously and passionately. It’s okay to disagree and to say so. But then we can also take a tip from Gardner:

. . . belief must not be a reason not to engage in relationship. . . . It is about listening to other inhabitants of the planet, regardless of what we believe about how we got here. It is about having dialogue and getting to know one another. It is about sharing a cup of coffee, a glass of beer, or a soda and enjoying one another’s company. It is about realizing that we have more in common than we have in opposition.

I’m sure that if Gardner and I got together, we’d have plenty to argue about, but in the midst of that argument, it’d be good to know that I’m arguing with someone who hopes to understand rather than just assert.

National Ambitions

Provincial no more!

The good folks at Examiner.com have given me something of a promotion: No longer the DC Secularism Examiner, but now I am the National Secularism Examiner.

This in no way corresponds to more money or, say, a chorus of angels welcoming me to the pantheon of national Examiners (like, say, the Cruise Ship Examiner, the American Idol Examiner, or the Twilight Examiner), but it just makes me sound more important. I think.

And besides, 95% of the content here at Bloc winds up at Examiner, so if you want to help a brother earn a penny (literally), check out my articles over there from time to time.

Why Debate the New Atheists When You Can Distort?

Every couple of days now, it seems some columnist or public thinker decides to cast their lot with the anti-New Atheist crowd. It’s sadly quite predictable: a new, exciting public debate has emerged over the past few years about religion and its magical force field of unquestionability, and for a while, it was beginning to look like the instigator position of the New Atheists was gaining a foothold–there seemed to be a genuine hunger to debate religion on its merits.

The first examples of backlash were as one would expect, tirades against the alleged “arrogance” or “militance” of folks like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but they came mainly from the religious. Fellow skeptics and nonbelievers, it seemed, were waiting on the sidelines to see how things might shake out.

Recent months have led me to believe that the trend among those less-than-religious luminaries seems to be in the direction of opposition. They have licked their fingers, held them to the wind, and decided that zeitgeist was happier with the “old atheism” that kept its mouth shut. The let’s-get-along-for-the-sake-of-getting-along form of mushy liberalism is in vogue, and the New Atheists are decidedly out of that particular fashion.

Sadly, the vast majority of this opposition tends to be based on misrepresentations or flat out lies about what the New Atheists have written or said. Quotes are mined from books, positions are inferred rather than supported by facts, and harsh characterizations are made based on a presumed attitude rather than actual data. And all too often this is being passed off as the “reasonable” side of the debate. New Atheists? Crazy fundamentalists. The squishy accomodationist quasi-religious? Now they have the right idea.

Which is of course nonsense.

As I have found myself writing time and time again, I am flabbergasted that anyone who has actually read the books of the New Atheists or heard them speak could still believe them to be “militant” or comparable to religious fanatics or fundamentalists. It’s simply not a reasonable conclusion to reach, yet countless supposedly wise men and women have done so. Certainly, the New Atheists say things that challenge, and they do so unapologetically. I often hedge a bit when I bring Christoper Hitchens into the mix, because his whole public persona is built around being something of a boor. But then watch him debate a panel full of devout theists, and see how polite and deferential he is to them. The charges simply don’t stick.

So once again I find myself unable to explain the backlash among the intelligentsia against the New Atheists except to guess that opposition seems to be the flavor of the week. People seem to be generally uncomfortable with the message of the New Atheists, so let’s just go with that flow, the path of least resistance, and join the chorus of those tsk-tsking and finger-wagging at this unpopular group of scientists and thinkers.

It’s the safe position to take, much like centrist Democrats being against gay marriage but for gay rights more generally. You can’t say I’m anti-gay! But you can’t say I’m pro-gay either! Likewise, these opponents get to maintain their ivory tower cred by being skeptical of religion in its more fundamentalist or literalist forms, but still publicly exhibit a soft spot for “faith” and “the mystery”–as Daniel Dennett would put it, a belief in belief. It’s silly, but it’s good PR, and no one at the cocktail party has to feel uncomfortable.

