Monday, September 24, 2007

No gays in Iran?

The New York Times had Live Blogging on Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, speaking at Columbia University, (click here).

In response to a question about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad started talking about the death penalty, which, he pointed out, exists in the United States, saying:
“People who violate the laws by using guns, creating insecurity selling guns, distributing guns at a high level are sentenced to execution in Iran. Very few of these punishments are carried out in the public eye.”

It seems like there may be radically different cultural concepts and translation problems going on when trying to talk about homosexuality. Ahmadinejad speaks Farsi, not English, and has to be translated. It sounds like "gay" got translated into something that means merely "sexual criminal" with the emphasis on the "criminal." Either that, or Mr. Ahmadinejad is seriously loony tunes.

When pressed on the subject about the "rights of gay men and lesbians" in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad said:
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country.”

What the fuck!? That's impossible. The audience, of course, booed, hissed and laughed. In spite of the audience reaction Ahmadinejad pressed on:
“In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you that we have it. But as for women, maybe you think that maybe being a woman is a crime. It’s not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God. They represent the kindness, the beauty that God instills in them. Women are respected in Iran.”

Let's check out Wikipedia for "LGBT_rights_in_Iran" to see how things are viewed in wikiality. There we find that since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 there has been an increasing lack of tolerance toward homosexuality. It's a crime under the country's theocratic Islamic government as is all types of sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage. It certainly exists, and there have been news reports out of Iran about gays being executed.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the legal code has been based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law and consensual gay sex in any form is punishable by death in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Gays have been hanged in the city square of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, by orders of Court. The religious authorities sometimes charge gays with "rape" instead of the "crime" of homosexuality. Usually there is no legal distinction between consensual or non-consensual sexual activity.

Those charged with homosexuality are given a choice of four death styles: being hanged, stoned, halved by a sword, or dropped from the highest perch. If two men not related by blood are discovered naked under one cover without good reason, both will be punished at a judge's discretion. Teens are also punished at a judge's discretion. According to Iranian human rights campaigners, over 4000 lesbians and gay men have been executed since the Ayatollahs seized power in 1979.

It hasn't always been this way. There is a large amount of literature in Persian that explicitly illustrates the ancient existence of homosexuality among Iranians. There is Persian poetry, ghazals (love poems), and texts in Saadi's Bustan and Gulistan that are homoerotic. It was more tolerated before 1979, during the Shah's regime. Under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch of the Pahlavi Dynasty, homosexuality was tolerated, even to the point of allowing news coverage of a same-sex wedding. Up until the revolution, there were some night clubs where gay behavior was tolerated.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who wants $700 dollars from Jonathan Haidt?

If you go to this page: Moral Foundations Theory Homepage, you'll find that Jon Haidt says this:


The "rules" go like this:

Winning the prize will take two steps. First, you must make a good case, in writing, that some other set of concerns is a plausible candidate for foundationhood. Then, you must collect empirical evidence to show that this set of concerns is psychometrically distinct from the existing five foundations, or is otherwise incompatible with the existing five. The prize can be divided in two: whoever proposes a change to the theory will be given $300 if someone else can produce compelling evidence that the challenger was right (thereby earning the remaining $700). We in the consortium will be the judges, and we'll probably want to replicate anyone else's findings before changing our whole theory, but we have stated in print that the five foundations are the best starting points; they do not exhaust all of human morality. So we really are open to additional possibilities.


--John Jost (NYU) believes that the current formulation underestimates the full extent and variation of liberal morality. In particular, he proposes that concerns about equality and oppression are not part of the Fairness/Reciprocity foundation; they are a separate psychological system, perhaps related to the dynamics that Christopher Boehm describes in Hierarchy in the Forest, in which people in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies developed ways to band together to suppress bullying and limit authoritarianism. We are beginning to test the possiblity that there is a 6th foundation, provisionally labeled "Oppression/liberty." We will examine whether it is psychometrically distinct from Fairness/reciprocity and also from Harm/care.

--Elizabeth Shulman and Andrew Mastronarde at UC Irvine suggest that people may have an emotional response to waste, especially to throwing out food. This does not seem related to any of the 5 foundations (unless it always brings to mind the thought of hungry people, so that wasting food is a callous thing to do, and is primarily a moral issue for people who score high on Harm/care).

I like John Jost's idea that equality and oppression are not part of the Fairness/Reciprocity category and I, like Elizabeth Shulman, feel morally when seeing waste. However, while those might be incorporated into my scheme, the following 5 polar categories don't need them.

I would propose five new categories. I object to the claim that religious conservatives use all five moral foundations, but liberals only two. I think that we liberals have a different, more reasoned, set of moral foundations and my new categories are polar opposites of the ones Jon Haidt uses.

The original 5 are:
-- Secular:
1) Harm/Care
2) Fairness/Reciprocity
-- Theocratic:
3) Ingroup/Loyalty
4) Authority/Respect
5) Purity/Sanctity

The New polar categories are:
1) Punish/Judge (polar opposite of Harm/Care)
2) Privilege/Bully power (opposite of Fairness/Reciprocity)
3) Inclusive/Expansive (opposite of Ingroup/Loyalty)
4) Question authority (opposite of Authority/Respect)
5) Rights/Secular Freedom (opposite of Purity/Sanctity)

When I line them up into liberal/secular versus theocratic/conservative the columns look like this:

2)__Fairness/Reciprocity_____|________Privilege/Bully power
4)__Question authority_______|________Authority/Respect
5)__Rights/Secular Freedom___|________Purity/Sanctity

I think these new polar categories are needed to be fair to liberals. This arrangement isn't the whole story. Both the secular and theocratic polls are about benefiting the group, but we're not always concerned with the larger group, our even our in group, sometimes we're selfish and damn how the group feels. So, think of it this way:

In order for the values of a theocratic ingroup to hold sway, they have to have Bully power -- else even theocrats will be asking for, fighting for, secular values. Also, on many purity values Muslims and Christians might still agree, for example on sexual repression and on abortion were there is overlap and agreement.

If you want to talk about the culture wars in America you have to get beyond just how we feel about a moral question and consider how we act on it. Even though slave owners would claim they believed in fairness and reciprocity they still used the concept of "Privilege" to essentially bully people they deemed slaves and those who thought slaves were treated unfairly (like Thomas Paine). What's interesting is how they "reasoned" and justified the unfairness of slavery.

I think, but it might need revision, that "Privilege" covers the polar opposite of fairness. "Privilege" is the "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" aspect of Orwell's "Animal Farm."

"Priveledge" is "Authority" and it "Punishes," demands "Loyalty" and defines "Purity." Today we might question the "Priveledge" and "Authority" of inherited wealth, religion, government, law and other things. Priveledge thus incorporates the other polls by using Bully power. Other connections like that come out and start to define each end of the liberal/secular versus theocratic/conservative polls.

