Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Slave States and Religion

Here are the fifteen slave states and two territories in which slavery was legally practiced prior to the American Civil War. To each I've added an ostensibly unrelated ranking from a relatively recent Pew Forum poll:

Mississippi (1)
Alabama (2)
Arkansas (3)
Louisiana (4)
Tennessee (5)
South Carolina (6)
Oklahoma (7)
North Carolina (8)
Georgia (9)
Kentucky (10)
Texas (11)
Utah (12)
Virginia (15,18)
Missouri (17)
Florida (20)
Maryland (21)
Delaware (24)

Before I tell you what the ranking means, I'd like to point out a few obvious things. Firstly, all of these former slave states are clustered in the top half of the states, which is statistically vanishingly unlikely on chance alone. Moreover, every single one of the top twelve (12) states in the Pew poll are formerly states or territories in which slaveholding was legally practiced.

Now, here I the kicker: The Pew Forum poll had nothing to do with slavery or race or even civil rights. It was merely a measure of religious faith, and not even some particular religious faith historically tied to denominational support for the institution of Negro slavery, but really just ANY faith at all.

Now, here is the poll page itself:

I know as well as the next stats geek that correlation is not (necessarily) causation, but these massive overlaps cry out for some common factor. What is it about faith which facilitates slavery, or vice-versa, or what might be the hidden variable here? Is it that religious faith allows people to override their own sense of morality, which might well balk at seeing a fellow human in bondage? Is it that some Christian sacred texts expressly condone slavery? Or is it something else entirely?

Monday, November 30, 2009

A brief meditation on human rights

Francis Abbot to Elizabeth Stanton, on women's rights and faith:

In my previous post I wrote about the suppression of political freedoms and all the various forms of free expression represented at the Peace Festival which will inevitably ensue if the organizers of that event get their way and bring about the premature withdrawal of NATO forces. In this post, I'd like to quickly point out that Islamists are not the only ones with a long history of subordinating civil liberty to religious piety.

F.E. Abbot wrote an excellent letter to some years ago, on the subject of the interaction between human rights and religion. Towards the end, he summarizes his thesis thusly, "You may search the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, and not find one clear, strong, bold affirmation of human rights as such." I encourage everyone to read all of Abbot's letter and seriously consider whether he is far off the mark.

I would argue that Abbot is spot-on and moreover that his argument may be readily extended to other groups in other times, such as the LGBT communities even now struggling for recognition and equality all across America. Until they are willing to boldly criticize the numerous and various faiths which have historically justified intolerance, fear, and loathing of them, they cannot hope to be truly free. So long as they are willing to pay even the smallest bit of deference to religious faith as a means to understand morality and establish law, they will inevitably be held captive to the blind bigotry of our ignorant forebears.

Indeed, it seems clear that Abbot's argument may be made even forcefully in our own time and place than as originally written. Women of faith could argue, contra Abbot, that the Christian Bible has a reserved a place for them (however humble) as devout believers and even missionaries, so long as they never went too far and attempted to wield authority over a man. This option is unavailable to the LGBT community without deliberately misconstruing significantly passages (such as Romans 1) or else pretending that those particular bits of holy writ are somehow inapplicable to the modern Christian life. I've always had a soft spot for those who value right morality over intellectual consistency in such cases, but it should be obvious that outright skepticism is the preferable path.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Are civil rights worth fighting for?

The answer from those organizing and supporting the 2009 Peace Festival must be, unequivocally, in the negative.  As they continue working to overthrow the alleged American occupation of Afghanistan (an act which would clearly favor the resurgent Taliban) one must ask whether they’ve really thought things out very far.


It should be obvious to the various feminist and reproductive rights groups present at the festival that their agenda will be the very first to go when Afghanistan gives up on democracy in favor of theocracy.  Women will once again be objects of submission in every possible sense, including especially the giving over of all sexual and reproductive rights to their husbands.


PFLAG and other LGBT rights groups were also present in force at the event, openly signing petitions which would have the ultimate effect of allowing the reinstatement of a regime in which the ruling clerics have mandated burying homosexuals alive for the crime of sodomy.  These clerics are alive and well, and looking forward to a time when the NATO forces no longer stand between them and the reimposition of Sharia.


Members of the Bahá'í, Buddhist, Urantian and Unitarian faiths (among others) were also on hand, along with various freethinkers, any of whom would be unmercifully and unflinchingly killed (along with any converts they might make) on account of furthering apostasy from the one true faith mandated under Taliban rule.


Various to the environmentalist groups were also on hand, and it should be enough to point out that the Taliban went so far as to ban the use of any recycled materials on religious grounds, because they might well have little sacred bits embedded therein. 


Finally, as to the various dancers, artists, and musicians, do not think for a moment that your heretical and sinful arts will be allowed under the new (old) regime.  The Talibs famously banned nearly every artistic expression that you can name as contrary to piety.


This is an open challenge to everyone who worked at the Peace Festival.    Ask yourself the following fairly simple question: Will my political or religious causes be furthered or even tolerated under a resurgent Taliban regime?  If the answer is no, you should ask yourself why you have been asked to support a precipitous withdrawal of the international forces now standing between that nation and an utter collapse back into totalitarian theocracy.  Think about it.  Perhaps civil rights are worth fighting for, and not merely in the metaphorical sense.  Sometimes a sternly worded letter just isn’t enough.


