Sunday, September 30, 2012

I am a 9/11 liberal

Last week, comedian (and atheist) Bill Maher had Salman Rushdie on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and defined a term: "9/11 liberal." He noted that he is one, that Rushdie is one, that Sam Harris is one, that Christopher Hitchens (who he calls "Chris"--like nails on a chalkboard, that) is one. I am one also. See the video here.

Maher's definition goes like this: "These are people--we are liberals, and we are liberals on almost every issue, but not the Muslim issue."

He goes on to elaborate
"Let's define where we are different than the mainstream liberals because I have routinely gotten booed here on the show sometimes, on my stand-up act, when I say, and liberals hate to hear this, that all religions are not a like. When you say that, they think that you're a bigot and we're not a bigot.  ... You [Rushdie] wrote an essay, I think it was an op-ed in the New York Times soon after 9/11; you said and I think it was entitled 'Yes, This Is About Islam' because that's the mantra, is that it's not about one religion. And I think that what us 9/11 liberals say is, yes it is about this one religion because it is different. There is no other religion that is asking for the death of people, and Sam Harris say it this week, he said that 'We are free to burn the Koran or any other book. We are free to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. But without apology....'" 
I've had this discussion three or four times this week, especially given the whole focus on blasphemy that we're forced to endure again. Essentially, there are at least six major aspects to the topic of what we might call the problem with 'politicized Islam,' to borrow from Rushdie on the show, all but one of which come up on Maher's Real Time episode.
  1. Not all Muslims act like this--liberals in general are quick to point this out and stick tightly to the argument that it is unfair to judge the religion as a monolith;
  2. We're fed a narrative that all Muslims act like this--liberal conspiracy theory in action (this is the one not covered on the show);
  3. Islam is actually a different religion than the others, despite the barbarity in essentially all ancient scriptures--again, liberals like to compare the Old Testament, which nearly no one takes seriously, to the brutality in the Qur'an, which many Muslims do take seriously (a nontrivial difference);
  4. Islam simultaneously is and is not the problem at hand; 
  5. This isn't about Islam versus the West, however many things make it look that way;
  6. This problem is hard to fix and a solution is at the center of what is needed.
I'll happily concede (1) on this list. Absolutely and happily, what is certainly a vast majority of Muslims do not blow up embassies or kill people or engage in riots just because someone creates a slight against Islam or something related to that religion. We must recognize (3) here, though--Maher says without contention from anyone on his show that something like half of Muslims are okay with the idea of beheading someone who insults the religion, even if they, themselves, wouldn't do it. Is that the right number? If it's only 15% instead, does that make it okay? Even if (2) is merely a crackpot conspiracy theory--FOX "News" and other conservative media sources notwithstanding--it's almost impossible to tell what percentage of Muslims are extreme in this "not in the streets, but still, holy shit!" way.

Point (3) has another imporant aspect to it--the tu quoque aspect where liberals love to raise the argument that Christianity (and Judaism) have their share of brutality in their scriptures, in their histories, and even in practices that happen now in the world, particularly in Africa. This is troubling, and it's immaterial. Badly behaving Christians does not make an excuse for badly behaving Muslims--or anyone else.

Now, more on (3), Islam really is different. As Maher noted, a fair proportion of Muslim "moderates," in that they aren't storming embassies or violently rioting, are perfectly alright with violence perpetrated against those who insult the Prophet, or Islam in general. Here, we haven't even talked about the vast human rights violations that exist throughout all of the conservative Muslim world and much of the rest of the Islamic population of the world (though, to be fair, not all of it). Rushdie comments that Islam has changed in the last half a century, but again, this doesn't excuse it, even if it allows him to put his thumb on the correct problem--politicized Islamic super-conservatism.

How is Islam different? The Qur'an is more brutal than even the Old Testament, and it is far more explicit about who should receive that brutality. The coherence and adherence in Islam are far higher than we see in other religions as well. Then there's the willingness to turn to violence in defense of perceived slights against their religion--which strongly exacerbates the problem Rushdie points to since it makes many Muslims easy to motivate to extremism with just the right kinds of provacation. Hence we get stories like this in the same week: "Protesters torch Buddhist temples, homes in Bangladesh" over a perceived slight to Islam, as reported here by MSNBC. Islam, like Christianity, also has a core element of religious conquest of the world. While essentially all that remains of Christianizing the world now are (way too common) mission trips, Islam is still far more bent on making everyone Muslim. The Qur'an calls for everyone to be Muslim or to be subdued, to be clear, while the Christian Bible only calls for the Gospels to be preached in every nation (to hasten the end of the world, though, which is a pretty screwed up motivation, admittedly). Again, though, we see how easily the tu quoque trap of pointing also at Christianity arises. Badly behaving Christians do not bear upon badly behaving Muslims--and besides, most infidels are quick and happy to point out that both are badly behaving religious people, citing religion as the problem.

That brings me to (4)--Islam is and is not the problem. Of course, the mathematician in me also rejects this rhetorical game, given that the statement doesn't make sense in a strict logical way, but bear with me. Islam is not the problem here. Rushdie is absolutely correct about this: politicized Islamic extremism is the problem putting the violence in the streets and in embassies (though conservative Islam is it's own brand of trouble). By way of naming the problem correctly and seeking a solution (5 and 6), Rushdie is very perceptive here, then. These extremist Islamic leaders are whipping up Muslims into a froth and letting them do the politically useful thing--being violent, blowing things up, and generally perpetuating the political agenda of Islam against the world.

On the other hand, Maher nails it, though he's railroaded a little in the video clip, by saying that what allows this to happen is that people believe the tenets of Islam in the first place. Islam, as elaborated upon above, is a religion that advocates absolute brutality for minor offenses, including victimless ones and a religion that demands very strict adherence. Rushdie agrees with him--if people didn't believe these things, this problem would not exist--but this is where he railroads Maher by pointing out that people do believe this stuff. Thus, as much as I want to take the easy solution and say "if people just didn't believe their religions, all would be well," I'm forced to conclude that reaching them and getting them to give up their religious identities would be almost impossible. So, while Maher nails the problem--Islam is the problem--Rushdie keeps the focus on dealing with the reality--Islam is not the problem. Rushdie does not drop his identification as a 9/11 liberal to do this.

