Monday, July 27, 2009

The trouble with the new atheism

A great UK documentary on the modern atheist movement, and what the presenter has personal difficulties with.

I've been writing about this in a couple of blogs for a while now, and have commented on seeing something admirable (the legitimate criticism of the failings of religion) turn into a full-blown cultural movement. I must commend the many organizations that have started up after the publication of The God Delusion and the increasing atheist literature coming out that takes similar tones as Dawkins in trying to drive a stake through the heart of what is seen to be irrational superstitious belief. Throughout the past couple of years the blogosphere has also grown extensively with quite a few atheist/humanist blogs taking the post popular positions in the internet (Pharyngula, Friendly Atheist, Skepchick, etc.).

My personal problem with the new atheist movement is the cult-like admiration for many of these 'intellectuals' by those equally pissed off at religion. By definition, atheism cannot be a religion, yet it does not stop it from possessing religious-like traits that are slowly being picked up by its followers.
I've seen many self-professed intellectuals and skeptics take as almost a priori truth anything that many of these public atheists say, such as 'religion is the root of most wars', 'religious violence is the main threat to civilization today', 'nothing is out of bounds for anyone who believes that god is on their side', etc.

I find many of these assertions to be very problematic, and hopefully I can address them in future blogs, but it is a pity that far too many people do not seem to apply, or even want to apply their oft-talked about skepticism towards the claims made by their fellow atheists.

Atheism today seems to adopt almost uncritically certain views that are dubious at best, and not at all unanimously accepted by contemporary scholarship:

1) A war/conflict model between religion and science.
Science in this view, is the sole begetter of truth, and religion actively has and continues to suppress the legitimate search for truth.

This to me seems to be a very selective way of looking at history, of simply accepting via word of mouth certain major historical events in which religion was seen as opposing science, and thus proving that religion has always opposed science and critical thinking. As with everything though, the reality of it is far more interesting and complex than many would like to admit. I want to address this in some later blog, but some good books have been written on this topic: Science and Religion: A historical introduction

2) A view of religion as the biggest cause of wars and conflict throughout history.
Yet again, this view is a very immature and caricaturized version of reality. It is a simple view that is easy to accept because it paints the world in black and white terms, terms which we're all very much used to and feel very comfortable with; which is interestingly enough a strong criticism that atheists press against religion. Again, this is yet another interesting topic that has been addressed by contemporary scholarship, from history and sociology, that has been found wanting: The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?, and Sins of Omission: What 'Religion and Violence' arguments Ignore

3) Adherence to outdated Freudian psychology in which belief in God is seen to be nothing more than a psychological need to feel security, purpose, power, and comfort in this life. There have been explanations that aim to show that human beings are naturally disposed towards religious belief and ritual because of certain innate or native “mental tools.” Some argue that we have these mental tools because they, or the religion that they spawn, is and/or was adaptive for our ancestors, and were thus passed down to us.
The basic argument, as summarized by William Lane Craig is thus:

(1) The development of the human mind through natural history has provided those minds with a number of special properties.
(2) When considering the natural and social world, these properties encourage humans to believe in gods.
(3) Therefore, the development of human minds has produced belief in gods (i.e., God
(4) Therefore, belief in gods is false. is an “accident” of evolution.)

However, this argument commits the genetic fallacy. This type of reasoning aims to argue for the truth or falsity of a belief simply from considerations of the origin of belief. But, of course, perfectly true beliefs can emerge even from crazy sources. To see that this reasoning is faulty, imagine you telling someone that you believe democracy is the best system of government. The person you're talking to however, replies that the only reason you believe that is because you were born in a democratic country, and thus, democracy is not the best system of government. Of course this line of reasoning is invalid, and so too is the type of reasoning used against the existence of God based on how it is that you arrived at your beliefs.

