Saturday, December 28, 2013

Winter Season Memes and Meme Wars

By Gary Berg-Cross

A Washington Post Editorial called The Christmas story, still captivating the world, published: December 24 stirred up some discussion about the contemporary meaning of the holiday.  They contrasted the story in radioDAYS of old (1947 to 1956, to be exact)” as they called it when the narratives were mainly:

“from the Bible, mostly from the life of Jesus, presented with the urgent energy of radio drama and the sort of background music, spirited dialogue and sound effects that made it a good deal more compelling than Sunday school. It was widely popular for a time

This pop-up style they contrasted with a more enduring story of generosity, the need for shelter, the feeling of home and a new start to things (throw in New Year’s). This universal appeal:

is a tale with universal appeal extending beyond any one faith or doctrine, a story of love and triumph over adversity and also of humility, of the good lay in their warmth, humanity and simplicity, …….an enduring reflection of both the “comfort and joy” of the carol and also of the spirit expressed in a seasonal exhortation last week from Pope Francis: “Let us act so that our brothers and sisters never feel alone.”

Washington Area Secular Humanist 
HumanLight Party 2013
Yes, it seems as Alistair Cooke noted, "Washington's birthday is as close to a secular Christmas as any Christian country dare come this side of blasphemy."
There were numerous responses to this more secular, humanist slant to the season. The following from FL-Chet represents a meme of a  more traditional, Christian view of the season.

The Christmas story without his claim that he was fully God while being fully man is like Christmas dinner without the main course. Yes, we can nibble around the table of the Christmas story and learn from these truths. But to ignore his claims to be God come down to rescue us leaves our hearts and lives wanting, and needing more.

Put me on the side of the universal Humanist appeal of the season. Long before there was Christianity we had people celebrating the winter solstice - the shortest day and longest night of the year which falls (in the Northern hemisphere) on December 21 or December 22.  The harvest is in but some plants &  trees remain green thru winter and thus had a special meaning for people in dark, cold times. Today homes in Western culture are decorated with pine, spruce, and fir trees. In ancient times peoples also hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows (to keep away witches, evil spirits, and illness after all the sun-god gets weak in winter) but this seems mostly buried by the later Christmas story meme.

Washington Area Secular Humanist 
HumanLight Party 2013

I say let’s keep the non-spiritual side of the season alive with growing Humanist memes about kindness and sharing along with traditions like HumanLight and song.  For the latter I like Vienna Teng’s  The Atheist Christmas Carol.  It is by no means an atheist song, but rather a Humanist one as is Ode to Joy with its inspired message that 'all men shall be brothers'.


As to seasonal wishes there are many that I like. One builds on Mary Ellen Chase’s idea, beyond shopping malls and temples the winter celebration, people, is not a calendar date. It is a state of mind and one in which children can be grateful to parents who fill stockings and a natural sun that stays a minute or so longer each day.

"Keeping a holiday spirit is good, but sharing it is better."
after-- Arnold Glasow

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Can we explain entanglement without supernaturalism?

By Mathew Goldstein

Is quantum entanglement supernatural magic?  We do not have to be a New Age mystic, or a fan of Chopra Deepak, to think so.  We do not know the spin of a particle until we measure it, yet the instant we know it's spin we also know the spin of its entangled partner particle which could, in theory, be millions of miles distant.  Naturalism's dependency on physicalism sometimes appears to impose too much of a constraint for a feasible explanatory framework.  People turn to supernaturalism in part because they perceive naturalism as too restricted, and therefore too weak, a framework to explain our universe.  Are they mistaken to do this?  Can quantum entanglement be explained within the constraints imposed by naturalism? 

Some intelligent and thoughtful people, such as philosophers Thomas Nagel, Massimo Pigliucci, David Albert, and others, express doubts that a naturalistic framework is sufficient.  Some skepticism is indeed appropriate when dealing with the mysterious and the unknown, as is the case here.  Nevertheless, contra the philosopher skeptics, and popular opinion, the better answer is that naturalism is likely sufficient, and one way to illustrate this is to highlight one such possible explanation.

Physics has sometimes advanced with "what if" thought experiments imagining extreme conditions that would be difficult to replicate in a laboratory, such as Einstein's thought experiment of chasing a light beam, leading to Special Relativity.  Two physics heavyweights, Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, and Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, California, recently asked this question:  What would happen if two black holes are entangled?

