Archive for the ‘Atheism & Philosophy’ Category

Running, freedom, pluralism

April 25, 2012

Really enjoyed Nick’s CoPhi report the other day on running, experience, and subjectivity. He told us about all he could about how his own experience as a runner feels to him like freedom and spontaneity, striking out without a set route or destination and just running. He then admitted that the experience generates an emotional penumbra he lacks words for. Precisely so, for every heartfelt joy. This is what William James called the “springs of delight” in life, so personal and inexpressible… but so real.

Philosophy lives in words,but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy….In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never take the place of personal experience.

Jamie spoke to us in A&P of similar sentiments, and of the ways in which our identities are wrapped up in our attachments. He declared himself a pluralist, which in my book trumps all other ‘isms (theisms included). We’re constitutionally and habitually blind to others’ delights, enthusiasms, identities. But such blindness is

not simply deplorable but also emblematic of the deepest spring of our shared humanity, our subjectivity. And for James subjectivity is to be celebrated, as the ground of purpose in our lives; and reflection on the moral implications of subjectivity leads to a principle of caution whereby we refrain from denigrating and dismissing any process of life whose subjective sources we cannot comprehend. Springs

That’s also what makes me a pluralist, and a “friendly atheist.”

But let me just add: this semester in A&P we had a surplus of “strident” atheists who were as friendly as could be, and undogmatic theists (and Wiccans and quasi-New Agers and others beyond familiar categorization). And in CoPhi we had a bunch of friendly, open theists. They all made pluralism easy, too.

I’m missing those classes already.

Wait, I buried the lead: it’s the last class date for CoPhi this semester, before finals. Still haven’t found better parting words than Uncle Albert’s: “the important thing is not to stop asking questions.”

Nor have I found a better farewell song than Carol Burnett‘s.

But this semester I have found a new parting poem:

Empedocles on Etna

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

-Matthew Arnold

In other words: have a nice summer. Don’t stop asking questions.

Have we got a prayer?

April 24, 2012

It’s our last regular class in A&P, some sort of benediction would seem to be in order. Would this be a suitable occasion to call on Alain de Botton’s atheist clerics?

No, I share Walt Whitman’s view:

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. . . . Every man shall be his own priest.

We can bless ourselves. In fact, we’re already blessed. It’s been a terrific semester, we’ve come at our topic from many angles, we’ve agreed to disagree, we’ve disagreed agreeably. We were good, with and without god. And now it’s just about time to go, so let’s conclude this year’s service with a song and a prayer. Yo?

A&P will be back, year after next. ‘Til then…

“It was a good play; I will have it performed again.” Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship

Letting go of A&P

April 19, 2012

We’re done with required texts in A&P, unless someone wants to explore Sam Harris’s afterword “reply to critics.”

[A new Guardian review calls Moral Landscape "bull-headed" (and a reader calls the review "breathtakingly useless" and "territorial peeing")... Appiah's review... Piggliucci's review... a better review from Russell Blackford... Shermer's review...Sam's reply to critics]

So today (before our first Final Report presentation) it’s pot-luck.

I’m bringing my DVD of Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” somebody else can bring the popcorn. She remains my favorite New Atheist, and is clearly the funniest, hands down. (Though Hitch had his moments.)  Her No God glasses (LGOG trailer)…

Her blogher script… her takedown of Deepak… her storytelling retirement & her TED Talk… her foreword to The Reason Driven Life… her take & mine on the Mormons… “Godless America” (This American Life)… God Said Ha!…

I just want to pat us all on the back, in this class, for participating in something still fairlly edgy, here in middle Tennessee in the shadow of Dayton and Scopes and the Tennessee General Ass (-embly).  This is the second time I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of teaching “Atheism & Philosophy” (it was catalogued as “Atheism & Spirituality” two years ago) at MTSU. Both experiences have been, from my perspective, hugely gratifying. The kinds of students drawn to this course in this place are, as you might expect, extremely bright, informed, fluent, and eager to break out of the standard-issue straightjackets of reticence and conformity in an aggressively (yet complacently) Christian environment.

How edgy are we? Well, if you go to and ask “There are college courses for religion, but are there any for atheists?,” you discover that the “Best Answer” is:

Try anthropology. It’s the study of man. Quite interesting.

Well, I think our course has been quite interesting too. And I look forward to its being increasingly so, as time goes by. Our course website will soon be open-access. “What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it?” The course returns in two years. Look for it in our catalog:

PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.

The conversation continues.


April 12, 2012

Do we have freedom of belief? No, says Sam Harris in chapter 3 of Moral Landscape.  He’s already denied that we have freedom of the will. But are we entitled to believe a proposition just because it makes us feel good?

