May 17, 2012
"Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties."

David Bentley Hart

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Filed under: religion atheism 
March 19, 2012
"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]"

St. Augustine (via azspot)

LTMC: St. Augustine is required reading, for the Skeptic and Believer alike.

(via azspot)

February 27, 2012
Does The First Amendment Protect Atheists?

You’d think so, but not according to a District Court Judge in Pennsylvania:

There is a surprising story out of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania that seems the perfect storm of religious tensions. You begin with Ernie Perce, an atheist who marched as a zombie Mohammad in the Mechanicsburg Halloween parade. Then you add Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim who stepped off a curb and reportedly attacked Perce for insulting the Prophet. Then you have a judge (Judge Mark Martin) who threw out the criminal charges against Elbayomy and ridiculed the victim, Perce.

There’s video of the attack at the link above.  Jon Turley was kind enough to provide a transcript of some of the Judge’s remarks, which, while admirable in terms of its purported respect for the Muslim culture, is nonetheless an abjectly grotesque butchering of the jurisprudence and history of the First Amendment:

In many other Muslim-speaking countries, err, excuse me, many Arabic-speaking countries, predominantly Muslim, something like this is definitely against the law there, in their society. In fact, it could be punished by death, and frequently is, in their society.

Here in our society, we have a Constitution that gives us many rights, specifically First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don’t think that’s what our forefathers intended. I think our forefathers intended to use the First Amendment so we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and cultures – which is what you did.

I don’t know how else to grapple with this other than to simply point out that the judge got the law blatantly and utterly wrong.  Here is Justice Brennan writing for the majority in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989):

A principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.

Jon Turley, who represented Dr. Ali Al-Timimi when he was charged with inciting violence against the government, is on the same page:

I fail to see the relevance of the victim’s attitude toward Muslims or religion generally. He had a protected right to walk in the parade and not be assaulted for his views. While the judge laments that “[i]t’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others,” that is precisely what the Framers had in mind if Thomas Paine is any measure.

There is absolutely no affirmative defense to the crime of assault that involves invoking your First Amendment right to religion.  Your religious beliefs cannot and will not ever justify physically attacking someone on the grounds that the content of their speech is deeply offensive to you.  This is a concept so deeply ingrained in our legal history that even the most egregious offenses against a 3rd party’s morals and/or conscience cannot be made to justify a violent response.  

Hence the reason why the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church when they were sued for protesting at the funeral of a dead American soldier, despite the fact that it was unquestionably offensive to the friends and family of the deceased, and many of them would’ve probably liked to punch the WBC protesters in the face.  And hence the reason why the Court held in Texas v. Johnson that your right to burn an American flag is constitutionally protected speech, despite the fact that it unquestionably deeply offends people who believe with conviction that the flag represents a body of morals, ideals and beliefs that are worth dying for; that it is not just “another symbol,” and that it is the closest thing to a sacred symbol one can find in American civic culture; to the point where an offended person would undoubtedly have violent designs if you sullied its visage in their presence.

What bothers me most about this case is that it will inevitably be misconstrued by good-faith advocates for the Muslim community and Islamophobes alike.  There will be those in the former camp who will probably sympathize with the man who attacked the protester, and blame the protester for purposefully inciting the passion of devout Muslims.  The latter will undoubtedly use the judge’s ill-advised diatribe and the violent act of the Muslim attacker as evidence that Islamic values are in fact incompatible with American society, and will use this incident as yet another anecdote to justify the imposition of intolerable discrimination and cruelties against the broader Muslim community (such as the Park 51 controversy).  

And therein lies the issue: allowing this sort of violence to stand makes it more difficult to soothe the American body-politic’s trenchant Islamophobia by sending a dubious message: the law will not protect you if you say or do something that is offensive to a devout Muslim.  That is the wrong message to send if we are trying to get people to eschew their parochial fear of Islamic culture and replace it with cosmopolitan cultural values.

