Grant Rants

Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

I get feedback: Creationists don’t like me edition

- February 27th, 2014

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

So in my recent column about the location of the new south Niagara hospital, I pointed out that denying some basic facts about the hospital is like denying the facts about evolution:

“To deny these facts is like denying evolution. Sure, you can do it, but you end up looking like a loon. Just ask Ken Ham.”

Well, as is always the case when I bring up the big E word, creationists go bananas, including one Harry Huizer of 
St. Catharines, whose response attempts to point out how evolution is really just a matter of opinion. Just to show how far creationists play in a world without facts, I think it worth responding to the points Harry makes.

“Grant LaFleche spoiled his article on the proposed south Niagara hospital with his insult to those denying evolution. To say they end up looking like loons is disrespectful and unwarranted. As an atheist, Grant doesn’t have much choice but to believe in the theory of evolution and we have to be respectful of his opinion.”

Harry goes right off the rails out of the gate here.

First, there is nothing to compel anyone to be respectful of anyone else’s opinion. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and express it freely. That is what free speech is. But that doesn’t mean we have to respect the content of those opinions, or even be nice about them. This is particularly true about religion, where believers will regularly try to make the case that my disagreeing with them, by holding up their beliefs to scrutiny and even ridicule goes too far because, well, they believe it so. The honesty of their belief, they argue, should protect the content of those beliefs from being questioned or mocked.

I believe H.L. Mecken put it best when he said “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

Creationist do end up looking like loons because they deny the facts to such an extreme degree they end up looking like people who live in a fantasy world. Just consider at the recent debate between science educator Bill Nye and creationist guru Ken Ham. Ham ended up looking like someone who lives life by jumping into bed and pulling the blankets over his head. The only “facts” he accepts are the ones  he reads in his bible by flashlight. But this doesn’t stop people like Harry from offering up extraordinarily strange arguments.

“However here are a few “facts” that Grant and others should know: The fossil evidence from thousands of years ago shows not a trace of evolution. Animals and man seem to have suddenly appeared. The origin of life is the Achille’s heel of evolution since scientists have shown that the chances of assembling even one living cell is virtually impossible.”

Ugh. I don’t know what is worse about the creationism crowd, that they know nothing about probabilities, that they know nothing about biology and its related fields of science, or that they flaunt their ignorance as though its a badge of honour.

The fossil evidence is one of the best sources of evidence about evolution. It has become so detailed that scientists looking to tract the path of the evolution of a particular species can predict where they should find fossils that demonstrate the evolution of a particular trait. This is how Canadian scientists were able to find Tiktaalik, a critter that helps us understand how creatures that lived in the water evolved into those that lived on land. Because of the fossil record, the scientists knew where on the planet and in what layers of rock the fossils should be found. If those fossils were never found, you would have a serious challenge to the theory.

We’ve been able to track the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and the evolution of feathers in the fossil record. We can watch the evolution of human beings from our primate ancestors. There is no “sudden appearance” of “man and animals.” Rather we see their development over long periods of time through small changes. Harry is just ignorant of what the fossil record shows.

And of course, evidence is not limited to just the fossil record. Genetics has proved to be a powerful tool to understanding evolution. And like all scientific theories, evolution makes specific predictions that can be tested, such as the theory’s explanation of why we have one fewer pair of chromosomes than chimps:

Finally there is this bit about the origin of life being “impossible.” No, we do not know everything about how life arose on this planet. But we are learning more and more all the time and the picture is increasingly looking like it all beings with simple chemistry. Once you have something that can self replicate, you have something for natural selection to work on. Just because we do not understand something, does not automatically make a religious explanation suddenly valid scientifically. When we do not know something, we do not know it. QED.

Of course, what Harry completely misses is that the theory of evolution is NOT about how life got started. It explains how the variety of life we see now developed. The precise details of the absolute origin of life as we know it is outside the theory’s scope. But science gets closer to understanding that mystery all the time.

Consider the alternative Harry presents here: a sky god with no origin, that always existed, magically created the world, made a man out of dirt and a woman out of a rib and from these two magical people, the entire population of human begins arose. (Apparently inbreeding wasn’t a problem for Adam and Eve’s children.)

Where is the evidence for any of that, Harry?

Oh and one final point. Harry is trying to say evolution didn’t happen because the odds of life arising from chemistry (the development of a single living cell as he put it) are “virtually impossible.” He does not know the difference between “improbable” and “impossible.”