Also as a supplement to Freud, religious belief is also seen to be a virus of the mind, a contagious meme that spreads from person to person. Of course, Atheism too can be regarded as a meme, science as well, philosophy, and just about every world view. Memetic theory is not regarded to be the best explanation for why certain beliefs spread through cultures. It is dubious at best, and pseudo-science at its worst. Regardless of the fact that the argument is completely tautological, and also a genetic fallacy, it seems to ignore the fact that atheism too has served a sociological role throughout history that can be seen to be psychological in nature as well.For more, check out: The Twilight of Atheism, Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics

4) A failure to recognize that Theism, even if false, may be rationally justified. This is something that completely irritates me and drives me away from most atheists on myspace, the sheer hypocrisy of accusing religious believers of being arrogant because they dare to profess to either knowing, or believing they may have found the 'truth'. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who wrote that if theists are to be called intolerant for believing that other theistic faiths are wrong, then it is the atheist who is the most intolerant of all for believing all faiths are wrong.

There is a difference between believing that someone posesses a false belief (and we all possess false beliefs of one kind or another), and believing that said person is wholely irrational for believing in something false. This is where the field of epistemology sheds some light. You may hold a false belief, but it does not follow that you are therefore irrational because of holding a false belief. This is a distinction that many philosophers have made, and something I think more atheists should take notice of. Philosopher William Rowe, an atheist, wrote about this in his Friendly Atheism.

5) A view of science as the sole begetter of Truth. As Peter Atkins loves to repeat "There is nothing that Science can't explain." Scientism as its called, is an offshoot of a now dead movement within philosophy called empiricism. A short summarization of this can be found in David Hume’s principle of empirical verifiability: “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance- let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quality or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or experience? No. Commit it to then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Nothing not verifiable by direct empirical means or that is analytically true by definition must be discarded as nonsense. Yet this principle itself is self-defeating. We can use the same criteria to judge its falsehood: Does Hume’s criteria apply to his own doctrine? Is the principle of verifiability true by definition? No. Is there any way to confirm it empirically? No, so then we should toss his principle to the flames. A dogmatic insistence on empiricism is a flaw in much atheist thinking “There is no scientific evidence…thus it must be false” is faulty reasoning.

Science is a great tool, but by no means is it the sole begetter of truth. There are indeed several things that cannot be explained or discovered by science which we all hold to and are perfectly rational to believe in regardless:

A)Logic and mathematics: Science presupposes logic and mathematics, otherwise it could not function. Yet logical and mathematical proofs aren’t the kinds of ‘things’ that you discover through the scientific method, they are arrived at through other means by philosophers. The law of non-contradiction is not a law that could ever be discovered through science, as it cannot be judged as true by simple induction, which is what science relies on. In short, math and logic are presupposed by science. Trying to prove them by science would be arguing in circles.

B) Metaphysical truths such as ‘there are other minds other than my own’ , that the external world is real, or that the past was not created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age. Science cannot prove or disprove these things as science can only examine the physical data available, which is the very thing that is being called into question.

C) Ethical beliefs about statements of value: Science cannot comment or make any judgments as to why the actions of Nazi medical doctors were any more immoral than the actions of American doctors. Ethical judgments are normative, and as such, are beyond the reach of science, which is confined to descriptive role. Atheists for the most part fail to understand the challenge that is presented to them by theists when it comes to morality. They severely misunderstand the challenge to explain where morality comes from by thinking the Theist means that without belief in God, an atheist would not be able to act morally or be able to recognize moral facts. Yet the challenge isn't this, the challenge is where the atheist grounds his moral theory if it isn't on a transcendent creator. This is a very important and valid challenge that more of them would do well to address.

D)Aesthetic judgments: Just like ethics, science cannot analyze what is beautiful or not. These are again value judgments that cannot be arrived at through science. Science can measure what it is that people typically find as beautiful, or what it is that they say they find beautiful, but science cannot in and of itself describe what is beautiful.

E) Science itself: Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. The method itself is not arrived at through science, to do so would be again, arguing in circles.
So, contrary to popular scientific notions, there are indeed other ways of knowing beyond the reach of science. One would be well advised to stay away from the outdated empiricism of scientists like Dawkins and Atkins.
One good work exploring this is The limits of science.

To end, I want to just say I'm in the same boat as the rest of you. I don't know if God exists or not, but I want to know. I believe the proposition "God Exists" is either true or false, and its truth or falsity is of great importance, as it would have consequences for Ethics, Cosmology, Aesthetics, and just about every realm of life we encounter. I want to also know if it is even possible to know that a God exists. And even if it is impossible to have knowledge that said God exists (which is my position as an agnostic), I want to know whether or not it is then probable that said God exists. And I also would like to know whether or not it is rationally justifiable to believe said God exists. These questions matter to me. Questions of value, meaning, ethics, justice, liberty, and morality matter to me above all else, which is why I've been so drawn to the field of Philosophy.