Monday, July 20, 2009

The BM grunts out steaming pile of journalism

Sally Kern drafts a proclamation which looks official, uses the tone and style of official legislative resolutions, and then hostesses a massive public ceremony in the heart of the legislative building, at which she invited fellow lawmakers to sign on to her theocratic agenda. Sally did everything possible to create the impression of official imprimatur, without actually going through the process to sponsor an official resolution, as she very well could have done.

Leave it to the Baptist Messenger to top Kern's (relatively subtle) attempts at melding church and state via public relations sleight-of-hand, by photoshopping official state seals and signatures onto the bottom of the document. One wonders whether the phrase "bearing false witness" ought to have any bearing on the journalistic ethics of a denominational organ.

Ah, well. I ought to have known not to expect better from the theocratic camp which inspired such efforts as Liars for Jesus, a book which I heartily recommend.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

'A National Moral Crisis' of Faith and Fisc

In her proclamation for a renewal of Christian virtues, State Rep Sally Kern states that “we believe our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis,” and with her I must wholeheartedly agree.  Many of nation’s financial stewards have surely violated Biblical proscriptions against, for example, “usury and unjust gain” in order to work an increase of substance for themselves at the expense of honesty and fair dealing.  No doubt all manner of solid Biblical principles may be invoked against those whom we ought to hold most accountable for our present financial crisis.  The great sins of sloth, pride, and avarice may no doubt be rightly cited and properly condemned in many quarters, from the profligacy of individual debtors to the ludicrous practices of those trading in securitized debts.


These are not, however, the sins upon which Kern chooses to focus her protestation.  Immediately after noting the threat of a “national moral crisis” she goes on to enumerate a number of particular moral issues which she considers of great concern, including “abortion, pornography, same sex marriage, sex trafficking, divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse,” as well as “forsaking the rich Christian heritage upon which this nation was built” and disregard of “biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives by proclaiming an entire month to an immoral behavior.”


I have struggled mightily with the logic implicit in these passages.  It would seem to me on a prima facie reading that Kern intends for the reader to conclude that our economic woes are the direct consequence of our collective national failure to “to live above reproach in the sight of God” and that this failure may be illustrated and exemplified by the various sins which she has enumerated.  It seems terribly odd, though, that she fails to list the particular sins which actually lead to our current financial crisis.  If you look carefully at her list of sins, there is only one common theme running throughout, that is, the means of reproduction, to include both childbearing and childrearing.  Every sin listed either prevents or hinders the acts of childbearing, or else creates circumstances under which Kern would rather not see children raised. 


How then can one logically link unbiblical reproductive practices to the national financial crisis?  There are only three basic possibilities:


A)      These particular national sins directly brought about our economic woes, or

B)       These particular national sins indirectly brought about our economic woes, or

C)       These particular national sins are causally unrelated to our economic woes

Given that Kern’s accusation of various national sins follows immediately after her allegation of a “national moral crisis,” we must assume that these moral issues are subsumed into that broad category, and therefore at least form part of the national crisis which led to our economic woes.  Thus, option (C) may be excluded, since Kern claims that the economic downturn is the result of our national moral crisis taken as a whole.  It would be absurd special pleading to claim that Kern really meant “our economic woes are consequences [of a particular subset] of our national moral crisis” and then went on to enumerate a list of sins from another subset altogether.


As to option (A), this is the alternative that ACLU seems to take in their press release on the subject, where they claim that the “proclamation blames the economic downturn we are currently experiencing on abortion, pornography, divorce, and same sex marriage, among other things.”  I think this is a reasonable and straightforward reading of the proclamation, but perhaps not the correct one. 


I would argue that option (B) is the best reading, inasmuch as it allows for the following interpretation:


1.       “Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord.”

2.       The U.S. was blessed, at least until it forsook “its rich Christian heritage.”

3.       Now, we are no longer blessed, because of our various sins, including those noted in the proclamation.

4.       Therefore, the solution a “national awakening of righteousness and Christian renewal as we repent of our great sin.”


Thus, the economic downturn was not caused (in Kern’s view) directly by the economic consequences of sexual sins but rather by the metaphysical mediations of an ‘Invisible Hand’ more powerful and intentional than that spoken of by Adam Smith.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oklahoma Proclamation for Religious Liberty

WHEREAS, Sally Kern and theocrats of her ilk have proclaimed that morality requires an abandonment of basic religious and civil liberties in favor universal acceptance of a particular ancient mythology; and

WHEREAS, they have abandoned historical scholarship, repeatedly taking the names of the Founding Fathers in vain and attributing to them many words which they had never spoken nor put to parchment; and

WHEREAS, Patrick Henry never claimed that “This great nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians.”

WHEREAS, John Adams signed into law a treaty, ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate, stating plainly that the “government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” (1797)

WHEREAS, John Adams repeatedly criticized fundamental Christian doctrines, such as when he referred to the alleged mystery of the Trinity and Atonement as “a convenient cover for absurdity.” (1756)

WHEREAS, Thomas Jefferson also repeatedly criticized Christian doctrines, but wrote approvingly of his own efforts to establish religious freedom as broadly as possible, claiming that the Virginia Bill for religious freedom meant to encompass “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” (1821)

WHEREAS, James Madison never wrote approvingly of the “Ten Commandments of God” as a guide to public policy, but was rather an indefatigable proponent of the separation of church and state and rightly noted that the effect of ecclesiastical establishments are these, “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.” (1785)

WHEREAS, it is in fact impossible to find in the remarkably voluminous collected works of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, a single line unequivocally affirming Jesus to be the incarnation of a deity or the Christ to whom they personally looked for salvation.