So, what do we do about the problem, which we can clearly identify as being the politicization of extreme Islam, fueled by the strength and cohesion of Islamic religious beliefs? It's hard to say. Rushdie comments that we have got to appeal to these Islamic leaders to stop skewing facts and whipping their populations into froths. Really, though, if it is so politically useful to them to do so, getting them to change on that front will be difficult. Rana Foroohar, assistant managing editor for TIME Magazine, also on this episode of Real Time, thinks that the people need to be reached, not the leaders, and she is perhaps correct. If they are going to be reached with something, it may be best to say that all this violence is coming because of your leaders' abilities to exploit your religious beliefs against you and the world. Even if this isn't as hard-line as what Maher (or I) would want--that Islam religious belief, is the problem, so stop believing it--it may hit home and leave open the kinds of nagging doubts in many that maybe, just maybe, their religious beliefs actually are the problem at hand.

What do you think?

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A word about blasphemy

Apparently I have to write about blasphemy.

This actually irritates me to no end. Indeed, in God Doesn't; We Do, I only give the topic a cursory mention, mostly focusing on the utterly ridiculous claim in Mark 3:29 that the only unforgivable sin (if those words reported to Jesus are valid) is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. From the eighth chapter, for instance, I write
As a pointed aside, it seems odd that this, of all possible sins, is the least forgivable in the universe, particularly when blasphemy is an entirely made-up crime that has no discernible victim. Crimes like genocide and the rape, enslavement, torture, exploitation, and murder of innocents, particularly children, would seem, in all respects, less easy to forgive, but perhaps it is because examples of those crimes occur frequently in the Old Testament that they are surpassed here. To weigh by the punishment and seriousness of it, according to Jesus the worst possible crime is to speak ill of the Holy Spirit, which, if it even meaningfully exists, surely can sustain no injury. Belief in the perfectly just God of the One True Faiths alongside an acceptance of Mark 3:29, however, absolutely requires its adherents to accept the ridiculous notion that speaking impiously against the Holy Spirit, the least corporeal aspect of an invincible Godhead—that is sometimes defined expressly as a lack of want—deals it an amount of suffering that can never be forgiven for any reason or accounted for by any measure, including eternal torture. We have to wonder, then, what kind of calibration exists behind the moral framework that we find in scriptural and doctrinal Christianity. Alternatively, we can agree to reject Mark 3:29, but then why blindly accept so many other of Jesus' purported teachings?
Later in the same chapter when I spend a little time talking specifically about immoral made-up crimes without discernible victims, I mention blasphemy again, this time in a subsection dedicated directly to talking about the immorality of these religious trappings. I say
There is, additionally, a wealth of imaginary crimes that every believer must wage war with himself to avoid committing. I will only mention four of them here, ignoring ridiculous ideas like witchcraft, the “crime” of being a woman or in league with a woman that the clergy or one of their lackeys has a problem with. First, there is heresy, the “crime” of disagreeing with the views of the faith, which earns the guilty a ticket to hell. Second, there is blasphemy, the “crime” of speaking out against the idea of God, which also earns a ticket to hell, which might be non-refundable and one-way to believe Mark 3:29. Third, there is being an infidel, the “crime” of rejecting the belief system of the faith. Fourth, there is sin, the “crime” of defying the laws of the faith. Together, these four “crimes” can be seen for what they obviously are: a structure designed to keep people in the system, or in other words, a prison.
Apparently erroneously, in the next paragraph I note that for thinking, rational people, only the "crime" of sin deserves more attention--the others being clearly ridiculous to the point of not needing much comment. The world is showing me otherwise, though.

Ever since the recent explosion in the Middle East, probably partially due to planned terrorism and partly due to the release of an offensive-to-Muhammad film, anti-blasphemy has been all the rage. Of course, this isn't new. Anti-blasphemy laws exist in many countries and are a general poison creeping upon the West due to hyperliberal multiculturalist ideas that are afraid to insult anyone or anything. This, of course, is a heavy encroachment upon what has to be one of the most cherished freedoms of the post-Enlightenment world: the freedom of speech. In that sense, while blasphemy really, truly, and literally is a victimless crime, anti-blasphemy is a crime against humanity.

To date, I still think that Sam Harris has written the best piece on the matter, a blog post that he titled "On The Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God." That post, you may remember, caused me to write a rather sheepish, if honest, post about my own book here on my blog a couple of weeks ago, perhaps my most popular post yet. Harris poignantly writes
The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance. 
Frida Ghitis, writing an opinion piece for CNN today, nailed the issue with the title to her piece: "A war is raging against free speech." Yes. It is. And it is unacceptable. She writes
In the view of some Arab and Muslim leaders, the time has come to draft new international rules limiting free expression for the sake of preventing insults to religions. The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called for "criminaliz(ing) acts that insult or cause offense to religions."
This move to impose anti-blasphemy laws should come as a call to action for democracy advocates everywhere: Freedom of speech, a most fundamental of human rights, a cornerstone of democracy, has come under international attack.
Ghitis also points out clearly that President Obama, representing the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, took a tough stand against these anti-blasphemy campaigns, which she rightly calls "heartening." She goes on to absolutely nail how the Islamic world should be handling this problem, instead of crying to governing bodies to extend their repressive anti-free-speech agendas. Her, again
The right response to stupidity, prejudice and hatred is shining a light on the truth. That has a way of highlighting the stupidity of the bigots. It may not end all dumb and offensive films, but it will ensure that the people who espouse offensive ideas remain a despised, marginalized and powerless minority.
Blasphemy, as a concept, is designed specifically to silence opposition to ideas, particularly those at the cores of ideologies. Again, as I sit here, now wanting to decry it more heavily than I did in my book, I literally can't find words to do so. It's just so obviously in opposition to essentially everything that has moved the world forward out of the Dark Ages. No idea should be free from scrutiny, and if it deserves it criticism--or even ridicule. Sam Harris nails it absolutely in his piece when he notes that the content of the offensive film doesn't even matter. People should be absolutely free to produce whatever kind of content they would like to, and though we might hope they have better sense than to be overtly and intentionally offensive at times, they should never, never face death threats, bounties on them, fatwas, or the guilt associated with being at the foundation of murderous riots--some that erupt from intentionally offensive films and others that erupt merely from depictions of the Prophet of Islam, which are seen as being at the height of offensiveness to a significant proportion of roughly a sixth of the world's population because of, and only because of, religious views that they feel should be exempted from scrutiny, commentary, or insult.