Consider poker for a moment. The odds of getting a royal flush is something around 650,000 to one. Not good odds at all. And yet, players do get dealt royal flushes all the time despite the odds being “virtually impossible.” Long odds are not the issue here. What matters is what happened and what we know happened, regardless of how improbably it may seem, is that life developed on this planet by the process of evolution.

“Many prominent scientists have come to the conclusion that there is an intelligent designer behind all creation.”

Actually, no, Harry. This is an outright falsehood. Because of the overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution, scientists support it as the best explanation we have for life. Those who do not accept evolution are neither “prominent” and have produced no scientific work that support the outright religious idea of “intelligent design,” which is little more than creationism dressed up in a lab coat. It’s religion in drag.

To claim otherwise is like saying “many important scientists have come to the conclusion that gravity isn’t real and concluded that the sun goes around the earth.” Sure you can say that, but that doesn’t make it true.

Intelligent design by the way, is a complete discredited idea that was cooked up by a bunch of American creationists who were looking for a way to get around a Supreme Court ruling that forbade creationism from being taught in public school classrooms. There is no scientific work to support it, no peer reviewed work, no theory to be tested. Just an idea that says “god did it.” It was part of a strategy to teach creationism without explicitly mentioning god, who is replaced by the phrase “intelligent designer.” It is frankly a more pitiful attempt at political camouflage than the Progressive Conservative’s recent effort to hang onto right to work policy ideas without actually using the phrase “right to work.”

The organization that was behind the entire intelligent design thing is a group called the Discovery Institute, which operated on a premise that became known as the Wedge Strategy, which stated that if they could overthrow evolution as the primary paradigm in biology, they could introduce the idea of an intelligent designer, and eventually sway people to believe in Christian creationism.

The entire ID thing was exposed a few years ago in Dover, Pennsylvania during a trial where the history, methods and truth behind the Discovery Institute and ID was brought to light. Here is a very good documentary about it:

Which brings us to Harry’s last point:

“Michael Denton, a molecular biologist says it best: “Evolutionary theory is still, as it was in Darwin’s time, a highly speculative hypothesis entirely without factual support.” I think Grant needs to study all the facts before making his comments and conclusions.”

Yah, so Michael Denton works for, you guessed it, the Discovery Institute. They produce a lot of books, but no scientific work. Harry thinks he has made a point by telling us that Denton is a molecular biologist. His creds mean nothing if his conclusions are unscientific and discredited.

Better luck next time Harry.

The stupid it burns: Dragons are real edition

- August 15th, 2013

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

This actually doesn’t require any pithy  comment on my part. I simply give you today’s burning stupid: Dragons are real because…the Bible.

Friday Hitchslap for Friday, Dec. 7, 2012

- December 7th, 2012

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

No long intro into this today. Just the Hitch doing what he did.

The stupid, it burns: Dante’s ghostly criticism edition

- December 6th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

One of the unavoidable effects of being a journalist, particularly one who also writes opinion column, particularly one who criticizes religion, is that one gets his fair share of hate mail and critics. Par for the course.

On occasion the criticism is thoughtful. I have had, for example, a long running conversation/debate with a reader by email on the subject of god and religion. We don’t agree with each other much, but our exchanges are lively and interesting. More often, however, the criticism comes from those who take shelter in the anonymity the internet provides, taking pot shots from the dark, never having the courage to voice their opinions in the same light of public consumption as the journalist does.

Case in point is a blogger who calls himself Dante Alighieri after the titan of poetry and theology. (Ironically, the blogger claims to be a non-believer. The real Dante most certainly was.) But since this fellow’s name certainly isn’t Dante, I’ve decided give him a random name. I’ve settled on Sean.

Sean is not a fan of mine and recently devoted a blog entry to what I presume he believes is some manner of rhetorical take down of me and my work.

Normally, I would not bother replying in detail, but Sean’s effort isn’t particularly long and mirrors some common criticism of not only myself, but other writers who publicly take exception to the efforts of the theoretically minded. And since he wanted to bring down the thunder by calling me out on Twitter, here we go:

“In a small local paper belonging to the QMI Corp. there is a regular columnist who exemplifies the worst of the fundamentalists, he rails against those whose ideas differ from his, mocks their ideas and world view, wishes their banishment from public view, wants their views suppressed, by the state if necessary, and calls them all types of names. His views seem to be supported by a large cast of “me too’ers” who join him in his vitriolic campaign.”