For another factor, Jonathan Haidt described a phenomenon he called “moral dumbfounding” and in one interview used a scenario where a brother and sister have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception and keep it a secret. No real harm probably happened. Yet even I, as most people, would "feel" it’s wrong, at least for me (I couldn't have sex with my sister based on a reasoned argument of no harm). I would start out justifying my feelings of wrongness, but what do I do about this knowledge of brother sister sex when that reason is stripped from me? After I've reached for another reason and come up empty-handed and entered that state of “moral dumbfounding” I would do nothing and keep their secret because I have no reason to act. However, I expect a theocrat would want to act, to punish brother and sister for their sex act and they could come up with the ultimate bullshit "reason" -- they know God doesn't like it. They know God's mind and it's made in their own image.

When a subject says: “I don’t know; I can’t explain it; it’s just wrong,” do they mean "it's wrong for me," or "it's wrong for everyone"? Do they think brother and sister should be punished? Is it something they think they should act on?

The variable called “need for cognition” applies to me only when I think I should act on information. If I don’t have a reason for my moral judgments, I'm not going to be particularly bothered when it comes to my own actions, but I would be bothered if some action seemed required.

Reason may not play a big causal role in how I decide to act, I'll go on my arational feelings, I'll let intuitions—fueled by my emotions, guide my actions, but when I arrive at moral judgments of others then reason is the authority, if it's not there, I can not condemn others. I will not tell someone something is wrong if I have no good reason. Thus my reason is a bit more than just the press secretary of my emotions, the ex post facto spin doctor, it's my judgment on others.

Just because there are cases where reason is not playing any causal role in how we arrive at moral judgments doesn't mean reason is not part of the more important process of deciding our laws. Haidt does credit reason, but he doesn't take this far enough to where he separates our inborn intuitions from our legal system and from how we react to others behavior.

What good is a moral judgment on others if you can't convince others to agree with you? Such judgments will have a negative effect. If you can't provide reason, then you are just bullying and claiming the authority of God.

Just because the press secretary’s job is to be a lawyer. To argue for a position, and just because he doesn’t need to consult with the president about what the real reasons were for the instituting the policy, doesn't mean our president can't be questioned and investigated when the press secretary fails to make a reasonable case. It may be irrelevant to our feelings, but it can't be irrelevant to our action within society.

When I “know” that something is morally wrong, but I can’t find reasons to justify my belief then how can I judge anyone but myself?

There are two kinds of moral judgments and while reason may never convince me I am free to sleep with my own sister, it must effect how I judge others who might do that. Judging others I cannot do without reason. I can't judge others according to my subjective feelings. I need reason. I might say “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong,” but I can only say that for myself.

Don't forget that lawyers arguing for positions are also trying to arrive at truth. They lie for selfish reasons, to hold onto bogus "Authority," but are considered honest if they can better the whole group, not just themselves.

In comparing moral and aesthetic judgments in how we don’t deliberate about them I would suggest that artists, who act artistically, do deliberate about aesthetic judgments. If moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment you have to consider how we act on both. It's only very theocratic minds that would outlaw certain forma of art. In our moral lives we only need to justify our judgment of others, and while I don’t generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments I certainly think about it when I paint a picture, when I act on my aesthetic judgments. That doesn't mean that when it comes to judgments I make about other people's tastes I would never say, "no, you can't view that art." I will say, "no, you can't steal candy from that baby."

So, I find the link between moral and aesthetic judgment to be a dangerous half-truth. How I live and what art I view I will allow, must allow, to be guided by my irrational emotions -- but I can't force those views on others. That's what theocrats want to do. They force their moral and aesthetic judgments onto me. In order to justify that, they claim to know the mind of God -- a God made in their own image. This is why our Bibles and Korans are the most abused books, they're supposed to be a peek into God's mind.

Thus, secularists defer to the authority of reason while theocrats defer to the authority of bibles and priests with pretensions toward reason.

Also, on the "Purity and Pollution" spectrum -- that seems to be a bogus and outdated moral sense. Has anything good ever come from it? Hitler used it and believed in an ideology of racial purity. Nazi Germany saw it as the purging away from humanity of racial contamination and the inauguration of an era of racial purity. In discussing racial purity and "race-mixing" Hitler talks of it as a divinely holy mission:

"Historical experience offers countless proofs of this. It shows with terrifying clarity that in every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people.... we can clearly and distinctly recognize the effect of racial mixture. The Germanic inhabitant of the American continent, who has remained racially pure and unmixed, rose to be master of the continent; he will remain the master as long as he does not fall a victim to defilement of the blood. The result of all racial crossing is therefore in brief always the following: To bring about such a development is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the Eternal Creator."

Also mixed marriages in America were once seen as impure.

This set up probably needs work, but even if I do that it means little if the second part of the challenge can't be met -- and on my own I can't meet it. So, if there are any researchers out there who like this idea and want $700 then you'll have to provide the second step of collecting empirical evidence to show that this set of concerns is psychometrically "distinct" from the existing five foundations. Is being a polar opposite "distinct"?

Friday, September 21, 2007


Two common examples of religious brain damage for my readers to check against my theories. Well, maybe not quite "theories," more like an initial, unrefined hypothesis about an emotional and ignorant Bayesian belief network working in the human brain.

My first example is a fellow who calls himself "revcort" and this thread, over at Richard Dawkins site, here is where you'll find his posts.

My second example is someone who emailed PZ and who believes that they once magically control which song came up the radio, who heard voices and who believes in biblical prophesy. Their story sounds like a twilight zone segment.

If you read PZ's emailer and enough of revcort's posts about gods glory, hell and what not the more terms like "mentally ill" and "delusional" seems appropriate.

I'm sure you guys can find more examples out there in cyberspace. If you do, drop me a comment with a link.

Thanks for your help.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How the religious mindfuck really works

In a reader comment (here) that I've already "ranted" on (here) Marian Paroo wrote: "If you don't believe-you don't believe." That's something else that's not right in the way Marian understands beliefs. It doesn't reflect the way the human brain really works. A belief is not something that gets turned on or off. Not believing only means you assign a low probability to basic religious claims. Our brains, in most of our beliefs, work more like a Bayesian belief network than a light switch.

In fact, our brains most probably do incorporate all sorts of Bayesian network-like arrangements of neurons. So, this is potentially more than a metaphor, it's a tool in artificial intelligence research.

Ignorant Belief Networks are one class of Bayesian Belief Networks that are able to reason on the basis of incomplete probabilistic information and to incrementally refine the precision of the inferred probabilities as more information is accumulated. This is what we are doing when we read and study atheistic books as well as Christian apologetics.

Instead of just acting on certain beliefs we really act on all the possibilities we can imagine when we don't have enough certainty, including conflicting improbable beliefs. It works as a kind of fail-safe and in extreme circumstances where no other action seems possible we will resort to the most improbable actions. For example, Steve McQueen, an actor who came across on screen as an intelligent, coolly rational and skeptical man, but who towards the end of his life, after being diagnosed with cancer, became a desperate and perhaps gullible man.