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that all those who sign on to Sally Kern’s proclamation of Christian Nationalism, revising history to suit their theocratic agenda, are perpetuating a blatant fraud and a lie, libelously imputing to the Founders words which never they wrote nor spoke in a shameless affront to the very liberties they defended.

BE IT RESOLVED that the signatories are traitors to liberty, inasmuch as they solemnly declare that all Oklahomans must look to only one religion and one holy text, in violation of both the Federal and State Constitutional guarantees of complete religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

BE IT RESOLVED that those among them solemnly sworn to defend these Constitutions are oath-breakers, who ought never henceforth be trusted with elective office.

BE IT RESOLVED that whatever gods may exist will call these signatories to repentance for their repeated acts of bearing false witness against the Founding Fathers and their oath-breaking attacks upon our religious liberty. May they be given an awakening of righteousness as they repent of this great sin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

John Ensign, Promise Maker

Alleged ‘Promise Keeper’ John Ensign called for disgraced fellow Senator Larry Craig to step down back in October 2007, reportedly around six weeks before he started having an affair with one of his employees.  Once again, we find that those we speak up loudly in defense of so-called ‘traditional marriage’ are evidently overcompensating for their own personal failure to create a marital union which they themselves consider worthy of honoring.


Thank you, GOP leadership, for time and again so vividly demonstrating that no one should take your empty rhetoric even remotely seriously.  Have fun in the political wilderness!



Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Religious Endorsement versus Religious Liberty

Respecting recent government attempts to endorse Mosaic Law and Christian theology, there are three interrelated questions here and it is easy enough to get them confused. The first is a question of ethics, the second a question of state constitutional law, the third a question of federal constitutional law.

As to the question of ethics, I’ve always thought it hypocritical and indicative of shallow ethical thinking for anyone to claim that official government endorsement of their own religious views is perfectly ethical and should not be seen as a violation of anyone’s right to equal treatment under the law, even though they would think it obviously immoral for the government to erect a massive monument to any other religion. Imagine the hue and cry from the Christians if the government erected a massive homage stone mandating worship of Krishna, Buddha, or Allah (or even Jehovah, if monument indicated any Messiah other than their own). I’ve no doubt, also, that the consistent failure among Christians to see this as an obvious violation of the Golden Rule is little more than self-deception, the fruits of an unexamined life. Those that say they would be content living in a theocracy not of their own making are suffering from a failure of imagination, at best.

As to the question of state law, it is essentially where to draw the line between free expression of private faith and the government creating policies which have the effect of endorsing an official religion. In Oklahoma, that line could not be any clearer, as a matter of state constitutional law. Since both Commandments monuments would clearly and unequivocally make indirect use of “public money or property . . . for the use, benefit, or support of [a] system of religion” there is really very little to argue about here.

As to the federal question, one must look to the interpretations which the federal courts have put upon the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. I’ve no time to go into detail right now, but suffice to say that the 10th Circuit issued a fine opinion in this case, and I’ll be surprised if SCOTUS grants cert (unless of course a sister circuit has by then created a split between the circuits).

In summary, Oklahoma’s monuments to ancient Hebrew religious dicta fail all three tests: the Golden Rule, the Oklahoma Constitution, and the Federal Constitution. It is time for the government (at every level) to move on to solving problems instead of creating them by introducing religious divisions into the discourse.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Christians taking action

Here follows a relatively brief and concise history of the direct-action tip of the Christian right-wing movement to end abortion in America.

1993 – Dr. David Gunn murdered on March 10th by Michael Griffin, the first pro-life assassin. A few months later, Oklahoma City plays host to the direct action wing of the anti-abortion movement at a national conference sponsored by Rescue America. On June 18th, the publisher of Life Advocate magazine, Andrew Burnett, told the attendees that he used to believe that Dr. Gunn’s death “shouldn’t have happened” but now believes that “People should be willing to take a life to defend another.” He went on, “You're willing to shoot someone to defend your daughter. We shouldn't be horrified if someone does something to defend a life. We should be willing to defend the life of another person if it means damage to property or injury to someone else.” Burnett also said, “I’m not sure that we can really say that ‘Abortion is Murder,’ and at the same time react in horror when a person who is about to murder someone else is not able to do that anymore because of whatever means was necessary to stop that person.” Later that summer, Rev. Paul Hill circulates a statement that the use of lethal force against doctors is “justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children” which is signed by the publishers of both Life Advocate and Prayer and Action newsletters.

1994 - Paul Hill and John Salvi murder health care workers at abortion clinics in Florida and Massasschusettesss. Both men cite to Scripture and faith as among their primary motivations, but Salvi takes it a step further, claiming that "he is part of a special group of individuals which he refers to as an apostleship that exists within the community and that will lead the Catholic people out of their current state."