Heartening, in addition to President Obama's words at the United Nations, are movements like the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (which was on May 20, 2010), a theme that more and more artists seem to be rallying around. The claim here is that the angry faction of Muslims responsible for the violence and outrage over perceived blasphemy simply cannot threaten everyone. They can, however, hold violent riots and maybe even start wars, which is perhaps the most ridiculous serious thing I've ever written.

Should we be afraid, though? We cannot. We absolutely cannot. Even if there are no anti-blasphemy laws that formally restrict the right to free speech, if we are all too afraid of the bad reactions of bullies who have been insulted, we may as well have them. There should be laws related to blasphemy, then, and there are in would-be free societies like ours in the United States--those laws should prohibit senseless violence regardless of cause. Unfortunately, if we're all too afraid to do something, to say something, against the bullies who want to push their ideologies forward, then Sam Harris is right--"[the freedom of speech] has already been lost." He is right, as of now, too. His point about the impossibility of publishing a musical, maybe Prophet Muhammad, Superstar, is a sad, sobering fact for us right now. We've got to work to change this, and Muslims hold much of that responsibility.

Perhaps the very best commentary to make about blasphemy, except that it is a made-up victimless crime that insults an imaginary God, is captured by the tagline of brilliant YouTuber TheraminTrees: "People who don't want you to think are never your friends."

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bad metaphors maintain the God delusion

In God Doesn't; We Do, I make the case that God is a bad metaphor, a fact I mentioned when I wrote about the Higgs boson, a.k.a. "God particle," a few weeks ago. There, I mentioned that it would almost be a fun short book to write titled Bad Metaphors Called God, an idea I still entertain from time to time. After thinking about it some today, it seems rather apparent that the entire God delusion, as Richard Dawkins eloquently dubbed it, is massively supported--even relies upon--this bad-metaphor nature of the term "God."

The fourth chapter of God Doesn't; We Do, titled "Defining God," really aims to hone in on the central issue behind the bad-metaphor phenomenon. Have you ever heard a good definition for God? I haven't, and I've looked. Further, if you ask ten people to give you a functional definition of God, how many identical definitions do you think you'd get? Surely if you asked close friends in a single church community, you might get seven or eight pretty similar answers, but if you ask across various faiths, or even just across people of different levels of education or in different sociopolitical situations, my expectation is that you wouldn't get more than two or three similar definitions, none the same.

Of course, this is what causes there to be so many religions and so many denominations within religions (Christianity should have topped 40,000 distinct denominations sometime this year!). This is also what causes us to have so many variations on ideas about God, varying from the wonder of nature itself to wistful ideas of a higher power or invisible arbiter all the way to a very specific man living on a very specific planet called Kolob. "Defining God" in God Doesn't is all about elaborating on this enormous variation and clarifying what belief structures correspond to which definition of God.

As it turns out, and as is actually obvious, it is just about impossible to have a meaningful discussion of a topic without having a clear definition of it. There is no clear definition available for God, and, indeed, the more clear the definition of God, the more easily that God can be dismissed (take Zeus for instance, quite clearly defined and easily dismissed, rather like Yahweh). As should be equally obvious, religious believers, whatever they pretend, do not actually want to have a clear discussion about God. This is because the God delusion literally rests upon a lack of clarity that allows billions of people to talk about different concepts under the same name, adding a false perception of unity of belief.

In the case of Christianity, for example, there are over 40,000 denominations. That's at least 40,000 different functional definitions of God through scripture, doctrine, dogma, exegesis, and ideology. When all of these groups identify themselves as Christian, they add a lot of weight to Christianity as an entity, even if their belief structures can be as completely different as extreme left-wing social liberals, heavily populated in the United States by the "Christian Left," and extreme right-wing social conservatives, heavily populated in the U.S. by the "Religious Right." Not surprisingly, of course, these two groups see (read: define) both God and the central figure of Christianity, Jesus, completely differently--and yet both identify with the same terms, God, Jesus, Christianity, rendering those bad terms if the goal of communication can be considered primarily to convey ideas clearly.

The reason I say that this problem is a case of a bad metaphor instead of an issue with terminology is because just as the term "God" doesn't have a clear definition, it is a term that is used to represent many different concepts. For instance, while meditating, some people have a profound experience of "oneness" with everything (which can actually be identified now with experiencing the world via the right hemisphere of the brain with the left hemisphere less active, per the finding of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor). Some of these people (perhaps including Augustine) identify this experience with "God." Certainly, Eastern mystics haven't missed that opportunity when dealing with Westerners, and New Agers here in the West haven't failed to make the same identification on their own. Are those people, though, talking about the same "God" as, let's say, the Westboro Baptist Church, that being the "God" who "hates fags"? Are they talking about the same "God" as Allah to Muslim extremists? To Muslim moderates? Is it the same "God" as the super-orthodox Jews see as likely to be severely displeased (to what end?) if someone eats a bacon cheeseburger or if a woman wears a spaghetti-strap top on a hot summer's day?

The answer to all of those questions has to be given as "yes and no." To say "no" is offensive, particularly to a strict monotheist who sees God as a monolithic concept, however many definitions He must satisfy--even if some of those are neurological experiences brought on by drugs like entheogens. To say "yes" is also offensive, at least to strict monotheists who know they worship and angry and jealous God, like the God partially defined by the Bible and the Qur'an. This prevarication is required, and however much controversy and argumentation it causes, it is actually preferred to nailing down a real definition. Of course, each faith is perfectly at the ready to attack each other faith's definition as a "false god" at precisely the moment it becomes threatening to the belief at hand.

