TGD – Chapter 10

July 8th, 2010

Dawkins wraps up “The God Delusion” with a wide ranging chapter titled “A Much Needed Gap?” He starts off the chapter with a discussion of childhood imaginary friends and tying them to the belief in God. At first he goes with the paedomorphosis suggestion, that what children do that adults should not do but some don’t grow out of. There’s no need to even rebut this idea as it clearly comes from his biased position. Then he spends some toying with the opposite, that imaginary friends are the evolutionary left-overs of the instinct to believe in God, which assumably we no longer need. But you can tell Dawkins himself doesn’t much buy into this theory, at a minimum, it has the problem of suggesting it was valuable at some time.

The next section is titled “Consolation” and it’s Dawkins attempt to rebut the idea that even if God doesn’t exist, he’s worth believing in because he gives comfort to others. He addresses two aspects of it, both suggesting that just because something feels good, doesn’t mean we should endorse the idea irrelevant of its truth (I wholeheartedly agree with him on that) and that there’s little evidence that belief in God is of any comfort.

On that I entirely disagree as a former atheist. The thing the atheist has to come to terms with is that this life will be all there is. Dawkins touches on this idea, suggesting that it’s a thrilling challenge that makes life more enjoyable. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also the opposite, that mistakes are far more unforgivable. If you make a mistake that prematurely costs you your life, that’s it. So the atheist is left with the very difficult challenge of living life to its fullness but doing it in a way that is as mistake free as possible. It’s a very difficult balance. Should I go sky-diving and get the thrill of that or should I avoid it because it could prematurely end my life? I personally found it very uncomforting and am far more at peace since discovering God’s existence. Am I perfectly at peace? No. I still question things and worry and do all the things that my faith tell me I shouldn’t be concerned with. But I recognize that as part of my human nature and try to turn away from it. Overall, I’m still at far more peace than I used to be.

There’s not much notable in this section of the book outside of that, but there was an odd diversion to talking of purgatory that I feel obligated to rebut. The first point is the justification for purgatory. Dawkins rightly points out that the high level justification is that without it there would be no purpose in praying for the dead, as a soul would be either in eternal paradise or damnation from the moment of their death without a place in the middle. But then he dismisses it saying that all it shows is that prayer for the dead is meaningless. There’s a whole thread of building blocks that would need to be laid to justify the following statement, and I lack the time to lay all that out, but the key statement is that we’ve been given by God assurance that prayer for the dead is efficacious. Of course, Dawkins would reject that evidence, but the point is that within our boundaries, it makes perfect sense. What Dawkins is attempting to do is use this example to further disprove the worldview because it seems so ridiculous to him, but in fact, he’s using circular logic, since from within our worldview it makes complete logical sense.

He also spends a fair amount of time picking on the Church for “selling” indulgences, a topic of which there is much confusion and perversion of what happened in the past. The perspective of the Church is that by doing good, one can shorten the amount of purification that one needs in purgatory. It’s a pretty obvious concept. If we get our act in gear on earth, there will be less need to do so in purgatory. And if one thinks about it, generosity is one of the key tenants of Christianity. So telling someone that by giving of their wealth to a good cause they are reducing their time in purgatory is similarly uncontroversial once one thinks about it. What stepped over the line was the over specific nature of the indulgences given based on very specific sums of money. There’s no doubt that this cheapened what is fundamentally a sound idea and turned a spiritual truth into the “selling” of something that the Church has always taught can not be sold (and even did so at the time despite engaging in a practice that implicitly undermined the idea). But this is wholly different than what the Church is accused of in general and Dawkins plays right into that stereotypical misunderstanding.

Dawkings wraps up the chapter and the book with an oddly “spiritual” section titled “Inspiration”. His main point is that the world is an amazing place. He talked about the frequencies of light we can’t see being far more abundant than those we can. He talks about how the space between atoms is so huge that what seems solid is effectively empty space. He talks about the wonders of quantum mechanics. He talks about all of things things in a “wow, they’re all so amazing. It’s amazing how little we know and understand about the universe!” kinda way. It honestly had me scratching my head. All of these things are so complex and far beyond our comprehension yet he’s so absolutely confident that there’s no “god” lurking amongst these unknowns? He’s had so much confidence and so much clarity that science has all but shown that God doesn’t exist, but when he wraps things up, it’s an amazing world that we know so little about.

