Archive for June, 2010

More thought on Utilitarian Bioethics

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Below in my post titled What the “Utilitarians” offer, commenter Shane reasonably rebukes me for speaking too broadly, implying that all atheists agree with Peter Singer and his ilk. Shane was absolutely right that I didn’t properly caveat my statements so it was stated far to broadly. For that, I apologize. From what I’ve seen significant portions of atheists and the vast majority of agnostics do not hold the extreme views of the utilitarian bioethicists like Peter Singer and I apologize for sounding as if I believed that.

However, there is a relationship between atheism and the utilitarian bioethicists that I feel compelled to elaborate on. You will not find religious people advocating for the hyper-darwinian, suffering paranoid ethical positions that people like Singer advance. At the same time, the arguments that Singer and company use are the same arguments that atheists, particularly scientifically oriented ones in general use. While Singer may take them to much further logical extremes than the average atheist, the fact that they’re grounded in the same principles should scare just about everyone, including the atheist who isn’t willing to advance what Singer is.

To be absolutely clear about Singer, while there was a small amount of caricature of Singer in my post (something Shane pointed out as well), I wouldn’t consider it over the top. Who would be willing to deny the following?:

  • Singer advances that elderly and disabled have a moral obligation to kill themselves when they become a burden.
  • Singer thinks both physically and mentally disabled fetuses should be aborted and parents who don’t are doing an injustice to society.
  • Singer thinks infanticide can be justified when pre-natal disabilities are not discovered before birth and the infant can be killed at that point just as they could be aborted before hand.
  • Going further with infants, Singer doesn’t think infants have the rights of “personhood” any more than a cow does.
  • Singer thinks physically and mentally disabled people, even those who are not terminally ill, should have the right to kill themselves.
  • Whether he would encourage them to kill themselves is perhaps stretching it, but Singer dances awful close to that line, crossing it for sure when they become a burden.

These are Singer’s repeatedly stated positions. In the article linked in the post below, he added to it the idea that there’s nothing wrong with the purposeful extinction of the human race through non-reproduction. Just like with encouraging disabled people to kill themselves, while he won’t explicitly state that he things this is a good idea, he dances enough on line without crossing it to know where he’s coming from.

OK, so Singer may be an extreme example, and I concede that many atheists won’t endorse Singer’s extreme positions, but it’s both more common that many would be willing to admit amongst atheists and, and this is the more important point, the philosophical underpinnings are the usually the same.

I purposely chose the cow in my bullet point about infant “personhood” because it’s the animal Dawkins reference to the ethical nature of abortion based on the comparison of the nervous system of a cow and a fetus in TGD. So while Dawkins may not be for infanticide, the reality is that Singer is using the same concepts, the equivalency of animals to our fetuses or our disabled people, to determine whether those human beings have “personhood”, to argue for infanticide.

The underlying concept at play in all of this is human exceptionalism. Human exceptionalism is the idea that a human race is a unique and special species that is set apart from all other species. Only our species is a moral species. This gives every human being special worth, worth beyond that of any other animal.

The alternative is to believe that we are not unique, that being human does not give us particular rights. Instead our worth is determined by our capabilities, both physical and mental. “Personhood” becomes the threshold. “Personhood” is the utilitarian bioethicist’s word to replace “human rights” because they deny that merely being human gives one particular rights. While different groups put the “personhood line” at very different places, some including all sorts of animals as having “personhood” and others thinking only certain humans have “personhood”, they universally believe that certain humans do NOT have “personhood”, even though it may be an extremely small group of humans who miss the cut.

It’s not technically necessary to be religious to believe in human exceptionalism (one could just be observant and see how different we all from all other animals and embrace the idea). At the same time, it IS necessary for religious people, particularly those from western religions, to by definition believe that humanity is special, created by God in a special way and with special worth. Simply stated, just about all religious people believe in human exceptionalism.

Where then does that leave us? Religious, by the very nature of their beliefs will never endorse what Singer does. Atheists, may not be willing to either, but their atheism leaves them open to the possibility. I think it’s important for the average atheist to concede that while they won’t go to the same extremes that Singer does, these utilitarian bioethicists are only able to advance what they do because they deny the existence of God and the exceptional nature of the human race, something that the vast majority of atheists agree on despite being unwilling to take the implications of that statement to its logical extreme.