1996 – Prayer and Action publishes instructions on how to bomb buildings. On April 17th, Scott Roeder is charged with criminal use of explosives on account of the bomb parts found in his car. He is later given a suspended sentence and paroled on the condition that he “not associate with persons or groups advocating violence and disregard or disrespect of laws of Kansas or involved in manufacturing of bombs.”

Late 1990’s – Life Advocate and Prayer and Action newsletters continue to “publish articles debating the use of violence” and “function as sort of an underground press for those attracted in some way to the justifiable homicide view.” Many articles provide arguments favoring the use of lethal force.

1998 - James Kopp and Eric Rudolph murder health care workers in order to stop abortion.

2009 - After a long hiatus in anti-abortion terrorism, Scott Roeder murders Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, KS.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Martyrs to Freedom

Army Pvt. William Long and Dr. George Tiller both fought for freedom, although in quite different ways. Both men deliberately exposed themselves to significant personal risks on account of their determination to defend deeply-held American values (such as self-determination and other inalienable personal liberties) and both were ruthlessly assassinated by anti-American zealots, presumably on account of a bizarre fusion of twisted religious and political ideals. The assassins in both cases acted with the hope of instilling fear in those who support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the freedoms which our legal system recognizes as due to all human beings.

There are all too many zealots in this world (most especially those who take the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths seriously and literally) who believe that women ought to be subjugated to men, made to cover themselves in public, and relegated primarily to the domestic roles of broodmare and caretaker. American soldiers have fought against these religious fanatics in various places and times, while American doctors have labored are home to preserve the self-determination of women who choose not to spend their lives solely in the pursuit of maternal happiness.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Domestic Terrorist Suspect Sports Jesus Fish

It would seem that the murder suspect in the Dr. Tiller case (who may well be this guy) was sporting a cute little Jesus fish on the back of his baby blue Ford Taurus.  The lesson here, of course, is that "they will know you by your fruits."

p.s. Google 225 BAB if you've any doubt as to the owner of this vehicle.

Universal Mental Liberty

This liberal sentiment from the Old West brought to you by the Oregon History Project.  Here is a Google Books link which allows a survey of the slogan in 19th century freethought.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Absolute moral laws in a modern milieu

Ever since the passage of the Ten Commandments bill, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the idea that some laws which used to matter a great deal to the ancient Hebrews ought not carry much weight in the here and now.  The basic idea here is that a morally-perfect and changeless transcendental mimd created human beings and revealed His perfect law to some of them, but now some of these laws are no longer worthwhile.  Consider for a moment only those Mosaic and Levitical laws for which the penalty was death.  Is it philosophically consistent for believers to say that we should decriminalize any of them?  If these crimes were once so serious as to warrant death in a society set up by an all-wise and morally exemplary being, it seems terribly counterintuitive to reduce such transgressions to mere foibles, the suppression of which is best left to culture and personal conscience. 


Bible-believing Christians usually deal with this problem by pointing out that they are no longer bound by the ancient Hebrew laws.  There is ample New Testament support for this proposition, no doubt, but this does not really solve the problem.  Christians who vote must decide which divinely ordained laws are timeless and ought to always be recognized by every society (e.g. those proscribing murder, theft, perjury) and those which are only relevant within an ancient cultural context (e.g. head-coverings for women, circumcision for men, kosher food for everyone). 

I would think it quite obvious that any law which once carried the penalty of death and was not specifically addressed and overturned in the NT would qualify as one which Christians should support whenever given the chance, whether by electing representatives to the legislature, by direct plebiscite, or by other means.


How, then, do Bible-believing Christians justify their failure to support theocratic politicians like Brogdon and Ritze in a crusade to recriminalize apostasy, buggery, cursing, divination, and other such victimless crimes?  What is the reasoning which allows you to treat these seemingly absolute moral commands once set in stone by a perfectly moral being as mere matters of personal conscience?  Seriously, guys, I’m stumped here - please help me out. How can you tell which divine laws are timeless and which were intended only for one tribe living far away and long ago?




Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Apostasy, Blasphemy, Cursing, Diviniation, Extramarital Flings, & other capital crimes...

Given our state's recent offical seal of approval of Ritze's faith-based initiative to graft Mosaic law onto the Oklahoma Capitol grounds, and given the wide array of crimes warranting death in the Old Testamant, one must wonder to what extent patriotic Christians believe that Mosaic laws ought to be made applicable to modern criminal codes, by those who vote and believe as Ritze does that we ought to exemplify Judeo-Christian morality in the laws that we pass for our state and our nation.

Surely some Mosaic laws (such as those against perjury, theft, and murder) must remain on the books for so long as men are not angels.  Others, however, seem a bit more culturally-contexual and best left to the bygone theocracy that was ancient Israel.  The question here is how devout Christians who are patriotic enough to vote and serve on juries can systematically and rationally place crimes listed in the Bible into one of three categories:
  1. Should be criminalized with the Biblical punishment

  2. Should be criminalized with a lesser level of punishment

  3. No longer criminal, but merely a matter of personal conscience
Bear in mind that the laws of the OT were given by one who is (by definition) a perfectly moral and immutable lawgiver unto his chosen people.  That said, I would think that most Jews and Christians would tend to prefer the first of these three choices, but I find in practice that they almost always choose the latter two, except for the most severe of crimes. 