It left me thinking that Dawkins and his ilk are the close minded ones. They’ve decided what science has to say on the matter, heck, they’ve gone so far as to try to define science in such a way that basically excludes the possibility of a deity, but yet they freely admit how little they know. Sure there are other ways that many religious are close minded, but when I look at God, I’m left with the same sense of wonder and awe and the confidence that I know so little.

Finally, it all comes back to his early assertion that in his mind there can be no “NOMA” (Non-Overlapping Magisterium). I find everything he talks about as amazing in the universe just as amazing and wonderful as he does. I’m excited to see where the science takes us as we learn more and more about these things. His assumption that faith and science are incompatible is complete hogwash and he’s done nothing to prove otherwise in his book. So while Dawkins looks at the universe and is marveled by it, I too am similarly marveled by it. I too want to learn more about it. In addition I’m marveled by that which extends beyond the physical universe to the meta-physical and am similarly as marveled by it as I am by the physical universe and I’m eager to learn more and take the evidence where it leads me in both realms.

In the end, I don’t think I’m the close minded one.

TGD – Chapter 9

July 6th, 2010

Chapter 9 is titled “Childhood, Abuse and the Escape From Religion”. It’s a chapter I’ve somewhat been looking forward to both because Dawkins has referenced it a number of times in previous chapters and because having 3 children myself, I’m keenly aware of the importance of bringing one’s children up well and very protective of my right, and I do believe it is one of the most fundamental rights that exists, to raise my children as I see fit.

Dawkins starts off the chapter with the story of Edgardo Mortara. As Dawkins tells it, and I have no knowledge of these events but considering Dawkins track record of distorting events regarding religious people I wouldn’t be the least surprised if there’s more to the story than Dawkins suggests, Edgardo was a Jewish boy who was taken from parents when he was 6 by the government of the papal states (what is now Italy). The reason he was taken, according to Dawkins, was that he had been secretly baptized at some earlier point in his life. As Dawkins rightly points out, baptism is the defining sacrament of Christianity, and according to him the reason he was taken was that so now as a Christian he could receive a proper Christian education.

The story alone wouldn’t be too troubling to anyone if it were truly an isolated case, but according to Dawkins this was both a common practice at the time and in his words, “the attitudes of mind that it betrays are lamentably current, even though the practical details are not.” Dawkins uses this slight of hand all the time and it’s worth pointing out again that slight. He doesn’t suggest what “attitudes” he’s speaking of… is it just religious attitudes? Or is there some large scale Christian desire to kidnap children and educate them in the faith? Dawkins doesn’t say and I think it’s entirely intentional. He wants to let the mind think the latter without saying it explicitly or having to defend an outlandish claim like that.

Similarly, he suggests it was quite common at the time, but then points to the international uproar over this specific event, things that are nearly mutually exclusive. As with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, we don’t talk much about specific cases because the issue is one of the magnitude of it. The same would have been true here if it were so common as Dawkins suggests. In fact, later in the chapter, long after he’s made the emotional point he’s after, concedes that “it is surprising that cases like Edgardo Mortara’s were not more common than they were.”

In either case, the key point is that Dawkins would have a hard time suggesting that there’s any significant movement anywhere in the Christian world to kidnap children from people who are going to raise their children in some other faith (including atheism).

Dawkins finishes up the section with an odd aside, suggesting that the parents of Edgardo were just as stupid because they didn’t “[accept] the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptised themselves.” He suggests that “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” were all that stood between them and their child and they were foolish to not do it “with their fingers crossed”. Seriously? Could you IMAGINE the uproar Dawkins would have if he were expected to be baptized to get some benefit? There is NO WAY this man would submit to “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” and he would starkly describe why he wouldn’t do it as a matter of principle.