Consider, though, the effect that this phenomenon has. A very large number of people, indeed a significant proportion of the population in highly religious nations like the United States, all go around talking about their ideas about "God." There is a huge variety in what is meant by this term, but to a listener's ears, there is none. If for me, in fact, God means the sense of beauty that I get when I see something like the shimmer of moon off the surface of a rippling lake, when I say, "God makes me feel so good about life," an evangelical Christian is going to hear something entirely different from the idea I was actually conveying. The same is true in reverse. In each case, for whatever social cohesion it offers the two of us, the price we pay is that our attachment to our own particular metaphor, each called "God," can be strengthened. This supports the God delusion.

On the other hand, consider what would happen if each disparate "God" was carefully defined and was given a unique name. When I talk about Natural Beauty giving me a good feeling about life, my evangelical friend may or may not agree with me, but he is not going to think I am talking about his Baby Jesus. The same is true in reverse. Indeed, if my God-as-Beauty metaphor happens to coincide with a certain revulsion to Christian dogmas, the results would be quite a bit different. In any case, in this situation the God delusion gains no support. Furthermore, because of the intense reactions people tend to have about their religious beliefs, the kinds of discussions that either result in partitioning groups of people or that chip away at religious beliefs in general are likely to result from this accuracy in terminology. This is why I expect that the God delusion not only benefits from but depends upon bad metaphors called God.

As infidels, one of the best ways we can deal with this situation is both incredibly simple and incredibly benign. When someone mentions God to us, all we have to do is genuinely ask what they mean by "God." If asking them in a manner that reflects curiosity about their meaning, which invites them to talk about their beliefs candidly, it tends to be nonthreatening to theists to do so. While this is unlikely to get them to change their minds about their beliefs, particularly in the short term, it plants a valuable seed that they will have to wrestle with--the question of how God really is defined and the reality that not everyone agrees upon a definition. Once questions like that start, they tend to head in a good direction.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why I think Richard Dawkins should read God Doesn't; We Do

People believe crazy things.
  • Christians believe that God took the form of a man, lived, taught, died, came back to life, and ascended to an invisible kingdom called heaven all to pay off the debt of wrongdoing, called sin, committed by all people who will believe this story.
  • Jews believe that if a plate has ever had a dairy product on it and then later has a meat product on it that God will be angry and possibly bring calamity on them because of an injunction against boiling "a kid in its mother's milk" in a four-thousand-year-old book.
  • Muslims believe that a man named Muhammad became the last prophet of God and finished his life by mounting a flying horse that few him to an invisible paradise.
  • Mormons believe Joseph Smith--who lived in the nineteenth century--was a prophet instead of a known con-artist, among a few other bizarre things.
  • Catholics believe that if a sufficiently important person says the right words in a sufficiently serious way while talking over a piece of amazingly boring carbohydrates that it will "transubstantiate" (a made up word replacing "transform" because that word is obviously wrong) into the flesh of a dead-but-raised Jewish teacher from the first century (and that the same is possible of wine, changing into his blood)--and that the purpose of this is to consume that flesh and blood in order to obtain everlasting life.
  • Scientologists believe ... never mind, we don't need to go there.
And I believe that Richard Dawkins should read the fifth chapter of my book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. People believe crazy things.

I want to assert that my belief is less crazy, though. First, Richard Dawkins exists, as does my book. Second, I agree with Richard Dawkins, so I'm not a loony that's trying to argue with him based upon bad arguments, wish thinking, or an inner feeling to know things I can't. Third, he's had some trouble earlier this year that, incidentally (as in not intentionally), the fifth chapter of my book could probably help him out with.

What kind of trouble has this icon of freethought faced? Well...

"Richard Dawkins: I can't be sure God does not exist" The Telegraph, 24 Feb. 2012.
"Video: Ricahrd Dawkins: "I'm '6.9 out 7' sure God does not exist" The Telegraph, 24 Feb. 2012. [N.B.: the blurb above the video here reads "the word's most famous atheist admits that he cannot be certain that God does not exist."]
"'Outspoken atheist' Richard Dawkins admits he's agnostic" The Week, 24 Feb. 2012.

And then there are the outright religious pages that took this and ran. I remember there being a pretty painful two months or so from late February through maybe the start of May when it seemed that almost every day I ran into something about this being repeated, recapitulated, or taken outright out of context.

Of course, this isn't real trouble--it's more of the same chicanery that drives all outspoken freethinkers nuts. It is rampant opportunism at its finest. Richard Dawkins plays the academic integrity card, and those who believe they can be one hundred percent sure of their notions about an unknowable God step up to the plate and tear at the chance to get the scrap they don't even realize that they haven't been thrown. It's ridiculous; it's unfair; and it's infuriating. Of course, the sales-hungry reporters and editors aren't in the least bit ashamed to skew the headline to their purposes. The result is that Richard Dawkins ended up in the middle of a media shitstorm with high consequences for the strength of his message from simply saying the same thing he's been saying all along. It's disgusting.