Why is this?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pietistic historical revisionism

Rep. Mike Ritze says “We get our laws from the Ten Commandments.  Many of our laws date back to English law, which dates back to Roman law, which comes from Mosaic law.”  One must suppose that the Romans were a wholly lawless people until they took the time and effort to conquer Palestine and assimilate its culture and legal traditions.  Alternatively, as in the history books I’ve read, the Romans were able to conquer Palestine precisely because they had developed a structured and highly organized society on their own, drawing upon divine inspiration from a mythical pantheon and countless local deities, but never from the monotheism of the ancient near east. 

Is it possible to trace even one law from the Mosiac or Levitical codes directly into Roman law?  I put this challenge to the theocrats.  Go forth and rewrite history.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Holy War

It was widely believed among the winking moonbats of the Paranoid-Far-Left  that GWB and his cronies were taking the nation to war primarily as a faith-based initiative, on a crusade for god, glory, and black gold. Although thoughtful and learned people such as Hitchens and Rice had clearly articulated (respectively, to the public at large and to our highest-ranking public servants) the best possible reasons for liberating an oppressed people from a strangulating autocracy it nevertheless seemed possible that the Iraq war itself was the culmination of a foreign policy rooted in Christian dominionism. I was told time and again that the dominant reason for this conflict was not the liberation of an oppressed people, nor the resolution of a military conflict which had dragged on in various forms since 1991, but rather a blind faith in our nation's divinely mandated manifest destiny. I dismissed such talk as yet another straw-man attack, blithely assuming the worst of one's opponents. It seemed to me somewhat
overly cynical to impute the most regressive of fundamentalist thinking to savvy political players who surely would not partake of the pabulum of pulpit-pounding pastors.

Evidently, I was wrong.  Mea culpa.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Apophatic Blending Characterizes Deistic Entity, Forwarding God Hypothesis

After watching my favorite YouTube video about the origins of theology for a fourth or fifth time through, I began to wonder whether most monotheistic theology was constructed upon a series of simple negations of our own unfortunate limitations as somewhat-evolved mildly-sapient earthbound primates.  One can readily imagine a conversation that went something like this:

Adam: “I quite dislike being always rooted to one spot, having tediously to walk or ride to the next place.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited as that, to be anywhere at any time, or everywhere all at once.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I so dislike of getting worn-out and footsore from work and travel.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited as that, to not have need of hands nor feet nor body.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also cannot stand that my strength is so feeble that I cannot even lift heavy stones.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to have the power to move anything at all.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also weary of my limited powers of workmanship.  I can only make arrows and bows.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to have the power to make anything at all.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also am saddened by my character flaws and lack of virtue.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to be perfect in all virtues.”

Adam: “How wonderful would that be!  I also am often stymied by my limited knowledge of the world.”

Steve: “How great it would be to not be so limited, to know all that may be known.”

Adam: “Wow!  Just imagine it: Being everywhere at once, an all-knowing, all-powerful mind without need of a body, perfect in every conceivable way.”

Steve: “How wonderful that would be!  I would create whole peoples, set them one against another, compel bloody sacrifices, and revel in the smell of burning goat-flesh.”

Adam: “Um, okay -- whatever does it for you.”


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Texas Ten

I’ve been thinking a lot (and writing a bit) about the Ten Commandments as of late, ever since the legislature of the State of Oklahoma has seen fit to follow the example of Texas and install a monumental homage to Mosaic ethics and Hebraic religion on the Capitol grounds.  My first objection to this plan is straightforward and obvious, Oklahomans should know better than to follow the example of Texans.  Given that this is a controversy over Biblical passages, here is one which might be considered on point: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”  Stiff-necked, indeed.  Texans are almost as arrogant as New Yorkers, even more hypocritical, and vastly more self-righteous.  It is little wonder that the Bush/Rove political machine first arose from the fragrant muck that is the Texas socio-political milieu.  

Seriously, though, it would be a huge mistake for Oklahoma to blindly follow where the Texas has trail-blazed in this matter.  I’ve no problem whatsoever with the state telling me that it is unethical and criminal to commit murder or theft or perjury.  Indeed, it seems perfectly self-evident that any peaceful and well-ordered society must have laws against such things.  That said, every other command set on this stone is either theocratic, outdated, or else better left to individual conscience.  The commandments against apostasy, idolatry, and blasphemy run directly against the values embodied in the First Amendment, and the proscription against graven images is (ironically enough) violated no less than three times on the Texas monument itself.  One wonders whether the engraver paused when inscribing the second commandment to ponder the eagle and flag that he had already set in stone.  One also wonders whether he was working on a Saturday, given our society’s approach to all things sabbatarian.  It should be clear to the thoughtful and well-informed observer that only three or four of these commandments carry weight in our own society, and thus this monument (no doubt unintentionally) conveys the message that divinely ordained laws dictated by God Himself may be blithely disregarded in our modern cultural and political context.  Without a theologian on hand to explicate the fine-grained distinctions between the various covenants and dispensations, this message is difficult to put in its proper Christian context.  Presumably it would be breaching the wall of separation to assign a chaplain to this task, but I’d not put it past the Oklahoma legislature at this point.