While I will often criticize religion, most often when religious activity attempts to shoe horn dogma into science class, attack the rights of other citizens, or claim a special status over others, I have never once called the suppression of anyone’s views – not even fans of Glee – even when they disagree with my own. In fact, the opposite is the case.

I’ve argued against creationism, using public schools as religious soap boxes, faith healing, religious attacks on homosexuals, gay marriage and women, the violence of jihadists ranging from honour killings to terrorism, suppression of free speech by religious groups and Scientology. Never, in any of that, have I once called for the suppression of free speech.

I am fairly certain that I have taken a much more strident view on free speech publicly than Sean has. I’ve done it several times. My opinion is  a long standing matter of public record. I have long argued that free speech is as close to sacrosanct an idea as there is. I have, on many occasions, argued that the state’s ability to limit free speech ought to be extremely limited and, as regular readers of my column will know, I like to drive the point home using an excellent quote from Noam Chomsky:

“Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”

So while I will take up the argument against unwarranted religious intrusion into our public institutions, mock end of the worlders, and insist that dogma does not belong in a science class, I have never called for the state to shut up the religious. In fact, as recently as September, I defended the right to free speech of that Christian zealot who made the idiotic anti-Islam YouTube video that triggered all manner of violence in the middle east. I pointed out an idea that has been well known in secular circles since the 19th century that says  you do not throw away free speech because some people, in this case radical Muslims, start an orgy of violence, even if the speech in question was stupid on the highest order. You combat bad speech with more speech, not censorship and violence.

So, sorry Sean, but you rather missed the boat there.

NEXT!

 I watch with amusement as he rants and raves against their intolerance and bigotry, unaware that he is acting in the same way that he accuses others of being. He is, not a religious bigot of the Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist Church type, but of the new fundamentalist type, the atheist fundamentalist.

Ah, yes the claim that the atheist is a “fundamentalist” or a “militant.”

This too, fall well short of the mark. Fundamentalism, originally a term used by a brand of American evangelical Christianity, got it’s name because believers wanted to get back to the “fundamentals” of their faith. Because this involved a belief in Biblical inerrancy (including literal belief in a six day creation, the dead rising from the grave, miracles and several, non-textual beliefs regarded as so important they cannot be questioned) the term “fundamentalist” has become a kind of pejorative to describe any religious person who interprets their religious texts this way and then acts accordingly. Today, this mostly refers to some stripes of Christianity and Islam, though that is probably a limited view.

At their best, fundamentalists are intolerant bigots, obsessed with making sure gay people can never marry, women have little or no say over their bodies or that science is replaced by bronze age theology.

At their worst, fundamentalists murder abortion doctors, fly planes into sky scrappers, throw acid into the faces of little girls in Afghanistan for imagined crimes, and generally seek to find new and exciting ways to murder non-believers.

So what exactly is an “atheist fundamentalist?” The term makes no sense. There are no texts that are regarded as so important they cannot be challenged, no idea so invincible that it cannot be questioned, no argument so powerful that it can never be discussed.  Although being compared to Fred Phelps, you don’t see atheists protesting at military funerals, advocating the death of others, or the tearing down of democratic institutions. I certainly have never made any similar arguments.

“Fundamentalists” atheists write books and articles and advance arguments, with which others can agree or disagree. The worst of religious fundamentalists blow up buildings. The difference is not trivial, Sean.

Or it can be put this way:

Fundamentalists: believe 2+2 =5 because It Is Written. Somewhere. They have a lot of trouble on their tax returns.

“Moderate” believers: live their lives on the basis that 2+2=4. but go regularly to church to be told that 2+2 once made 5, or will one day make 5, or in a very real and spiritual sense should make 5.

“Moderate” atheists: know that 2+2 =4 but think it impolite to say so too loudly as people who think 2+2=5 might be offended.

“Militant” atheists: “Oh for pity’s sake. HERE. Two pebbles. Two more pebbles. FOUR pebbles. What is WRONG with you people?”

NEXT!

He seems to be offended by anyone who publicly states a belief in any sort of god-like entity, but really focuses his attention on those of the Christian faith. You never see him slagging or criticizing those of the Islamic faith. Although if you question him on it, he will respond with “well those too, as well”. He dislikes people who pray near him or open meetings with a prayer, place in public places symbols of their faith; mangers at Christmas etc.

I have said, in several columns that no one has a right not to be offended. I cannot recall a single instance where I have ever said I was “offended” by someone who publicly states religious belief. In fact my criticism is almost exclusively focused upon religious groups who attempt to hijack public institutions, such as public schools or elected houses of government or the courts.