That’s why it is so imperative that we apply the law equally in cases like this.  The line is simple and clearly drawn: you don’t get to hit people for saying something that offends you.  It does not matter that your offense comes from deeply and sincerely held religious convictions, or strong secular ideological prescriptions.  You don’t get to use violence to vindicate your offended conscience.  It cannot be gainsaid that we would not likely tolerate this from a member of a different faith. We most certainly would not tolerate it if the attacker was an Agnostic or Atheist vindicating a strongly-held secular moral prescription.  Why then, permit of an exception for Muslims?  Does it not show a deep condescension to the innate morality of Muslim believers that they can’t be expected to restrain themselves from violence if their convictions are impugned?

Protecting the rights of Muslim Americans, and destroying the shibboleths of Islamophobia in America means we must reject the invitation to make exceptions for those who would use faith as an excuse to do violence to others.  We are constantly fighting against a politics which asserts: “All Muslims are like this.”  No, they clearly aren’t.  But if the law assumes that they are, then the struggle to achieve social equality and respect for Muslim Americans is already lost.  Permitting of such exceptions is both absurd and dangerous, and we should reject the invitation to carve out any exception in the law that leads us inexorably down that path.

February 20, 2012

scented31-deactivated20120223 said: hello. i stumbled on your blog and am overjoyed to hear from a black atheist. i believe there are more of us out there but we are afraid to "come out of the closet" (lol) because of the stigma attatched to having this belief (or lack of belief). i feel that clinging to stereotypes (yes, i believe the black church lady, or the righteous male black pastor are stereotypes) in the hopes that they will unify us, are actually dividing us. (i just ran out of characters)

Full disclosure for anyone who might be mistaken: I am a pasty white male.  But I’m happy to share these stories, and I’m glad you wrote to share yours.

Your examples (the black church lady, the righteous black male pastor) are good examples of the kind of thing I was talking about when I cautioned against making assumptions about race-based orthodox spirituality.  It’s interesting because in many ways, these archetypes seem to be functions of structural inequality.  I’m reminded of James Meredith’s letter to the Dep’t of Justice on Feb. 7, 1961, in which he sought admission to the Univ. of Mississippi, describing the plight of a Negro in Mississippi:

American is a great nation.  It has led the world in freedom for a long time, I feel we can and we must continue to lead in that respect.  However, I feel that a greater use should be made of the Negro potential.  In my state, this is generally impossible under the present set-up.  A Negro born in Mississippi can write himself off of the potential list of all the professions except teaching and preaching…

In this sense, I think metamorphoseandbodhi’s insight was on point; there is indeed a religious element to black culture, but it has more to do with history and the struggle for identity than anything else.  Unfortunately, the proliferation of faith as an element of black culture seems to have created yet another a litmus test for “blackness” that has the power to minimize and wound.  See, e.g., this excerpt from the Jamila Bey article I posted earlier:

Since I was a little girl I was never considered to be “black enough”…  As an African-American girl I was taught that it was my lot to pray through all of my suffering. That only fools believed they had control of their own destiny – such matters were in the hands of God. Yet I was also taught that I had to resist sin and to do well in school. I found that incongruous. How did this loving God permit such injustice? Why does this loving God not act when police shoot unarmed black boys in the streets? How could God let my own physical and emotional abuse continue unchecked? I had an abundance of proof that the black people I knew were truly devoted! And I was desperately trying to be so.

Jamila’s thoughts seem to be a reflection of the idea that clinging to orthodox spiritual archetypes can be counter-productive to that struggle for identity.  While I can never claim to have personal experience with that sort of alienation, your comments, meta’s, and Jamila’s all seem to confirm that it exists, and that it’s part of the on-going struggle for a cultural identity in black America.

February 20, 2012
Where Are All The Black Atheists, Ctd.