Even more disturbing than the obvious irrelevance of most of these commands outside of the context of an ancient tribal theocracy, though, is the unmistakable endorsement of Old Testament ethics which a reasonable observer cannot help but infer from a monument such as this one.  Guess what the punishment is for breaking most of these commandments — go ahead, guess.  Now guess again, but try to think of something harsher than your first guess.   (Hint: It may help if you watch a few videos of execution by stoning).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009

Science, religion, and epistemology

Excerpted from a recent post by a friend of mine:

In other words, though there may be some difference in the kinds of knowledge claims that science and religion make, both science and religion use the same overall strategy. The claim that religion works by faith and that science by reason is too sloppy. Science must often depend on faith statements even though it uses reason extensively; likewise, theology relies on the exercise of reason. Science and theology share considerable commonality. Both faith and reason are methods for generating knowledge claims.

It seems to me that science and religion have strategies for achieving knowledge which are so different as to be quite nearly diametrically opposed, and this is fairly obvious whenever they both attempt to answer the same questions, such as:

I’ve drawn faith-based answers from my own faith tradition, no doubt other faith traditions have created their own answers.  Answers yielded up by the scientific method, by contrast, are cross-cultural and useful regardless of whether one speaks Arabic, Basque, Castilian, Dutch, English, or Finnish, and regardless of whether one prays to Allah, Bhagavan, Christ, Deus, Elohim, Freya, or whomever.  In every case, faith-based answers get about as far as “magical immaterial mind mediating by means most mysterious” and pretty much leaves it at that. 

Even the great Isaac Newton, when stymied in his investigation of the origins of the solar system, decided to chalk it up to an intelligent designer and ceased doing any more research on the question.  Meanwhile, methodological naturalists are busily arguing amongst themselves, refuting each other, testing out new theories, refining old ones, and generally getting on with the business of adding to humanity’s understanding of the world.  It is because scientific knowledge is considered provisional that they are allowed to keep moving forward and learning new things. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cultural confidence and the radical cringe

Earlier this week, I was rereading a book from one of my favorite living scholars, and came across this little gem:

 "[A]s the age of the Ottoman Empire's preeminence in military, cultural, and scientific achievements gave way to centuries in which European countries overtook them in all these respects, the confident and cosmopolitan toleration of minorities within the Ottoman Empire gave way to an era of Ottoman anxiety about dangers from without and within, and to xenophobia that greatly restricted and endangered Jews and other minorities."
– Thomas Sowell,
Economic Facts and Fallacies

Conservatives can boast of few advocates as brilliant as Thomas Sowell and there are few scholars of any ideological persuasion matching his depth and breadth.  I assume, therefore, that that those who seriously support free markets and free peoples must take Sowell's ideas seriously.  What Sowell implies in the excerpt above is that a loss of civilizational confidence may trigger a wave of xenophobia directed at ethnic minorities within one's borders.  He expands on this idea elsewhere in his books, as well as online essays such as this one in which Sowell points out that “When people are confronted with a choice between hating themselves for their stagnation or hating others for their progress, they seldom hate themselves” but rather “become hostile to the newcomers and . . . believe that they [the immigrants] have done something illegitimate to achieve success.”

What, if anything, do these generalizations from an eminent scholar of history and economics tell us about our most recent wave of anti-immigrant hysteria?  Our current mania has resulted in the formation of a citizen militia to keep watch on the southern border, as well as a bevy of state laws designed to make our land less hospitable to the those who cross borders without first consulting with the central bureaucracy in order to get their official papers signed and sealed, not to mention the creation of a woefully unregulated market in human trafficking. 

Perhaps Sowell’s insights are not applicable here.  Maybe anti-immigrant activists and their sympathizers are not generally motivated by the fear that our nation will cease to be incomparably great in military, cultural, economic, and scientific domains.  Maybe, though, Sowell really is on to something here.  Perhaps it is not merely the direct economic threat from the bilingual folks who did my landscaping and my roof, but also the more generalized anxiety that America (like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs) has gone well past its prime and will never again be as powerful and preeminent as it once was.



The Graveyard of Dead Gods

Christopher Hitchens (and other lesser known debaters) are fond of pitching an argument for metaphysical naturalism which was first popularised in an essay by H.L. Mencken in which the author enumerates the various and sundry gods once beloved of man, and leaves the remainder of the problem as an excercise for the reader.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it isn't really an argument which leads validly to its preuspposed conclusion.  As it happens, this no easy trick to pull off, and one greatly risks tripping across the genetic fallacy in the process.  Nonetheless, I think that a valid argument may be lurking in here somewhere.  Here is one attempt:
  1. If humankind generally has a strong propensity for making up immaterial minds with magical powers, then probably all concepts fitting that description are merely made up.

  2. Humankind does in fact have just such a propensity, and in great abundance.  

  3. Therefore, all allegations of  immaterial minds with magical powers are made up.
Mencken and his latter-day exponents primarily work to buttress premise #2, by demonstrating the overabundance of gods which are today universally acknowledged to be naught but fictions.  
However, the problematic premise here is the first one.  Is it right to make the inductive leap from a general propensity to play pretend with immaterial invisible imaginary minds to the conclusion that all such things are made up?