I want to know what is true, and I wish more people did as well, not just pay lip service to it, but actually love truth, because without it, human life itself collapses. Without truth, there can be no trust, without trust, there can be no relationships, without relationships, we are but empty solitary shells in a constant 'war of all against all'. Those who pride themselves as the sole bearers of 'reason', 'rationality' and 'truth' should value these things as much as they claim to.

However, I'm beginning to be extremely cautious and distrustful of the new atheist movement. They've become just as Fanatical as the religious fanatics they so despise. A movement that is supposed to be a knife that carves out the tragedies brought about by fundamentalist thinking is slowly acquiring those very characteristics they so despise. Look at the top blogs on myspace and tell me that people like 'God Is Imaginary', 'The Gadfly' and the rest of the more rational than thou gang resembles anything like the true lovers of truth and wisdom we've come to learn about like Socrates and Aristotle. I see more and more people jumping on the bandwagon every day, and I frankly want nothing to do with it. I have a feeling that if I were ever to change my mind and accept Theism, I would be lumped in together with Fred Phelps and the rest of the 'superstitious religious fanatics', and as Dawkin's documentary calls them, an "Enemy of Reason".

I'm an unbeliever. I'm unconvinced. But I want to know the truth. Let's try to follow it wherever it leads. Lets not just pay lip service to it. Anthony Flew's conversion is just one example of atheist intolerance. One of the leading atheists in the world became a Deist, and of course said conversion must be due to his being senile. Let us respect that search for truth.

It was very telling how very few unbelievers came out to take on my arguments in my 'Is religion a cause for good or evil in the world?' blog. I would think that something that tries to undercut the very same tired old argument atheists make on their blogs every single day would get more attention, but of course it barely got a peep, save for a few individuals who were willing to read it and try to ask if it had any merit.

As for me, I'm staying away from the atheist bandwagon. That's a sinking ship destined to blow up. A true freethinker doesn't need a scarlet letter A on their profile to let everyone knows where he/she stands. Anti-religious propaganda is everywhere, all I ask is that we learn to filter through it and be consistent in our skepticism.


As evidence of the type of fundamentalist atheist attitude that I'm talking about, check out my myspace post of this blog here and see the type of vilification I received from the self-proclaimed 'brights'. Yet more evidence to show that these people feel they're immune to criticism.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

TAM 7, in review

The Amaz!ng Meeting 7

The Amazing Meeting is the de facto annual meeting of the skeptical movement and is held in Las Vegas, NV every year (awesome!). For more info check out the JREF at

Everyone keeps hitting me up to write a review of TAM7, especially since I keep expressing a negative opinion about it.

I want to be completely clear as I can in order to block some objections that will certainly come up: I only went to TAM 7 on Friday. This review is of Friday only, and whenever I talk about attitudes or refer to the conference generally, it is because I’ve already made the qualification here.

I want to say from the onset, that I thought a small portion of the day was fantastic, but the rest of the day (the majority of it) sucked/was disappointing.

So, I showed up a few minutes after 8pm (I was staying on the strip and underestimated how long it would take to get out there) with two friends (Adam and Eric). The reason we only went on Friday is because we were trying to conserve money so we could enjoy a vacation in Vegas and, on paper, it looked like the most appealing day to us. We had just seen Michael Shermer a few months prior and got to have drinks with him so we were okay with missing him this time around, and we really wanted to see the key note speaker (Bill Prady – Producer of the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom), James Randi, Phil Plait, Steve Novella, Joe Nickel, SGU and the other speakers we hadn’t heard of had fascinating topics planned.

Right away we ended up getting stuck sitting fairly far back, the room was already filled with somewhere around 1000 skeptics, which was certainly cool to see. Unfortunately this meant we also could not hear the SGU recording, nor could we read the power points (this is one of my biggest complaints against the organization of the conference – huge oversight, about 1/3 of the room couldn’t read it).