Sam’s position is that our beliefs do, and should, make a statement about the world and not merely about our states of mind.

 To really believe a proposition—whether about facts or values— we must also believe that we are in touch with reality in such a way that if it were not true, one would not believe it. We must believe, therefore, that we are not flagrantly in error, deluded, insane, self-deceived, etc.

And all that’s not just a matter of feeling good about oneself. He doesn’t say so, but Sam’s pretty clearly siding with Clifford in the old ethics of belief debate, against William James’s position in Will to Believe: it’s never right anywhere, any time, to believe anything on insufficient evidence. It may be tempting and “natural” for us, possessors that we are of these powerful, evolutionarily-designed belief engines between our ears, to do so. But we should resist the urge, so often driven nowadays by impulses not so bound to our survival as those that coerced our ancestors. As Carl Sagan said, we should try not to think so much with our guts.

James’s point, though, is that it is often necessary that we act in advance of the evidence we seek, and that doing so may even be one of the necessary conditions of fulfillment. Action is predicated on belief, and it’s usually better to act and fail than never to have acted at all. And as we’ve noted before, the WtB only goes for “beliefs whose content could not be established by reason or evidence,” and it presumes that “what is believed  is (believed to be) true.” We have every right to our own beliefs, but not to our own facts. C.S. Peirce, the “pragmaticist,” usefully supports this view. “It is the world that determines what I am to believe,” not personal fiat. But as Sam notes, the world includes nature and culture both. Culture gets processed variably by different brains. This is a pluralistic point that brings him back into James’s orbit.

So James may not be a good ally for Philip Ball, after all.

A belief is a platform for action, and I want to act prospectively. So, I form beliefs embodying expectations and hopes. They may be confounded, I may be disappointed, but at least I won’t be a mere spectator of my own life.

Sam hopes we won’t think him “philistine” to speculate that the fictive imagination has not contributed significantly to our species development. Sure, word of “scary guys in front of that cave” would be the most useful information to have in the short term. But I’m betting that the dreamers, confabulators, and story-tellers among our ancestors did more than their part to expand human consciousness. Belief is about much more than bare survival.

So justified belief, in most standard scenarios is indeed crucially tied to evidence that is extant and objective. But belief that is anchored in hopes and prospects has its place too. “I believe” sometimes does reflect a knowing confidence, but believing what you wish to believe will also have consequences. Shouldn’t the debate be about their relevance in specific cases? Shouldn’t we refrain from general and impersonal prohibitions of extra-evidentiary belief, at least until we’ve attempted an accounting of how those beliefs have played out in the real lives of real people?

The question of false expertise came up the other day. We do “often acquire [our] beliefs about the world for reasons that are more emotional and social than strictly cognitive,” and this does sometimes lead to more confidence of assertion about things we know little of. Quantum mechanics, cosmology, molecular biology, neuroscience, philosophy… but don’t we all know something about our own experience and motivation that no one else can? Isn’t that part of our “feeling for the truth” too? You could call that bias, but you could also call it self-knowledge.

Good and Evil

April 10, 2012

“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” So begins Sam Harris’s second chapter in Moral LandscapeEthics is all about devising the rules, habits, and practices that will optimize cooperation built on

kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression…

But does that mean science can really determine our values? It’s going to be important to clarify not only what he means by science, but what he means by “determine” too. Probably nothing so rigid as his critics will suppose. He’s just looking for guidelines and broad parameters at the terrain’s edge. He seems committed to pluralism.

Our genes may be “selfish” but our societies need to be collaborative  and our instincts need to be trained for altruism and fellow-feeling. David Hume knew that, sharing a strange finger fetish with his pal Adam Smith. Hume, I never tire of telling my Intro students, said it “would not be against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [my] little finger.”

Smith echoed the thought, imagining a “man of humanity” in Europe who’d lose sleep over his finger but not over the poor victims of an earthquake in China. But sleep aside, he presumably wouldn’t choose to sacrifice them for his own comfort. “But what makes this difference?” Empathy, sentiment, mutual care and concern, the suppression of selfishness. And reason? Yes, but not “pure” or narrow reason. The sentiments can be educated, emotions can be intelligent and self-correcting.

Is Sam speaking ironically when he invokes “an angel of beneficence” to account for the desire most of us feel for justice, fairness, and progress? No, he’s just being literary and Lincolnesque.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 1st inaugural, March 1861

He’s also declaring his moral realism and consequentialism. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience- happiness, suffering, joy, despair- all talk of value is empty.” Our “oughts” reflect of the facts of life, and the “maximizing of well-being in this world.” But the facts aren’t all in, and they’re not all self-evident.  The conversation must continue.

Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about.

Jonathan Haidt, whose recent and compelling TED Talk does not quite persuade that liberals and conservatives are correspondingly blind to one another’s legitimate commitments, thinks we make moral decisions on the basis of relatively un-reasoned emotion which we rationalize after the fact. [His 2008 TED Talk on "moral roots" advanced the same thesis.]

Our differences in politics and religion, Haidt argues, tend to reflect temperamental biases and habitual preferences more than any deep truths about the world. It’s not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that liberals fixated on fairness and justice are incapable of acknowledging conservatives’ loyalty and respect for authority (and vice versa). Each side possesses its own slice of rectitude, but neither can see the other.

But Sam finds this all too relativistic. “Many people are simply wrong about morality,” social conservatives are often hypocritical (“louche”), and many probably suffer damaged medial prefrontal cortexes that prevent their knowing how “to behave appropriately toward others.”

They probably don’t know how to resolve the trolley problem either. [YouT... PhilosophyExperiments]

And then there are the psychopaths. I had to shower after reading about them on p. 96. Sam apparently has immersed himself in this literature and assures us it’s a lot worse. I’m taking his word for it.

The chapter concludes with a chunk on free will, which Sam considers (as a good neuroscientist should, apparently) an illusion. “Science has a problem with free will,” Richard Dawkins’ Oxford successor explains.

So we’re all just damned lucky not to have drawn the psychopath cards (genes, memes).  (But I think Sam made a free choice to spin this section out into a more lucrative ebook.)

It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void… you are not more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Some of us may find this view comforting, terrifying, or even irrelevant. I’d just like Sam to address the two uneasily-yoked Jamesian views: one, that our bodies often (always?) do in fact get out in front of our conscious wills and precede them into action; and two, that we nonetheless retain a capacity for directed attention that secures the frame of mind we’re free to think of as our free wills. Sam speaks of attention at chapter’s end, but not quite in James’s sense.

Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.

James on percpetion, emotion, and consciousness:

My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble … Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

James on attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state. [WJ's 1870 diary entry on Renouvier, attention, & free will]

But these questions, fascinating though they are to those of us who are fascinated by them, are peripheral to the central claim of chapter two: we humans are capable of doing just about everything on the spectrum between good and evil. We’re also capable of learning more about the conditions (including brain-states) under which these behaviors are most likely to be expressed, and of acting to improve the net ratio of well-being. We may be determined, but so long as we can act intelligently we’re not fated or doomed. As Dan Dennett says: freedom evolves. [Dennett at CalTech]

We can understand how our freedom is greater than that of other creatures, and see how this heightened capacity carries moral implications: noblesse oblige. We are in the best position to decide what to do next, because we have the broadest knowledge and hence the best perspective on the future. What that future holds in store for our planet is up to all of us, reasoning together.

And really, is Sam finally wanting to say anything different? The conversation continues.

Moral Truth

April 5, 2012

Sam Harris says questions about values (meaning, morality, purpose) are really about the facts concerning the well-being of conscious creatures. David Hume and G.E. Moore were wrong. Navigating the moral landscape involves getting the facts right. “Science” (but does he really just mean experience?) can generate moral truths capable of informing values and guiding conduct.

It’s a big challenge to an old sacred cow in philosophy. We’ll see if he pulls it off. I’m pulling for him to succeed, and betting that he and Hume aren’t really poles apart. Both possess sound moral instincts, both value compassion and empathy, both laud experience over mere reason as a moral teacher, both are sure good people are genuinely good without god.

For the record: Hume and Moore on the underivability of “ought” from “is” and the fallacy that results when derivations are attempted:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. A Treatise of Human Nature

Good, then, denotes one unique simple object of thought among innumerable others; but this object has very commonly been identified with some other—a fallacy which may be called the naturalistic fallacy”… What is good? logically depends upon the answer to the question What is the nature of supersensible reality? All such systems obviously involve the same fallacy—the naturalistic fallacy—by the use of which Naturalism was also defined.” Principia Ethica

The touchstone Sam will claim, but that Hume et al really could claim to know nothing much about, is the brain. “Human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.” We can study both “scientifically,” and can use the resultant knowledge to go beyond mere idle academic debate to improve lives.

So what do we know about values? The other crucial disclaimer, at the outset: the absence of answers in practice is no proof of no answers in principle. But if we’re talking (for instance) about how to raise children, and whether it’s ok to beat the nonsense out of them, there must be a right answer.  “That’s only your opinion” is, well, only your opinion.