So, while I wasn't intending to throw this boon to Dr. Dawkins when I was writing it, I became insanely aware of the value of the argument in the fifth chapter of God Doesn't; We Do to him while Hurricane Bullcrap raged around him. Instead of trying to summarize it, I'll actually present some snippets of Chapter 5 of God Doesn't; We Do, "God doesn't exist, almost surely," so it can be seen directly.
Before specifically discussing God's existence, take a moment to consider the “rock” of theism. What does this status, that non-existence claims are philosophically indefensible, actually win for an existence argument? The clear answer is “not much,” as is attested to by the same status being held by the list of fictitious beings mentioned above. Not being philosophically indefensible is perhaps the weakest possible necessary condition upon any existence claim, and so the amount of actual weight it adds to the argument for God's existence in the world is “almost” nothing—a matter that will be quantified, and thus clarified tremendously, here. The rock of theism, then, is so porous that it would float.
It continues,
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion puts forth an argument against the God hypothesis on probabilistic grounds (in a chapter called “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” which comes very near the point I am making in this chapter), one that I stress should go further. He claims that the complexity of God must be greater than the complexity of the universe that He designed, and thus that whatever the unlikeliness of the universe actually is, the unlikeliness of its designer is even higher. Thus, God is less probable than the total improbability of the universe, which is itself a strong statement. Indeed, from a mathematical point of view, how complex would a mind have to be in order to know the full infinite decimal expansions of irrational constants like pi and every other irrational number, the number of which is beyond count in every sense of the phrase? How unlikely, then, is God? While it seems unreasonable to try to assess accurate probabilities for the existence of God, it actually may not be.
There is a mathematically precise notion that we can use to say something does not exist “almost surely” (sometimes: “almost certainly”), which, if applied, would provide simultaneously that God very well could exist, and yet that the probability of His existence is actually zero, or in other words that the probability of God's existence is arbitrarily small. Effectively, then, if this claim is correct, we can argue that God doesn't exist without treading into philosophically indefensible waters. In fact, the difference between “God doesn't exist” and “God doesn't exist, almost surely,” which incurs no change to the measured probability of His existence, is the exact amount of purchase on the argument provided by the so-called rock of theism—effectively none. My claim, then, is that this position is the only reasonably defensible position on the plausibility of God's existence, given paucity of the evidence for Him in this world, a lack that amounts to what I have called the Problem of a Silent God, discussed in Chapter 7. If I am right, perhaps Richard Dawkins can revise his position on his spectrum of theistic belief from 6.9 to 6.999... (i.e. 7), almost surely, without compromising a bit of academic honesty to do so. (emphasis added)
To really grasp this piece, the concept of "almost sureness" has to be developed, which is a tricky feat since it relies upon the highly abstract notions of "measure theory," which were only defined around the turn of the twentieth century by a mathematician named Henri Lesbegue, who was as revolutionary for mathematics as Einstein was for physics, though almost no one outside of advanced mathematics has heard of him. Much of the fifth chapter of God Doesn't; We Do is dedicated to the attempt to elucidate that concept.

In very short, very loosely, and not at all accurately, saying something is "almost sure" can be defined as there "infinity-to-one" shot against it--say like the likelihood of choosing your lucky number at random out of all of the numbers. Therefore, if we say "God doesn't exist, almost surely," what we're saying is that the odds are infinitely long that God exists (in a mathematically rigorous way). In other words, "God doesn't exist, almost surely" is equivalent to saying "the probability that God exists is zero, almost surely." This is entirely philosophically defensible because it is not a categorical denial, and yet it removes the awful weakness of the statement "the likelihood that there is a God is some very small but nonzero number," which is the very kind of non-scrap that the desperate will leap upon like frenzied dogs.

So, I'd like to rest my case: people, including me, believe crazy things, but I'm not entirely off the rails in believing that Richard Dawkins should read the fifth chapter of God Doesn't; We Do. Any help in bringing this fact to his attention would be hugely appreciated.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

To follow Sam Harris--a tough act with self-indictment

Sam Harris delivered a powerhouse of an article today on his blog, "On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God," and because I feel ever so guilty after reading it, I've felt compelled to write a bit about it. No doubt, Harris is a hero of mine, and just for the contrarian in me, I almost wish I could find something substantial with which I can disagree with him. This piece didn't satisfy that wish.

One of the main themes of God Doesn't; We Do is that we, people, are responsible for all of the human drama that we experience. We do the good. We do the evil. There are no cosmic forces about it. In that theme, God doesn't justify murder and mayhem, however people might try to use the name of God to do it. This is particularly poignant given the recent violence erupting in various parts of the Middle East--notably at American embassies and consulates--and as usual, I am forced to agree with, almost in total, and thus follow Harris's incredible erudition on a facet of this problem, in particular the one related to activist Islam.

Sam Harris seems to have shifted his focus more and more intensely over the past few years toward dealing with the extreme problem that lies at the feet of Islam, which is remarkably extreme for a nontrivial proportion of its followers and terrifyingly violent for a nontrivial proportion of those. Even children hold signs saying to behead those who insult the Prophet, and Harris rightly notes that carrying such a sign "may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power." Harris's reasons are right for this shift too--in terms of consequences, Islam poses enormously more threat than do other aspects of the One True Faiths, and we can't even be certain what proportion of the Islamic community is "extremist."

Here I have to indict myself. In God Doesn't; We Do, I am by far too lenient on Islam--and Harris nails the reason for this as well. "The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril," he writes. Indeed.

I might try to justify my relative silence about Islam by pointing out that I have written from the perspective of a frustrated Southerner in the United States, inundated by Christian lunacy at almost every turn several times a day, every day (and thus the weight of the question from the perspective of my culture). I could also try to explain it by staying that I wanted to stay in my strengths or that I felt the need to wrestle with my loosely Christian upbringing. I might also claim that the differences between the religions are less important than their similarities, as I do in the book, following the admirable lead of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. I might mention that I had other priorities, particularly the development of the mathematical arguments I feel are strongest. I might lie and say that I feel authors like Harris, Ibn Warraq, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have done enough with the topic already (although evidence clearly indicates that this fight is not over). While all of those things are true, the real reason I'm light on Islam in God Doesn't; We Do is because I don't want to get murdered (i.e. I'm a bit of a coward still).

Relevantly, I'm also not too keen on dealing with the backlash that might come out of the hills down here in the rather rabidly Christian Southeast. I certainly don't want a cross burned in my yard, my house set on fire, my business messed with, or my family threatened--or worse. I'm pretty nervous about all of that too, to be frank. My copy editor, in fact, who is a friend of mine locally, specifically asked to have his name left off the book for those very reasons--the fears that Harris hits about Islam worldwide exist in nontrivial microcosm throughout the Bible Belt. While, like Harris, I can write about Mormonism or Joseph Smith without fear of reprisal here, I cannot do so about Jesus Christ, and the main reason I can get away with it about Mormonism is because evangelical Christians see it the same way all infidels see all religions: bogus and mock-worthy.

Now I think Harris is showing a heavier tone in this piece than I'm used to from him. In fact, it is my opinion that he exhibits a little of the essence of the late Christopher Hitchens, a hammer against which all other hammers might be judged. In particular, I quote from Harris:
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
And:
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary.
Bravo! Let's not forget that many of us, particularly those in the United States and much of Western Europe, represent the states that form those secular governments, and we must urge our governments to stand firm in this regard. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to start to change the dialogue--to lay blame where it belongs, in this case at the feet of the Islamic religion (which is not the same as "upon all Muslims"), and to urge Muslims that deplore this kind of bad behavior to say so. Their silence is complicity. Perhaps they own, even more fully and gravely, the same fear I had in writing my book--a realistic fear of them being murdered for disagreeing with the lunatic fringe of their religion. That too, then, needs to be laid directly at the feet of Islam as a whole. Where we, in the wild liberal West, are unwilling to stand against this problem and call it for what it is, we too are complicit (to get a sense of what Harris is talking about, see this piece from Al Jazeera published Sept. 16 and appearing several times on my newsfeed on Facebook since--Muslims reacting to the film represent 0.001% of Muslims, from "The Fallacy of the Phrase, 'The Muslim World'").