First, they showed that space-time tunnels emerge from quantum theory when two black holes are entangled. It's as if the wormhole is the physical manifestation of entanglement.  When space-time curves we experience that curvature as gravity.  Anytime an N dimensional object curves, it enters an N+1 dimension.  Given that space + time = 3+1 = four dimensions, gravity evidences a fifth dimension.  Such warping of space-time can produce space-time tunnels, or wormholes.

The two physicists then extended this idea to a single black hole and its Hawking radiation, resulting in a new kind of wormhole. This wormhole links a black hole and its Hawking radiation.  Hawking radiation is the result of the black hole absorbing the anti-particle and emitting the particle of the virtual particle - anti-particle pairs that are otherwise constantly bubbling into and out of existence in the vacuum of space.

Julian Sonner of MIT, Kristan Jensen of the University of Victoria, and Andreas Karch of the University of Washington decided to try to determine what happens with pairs of entangled particles. To see what geometry may emerge in the fifth dimension from entangled quarks in the fourth, these scientists employed holographic duality, a concept in string theory. They found that what emerged was a wormhole connecting the two quarks, implying that the creation of entangled quarks simultaneously creates a wormhole.

So while entangled particles are far apart in four dimensional space-time, they could be joined together, fragilely, in the fifth dimension.  Spooky action at a distance may not be what seems, it could be an illusion from our inability to directly observe the curvature of space-time.  We witness the curvature of space-time indirectly by its products of gravity, black holes, and quantum entanglement (physicists usually consider quantum mechanics to be more fundamental than gravity, so they may say that the curvature of space-time is a product of quantum entanglement).  

We cannot properly have confidence that this quantum entanglement with wormhole scenario is true without more favorable empirical evidence.  But even if this hypothesis proves to be false, the fact remains that a strictly naturalistic framework is rich with possibilities for explaining our universe.  The intuition that a naturalistic framework lacks the power to explain how our universe works repeatedly turns out to be mistaken.  We do not need to turn to supernaturalism to explain how our universe works.  With effort, time, observation, and ingenuity we continue to make progress naturally.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Freethought Equality Fund PAC endorses six candidates

By Mathew Goldstein

The new Political Action Committee for non-believers endorsed six candidates for Congress in 2014.  The Freethought Equality Fund was launched by the American Humanist Association's Center for Humanist Activism in September.  Two of the candidates, Carolyn Tomei of Oregan and Juan Mendez of Arizona, are secular humanists.  The other four are Jared Polis of Colorado, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Bobby Scott of Virginia, and Lee Rogers of California.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Labels and Stereotypes

by Edd Doerr

Labels, religious or otherwise, can lead to misperceptions, confusion, stereotyping, overgeneralizing, unfairness, muddled thinking, and blockages to cooperation and social justice advances. Let's look at just one example, the question of Catholics and moral issues. Many people are under the impression that Catholics blindly follow official church teaching. But it just is not so.

Every six years beginning in 1987 the liberal National Catholic Reporter has sponsored  a study of Catholic beliefs and practices, "Trends in Sources of Moral Authority". The poll question was this: "Who should have the final say about what is right or wrong? Church leaders? Individuals? Or both?" on the following five subjects: divorce and remarriage, abortion, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, and contraception. (Data from the 12/20/13 issue of NCR)

In 1987 on all five questions an average of 26% said the church. By 2011 the average had dropped to 16.2%.  As for individuals having the final say, here are the figures from 1987 and 2011 on these specific issues: divorce and remarriage, 31% to 47%; abortion, 45% to 52%; sex outside marriage, 42% to 53%; homosexuality, 39% to 57%; contraception, 62% to 66%. The average shift from 1987 to 2011 was from 43.8% to 55%. In other words, over half of Catholics polled had essentially the same positions as humanists and other non-Catholics, disagreeing with Vatican dogma. About 1/4 said that both should have the "final say", but that makes no sense to me.