My favorite bit in the opening chapter conjures William James’s Rock in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“:

Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor… while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life

Against that backdrop,

Imagine if there were only two people living on earth… a man and a woman alone on  earth would be better off if they recognized their common interests… given the structure of their respective brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature.

…Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

I don’t want to give the game away prematurely, but so far as I’m concerned this just about captures the point, the game, and the match. The facts about how our behaviors and interactions register on our flourishing meters are the crucial facts. The quality of experience maps the quality of life.

There’s much more to say, but as an applied ethicist I must agree with Sam that “changing people’s ethical commitments is the most important task facing humanity.” We need to get them to commit to the notion that there are in fact moral and ethical truths beyond the culturally-embedded preferences and conventions, and that we should all act accordingly. We must not allow the term ‘morality’ to become a mere euphemism for one’s own preferred dogmas.

Just gimme some truth.


P.S. Here’s some truth, from Opening Night: Cards 4, Marlins 1.

Best of Sam Harris

April 3, 2012

I don’t know if it’s his absolute best, but some of it’s pretty darned impressive. His former teacher Owen Flanagan told me Sam’s “stubborn.” Well, he has a lot to be stubborn about.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.


One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religion. Many religious conflicts that seem driven by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are religious in origin. (Just ask the Irish.)


A person can be so well educated that he can build a nuclear bomb while still believing that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Such is the ease with which the human mind can be partitioned by faith, and such is the degree to which our intellectual discourse still patiently accommodates religious delusion. Only the atheist has observed what should now be obvious to every thinking human being: If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.


If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. An Atheist Manifesto

SamHarris.orgTED: Science can answer moral questions… Daily Show October 2010…Sam @dawn… Sam DS


The religion of humanity, for extra credit

April 2, 2012

It’s another exam day in CoPhi. The most interesting question is for extra credit:

What do you think of English Deist John Toland‘s version of pantheism, defined as “belief in no other eternal being but the universe,” and involving a “civic religion with meetings, community rituals, and a secularist liturgy”? Would YOU ever join such a “community of doubters”? Why or why not?

The question barks up the same tree we’ve been discussing all semester in A&P. I’ve finished Alain de Botton’s controversial Religion for Atheists, which proposes something very similar to Toland’s civic religion and draws directly on Auguste Comte‘s “religion of humanity.” But

Comte’s greatest conceptual error was to label his scheme a religion. Those who have given up on faith rarely feel indulgent towards this emotive word, nor are most adult independent-minded atheists much attracted to the idea of joining a cult.

They don’t want priests or temples. It’s ironic for de Botton to be pointing that out, his critics are sure he’s every bit as insensitive to such secular sensibilities as he says Comte was. And yet, he insists, secular society needs its own institutions to “take the place of religions.” But they say religion’s place needs simply to be eliminated.

And so the debate continues, and the sensibilities of this humanistic pluralist remain conflicted. For extra credit: resolve your professor’s ambivalence on this matter.

Why speak out

March 29, 2012

Time to lower the curtain in A&P on Blackford’s 50 Voices. Sam Harris is in the wings, ready to pick up Peter Singer’s and Marc Hauser’s topic: “Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion.” It’s because “we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong.” And, studies show, our intuitions converge from both the religious and irreligious directions. “No statistically significant differences” distinguish the religious from the rest.

Ironically, Hauser’s own endowment seems to have been shortchanged with respect to his scruples as a research scholar at Harvard, which found him guilty of scientific misconduct. The author of Moral Minds presently stands disgraced. But of course nobody’s claiming  our evolved moral sensibility is infallible. It is, though, perfectly “natural.”

Sean Williams puts in a word for Doctor Who, and for Sir Arthur Clarke’s law about miracles and advanced technology. “Magic” usually isn’t. “We must throw away old beliefs like witchcraft, sorcery and demons and trust in our own intelligence.” Sorry, Potter fans, but wise wizards can “never be too certain of anything.” I’m pretty sure Dumbledore said that at some point.

Doctor Who is a continuing story about the adventures of a mysterious alien known as “the Doctor,” a traveller of both time and space whose spacecraft is the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), which from the outside looks like a British police telephone box of the 1950s. The TARDIS is “bigger on the inside than on the outside”—

Aren’t we all?

Peter Tatchell reminds us of Epicurus’s old questions, and  the Enlightenment philosopher D’Holbach‘s (who asserted that “ignorance and fear created the gods”), including:

If God is love, why does he condemn sinners to hell? Why are there birth defects and genetic disorders? Why are there devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes etc.? Why did He make thieves,  murderers, torturers, rapists? Why are righteous believers in heaven so worried about death? Why does He need to be worshipped, idolized, and protected from blasphemy?