He had mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs and he apparently fell victim to some questionable medical practices. The medical profession derided him as a victim of fraud and friends warned him. However, with such a gloomy prognosis any skepticism McQueen may have had fell away and he became a desperate man willing to try anything because he saw no other options. What would you do in his situation? Hope trumps skepticism if there is no other price to pay.

As another more positive example, a fairly agnostic person may avoid doing a horrendous crime when the temptation is weak just because they imagine there might be a remote possibility of punishment in the afterlife for going too far over the line. They may not believe, but they try to do good just in case it is true.

Another example, I once let my brother's young kids watch a horror movie marathon one Halloween night. Early on during the films they were cracking jokes about how improbable werewolves, demons and zombies were but by the time the films were over they were so terrified of the simplest things I could make them jump just by shouting "Boo!" I eventually found them hiding under the bed with trembling flashlights in their hands. It didn't matter how skeptical they were, the movies had loaded their imaginations with all sorts of frightening possibilities and those imagined possibilities trumped their skepticism. Loading your imagination is exactly what religious proselytizers are doing. Have you ever had one accuse you of lacking imagination? I have and I'm a professional artist working in fantasy and science fiction who relies on my imagination.

We estimate probabilities and then plug in our fears and hopes. The real weights and numbers loaded into our Bayesian nodes and variables represent our fears and hopes and the estimated probabilities of encountering what we fear and/or hope for.

Religious propositions and claims we encounter in our mostly Christian culture generally have a low probability of being true. But religions like Christianity and Islam make up for their low probability by plugging into the most extreme hopes and fears that you can imagine. Those hopes and fears alter the way you estimate probabilities and how you collect data. Your imagination can be overloaded.

Christians also propose minimal, fail-safe, low cost actions, initially. They tell you to just study your Bible and then open your heart and ask God to come into it. No big sacrifice has to be made to get you started. The question you might be asking is why does this open your heart approach work on anybody if there is no god to come into your heart? I think it's a kind of hypnosis that works on an overloaded imagination, but I'll pick up on that in later essays.

There is never absolute certainty that can be had in regard to most religious questions. All that we atheists can do is argue against the probability of various claims about gods and religion. We can't really change the numbers in the fear and hope nodes. This is why atheism is something of an intellectual achievement and why it takes a bit of mental work. It's one reason why atheists tend to be scientifically informed and why fundamentalist Christians work against the accumulating scientific evidence of our modern age, denying evolution and neuroscience. You have to get to the point where you are satisfied that the probabilities are sufficiently low that you are as minimally effected by the hopes and fears religious proselytizers try to manipulate you with even if they don't understand what they are doing.

But I wrote about this over a decade ago and to end this post I'm going to quote a huge chunk of my over a decade old essay, HOPE IS THE BAIT:

The toxic hope offered by any kind of mysticism, be it Christian or New Age, is more than just the conquest of death, it's the desire for a supernatural realm beyond this comparatively dull and mundane reality. We all seem to have a profound yearning, a hope, for a magic method that will free us from realities that will not obey our wishes, from loneliness, from sorrow, from failure, from fears of the unknown, and from death itself, from our pain, and from our fragile human bodies that will rot in the earth after our dreaming souls have flown the coup. Because of our egocentricity we cannot accept the idea of death easily. We want to be free of nature's seemingly cruel dictates. It has been called the transcendental temptation, the siren call of mysticism, an escape from reality, and the theological seduction. It is a supernatural promise and it will not be kept.

Some Christians don't exactly know what kind of promise it is they have faith in, but they are sure it is better than rational despair. Yes, it would be nice if we could live forever in some paradise. It would be nice if there were a God watching over us and protecting us. But merely wanting and believing in these things is not enough to make them real. Hope and expectation is the bait that draws the seeker in, but the seeker is soon introduced to the fear of eternal damnation. What goes into the Bible reader's imagination, those highly emotional and secretly irrational processes within the subconscious, may just be objectively collected there at first as he tries to determine for himself what the truth is. The Bible reader tries to learn, but secretly wants to dream of a supernatural realm where his deepest desires might be fulfilled, and also where his darkest fears might come true. Fantasy may be a natural and healthy way to explore our desires and fears, and so discover their nature, and then develop realistic plans for getting what it is we desire and avoiding what we fear, but Christian fantasy is almost totally detached from any contact with reality. The desires and fears generated by the biblical texts are ambiguous, extreme, and unrealistic. The Bible, and especially New Testament, is bewildering, difficult, obscure, and confusing. The Bible creates an unhealthy uneasiness; it stimulates fear and hope with both subtle and direct threats and promises. The New Testament aims to turn the truth seeker inward and work on his subconscious mind. A seed is planted within the prospects subconscious. Any objective determination about the truth or falsity of Biblical claims is difficult for those who do not understand the psychology.

The Christian finds that he is dependent on priestly authority in order to understand his faith. The material that goes in to the mind, Biblical stories, rituals, impressive church structures, the herd instinct, mass media support, and peer pressure can be analyzed and so tell us something about this psychology and how the final effect is produced, and even something of the purposes that lay behind its design.

Supernatural fantasies are generated when the Bible reader speculates on the meaning of the text. And these fantasies are given implicit support by a media that tells us our politicians, presidents, generals, and celebrities are mostly Christian; a media that rarely contradicts the Christian assumptions of our culture. As the Bible reader reads of miracles, the promise of life everlasting, supernatural powers, angels, transcendent realms, and magical healings his desire and fantasy, his fears and hopes, will motivate, develop, and grow as he continues his studies. (One of the darkest aspects of religion's appeal to hope is its appeal to the desperate. To the terminally ill who seek to be healed.) Talk to any Christian and you'll find out that they've created a very personal vision, a private reality map that is uniquely their own. While different Christian groups with different labels, such as Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Charismatic, or Evangelical will advocate different interpretations of this supernatural fantasy each individual creates
his own particular vision out of the mix of possibilities.

For some people, once the Biblical seed of unreal hope and uncertain fear has been sown, a process of desire, expectation, and imagination begins in the hidden workings of the unconscious mind, in a secret world of mystical ideas, a world of ignorance and enormous possibility. The Bible reader begins to develop a murky image of his supernatural expectations and he seeks to clarify that image with further study. Instead of having his murky ideas clarified he is instead drawn further and further in to the trap. In time those things merely imagined, but still either feared or desired, may become part of our potential believer's reality map. The ideas are no longer just possibilities and speculations he entertains in his mind but are now 'real' to him. But 'real' only in the sense that they are emotionally loaded concepts that influence his desire and aversion behavior. The believer can no longer imagine, comfortably, a world view without his faith, his illusions. The emotion attached to these religious ideas is stronger than the emotion attached to the concepts and ideas in a more rational mind. While I have little experience with it, there seems to be a drug like emotional kick of joyous expectation associated with this process. At least this is what many Christians seem to claim when they talk about being 'born again.'