I am spurred to write on this topic this evening by yet another such attack on the New Atheists, coming not surprisingly from a blog on BeliefNet run by the BioLogos Foundation, a group that explicitly wished to bridge the gap between religion and science, founded by the incoming NIH chief, Francis Collins. (But let’s be clear, on their blog and on their website, the symbols are of a DNA strand and an Ichthys, so let’s not confuse ourselves into thinking that it’s all forms of religion they’re building bridges to. Just the one with the Jesus fish.) I don’t wish to spend too much time on it, but the post in question is particularly wrathful, first entitled “Why I Think the New Atheists are a Disaster” (as it originally showed in my browser before a refresh this evening and in Google searches), it has since been enhanced to “Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.” The piece is a guest post by Michael Ruse, and he wants you to know that he really, really is a skeptic/non-believer/agnostic, so you can be sure that he knows what he’s talking about (three paragraphs are spent backing this up). He then engages in a vague harangue against the New Atheists, distorting their positions, making weird inferences, and pounding his chest at how “proud” he is to be on “the front lines” opposing them. He calls the New Atheists’ rhetoric “violent” without providing examples. Heartfelt, assertive, confident, surely, but there is nothing about, say, being put to the sword, or smote, or damned, or any such thing in their words. Ruse accuses the New Atheists of showing “hatred” to Francis Collins. Criticism? Yes. Bemusement? Possibly. Principled opposition to his appointment in a well-reasoned argument? You bet. I fail to see where hatred is being spouted other than simple disagreement and disappointment.

But it is all, sadly, familiar material. ‘The New Atheists are too mean and give us semi-atheists a bad name.’ If he had written that the New Atheists opposed Collins, we could talk about it. But he says they “hate” him, so now the discourse is in the toilet. He could say that he doesn’t agree with the New Atheists’ opinions about religious belief, and those opinions could be dissected. But he says that they are “violently anti-religion of all kinds,” ignoring their more nuanced positions, and again, we hear that flushing sound.

I am worried. I grow almost weary of writing in defense of the New Atheists so often. While I admire them greatly and certainly think that their contribution to public discussion has been an overwhelming net positive, I know that there are examples in which it is not the case. They are not infallible saints, and the instigator approach to public atheism is not always best in all circumstances. But interested parties inside and outside the atheist community can’t reasonably engage in those debates unless we discuss things as they actually are, not in gross caricatures or misrepresentations. Before I can really debate whether Sam Harris’s explorations of the relative morality of torture is worth serious consideration, I must waste time and energy saying, “no, actually, Sam Harris is not pro-torture,” because some fools have decided that it’s a good way to kneecap Harris and end the discussion. We can’t have rational discourse about the impact of the New Atheists unless the irrational nonsense is put away.

It’s a debate worth having–indeed, it’s a series of debates that we need to have. The New Atheists’ influence in the nonbelief community is such that their impact must be examined and understood, their positions must be clarified and criticized and tested. But, as with the debate about religion, it must be done on the merits, based on the facts, not on the ham-fisted broadsides of uncomfortable scientists, thinkers, and writers who wish to remain popular.

The Evolution of God: Brilliant and Maddening

Robert Wright, in his latest book The Evolution of God, promises up front that he will make a plausible case for the existence of some force or intention behind the universe that could be called “divinity,” and does so in the midst of making a different case altogether: that our notions of the illusory “one true god” (and Wright does call the idea of God an “illusion”) adapt over time to the circumstances of the people believing in him.

On the second argument, he succeeds brilliantly. Not so much in that this is a revelation (is it a surprise to anyone that religious notions change to fit the times and situations of the humans inventing them?), but in the fluid, accessible, and vivid way in which he makes his case and educates the reader. 90 percent or so of The Evolution of God is utterly engrossing and fascinating in this way.

On the first argument, however, he fails, and it leaves one utterly puzzled. He writes:

Maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament—such as the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church—is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.

It’s a valiant effort he makes, but not a coherent one.

Wright has a brilliant way of weaving together elements of history and constructing a guiding principle or theory to explain its dynamics. He did so in Nonzero in regards to human interactions over time. Whether or not one thinks Wright reaches cogent conclusions in either book, it is hard to deny that he has taken his subject terribly seriously and constructed plausible and thought-provoking narratives in following history’s thread.

I don’t claim the religious or historical scholarship to be able to weigh his reconstruction of religious history for thoroughness or veracity, but I can say that at the very least he lends a fresh perspective to the evolution of religion that, if nothing else, is brought to life by his wit and passion for the subject. (Certainly worth further exploration is his comparison of financial analysts to shamans, people who show no evidence of genuine connection to an incomprehensible phenomenon — be it the stock market or the spirit world — and yet we imbue them with a kind of priestliness, assuming they possess knowledge that they likely do not.)