Given my views on free speech, it would be odd indeed to get offended by public statements of faith. Nor have I taken exception to prayers in public meetings. In fact, I only once addressed the issue of prayer in government meetings when Premier Dalton McGuinty argued that it was time to dump the Lord’s Prayer from Queen’s Park. I agreed. Our elected houses are not churches and temples. They are secular and, as McGuinty correctly pointed out, should stay that way.  The business of government has nothing to do with appealing to one god or another, saving souls, or whatever else religions are up to. QED. We have lots of temples and churches for that sort of thing.

On the issue of “never” criticizing Islam, it’s pretty clear that Sean hasn’t really being read the Grant Rant. I have devoted considerable ink criticizing Islam on a number of fronts. I wrote extensively about the case of Muslim students in Toronto attempting to suppress free speech by using the human rights courts to silence a McLean’s Magazine writer. I have written several critical columns about the Taliban, the theocratic government in Afghanistan and the deplorable treatment of women and girls in Muslim countries.

NEXT!

He attacks the Christian through Human Rights complaints and court cases complaining that he is made uncomfortable by the actions and beliefs of the religious.

I have never, ever, used the human rights tribunal system in this province. EVER. For any reason. In point of fact, I have been a long standing critic of the human rights tribunals in Canada. For the most part, they have been used by religious groups, principally Muslims who have attempted to use the system to prevent public criticism of their religion. In Canada, atheists are not arriving to the tribunals in droves in order to shut down religious activities. Locally, the only such case was a Grimsby man who doesn’t want the Gideons to use his child’s school as a forum to win converts. And I quite agree.  It had nothing to do with being “uncomfortable” with religious belief, but a Christian group wanting the right to try and convert grade school students.

In point of fact, I have argued against the very thing Sean says I endorse – banning religion. I’ve argued, rather, that we shouldn’t shelter people, including school children, from the religious views of our world.

NEXT!

Now, I haven’t been in a church in over 20 years and that was for a wedding of a in-law. I couldn’t name more that 4 books of the bible, and have no beliefs in a “greater spirit”. Yet I don’t get palpitations when I hear someone professing a belief in a god, nor do I get cold sweats at the sign of a crucifix/cross in a public area, the sight of a manger on a city hall lawn at Christmas does not send me into uncontrollable spasms of rage. But for the Atheist Fundamentalist, all of the above seems to be a daily occurrence.

Oh Sean, this is not the sort of thing one should be proud of, especially for someone who claims wants to channel the memory of Dante! I don’t believe in any of the supernatural claims of the Bible, but I have read it several times. Being ignorant of it isn’t a badge of honour. Believe in the faith or not, there is no denying that the Bible is a key book of western history. Putting religion aside, you cannot hope to understand major works of literature if you don’t understand the Bible. Moby Dick and Hamlet, for example, are replete with Biblical references. Dante’s Divine Comedy makes no sense without knowing the Bible. The writers of these books, and many, many others, assume their audience has a working knowledge of the Bible.

To have not read the Bible is like not having read Homer or Shakespeare. One cannot claim to be culturally and historically literate unless one has an understanding of these stories. Sean, you may want to rethink your handle.

As for this nonsense about arguing against a city hall manager display during Christmas, well, it’s a pure fabrication. In fact, I have more than once argued that people need to get over the burning stupid that is the “war on Christmas.” A manager scene (Christian) a Christmas tree (Pagan) and other religious and quasi religious symbols used during Christmas do not violate the separation of church and state. They are quaint traditions that, frankly, few people give much thought to. It’s a non issue.

NEXT!

“If one is so afflicted that their daily lives are so disrupted, rather than seek to shut everyone down, a far simpler and less disruptive solution would be to seek the counselling needed to be able to co-exist within a community of diverse views and ideas. I do hope that he does seek out that counselling, I really do. Grant, I do feel your pain, although I don’t understand why you are so afflicted.”

I’m not “so afflicted” in my daily life by religion. Most of the time, it rarely crosses my mind. Professionally, I do write  more about it than most of my colleagues. And when the day comes that creationists stop trying to put their theology into science classes, stop trying to use public schools as a captive audience, stop trying to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, stop trying to undermine free speech, stop selling faith healing to the credulous and the ignorant…then I will happily lay down my pen. There are things worth defending, even in print, important things like democracy and free speech. I make no apologies for having done so.