Imagine that your five-year-old child has an imaginary friend, with whom she speaks and frolics, and who occasionally makes bizarre demands.  You would almost certainly dismiss the notion that her friend is really there, even if you get the sense that the friend is really quite compelling to your child.  Why would you do that, if you doubt the inference made in premise #1?  Is this not precisely the reason that we adults assume that the invisible playmates are not, in fact, direct apprehension of otherworldly spirits?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ID-ing the H1N1

When William Dembski came to speak at OU awhile back, he claimed to have invented a set of esoteric mathematical tools with which he and other intelligent design proponents can detect complex specified information even in very complex entities such as living things. Given the current media-charged hysteria, it seems that the time is ripe for creation scientists to do some creative science, applying their novel theories to a novel threat. The new H1N1 is, after all, a relatively simple string of DNA which ought to readily succumb to ID's sophisticated algorithms, once the lab geeks take the time to sequence it. After crunching his numbers, Dembski and his crew should be able to determine whether the new H1N1 is indeed composed of complex specified information, and if so, what the detectable design of this virus tells us about the skills and intentions of its designer. Only once we understand what this hypothetical designer is really up to can we hope to make a viable vaccine, because anyone who designs and builds viruses may well work around our attempts at prophylaxis.

Discovery Institute - you now have a research program.  Go forth and do some science!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Theodicy Goes Viral

This week’s Everyday Ethics podcast endeavored to “explore the theology and ethics of flu” including the difficult question of whether to consider the “H1N1 virus a reason to abandon belief in an all-loving God who takes care of the world,” among other theological issues.  While this seems like a picayune problem relative to the larger evidential problem of evil taken as a whole, it is certainly worth considering more closely.

If metaphysical naturalism is true and life exists in any form, it must have arisen from the simplest self-replicating molecules gradually giving rise to more complex forms over time.  There is no other conceivable way for life to have begun on naturalism, and thus idea of naturalism necessarily implies the possibility of free-floating selfish genes which invade and attack other organisms, even the most intelligent of organisms, those who spend their work day combating infectious disease and their spare time contemplating deep metaphysical questions.  On the hypothesis of metaphysical naturalism, it is difficult to conceive of the existence of intelligent beings who are not prey to microscopic life-forms, even simple parasites which are barely more than strands of DNA with attitude.

On theism, though, there is no reason to suppose that the intelligent designer of all life would see fit to introduce microscopic strands of DNA or RNA into the world with the sole function of reproducing themselves at the expense of other organisms, including sentient beings.  Not only is there no particular reason to suppose that the intelligent designer would design such nasty buggers, but there is good reason to doubt that the creator would do such a thing, at least for those theists who posit the existence of a perfectly loving and all-powerful being who cares about at least one primate species on this planet.

In summary, we are once again faced with a situation which is more or less inevitable on naturalism, and pretty much inexplicable on classical theism.  The theist apologist will, no doubt, resort to some variation on “God moves in mysterious ways,” thereby absolving himself from giving an account of precisely how virulent disease came about and what role it is meant to play in the master scheme of the intelligent designer of the cosmos.  This excuse, while useful, only serves to underscore the vast difference in predictive power between these two metaphysical models.  Naturalism requires that the world be just the sort of nasty place that it is, supernaturalism merely allows for the possibility.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Gospels as Parables

Which of these three premises is false?

1) Jesus taught his disciples to emulate his own practices in their future ministry (e.g. Matt 10)
"It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher..."

2) Jesus made his public teachings known primarily (if not exclusively) via parables (e.g. Matt 13:34-35)

3) Matthew, as a faithful disciple, endeavored to emulate Jesus' own parabolic approach when authoring the first book of the Christian Scriptures.

It seems to me that modern Christians must reject at least one of these premises, in order to maintain that the Gospel According to Matthew may be firmly classed in the genre of biography rather than allegorical fiction or myth.  Most likely, the third one, although it is difficult to see good reasons to do so apart from the obvious fact that the literalist approach generally prevailed over the symbolic and gnostic approach some eighteen centuries ago.

Certainly it would seem difficult to maintain that Matthew never incorporated parabolic pericopes into his gospel, given such passages as the apocalyptic saintly zombie bonanza and his wholesale midrashic borrowings from the books of Moses.  Indeed, these passages never made any sense to me until I granted myself the leeway to read them as parables, at which point their meanings became quite plain.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Morality - Objective or Subjective?

Moral duties must inevitably be grounded in the subjective desires and preferences of at least one moral agent, since there can be no values without minds.  Theists generally prefer to ground moral values in a mind which has the virtue of being inhuman, immaterial, atemporal, eternal, etc. because such a mind presumably holds values and virtues which are immutable and incorruptible.  Does this imply that such values are necessarily (or even probably) preferable to our own? 

One may easily conceive of something like an hypothetical hyper-powerful evil demon, who creates whole worlds simply for the sake of giving its inhabitants desires and hopes and then inflicting suffering upon them.  Would we consider this sadistic demon’s moral values preferable to our own merely because they are independent of humanity, space, and time?  If not, why not? On theistic ethics, it is only the objectivity of moral values matters, without any regard to human desires and values. 

Divorcing ethics from human needs and values, however, inevitably muddles up the whole enterprise.  Some crimes cannot even be defined and evaluated without an evaluation of human desires and intentions.  What looks to an outside observer like torture and rape may actually be sadomasochistic role playing, understanding the intentions and desires of the participants is absolutely necessary to evaluate the morality of such actions.  Similarly, what looks like murder may turn out to be assisted suicide, once we discover the intentions and voluntary cooperation of the deceased.  In such cases, the criminality of the acts may turn entirely on the subjective values and intentions of the alleged victim.