None of us use logic and reason alone to create our theories and reality maps, or even to solve problems. The ideas seem to just come to us, popping into our heads, or picked up out of books we've sought out, or welling up out of some dark and mysterious depth within our minds. Sometimes when this happens we want to scream 'Eureka!' because we have solved an important problem, as did Archimedes when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold. We use logic later, to check the work and put it in presentable order after the new ideas and insights have been attained. This does not invalidate the use of reason and logic as tools for understanding our world because the insights and ideas must survive the checking and ordering process which makes them valid, at the very least, if not demonstratably true.

A gestation process seems to be involved in genuine conversion. New insights, beliefs, concepts, and perspectives emerge days, weeks, perhaps even years after exposure to the information. The fuel for the Christian transformation is obviously those deep seated hopes and fears that biblical psychotechnology exploits. The computer programmer's jargon of "garbage in, garbage out" applies to the human mind as well. Cram your head full of scientific data about a problem that needs to be solved and you'll arrive at a technological solution to the problem. Cram your head full of Biblical mysticism and you'll find yourself with superstitious fears of damnation and a desperate quest for salvation. It's the checking and ordering process that is often not carried out when it comes to religion, or if it is, it's carried out improperly. In most cases, it's not even possible to carry out this checking process. Much of the information given to us by our trusted authority figures, our priests and politicians, goes unchecked, for checking is a hard and time consuming process. It's a lot harder to think for oneself than it is to just trust our culture's properly accredited experts, be they priests, politicians, or scientists. The Bible discourages this checking process and asks for faith, and that's one good clue to its false nature.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Marian Paroo, another non-comprehending nit-wit leaves a comment on my blog

Marian Paroo left a comment on my post "Thank You, Mother Teresa...." that perfectly illustrates how theists try to force their frames on an argument to the point of ignoring what is actually said in my post.

Marian wrote:
For someone who is an doesn't believe in God, you sure have spent a whole bunch of time and space on God (or the lack thereof). I wonder why. If you don't believe-you don't believe. Frankly, how can one who doesn't believe in God even begin to discuss God? How does one disprove the existence of something that doesn't exist? Do you see my confusion here?

Marian apparently didn't bother to read the post she commented on. The existence of God is only one assertion made by theists. I even said in that very post that you can't disprove a nebulous and undefined conception of God. I also said in that very post that it is the least important assertion. It's not about whether something like a God exists; it's about whether you can make any claims to knowledge about God. It's those claims, many and varied as they are, that cause all the problems.

The confusion that I see is all yours, Marian. You seem to think I've written something about God. I haven't. I've written about people who believe in God, in that case, Mother Teresa. Do you think that believers have no effect on the lives of others, like they don't fly airplanes into skyscrapers, or start wars in Iraq, or blow up abortion clinics, or mess up our lives in all sorts of ways? You're a perfect illustration of how theists try to force their frames on us to the point of ignoring what is actually said in my post.

The very question Marian asked, "Frankly, how can one who doesn't believe in God even begin to discuss God?" was answered in that very post. You talk about the claims made by people who do believe in God and you examine the effects of those beliefs.

As an example, if Mother Teresa, as Greta Christina claims, believed that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus, and said; "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." If she saw human suffering as a gift from Christ, something that would bring people closer to him, then those beliefs would effect how she acted. In this case having her hospitals and hospices offering grotesquely inadequate medical care, revoltingly unsanitary and even abusive conditions, and little or nothing in the way of pain relief, allowing the sick to suffer and the dying to die in terrible pain.

We can see and judge the effects of people's beliefs. That is what I'm writing about, not God, but the various affects of believing in various conceptions of God.

So, stop being an ignorant twit, Marian. Your frame doesn't work.

And that name, Marian Paroo, isn't that a fictional character from "The Music Man"? If fictional characters can leave comments on my blog that would seem to be evidence that we are indeed living in Nick Bostrom's simulated universe.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Kathy Griffin, we love ya!

Both The Barefoot Bum and PZ Myers have blogged on it already, so has the blog "Kill the Afterlife." But I still want to add my voice to the blog cheer for Kathy.

Kathy Griffin won a creative arts Emmy for her reality show, "My Life on the D-List," (to be honest I haven't watched the show yet -- but I will) and during her raucous acceptance speech said that "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus."

She then said "suck it, Jesus!"

This article notes that:

The comedian's remarks were condemned Monday by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who called them a "vulgar, in-your-face brand of hate speech."

According to the TV academy and E!, when the four hour-plus ceremony is edited into a two-hour program, Griffin's remarks will be shown in "an abbreviated version" in which some language may be bleeped.

Holy bleep! You know that when Bill Donohue gets on your case the Jesus-bots will spam you -- and indeed, Bill Donohue published Kathy’s agent's, Tim Curtis, email at the William Morris Agency:

I fear she'll probably be hearing from a lot of angry Jesus-bots so why not drop her a note of appreciation here on her web page:

She's also got a blog:

A blog which gets hundreds of comments on each post.

She's probably got a staff to handle incoming email, so don't count on reaching her, but I recently left a note of approval and a link to PZ's site. Without it she might back off and go wimpy on religion, with a lot of approval she might get more aggressive and I think that would be a good thing.

Yahoo news has an article that quotes Griffin's reaction (according to her publicist): "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?" But according to Robert Bell Kathy has said: "My parents sent me to Catholic school, which only made me the vehement militant atheist that I am today." Bill Bruce and someone called Chris gave me two sources for this claim: here and here. She's a Catholic atheist? I am so confused...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

There will now be only government approved religion

... at least in our prisons.

Thanks to Mark Kleiman (hat tip to PZ's old nemesis), I have now learned that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has ordered prison chaplains to get rid of any item not on the secret list of "approved" religious books.

The New York Times has the article: "Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries."

Don't worry, it's only Islamic terrorism books (yea, right -- all those al-Qa'ida bomb making books they've had lying around in their libraries. Until they're sure Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth don't have any bombing making chapters they're not on the secret, but leaked, list):

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

Ms. Billingsley said, “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.

So, we will have only socially approved religion in our prisons and it will be decided by our fundy administration.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

What is "high art" in our Brave New World?

"But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead." -- Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"

The question hit me when I was reading a transcript of Hugh Hewitt's show where he had Christopher Hitchens and David Allen White debating the impact of Christianity on Western Civilization.

During the debate David Allen White expressed the opinion that great art needs a "higher vision," whatever that means (I think it's just code for great art should be religious/Christian). Hitchens sort of agreed thereby falling into a bit of a trap that made him sound like a bogus Mustapha Mond talking to John the Savage in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Hitch talked about it in terms of the transcendent and the supernatural, with the supernatural being a kind of faux transcendent in Hitchens' mind… I think. I don't know because Hitchens got vague and as examples of infinite and majestic art he talked about the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope and Stephen Hawking writing about black holes. Hitch said there was more in them than in the contemplation of religious art. The natural world is wonderful enough. White countered by saying there's been a diminution of the "inner life." And Hitch, having pointed to raw science instead of real art and literature, couldn't counter successfully. The "inner life" just isn't there in Hubble photos.