Other polls have shown that in actual practice, over 90% of  sexually active Catholics have used contraception and the Catholic abortion and divorce rates are similar to those of non-Catholics. NCR also noted that only 1/4 of Catholics attend church services weekly, 78% favor comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, and 54% believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Shifting focus on the subject of stereotypes, I might note that there are atheists who oppose the right to choose on abortion, who do not support church-state separation, and who do not oppose government forcing all taxpayers to support religious private schools.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Harris poll says more US residents "not at all religious", atheist, and agnostic

By Mathew Goldstein

A press release summarizing the latest Harris poll results on the religious beliefs of United States residents; shows a continuing move away from superstitions and supernaturalism and towards skepticism and atheism. The biggest increase since 2009 was among the "not at all religious", which increased from 15% to 23%.  Those who are "absolutely or somewhat certain there is no God" increased from 13% to 16%. The percentage who either do not believe in God (16%) or are unsure (also 16%) increased from 26% to 32%. The disbelievers and non-believers are younger, better educated, more male, less racially black, and less Republican, on average than the population as a whole.  A small counter-trend towards supernatural belief is evidenced by a greater likelihood for younger people to believe in witches, ghosts, and reincarnation than older people.  Presumably, older people are more inclined to reject witches, ghosts, and reincarnation because those beliefs conflict with the traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs that they are more inclined to take seriously.  The steady trend away from religion and supernaturalism in the United States is showing no signs of slowing down, but three fourths self identify as theists  (down from over four fifths at the start of this century).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Notes and Observations from a Religion vs. Atheism “Debate”

by Gary Berg-Cross

On Dec. 7th, 2013 Perry King, Deacon of the Universalist National Memorial Church and  Don Wharton, Organizer of the DC Region Atheists participated in a 2-person debate called: Religious Faith versus Atheism.

It was well attended with a mix of people, one of whom was Mathew Goldstein who wrote a to-the-point, well reasoned &  skeptical blog called Protestant Universalists as activism allies on it.  I was there too and had some thoughts similar to Matt’s but took some notes on other aspects as well such as the ebb and flow of issues, tactics and emotions. I hope these annotated notes help recreate the flavor of what I experienced. You can see an early part of the debate here and get a sense of the speakers demeanor.

As debates of this kind go this was as polite as it probably gets. Certainly there fewer pyrotechnics as with the brothers Chris and Peter Hitchens debate or one of Dawkin's debates. Here the speakers were not kin, but still familiar with each other from past conversations. They showed a degree of respect for each other in the midst of a congenial audience made up of people are both sides of the issue, but liberal minded.  Indeed at times the most heat came from intense efforts by assigned moderators to keep the 2 speakers to 5 minute time constraints. Still, it wasn't as intentionally humorous as a religion-atheist debate among comics Jamie Kilstein &  John Fugelsang on "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell."

The event started with each side explaining their organizations and what they stand for and who they were allied with. Perry could point to the UU values from the Enlightenment - “Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.”  Don Wharton faced with a liberal stance took a clever tactic of emphasizing secular, humanist & scientific positions and alliances such as the AHA and DC Coalition of Reason, rather than starting with atheist ones. Indeed for most of the early debate it might have been termed Religion vs. Secularism.
In the 2nd round each side staked out some additional territory.  King expanded from the Enlightenment to what he at times called a Modern or Post-Modern Religion.  He used relativism to jumps over the hard search for truth with a string of statements that- “absolute truth does not exist". Realities are instead multiple, they are subjective and dependent on an individual's worldview of framework (Drat we should have never spent the time trying to convert those Indians). The Deacon could gesture to this idea and rattle off some thinkers but his main thrusts came with statements like:

Religion asks the question of meaning.  It’s been around a long time…Religion is not so much a set of beliefs as a set of language and symbols about what is unknown or transcendent.

This idea of religion knowing something about the unknown might have generated calls for explanation, but we weren't in the Q& A so the conversation moved on from this very sticky foundational point. It’s the type of thinking that is hard to make progress against at time limited debates.  You can choose to address 3-4 of the arguments made but if you try to pick up this one it will consume all your time.  It’s a very asymmetrical situation and I give Don high marks for navigating these obstacles. Faced with this choice when he had the floor he countered King with a simple question of:

 “what is real? and ‘this is self delusion’, ‘let’s define what is real.” 
(See my blog on myths for some discussion of delusions. Rational analysis for the masses, alas, remains an unfulfilled Enlightenment goal.)
Perry’s response was to cede the floor a bit and retreat from knowing.

“Can any of us know what is real?”  “How did it all begin?”