Apropos of these posts, metamorphoseandbodhi discusses the historical roots of the black community’s relationship with religion:

The reason for African Americans devoutness is because of slavery and all that has occurred from then til now. When they took our names they stripped us of our culture and heritage. They forced our ancestors to adopt Christian beliefs. Since the end of slavery it’s been a struggle to not only be recognized and treated as equals but to find ourselves. What does it mean to be African American? For all we are is African American; nothing as specific to Kenyan, Nigerian, Senegalese. Nowhere near knowing which paticular tribes we hailed from.

I’d have to get DNA tests done and hire someone to go through thousands of files in a Morman library. I went a bit off tangent but, I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s really something we as African Americans need to deal with. I can tell you I’ve never had anyone outside of my race question my agnosticism. It’s only my race that won’t except me.  It’s understandable, but it’s hurtful.

I think you’re wrong actually. I think Christianity is in the African American culture. But like all other cultures that exist not all the people embrace all aspects of it. Not only that but cultures develop as time goes on. Ours will still as we learn to love ourselves and each other. So much self-hate lingers from neglect and abuse suffered.

February 20, 2012
Where Are All The Black Atheists?

Jamila Bey contemplates her identity, suggesting that religiousness and blackness are unfairly wrapped up with one another:

Life as an African-American atheist looks much like the lives of my religious brethren. I love my family. I perform my job. I rant about my government. The only distinction for me is that instead of going to prayer service and Bible study during the week, capped off with a Sunday church meeting filled with song and ceremony, I spend my time at libraries and museums. I enjoy rooting for my favourite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers – I just don’t worry about missing the start of the game because church ran long.

But to hear it told by most other people, African-Americans especially, I don’t exist at all. An African-American atheist woman? I may as well be a unicorn!

From the cultural stereotypes of the media to the assurances of those who argue with me that I simply don’t have strong enough faith, my identity as an African-American is assumed to carry with it an impenetrable religious component, strengthened by the tribulations of my people. I’m not surprised when they say to me, “You can’t be an atheist. You’re black!”; rather I scoff at such ignorance.

Since I was a little girl I was never considered to be “black enough”…  As an African-American girl I was taught that it was my lot to pray through all of my suffering. That only fools believed they had control of their own destiny – such matters were in the hands of God. Yet I was also taught that I had to resist sin and to do well in school. I found that incongruous. How did this loving God permit such injustice? Why does this loving God not act when police shoot unarmed black boys in the streets? How could God let my own physical and emotional abuse continue unchecked? I had an abundance of proof that the black people I knew were truly devoted! And I was desperately trying to be so.

In the US African-Americans have the highest rates of incarceration, highest infant mortality rates and traditionally have held the highest unemployment rates. Yet we outrank every other group where piety and religiosity are concerned.

Unlike others who may say, “My ethnicity is X, and our religious tradition is Y, but I personally choose to not adhere to those beliefs”, when I declare my non-belief my group identity is impugned. I am asked if I believe myself to be “better than”, or merely told that I wish I were white.

I hold wishing and prayer in equal esteem. Being an atheist in America is hard. But having so labelled myself, I have come to know my truest friends. I need not be happy to pray and wait! I don’t take pride in my victimhood and knowing that I patiently await any saviour.

I love reason and logic, and I search for truth. I define myself and my “blackness”.

God is an idea that has failed to liberate anyone. I only wish more people of African descent would admit as much.

January 29, 2012
"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), at 4.

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Filed under: darwin religion atheism 
January 27, 2012
New Atheism, Ctd.

Why must the theist community answer these questions in a satisfying manner for atheists and skeptics? Why does it matter? For their own peace of mind? What if these questions are never answered? Do you believe theists care either way?

I think they do.  I think most Theists are intellectually honest people who genuinely believe that believing in God is not only a logical, but also a natural conclusion.  To the extent that one’s belief or non-belief in God doesn’t influence their worldview (or alternatively, that both parties can reach the same conclusion in different ways), I agree that it’s largely an exercise in irrelevancy.  But frankly, the same could be said of 9/10’s of philosophy.  The field of Epistemology in of itself is essentially an academic shit-show, particular after Gettier essentially destroyed everything with a 3-page paper.