I disagree with Hitchens. Art does not need to be transcendent to be great. And no, science does not replace art, Hitch, and one day you're going to get hoist on your own science petard when you meet a religionist who has actually read Stephen Hawking's equation dense papers and not just the no-math pop-sci books like "A Brief History of Time" or "The Universe in a Nutshell." One of these days they're going to show you some pictures from the Hubble and ask you if you know what you're looking at.

Mr. White claims he's not against science, but that doesn't mean he cares about science. In fact, he gives away his disinterest in science saying that in the Middle Ages, there was the notion of the five wits: common sense, fancy imagination, estimation, sometimes called judgment or memory and then complaining that his students don't know about them. Egad! Pre-Freudian psychology is his guide to the inner life? He might as well have talked about the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Or he might as well have talked phrenology. Modern psychology can do better than that. We even have drugs that can alter your "inner life" now, just like in that old preachy-teachy god-blathering novel that White and Hitchens would probably consider great art; "Brave New World."

Yes, there is an inner life, things going on inside us, and that's what art is meant to touch on. Yes, religious art touches on the human element in way Hitchen's science examples don't. Yes, the inner life is worthy of exploring in art but that doesn't mean science can not also tell us a lot about that too.

Scientific imagery and scientific writing isn't really "art," even if there is an art to scientific writing and imagery. If you showed Galileo a lot of the pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope most of the time he wouldn't have known what he was looking at. He'd probably see strange and bright colored smoke and gas with no real sense of scale. Even in the sixties people would have thought it was just cool psychedelic art. You'd have to explain what they were seeing.

Art should generally have a human element. It should be about people, not nebulae and black holes. It should touch on our inner life. But great art does not need to be transcendent or supernatural. Sometime the transcendent is just vague and escapist.

Is "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov transcendent or supernatural? Is it not great art? Does it not say something about the inner life? Is "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding transcendent or supernatural? Wouldn't those stories be more descendent than transcendent yet still showing us the inner life?

Mr. White doubted if science could inspire art, or would do so 600 years in the future. Pointing to non-art doesn't help your case Hitch. White then pointed out that after leaving our planet for the first time to set foot on another world, on the moon, an extraordinary human achievement, an engineering feat, there were only two works of art that were inspired by that event; Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon and a minor poem by W. H. Auden.


Only a book by Norman Mailer and a poem by W. H. Auden?

Hitchens doesn't challenge this. Why doesn't Tom Wolfe's book, "The Right Stuff" count? The Mercury program was part of getting to the Moon. And Tom Hanks produced a great HBO miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon" back in 1998.

I get the feeling that both Hitchens and White would never consider any TV miniseries great art. They seemed too snobbish and old-farty to credit TV with anything.

Science does inspire art, it's just not the kind of art that David Allen White, and probably Hitchens, would give the label great to. The moon had inspired dreams of exploration and literature long before John F. Kennedy proposed going there. There was H. G. Wells' "The First Men in the Moon" and Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" way back in 1865 with a projectile launched from Florida and lands in the Pacific Ocean, not unlike the Apollo Program. Isaac Asimov wrote "Trends" in 1939, a short story in which religious fanatics oppose a fictional first flight to the Moon in the 1970s. "Prelude to Space" was a 1951 novel by Arthur C. Clarke which is about a fictional first flight to the Moon. There were many more such stories in the pulp science fiction magazines. There were movies too, from "Destination Moon" to cheesy stuff like "Cat-women on the Moon."

The science fiction writers had already been to the moon. Actually getting there killed all the stories about going there for the first time. But you'll still find stories about lunar colonies in science fiction magazines like Analog.

There were thousands of Apollo/moon paintings and images all over the pop culture landscape. I've seen everything reflected in the mirror-like surface of an Apollo space-helmet, earth, DNA molecules, Newton, M. C. Escher's hand, but in space glove, with that reflective globe reflecting back the space-helmet reflecting the globe to infinity... Alan Bean, one of the astronauts who went to the moon became an artist and he's still painting.

David Allen White seems to be unaware of all that art and literature that is already out there if he can think of only two examples. There's more than any of us can view and read. And he would dismiss it all because his guardians of literary taste would dismiss it as pop trash. His choice of Norman Mailer's book is suspicious. I think it reveals his real opinion about science and the Apollo moon landings.

Norman Mailer's other books are better. So, why? Because America became bored with space travel and Mailer saw it coming. That's why. Mailer wrote of the banality of the astronauts and the fearsomely conformist culture of NASA and predicted a been-there-done-that attitude toward space travel by the public.

Mailer was partly right. Public interest waned, missions started getting cut off and Neil Armstrong did a few car commercials before disappearing from public consciousness. Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn were the only two astronauts who stayed in the broader public eye. Do you think David Allen White even knew we had a space station before a crazy female astronaut in diapers put NASA back on the front pages?

Mr. White's doubt that "great" art can be inspired by science depends on his subjective validation of "great." Sure he can point to arty-farty experts like T.S. Eliot calling Dante’s Paradiso the greatest poetry that can be written and thus back up his judgments, but T.S. Eliot only matters if you give a damn about T.S. Eliot's judgments. That religion has inspired all "great" artists isn't surprising if you have defined great art as religious art and all your experts agree with that.

Mr. White says that St. Francis is still inspiring artists. I wouldn't know. I never read any. Perhaps some reader of my blog can tell me if I'm right to guess that the St. Francis of art, literature and drama bears about as much relation to the real St. Francis as H. G. Wells' "The First Men in The Moon" bears relationship to the real Apollo 11 moon landing? Imagine what "great" art believing Catholics will be making out of the saintly Mother Teresa legend? Think it will bear much resemblance to Hitchen's book about her?

Finally Mr. White bemoans how the ability of religious faith to inspire great painting, music, literature and architecture has diminished. He's right too. That inner life he talks about is changing: Welcome to our Brave New World.

I don't know what kind moldy old-farty material Mr. White had in mind, but it wasn't that long ago when religious novels and Hollywood sword and sandal films like "Ben-Hur," "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments" and the like were hot literary and box-office properties. "The Ten Commandments" was one of the more expensive epics of its time. Lew Wallace’s "Ben-Hur" was once one of the most important, widely-read American novels of the last half of the 19th century. There are both silent and talky versions of the movie. And it continued to be widely read until the 1960s, when our Brave New World began to take shape. That's a long life for a book. But today "Ben-Hur" has receded into near oblivion. Does anyone read it now? When is the last time there has been a new printing of it?

For awhile it may have seemed like Mel Gibson might have been bringing back the sword and sandal genre with some new violent and psychotic twists. In 2006 USA Today announced "Hollywood turns to divine inspiration" and religious movies were coming back.

