Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for February 2009

Feb/09

21

Non-believers we can do without.

Andrew writes:

The idea of an atheist ‘movement’ “on the march” is not, I confess, something that fills me with great joy.

Especially when its leaders march under such idiotic banners as the British bus ads:  “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
What genius came up with this copy?  It is stupid on several fronts. 

First, it associates non-belief with hedonism, a misperception spread by believers such as Michael Novak: 

Think of the burdens that slide off one’s shoulders just by becoming an atheist.  It’s a helluva temptation. 

None of the moral challenges that confront us—how to be tolerant and generous; how to fulfill our duties towards our parents; how to balance the responsibilities of work with those owed to our families or community—lessen with the disappearance of God.  These are human dilemmas, answered always by human judgment, even when we ventriloquize our answers into a supervening God. 

The bus ads suggest a utilitarian reason for skepticism: you’ll enjoy life more.  The only touchstone that I can possibly imagine for deciding whether or not to adopt any particular belief is its truth, in this case:  Does the evidence of human experience support the claim that we are attended to by a loving, personal God?  Even if the conclusion that we have no “Friend” in the sky leads inevitably to melancholy or dissatisfaction, it is better to live unhappily in truth than happily in delusion, in my view.  (As I have written before, however, I am puzzled by the claim that life would be meaningless without God.  Schubert wrote some 600 songs, nearly every one of them a gem of lethal beauty and exquisiteness.  You want something more?)

(The societal question is perhaps more complicated: if religious belief has irreplaceable utility on a societal level, but is nevertheless false, are we then to recommend it to others even though we as individuals cannot subscribe to it?)

If today’s believers are going around wracked with Calvinist worry over the ultimate fate of their souls, they are sure hiding it well.  If anything, God today seems to provide a refuge from worry.  Maybe there’s still a lot of terrifying fire and brimstone in America’s churches, but it is at least no longer eliciting the tortured illogic of predestination doctrine to reconcile believers to their own responsibility for a fate wholly outside their control.

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Feb/09

21

Coping With Criticism

The idea of an atheist ‘movement’ “on the march” is not, I confess, something that fills me with great joy, but running through a recent story in the London Independent on this topic, it’s possible to detect at least one important theme, growing irritation with repeated attempts (most often pushed in the UK by more extreme Muslims or those, like Tony Blair, set on appeasing them) to criminalize some lines of criticism of religious belief or practice.

As if on cue, we then find this story from the Daily Telegraph about complaints by the Vatican about an Israeli TV program. Judging by the report, the program in question (I’d need to see it to come to any proper conclusions) appears in some respects to be somewhat sophomoric, and the Holy See is, of course, entirely within its rights to criticize it as blasphemous, but two things stand out.

The first was that the Vatican chose to raise these criticisms with the Israeli government (the program was shown on a private TV channel) a move that was, if only by implication, an attempt to involve the state (and its coercive powers) in what should have been a purely private controversy.

The second was this:

“The Vatican said that, in the clip, Mary and Joseph were “ridiculed with blasphemous words and images” that amounted to a “vulgar and offensive act of intolerance toward the religious sentiments of the believers in Christ.”

Now, what was shown may well have been blasphemous (as the Vatican defines it) and it may well have been “offensive” (to some and simply stupid to others), and, as I mentioned above, the Vatican is fully entitled to say so (in fact, debate on these topics is no bad thing). What is revealing, however, is the way that a part of the program is also described  by the Holy See as an act of “intolerance.”

“Intolerance” these days is a trigger word, designed to bring down the wrath of the PC state on the heads of offenders, but (again, judging only by the report) I see no signs of intolerance, merely criticism, rather crudely expressed; the normal hurly-debate of debate in other words, designed to open up discussion rather than suppress it. If anything, this is the antithesis of intolerance.

How sad it is to see the Vatican playing the mullahs’ game…

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Feb/09

21

On a hard-to-reach library shelf

Per the Telegraph, some Muslims in Leicester, U.K.,

moved copies of the Koran to the top shelves of libraries, because they believe it is an insult to display it in a low position.

The city’s librarians consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations and were advised that all religious texts should be kept on the top shelf to ensure equality.

So far as I can tell, most Christian viewpoints do not assign any particular value to placing the religion’s scriptures in a physically elevated location, and many would assign a positive value to making the texts accessible, which might be in tension with top-shelf placement.

Robert Whelan of the Civitas think-tank told The Daily Mail: “Libraries and museums are not places of worship. They should not be run in accordance with particular religious beliefs.”

And a spokesman for Engage, “which encourages Muslims to play a greater role in public life”, pointed out that there is no reason libraries should feel obliged to treat Christian and Muslim scriptures in a precisely equal way if believers take different views as to what constitutes respectful treatment.

