Archive for April, 2010

TGD – Chapter 2

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

I’ve finished Chapter 2 and I’m glad to report that Dawkins settles down somewhat in the 2nd half of the chapter and sticks to a point for more than a sentence or two.

As mentioned before, the chapter starts with sections on polytheism and monotheism where Dawkins is all over the place. The best summary I can make for these two sections, and apologies to Dawkins if this was not at all his point, but that one religion is as condemnable as the next, they’re all the same. Since he’s most familiar with Christianity, he’ll be using it as the “template” for disproving all religions. If this is the point he’s trying to make, it’s a difficult one to tease out because it’s obscured by his general scoffing at religion and Christianity in particular.

He settles down somewhat in the next section to talk about the Founding Fathers of America and makes an argument for their being more secular than anything else. He means this in the political sense more so than the religious sense, but he also spends some time to show them as perhaps Deists instead of Christians and perhaps some of them as far as atheists. I suspect his point is to try and tear down some of the foundation of Christians and I suspect for some Christians his points would do that. There is no doubt a thread of “America is the New Holy Land” and the Founding Fathers are its prophets, in American Protestantism, which is most specifically evident in the Mormons, but I feel no angst in seeing that torn down.

However, he goes one step further in that section to suggest that the American political system has turned from healthy secularism to a quasi-democratic theocracy over the centuries and the Founding Fathers would be mortified. With this I must object. Anyone who reads the daily headline knows that American politics is becoming more non-religious every year since the 60’s (at a minimum). Instead of looking at the big picture, Dawkins focuses on the near requirement that a presidential candidate be religious. While I think he stretches that point too far, I will concede that it is true that the American electorate does care about the religious beliefs of their politicians. This is still something entirely different that suggesting that America wants those politicians to implement a theocracy. The number of characteristics that the electorate want from their politicians that has nothing to do with what legislation the electorate wants advanced is longer than this blog could catalog.

The next section of the chapter is on agnosticism, which Dawkins divides into two camps: TAP, a form that remains agnostic “temporarily” while the evidence is being compiled and PAP, a form that asserts that one can NEVER know the answer to a question. He uses the example of Carl Sagan in regards to alien life and how he is agnostic to it while research is being done but that Sagan believes that someday we can have the answer to the question.

It’s a reasonable distinction, but this is where Dawkins goes terribly wrong and I fear this false premise will be foundational for the rest of the book. He asserts that TAP is the only reasonable form of religions agnosticism because God’s existence is a scientific question that can be answered. That’s complete hogwash. However, it’s a complex enough point that a full rebuttal is required and you should expect that in a separate post so as to not make the chapter summary overly lengthy.

Nevertheless, this false premise is the foundation for the rest of the chapter. He next addresses the idea of Non Overlapping MAgisterium, or NOMA for short, that science has one set of expertise that does not overlap with the entirely separate expertise that is religion. He rightly asserts that NOMA is a result of the PAP mindset, that science can’t speak to religion. He further asserts that this doesn’t make any sense for two reasons. The first is that theologians have no expertise in anything and therefore there is no magisterium for them to promote. His basic justification for this, although it is stated implicitly, is that science can answer any question and if it can’t nobody else can. The second, and now that I think of it, it’s just a correlary of the first, is that theologians will gladly use the realm of science when it meets their ends. If they can “cross over”, why can’t the scientist? Or at least that’s Dawkins question.

Dawkins finishes out the chapter with three sections, each of which are examples of this principle in his mind. The first is on the “great prayer experiment” where scientists had people pray for sick individuals to see if it was efficacious. The experiment turns out as he would hope with no benefit at all. That said, he’s less concerned with the results of the experiment than with the idea that you can make a scientific experiment out of a religious proposition. It’s a proof point to him that science can answer these questions. I’ll fully expose the errors of that in the upcoming post.

The second of these final three sections is on what he calls “The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” where he picks on scientists who tend to agree with NOMA. This is one of his less coherent sections where the best I can do to summarize it is to say he’s encouraging scientists to deny NOMA because some religious people do from the opposite end. Over stating Dawkins point a bit, this is a war and no Switzerland’s will be permitted.

