Friday, April 30, 2010

From atheist to deist is not far

Antony Flew, lifelong atheist philosopher has died at the age of 87.  Much has been made of his admission, in his 80's, that an intelligent supernatural creator could exist.  But this was not the full conversion some have crowed over.  Flew did not become a Christian, he became a probable deist:
But believers waiting to welcome this most prodigal of sons back into the fold were to be disappointed. Flew's conversion did not embrace such concepts as Heaven, good and evil or the afterlife – let alone divine intervention in human affairs. His God was strictly minimalist – very different from "the monstrous oriental despots of the religions of Christianity and Islam", as he liked to call them. God may have called his creation into existence, then, but why did he bother? To that question, it seemed, Flew had no answer.
Like Einstein, another supposed believer, Flew leaned toward the idea that a higher power could have originated the universe.  But he saw no evidence of day-to-day interference, nor did he see any truth in revelation.  This is the higher power as divine clockmaker, and far from being a rejection of humanism or atheism, this is a compatible position.   A rationalist cannot prove a negative, such as that no supernatural powers ever existed.  And a rationalist can also see that prayer has no external effects, verifiable miracles are non-existent, and the holy scriptures are myths written by people.  So even if there were somewhere, somewhen, some kind of supernatural intelligence, that knowledge does us little good.  Look instead to the laws and arguments of nature and mankind for direction in your life.

And that inverted bowl we call the sky,
Whereunder crawling cooped we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to it for help, for it
Rolls impotently on as thou or I.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

In the year 312, the story goes, Constantine looked into the midday sun and saw a cross in the sky, with the words "By this sign, conquer".  His army placed the cross onto their armor and won the Battle of Milvius Bridge against Maxentius, thereby winning the Roman civil war and making himself emperor.   He and the empire became Christian and the cross moved to the forefront of Christian symbols, although the magic did not last.  In 410 pagan Visigoths defeated Rome and pillaged the city.  But the cross has endured.  At least, until now.
The US Supreme Court has overruled a lower court decision to order the removal of a cross in the Mojave Desert, which is a public park.  The cross was apparently meant as a memorial for World War One but is simply two crossed pipes on a hilltop.  The majority decision used the reasoning that the cross is universal, not Christian:
A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, notable contributions and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this nation and its people
Here in San Diego we have the cross on Mount Soledad.  A cross (there was a series of them) has stood near the summit for decades, usually known as the Mount Soledad Easter Cross since large services were held there on Easter.  Due to controversy, in the 1990's the site became a Korean War memorial, and the city sold the land to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.  But the legal wrangling has continued as the conversion to a war memorial and the sale have come under scrutiny.  A 2008 judgement struck a note similar to the more recent ruling:
“The memorial is not designed for worship services, and there is no evidence the cross, which is surrounded by a tall fence and not approachable by visitors, is — or is intended to be — the object of religious devotion,” Judge Burns wrote, adding, “The primary effect of the Mount Soledad memorial is patriotic and nationalistic.”
 So,  is the cross now like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, not really religious?  (Hint: no.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jesus revealing the constitution

An amusing painting going around showing the origin of the constitution, as handed down from Jesus.  If modern democracy is in the teachings of Jesus, why did it take so long to emerge?  A humanist would argue the US constitution is a product of the enlightenment, when people were finally able to think beyond religion. 

It's still an interesting picture.  Check out the details.  Note that some of the founders depicted (especially Thomas Jefferson) were Deists, not Christians.  Another highlight is the college professor standing next to Satan near the right corner, holding Darwin's Origin of the Species.  The annotation informs us that the professor is smug and closed-minded in his beliefs.  Painter, paint thyself.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A tiny step toward an army not driven by religion