The next section is titled “Physical and Mental Abuse” and it is mostly about Dawkins suggesting that raising one’s child in a specific faith is worse than a priest sexually molesting children. I wish I were making this up, but to quote him specifically so there’s no confusion on the matter: “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” He even defends the Catholic Church who is being attacked by a bunch of vigilantes whereas any sane person, even us Catholics, know we deserve 95% of the criticism we’re getting and it’s extremely important that we stop it (which, at least here in the US, we have (annual cases of abuse in 1975: approx. 800. 2009: 6)).

He spends the rest of the section sharing excerpts of letters of people who were traumatized by their religious upbringing, specifically about hell and associated nightmares. Of course there’s no mention of the fact that tons of children have nightmares about all sorts of things, from finding out meat comes from animals to that when Uncle Bob dies that’s the end of his existence and he will be no more. (I personally know of a few cases of people who came to faith because of near panic over that realization of the atheist viewpoint). It matters not if it can be terrifying to a child, what matters is whether it is true.

The next two sections are titled “In Defense of Children” and “An Educational Scandal” and are the closest Dawkins comes to saying what he would suggest as an alternative to the religious and parental freedom to raise our children in the faith of our choosing. He starts out by attacking freedom of speech in this regard. Quoting Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, Dawkins suggests “In short, children have the right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.” It’s at this point Dawkins attempts to address the obvious objection to any of this. Who determines what is nonsense? His lone defense is that this is about “how” to think not “what”. If you’ve been reading the rest of these reviews, you’ll know how ridiculous of a claim that is. I’m quite confident that Dawkins wouldn’t limit himself to just teaching kids how to think and his very strong opinions would be front and center if he were setting the world wide curriculum of schools.

But beyond thinking that public schools shouldn’t be able to teach any religious principles, something he focuses on an example of in Britain in the “Scandal” section, Dawkins doesn’t suggest what kind of policy he’s actually after. Even though he makes it clear that children should be free of religious education “especially the education a child receives at home”, there’s no mention of what exactly the policy should be. Should the state be able to kidnap (term chosen based on the Edgardo story from earlier in the chapter) children from religious families to be brought up by the state? He doesn’t say. Or perhaps jailing those parents in the better solution? Fines? One can’t have a law without a punishment and I think Dawkins refuses to address the matter because he knows how crazy any suggestion would sound.

Overall, I think that Dawkins completely misunderstands the nature of freedom. I believe he thinks of it in terms of betterment of society because it allows people to challenge outmoded ideas that were prevalent to date. Beyond that, I think he sees it as a detriment. To some extent he’s right. Freedom, whether it be to raise a child as you wish or in some entirely different respect, has it’s problems. Everything from having the freedom to yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater to the freedom to have specifically disingenuous television ads, has certain negative affects on society. At the same time, a lack of freedom has tremendous downsides as well. It is the reality of these downsides, how quickly what seems like reasonable limitations on what one can say, do or think, can transform into a highly restrictive dictatorship, that has made western society so resistant to any significant restrictions, particularly on freedom of speech.

One need only look at Soviet Russia to see how this happens. What started as a way to free them from the supposedly repressive religious state quickly turned into a state where religion was effectively outlawed. And the way they did it was eerily similar to what Dawkins seems to be suggesting: compulsory state education free (really antagonistic to) of religion and making it illegal to share the faith with children until they’ve reached the age of reason. The result was that they became a totalitarian state that controlled far more than just religion, but matters across the board.

Are there people who abuse the freedom to raise their children in their ridiculous beliefs? Yes, there are, and Dawkins points to a few of them. However the cure to that disease is far worse than the illness. This is something that is a lesson the whole world has learned over the last 1000 years, even the Catholic Church who’s supposedly been the stick in the mud on the subject, but apparently something that Dawkins is at least somewhat oblivious to.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with a section titled “Consciousness-raising Again” where he repeats his oft-stated mantra that kids should not be called “religious” but “children of religious” and then a section on his lone concession, that biblical literacy should be taught because of how important it is to understanding literature in the final section titled “Religious Education As A Part of Literary Culture”.

Overall, the chapter is a disappointment both because Dawkins effectively refuses to state what his solution to the “problem” is and that he’s mostly ranting against the most extreme example and not taking a more nuanced view of the realities of the situation.