Because this was brunch/SGU I didn’t think too much of it, I figured the day would pick up once everyone got settled in and the speakers came up. I was looking forward to finding out who the MC was (I hadn’t heard of him before), and to hearing from James Randi and Phil Plait. Now, I’d like to make another qualification, I do not get star struck easily. I really cannot think of someone famous that would make me get super excited to the point where I would be happier to see them than, say, a friend I haven’t seen a few months. So, it really wasn’t exciting for me to just see these skeptical celebrities for the sake of seeing them in person. The reason I wanted to see them was to hear them talk and get down to business – they are among skeptics and could now do so. They know we are all science buffs and such, so they could even get technical and speak very freely about their opinions.

However, the first hour and a half or so was just the introduction people going on and on (basically repeating each other) about how we were about to have an awesome conference and how much work had gone into producing the event. They talked about past TAMs, talked about talking about stuff, and demonstrated how inescapable in-group effects are.

Essentially, the first 2.5 hours of the conference consisted of garbled noise, unreadable power points, and a lot of back-patting –wayyy disappointing.

Then, finally, it was time for the key note speaker, Bill Prady. He is the Executive Producer of “The Big Bang Theory” sitcom, which stars book-smart PhD physicists who live across the hall from a street-smart, attractive woman. I really like this show, the dynamic of these hyper nerds trying to get along in the real world while they tell quantum physics jokes and deal with their bombastic super-genius friend Sheldon is great. But anyway, Bill Prady was great. He basically talked about the show, played some clips that relate to skepticism and science, and went into the topic of the attitude NOT to have towards those that disagree with you. He pointed out that the people who believe the strange things we rail again believe them for good reasons, and often rely on their beliefs to console them and to make sense out of the world. In the show, Sheldon’s mom relies on her religion to cope with a hyper-genius she doesn’t understand. Penny (the attractive neighbor) is into pop-culture phenomena such as astrology so she can strike up conversations with people, and so on. Also, during the Q&A someone complained about they think Penny is a typical ditzy women – and he gave a great answer basically outlining the fact that she is intuitive, street-smart, and does amazing well at getting through the world (especially in contrast with the physicists on the show). He recommends taking a second looks at her character, and even reexamine what we think intelligence consists of. Great speech overall.

Then, we had Fintan Steele, director of scientific education and communications, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard talk about the recent explosion of genomic information. He touched on the advancements, misconceptions, and the ways in which some people are scamming others with this information. Essentially, there are companies out there that claim the gene is the smallest unit of our biology, and if we can understand it then we can know everything. From this, they will map your DNA and give you a read-out on your genetic propensities. However, this is false for many reasons he discussed in his speech. It was very awesome, technical, enlightening, and cutting edge – exactly what I had come to the TAM for.

So, given the last two speakers the day was getting really awesome.

We were behind schedule, which was to be expected, it would be impossible to stick to such a busy schedule, but there were announcements slotted for the next half-hour then it was time for lunch. However, they surprised us – rather than doing some quick announcements and letting us out, they put a man up there to talk about his stroke and having sex with his wife. I really feel sorry for anyone who experiences such drastic medical trauma as he did, but seriously, this was awful. I don’t think anyone wanted to hear him talk about how he had a stroke while having sex with his wife. He went on and on and eventually people were doing everything they could to get him off the stage so we could go to lunch – it even got to the point where people had to just get up and leave because he just wouldn’t stop. Jesus Christ man – it was depressing and awkward.

So we went to lunch and played some slot machines, then came back.

After lunch, it was time for a ‘conversation’ between James Randi and Jamy Ian Swiss (who I’m guessing is a magician). However, all this was, really, was James Randi showing videos of himself when he was famous for doing death-defying tricks and going on talk shows in the 60s-70s while he rambled in the background about how he felt about doing it. It was like having your grandfather go on and on about the stuff he used to do 40 years ago when he wasn’t so old. I have mixed feelings about this: I understand why some people may have enjoyed this, they are the type who probably also love their grandfathers and could listen to them ramble about the car they used to own (or whatever) all day. However, overall this felt like the cult of the James Randi. Everyone around us seemed to really REALLY like it. Also, you could, conveniently, buy everything he had for sale. Speaker after speaker from the beginning to the end of the day praised James Randi. Part of it is rightfully so – I mean, he did start the JREF and is a big part of the skeptical movement. Although I can’t give a real cut-off point where this all becomes too much, I can say it fell like it was crossed half-way through the day. Eric and Adam both felt it – and if felt like the cult of James Randi. Standing ovation after stand ovation for him made me more and more cynical.