For the past several years the US military has been sporadically trying to move away from its compulsively Christian atmosphere.  Recently the Pentagon had been planning a National Day of Prayer ceremony, and then backed out:
The Pentagon's decision to disinvite not only Graham, but also the National Day of Prayer task force led by author Shirley Dobson, the wife of influential Focus on the Family founder Dr. James C. Dobson, suggests the Pentagon's rejection of Christian leaders is much broader than previously recognized.
 The comments that Franklin Graham made saying that Islam as practiced is evil were probably the deciding factor, considering that the military is now trying to establish order in two overwhelmingly Islamic countries.  Reflecting the Muslims that he sees as closed-minded and superstitious, Graham states
"This political correctness that has crept in, that if we stand for what we believe in, all the sudden we are not tolerant. They almost make it look like we are participating in hate speech, when we say that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and there's no way to God except through Christ and Christ alone. They are interpreting that now as being hostile and hate speech."[italics added]

Monday, April 26, 2010

Giving religion a bad name (or maybe the correct name)

The Westboro Baptist Church, the ones who picket funerals with signs decrying the downfall of the USA for not incinerating gays, is a frequency target of religious arguments:
Do these people that stand outside the funerals of fallen soldiers, with family members of the lost soldiers looking on in horror, weeping for their loss, really think this is what God wants them to do? How is this squared up with other teachings in the Bible? How about Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Or Corinthians 13:13: “Three things will last forever — faith, hope and love — and the greatest of these is love.”
Supposedly they give Christianity a bad name.  But who is to say they are wrong?  There is no measurement to take and no observation to record that will show their religion is not right and yours is.  Some would give Biblical arguments, but is there any judge or governing body that can overrule the all-mighty?  Others may offer non-religious arguments against them based on morality, sociology, biology, etc.  But this is divine revelation.  Higher powers give the truth and we receive it, end of story.
Of course, there is the possibility that all divine revelation is suspect and we should look to non-religious principles and arguments to guide our lives.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Not in on the joke

Glenn Beck's shtick, what sets him apart from all the other wannabe commentators, is that he's nuts.  When watching his show you never know when he's going to reference a truly fringe idea, give a rousing speech, or burst into tears.  That's what makes him entertaining and gets the viewership up.  Unfortunately, some viewers don't understand this point and expect to extract real knowledge and understanding from his show.

Book recommend: Idiot America

A group member has this to say about this book

I took this book with me to Northern California on my recent trip up there, and just finished it as my plane was landing back in San Diego yesterday. I enjoyed it, and it has a number of stories that illustrate how wacky most of the American public has become, and what servile panderers so many of our politicians are nowadays.
Pierce's retelling of James Madison's insights into democratic government is worth the read in and of itself. The chapters on the story of the recent "second Skopes trial" in Dover, Pennsylvania, the death of Terri  Shiavo, the self-deception of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the War in Iraq were particularly engrossing. The sham science put forth to confuse the issue of global warming was too.
After a while, though, the "crank motif" got a bit tedious, I thought, and the chapters on Ignatius Donnelly's search for Atlantis and WLAC's popularization of black rythm and blues were far from riveting. But overall, Idiot America was a profitable read.
One nugget that shouldn't be overlooked: Pierce's "Notes on Sources" at book's end lists the titles of books he used as source material, a list we might consider mining for titles for future book club selections.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Heaven don't help us! (We'll help ourselves)

An interesting piece about the concept of heaven (really a review of this book, which the writer finds lacking), with two main thrusts.  First, like all imaginary places, heaven is a reflection of the society that creates it:
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I'll show you what's lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Koran lived in thirst – so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where "the first would be last, and the last would be first" – so they would be the free men dominating white slaves.
 And secondly, when religion organizations took charge of heaven, they gained control of the people:
Even some atheists regard heaven as one of the least-harmful religious ideas: a soothing blanket to press onto the brow of the bereaved. But its primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St Peter's VIP list – and only those who obeyed their every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get them and their children onto it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannising people in this life. This use of heaven as a bludgeon long outlasted the Protestant Reformation.
An SDShout group member responds to the idea of heaven as a tool of control and succinctly expresses the humanist approach:
So true!  My parents and other relatives waste so much time fretting about entering a place that exists only in the imagination--a place invented by humans.  I am dismayed at how frightened and obedient they have become as they have gotten more and more religious.  I reject that nonsense, of course.  I'm a happy and fulfilled person, and I don't worry about the notion of heaven one bit!  Moreover, in accordance with what the author writes in the last paragraph, I prefer to live my life to the fullest here and now because THIS life, the life we have on earth, is the only life we have!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When the preacher loses faith