But yes, I think Theists absolutely care about these things, because I think they care about having a sound basis for believing the things they do, the same as any Atheist or skeptic.  Indeed, it seems relevant to observe that people kill themselves over this sort of thing.  So I do think that Theists care about satisfying Atheist critiques of their faith, if for no other reason than faith unquestioned is faith untested.  To quote the website of a particular California Church:

An unquestioned faith is like a rubber band that’s been left in the drawer and never used. Overtime, it dries up and becomes brittle from lack of use.

I think most thoughtful people who believe in God and profess some degree of religiosity appreciate this idea, and “practice what they preach” in that sense (is that a pun?  I don’t know if that’s a pun).

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Filed under: religion atheism 
January 26, 2012

metamorphoseandbodhi said: Do you embrace new atheism and anti-theism?

I’m not openly hostile to it.  I disagree with a lot of the political conclusions that so-called “New Atheists” make, (see P.Z. Myers discussing Christopher Hitchens at his least coherent), but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with many of their arguments respecting the existence of god and the failings of religion more broadly.  

Let me say first that I don’t believe religion qua religion inherently makes people bad.  That’s an overreach that basically every New Atheist has made, and I think it’s what turns a lot of people off to their work, because it’s easy to use that observation to justify various degrees of intolerance; the very same kind of intolerance that Atheists and Skeptics are alarmed by in many mainstream Theistic traditions.

But some of the other objections to New Atheism strike me as misconceived.  For example, many people rightly observe that the “New Atheists’” arguments are simply repetitions of counter-points that have already been raised in the halls of academia.  That’s a fair point to make.  But this misses the fact that most prolific philosophers aren’t particularly good at reaching the “masses” with their verbose, often impenetrable prose.  More importantly, many of these allegedly mediocre objections to Theism that the New Atheists raise remain relevant precisely because the Theistic community has yet to deal with them in a satisfying manner.  To my knowledge (I am always open to being proven wrong), there has been no theological coup d’etat that undermines the basic logic of Hume’s Infinite Regress, or the problem of Justified Knowledge (which I touched on earlier today).  The objections are old precisely because, at some level, they have yet to be dealt with convincingly.

I also think it’s telling that many of the people who debate Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins et al. often start by saying that they agree with a lot of what the New Atheists have to say.  Indeed, most criticisms of New Atheism, in my experience, essentially amount to an argument about tone.  But to the extent that tone is a problem, I think David Bentley Heart put it best, in a blog post whose link I have long been unable to recover:

Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

Ironically, David actually wrote that in a blog post *criticizing* New Atheism.  His objection was essentially founded on the idea that, as I mentioned above, New Atheists were raising old objections and weren’t saying anything that hadn’t already been said in the halls of academia.  But as I said before, I think this criticism misses the point a bit, because many of the best voices in academia are so prolific in their writing that they are incapable of making a breakthrough with the general population.  This limits their ability to have an impact on society writ large.  To wit, I guarantee you that less than 1% of the population has even heard of J.L. Mackie, much less read his work.   I think that’s one positive contribution that New Atheists have made to the larger debate: they reformulated old arguments about Theism and Atheism in a way that the average person can understand.  And I would argue that they’ve been successful precisely because a growing portion of the populace is skeptical about God’s existence and religion in general, but at the same time doesn’t have the intellectual temerity to power through a J.L. Mackie article.

So the concise answer to your question is that I “embrace” New Atheism to the extent that I believe their arguments are coherent, and their conclusions are realistic.  I don’t always agree with them, but nor do I view them with disdain.  I own a copy of "the God Delusion" and "God Is Not Great," and at some point I do aim to pick up a copy of The End Of Faith and "Breaking The Spell."  That’s not an endorsement of any particular New Atheist’s views, any more than my copy of City of God, Summa Theologica, St. Augustine’s Confessions, The Divine Comedy, the King James Bible, or When Jesus Came to Harvard is an endorsement of religion.  But I do want to know what they have to say, for better and/or worse.  And there’s plenty within both Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ books that I do agree with.