This is what I was pointing to in my previous post and I believe it to be defensible. Thoughts or rebuttals?

TGD back in my possession

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Update on TGD: I’ve gotten the book back from the library and hope to finish it up this weekend, although it might bleed into next week.

Example of Christian Fundamentalism Gone Wrong

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Dawkins spends a fair amount of time showing examples of religious people who are complete idiots and then tries to extend that generalization to all who believe. I’ve repeatedly shown how his generalizations aren’t accurate. Which brings me to an article I read today that further illustrates the point I’ve been trying to make:

New *Bible* Evidence Obama Is the Antichrist! by Jimmy Akin

The title of the article is a bit confusing, as the article is about refuting a YouTube video that claims that the name of the anti-Christ is “Baw-Rawk ‘U’ Bam-Maw” based on some patched together scripture passages. I encourage you to at a minimum watch the video and if you have time read the article.

The author, Jimmy Akin, is one of those guys who’s too thorough for his own good, often making for very drawn out articles. When I watched the video my response was “All this guy has shown is that there’s a few words in the bible that if you throw them together they sound like Barack Obama.”

But the overall point is this: Mr. Akin is Catholic and very fervently so. I’m similarly Catholic. I’m sure there are plenty of other religious of Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox faith who would similarly watch this video and come away with the “what an idiot” response. And while Dawkins didn’t use this particular example in his book, nor do I know of him ever sighting this video, my instincts tell me that he’d at a minimum stow it away in his own mind as further proof of the ridiculousness of religion.

And he’s wrong. Just because some people misuse religion for their own purposes (in this case in a ridiculous attempt to make President Obama look like the anti-Christ or the devil) doesn’t mean we all will. Some of us take scripture seriously and on the appropriate terms. We don’t manipulate it for our own purposes nor overstate (or understate for that matter) what certain passages imply or mean. We take it seriously enough that when someone like this idiot makes a video abusing scripture, we find it worth our time to rebut him and set the record straight.

Hopefully this is just yet another example of how anecdotal stories don’t prove what Dawkins thinks they prove.

Houston – we have a problem

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Well, I knew I was taking too long to read TGD. I was unable to renew the book this week because someone else has reserved it. So, I’ve got to wait somewhere between 10 days (if the person never picks it up) and 4 weeks (they pick it up towards the end of their time and then the 3 weeks for their reservation).

I’m going to start looking for it at other area libraries as well, so I might have it sooner rather than later.

In the mean time, consider the comment section the place to recommend the next Atheist or anti-Catholic book that you’d like me to read and review.

What the “utilitarians” offer

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Dawkins is a scientist who is also an atheist and as most people who fit that description, they have an amazingly “utilitarian” view of humanity. They ask questions like “Isn’t OK to abort a fetus as long as its nervous system is less developed than a cow, since we kill those for food?”

But Dawkins is not alone, in fact, in these areas he’s a follower, not a leader. The leaders of the utilitarian bioethics movement, a movement led almost entirely by atheist scientists, are people like Peter Singer. I’d like you to read a recent article of his in the New York Times:

Just so there’s no confusion, this is the logical extreme of where the atheist scientists want to take us. If you’re suffering at all, your life isn’t worth living. Down Syndrome? None of you please, you’ll just suffer. Old and suffering? Please kill yourself. You’ll stop suffering and we’re really sick of paying the bills so please hurry up and pull the trigger.

And let me be clear: this is no exaggeration. For years I thought it was an exaggeration, but I’ve read enough now to know. Singer, the author of this article is not some random nutjob. Instead he’s considered one of the leading minds in the bioethics field and a highly esteemed professor at Princeton. From Wikipedia:

Peter Albert David Singer (born 6 July 1946) is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics, approaching ethical issues from a secular preference utilitarian perspective.

He has served, on two occasions, as chair of philosophy at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996, he ran unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004, he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. He has been voted one of Australia’s ten most influential public intellectuals.[1] Singer serves on the Advisory Board of Incentives for Global Health, the NGO formed to develop the Health Impact Fund proposal.

If it weren’t so tragic, I’d find his cynical view of how people look at having children funny. People decide to have kids because what it’ll do for them. “What about ME!?!” And when they don’t, it’s only because the kid’s going to suffer, so we’d better not do it. So let’s just make ourselves extinct.