An inevitability when dealing with forces that are invisible, intangible and have no measurable influence on the world is that belief will frequently wane.  Examining why something breaks down is often a good way to find out how it worked in the first place.  Philosophy professor and atheist writer Daniel Dennett has used this motivation to examine disbelief in people that had such strong faith they decided to devote their entire lives to it.  What bit of evidence, or lack of evidence, finally got through?  The data set is small, only five subjects so far, but still yields some interesting information about their lives, what caused them to lose faith, and what the results are to them.  Most carry on as before, but hide their true feelings:

IDEAS: In the conclusion to the study, you compare the dilemma of the nonbelieving clergy member to that of a closeted gay person.
DENNETT: It’s striking, though they don’t have any “gaydar.” They suspect that lots of their friends and fellow clergy have exactly the same beliefs they have, but they don’t know how to test that. It’s dangerous, and the ploys that they fall back on are just exactly the same stuff: “I have an uncle who...,” “One of my parishioners says....” They need to maintain credible deniability and so they’re very careful about that.
Full Text

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't follow the rules I declare ==> disasters

An Iranian imam (Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaqt) has recently pronounced that women with immodest dress and behavior cause earthquakes.  But before we feel too superior, let's remember our own Pat Robertson:

[on a gay pride parade] I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you ... a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation.  It'll bring terrorist bombs;  it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.
Apparently these preachers are declaring themselves to be prophets, and are receiving word directly from higher powers.  Or maybe all that time being treated like they're wise and full of truth (when they really have no special knowledge) eventually leads to a real disconnect with reality.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Religious taboos and South Park

A recent episode of the Comedy Central cartoon South Park had an appearance of Mohammed, although dressed in a bear suit for modesty.  Here come the threats:
The posting on says: “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”
In the South Park world this depiction is not particularly offensive, but Muslim culture prohibits all depictions, even complimentary ones.  The question:  do Islamic taboos apply to non-Muslims?  And the auxiliary question:  why does insulting most religions lead to (usually weak) letter-writing campaigns, sponsor boycotts, etc., but an infraction against Islam can lead to threats and violence?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Religious compulsion by the state of California and those 12-step programs

Twelve step programs for addiction ("X-Anonymous") have a storied place in American culture, although their efficacy is dubious (here's an entertaining guide to the criticisms). 

A Northern California parole agent told a parolee that he must attend a religiously-based 12-step program and participate, although the former prisoner stated a preference for a non-religious program.  With no choice, the parolee did attend the assigned meetings, but did not participate fully, and so the parole officer had him arrested and re-imprisoned.  He then sued the state with a result that was clear from the start:
"This is a textbook test of religious freedom," said legal scholar and Princeton University Provost Christopher Eisgruber. "It couldn't be much plainer."

Friday, April 16, 2010

US Supreme Court and the place of religious societies at secular institutions

The supreme court is now considering Christian Legal Society vs Martinez which involves important aspects of religion in society.  And it's not an easy case to evaluate.  At issue is a pledge that the Christian Legal Society at the Hastings College of Law in San Fransisco requires all members to sign.  That pledge espouses what are commonly accepted now as Christian values (although these eternal truths seem to change with society), including a ban on "all acts of sexual conduct outside of God's design for marriage between one man and one woman."  The college, in the body of the Dean, Leo Martinez, banned the organization based on this requirement.

So does the group have the legal right to associate as they see fit?  The example they give is that the university won't force a black student group to accept a KKK member.  Altough the university sees it the other way:  they would demand that a white supremicist group accept black members.  Of course, there probably isn't a white supremecist group at Hastings, but considering the college's location, the Christian pledge does not seem far removed from that type of ideology.