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Filed under: religion atheism 
January 22, 2012
"The Hellish Pointlessness Of Heaven"

Paula Kirby addresses the concept of a meaningful existence sans transubstantiation to immaculate spiritual circumstances (i.e. heaven):

Many Christians claim we have no reason to care about others if there is no God. But this is itself a religious claim, arising from the theological concept of Original Sin, which declares humankind fallen and corrupt. We can safely ignore it, for in reality we do not need childish stories of eternal reward or damnation to coerce us into being good:research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidence of social ills, including crime and violence. Healthy humans have empathy built in, and the explanations for this lie in psychology and evolutionary biology: no gods required.

Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others. For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.

In the state of permanent, perfect bliss that is the very definition of heaven, ‘making a difference’ is ruled out. If the difference made an improvement, the previous state could not have been perfect. If it made things worse, the result would not be perfect. In heaven, neither is possible. Even being reunited with loved ones could not add one jot to their bliss or yours, for heaven would be, by definition, a state that could not be improved on.

Just consider for a moment the hellish pointlessness of heaven. At least in our real existence our actions have an effect, for better or worse, and it is therefore worth trying to get them right. In an eternal life where we can have no effect whatsoever, we might as well be dead.

I think there’s two flaws with Kirby’s frame.  

Firstly, it’s safe to assume that a tri-omni God would be competent to design an afterlife in which “perfect bliss” contained all of the multifarious flaws and pitfalls which were necessary for a person to achieve spiritual grace within its grasp.  There’s no theological requirement in the Judeo-Christian tradition that we define heavenly perfection in a way that results in anything other than maximum spiritual satisfaction.

Second, a Judeo-Christian heaven, as I generally understand its proponents to define it, is best understood as a state of spiritual grace.  This is similar to the Buddhist formulation of “Desire = suffering.”  The desire to be surrounded by loved ones is very much a material, human desire.  The fact that the opportunity to “make a difference” doesn’t exist is irrelevant, because in a state of spiritual grace, your desire to have these things wouldn’t exist.  Spiritual grace exists prior to, and not because of, the availability of these anthropomorphic accouterments.

The argumentum ad perfectum is better deployed to critique the concept of God’s existence before the material universe.  If God is both eternal and “perfect,” then God obviously existed prior to the universe.  If God was perfect prior to the creation of the universe (and by perfect, we mean optimal circumstances in all ways), then any change in God’s environment or circumstances would be a deviation from the state of perfection.  Since the universe exists, God is either, a) imperfect, b) does not exist, or c) can exist paradoxically, as both perfect and imperfect simultaneously.

Keep in mind that option (c) is not metaphysically absurd.  If we accept God as an eternal, immaterial first cause, then it follows that God created logic (and ergo existed before it).  A God that exists prior to logic is not subject to it.  Put another way: God, as defined by traditional Judeo-Christian theology, can indeed create a boulder that he(she?) can’t lift.

Returning to the question of meaning, I think the “heaven” issue is better addressed from the Atheist point of view in the form a bifurcated observation: First, if you need God/afterlife to justify your good acts towards others, you’re admitting that you need the external threat of future punishment to justify your good acts towards your friends and family.  You need to be able to look your loved ones in the eye and tell them that without God, you wouldn’t see fit to care for them.  That’s hardly an enviable position to be in.  

Secondly. if a peaceful, perfect afterlife does await you, and you will in fact be detached from all material desires (including your relationships with friends and family), then the best thing I could possibly do for my loved ones is to relieve all of them from their mortal coil post-haste, so as to usher them towards paradise.  As I’ve written on a prior occasion, an orthodox afterlife of rewards and punishments cheapens life as we know it by making it “second best by far” in the overall scheme of existence.  That’s a conflict that I have yet to see rectified in a satisfying manner by modern theological traditions.

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Filed under: religion ethics atheism 
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