More thought on Utilitarian Bioethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

TGD – Chapter 7

May 31st, 2010

As much as I have disagreed with Dawkins conclusions up until Chapter 7, I’ve found most of it to be a reasonable read. He’s been working through reasonable points, addressing relevant rebuttals, making at least some of the necessary concessions. All in all I’ve been impressed, particularly chapters 3-6.

But in Chapter 7 Dawkins loses all of his built up credibility and goes off the deep end.

For a man who’s clearly as intelligent as he is, he’s remarkably blinded by his rage against religion and how it compromises his intellect and his integrity. While he was discussing topics about advancing atheistic thoughts, as was the majority case for chapters 3-6, he was rational and reasonable. But in Chapter 7 he returns to picking on the religious and frankly falls into a rage filled tirade that is neither rational nor reasonable.

He starts off the chapter with two sections on scripture, one on the old testament and one on the new testament. These two sections are either the results of massive ignorance on his part or a purposeful desire to be deceptive. Frankly, either scenario is a discredit to him. Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse when one is writing a book on the subject.

His point is that no one actually follows the moral lessons of the bible because it teaches lessons that everyone from the religious to the atheist finds abhorrent. He then cherry picks passages, both taking them massively out of context and making entirely the opposite conclusion on the lesson to be learned from those passages. At first I had intended to rebut all of them but he chose to use a shotgun approach and the work to rebut all of them is more than I care to invest. Instead I’ll pick on just one: Abraham and Isaac.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the value of obedience, even when it seems abhorrent to do so. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his cherished and only son to see how loyal Abraham is to God. When Abraham makes it clear that he’ll follow through on the command, God tells him to stop and tells Abraham it was a test that he passed.

But the key point as far as discrediting Dawkins is that sacrificing a son is fully understood to be an abhorrent thing in the scripture. I would go so far to say that this act was chosen for the story specifically BECAUSE it was abhorrent. So while Dawkins is off claiming the Bible says it’s OK to sacrifice one’s son, that exact story shows how the Bible says nothing of the sort. In fact, it reinforces the opposite.

The whole section is full of these kinds of deceptions that to the scripturally uneducated may sound plausible when they are in fact utter deceptive refuge. From confusing stating what happened with moral approval of the events to purposely misstating the point of the lessons, Dawkins shows himself to be amazingly in error. To show an example from the new testament:

Dawkins suggests that Christianity is anti-family based on the passage that states, “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and siters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Now ask yourself, is Christianity anti-family? Of course not. Just by a casual observation of Christianity it’s clear that it is very pro-family. Instead of Dawkins being willing to admit that this is not the case and asking a Christian what to make of a passage like this (of which the point is that love for God must be above everything, not that we aren’t to love our families), he just continues on a rage infested tirade of deceptiveness.

I plead of all who don’t know scripture well to not take ANYTHING Dawkins says about scripture, particularly in this chapter as representative of what Jews and Christians make of scripture. Instead ask one of us who know. Feel free to leave a question in the comment box if need be, but whatever you do, don’t take his HIGHLY biased view of scripture as at all reflective of what scripture actually says. What he says is just garbage. He’s both completely wrong about what scripture says and then mistakenly assumes that means we don’t follow the bible (since it in his opinion says things it clearly doesn’t).

Don’t take his bait. Ask someone who knows.

Moving on, the third section of the chapter is titled “Love Thy Neighbor” and it starts off with a few more ridiculous scriptural examples that I think shows that Dawkins just couldn’t stop when he wrapped up his sections on the topic. But then he calms down a bit and gets to some more interesting points.

He starts off talking about religion being a divisive force but then makes a few concessions about a fair number of religious conflicts really not being about religion but about politics. He sites the example of the long lasting conflicts in Ireland. It’s an important concession, although based on future statements in the chapter I don’t think he fully absorbs the point himself.

What he goes on to say is that religion allows us to label one another and that’s one significant problem with it. He talks about how religious schools do that in particular and points to this. He admits that labeling would probably happen anyway, but still sees it as problematic. Then he goes on to talk about pressure to marry within the religion and how this furthers it.