But his cynical view is just not accurate, or at least it’s not in my family. Just last night when I took my wife out to dinner we were talking about how hard on us it would be to have another kid. How we’re going to have to make sacrifices for the child. But we said, how wonderful it’ll be for that child to have life, to experience all that is beautiful and worth living for.

And even though it wasn’t said at the table, we both believe that a handicapped person is a person who can enjoy life and their life is still worth living, even if it includes pain and suffering. We believe that the human spirit can rise above suffering and pain and do wonderful things.

So this, fellow world citizen, is your choice. You can embrace life as a wonderful thing, even when it’s not “perfect”, like this guy did:

Or you can take the utilitarian atheist scientist view and ask yourself if we’d be better off going extinct as a species because we’re all here just suffering away and life really isn’t worth living. (Or at a minimum let’s get rid of those people, not even let them be conceived, that we’ve determined in advance that their lives won’t be worth living and when we make a “mistake” and they’re born anyway, let’s encourage them to kill themselves.)

Which do you chose?

(Hat Tip: Wesley J. Smith)

TGD – Chapter 8

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Chapter 8 was both every bit as bad as I feared and entirely more reasonable in certain sections that I hoped. It’s titled “What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” Perhaps merely because the chapter title was sufficiently long it didn’t included the deserved extension “A case study in strawmen”.

After a quick introduction suggesting he’s not a confrontational person by nature (a laughable idea if there ever was one), he continues to his first section titled “Fundamentalism and the subversion of science”. Of all of the sections in the chapter this is the one I found most credible, particularly with an appropriately narrow definition of fundamentalist (one that I suspect Dawkins doesn’t subscribe to, but nevertheless an overly broad assertion is better than pure fallacy).

His point is that there are religious out there that are so steadfast in their beliefs that no amount of evidence can sway them from any part of it. He specifically references the creationists who believe the world to be on the order of 6,000 years old (Dawkins uses the over-used term “creationists”, which really means something more broad). I’m friends with people who hold these beliefs and I do occasionally challenge them on it. It does surprise me how steadfastly they hold to an idea that there’s no need for them as a Christian to hold on to and is so overwhelmingly disproven by science. While there are most definitely aspects of certain scientific conclusions that are worth questioning, that the earth is on the order of millions of years old instead of a few thousand, is beyond the pale. Dawkins is right to criticize them.

Here’s the thing: Many religious are not fundamentalist, myself included. Dawkins pretends to make the concession that not all religious are fundamentalists, but based on the reasoning he uses as the chapter continues, it’s clear that he views all religious as fundamentalists. If he’s going to hang his hat on the strawman of all religious think like the people who think the world is only 6,000 years old, he’s relying on something that is observably false. Many of us are open to evidence and do adjust our thoughts accordingly. What Dawkins is blind to is that his evidence/proofs of a lack of a God, as I’ve shown in my reviews to date, are not nearly as convincing as he thinks they are. That our conclusions based on the evidence are different from his does not indicate that our conclusions are not evidence based.

He shifts gears to a new group of extremists who he’s going to type-cast all religious into in his next section titled “The dark side of absolutism”. He speaks of the Muslim extremists who have committed numerous atrocities in the last 20 years, from 9-11 to the London bombings and beyond. No one will doubt how their extremist absolutism is trouble. But where he stretches too far, and he caries this idea into future sections, is that this is representative of all religions and Christianity in particular. He references the term “American Taliban” one of the most ridiculous ideas advanced by people like Dawkins. For the “American Taliban” all Dawkins can dig up is some over the top quotes from a few whack jobs who in no way properly reflect Christianity as a whole. More to the point, even these extremists are in practice non-violent. There is no example of a 9-11 that can be attributed to the “American Taliban”.

He continues building his case against the “American Taliban” in his next section titled “Faith and homosexuality”, again completely overlooking the difference between condemning an act as immoral and taking the law into ones own hands and rising to violence. He quotes some more fringe characters like Fred Phelps (and again I submit that when someone is referencing people that are uniformly ostracized by Christians as an example of what the religion teaches, it shows how desperate they are to make an unjustified connection).

But all of this is just a lead up to what he clearly sees as the linchpin of his “proof” that extremist Muslims and mainstream Christians come from the same fiber. The next section is titled “Faith and the sanctity of human life”. After a couple pages of trying to create a moral framework for why abortion should be permitted (which basically boils down to as long as a fetus has a less developed nervous system than a cow, it’s OK to kill them), he gets down to the real reason he delves into abortion: abortion clinic bombings.

