Thursday, April 24, 2008

UK Poll: Religion is Evil

You gotta hand it to the Brits, they're far ahead on a great many things these days -- and now this!

A new British poll finds that the people of the UK identify religion as one of the worst social evils of our time. This made some Brits happy:

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said he was “extremely pleased”.

“Britain has had it with religion,” he said.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Saudi Arabia Declares Crusade Against Atheism

From The Carpetbagger Report:

If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s being lectured on morality by a corpulent autocrat with four wives who heads one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

I speak of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, that bastion of freedom of thought and freedom of religion. The king recently had a bright idea: Bring together representatives of the world’s monotheistic religions for a confab.

Many media outlets reported this as a positive thing. After all, Muslims and Jews would sit down together in Riyadh. Wouldn’t that dialogue be a good thing? The Washington Post even praised Abdullah’s action as a sign of tolerance.

A large chunk of the world’s population might have reason to feel differently. Let’s look at the details: Abdullah has a plan to unite Islam, Judaism and Christianity against a common foe — non-believers.

The Times of London reported:

According to the official Saudi Press Agency, King Abdullah said, “I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

Unacceptable? That makes me a bit nervous. After all, homosexuality is “unacceptable” in Saudi Arabia. It can warrant the death penalty.

Imagine if Abdullah has singled out just about any other class of people. Pretend he had said Hinduism is increasing, and this is unacceptable. Substitute Buddhists, Sikhs, followers of Confucius or whatever. Can you imagine the uproar? Would any Christian or Jewish religious leader endorse such talks?

Apparently it’s OK to declare a new crusade as long as it’s aimed at religious skeptics. Ironically, the same day Abdullah called for interfaith dialogue, his government formally denied a request from the Vatican to build the first Christian church in Saudi Arabia. It is, after all, illegal to worship as a Christian in that country. This guy’s going to teach us how to be tolerant? No thanks.

As an aside, anyone who thinks bias against non-believers is limited to countries like Saudi Arabia should check a recent piece by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. Rob Sherman, a local atheist activist, testified before the Illinois House of Representative’s State Government Administration Committee, expressing his opposition to a bill that would allocate $1 million in tax funds to rehabilitate a church deemed “historic.”

Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat, unloaded at Sherman.

“I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy — it’s tragic — when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school. I don’t see you fighting guns in school, you know? I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln, where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children…. What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous….”

Davis later added, “Get out of that seat! … You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”


After Davis’ harangue generated some national attention, she apologized. It’s a start, though I suspect she actually believes what she shouted during the hearing.

I have an idea: Let’s put King Abdullah and Rep. Davis in a tiny room and let them dialogue with one another. They seem to have a lot in common.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Foster Ignorance in Your Flock

I never quote Andrew Sullivan lightly here due to my fundamental disagreement with him on his strained attempt at reconciling his sexual orientation and his Catholic faith but this post today was just too startling.

So, some of you may have heard that some Christianist nutjobs are calling for a boycott of McDonald's because they reached out to the gay and lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

This is the kind of redneck, religious ignorance that ensues:

"And this is so strange, because it's the family that McDonald's appeals to -- children's playland, you know, all the little toys, all of that. And they are promoting a lifestyle that would utterly destroy the traditional family."


My son and I often stop by McDonald's for a bite to eat after homeschool bowling on Fridays. But not today...

Not today, in light of reports that McDonald's has decided, apparently, to declare war on my family. And to declare war on the civilization of liberty, independence, creativity, and humanity under God that my Dad fought for in World War II.

Via Ed Brayton. I guess I just don't know what to say in the face of this hysteria. I guess we have to repeat this again and again and again and again: we gay couples do not want to "declare war" on any family; we merely want to be fully part of our own. If Wildmon could have seen our wedding, he would have witnessed two families, of all generations, bringing two men more closely together and in greater communion with their own parents and sisters and brothers and nieces and cousins and nephews and friends. Having the support of our families - and supporting them in turn - is what our marriage is partly about. We threaten no one. So stop threatening us. And have a Big Mac while you're at it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Atheism: A Positive Case

From Mark Vernon:

Question: 'Can a positive case be made for atheism?'.

The quick answer to the question is, fairly obviously I would have thought, yes. A positive case for atheism will inevitably have some holes in it, some weak points, just like a positive case for belief in God. But I am sure that many atheists here imagine that being an atheist is a positive thing, most of the time.

So I’d like to raise a slightly different challenge – not so much making a positive case for atheism, which would primarily be an intellectual exercise. But rather asking about the existential task of actually being an atheist – atheism as a way of life, as it were.

It is an interesting question because when you look at the writings of atheism’s greatest philosophers, I think they suggest that being an atheist, as opposed to just arguing about it, is actually tough.