Not a great response from an “Enlightenment fan” but such stances postponed the issue till later in the debate when there was more time for the important issues on the human capacity to know. If you draw on thinkers of the past I like for example, Heraclitus 500 BCE whose stance on how human understand reality included (Paraphrased by John Sowa, 2003):

“Everything is in flux. But what gives that flux its form is the logos; the words or signs that enable us to perceive patterns in the flux, remember them, talk about them, and take action upon them even while we ourselves are part of the flux we are acting in and on.”

These rhetorical questions can be taken on with a gesture to that part of Science that studies human cognition.  What aspects of Science do you believe in and what limits do you set and why?  Is continental drift “real”?  Doesn't seem likely, but it now seems pretty certain along with mass extinctions, comets that hit the earth, supernova and quarks. I prefer knowing the knowable, rather than faithfully “knowing” the permanently mysterious unknown.

If Deacon King could wave at being compatible with Science, Don could ask “What does that mean?” And he could point to Epicurus and the problem of evil which provides it own big discussion area that is hard to take on. Each side had some of their favorite zingers.  Probably Deacon King had more such as:

“There is no conflict between Religion and Evolution….but Dawkins knows nothing about Religion!” or
“UU stands for the underdevelopment of arrogant atheists who are intolerant of Religion.”
“What do I mean by faith?  It’s personal.” (Ah, I guess not subject to scientific study? Calling doctor Freud......)
It’s mean to tell kids there’s no Santa Claus.”

The Deacon did have a host of easy to believe and popular wisdoms to throw into the debate and could bring the sides together with a cheery:

 “The enemy is dogma in any form.”

While agreeing on many issues of social tolerance points of real disagreement were to be found as the conversation continued.  Don argued that Religions convince people that they are members of a moral tribe and neuroscience supports this maximization of tribalism, which has its downsides. See Us Against Them: How Tribalism Affects the Way We Think .

Don threw in ideas relating religion and the idea of purity and authority figures from Jonathan Haidt's studies of intuitive, moral underpinning as political attitudes:

This moral foundation, which involves having compassion and feeling empathy for the suffering of others, is measured by asking people how much considerations of "whether someone cared for someone weak and vulnerable" and "whether or not someone suffered emotionally" factor into their decisions about what is right and wrong. As you can see, liberals score considerably higher on such questions. But now consider another foundation, "purity," which is measured by asking people how much their moral judgments involve "whether or not someone did something disgusting" and "whether or not someone violated standards of purity or decency." Conservatives score dramatically higher on this foundation.

But as we veered onto social science these too were subjects that did not land as conversational topics for any length of time. The impression I got was that Don’s atheist-secular side was grabbing more of the space of the argument.  If this were a chess game the early openings had been played and Don had major pieces deployed. 

Deacon Perry was playing a different game though and chose not to get into evidence from social and neuroscience.  

“Never say “delusions” when talking to a faith-based community,”

A good line enjoyed by the audience. I guess a comeback might be:

 “Don’t say ‘take it on faith’ when talking to an empirical science audience.”

Before we knew it the Deacon was on a different tactic.  He ceded the territory of being critical of the Bible, but within faith.  To him the Bible is a pre-modern document, but it is the source of divine inspiration (take it on faith, I guess).  As Christians we should only look at the “good stuff.”: I should note here that Deacon King seems to talk about the Bible mostly in terms of the New Testament.

OK, I’ve heard this inspiration talk before and the question that comes up in my mind is that there are separate criteria to judge what is “good” in this or any other book.  We don’t need religious criteria for this. We've golden an silver rules for quite a while.  We might agree to call the criteria “humanistic.”  That would be good to agree on or even discuss.

What was discussed was Don’s point about beliefs from groups like Christian Scientists. How do we confront the absurdity of their truth claims? Perry said “we are trying to liberalize them.”  He again fell back on the claim that there is important truth in the Bible.

Don’s chess game advanced a notch again and moved to the claim of life after death, “It’s a problem.”  Group leaders use this promise to impose their interests and notions of ethics on the community. It’s a delusion and akin to people deluding themselves about climate change. Perry responded, “It has great value.”

This exchange opened the doors a bit to the societal value of Religion and the related issue of who do we blame more for what has gone wrong (e.g. cultural conflicts, war etc.). One thinks of Paul Kurtz observation that:

All the great religions have grown by attacking those about them. 