The next speaker was Jennifer Ouellette who is a popular science writer and is a part of the Science and Entertainment exchange – a group that helps television and Hollywood get their science right. It’s a very cool group, and was surprised to learn that Seth McFarlane (of Family Guy) is part of it and a very big science proponent and outspoken atheist.

Next was the Anti-Anti-Vax panel with Steve Novella, Joe Albietz, David Gorski, Harriett Hall, and Michael Goudeau. This was essentially a comprehensive look at the anti-vaccination movement, the facts on the rumors of a link between vaccinations and autism, and where to go from here. Although extremely brief, this was very informative. There is absolutely NO evidence that suggests such a link exists now or ever, and the evidence is completely in the opposite direction. Certainly, it was nearly unavoidable to fall into the common fallacy committed by skeptics that assigns rationality to our thinking and emotional overriding to ‘their’ thinking. This is some basic in-group stuff, but the type that is very hard to avoid.

Although there were about 1.5 hours left, this was the last decent event. The rest of the conference was an auction and Joe Nickel talking about his vacation in big foot country and UFO/aliens. Maybe it is just because I didn’t become a skeptic the week of this conference, but come on… big foot and ufos?

All in all, Bill Prady and Fintan Steele were wonderful speakers. The anti-anti-vax panel was informative. All of the other parts of the day were either boring or spent worshipping James Randi. A lot of celebrity worship went into the day, and that’s just not something I can ever get into. My main complaint is that the conference lacked substance, and even creeped me out a little bit. We didn’t stay out at the same hotel as the conference, so I didn’t get to hang out with skeptics very much beyond the meeting, but to reply to this review that I should have, and then I would have liked it is to ignore the fact that I paid $175 to listen to people worship praise James Randi. If the best part of the conference is meeting with skeptics, then there really isn’t any value added in having it. I have friends that are skeptics, I’m in a local skeptics group, and I occasionally drive up to Columbus to hang out with other skeptics up there. Granted, it is refreshing to be around skeptics, atheists, agnostics, intellectuals, and science-minded people – I would rather not pay so much for it. Perhaps I’m lucky to be surrounded by these sort of people already (I DO live in a college town), and I can see the value in it for those who aren’t. But, I still think my criticism of the conference itself lacking substance is valid.

So, what do you think? Try again next year? Maybe this year was just a little weaker than those in the past? Agree? Response?

I’m a skeptic who loves these types of things, and I’d hate to write off the whole movement as a self-serving group of people just because I was turned off by my experience with the conference. Truly, I could have bought tix for the rest of the conference, but I had no incentive too. I expected the added value of another day of the conference was truly less than another $175 I could use at the poker tables.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is religion a force for good or evil in the world?

In his book ‘The Dawkins Delusion?’ Alister McGrath, writing on Richard Dawkins, writes: “Dawkins is, I think, entirely right when he exposes and challenges religious violence. It is clear that his ire is directed primarily against Islamic Fundamentalism, particularly its Jihadist forms. All of us need to work to rid the world of the baleful influence of religious violence. On that point Dawkins and I are agreed. Yet is this a necessary feature of religion? Here, I must insist that we abandon the outmoded idea that all religions say more or less the same things. They clearly do not.”