So, my self-indictment and awestruck appreciation aside, let me urge you to read Harris's essay "On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God" and note that I agree with it in full--in terms of consequence, a great deal of Islam is the biggest religious threat, the biggest oppressor of human rights and dignity, that we have going in the world right now. Do read it. Do give it the heed it deserves.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My first debate with a Hindu--Not much different than arguing with Christians

TDR-TB.

Those five letters should horrify us.

TDR-TB: Totally drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is a frightening disease with a tremendously difficult treatment regimen that isn't always successful, and like we see more and more frequently--as could be predicted by biological evolution--so-called "superbugs" like TDR-TB (and its slightly less terrifying cousin XDR-TB: Extensively DR-TB) are likely to occur in situations where incomplete treatment of a bacterial disease like TB occurs. The totally drug-resistant strain of the communicable disease has been reported in Italy, Iran, and its first home, India, as reported in Nature at the beginning of this year.

This brings up an important point: how did it get started, and how is India significant in that regard? To read the press release from the AP, here via Huffington Post, the reality seems to be that undertreatment of tuberculosis cases in India is the cause, a great deal of which has to do with the lingering remnants of India's caste system, which arose with the Hindu religion. In that system, there are four castes and then a class too low for the caste system, the dalit, the "untouchables." Untouchables, still crammed together in appalling living conditions in many Indian cities, still poor, are much more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis, which has been described as a "disease of poverty." Worse, untouchables have less opportunity for medical care, particularly gruelling treatment regimens like the one required for TB, and have a stigma held over them. As noted in the HuffPo article, in most respects, no one cares.

The untouchables in India don't have this name for nothing. They are quite likely to be some of the most oppressed people in the history of mankind, outright plantation slaves notwithstanding, and in 2001 represented 16.2% of the population. They are explicitly excluded from the other castes, and they are literally not to be touched. The other castes were to avoid contact with them as contact with an untouchable would violate Hindu ritual purity.

Untouchables also resided at the lowest possible status in Indian society and were discriminated against by the everyone else. Not only were these people considered lower class, blocked from privilege in both occupations and society, the untouchables were literally seen as unclean--trapped in a life of abject poverty, squalor, and discrimination. For what crime did they suffer this fate? Birth--to the wrong parents. In the Indian caste system, children are almost always born into their castes, inheriting the caste of their parents who, almost invariably, were of the same caste themselves.

This is the set of circumstances that went into causing one of the preventable, predicted medical disasters of our time: TDR-TB. It arises because of a religious system that is propped up by a set of propositions and doctrines about the universe held on religious faith and without evidence by hundreds of millions of people. While it is possible that TDR-TB would have come about eventually anyway, the emergence of this disease can be directly tied to Hindu religious beliefs, not least the doctrine that has become quite popular in the New-Age West: karma.

Karma is a doctrine that states, in broad terms, that for actions there are "reactions," or consequences. In reality, it is a perversion of the just-world fallacy--"the cognitive bias that human actions eventually yield morally fair and fitting consequences, so that, ultimately, noble actions are duly rewarded and evil actions are duly punished," as Wikipedia so eloquently puts it. This is the same fallacy that gives birth to the concept of an omnijudicial god in Western monotheisms and thus that bears malformed fruits like heaven and hell. It is, though, a perversion of this already dangerous notion.

A person incurs karma, which is bad, by violating his dharma, which can be taken to mean "destiny," according to Hindu dogmas. By living in perfect accordance with one's dharma, etc., one can avoid accumulating more karma while possibly paying the price--in real-world suffering--for the karma of one's ancestors, which is inherited at birth. In the great cycle of death and rebirth, it is believed that a person's true essence (rather like a soul) will be born to a situation that reflects its karma, thus justifying the entire caste system. Of course, one's dharma is determined entirely by which caste one is born into. Thus, we see that the caste system, defining the dharma, is a huge stay-in-your-place swindle on humanity that prevents any socioeconomic mobility and that can be used for untold abuses and discrimination. The lynchpin of this entire corrupt system is the not-so-hippy, not-so-feel-good concept of karma. In a roundabout sense, then, karma is a concept in no small part responsible for the suffering that diseases like TDR-TB will inflict upon humanity for the foreseeable future.

That all said... I had my first argument with a Hindu today (rather interestingly, this Hindu is a Caucasian American from Nebraska), and it arose over a little picture on Facebook that reads "Everything happens for a reason." As it turns out, that statement is written down exactly in that format in my notebook for a future post on this blog, but we'll get to that another time. My Hindu debate partner indicated for us all that his belief in reincarnation and karma were comforting and "prove" that everything actually does happen for a reason.