To the request that we need a more secular society the Deacon could only suggest that Norway has more suicides than the US (not true it turns out to be true – Norway has about the same rate.  There is an effect for the absence of sun in winter which shows up in many countries so Finland has a higher rate than the US).

Which cultures are happiest?  Don suggested the secular, Scandinavian ones. Again this is supported by UN survey studies based on not only longevity and prosperity but also the belief you can count in others in times of trouble, perception or corruption, generosity etc. There were many of these statistical skirmishes throughout but Don was clearly in better command of the facts and supported conclusions. Take the issue of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot all being “atheists.”  Don was ready with refutations on Hitler’s Catholic background, Stalin’s Russian Orthodox upbringing and Pol Pot’s training in a Buddhist monastery.  It was quite something to see vague claims swatted down by Don’s knowledge. One might have added the inconvenient observation that George Bush was “born again” and his wars killed hundreds of thousands.
It was equally interesting to see emotion-laden topics dealt with.

When the idea of Hell was introduced as based on human experience Don could parry that, yes, hellish experiences are real and we learn from them but there is no supernatural Hell.

More difficult was the topic of secular accommodationism of Religion  vs confrontation or Religion by the New Atheists (“confrontationisst” include  bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Aliand Richard Dawkins. – Some trending elements of secular accommodation disturb and trouble Don. Paul Kurtz might fall into the accommodationist category if only because he worried that New Atheism confrontation was an unproductive strategy. Don’s counter (and Mathew Goldstein’s position) is to “stand firm on truth claims.”  One of Don’s memorable lines in this debate concerning how confrontation hurts people’s feelings was to pivot from people to ideas –  – “Ideas don’t have feelings.”  And he added that secularists are comfortable in their feelings at the end of life.”

Modernity (Perry cited an atheist Freud and others here, well they aren't up to data but I guess were considered modern) and post modern ideas on religion was a topic at times included the limitations of science – it doesn't have final answers. One like look to A.C. Grayling on this idea of certainty and knowledge. Yes, Science’s mindset is always in progress and prepared to un-set and revise, but that mentality is a strength rather than cock sure certainly that is fixed. Both Perry and Don cited the value of critical thinking, but Perry urged that we not try to wipe out all of tradition and world views found in myths.  They have a special truth one supposes and we should be informed by people who came before us.  Well yes, remember those old natural religions that had thunder gods and credible displays of religious devotion, such as:

fasts, food taboos, self-scarification, extravagant rituals and other “hard-to-fake” behaviors.

It is part of reliably transmitted religious demonstration showing a believers’ sincere faith to observers and potential converts.  I could see some of this behavior at the debate.  Perry would occasionally invite Don to come to service – we hope to convert you yet. Not all of us have Don’s ability to groan or sigh away these entreaties in a persuasive way. A good example of this was Don's reaction to Perry's appeal to thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as a source of modern wisdom.  Don had actually read Chardin and groaned noting that that Chardin had his own brand of confusion.

As a culture generating species, we humans assimilate key information from our groups, and therefore human brains probably have built in cultural learning biases that enable us to quickly pick up the culture around us (language too). But a pre-conscious tendency to learn from others makes us vulnerable to being misinformed if not duped. This has been called the “evil teacher problem” but remember preaches are teachers). Evolutionary Psychologists speculate that we have developed a defense.  Human cognition is equipped with something called epistemic vigilance. It’s a suite of skills and preferences that guard against such manipulation by smooth talkers among us.  Better to be converted by truth and not tolerate manipulation. And so on to the question of what should be tolerated.

Perry did ask pointedly, “Can you respect my mother who goes to church on Sunday?

Don’s response was a re-post.  Religions have more control over women. And by the way should a LGBT person respect a homophobe?  There are limits.

At this point there was time for Q & A from the audience. One of the first ones was whether Don say religion going away and what would replace it.  Don pointed to Sunday Assembly as an alternative. Perry thought that we were in a Post-Christian age and needed to redefine Religion but that it would always be with us. But a thoughtful UU member asked Don if he would be happy in effect with nothing by their total capitulation to the atheist idea.  

Another question concerned the possibility of an alliance between secularists and liberal religions like the UUs. We might ally around climate change, peace and civil rights.