Finally, to wrap up the chapter he returns to the example of agnosticism regarding life elsewhere in the galaxy in two ways. First he shows how we’re slowly removing the agnosticism of it through SETI’s work and refinement of the Drake equation (although he reasonably admits there’s a long way to go). This is obviously another attempt to further the idea that the same can be said of God’s existence. Secondly he goes to the idea that a vastly superior alien race would seem God-like to us. Amongst other things he suggests this is a big part of the reasons native populations around the world converted to Christianity, because the western Christian’s technology seemed God-like to them. I’ll ignore that stupid canard because it’s just a distraction long-term. But then he poses this question “In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods?” And his answer is profoundly accurate:

In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and gold-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, the didn’t start that way.

He’s absolutely right (although he makes all the wrong conclusions). God is very different from that which seems god-like in the world and it is entirely God’s non-evolution that makes Him so special. Otherwise he’d just be another material creation. However God is far greater than that.

Dawkins seems to think this a compelling point for his side and suggests this will be central to Chapter 4. But Chapter 3 is first and it is about tearing down the proofs for religion.

Bad reporting

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

There’s been lots of talk lately about how the media plays into the sex abuse scandal and while it’s an interesting topic, it’s not what this post is about. The aspect of ‘bad reporting’ I want to talk to is a certain tone-deafness of reporters who are not familiar with the Church to understand what the right headlines are for a statement from the Church.

I figure the best way to do this is by example. I saw this headline on Slashdot: “Pope Rails Against the Internet and Transparency“. The text of the post says:

At a conference on digital media at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI attacked the idea of transparency in the Internet age, warning that digital transparency exacerbates tensions between nations and within nations themselves and increases the ‘dangers of … intellectual and moral relativism,’ which can lead to ‘multiple forms of degradation and humiliation’ of the essence of a person, and to the ‘pollution of the spirit.’ All in all, it seemed a pretty grim view of the wide-open communication environment being demanded by the Internet age.

Being no stranger to how things get taken out of context, I clicked on the link to the underlying article. That took me to a article that was a lead-in article to some documentary, so it still wasn’t mostly about what the Pope actually said, but it does include this paragraph:

“The times in which we living knows a huge widening of the frontiers of communication,” he said (according to our Italian fixer/producer) and the new media of this new age points to a more “egalitarian and pluralistic” forum. But, he went on to say, it also opens a new hole, the “digital divide” between haves and have-nots. Even more ominous, he said, it exacerbates tensions between nations and within nations themselves. And it increases the “dangers of … intellectual and moral relativism,” which can lead to “multiple forms of degradation and humiliation” of the essence of a person, and to the “pollution of the spirit.” All in all, it seemed a pretty grim view of the wide open communication parameters being demanded by the Internet age.

I want you to note a couple things:

  1. Notice the partial sentence quotes. That’s a big red flag. Paragraphs can be taken slightly out of context. Sentences can be taken significantly out of context. Partial sentences, that’s a clue that the reporter couldn’t even find a whole sentence that fit what the point they were trying to make and the REALLY had to stretch it.
  2. Notice how slashdot’s paragraph was mostly a quote from this it is significantly different than what Slashdot had. There’s no mention of transparency, nor any of “attack”. Already we’ve got a morphing sense of what Benedict said.

Which brings us to the transcript of what was actually said. I encourage everyone to read it, but assuming your time is limited here are some key quotes:

Without fear we want to set out upon the digital sea embracing the unrestricted navigation with the same passion that for 2,000 years has steered the barque of the Church.

Dear Friends, you are called to take on the role of “animators of the community” on the Internet too, attentive to “prepare the ways that lead to the Word of God,” and to express a particular sensitivity to “the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute” (ibid.). The Internet could in this way become a kind of “Court of the Gentiles,” where “there is also a space for those who have not yet come to know God” (ibid.).

As animators of culture and communication, you are a living sign of how much “Church communities have always used the modern media for fostering communication, engagement with society, and, increasingly, for encouraging dialogue at a wider level” (ibid.).

As I thank you for the service you give to the Church and therefore to the cause of man, I exhort you to walk the roads of the digital continent, animated by the courage of the Holy Spirit.

See, when you get right down to it, what the Pope said was that digital media is a powerful forum, one that we should make use of to spread the Gospel. It can be use to spread falsehoods and to tear down humanity or it can be used to build up humanity. He’s encouraging us to make it the latter. It had NOTHING to do with “condemning” the Internet. It had even less to do with transparency, of which there is literally no mention in his speech.

See how different that is from what the naive person who just reads the slashdot post thinks?