As it turns out, arguing with an American Hindu is remarkably like arguing with an American Christian, even if some of the terms are less familiar. Here's the laundry list in our relatively short exchange of argumentative fallacies presented to me as he attempted to defend his comforting belief. Some of these might feel familiar:
  • Red herring: notes about the "facts" that there have never been Hindu (or Buddhist or Taoist) holy wars--the 2002 Gujarat violence between Hindus and Muslims not counting--or witch-burnings--sati, the ritual self-immolation of a widow also clearly not quite the same thing.
  • Red herring: noting that the West also has a "caste system" created by politicians and corporations, which can work to prevent societal mobility--never mind that this isn't a caste system and no one is explicitly condemned by their birth (even if they may be, de facto) or held in their oppression by religious dogmas that indicate that if they do anything but suck it up and be untouchable that it will be worse for them later.
  • Red herring with a touch of no true Scotsman and poisoning the well: An injunction that if I have not been to India personally and have not experienced the right Hindu teachers that I clearly cannot know what I am talking about.
  • Non sequitur: an indication that there is no Sanskrit term for the word "caste" and thus there must not be a caste system.
  • Red herring: Current Indian constitutional law makes the caste system illegal--taking no note of the reality that such societal constructs do not simply fall away, as is easily attested to by the fact that in 2001, more than 16% of Indians were still considered "untouchables"--therefore the idea of karma underlying it must be exonerated.
  • Red herring: India is a melting pot and the largest democracy in the world, which has what, exactly, to do with the validity of karma?
  • Ad hominem with poisoning the well: an indication that I am uneducated and need to do more research because I noted these fallacies above as being fallacies. This particular class of ad hominem was repeated several times, in fact, including a question of how old I am and if I've finished high school yet.
  • Argument from ignorance with non sequitur: At one time we thought microbes were "magic," and now we do not. Therefore, we are likely to one day realize that karmic retributive forces are also real, non-magical laws of the universe.
  • Shifting the burden of proof: evidently, it is my job to prove that reincarnation and karma aren't real.
  • Poisoning the well: as I am not a Hindu, clearly I am unable to make relevant commentary about Hinduism, karma, reincarnation, or any other topic he disagrees with me upon.
Additionally, he brought up a typical religious trope of taking a well-known statement out of context and bandying it about irresponsibly. Here, the abuse was on Newton when he indicated that he believes that "for every action there is a reaction." That applies to physical forces, which could more accurately be phrased by saying that forces come in pairs, equal in magnitude and opposite in direction, but not to other things. Upon having this pointed out to him, he fell to the red herring that Newton plagiarized the Vedic literature (is this even true?).

Of course, the details of this exchange are immaterial. What is of note is the high level of similarity exhibited by this American Hindu fellow, what with his years of learning to manage himself in an ashram in India and everything, and angry, ignorant Christians that I deal with on essentially a daily basis living in the Bible Belt. Same nonsense. Same logical fallacies. Same argumentative structure. Same accusation that only the in-group can possibly understand.

For me, the interesting part, beyond this similarity, is the likelihood that there is a deeper something in common with the Christians (whom he referred to as "typical bigots" and "fools who think they get it but don't"--while accusing me of being one based entirely upon not agreeing with him). These beliefs paper over certain fears. One is of death (reincarnation). Karma papers over a different fear, however, and it seems that it must be the fear of an unsettled score--or of having to take responsibility--a topic that blogger Greta Christina handles amply here writing for FreethoughtBlogs.

At the center of all of this, though, is the simple reality that doctrines like karma and reincarnation have nothing to back them, and thus they are a very bad set of ideas upon which to base important constructions like the foundations of civilizations. That they result in maintaining the kind of oppression that religions are often designed to placate, though not to remedy, is no surprise, and that horrific unintended consequences like TDR-TB arise in the world because of them is just as predictable (it is interesting to note that at least one of the European plagues can be tied directly to Christian hatred of witches, which led to a fear and hatred of cats as familiars, which led to a lot of dead cats, which lead to a lot of disease-ridden, flea-infested rats and other vermin having a better time of it than might otherwise have been had Christians not been so busy destroying cats believed to be in league with the devil).

In any case, the long and short of it is that arguing with a Hindu (at least an angry, Caucasian, American one) is more like arguing with a Christian (at least an angry, Caucasian, American one) than it is different. "Same shit, different religion," we might say.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It is: Publication complete!

After an arduous couple of weeks running through the proof copy to identify and correct any lingering issues of grammar, style, and flow (a step I cannot recommend too highly for anyone considering self-publishing), it is finished. I pushed the publish button, and so the book is now available for sale via the CreateSpace website (Amazon.com to follow within a few days).

Without further ado, then, follow this link and sink your teeth into God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges!

I look forward to hearing feedback and hope you get as much out of reading it as I got out of writing it!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Proof copy received, publication coming soon!

Finally an update for everyone on the publication progress of God Doesn't; We Do. I've ordered and received a proof copy of the final book, and after at least a preliminary look-through, it looks quite good. I should probably proceed with publication this week, making it available for sale very soon!

This is most exciting and look forward to getting it out there!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Religious infighting isn't for atheists and why I can't read theology anymore

A friend of mine recently recommended to me that I aim my arguments more accurately at the big problems with religion. Surprisingly, he didn't mention the dangers inherent in extremist Islam or the ridiculous behavior of many evangelical Christians or the outlandishness that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community has been exhibiting lately or the terrifying influence that the fusion of religion and politics is having in contemporary America. Instead, he told me that I should be setting my sites on New Calvinism (a branch of Christianity, of course).

Granted, this movement is very scary and very influential, so his eye is keen to point out the importance of addressing it. Indeed, the surprisingly short Wikipedia article about New Calvinism opens with a dry, but still frightening, short paragraph:
The New Calvinism is a growing perspective within conservative Evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present day world. In March 2009, TIME magazine ranked it as one of the "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Some of the major movers in this area are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris, and Tim Keller.
It is, of course, the reference to the 2009 TIME article that is the frightening bit, particularly if one is even casually familiar with the realities of what New Calvinism preaches:
Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision. (From the TIME piece.)
New Calvinists subscribe to this notion that all is predetermined and thus that good and bad actions in life are a result of that predestination, not a possible source of salvation, rendering our day-to-day choices, particularly regarding moral questions, as irrelevant. Indeed, it goes further, indicating that people cannot possibly be moral, as laid out in Calvin's five points that form the functional basis for all Calvinism. Those five points are utterly disturbing and flatly repugnant. They are
  1. Total depravity -- the doctrine that people are entirely unable to choose right over wrong, are trapped by sin, cannot possibly choose to "love God" or accept His rule, and are incapable of reforming themselves and bringing themselves to salvation. Yikes! [N.B.: Wikipedia notes that this particular doctrine is Calvin's extension of Augustine's conception of original sin, which Charles Freeman informs us in The Closing of the Western Mind (pp. 288-293) is based upon a poor translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin and Augustine's rather outlandish belief that any copy of scripture, because it is scripture, must be the perfect word of God.]
  2. Unconditional election -- the doctrine that God has chosen from eternity who comes with him to heaven, the Elect, and who is condemned to hell. This implies that God did create people (most of them, in fact) as hell-fodder, changing the impact of the moral argument rather substantially. The Calvinist God is actually a monster, and Calvinists embrace it.
  3. Limited atonement -- the doctrine that Jesus' "sacrifice" on the cross was only intended to save the Elect, see above, and no one else.
  4. Irresistible grace -- the doctrine that grace upon the Elect is irresistible, so that they will be saved no matter what, via the Holy Spirit forcing the totally depraved person to cooperate.
  5. Perseverance of the saints -- the doctrine that since God is sovereign and cannot be thwarted by anyone, anyone who ever falls away from the faith clearly was never an Elect to begin with. This is, of course, a doctrinal embodiment of the No True Scotsman fallacy.
As is plain: this set of doctrines is repugnant, and it is no wonder that it gave birth to such charming preachers as Jonathan Edwards with his vitriolic, misanthropic hellfire and brimstone preaching--one of the softer facets of what I call the "Dark Side" of Christianity.