A question is whether we can cooperate on these, while ideas of God and Religion are enshrined in laws. It's still a good question and yet this was a good, liberal minded debate.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Adam and Eve

by Edd Doerr

If you are looking for some chuckles let me recommend Mark Twain's  58-page story "The Diary of Adam and Eve", first published in 1893 and republished by Modern Library in 1996 and probably elsewhere as well. The usual Twain incisive humor.

And then there is the Mexican movie titled "Adam and Eve" that I  watched in a cinema in South America many years ago. The film script came straight from the Book of Genesis, gravely intoned by a solemn narrator. The two non-speaking central characters were played by a French former Miss Universe and a Mexican wrestler. Modesty was maintained by Eve's rather long hair and by strategically placed bushes, of the botanical, not the political, sort (though the last two Bushes to hold high office in Washington and Tallahassee did have a kind of moldy putrescent aura).

Seeing this tale on the wide screen  or through Mark Twain's eyes is enough to give pause to anyone thinking of taking  the Scriptures literally.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Big God is Watching You & Civilizing Cooperation

by Gary Berg-Cross

The relation between religion and civilization has long been discussed and there are many takes on it.  In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud discussed the aims of civilized life and frustrations in achieving pleasure and happiness.  Religions aren't always interested in the worldly aspects of pleasure and can be at odds with that aspect of human aims.  In The Future of an Illusion, Freud lamented the typically religious person’s preoccupation with what he termed the "enormously exalted father" figure that was central to a God concept. The idea of placating this supposedly higher-power being for some future reward seemed to Freud infantile and absurd. The frustrating reality to Freud was, however, that the bulk of mankind hangs onto this illusion.

In Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict' Psychologist Ara Norenzayan updates some of the speculation about the historical role of Religion in the development of civilization.  He provides a long list of studies on particular points to suggest that the psychological factors at play in the early connect are still with us.  But like many things modern we might now know how to achieve some of the positive influences in a secular society with less of the downsides that religions can promote.

Norenzayan starts with the observation that  around 12,000 years ago or so human societies scaled up from small, tight-knit kin groups of hunter-gatherers to what we have now - large, anonymously, co-resident & cooperative societies. Emphasis on cooperative.  In Big Gods, major portions of which can be read online, Norenzayan  hypothesizes that normal individual cognitive processes and cultural selection explains the success of very early religions and something else – that increase in cooperation.  Norenzayan’s idea is that there was something that solved the problem of generating more cooperation. And he proposed that something as simple as “God/someone powerful is watching – so be good!”  was it.  Developed as part of religion in the Neolithic period it enable more complex activities.  Here is how one review put it.

Once human minds could conceive of supernatural beings, Norenzayan argues, the stage was set for rapid cultural and historical changes that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods--powerful, omniscient, interventionist deities concerned with regulating the moral behavior of humans. How? As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people." It follows that people play nice when they think Big Gods are watching them, even when no one else is. Yet at the same time that sincere faith in Big Gods unleashed unprecedented cooperation within ever-expanding groups, it also introduced a new source of potential conflict between competing groups.

With a Big God whip ancient societies could solve co-operation dilemmas much better, and as a result they expanded. Not necessarily a new idea but Big Gods provides an elegant overview including real research suggestive of how belief in Big/super-knowing, all powerful and very morally intrusive gods emerged and influenced cooperation.

He has a nice summary called  "The Eight Principles of Big Gods" whch are:
1. Watched people are nice people.
2. Religion is more in the situation than in the person.(more on this later)
3. Hell is stronger than heaven. (yes hell gets invented somewhere in the 1 millennium BCE)
4. Trust people who trust in God. (yes, you can't trust those none believes especially)
5. Religious actions speak louder than words.
6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods. (the orignal way to kill a god, just talk up your own and invent commandments to do that)
7. Big Gods for Big Groups. (our God is bigger than yours so we are exceptional)
8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.

Evidence includes the Sunday Effect  of pro-social behavior. For Christians, reminders of religion are typically more salient on Sundays than on other days of the week (and of course at Christmas and Easter). One study looked at responsiveness to an online charity drive over a period of several weeks. Christians and non-believers were equally likely to give to charity except on Sundays. On that day Christians are/were 3 times as likely to give. These results suggest that the “religious situation” is more important than the “religious disposition.”  There are a host of other studies showing that self-reported religious people don’t help out in tasks more than secular people.  But is ideas of God are evoked while playing word games. The game innocently planted thoughts of God (divine, God, spirit) in some participants. Other study participants played the same word game but without religious content (cat, dog tree). The result in an evoked religious situation religious participants do help more.