The thing is, it’s not that the chain of reporters and commentators that brought it to what was posted on slashdot are trying to be misleading, it’s that they don’t understand enough about Catholicism to understand how to properly report on it. They know when Ralph Nader says that a certain car is “unsafe at any speed” he’s not saying that cars themselves are bad, just that they need to be made more safely. But when they hear the equivalent thing from the Pope, the headline reads “Pope says cars are bad”. I’ve done reporting work and I know how rushed it is. There isn’t time to reflect on what’s said. There’s deadlines to be met. So unless they’re extremely well tuned to the context from which the Pope is speaking, they’re bound to be tone-deaf to the underlying point. They don’t have the context to know that he’s not criticizing the Internet itself, but only the risks that go along with it, just like cars have risks that go along with it.

So I encourage everyone, when you read a headline about “the Vatican” or “the Pope”, don’t take it at face value. Do a little digging and read the full speech. They’re usually not that long. Heck, even get a hold of me and I’ll find you the source material. You may still come away significantly disagreeing with the Pope, but you’ll at least be disagreeing with what he actually said, not the deadline hurried tone-deaf version of it. And everyone will be far better off for it.

Quick hitters – New pastor, still working on TGD

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Today’s quick hitters:

  • Our parish is getting a new pastor with Father Liam retiring. We just got word last weekend that Father Steven Foppiano from St. Thomas More Parish in Paradise, CA will be replacing him. It sounds like he will be missed in Paradise, which I’ll take as a good sign. Thank you St. Thomas More for your generosity, forced or otherwise. Just as interesting is that Fr. Foppiano seems to be a tech-savvy priest with a facebook page and everything. That’s awesome. Welcome Fr. Foppiano!
  • Don’t take the lack of post on TGD as a sign that I’ve given up. I lost access to the book over the weekend in a library snafu when it had to be renewed. I think my wife has it back now. I’m still going to push on and read it. Life just occasionally gets in the way.

Comments enabled

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I’ve been blogging away wondering why nobody has been commenting because when I look at the page, it allows for comments. But I’m always logged in as an administrator. Fat, Dumb and Happy, that was me.

Until today.

Today I clicked through to someone who linked to the blog and he indicated he couldn’t comment. I realized my wordpress settings only allowed commenting from people who had accounts and there’s no way for people to setup an account for themselves (nor do I want that). Long story short (too late!) I’ve re-enabled anonymous commenting.

One request: please keep any comments respectful. Disagreement is allowed as is strong arguments, but there’s no need for name calling or ad hominem attacks. Unacceptably vulgar or rude comments will either be edited or deleted if there’s not a single savable sentence. If you’re respectful, I promise to respond in kind.

Quick hitters – 13th day, nasty politics and TGD

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Today’s quick hitters:

  • I watched “The 13th Day”. It was pretty good, the production quality was surprisingly good in fact, but I felt like it tried to be a bit too artistic and was shorter on facts and details than I would have liked. I’m not a big follower of Marian apparitions, so I don’t know a lot about Fatima, and I was really hoping to learn more details than the movie gives out. However, it does cover the basics and does a very good job of humanizing the events. Sometime miraculous events are depicted in such a sterile fashion, but the movie did a good job of showing the range of human emotions associated to one. I definitely recommend the movie: 3 1/2 stars. (I’m a tough grader)
  • I got a political advertisement in the mail recently that really ticked me off. It was for the CA governors race and the ad was from Meg Whitman who is winning due to her 60 million dollar personal war chest. The print ad attacks Poizner for his pro-choice views. Talk about the kettle calling the pot black! Whitman’s pro-choice herself. Now in “fairness” to her, she’s a “soft” pro-choicer in that she’s against VERY late term abortions (last 3-months) and is in favor of parental notification as the interview linked makes clear. But the ad she attacks Poizner in goes after him for positions she herself holds like public funding of abortion. Unbelievable…
  • As for the good news, I should have time this weekend to read and post about chapter 2 of TGD.