It is ironic that Sean should get my body of work on the subject so horribly wrong. There might be something actually worth discussing here. As it stands, his blog reminds one of the Shakespeare’s poor player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

PS. Sean asked me on Twitter to  “point out where separation of church & state are mentioned,” and I will indulge him on this last point. I presume Sean means where is it mentioned in the Canadian constitution. Of course, it is not there. The concept was enshrined in the US Constitution (a vastly superior document to ours, in my view.) with the establishment clause, but cannot be found in ours. In fact, our constitution makes a single reference to god in the preamble.

Ironically enough, Canada has rarely had the mix of politics and religion we see south of the 49th. And while our constitution does not have an establishment clause, the logic of the document does indeed support the separation of church and state and a secular government. Moreover, we have been functioning that way since before we even had our own constitution. Canada has always had that wall between church and state, we just basically took it as the way we do business,  much like most of Europe. When it appears that wall will be breached – like John Tory’s plan to fund faith schools a few elections back – Canadian voters take a very dim view of it.

And it is also worth noting that although our constitution makes one, vague reference to a god, it doesn’t reference a particular faith, certainly never mentions Jesus or Christianity or assigns religion any role in the affairs of the state beyond making a clear statement of freedom of religion.

QED.

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

-Mark Twain.

 

 

Grant Rants hits television.

- December 3rd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I’ll admit from the start here that I don’t actually watch Vision TV. It’s dedicated to religious programing, and from the ads I saw Friday night, also Irish folk dancing. Not sure exactly how that all fits together, but they sure like their gods and dancing Irish over at Vision TV.

I turned it on because I made a short appearance (if you fill forgive the shameless self promotion) on a program called I Prophecy about Christian rapture theology – basically those who believe Jesus is coming back any day now to open up a can of whup ass on the world.

IMG-20121130-WA000

Hey look, I’m on TV…but WHAT is going on with my hair?

The show was, well, a little heavy on the crazy for my tastes, with a couple of preachers going on about their end of the world ideas, giving no thought the impact that has on the gullible and the ignorant who sell their homes and leave their jobs in anticipation of being sucked up in god’s holy transporter beam.

I was basically there to provide the rational response, I suppose, and my ultimate point (which fortunately made it into the final moments of the program) is how rapture theology and the preachers who push it, are really committing an emotional con job which has ruined the lives of far too many people.

I’ve written about this subject before, particularly last year when an end of the world group actually purchased a billboard in St. Catharines warning us of the specific date we were all going to die. I’ll allow you to judge how accurate their prediction was.

Watch the show and let me know what you think about the subject.

PS. If you missed it and want to watch a show on a subject with more meat that end of world types, check out my appearance on the History Channel’s “Outlaw Bikers.”

Friday Hitchslap for Nov 23, 2012 starring Richard Dawkins

- November 23rd, 2012

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

Biologist Richard Dawkins is an interesting and brilliant guy, but doesn’t posses Christopher Hitchens  rhetorical whit. His arguments are great, but often doesn’t have the kind of rapier to the heart style of speaking that The Hitch perfected. Nonetheless, every once in a while he comes out with a zing. Here are two.

Dawkins on Creationism:

Dawkins vs. Neil Degrasse Tyson:

Bonus Hitchslap for Nov. 21, 2012: The Israel and Palestine edition

- November 21st, 2012

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

So it’s not Friday, but I received a call recently from a reader who has been watching closely the ongoing violence in Israel and asked me to post some of the Hitch’s thoughts on the conflict.

So here we go, three clips of Hitchens talking about the seemingly unending conflict in that part of the world. Worth watching and keeping mind as you read the news of the current violence:

I get feedback: Atheists don’t give to charity edition, part 2

- October 22nd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So following up to part one of getting feedback on my latest Grant Rant, I did get emails from atheists who said, yes, organizing atheists is sometimes a challenge for charity and it’s an issue in the community, BUT it is happening.

By way of a for instance, take the B.C. Humanists which is raising money for cancer research and treatment. It’s good stuff. Check them out:

In a recent column [18 Oct 2012, Mere atheism isn't enough -- help your community] Grant LaFleche expressed a common frustration among atheist and Humanist organizations, that we keep getting beat at charity by the religious. Luckily, things are changing fast.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is a young American charity that is coordinating giving among non-believers. They have over 1200 donors and a network of over 2000 volunteers that are good without god.

Their current campaign has raised over $300,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Their goal is to raise $500,000, every dollar of which will be matched by The Stiefel Foundation. Here in Vancouver, members of the BC Humanist Association have raised over $3,500.