As is to be expected, there are major schisms within the Calvinist movement as well, and this is essentially where I get lost. The Wikipedia articles already linked to here list at least five or six, depending on how you count them, major branches of Calvinism, and mention harsh criticism about how New Calvinists are hardly Calvinists at all, yadda, yadda, yadda. Frankly: BORING!

So this leads me to my commentary about infighting between religious movements: it's not for atheists, outspoken or otherwise, to deal much with. We might note the dangers inherent in these movements, but antitheistic infidels have a broader goal that requires a broader brush--it's all nonsense. Atheists need not worry about the infighting, though particularly worrisome movements might be worth keeping tabs on and raising awareness about. Let them squabble--it only makes them look bad.

For me, getting into these debates is philosophically identical to jumping into the middle of a heated argument about who moves faster, the Flash or Superman. Just as neither exists, and so their minutiae is relatively pointless to debate, all discussion on the nature of God is moot until some evidence for a God is actually presented and verified. I will come back to this point briefly, talking about why getting into these kinds of debates is actually worse than pointless, but first I'll note why I can no longer read theology.

This Calvinism (or New Calvinism, whatever) thing finally pointed for me very clearly what I've suspected for years and felt acutely while researching to write God Doesn't; We Do. I really can't read theology anymore. The reasons are simple enough: first, there is no reason to believe in God, so it is impossibly meaningless to adhere to any discussion about His nature or ways, and second, there aren't even satisfactory philosophical definitions of God that can meet some semblance of agreement. Indeed, all these schisms and quasi-philosophical battles between various branches of the many One True Faiths essentially boil down to an inability to agree upon a definition of God. Why? Because there is absolutely no meaningful evidence to support any given definition. In fact, every definition so far proposed is flatly easy to dismantle and argue as either nonexistent or meaninglessly abstract. (This definitional business, by the way, is the essential argument of Chapter 4 of God Doesn't.) I simply can't read this heap of non-reality pretending to be real until some substance is given to the central premise. An argument about the Flash and Superman would actually be more fruitful and entertaining! At least it would dispense with all the pretending to be serious.

Now, here's why I think targeted attacks on various branches of theology are actually worse than broad-stroke appeals to think rationally--appealing to evidence instead of tradition, authority, or revelation--in a more general sense. As the Wikipedia article for Calvinism alone illustrates, along with the existence of scores of major religions, many One True Faiths, and literally more than 40,000 denominations of Christianity, religion is a hydra. I mean this in the Greek mythological sense, not in the biological sense, and I mean it to say that if you are able to enter the dangerous situation of fighting one of the heads of the hydra and even manage to cut it off, not only do you not kill the thing, but you create a stump from which two (or more) additional heads grow. Specifically here, to cut down New Calvinism completely and successfully would result not in the death of New Calvinism but rather in the birth of at least two new New-Calvinism-derived religious movements, slightly modified to account for the arguments that struck down the original. These new "heads" would be just as dangerous as the original, and for whatever good that was accomplished in striking down some bad ideas, new bad ideas would fill the gap.

Another reason that picking particular targets as a main mode of employment for delivering the antitheistic message is that it gives a certain unwarranted legitimacy to all the rest of the religious movements out there. Certainly, many of those are less dangerous than the particularly egregious ones, but that does not make them more legitimate, just more acceptable.

This isn't, of course, to say that attacking particularly virulent religious movements in specific isn't a worthwhile task or that dealing with the most problematic aspects of religious movements isn't important. Those are both valid. Extremist Islam cannot be taken lightly. New Calvinism's attempt to redefine the world, particularly economically, also cannot be. It isn't a well-aimed attack, however, that will stop these movements. Only a crushing tide of social pressure can actually stop them, and so keeping awareness on the most dangerous heads of the hydra while attacking the belly of the beast itself is, to my thinking, a more fruitful endeavor. Perhaps, then, any targeted attacks that are intended to be delivered have to fall within the much wider context of "yes, this is all problematic, particularly because it gives rise to outlandish and scary movements such as... [New Calvinism, in this case]."

Certainly it would be better if the most frightening aspects of religion were shut down as being as patently primitive and inappropriate as they are, leaving the others be, but given the natures of the scriptures and ideas at their cores, problem faiths are likely to arise again. Calvinism itself, in fact, seems to have arisen from Calvin's cognitive dissonance between the God of scripture, the God of Catholic doctrine, and the real world he witnessed, which simply cannot be reconciled (Cf. Pascal on this point). Calvin, like many others, was content to let God be a monster in order to have the story make sense. This will happen again for as long as those particular definitions of God exist, and since it is appropriate to preserve works like the Bible at least as works of ancient literature even if in a wholly secular world, there are likely to be fundamentalist-type thinkers that reinvent these crazy and dangerous movements. As a movement, "New Atheism" essentially seeks the marginalization of religious influence and a call to Enlightenment-born thinking on morals and the physical world, and so its call is more effectively aimed at the whole than at any of the disparate parts.

So, I can't read theology now--simply because of its lack of grounding--and I didn't even have to mention the frequent academic dishonesty that characterizes theological (particularly evangelical theological) works (e.g. the writing of Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, etc.). There's only so much nonsense someone can deal with.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.