See, for him, this is the proof that the “American Taliban” is every bit as bad as the Muslim Taliban. It’s his one example (and remember my thoughts earlier about Galileo and only having one example) that proves his point. In fact, when one looks at Christianity as a whole, it proves just the opposite, as I’ll demonstrate.

There were admittedly a string of Christian sourced violence in the late 80’s and early 90’s against abortion clinics and they resulted in a handful of deaths. It’s a tragic episode and one that doesn’t reflect well on Christians. However, here’s the key point: it stopped. The Christian leaders throughout America put the pressure on anti-abortion groups to stop the violence and it worked. Until George Tiller was murdered last year, an event that was again roundly criticized by Christian leaders, there had been a full decade without a single notable event and that was after another half decade where violence was on the decline. Not that the protests had stopped, far from it. But the resorting to violence had been effectively stopped.

So I ask you, what speaks more of us Christians? That there was a short period where over-passionate individuals went beyond their Christian calling and resorted to violence, or that Christians as a whole, despite finding abortion abhorrent, refused to allow the violence to continue? Compare that to what is happening with the complete lack of condemnation found in the Muslim community for the Islamic Extremists. There’s just no comparison. There is no “American Taliban”.

After a short section titled “The Great Beethoven Fallacy” which is about a false Internet rumor about Beethoven’s family and why by today’s standards he would have been aborted (OMG! A false Internet rumor! It must be the only one!), he wraps up the chapter with one final topic regarding absolutism/fundamentalism. The last section is titled “How ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism”. I had hoped that the section might give some good guidance as to ways more moderate religions unwittingly endorse fanaticism. As someone who’d prefer to not see my religious name pulled down in the mud by fundamentalists it would be valuable for me to know how to prevent that association from happening and additionally prevent myself from encouraging any fundamentalist activities. Instead the section was mostly about Muslim extremists and how fellow Muslims aren’t doing anything to stop it. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t claim to have a defense for Muslims.

Overall the chapter was a failed attempt to show how extremists/fundamentalists are really par for the course in religion. He fails entirely to make his point. As a Catholic, I can say with confidence we are not fundamentalists and we never endorse violence. To give Dawkins some credit, he has occasionally specifically pointed our how some charge he is going to make (for example the inconsistency of the death penalty/abortion) doesn’t apply to Catholics. Nevertheless, despite making these occasional concessions, he never seems to appreciate the consequence of those concessions. It means that not all religious are fundamentalists. If fundamentalists were all he had a problem with, I’d concede the point. But it’s not. He takes his points that come from extremist and fundamentalist examples and applies it to all religions and all religious people.

I will give Dawkins this. While philosophically against Christian fundamentalists, I’ve perhaps not frequently enough condemned their falsehoods. I’m a naturally confrontational person and so a strive to force myself to limit my confrontations. Unlike the Muslim situation where actual violence results from insufficient condemnation, it didn’t seem as necessary to condemn those who take a fundamentalist view of the Bible, particularly in a public setting. However, if Dawkins and others are going to try and put that millstone around my neck, I think it’s important that all Catholics be stronger about distancing themselves from that sort of viewpoint.

On to Chapter 9…

TGD – Proper understanding of the Bible

Friday, June 4th, 2010

I’ve been trying to decide how to further rebut the views of Dawkins regarding the Bible. Taking a reference by reference approach is madness. It only takes one sentence to say something outlandish and it can take many pages to properly rebut it. But at the same time, something needs to be said.

What I decided what to give a big picture view of how to read and understand the Bible. Please understand that I’m no theologian (by the way, as a quick aside, Dawkins repeated references to all theologians treating the Bible as if it’s all symbolic is as garbage as the rest of his analysis of scripture) so forgive any oversimplifications I’m sure to make. My hope is to give a “big picture” view, which, as all such attempts do, will overlook some of the nuances.