At the center of Wright’s examination of the evolution of religion is what he sees as religion’s expanding moral circle — as time goes on, religions and notions of God begin to accept a greater and greater share of the human species into the sphere of those we deem worthy of moral consideration. (He is careful to note, wisely I think, that gods were not originally conceived as moral arbiters at all, but merely as explanations for natural events and good and bad fortune.) There are fits and starts to be sure, big ones, and Wright does not hide them, but he posits that the overall trend is one of expanding and deepening tolerance.

That this occurs is difficult to argue with, but it immediately seems odd to lend this characterization to religion in particular, rather than seeing religion’s evolution as a byproduct of the wider culture’s evolution. Yes, the interpretations and dictates of various religious philosophies may be growing more tolerant and humanistic, but Wright fails to prove that this moral expansion is a product of the religion itself, and not vice versa (and truly, it is not always clear in what direction he wishes us to go). Does it not make more sense to say that as society becomes more diverse and sophisticated, and as disparate cultures are intermingling for the first time, that the accompanying religions are simply being adapted to that end? The religions aren’t making us more moral, our increasing and deepening sense of morality is being reflected in our religions (and Wright does not rule that out, either). One may reinforce the other, of course, and Wright doesn’t outright declare that religion’s moral growth is the only reason we don’t slaughter each other in the streets today (oh wait), but whatever his ultimate point, religion deserves less credit for our tolerance than Wright implicitly gives it.

This is all to say that Wright constructs a case through his narrative that religion changes with the times, and illustrates what forms it takes, but then seems to see this evolution as an innate property of religion; a guided human phenomenon that grows in moral scope over time (“there is a moral order out there—and it’s imposed on us.”). But were he not to proffer that conclusion, one would simply read his book as an excellent explanation of how human morality has changed and improved, independent of religion, and how religion then changes to suit.

But then we come to the maddening 10 percent of the book, in which Wright tries to take his assembled case about the evolution of religion and use it to prove that behind this evolution is some intentional force, some Logos, that is driving the change. The Abrahamic scriptures in particular “reveal the arrow of moral development built into human history.” The word “built” being key. Wright tells us again and again that there is some trove of evidence that at least suggests that a power “out there” is pushing human history in a particular direction, but fails to provide it, citing only the adaptations religion (an entirely human-borne phenomenon) has made over the millennia. Our developing and evolving notions of morality are not, to Wright, byproducts of increased human and societal sophistication, they are proof of something not unlike God. “The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis . . .”

But wait. Wright insists he is not stretching logic in his arguments, calling them “materialist” and that “no mystical force . . . has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” No need for one, but he puts it there anyway, which is unfortunate. In a response to Jerry Coyne’s review of his book (which I think is quite a bit too harsh on Wright), he reminds us:

I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

This is true, and Wright’s critics often unfairly attack him for supposedly trying to imply that we should all start believing in the unprovable in order to join in with Wright’s “moral axis.” But if anything, Wright sees any underlying divinity to the universe as, well, universal, and more importantly, unavoidable. Atheists would not be able to resist the moral arc of history even if we wanted to (and I, for one, wouldn’t, if it existed, which it doesn’t).

Perhaps most intellectually offensive is Wr
ight’s comparison of people’s belief in a cosmic superbeing with scientists’ understanding of electrons. Electrons can’t be “seen” in the usual sense, but we see evidence of their existence in other ways. So it is with divinity, says Wright. We can’t look at God in the face, but one can say that we see evidence of his/its presence.

Only we don’t. Or if we do, Wright hasn’t come close to proving it. Electrons, on the other hand, are known to exist through decades of rigorous study and experimentation by thousands upon thousands of scientists in all fields of study. The “divine” is a foggy notion that doesn’t have much of a definition, the evidence for which being, at best, extremely suspect, subjective, and remote.

And another important distinction: Were the scientific community to discover it was wrong all along about electrons, so be it. Science would accept its new understanding and go from there. Those who are told that there is no proof for a cosmic consciousness are rarely so open to disproof. I suspect the same is true for Wright, who has glommed onto his idea of a mystical force behind the universe without any kind of reasonable foundation. It’s a shame, because it taints what is on the whole a wonderful book. Had he kept his exploration to the “facts on the ground,” and wholly derived his conclusions from those foundations, The Evolution of God would be an unabashed triumph.

But, oh, that 10 percent. Get a hold of the book, read it, feast on it, enjoy it, and then get ready to be taken a bit off the rails. Though his quasi-deism is disappointing, the book is still very much worth the ride.