Take Sartre. His existentialism is based upon what he takes to be the bottom line for we humans, that we exist, period. He argued that this leads to a kind of terror, since there can be no reason given for this existence. It’s thrown at us. We’ve got to make of it what we will. ‘It confronts man with a possibility of choice,’ he wrote. Hence words like ‘abandonment’, ‘despair’ and ‘condemnation’ litter his writings.

Sartre is taking a lead from Kierkegaard here. Kierkegaard thought that it was well-nigh impossible, not to be an atheist, but to be a Christian. Faith is too difficult to really make your own, quite as difficult as a father being told to kill his son, as he interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac. So Kierkegaard said he was becoming a Christian. Sartre too seems to suggest that it is very difficult to be an atheist. Becoming an atheist is what he might hope for.

Further, there is a sense from this in which making an intellectual case for your atheism, as opposed to trying to be an atheist, is actually a distraction. It is a distraction from the existential angst of not believing in God. That is the real matter to get to grips with. Hence Sartre also writes:

Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.

So, I suspect that Sartre would say that the evangelical atheists of today risk abrogating their responsibility. They are a bit like the bishops and philosophers that Kierkegaard so loathed. They are so busy defending their intellectual edifices and self-justifications that they fail to address the real issue which is the great challenge of being an atheist, being a Christian.

Another great atheist was also very conscious of this. That was Nietzsche. You’ll remember how he ‘announces’ the death of God in The Gay Science. He does not do so by refuting the arguments for the existence of God, or celebrating the successes of Darwinism, say. Rather, he tells the story of a madman who one day went to the marketplace. His fellow human beings were going about their everyday, secular activities. And the madman cried out: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’. They laughed and mocked – asking whether God had got lost, or whether God was hiding, or if God is afraid of us? But then the madman turned on his tormenters. ‘I will tell you,’ he cried. ‘We have killed him – you and I.’

Nietzsche’s point is not to plead God’s cause. Rather it is indicate the ramifications of God’s departure from the modern world. The madman continues – for he is not really mad but a prophet, in the sense of someone who sees things clearly:

How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

It may have been inevitable that God died. It may have been desirable. Presumably Nietzsche thought so. However, this did not blind him to the great problems it would throw up for humankind. Problems of how to ground morality, how to locate a sense of meaning, how to orientate ourselves through our lives. How to be an atheist.

Thus, I think, Nietzsche too would have been critical of much of what passes for atheism these days. He might have thought it rather glib – as if all that is required is to breath deeply of enlightenment air and watch as the sun dispels the clouds. The atheistic call, as Nietzsche sees it, is far more tremendous.

I think that Nietzsche can be read as rehearsing the warning of Kant, from his famous essay What is Enlightenment? Enlightenment is tough. It does not come easily because it requires profound change, penetrating discernment, and time. Moreover, it is precisely when great intellectual revolutions are proclaimed prematurely that they nurture personal delusions and go wrong. Instead of enlightenment what you get is a new kind of immaturity.

Later in The Gay Science, Nietzsche offers his own estimation of how long enlightenment might take. Centuries. And in the meantime, human beings will be constantly tempted to fall back on old superstitions and strange faiths, often without realising it. Chief amongst these will be that they are enlightened already.

This flags up another reason that the comparison between becoming a theist and becoming an atheist might be illuminating. Surprising as it may seem, I think the tasks are really quite similar. Both are efforts in ditching false gods – be they metaphysical imaginings in the sky or false hopes here on earth. For example, the great medieval preacher, Meister Eckhart, once spoke these words:

If thou lovest God as God, as spirit, as Person or as image, that must all go. Love him as he is: a not-God, a non-spirit, a not-Person, a not-image; as sheer, pure, limpid unity, alien from all duality. And in this one let us sink down eternally from nothingness to nothingness.

It sounds like being an atheist, and as difficult. And if Sartre and Nietzsche would have not thought much of what passes for atheism today, then I suspect that Eckhart and Kierkegaard would not think much of what passes for Christianity either. Kierkegaard had a good line. He said that faith can turn water into wine, whereas the faith of contemporary Christians turns wine into water.

If you buy this, you might then ask what the difference is between being an atheist and being a theist. Less, I suspect, than you might think. But there is one thing that stands out. The atheist, I would imagine, presumes that their existence, and the existence of the universe, is pure luck, ‘just there’ as the atheistically-inclined Bertrand Russell put it. The theist, though, thinks that the world is created – created out of nothing, ex nihilo, for sure, because it is a mystery. But because it is created by God, it is therefore not ‘just there’, but is a gift. And so the theist can be thankful to their God, for all that they might fail to live up to their theistic calling. In this sense, then, I think it might actually be harder to be an atheist than to be a theist, to make a positive case for their atheism. For at least the theist has grounds to be existentially thankful.