Something that has struck me as puzzling after reading many blogs by atheists all across the blogosphere, and books by the ‘big four’ of atheism is the claim that religion is the biggest cause of conflict and wars throughout history, and that if done away with, the world would be a better place. Now, for someone who is more fond of sound bites than the critical scrutiny of claims, this may seem to be a reasonable, or even more than that, a self-evident truth of the world we live in. Yet, as it’s usually the case, the truth of the matter is far more nuanced than that. Human beings have a tendency to opt out for very simple, black and white pictures of things. One example was the mischaracterization of the Genocide that went on in Rwanda as nothing more than ‘ethnic conflict dating back hundreds of years to very basic tribal attitudes’. This, I think, may have been a good reason why it was that the West did nothing but watch while thousands of Rwandans were being slaughtered by their very neighbors. There is a great article called ‘The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict’ that I highly recommend everyone to read. Essentially, the author argues that really generalized public perceptions of what the ‘problem really is’ tend to lead to a public that either does nothing, because, after all, how could we ever put an end to a centuries old conflict, or to a public that has diagnosed the problem very incorrectly, and so seeks out to find the wrong solutions to said problem. When it comes to religion in America, I think most anti-theists have fallen victim to the second trap.

When writing about Religion, Dawkins comes up with a plausible evolutionary explanation as to how it came about. Dawkins writes that belief in God might be a byproduct of some other evolutionary mechanism. McGrath writes that “Here he moves into territory explored by fellow atheist Daniel Dennett in his recent book Breaking the Spell. Yet both Dawkins and Dennett adopt a very cognitive view of religion, defining it virtually exclusively in terms of ‘Belief in God.’ Yet this is certainly not the sole aspect of religion; nor is it even necessarily the most fundamental. A more reliable description of religion would make reference to its many aspects, including knowledge, beliefs, experience, ritual practices, social affiliation, motivation and behavioral consequences’. And it is here that McGrath touches on a point that is fundamental to the question ‘Is religion a force for good or evil in the world?’ The answer will heavily depend on how it is that you define religion. William T. Cavanaugh writes on this question:
“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history.”

During the famous ‘Nightline debate’ between Creationists Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron against two atheists from the ‘Rational Response Squad’, I remember the topic having gone to the question of ‘Was Hitler an atheist? Was Stalin?’ Ray Comfort made the point that Joseph Stalin was a rabid atheist who persecuted and wiped out 60 million of his own people. Surely then, if Christians are to blame for the terrible deeds done in the name of Christianity, then so too should Atheists hold some responsibility for the deeds done by some of their fellow non-believers. Yet, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), the argument didn’t seem to hold. Kelly, one of the atheists, made the point that Stalin was a Marxist. These purges were done in the name of Marxism, not Atheism. Marxism, as defined by Kelly, is a religion where the State is seen to be a God, and so clearly it is yet another instance of religious violence. Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great” made a similar case against the Fascism of the Nazis by calling it a ‘Quasi-religious phenomena’.

It seems to me then, that one must have a very broad and general definition of religion if one is to include political philosophies like Marxism and Fascism into the same ranks as, say, the Quakers or the Amish. And this is a very crucial point that I don’t think has been addressed by any of the prominent atheists: If you are making the case that religion is a force for evil in the world, then you must provide a definition of religion that is clear and concise so that you may make your case.

A powerful question that has to be answered before anyone can make any progress is the following one asked by McGrath: “What is the difference between a worldview and a religion? The dividing line is notoriously imprecise and, many would say, is constructed by those with vested interests to defend. A worldview is a comprehensive way of viewing reality that tries to make sense of its various elements within a single, overarching way of looking at things. Some, of course, are religious; many are not. Buddhism, Existentialism, Islam, atheism, and Marxism all fall into this category. Some worldviews claim to be universally true; others, more in tune with the postmodern ethos, view themselves as local. None of them can be ‘proved’ to be right. Precisely because they represent ‘big picture’ ways of engaging with the world, their fundamental beliefs ultimately lie beyond final proof.”

Now, one of my majors here in Ohio University is Sociology, and luck permitting, I hope to continue my studies in Sociology at the graduate level, specifically the field of the Sociology of Religion. Most of us seem to have a pretty firm grasp of what is religion, and what isn’t. If I were to go out today to start doing field work for my area in Sociology, I would have a pretty good idea of where to begin, which would more than likely be a Church, or a Synagogue, or a Mosque. These are traditional places that we can safely call ‘religious’. Yet, if I were to try and define what it is that I want to study, how would I go about it? Religion, like pornography, is one of those slippery topics that seem to be extraordinarily hard to define. Most people, like the famous judge who ruled against Pornography in the 80’s, would simply fall back on “I’ll know it when I see it”.