Quick Hitters – fair use, Fatima and fatwas

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Today’s quick hitters:

  • I saw this article today about how YouTube has taken down a bunch of the Downfall movie parodies. What a shame. A number of those were very good. The article makes a good point. I saw the movie after I saw a couple of those parodies and the movie was very good. I’ve recommended it to others. The parodies are the best thing that ever happened to that relatively obscure movie. Not to be outdone, a member of EFF, made a new parody about Hitler complaining about the parodies. (Caution: 2 f-bombs and a couple other minor language issues.) How awesome is that? And for good measure, he posted it on vimeo instead of youtube.
  • Tonight I’m going to watch the movie The 13th Day: The True Story of Fatima. We’ll see if it’s any good. Sometimes B-rate Catholic movies can be great finds. Other times they can be complete bombs. Most of the Netflix reviews are positive, but that too can be misleading as the desire for it to be good can color one’s perspective. I’ll have a short review tomorrow.
  • I heard about this on the radio this morning and then saw the article later. The creator’s of South Park are being physically threatened, just as Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his film. I’m glad the offending site was taken down, but it seems to me it’s more proof that a brewing storm is coming. The worst part is, it doesn’t seem there is a good solution to the problem. I will say this, anyone who think “all religions are the same” needs to appreciate situations like this. South Park has been making fun of Christians and Jews and all sorts of Eastern religions for years. Heck, their first ever episode was a show down between Jesus and Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas (which I thought was hilarious). And never in those times did anyone threaten the creators of the show physically. Sure there was the occasional call for the boycott or whatever, but that’s entirely different than calling for someone to murder them.

Quick Hitters – Crazy busy

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Today’s extra quick hitters:

  • I’ve been amazingly busy at work. For some reason they don’t want to just give me the paycheck for free.
  • I’m kinda an anti-Apple guy, although not to the degree my brother is. However, Jobs statement that there will be no porn on the iPhone App Store puts me in their camp. There’s no need for that. People who want porn can always use their browser.
  • If word ever got out about the power parents have by keeping their kids home from school in CA, there would be HUGE changes to public after all the boycotts started taking their toll. Case in point, after two years of trying to get a teacher removed, the school district caved after ONE DAY of 80% of the kids staying home for a boycott. Losing $9,000 in state funds per day will do that to a school district.

Hopefully I won’t be working extra hours soon and I can get back to TGD.

TGD – Tax Exempt Status

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Ever since the 2008 elections in California, there’s been a small group of people loudly yelling for the removal of the tax exempt status of churches. I always thought that the Prop. 8 election in California was the genesis because lots of religious people donated to Prop. 8. But it appears that there’s an earlier genesis point because Dawkins brings it up in TGD. I don’t know if he’s the genesis point, but at a minimum this idea has been around since the book was published in 2006.

The issue is significant enough that I thought it was worth it’s own post.

Here’s my overall point, I don’t think these people know what they’re asking for. Churches pay property tax, they pay payroll tax, their employees pay income tax (and it’s deducted from their paychecks like everyone else), there’s really no tax that exists that the church itself doesn’t pay.

“What about corporate income tax?” someone may ask. By definition, there is none. Being a non-profit, they can’t have income. And in reality, they don’t. All the money that comes in, goes out to either administrative costs (which would include salaries, utilities, taxes and things like building costs) or goes to charities.

And let’s be perfectly clear, there’s nothing in the tax code that requires a corporate entity to be religious to be non-profit or even a charitable non-profit. I’m a member of a sailing club that is incorporated and we’re incorporated as a non-profit. We’re not a charitable non-profit, so any donations to our club are not tax deductible (make a note of this) but we don’t pay any income taxes despite the fact that collect tens of thousands of dollars each year in dues, regatta fees and other miscellaneous income. We can do this because every single dollar goes back out the door to our expenses.

Circling back to tax deductible donations, this is the one area where there is room for debate. It is true that a charitable non-profit does have an advantage over other non-profits, like my sailing club, and over profitable companies. When people donate to those charitable non-profits, THEY get to deduct that from their personal income tax. It’s a way for the government to encourage charity. But to be clear, the churches themselves don’t benefit in the tax code! Those who donate do.

Some would argue that this tax deductible donation incentive is the only reason people donate, but as the 40 million dollars that were donated to the ‘Yes on 8′ campaign (which is NOT tax deductible) demonstrates, I don’t think that is the case. They’ll donate either way.

Now, if there is a point to be made, it’s that some churches are not really charities, that they don’t take a significant portion of their money and give it back out in a charitable fashion, so the people who donate to them don’t deserve a tax deduction for donating. I won’t argue with that reality a bit. Dawkins points out a couple of televangelists who profit handsomely from their “ministry” and no doubt he’s right that there are “ministers” out there who fleece people of their money in the name of religion and/or charity and never deliver on anything. I have no defense of them.