Tatchell is gay and (he imagines) born that way. Why do so many of the faithful consider that a sin against the creator who would have made him so?

And why do so few of the faithful reciprocate Tatchell’s attitude of acceptance? “My atheism does not lead me to hate religion or people of faith.”

Why can’t everyone simply follow the golden rule, not religiously but as a matter of common sense and human decency? Why can’t we all just get along? Faulty wiring? Tribalism?

Michael Tooley wonders how to get people to stop reflexively accepting and perpetuating the unexamined religious beliefs of their parents. He thinks the New Atheists have done us all a service by pointing out the dangers of any faith we’ve been taught not to question. But he distinguishes the hazard of Christianity from that of theism in general.

Specifically, original sin, human sacrifice, final judgment, and eternal torment are flatly morally unacceptable. Jesus, as the expositor of them all, was not so “very admirable and special” as many of us tend to suppose. He encouraged the familiar obsession with personal salvation, and underplayed the value of virtue for its own sake. He “didn’t seem to feel there was anything wrong with people acting out of selfish motives.” Mr. Jefferson put down his scissors and his Bible too soon.

Bertrand Russell was ahead of the curve on this one, too, taking up the question of J.C.’s wisdom and morality  in “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

Wrong again. But worse than being wrong is being mean-spirited and vindictive. Jesus had a “moral problem.”

 There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates.

Finally, bioethicist Udo Schuklenk’s last word: women’s reproductive health rights, so much in the news very recently thanks to the excruciatingly interminable GOP presidential “race” and a certain gasbag misogynist on the radio, illustrate the problem of turning a blind eye and a silent voice to religious zealotry. “There are harmful consequences to real people in the real world if such views are enshrined in law.”

And that’s why Maryam Namazie, one of our authors from last time, said this in a recent speech:

I am an anti-religious person and want society to impose more limitations, beyond mere secularism, on organised religion and the ‘religion industry.’… I am referring to organised religion and ‘religion industries’ and not religious beliefs. Anyone can have any beliefs, express them, publicise them and organise around them. ‘The question is what regulations society puts in place to protect itself.

Speaking of anti-religious (though not anti-“spiritual”) persons: next up, Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape.

World voices

March 27, 2012

Five more “world” voices in A&P today.

Was the whole world watching the Reason Rally? Doubtful. At least On Point covered it Monday morning: Hemant Mehta‘s a friendly but forceful spokesman, James Randi’s an embarrassment. But it’s a good question: what do atheists want?

Sumitra Padmanabhan “tried preaching atheism” in India, with predictable results: getting bogged down in misperceptions and terminological confusion. Indian atheists have been stuck with the name Nastik, “believers of nothingness.” Humanism really is a better label, though it isn’t immediately obvious what it is about that term that better conveys “a strong and uniform ethical foundation.”

Prabir  Ghosh relates a televised encounter with a yogi that results in unexpected audience applause for the proposition that “non-believers need not disprove anything; it is the duty of the theists to prove the existence of God.” Faith is a state we rarely embrace in non-religious contexts, when faced with preposterous claims.  Why should religion be any different?

Maryam Namazie (lately involved in a startling calendar protest) draws a simple, crucial distinction easily lost sight of when the line between church and state gets fuzzed: ideological vs. political Islam.  Both should be “open to all forms of criticism,” but their conflation typically results in both getting a free pass and atrocities (like stoning)  go relatively unremarked in the west.

Athena Andreadis grew up in the 60s when Greece recognized “no separation of church and state,” and was thus goaded to explore alternatives to Orthodoxy. She discovered a liking for “the holism of Wicca and the playfulness of Zen,” but became a real devotee of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes and his bicameral mind. Jaynes contended that our pre-conscious ancestors experienced verbal hallucinations and assigned them a divine source. The upshot: “the perception of anthropomorphic gods arose as a neurochemical manifestation of the human brain.”

“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet is nothing at all – what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

And that may well have been a group-selective adaptation, as Jonathan Haidt said at TED.” But now it threatens humanity’s chances to survive and thrive.”

Michael Rose & John Phelan also consider religious experience an evolutionary adaptation, but regrettably imply that we freethinkers are therefore deficient and “dysfunctional” on account of “failures of frontal lobe function.” Thanks, but with friends like this nontheists might rather be left to their own resources. If there’s a staircase to heaven or transcendence it should be open to all. If it isn’t, we should wonder whether the lower floors may not be more “functional” for human ends.

I’d prefer to think of us as marking the cutting edge of our species’ next great evolutionary surge, not as failed or incompetent believers.


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