But there is a down side to this type of cooperation because in group effects. These group effects are better seen in the later first millennium BCE era of the Big Faith-Religions. This is  'Axial Age' (as Karl Jaspers called it).  Such Big Faiths built on Big Gods to further develop inside group cooperate. “Supernatural surveillance” by established Big Gods helped early religions expand while sustaining social solidarity within the group.  The non-civilizing down side is that it discourages cooperation with outsiders. His might be noted as running as a theme in parts of the Hebrew old testament. Those other guys are God’s enemies.  So this type of civilizing cooperation is limited and comes at a cost. It’s part of the discontent with civilization.  As Norenzayan notes:

People who are going to sacrifice for their co-religionists are the same people who are going to be, under the condition of threat or conflict, intolerant or even violent to people who are not of their own religion. Quote from Interview

Speaking of Big God’s enemies, some Psychologists have argued that concern with supernatural surveillance also explains one of the most persistent but hidden prejudices tied to religion: intolerance of atheists. Surveys consistently find that in the United States, as well as in other societies with religious majorities, atheists have one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group. It makes sense.  We don’t believe that we are being watched from the clouds.  How could we be cooperative or moral?

What’s the solution here?  Well understanding is a start, but facts and reasoned arguments are often resisted. Luckily we have real world experimentation going on in more secular societies to show that human ingenuity and understanding can engineer secular-based cooperation.

But Norenzayan  includes some warnings via 2 secular principles that follow the Big 8:

9. "Combined with strong secular institutions that keep the cooperative engines going, existential security is the nemesis of religion." (p. 186)

10. "Prosocial religions have one crucial advantage over secular ones - the demographic windfall of more children. And that religious advantage is the secularists' Achilles' heel." (p. 192) Its that Big God - Big Group idea again, so we have to be smart if not quite as big...

Bright Lights from the Enlightenment

a review by Edd Doerr

The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi. Prometheus Books,  2013, 282 pp, $20.95.

From the book's cover blurb  ----

"Brilliantly samples the work of the leading thinkers of the European and American Enlightenments that culminated in our era's secular naturalism. Especially relevant are the sections by Locke, Jefferson and Madison that counter the regressive efforts by today's religious Right to lead us back to the Dark Ages.

"Edd Doerr, President of Americans for Religious Liberty and columnist for Free Inquiry"

That said, S.T.  Joshi, editor of the  Library of America classic Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales & Memoirs (880 pp, 2011), The Unbelievers  and other books, here gives us a convenient selection of the writings of such notable 18th century Enlightenment authors as Meslier, Voltaire, d'Holbach, Kant, Hume, Bentham, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Paine and Ethan Allen, together with brief introductions. A great addition to any library.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Protestant Universalists as activism allies

By Mathew Goldstein

I recently listened to Deacon Perry King of Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. explain and defend his religious beliefs during a mostly cordial public talk featuring him and Don Wharton of WASH.  My understanding of his perspective is as follows:  He described his denomination as representing a liberal Protestant Christianity that embraces the pluralistic Universalist notion that people from all religions qualify to go to heaven.  He cites Paul Tillich's definition of god as the grounds of being, and he equates god with concepts like goodness and love.  He considers it possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, and points out that some other people call him an atheist, although clearly he does not self-identify as an atheist.  He appears to embrace faith as a valid alternative way of knowing, but then he claims his religious identity is not rooted in concrete beliefs, emphasizing instead that his religious identity is rooted in symbols, abstractions, and meanings.  He asserts that the bible is an important source of wisdom and that Jesus has a special role, but he rejects trinitarianism  He says he has read Sam Harris.  He says he embraces a post-modernist outlook and rejects logical positivism.  Social activism also has a central role, and he identifies the social activism as being motivated by Christianity and as being Christian in character.