Instead the more recent movies aimed at the "faith-based market" have failed to bring in the bucks. "Evan Almighty" earned $99 million domestically, but the film reportedly cost about twice that much to make. "The Nativity Story" barely recouped its $35 million budget. Films that were just "family-friendly" and only nominally Christian got tagged with the "Christian" label, and distributed by Fox Faith, seem to have suffered as a result of that Christian marketing. In the meantime, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," based on Anne Rice's novel, seems to have gotten canned. And Mel Gibson's star has faded; a victim of shooting off his drunken mouth.

When is the last time you saw a character in a film pray or go to church? I don't go around choosing to watch only films that make no reference to religion, but almost every time I see a film it's like I'm entering an entirely secular world. No one prays or goes to church in most movies I watch, it's like religion doesn't exist. Of course, a lot of the films I see are pretty mindless action/adventure and comedy. I'm not looking for "higher vision" or the transcendent when I see films and it appears neither is most of the rest of the film going audience.

Can the Spiderman films be called transcendent? Spidey has transcended some of the human condition. Are comic-book superheroes the new transcendent icons of our transhumanist desires? Or are they just fairly mindless forms of entertainment? No matter, the Gammas and Deltas love it. They don't think about such things.

Is all that magic in the Harry Potter books transcendent? Now there's a set of films and books where the absence of religious notes is rather glaring. What happens after you die is a religious question and people die and come back to life in Harry Potter. Yet there isn’t any religion in the Harry Potter books. No one prays or goes to church or talks about God. It's conspicuously absent to the point where you know that the author intentionally left it out. It reads like one of those censored government documents from the X-Files, as if a CIA officer had gone through and removed the remotest hint of religion with a heavy black marker.

The science behind the comic-book heros is so silly it might as well be the supernatural. Sometimes it is. We've taken all the tropes and symbols of the transcendent and the supernatural, all the symbolic codes established by the ancients from even before religion became a part of the political power structure, and we've turned them into the most mindless forms of entertainment we can imagine, thus trivializing the transcendent.

Okay, that's film. It's for a mass audience of Deltas and Gammas. Epsilons still prefer re-runs of "The Three Stooges" and "Gilligan's Island," and their favorite pop-music group is, of course, "Simple Minds."

However, the same is true of most of the novels and short stories Betas read. It's either science fiction or realistic. Just one example of realistic, "High Fidelity," by Nick Hornby, a funny novel about the romantic struggles of Rob Fleming who, after his girlfriend leaves him for another man and because of the pain of the breakup, starts rethinking the monogamy his cynical nature had him thinking was a sign of insecurity. I'm not going to say it's great art, but it touched my inner life in ways no literary work called "transcendent," great or classic ever did.

So, either all Mr. White's experts are wrong, or I've been living in Huxley's Brave New World most of my life. Remember, Orwell feared the banning of books, but in our Brave New World there's no reason to ban any books because nobody wants to read them. Orwell feared we'd be deprived of information, but we have the internet and far more information than we can deal with. Orwell feared that the truth, whatever that is, would be hidden. In reality it has been drowned in the sea of irrelevance and people are preoccupied with comic-book movies, their sexual/romantic relationships and the orgy porgy of celebrity news about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and crazy astronauts in diapers. Okay, we may not be cloned and grown in bottles yet, but our pop-culture is mass produced and we get a lot of our identity and quite a bit of "inner life" from pop-culture.

So, what is great art in our Brave New World? Is it the transcendent comic-book superheroes and boy wizards, or is it the more realistic "High Fidelity," or is it still the moldy oldies that liberal arts University professors torture their fewer and fewer students with? Is the greater art Spiderman and Harry Potter, or is it "Lord of the Flies" and "Lolita," or is it John Donne's and Dante Alighieri's poetry?
Or, is it Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

It probably depends on if your an Alpha, a Beta, a Gamma or a Delta, but I invite all my readers, no matter what caste you are, to make a case for your choice in my comments section.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Monday, September 3, 2007

Thank You, Mother Teresa (Part 2)

For those with faith, no explanation is necessary. For those without, no explanation is possible. -Thomas Aquinas

Continued from PART 1

The biography, "Come Be My Light," that Time magazine says is coming out consists of letters Mother Teresa exchanged with her church superiors. The letters may only reveal that she felt as if God had withdrawn his presence "…neither in her heart or in the eucharist," according to Brian Kolodiejchuk, the book's editor. Some excerpts from Teresa's letters seem to reveal a deep depression:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Anyone who thinks the Mother Teresa quote above is about doubt doesn't know what doubt is. The kinds of "doubts" expressed in the few quotes I've gleaned from Mother Teresa’s letters (just from a few online articles I've read) make me wonder what kind of expectations for God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic church. What kinds of stories of God’s presence are told about the Eucharistic presence of Christ? They are apparently promising some people in the church hierarchy a feeling of the presence of God. Mother T. expected to feel God. But as far as I know there is no scripture or recorded experience that gives a coherent view of any expected experiences.

Now, Pentecostals, who do things like speak in tongues, are known to preach on the joy of feeling a divine presence and think they get some “holier than thou” status from it, but are Catholics doing the same? Mother T's letters suggest they are doing it and my not knowing that until now no doubt reveals how ignorant I am of Catholicism.

When I watch a preacher in an evangelical TV megachurch say “I can feel Christ’s presence here tonight, God is going to work miracles...,” I suspect he may honestly feel something -- but whatever it is, it is not an objective reality perceptible to an outsider. It's only his internal, subjective, experience and it is mediated through expectation and interpretation. Others in the church might shout out that they feel it too, but what do they actually feel? Have they ever compared the sensations? Any weird good feeling might seem to be the presence of God and once others confirm that interpretation you'll think whatever weird feeling you had is God's presence. The expectation comes from the promises and possibility of God’s presence that the preacher makes and has heard before.

When it happens I don't see any testing or questioning of what is felt. No one asks, "Can you describe what God's presence feels like?" And if they did would someone say; "No, no, God's presence is more like a warm tingle along the spine with a warm glow in you belly." When I search the web with Google looking for entries on "testing whether it is the presence of God" or "testing for the presence of God" I don't get any hits. When I remove the quotes I get a ton of stuff that looks irrelevant to the question I'm asking. Maybe I just don't know what I'm looking for?

I suspect that most people, when they "feel the presence" of God, are probably misinterpreting some induced psychological state, some chemical, neurological high that, judging by Mother T's account, has addictive properties. It's a kind of spiritual heroin, a real opiate of the masses. Need a quick high? Get a does of God’s presence. The word hallucination isn't quite right, but the word illusion probably fits. They would be superimposing a theological, spiritual interpretation onto a highly emotional but natural neurological state. But as I said before, it's easier for us to doubt other's experiences than our own. I can eliminate a lot more probable causes when it's my own experience I'm judging. Who knows what causes other people's experiences? I can't even be sure they're honest.