There is some truth to his point about labels, but as he said, we’d just find different labels (and in fact we do as one can see how the “red state vs. blue state” thing works out in the US). Nevertheless, I wanted to spend a second and suggest why it is still a wise thing for people to marry within their faith. Marriage requires two people who are on the same page about so many things. Interfaith marriages, and to be clear, I mean truly interfaith, where both people believe and live by different religious convictions and not just too people who are more secular than religious but happen to come from different religious backgrounds, are without a doubt some of the most stressed marriages. I would always suggest to someone of faith that they marry within their faith, not because I’m trying to win some identity and loyalty war, but because I want people to enter into marriages where neither of them are put in a position where they must violate either their religious tenets or the vows of their marriage, which is what a true interfaith marriage will almost always require.

Having built up this crumbling foundation of “the religious don’t even follow the bible”, he continues on to his next section, titled “The Moral Zeitgeist”. His point is that morality, since based on the foundation he laid he can safely show it doesn’t come from religion, comes from society’s general consensus of the era. His proof of this is two-fold: First, that atheists share a common set of beliefs about what is moral (basically a re-statement of what he said in the previous chapter (and my rebuttal)). Second how morality has changed over time.

He talks about how things have changed. How we’ve gone from a world with slavery to a world where women can vote and are treated as equals. He spends a fair amount of time showing examples of this, but since we all agree that things have changed, I feel no need to elaborate on those examples. He is of course right that there have been many changes, but his conclusions are wrong. Despite his futile claims in the chapter that voices of the religious like Martin Luther King were no more important than “non-religious” voices like Jackie Robinson, he’s entirely wrong. Both the slavery freedom movement and the black equality movement in the 50’s and 60’s were faith driven movements and history bears this out. The woman’s right movement is a bit more nebulous, but their appeals to equality derive entirely from the Christian ideal of equality of everyone “slave or free, jew or gentile, man or woman.”

He wraps up the chapter with a section titled “What About Hitler and Stalin? Weren’t they Atheists?” and it’s a defense of the charges I made in my Chapter 6 review of the evils done by atheists, particularly in the 20th century.

His defense is that one has to not only determine whether they were atheists but also whether they were motivated by their atheism, which is true enough (in fact I wish were more willing to make the same analysis/conclusion in regards to supposedly religious evils). But oddly, he then goes on to admit that Stalin was both an atheist and also motivated by his hatred for religion, so I’m not quite sure why the above premise helps his cause.

He spends far more time on Hitler and toys with the idea that Hitler was really Catholic and pulls out some collaborating quotes. Then he backs away from it, knowing the absurdity of it. He’s used this technique a number of times now, where he suggests an idea, puts out some quotes to justify it and then backs away from it saying something like “nobody knows for sure” or “I’m not saying this was necessarily the case” and it’s as tiring as it is wasteful of his reader’s time. How about not advancing a point you’re freely going to admit can’t be justified later?

But I think it points to a bigger issue, Dawkins ability to use quotes to be deceptive. When he can drag out quotes that seem to support an idea that even he won’t support, that sound as convincing as they do, shouldn’t that make you question all the rest of his quotes?

The key point to make however is that Hitler was most definitely motivated by a popular scientific motive of the era: Eugenics. No matter how much Dawkins can try and wiggle around it and toy with the idea that Hitler was Catholic, the fact is that his largest horror was motivated by the idea of racial purity, an entirely scientific ideal of the early 20th century that was a corrupt out-growth of Darwinistic thought, that entities like the Catholic Church condemned from the get-go. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about Hitler, eugenics, WWII and the Catholic Church read “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” by Ronald J. Rychlak. It’s meticulously footnoted, backing up all of his footnotes (quite unlike TGD, by the way) and very informative. After reading it you’ll have a much better understanding of the relationship of Hilter and the Catholic Church and you’ll realize how much Dawkins is “toying” with an utterly absurd idea.

I fear for what Chapter 8 will be like as it is titled “What’s So Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” There’s no doubt he is hostile. I just hope his explanation isn’t as ignorant and deceptive as Chapter 7.