Again, McGrath writes on this: “A clear definition of precisely what is being studied is essential to the serious scientific study of any entity or phenomenon. The failure of past attempts to offer a reliable and warranted definition of religion is widely conceded in the vast scholarly literature devoted to this subject. Of the myriad of definitions of religion offered over the last 150 years, each of which presented itself as being scientific or objective, none has been sufficiently resilient or representative to command continuing support. Furthermore, definitions of religion are rarely neutral but are often generated to favor beliefs and institutions with which one is in sympathy and penalize those to which one is hostile, often reflecting little more than the ‘particular purposes and prejudices of individual scholars’ .And here is the crux of the issue I had with Kelly’s lumping of Marxism into the religious camp, it seems like by doing so, Atheists have simply defined “Religion” and labeled as “Religious” anything that they particularly don’t like. Just how broad is your definition of religion anyway? The 9/11 terrorist acts? Religious in nature. The murdering of abortion doctors? Religious in nature. The conflict in Northern Ireland? Religious. Rwandan ethnic conflicts? These were carried out by the type of ‘black and white’, ‘us vs. them’ mentality that religion promotes.
Yet why do many atheists skip over other conflicts, like for example, the terrible genocides brought about by Serbian/Croatian Nationalism?

On this William Cavanaugh writes: “The problem with the ‘religion and violence’ arguments is not that their working definitions of religion are too fuzzy. The problem is precisely the opposite. Their implicit definitions of religion are unjustifiably clear about what does and does not qualify as a religion. Kimball, for example, subjects the violence of Hinduism to close scrutiny, but passes over the violence of other kinds of nationalism in silence, despite a telling acknowledgement that ‘blind religious zealotry is similar to unfettered nationalism.’ How are they different? Forms of ‘secular’ nationalism do not appeal to God or gods, but neither do some of the institutions Kimbal includes in his list of religions, such as Theravada Buddhism. Kimball is typical of those who make the argument that religion is prone to violence in that he assumes a sharp distinction between the religious and the secular, without explicitly analyzing or defending such a distinction.”

See the problem here? In this article (, the issue is explored even further. The problem can be summarized thus: “There is a significant group of scholars who think that the term ‘religion’ is so problematic that it ought to be scrutinized for ideological baggage or dropped entirely. On the one hand, then, we have a group of scholars who are convinced that religion has a lamentable tendency toward promoting violence. On the other hand, we have a group of scholars who are not sure that religion even exists, except as an intellectual construct of highly dubious value. The first group of scholars carries on as if it did not know the second group even exists.”

“If we really want to address the problem of violence in the contemporary world, we must treat violence as the problem-violence as such, that is, not absolutism, blind obedience, and the rest. Only in this way can we tell the difference between the abbot of a Trappist monastery and Jim Jones. Both command obedience, but only the latter does so in service to violence instead of peace. Only if we treat violence as the problem can we also tell the whole truth about the violence of putatively ‘secular’ ideologies and nation-states. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices- jihad, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator- turn violent? The point is not simply that ‘secular’ violence should be given equal attention to ‘religious violence’. The point is that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether. Self-identified Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others would still be subject to scrutiny, but a fuller and more adequate picture of violence would emerge. The beliefs of the Jim Jones and Osama bin Ladens of the world are a significant part of the problem of violence in the 21st century. At least equally significant is the evangelical zeal with which ‘free trade’, liberal democracy, and American hegemony are offered to-or forced upon- a hungry world.”

Ultimately, is religion a force for good or evil in the world? That depends. If you define religion as ‘all that is bad with the world’, as most atheist rhetoric these days seems to do, then yes, it is a force for evil. But obviously this doesn’t work. You have already defined it as bad. You can define religion as ‘Oppressive, threatening, violent, and abusive’, but you haven’t actually told us anything. The same thing can be said for any government, or any other ideology that can be deemed ‘secular’. Is religion good or bad? I personally have to side with Michael Shermer on this question and simply say ‘Religion is good when it does good, and evil when it does evil.’ That’s it. Not the most insightful revelation, or really anything we didn’t already know, but at its core it shows the truth of the situation.