As the freethought community grows, it’s only a matter of time until we are able to match the capacity for giving that traditional religions have. Please join and support your local atheist or Humanist group today.

Ian Bushfield
Executive Director
BC Humanist Association
http://bchumanist.ca

 

I get feedback: Atheists don’t give to charity edition, part 1

- October 22nd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So last week I wrote a Grant Rant column, calling my fellow non-believers to the mat for not getting involved enough in community based charities that needed support, like Gillian’s Place here in St. Catharines.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback from that column, both from atheists saying they are trying to organize to help their communities (which I will write about in part two) and from some religious quarters who think atheists don’t give because well, they don’t buy into the whole god thing.

The following is a tad long (my apologies in advance) but worth a full discussion. The first is an email from a reader (name removed for the time being) and my reply. Enjoy:

Dear Mr. Lafleche:
 
I read your column with interest, but wanted to challenge you concerning the disciple Thomas getting rapped on his knuckles by “his boss”.  For three years Jesus and his disciples travelled many miles together.  During that time He taught them many things, one of them was that He would be killed and rise again.  Thomas knew that, but his lack of faith made him doubt, even when the other disciples assured him that Jesus was alive.  Thomas along with the other diciples were being taught by the master Teacher that they would have to carry on once He went back to heaven.  It would be up to them to spread the good news that God had come into the world to redeem sinners.  Thomas doubted, and because he doubted Jesus had to be very stearn with him.  How was he going to fare if he couldn’t believe that His master was alive?  Christ had great plans for Thomas.  Tradition has it that he ended up going to India and dying for his faith, like most of the other apostles did.   This calling of Thomas by Christ was not for weaklings, but for those who through thick and thin believe that Christ is who He said He was.  Thomas, however, didn’t need much persuading once he saw his Lord again.  He didn’t berate Christ.  He just fell on his knees and said “My Lord and my God”, and he never looked.
 
The other part of your column was interesting too.  But I have one question for you.  If the atheist believes that there is no God and no Moral Lawgiver, what motivates him to look after his fellowman.  Do you really believe in the survival of the fittest, and does it really matter if we help our fellow humans or not?  In my way of thinking, if I have a Moral Lawgiver, outside of myself, who tells me that I should love my neighbour, as He loves me, then I am motivated to see my brothers  and sisters as equally loved and equally deserving of my help.  This may be why your atheist friends are not reaching out to the hurting and poor.

My reply:

Thank you for your email and accept my apology in advance for the perhaps ridiculous length of this reply. But the issues you raise are important and warranted a full reply on my part.
Firstly, I simply reject your view of that particular Bible story. At the end of the day, Thomas was being asked to believe the impossible, that a dead person was alive and kicking. Of all of the disciples, he appeared to be the only critical thinker and rationalist of the bunch, unwilling to accept at face value a story that insane, regardless of what he had been previously told. The very notion that a dead person is back among the living, zombies notwithstanding, is crazy. Any normal, thinking person would ask for actual evidence. The rebuke he suffers afterward – that one should believe without seeing, that you should NOT ask for evidence for extraordinary claims, that believing without evidence is a virtue, that rational critical thought is something to be shunned and cast aside in favour of fantasy – laid the ground work for lovely “traditions” like faith healing causing people to stop their cancer treatments (I’ve done stories on cases like this) the anti-science drivel of creationism and “intelligent” design, vaccine denial, outright falsehoods told to people about condoms, AIDS, and sexual health (particularly in the more illiterate parts of the world.)  In short, that one story is responsible for a entire Christian subculture that rejects evidence, exalts blind faith  and total obedience to authority as a virtue. These are not good things and Thomas really ought to be seen as a hero in that tale, having the strength of mind and character to ask what should have been asked by the rest of his buddies.

As for your other question, let me first say that if one requires a “law giver” to know that harming others is bad (and threatening punishment if you don’t obey) that actually says more about you than it does about anyone else. Ask yourself, if you had never ever read the Bible or heard about Jesus, you would then be running about stealing, raping, or killing people? Consider what it says about you if the answer to that question is “yes.”

To put this another way, seriously consider this question, first put forward by Plato: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?” If the first conclusion is true then the entire  argument for a “law giver” god is rendered inert. It would imply that god orders that which is intrinsically moral – and if that is so then what makes those standards moral has nothing to do with god. He merely recognizes their moral character. Therefore there is no extra-human source of morality, or if there is, it isn’t god. If the second is true, then morality is not objective at all as you’ve defined it. It is an extra human morality, but nothing about it superior to human reasons. The whims of human beings are replaced by the whims of a supernatural agency. Anything and everything god orders is moral by definition. That means that any horrible act can be justified simply by saying “god said so.”