The first key thing to note about the Bible is that is not “a book” it’s two collections of books, both collections containing dozens of books. It should be read not as one cohesive book but as the writings of numerous people all of whom share in common the inspiration of God in their writing. At a minimum this means we need to be looking for different writing styles. Some of them are writing as a historian, some are writing more like story-tellers where the specific facts are not as important the storyline (which in no way compromises the historicity of the events) and uses more metaphorical language amongst the historical facts. Some are writing poetry, some are writing prose. Some are writing laws, some are writing words of encouragement. Some are writing warnings, some are writing good tidings. If one doesn’t understand the intent of each author, one risks massively missing the point.

The second key is that the Bible as a collection is a story of the journey of God’s people. It shows our failings and our successes. It shows our joys and our mourning. It shows our strengths and our weaknesses. In no way should one ever assume that because a holy person did it in scripture that God desired it and the actions were just. If anything it’s quite the opposite. The Bible is a story of a people who want to be close to God but fail at every step. And at every step, God forgives and asks us to get back up and earnestly try again. There are times there are consequences for our actions and sometimes God’s mercy is greater than at others.

Through the Bible we learn of God’s master plan to bring knowledge of Him to everyone in the world. He starts with just a few and then grows it into a larger group and eventually brings that message to the whole world through Christ. By the very nature of the plan, God’s treatment of people changes over time. His rules for the Jewish people were different than they are for us today. At first He treats us like children but over time He continues to let us grow in our understanding of Him, and consequently the rules we’re bound by, over the course of salvation history.

The final key is to make sure you put individual passages, chapters and books in the appropriate context of the whole work. The book of Ecclesiastes, which without the context of the rest of scripture would seem to suggest that our time on earth is a horrible, purposeless, useless and terrifying prospect, has quite a different meaning when it’s put in the context of scripture as a whole. One needs to ask oneself how to rectify seemingly contradictory statements (instead of just throwing up ones hands and saying “gotcha!”). Trust me, Dawkins explanation that effectively nobody has read scripture and if they did they’d reject it, is just stupid. Tons of theologians, clergy and lay people have read all of scripture and are fully aware of all these “gotchas”. But still they believe. Why? Because they understood it in the proper context. Ecclesiates becomes a book about how God is where we should put our trust, not the physical world around us. It’s trying to show just how meaningless our lives are if all we focus on is this short life. “Men come and go, but earth abides,” as it says. The meta-point is to put your emphasis somewhere else; put your trust in God.

For what it is worth, there’s plenty a fundamentalist who makes the mistake Dawkins makes. He latches on to certain scripture passages and fails to see the big picture. He reads “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not by works, lest any man should boast.” and concludes that a follower of Christ is not obligated to do anything but believe. No works are necessary. It completely ignores the context of the rest of scripture including quotes like “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels: And then will he render to every man according to his works.” While the mistake comes from a person of faith instead of an atheist, the fundamental mistake is the same.

The Dawkins solution to the above conundrum is to say “Gotcha!” and the fundamentalist solution is to pick and chose their favorite passages, but the proper response is to understand the larger context that while faith is of critical importance, it’s meaningless to have faith if we don’t act on it.

My final rebuttal to Dawkins is to make it clear just how little of the Bible he’s picking on. When one talks to those who attack the Bible, they find that the same few examples get brought up over and over and then they ignore all the rest. It’s like the pounding of the drum about Galilleo. Even though there’s much to rebut about the claims of the scientific atheist, the bigger question is “Is that all you’ve got? Over 2000 years of the Church ‘running the world’, all you have is one guy from nearly 400 years ago?” So while Dawkins is picking on 3 or 4 stories, he’s completely ignoring page after page that condemns rape and murder and all the things he claims the Bible supports based on these few stories. Taken in context it’s obvious that the point of those stories is not what Dawkins claims they are. Stated more fully, the rest of scripture helps us to understand those stories because we know by the rest of scripture that the these things are wrong. If Abraham murdering his son would be wrong based on scripture, we’re left trying to understand why God asked it of Abraham and we find the answer in it being a test.

The Bible is the word of God and our morality of today can very easily be sourced back to the principles laid out in the Bible. While our understanding of the principles in scripture have matured as time has gone on, it’s all there. In fact, so much of what has changed over the centuries is BECAUSE of spending more time getting to understand scripture and what God has told us. The ideals of equality are a perfect example of that. The failure’s of God’s people are not because it’s not clearly laid out, it’s because, as is the case with so much of salvation history, we’re slow to get the message no matter how clearly God tells us.

Don’t fall for Dawkins deception.