The Trouble with Charlie

I know I’m a little late to the party on this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about a controversy that recently took place at the nonbelievers’ social networking site Atheist Nexus. The long and the short of it (see Trina Hoaks’ article for the full story) is that atheist rapper Charlie Check’m caused a stir by revealing his antipathy toward the idea of gay marriage, which caught the usually-liberal minded folks at the Nexus off guard. This snowballed, however, from a discussion of same-sex marriage to a series of harangues and attacks by Check’m on homosexuals in general. After some excruciating soul searching, the folks at Atheist Nexus decided to ban Check’m from the site until he sees the error of his ways.

My initial response to this, based purely on a first reading of Trina’s excellent reporting, was one of unease. While I sympathized with the terrible position Atheist Nexus was in, there was something discomfiting about a network of freethinkers exiling someone who thought differently.

I wondered why banning was necessary — since it’s a social network, can’t those who don’t like what Check’m was saying simply “unfriend” him? As I came to realize, however, Atheist Nexus is not like Facebook where only people who have a connection to you can affect your experience. The Nexus also has message boards and groups open to all, and there are many ways a troublemaker can pollute the system. As Atheist Nexus’s Brother Richard told me, “We did everything we could to extend a hand of reconciliation. In a community of over 10,000, it is useless to unfriend someone. Plus, anyone can post to the general forums or comment on blogs. It was Charlie who went out of his way to express himself.”

What did Charlie Check’m himself have to say about this? On his MySpace blog, he writes:

Atheist Nexus is like a Christian church who kicks out a church member because the member agrees with gay marriage. The Christian group goes even further and distorts the person’s character by calling him or her a bigot and equal to a racist. They go even further and try to boycott the person’s music all because the person agrees with gay marriage. By the way, it’s Christian music. They also urge all Christians to not support this person and call the person the lowest of the low.

That’s exactly what Atheist Nexus did to me.

. . . We need order in society. Marriage should stay between a man and a woman because that is the natural order. Gay people can still love each other, live with each [other] for as long as they want.

Brother Richard also made an important distinction between Check’m’s unpopular opinions and his behavior, but also distinguishing between a reasonable disagreement on cultural issues and mindless, thoughtless hatred.

Charlie was not banned because of his views on gay marriage. He was banned for bigoted and hateful statements. As many have pointed out, if someone said the same things about African Americans, the uproar would have been huge. We must draw the line when it comes to racism, sexism, Nazis, Klan members, anti-gay, etc. We need not respect the opinions of all, but we must respect the individuals who have the opinions.

Of course, the line is still murky. As a private network, Atheist Nexus is absolutely free to write its own rules and admit who it will–and those rules are being clarified, Brother Richard tells me, so that blatant bigotry is not acceptable, but I imagine it will not always be clear when that is and is not the case. Surely, if someone is a raw nuisance and interferes with other people’s ability to enjoy the site, that’s certainly a strong justification for banning, and that seems to be the case here.

But Atheist Nexus also has another mission, be it written or not, to not only gather atheists, but to be a positive face for them. As what it means to be an atheist is being defined in the popular culture, Atheist Nexus has decided that, at least for what we want to be as a community, someone who behaved as Check’m did does not qualify. Anyone else is free to disagree with them, of course, but there is reason to see the wisdom in taking the position that we, the American atheist community, do not thoughtlessly hate people for who they are, and will not associate ourselves with those who do.

I suppose it is important to remember that Check’m was not banned from atheism itself (which would be tough to do, I think), but from one atheist networking website. It is up to him to make his case to the wider community.

Why Do Secularists Hate Grandmothers?

I sometimes wonder what goes through the heads of some op-ed page editors of major newspapers. The LA Times has blown my mind a couple of times, running Charlotte Allen’s horrifically bad anti-atheist bigotry bonanza and then weirdly defending it. The Washington Post thought Sarah Palin’s treatise on energy policy was something worth the time and neurons to read it and the trees killed to give it column inches. Paul Krugman points to another such astounding lack of judgment by the editors of the Financial Times.

Now, I know that the Washington Times’ op-ed page is no bastion of open-minded rationalism, but a piece it ran by Cal Thomas may just take the cake of uninformed, anti-intellectual, paranoid wingnuttery. Wait, it doesn’t just take the cake. It seizes the cake, mashes it between its fingers, smears it on the walls, and cackles uncontrollably while singing “Happy Birthday to Me!!!”