Moving on, I should note the phrase “survival of the fittest” has no basis in science. Evolution is not about “fitness”: that was a phrase coined by 19th century social darwnists, which has nothing to do with biology. The difference is crucial and well known, outside of Christian evangelical circles, and isn’t even part of any serious scientific argument. Natural selection is best described as survival of the best adapted. Animals that can adapt to their environment and survive stand the best chance of passing on their genes. Genetic adaptations that allow improved survival – say the ability to climb better, or hide from predators – result in those adaptations being passed down to the next generation. Over time those adaptations accumulate until an entirely new species emerges. The Christian evangelical imagination of evolution meaning only the cruel and strong and vicious survive – and so therefore means that without their religion human beings would be nothing more than murderous, uncaring savages – is as far from the actual facts as pretending that a gold brick is actually the planet Jupiter. I mean, you can say it all you want, but that doesn’t make it true.

In the case of our own species, evolution took a fairly novel path, nearly unique to us and our closest genetic relatives, the great apes (particularly chimps). We lack claws, strength, feathers, fur, scales, the ability to run fast, the ability to swim or fly, see in the dark, etc etc etc. We evolved two particular traits, however, that are key. The first being a brain capable of abstract problem solving and the other being a social animal. Lacking the physical traits of other animals, we rely on our brains and social bonds to survive. Our moral and ethical instincts, at a very basic level are innate. The same as chimps. Chimps don’t have religion, but clearly have social behavior that includes ethical and moral concerns. They even keep the “bully boys” in order when they get out of line. This is all well documented in scientific work.

In short, if we actually acted as some Christians imagine evolution must require without a god, the species would have died out a long long time ago. I mean, do you really think the species would have gotten as far as the mythology of the Old Testament suggests prior to the 10 commandments without knowing that killing, stealing and otherwise harming your fellows won’t get you very far? Are we to really accept that people from other parts of the world, from cultures much older and richer than Jewish/Christian mythology, really didn’t know that caring for the weak and sick carried benefits? How on earth do you explain that the very concept of a doctor “doing no harm” and it was important to care for sick was cooked up centuries before the Christian era by Greeks who had no concept whatsoever of a supernatural “law giver” that told them how to be moral. The Greeks believed in gods, but accepted that moral and ethical impulses were innate in human beings (just as negative impulses are) and literally invented philosophy to investigate and build upon those impulses to understand how to build a just and kind society?

The Greeks had a lovely basic ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion with no god required, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone.

No, our moral and ethical instincts do not come from upon high. They are innate in us, a product of how we evolved. As as species we struggle to understand this. We invent and codify thousands of religions and philosophies to promote the best of those instincts and push aside the worst of them. Our instincts are not perfect, as we would expect from a jim crack process like evolution. Our cerebral cortex is too small. Our adrenal glands too large. We still carry, as Darwin put it, the lowly stamp of our origins. We try, each day, to be better if we can be. That is what it means to be human and requires no orders from upon high to figure out that running about and harming others is not a good thing. We have a word for people like that. We call them psychopaths, and we understand their brains do not work properly.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with why non-believer groups don’t often get involved in community based charity. That is an issue of focus, I think, and perhaps hubris. Many a skeptic and atheist group like to talk about the moral failings of religion. But because their focus is so firmly anchored to religious criticism, with their propensity to attack religion on moral and scientific grounds turning into a kind of feedback loop, they never have the courage of their convictions. The problem is not that atheists as individuals, or even in groups, do not act in an ethical or moral sense. It is just that often as formal groups, they don’t see charity as an important part of their mandate, whereas I argue that it should be.

Regards

Grant

 

The stupid it burns: anti-vampireism and bald as a hair colour edition

- May 14th, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

Ok, I have some ranty mojo brewing today and I’m in need of a target. Fortunately, the world is a big place with more stupid than it is possible to catalog, and it was easy enough to find one. Just up the highway in fact. In Toronto, that mythical center of the known universe.

Specifically, a column by rabbi Dow Marmur, who evidently doesn’t like us heathens very much.  The problem with we atheists, he says in a meandering column in the Toronto Star, is that we are pretty much like jihadists:

I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.