On this, McGrath writes about a “tragic event in North America that took place in October 2006, within a week of the publication of The God Delusion. Interestingly, the episode illustrates both the negative and positive sides of religion. A gunman with some kind of religious grudge (he was ‘angry with God’) broke into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and gunned down a group of schoolgirls. Five of the young girls died. The Amish are a Protestant religious group who repudiate any form of violence on account of their understanding of the moral authority of the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. When those unfortunate schoolchildren were murdered, the Amish community urged forgiveness. There would be no violence, no revenge- only the offering of forgiveness. The gunman’s widow spoke, gratefully and movingly, of how this provided the ‘healing’ that she and her three children ‘so desperately needed.”

To summarize, this is something that I wish more people would take to heart, as it brings to light the heart of all this: “Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges in 1792. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Revolution and uttered the words for which she is remembered: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.”

Is religion a force for evil or good in the world? I say both. If you insist of asking the question “Well, which one does it do more of, evil or good?”, I would say good luck making that kind of calculus. One quick glance through history and the inter-relationship between religion, culture, and politics will leave one with the feeling that religion is almost inseparable from human experience itself.

On this, Shermer writes “However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported…Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”

Take religion out of the equation, and what’s left is a huge gaping hole. Any attempt to fill this whole with ‘this is what would have happened’ is to fall into the trap many historians call “What-if” history. The problem with “what-if” history is that it is nearly impossible to take into account each and every single one of the possible variables that could take place in the absence of a specific event or ideology in place. These ‘what-if’ history books make for some interesting reading, but ultimately, they can shed no real light on what would have actually happened.

In light of this, let us try to build bridges rather than keep destroying them like I see too many believers and unbelievers on the blogosphere do.

“All ideals-divine, transcendent, human or invented- are capable of being abused. That’s just the name human nature is. And knowing this, we need to work out what to do about it rather than lashing out uncritically at religion.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Criss Angel, Psychics, and Skepticism

Many of my friends know that I'm a huge skeptic, specially when it comes to claims made by psychics, aura readers, and all sorts of superstitious nonsense that you can find these days. As a member of the Ohio University Skeptic's society, one of our main goals is to help educate people on the trickery used by many self-professed psychics in their acts.

Knowing that I'm a skeptic, some of my friends have tried to get me to explain away all sorts of things they claim psychics have done. One such thing they tried to do was have me explain how Criss Angel does each and every single one of his tricks in any given episode of the show Mindfreak. Obviously I am not a magician, and my knowledge of mentalism only goes far enough to know that with enough suggestion, and misderection, you can make all sorts of incredible things happen, not through the supernatural, but by mere trickery. Obviously though, I am not able to explain how Criss Angel does his tricks, the magician's trade is very tight-knit and not prone to revealing how their tricks are performed, and for very good reasons: these people often spend their entire lives creating and fashioning their very own illusions. They may put a new twist on a very well known magic trick, and completely make it their own. It is art in its purest form, and the excitement of it comes from the fact that we don't know how they do what they do.
Regardless of the fact that my inability to explain Criss Angel's tricks does not in any way make it more likely that they are supernatural in nature, I have been baffled many times by some of his stuff. I've listened carefully to him speak, looking for clues as to whether or not he claims his tricks are paranormal, or if they are mere illusions, and I've always gotten a bit of both. He uses alot of mystical and spiritual language in his shows, but he never once claimed that he has supernatual abilities. Regardless, I always wondered, until I saw him challenge Uri Geller (a self professed psychic whom James Randi famously exposed in the Tonight Show and wrote a book about called 'The Truth about Uri Geller') and Jim Callahan.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Criss Angel called them out on their nonsense. Its always fascinated me to know that Magicians are our first line of defense against magical and superstitious thinking, specially the one that comes from belief in Psychics. The magician is a person who does this kind of stuff for a living, but for entertainment. They claim to have absolutely no paranormal powers, but simply use illusion and trickery to fool the audience. The psychics however, don't simply do this for entertainment, they do it with the claim that they have mystical powers and are in touch with the 'other side'. I'm very glad to see that Criss Angel has positioned himself squarely in the skeptical camp. As a magician, he knows the ins and outs of trickery, and can identify when someone is simply using a magic trick and trying to pass it off as some kind of paranormal ability.

Needless to say, he's my new hero.