By way of contrast, such crimes may be wholly justified on theism, without any regard for the human victims involved.  On the theistic view of ethics, if the gods command you to slaughter the natives and keep the virgins for yourselves, you must cast aside your own subjective distaste for murder and rape in order to put faith and fealty first and foremost.  This strikes me as an incredibly immoral approach to morality, but hey, at least it is objective rather than rooting itself in such pathetic human impulses such as love, mercy and empathy.

It seems clear enough to me that the whole point in having moral intuitions and creating moral norms is to make life better for the humans who must get along together.  On metaphysical naturalism, this is more or less the only plausible account of morality.  Many devout believers claim that it is impossible for them to conceive of any reason to work for a good life if there is no transcendent being offering moral norms carved in stone and the promise of eternal rewards.  This is, I believe, almost inevitably an illusion.  There may be some for whom apostasy implies an immediate descent into sociopathic amorality, but I am quite happy to say that I’ve not met any of them yet, despite having known many scores of freethinkers. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Contra Craig #1 - Forthrightly Understandable Cosmological Kalamity!

Kalam's calamitous cosmological argument is generally formalized as follows:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

  2. The universe began to exist.

  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This argument sounds so smooth and plausble, unless you've ever taught physics at the undergraduate level or below.  It turns out that whenever one applies everyday intuitions to the universe as a whole, you get pretty much everything wrong, and so it is in this case.  

Think about what you really mean by "everything that begins to exist has a cause."  Consider a rock, a tree, or the internet.  The rock formed when molten magma cooled and hardened, and then broke up into little pieces over time.  The tree grew up from an acorn by taking in vast amounts of energy and nutrients over many years.  The internet was formed over decades by the dedicated labor of thousands of scientists, technicians, engineers, programmers, and the like. All of these things began to exist because of the rearrangement of preexistent matter and energy into new forms within space over a period of time.  The causes which brought these new things into being are those particular events and processes that contributed to their formation, working their effects within space and time according to natural law.

Nowhere else in the English language do we ever use the word "cause" to mean anything remotely akin to "an immaterial entity acting outside of space/time to produce new matter/energy out of nothing" and as a sophisticated professor of philosophy, Dr. Craig surely knows this.  Yet, he sees fit to slide this slippery equivocation into his leading argument for the existence of a god, and never bothers to mention the difficulties inherent in doing so. Presumably, he is waiting for his opponent to raise the issue on rebuttal, although (oddly enough) that almost never happens.

This is not logical deduction, this is smooth-talking equivocation of the highest order, the sort that should make even Bill Clinton or Bill Kristol blush.  Freethinkers who encounter this argument from theistic apologists would do well to point this out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Contra Craig #2 - Universal fine-tuning

I’m going to try to be as charitable as possible on this argument, but it this is how it seems to go:

  1. The universe is such that it allows for the gradual evolution of intelligent life under certain circumstances

  2. It could have turned out any number of other ways, almost all of which would not have allowed for such life

  3. The best explanation for this particular universe is that an intelligent transcendent creator finely-tuned it for life

  4. Therefore, an intelligent transcendent creator of the cosmos exists. QED.

I will admit that such an argument has a certain intuitive appeal, but only the first of its three premises are well-established. The second premise has been cast into serious doubt by professional cosmologists such as Victor Stenger, but it should not take a Ph.D. in physics to see that the third premise is quite problematic in and of itself. To illustrate why, consider an argument about the conditions that prevail on our own planet:

1.  Earth is such that it allowed for the gradual evolution of intelligent life under certain circumstances

2.  It could have turned out any number of other ways, almost all of which would not have allowed for such life

3.  The best explanation for this particular planet is that an intelligent transcendent creator finely-tuned it for life

4.  Therefore, an intelligent transcendent creator of the Earth exists. QED.

When you get to premise three, you should wonder whether other planets exist which might be similarly situated to our own. In the age of Sagan, Asimov and Rodenberry this is not a particularly great stretch of the imagination. Only a few hundred years ago, though, this second argument would have seemed perfectly plausible to W.L. Craig’s philosophical and theological forebears, who forbade the possibility of multiple worlds (sometimes on pain of death) and generally preferred the view that the Earth was uniquely created for humankind.

Suppose we consider only two rival hypotheses (a) metaphysical naturalism and (b) classical theism, excluding other possibilities for the sake of convenience. Given that living being exist (who are just intelligent enough to have thoughtful debates about metaphysics) the crucial question here is which of these hypotheses best explains the fact that the universe allows for the natural evolution and sustainment of intelligent life.

It should be clear that if intelligent minds exist and metaphysical naturalism is true, it is absolutely necessary that the laws of nature are such as to allow for the natural evolution and sustainment of intelligent life. By contrast, if classical theism is true, then minds can exist as souls apart from bodies, and there is therefore no need to posit a natural world which allows for life to emerge and flourish naturally over vast stretches of time and space. If God wants intelligent beings, He may readily create as many angels and demons as he pleases, endow them with free will.  He need never give a thought to the idea of mucking about with matter, much less minds made of meat. There simply is no need for such onerous fine-tuning, if theism is assumed to be true.