Interesting. Last time I checked, the most fanatical religious fundamentalists in North America try to have their dogmatic nonsense taught in science classes and are obsessed with telling women what they can do with their bodies, including a hilarious Republican bill that passed recently in Arizona that defined pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception. (no, that is not a punch line.) In even more extreme cases in North America, Europe, and of course, the middle east, the fundamentalist set is busy killing other people, often using that delightful method employed by the truly deluded, suicide bombing.

Atheists write books and blogs.thestupiditburns Oh, the horror, the horror.

Marmur points to Alian de Botton’s weird newish book Religion for Atheists, where in de Botton says he wants to build atheist temples, as some manner of evidence that atheism itself is becoming a religion (which is why we are worse than the worst religious fundamentalists….you know without the bombs and such) and in fact, heathens have “religion-envy.”

Ok, look, first de Botton strange book was greeted with disinterest by the atheist community, such as it even exists, and the most anyone could say about it was “uh, what?”

It’s true, there are atheists who seem to want to ape the group cohesion provided by most religions, but it’s an attitude I’ve always found puzzling. It’s why I don’t belong to any skeptic/atheist/humanist groups nor go to regular meetings. I don’t have any need to get together with people to talk about what I don’t believe in. I tend to, this rant notwithstanding, focus my commentary in his regard on attempts to breach the wall between church and state, or religious attempts to undermine basic freedoms like freedom of speech, or attempts to win converts by stealth (like the ongoing efforts of the Gideons to be given access to elementary public school children.) But sit around and talk about why I don’t believe in the existence of gods? Zzzzzz. Please. I’d almost rather watch Glee.

Marmur’s entire argument crumbles because it starts with a false premise. He treats atheism as though it’s a thing like Christianity or Scientology or Jedism something. The tacit assumption he makes is that atheism is a complete philosophical entity, with dogmas, and rules and holy books and, I would guess, priests or clerics or some sort that one obeys. And uses this argument as he defends the excesses and violence of religion:

Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism.

Really? Really, Rabbi Marmur? And what ideals are those exactly? Where do I find them? Where, in the name of Zeus’ holy toga, do I find the “stated ideals” of atheism?

Look man, atheism is barely a thing at all. Not believing in a god or gods is all atheism is. Period. QED. End of frakkin’ story. The only reason we have a name for it at all is because historically everyone around us has been totally hell bent for leather on this whole god business.

I mean, even the name “atheism” is pretty stupid because it dignifies the thing that it denies. Look, I don’t believe in vampires or big foot either, right? But there is no need to run about calling myself am “anosferatuist,” or an “asasquatchist,” is there. The bottom line is that atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour. The “ism” at the end makes it all sound fancy, I guess, but it isn’t.

I pretty well agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this front when he says “at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.”

Even the so called “atheist community” is a disjointed lot that is only bound by the disbelief in the supernatural and generally shared respect for science, evidence and reason. There is also some broad agreements on the values of democracy, freedom of speech and the like. Beyond that, it is pretty well, to use the cliche, like herding cats. Disagreements abound. Yes, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, PZ Myers and a few others are the most public and well known of the so called “New Atheists” (which is only new by the authors refusal to shut up when told.) but they constantly disagree. Tyson and Dawkins’s disagree over how to talk about science and religion in popular culture. Myers recently took Harris to task over issues of racial profiling at airports. And I’ve lost track of how many non-believers were sharply critical of Hitchen’s views on the Iraq war.

But I am sure Marmur will tell us where in that mess there are the “ideals” of atheism. Or is that the sound of cricket’s chipping?

About the only thing that Marmur gets right is that religion allows people to form a community of believers and atheism doesn’t do this. Well, yes. So what? De Botton’s goofy book aside, how is that supposed to an argument against atheism, or put more correctly, for religion? Does it demonstrate the existence of a god? Because that is what it would take, son. That pesky thing call evidence sort of matters.

Ultimately, Marmur’s entire argument seems to boil down to the idea that religion makes you feel good, and atheism doesn’t. I suppose that could be right. Atheism provides no guidebook, no bromide of any sort. Attempts to make it do so are as foolish as attempting to grasp quicksilver. To me, not having that kind of crutch is freeing. Yes, life can be miserable. It can suck. It will, as Rocky says. “beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently  if you let it.”

Speaking only for myself, I would rather harden myself to deal with it than rely on help that isn’t there because it makes me feel good to believe there is. I would rather deal with life as it is, honestly, and be miserable than to cling to some manner of false hope. If atheism is a thing at all, it’s living life on your own terms, taking the awful and the good as they come.