It seems to me that if people are going to claim to experience some direct awareness of God that such experience be subjected to some kind of testing. They should at least have some tradition of community discernment, which would still be a poor test considering what happened to the researchers who claimed to replicate René-Prosper Blondlot's N-ray experiments.

The best that Christians on the web had to offer was stuff like this "How do you know if it is God speaking to you?" where the only test is of verbal messages from God, not a vague feeling of presence. And the test is only whether it agrees with the Bible. That might be okay if the Bible itself wasn't full of crazy and dangerous stuff and it still wouldn't be a proper test even then. What if the Bible is wrong? Well, for that they only have the circular reasoning of the Bible's own insistence that it's the word of God.

So, if a "cured" Ted Haggard tells a bunch of Christians that God has told Ted that God wants all true Christian men to cut off their penises in order to avoid sexual temptation they'll do it if Ted can show them this Bible passage where Jesus says, as in Matthew 19:11-12, "There are some eunuchs who were born that way, and there are some who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who can accept this should accept it." Jesus also said, "If your right eye offend you, pluck it out . . . . If your right hand offend you, cut it off . . . . If your foot offend you, cut it off. If your family gets in the way, hate your father, hate your mother."

Another test offered was no test at all:
How do I know when God is talking to me? I just know. His voice is always crystal clear to me, and it is not an audible voice either. His words, when they come to me, bring a very deep peace and contentment. Some of His beautiful words have simply been, "I love you". Sometimes he gives me word pictures.

I also found this, "Entering the Presence of God," where they openly admit there’s a lot of confusion about worship and the presence of God. Then we get this strange bit of meaningless white noise that just side steps the whole 'what is the experience like' question and redefines all terms; “Fundamentally, then, drawing near to God means believing the gospel and making ‘personal appropriation of salvation.’” And then:

Objectively, what brings us into the presence of God is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If we ascribe to worship (meaning, in this context, our corporate praise and adoration) something of this power, it will not be long before we think of such worship as being meritorious, or efficacious, or the like. The small corner of truth that such expressions hide (though this truth is poorly worded) is that when we come together and engage in the activities of corporate worship (including not only prayer and praise but the Lord’s Supper and attentive listening to the Word…), we encourage one another, we edify one another, and so we often feel encouraged and edified. As a result, we are renewed in our awareness of God’s love and God’s truth, and we are encouraged to respond with adoration and action” (Worship by the Book, 50-51).

All of which misses the point. Instead of trying to find any objective measure of what an experience of God's presence is like or how to test it they just encourage subjective self-validation and that is a highly dangerous and irrational approach. Revelation and strange experiences inevitably carry an authority for the experiencer and if that experiencer is mentally ill, how would you know it? Do you just blindly encourage it and tell them to have "faith"?

Mother T. never got to the point of atheism. Atheists do not "struggle with their faith." A lot of Christians will say that "it takes more faith to be an atheist," but that depends on what you mean by faith. It really takes no faith at all as Christians seem to understand "faith."

There’s an old story about a physics teacher who, on the first day of class, showed his class a huge pendulum with a heavy iron ball on the end. He takes the ball, holds against his nose, and then lets go of it. The pendulum swings away, then starts swinging back, the class gasps as it looks like the heavy ball will smash the teacher's face. But the ball, almost touching his nose, seems to stop and then starts swinging back away. The teacher never flinched. He looks at his class and says: “Now that’s faith!”

The teacher had faith in the laws of science. We don’t really know that god won’t give that ball an extra boost of energy and smash the teacher's nose. He just believes a pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it was released. It must fall short, because of friction and gravity, when it swings back to, but cannot reach, its origin point. Each time it swings it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it is at rest. This point of rest is called the state of equilibrium, where all forces acting on the pendulum are equal.

Is that faith or is that knowledge? It's both, and that's the key. I know that pendulum can't swing farther than the teacher's nose as surely as I know anything, but I don't know absolutely and I'm not sure I wouldn't flinch the first couple times I tried it, but I could learn not to flinch. My knowledge is based upon both experience and replicable, scientific evidence.

This is not a faith one has to struggle with. If pendulums stopped behaving the way I've always experienced them then my beliefs about pendulums would change. That kind of faith is a natural faith derived from experience. There is no struggling with that kind of faith, so it is in no way like any Christian or religious "faith." The struggle is just keeping track of all the little facts and mathematical formulas we collect to describe how the world works. At least it's not like those who "struggle with their faith." There simply is no struggle and faith shouldn't be a struggle. If it is, then something is wrong.

We all live with this kind of easy faith in physics facts everyday. But the replication of some scientific experiments we have to take on trust, or "faith." I can study a pendulum myself easily, but I can’t replicate experiments done on billion dollar particle accelerators, I just trust them. Astronauts sit on top of huge firecrackers that have been known to blow up on occasion for short trips into space and that could be called "faith" too. We take expensive drugs on the say-so of our doctors and that's faith too. We have a faith in science and scientists that goes beyond our everyday experience. But again, the scientists have earned our faith and it comes easily, too easily. I had to learn not to trust everyone who calls them self a scientist. Parapsychologists claim to be scientists, they claim replicable, scientific evidence, and yet I doubt them now.

When I was in my first years of high school there were guys, like Uri Geller and the Amazing Kreskin, showing up on TV and I bought into their psychic powers claim easily, I saw it and believed. I trusted and had faith without questioning for a little while. One of the things that made it easy to believe in Geller was the claim that Geller had been tested at the Stanford Research Institute by scientists. It wasn't until I found James Randi's book about Geller that I learned to doubt. I had no idea that someone could get away with being that dishonest while exposed to national media attention.

Faith was easy, it's doubting that is the hard work, and it's enjoyable work. It takes more thought and creativity to doubt than it does to believe. It requires questioning things you never thought to question before. We trust assertions by authority figures too quickly and easily. Doubt may lead to a bit of disillusionment and disappointment, but it shouldn't cause the kind of pain and suffering Mother T. expressed.

To an atheist like me doubt is not a pain to suffer or an attitude of conviction about the non-existence of God. I don't believe in God because I have no good evidence that there is a God. Doubt and skepticism are, as the Barefoot Bum says, tools. Doubt and skepticism are embedded in the very method of science and it is that which links science and atheism. It's a process of subjecting our beliefs to logical and sensible scrutiny. This is apparently something that religious people are not doing very well. How can they be if there has never been any investigation into the subjective experience of God that Mother T. suffered for? It's a mystery and they don't ask questions about what they hunger for.

To struggle with faith, to act as if convinced of it when you really aren't sure, is not the kind of faith I know, it's what Sartre called "bad faith." Based on Mother T's letters we can not even conclude that some believers do in fact "doubt" in the sense that I discussed above, the sense of creative questioning. You haven't really doubted until you've applied the tools of skepticism and science to what you doubt.