For us secular humanists, deciding to join a public policy, or social activism,  or humanitarian intervention, alliance with any other group centers around answering two questions:  What public policy is needed and who else is advocating for that needed public policy?  The evidence regarding global warming related public policy is different from the evidence regarding civic equality for LGTB citizens is different from the evidence regarding atheism versus theism.  The religious belief identities of the other groups in the coalition is irrelevant, and it is counter-productive to exclude anyone from a public public advocacy coalition because of disagreements over unrelated questions, including religious beliefs.  We would never tell Unitarian Universalists that as a pre-condition for working together on a particular issue of common concern it will be necessary for Unitarian Universalists to "show respect for us" by refraining from publicly advocating for Unitarian Universalist belief, or refraining from arguing against atheism, or refraining from advocating against any other conflicting and competing belief, or attending WASH meetings.  We are entitled to insist on the same from them.  Mutual respect is based on equality, and equality entails that everyone publicly advocates for their beliefs and associates only with who they choose without restrictions.

I am confident that I will never call myself a Christian or a post-modernist, never put faith front and center as a preferred method for justifying conclusions about how the universe works, and never put so much credence in an ancient text with so little substance to it.  The UU Deacon's apparent denial that his religious identity is based on factual assertions (he was somewhat ambiguous here, he only denied he held "beliefs" and then gave examples of beliefs he did not hold that were all factual assertions) is inconsistent with his reliance on faith, since faith is only applicable in a context of reaching true/false conclusions about factual claims. Faith has no applicability to personal preferences or ethical commitments.  Also, a denial that his religious identity is rooted in factual assertions is inconsistent with various factual assertions he made about the nature, or character, of god and the bible. 

Apparently, from a post-modernist perspective, this distinction between factual true/false beliefs, ontological existence assertions as a distinct subcategory of factual assertions (to which logical positivism applies), personal preferences, and ethical commitments, is all blurred.  Blurring these distinctions is convenient for those who want to avoid the constraints imposed by following the evidence. The distinctions between factual true/false beliefs, personal preferences, and ethical commitments are valid and important.  Post-modernism is mistaken.  Furthermore, insofar as his religious beliefs really do refrain from making any factual assertions it loses it's Christian character, contrary to his assertion that his church and it's beliefs are Christian.

Advocacy for atheism is easily accessible to everyone who uses the internet.  The Huffington Post, as do other publications, has a religion section that features writers ably representing many different perspectives, including atheism. There are books promoting atheism published every month, and every year a few of these books sell well.  No church can stop this from happening.   We should never even consider agreeing to unilaterally curtailing public advocacy for atheism as a condition for joining public policy coalitions with anyone else.  We are not pushovers, it would be wrong to capitulate to such double standards and intolerance.  Yes to public policy, social activism, or humanitarian intervention coalitions with any group that shares any such goal with us.  No to curtailing public advocacy for atheism or against religious beliefs.  There is no contradiction here and we should never accept attempts by our competitors to impose one on us.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The "Subdidiarity" Conundrum

by  Edd Doerr

Pope Francis's recent critique of Reaganonomics has caused many conservative Catholics to squirm a bit. Conservative NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, who often wears his Catholic religion on his sleeve, did that on Dec 1. He brought up the church's "social teaching"  on something called "subsidiarity", which means governments should allow action on social justice issues to be handled on as local a level as possible, preferably by private organizations. That's a nice abstraction, but in the real world some problems are best handled on a national level and by government, like health care reform, though the experience of implementing the ACA (Obamacare) law allows some constructive state by state expeimentation, which has been successful in states like CA, KY, WA and CT.

But I have yet to hear Catholic conservatives criticize  the public school privatization movement that has transferred much local control of public schools to interstate chains of charter schools that have generally done a worse job of  educating that locally controlled regular public schools.

The church is silent about applying the "subsidiarity" principle to religion, which it prefers to concentrate in the hands of an unelected patriarchalist bureaucracy in Rome or a nation's capital, as regards, for example, the US bishops dictating to Catholic hospitals what they may or may not do with women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies.  We will have to see what Francis is going to do about that, if anything.

And why not apply the principle of "subsidiarity" to women so that they can, at the most local level possible, make their own individual decisions about reproduction and health without meddling by politicians or clerics.

Douthat adds nothing but confusion by writing that "the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods [?] -- by lowering birthrates [What? Overpopulation not a problem for everyone?] discouraging private charity [Huh?] and restricting the church's freedom to minister [?] in subtle but increasingly consequential ways." Wow, this guy trips over his own tongue a half a dozen times in one sentence.