Speaking as a Catholic, that same charge can not be leveled against us. We give out HUGE sums of money to charitable causes. In fact, here’s my challenge to all those who think that “churches should have their tax exempt status removed”:

I challenge you to come up with a policy for what constitutes a charitable non-profit that in no way references religion (either in the positive OR THE NEGATIVE) that would eliminate the Catholic Church from eligibility while still leaving 90% of existing secular charitable non-profits as eligible.

I submit it can not be done. I further submit that unless it can be done, particularly because most other large churches are similar to the Catholic Church in this regard, this is all much ado about nothing.

TGD – Frustrated by Chapter 2

Friday, April 16th, 2010

I was reading Chapter 2 last night and I was very frustrated by it. Ultimately I stopped reading about half way through the chapter because I just wasn’t getting what Dawkins was trying to say.

And let me be perfectly clear… It wasn’t that I disagreed with what he was saying, I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make. The chapter is titled “The God Hypothesis” and it’s broke down into subsections titled “Polytheism”, “Monotheism”, “Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the religion of America”, “The poverty of agnosticism” and that’s as far as I got. So I figured he’d be laying out what the basic hypothesis of polytheism, monotheism, secularism and agnosticism were, so that he could pick them apart.

But he does nothing of the sort.

The polytheism section was mostly about Christianity, trying to show how it was at least in some ways polytheistic. The monotheism section was mostly about the tax exempt status of churches (specific post on this topic coming shortly) and the secularism was mostly a bunch of quotes of selective founding fathers scoffing at religion.

And I feel bad summarizing it that way because he said a number of other things in those sections, but it’s ALL over the map. He doesn’t stick to a single point long enough to drive any meaningful point home. I didn’t much bring it up in the preface and even in Chapter 1 because I wanted to be forgiving of it since it’s common early in a book to lay out a little bit of everything and then get into each point in more detail later.

We’re in the meat of the book now and he’s still unable to stick to a single point for more than a couple sentences and I have to tease out some meta point from amongst the jumping around.

If that weren’t enough to be frustrating, those here today gone tomorrow points are often grossly misleading. I’ll give two examples:

1. In the section on polytheism, he speaks of all the names we Catholics give Mary. Our Lady of Lourdes, our Lady of Fatima, etc. and then suggests that this is an example of the polytheistic nature of Catholicism. But yet their just different names for the same person. They’re ALL MARY!?! That’s not even to get into the reality that Mary isn’t God in Catholic teaching, yet another point that he bungee jumps in and out of without any meaningful defense of his position. One could attempt to make the argument that Catholics treat Mary in a godlike fashion and, although wrong, at least have some credibility to the argument. But the splitting out of the various names given to Mary, and citing it as an example of polytheism, that’s just stupid.

2. He also speaks of the Arian heresy. For those not in the know, Arian was one of a number of heretics who didn’t believe in the Trinity and specifically that Jesus was fully God and fully Human. Again, a reasonable argument could be made against the Trinity (and Dawkins does scoff at the Trinity, but just like other topics, doesn’t make any coherent argument for why it’s wrong other than to scoff) or the dual nature of Christ. But Dawkins doesn’t even attempt to do that. All he does is characterize the Arian heresy about being about disagreements ‘essence’ and ‘substance’. While those words are indeed used in the debates over Arian heresy, it entirely misses the larger point of the theological discussion.

I guess my overall point is that it’s very hard to follow a book that’s all over the place to begin with but it’s even harder when he’s not being intellectually honest about what he’s refuting.

But I shall persevere. I think I re-start from the beginning of Chapter 2. Perhaps my reading of the table of contents had me expecting something else than what he gives and that made it harder for me to follow.

Welcome Shea followers!

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

I’m assuming I’ll get a click from every one of his 394 followers that have to do his daily bidding, so welcome to all of you who have come here from Mark Shea’s blog. If you’re just interested in the review of The God Delusion as publicized on his blog, you can click on the category I have for it (Catholicism – The God Delusion).

But if you’re at all interested in my inane thoughts as well as that, I try to daily do a Quick Hitters post and then you’ll occasionally get a rant on some other topic like 50% proud a few days ago.

Welcome! I hope you come back often.

Update on 4/15: I’m going to keep this post on top for a few days. See below for new posts, including my review of chapter 1.