So, the point of attack I suggest is this -- when religious people tell you they doubt too, challenge that. Explore whether they even know how to doubt effectively.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Thank You, Mother Teresa. You've shown me a new way to frame atheism.

“The priests used to say that faith can move mountains, and nobody believed them. Today the scientists say that they can level mountains, and nobody doubts them.”
— Joseph Campbell

I've been following the articles about the publication of the letters where Mother Teresa revealed her personal crisis of faith. While reading Christopher Hitchens "Teresa, Bright and Dark" (also on Richard Dawkin's site) it finally hit me, the difference that really matters between atheists like me and theists of Mother Teresa's type is how we deal with doubt, ignorance and uncertainty. We atheists really have been framing a lot of our arguments badly.

I think I can show you all a better way to frame this debate. You decide.

The Barefoot Bum writes that the "supposed coexistence of faith and doubt—in either sense of the word—is a transparent sham." And that's pretty close to my own views. However, doubt and faith do co-exist in all of us, but not both doubt and faith in the same assertion. There are only three options for any single assertion you're asked to believe: 1) "I trust it," 2) "I don't know," or 3) "I doubt it." You can't claim to mix two opposite ends of that spectrum, doubt and faith, and make sense unless you're talking about trusting some claims and assertions while doubting others. For example, Andrew Sullivan who makes a big deal about his mix of doubt and faith has faith in claims about some happy after-life but doubts biblical passages saying homosexuality is an abomination to God.

I'm bringing up this rather obvious point because I think a lot of us atheists are focusing on the wrong assertions. It's not about whether something like a God exists or doesn't exist so much as whether you can make any claims about knowing anything about God. For example, consider how much there is to agree with in the works of non-atheists like Thomas Paine and Voltaire in their criticism of religion. Much of what they had to say about religion is still relevant today and is still rejected by most religious people.

For another example, there's an old article in the New York Times, "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch," about Nick Bostrom's idea that it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation. Maybe our universe is a simulation and if so, wouldn't the programmer(s) be our god(s)? If such gods exist they are so unknowable that there are few rational beliefs I can have about them/him/her/it. The only thing that would make the programmer gods of Nick Bostrom's future supercomputers more knowable than the gods of traditional religion is the concept that the simulation we are in is an ancestor simulation. It would mean our gods were once like us. They would have evolved in a godless universe too.

You don't find atheists complaining about Nick Bostrom's speculations because Nick isn't claiming to have talked to the programmers and come back to tell us how to live our lives and to have "faith" in the programmers. I don't know what to do with Nick's idea. I just go on living as I have before. Nick doesn't ask me to do anything much with the idea.

And what is religion? In some ways a religion can be defined as a collection of assertions that comprise a world view. Each different religion and sub-sect has a mix of different assertions. Some theists like to say atheism is a religion and the usual response to that is to say something like "if atheism is a religion then bald is a hair color," or, "... then off is a TV channel," or "... then sanity is another mental disorder." Well, we are turning off all assertions made about gods and there isn't necessarily any other assertions made to replace them, but most of us do have a naturalistic world view.

The problem with taking down the whole collection of religious assertions, made by every religious variant, in one debate is that it is like trying to nail jello to a tree. The theist can avoid stating his most doubtful assertions, like Al Sharpton did when debating Christopher Hitchens, and focus on the things you can't know either, like whether there is a god.

What Mother Teresa has shown us is what would be a good focus for future books and debates. We can skip over all those complicated arguments about God and religion and get to the real issue, which is how do you deal with doubt, ignorance and uncertainty? Mother T. has shown us this by showing us how badly some theists deal with doubt. She suffered not because she doubted, but because she didn't know how to effectively doubt.

I think Hitch might have missed something important in his article, and in his Hardball debate with Bill Donohue. Hitchens seemed to think that when Mother Teresa wrote in her letters things like; "Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear," that she was talking about doubting God's existence. But that doesn't make sense. How can you doubt God before you doubt the church? She retained her faith in her spiritual directors and confessors while she doubted God? That would be like me rejecting Nick Bostrom's speculations about our universe being a simulation yet still believing him when he tells me what the programmer wants me to do. I have to doubt the claims made about the programmer before I can doubt there is a programmer.

The same thing would apply for a flock of Christians who certainly believe in God but who might then be confronted by a preacher who tells them, "God wants you all to drink this cyanide laced kool-aid," as they probably wouldn't believe that preacher even though they believe in God. Oh, wait... I forgot Jonestown. Alright, how about a preacher who tells them God wants his followers to fly airplanes into skyscrapers... Oh, wait... Well, we hopefully can assume most religious people will not just follow anything someone who claims to speak for God says. Those are the ones we might reach with this different frame because they at least can doubt someone who merely claims to speak for God. It's impossible not to doubt many of the contradictory and absurd religious claims we encounter in our society, even believers doubt most of them.

I'm sure most Christians don't believe that everyone who thinks they’re hearing God’s voice really is. After all, most of us don't believe that because a schizophrenic is claiming that they can feel the microwave beams the CIA is sending into their brains that this is evidence that the CIA is doing such a thing.

The point is that if Mother Teresa really doubted God's existence she would have necessarily started by doubting those people who were telling her about God. You can't get to atheism while still believing in people who send you to an exorcist. You might trust them to be honest about their own beliefs and experiences, but you can't think they got the interpretation right, you can't believe that they know anything about a God you don't believe in. You might experimentally try things like prayer and exorcism, but not the same people over and over when nothing is working. The great tragedy of Mother T. is that if she really doubted she might have sought help from a psychologist and found out she was clinically depressed and then have gotten real help.

The Time magazine article I read had said that only a couple of the letters can be interpreted as expressing doubt about God's existence. They really seem to be indicating a hunger for some experience within her. The letters are also being published as part of the investigation into Mother Teresa's suitability for sainthood and I don't think Catholics would ever begin to make a saint of a real atheist or skeptic.

Mother Teresa is more unlike us, Hitchens and me at least, in her doubts than she is like us. Did she ever come to doubt her past experiences? Mother Teresa supposedly had a period of time where she literally heard God’s voice directing her to go to in India and help the poor. As soon as she did start her mission, God's silence began. In spite of the lack of instruction and encouragement from God, she continued her work.

Feeling the abandonment by God is not the same as doubting God. Mother T. knew something of what she was missing. I don't think she doubted her interpretation of her own past experiences. You can't doubt the meaning of your own past experiences without doubting the meaning of the experiences of others. The doubt of other's experience necessarily precedes doubting your own experience. It necessarily begins by seeing yourself in others. Quite a few Christians will claim confidence in their own experiences of God while doubting others merely because they haven't seen themselves in those others, but Mother Teresa did not doubt her confessors, she was just feeling a lack of something she expected. Mother T. did not really doubt and if she called her experience doubt, then she didn't really know what doubt was.

"I gave my love to Jesus, but now he never calls."
-Betty Bowers

Continued in PART 2