Thomas takes the health care debate, already rife with demagogues who are ginning up the credulous and xenophobic to lash out with froth and bile, and uses it as a jumping-off point to attack the “Secular Left” for being allegedly without morals and seeing no inherent value to human life. Does that sound like a lot of secularists or liberals that you know? You know, those secularists and liberals who want to help the poor, speak up for the working class, stop wars, protect the freedom of speech (and religion), end atrocities and genocide around the world, and educate children regardless of their economic status? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

But along we go for Thomas’s mad ride. There’s no sense in doing a point-by-point refutation of something that is itself devoid of sense. In fact, it’s not at all news that there are those who demonize secularists in the vitriolic way that Thomas does. What’s so disturbing is that the Washington Times (owned by a man who recently had himself crowned as the messiah in a ceremony attended by Members of Congress) thought this was a good thing to put front and center on their op-ed page as a worthy contribution to public debate.

Here are simply some examples of Thomas’s lunacy:

The secular left claims we are evolutionary accidents who managed to crawl out of the slime and by “natural selection” stand erect and over millions of years outsmart our ancestors, the apes. If that is your belief, then you probably think health care should be rationed. Why spend lots of money to improve — or save — the life of someone who evolved from slime and has no special significance other than the “accident” of becoming human?

Of course. Makes perfect sense. (Note “natural selection” in quotes as though it were a new buzzword we just made up.) I know that if someone I love is sick, I don’t really think that there’s any point in saving them or making them comfortable because, you know, they evolved out of the muck and have no value. Heck, neither do I! All of us secularists feel this way…right, homies? Right?

Onward:

Few from the “endowed rights” side [religious believers] are saying that a 100-year-old with an inoperable brain tumor should be given extraordinary and expensive care to keep the heart pumping, even after brain waves have gone flat. But there is a big difference between “letting go” and “snuffing out.” The unnatural progression for many on the secular left is to see such a person as a “burden.” In an age when we think we should be free of burdens — a notion that contributes to our superficiality and makes us morally obtuse — getting rid of granny might seem perfectly rational, even defensible.

I really don’t know where this assumption comes from that secularists and liberals are itching to bump off the elder layer of our society. I mean, we all love our grandparents too! Where, in the many speeches, articles, or debates made by secularists and liberals have any of us made any such case?

Of course, the answer is that it’s completely made up.

But indeed, we are accidents. Don’t mourn that, however, for like many accidents, we are lucky ones. How glad I am, how full of joy and relief I am to think that in all the possibly outcomes of time, energy, and matter, that I and the people I love and music and art and thought and books and puppies and babies and iPods and cookies and everything else has come to be. If anything, existence is more precious in that light.

Thomas, like many conservative religionists, simply doesn’t trust anyone, religious or otherwise, to have any kind of moral intuition without the revealed guidance of a fictional, supernatural father figure. He insists we “look into our wallets” for answers with the “In God We Trust” motto — assuming health care costs have not bankrupted us. It is of no surprise that such a man would find a way to both call upon the deity and then deify money in the same argument.

But lest you give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Cal Thomas has some deep philosophical and intellectual foundation from which to draw in support of his positions, one need only see his lone scholarly reference in the piece:

Anyone who has seen the film “Bruce Almighty” senses how difficult it is to play God.

I sadly rest my case.

Miranda Mauls Mooney

Miranda Celeste Hale has what might be the most aesthetically pleasing blog on all the intertubes, with deep, rich, contemplative content. It’s so nice to find something that genuinely qualifies as a “thing of beauty” in a realm where there is so much utilitarianism, bile, and thoughtlessness.

But this did not come from her blog, just a comment she made concerning the recent pro-accomodation op-ed by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in the, yes, LA Times. And I think she nails it.

There’s no reason to accommodate anyone’s personal religious delusion of choice, especially when it comes to anything scientific. Religion and science make fundamentally incompatible epistemological claims, and there is no reason to pretend otherwise or to cater to anyone’s personal delusions by assuring them that Big Bad Science won’t affect their delusional beliefs. Of course it will. As it should. When faced with reality/the truth, these people can either desperately cling to their nonsensical beliefs, develop some sort of serious cognitive dissonance, or realize that their beliefs are delusional nonsense that are preventing them becoming reasoning, smart, curious, intellectually honest individuals. The first two options are not only ridiculous and dishonest, but are also extremely detrimental to any society that wants to become more scientifically literate.

The fact that these tedious authors keep making these tedious, tiresome, ignorant, ridiculous claims (in an attempt to sell their book, no doubt) does nothing to help the situation they so frequently bemoan and claim to be so very concerned about. On the contrary, their baseless assertions/accusations and lack of real, substantive solutions is both exacerbating the problem and making the situation much, much worse.

There is no way I could improve on that.