Full Text

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The hot topic in the secular world

Hold the Pope responsible for his personal actions in stopping abuse investigations and covering-up wrongdoing?  It flies in the face of his infalibility, but it's the discussion going around.  Here's Richard Dawkins making his case:

Why is anyone surprised, much less shocked, when Christopher Hitchens and I call for the prosecution of the pope, if he goes ahead with his proposed visit to Britain? The only strange thing about our proposal is that it had to come from us: where have the world's governments been all this time? Where is their moral fibre? Where is their commitment to treating everyone equally under the law? The UK government, far from standing up for justice for the innocent victims of the Roman Catholic church, is preparing to welcome this grotesquely tainted man on an official visit to the UK so that he can "dispense moral guidance". Read that again: dispense moral guidance!

Full text

Believers go biblical on Coalition of Reason billboard

A billboard similar to the one that spent a month off of the I-8 near SDSU has suffered major damage:

"We can't say for sure, but it looks like somebody with a truck could have pulled at the billboard structure from behind in an effort to bring it down," said Stephen Peek, coordinator of the Northeast Florida Coalition of Reason, the sponsor of the billboard, in a news release Tuesday. "Then again, perhaps some heavy object flying off a passing train could have struck it in front, although we don't see any such object nearby and the billboard vinyl isn't torn."
Apparently the all-mighty needs some help standing up to disbelievers.

Full text and thanks to Wilfredo for the tip.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New pejorative: the "S" word?

Obama critics are now slipping "secular" into the list of evils:

In his remarks here before the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called President Obama's White House "the most radical administration in America's history," as well as a "secular socialist machine."
Full text

What makes Obama's policies secular? Nothing really, it's just a codeword to rile up the faithful.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Faith goes to the movies but can't see past itself

"Clash of the Titans" involves obviously made-up supernatural beings and powers in order to tell a story. How would religious believers take this? A chance to look at a religion as an outsider, an opportunity to see parallels in the stories and beliefs, and a call to understand your own religion as ancient tales of thrills and might?
No. Once the story establishes that there are gods, the characters are obligated to obey:

For example, "Titans" builds itself on the premise that the gods actually need human prayers, that they feed on faith, from which they get their powers, prompting humankind to cry out, "The Gods need us, need our worship. But what do we need of them?"

Thus begins the humanism, as the people rebel against the "tyranny" of the gods declaring, "A new era has begun, the era of man. … We are the gods now."

Full text

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scholar Says Religion And Science Can Co-Exist

From a professor and former priest at UC Irvine:

I don't think that every scientific research contradicts earliest beliefs, so long as those religious beliefs lead to religious truths. And science has nothing to tell me about the purpose of life or the meaning of the word or, as I said, our relationship with a creator and to each other of identical values. This is the same science, but there's no reason why scientific knowledge should challenge religious faith, no. There are a few scientists, it's more minority, who articulate the different position, but that's not based on their sciences, it's based on a philosophical materialism.

Yes, science does not answer the question of how to live your life, or why. But neither does religion. The answers that religion does provide are pulled out of thin air and frequently contradictory (both between religions and within the same religion.)

Full text

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Prayer for Peace after the San Diego Earthquake

On the Easter earthquake:

God, we pray for all those who experienced fear and panic this morning as a result of the California and Mexico earthquakes. We thank you that it was not worse than it was. But we also ask that you comfort those who felt a spike of panic as a result. Recover their emotions. Guard them now against further fear. Bring peace where there was trauma. In Jesus...
Full Text

At least this prayer makes no pretension to ask supernatural powers not to create earthquakes. But it does assume that sitting in a room somewhere speaking into the air makes some sort of difference to anyone not in that room.

Welcome to the San Diego Secular Humanist Outreach Discussion Space

This is a place for San Diegans, and anyone else with an interest, to discuss secularism. We'll periodically post news headlines, excerpts, and anything else of interest. Feel free to chime in with your own opinion.