Speaking of libraries, I’ll take this opportunity to suggest that readers visit my other site, Overlawyered, to check out my ongoing coverage of CPSIA, the dreadful new federal law that is encouraging used book sellers and even libraries to discard pre-1985 children’s books on the ground that some unknown percentage of them contain infinitesimal admixtures of lead in their ink and pigments. I wrote up the issue at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, and Daniel Kalder at the Guardian (U.K.) contributed good coverage yesterday. I’m happy to report that virtually every strain of conservative opinion, religious and secular, traditionalist and libertarian, seems to be united in agreement that this very bad law needs to be stopped now; its remaining defenders include Congressional potentate Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the editorialists of the New York Times.

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Feb/09

20

Greenhouse gasbags

More proof that greenhouse-gas environmentalism—for liberals, one of the main reasons for getting rid of the allegedly anti-science, religiously-driven Bush Administration–is just posturing.  

The California  legislature has been struggling to close a $41 billion budget deficit.  This is the same legislature that insists on imposing its own emissions standards on Detroit auto-makers—safely out of sight and out of the voting booth–because it cares so much about global warming.   Now, if ever, one would think, would be the time to increase gasoline taxes, a two-fer that would  raise revenue and discourage greenhouse gas emissions. 

So did a proposed 12-cents-a-gallon surcharge on gas make it into the crippling $12.8 billion in tax hikes which the California legislature finally passed yesterday?  Of course not.  Voters would raise bloody hell.  Better, apparently, to kill all businesses slowly with a sales tax hike than to interfere with Californians’ right to cheap gasoline.  Liberal politicians’ pious devotion to the science of global warming never translates into action, unless the costs of action can be safely transferred onto non-voters.  And environmental groups are just as cowardly.  I sure didn’t notice the Sierra Club or the NRDC protesting when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for a suspension of the federal gas tax last year.

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Feb/09

20

Rat Fun

I’ll admit, I got this via the website of lefty blogger P.Z. Myers. It’s still darn funny.

 

[Sorry, Viacom pulled the clip after I posted that.  Try the link now.]

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Feb/09

20

Secular green ideas waste foolishly

Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters argues that the federal school lunch program should be revamped to give children locally-grown, organic produce.   She’s right about the scandal of federally-subsidized junk food being served to children; it’s a tragedy that Americans have lost any awareness of the stately march of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, as well as of the joy of cooking and eating them.  But the organic imperative is just loony, it seems to me, a replacement of religious food taboos with secular ones.  Pesticides are our friends. There is no evidence that we are being harmed by the chemicals used to keep produce from being eaten alive by insects and fungus.  By insisting that schools seek out pricey organic food, Waters is rendering a valid crusade virtually unrealizable.

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Feb/09

19

Full Disclosure

In re the Attorney General’s remarks about the need for us to speak frankly about race, I have a modest suggestion.

I suggest that anyone who wants to offer public opinions in this zone should first do a couple of Implicit Association Tests and publish the results on the internet. Here is one of mine, and here’s another one.

(You might then want to go look at the controversy over these tests, starting with John Tierney here.  Googling “implicit association test” + “malcolm gladwell”  also good.)

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Feb/09

18

Miscellany, February 18

  • “UC Berkeley Website on Evolution Sued for Violating Establishment Clause”. Sued almost certainly without success: the Ninth Circuit has rejected the claim, although the litigant is seeking Supreme Court review. [Citizen Media Law]
  • Nancy Friedman:

    You know about those atheist ads on buses in the UK, right? (“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”*) Now you can generate your own bus slogan. Beancounters shows us how it’s done. And Christa Allan alerts us to the lookalike poster (real? generated?) in an English bus stop: “There’s probably no bus. So don’t just stand here, start walking.”

    *They call it atheist. I say the “probably” makes it agnostic.

  • Okay, I take back the last several disobliging things I’ve said about the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In a letter to the Arkansas legislature, they called for the repeal of the state’s (unenforced and unconstitutional) ban on religious unbelievers’ holding office, an anachronism also on the books, apparently, in Tennessee and Texas. “Arkansas atheists have the same rights as religious believers, to hold office and testify in court and state laws to the contrary should be stricken from the books”. All credit to them for standing on principle (via). More: Somin @ Volokh.
  • “The Michigan Law Review’s companion journal First Impressions has published an online symposium on Liability for Exercising Personal Belief Exemptions from Vaccination.” [Concurring Opinions] As a libertarian, and one who’s highly suspicious about letting the government intrude into the family, I’m generally inclined to side with the parents against most of these government intrusions, misguided though I think they usually are in refusing vaccination (whether for religious or nonreligious reasons). That doesn’t mean I’d defend the family-religious-liberty principle to the very end of the line, with, say, the argued right to reject lifesaving blood transfusions for an infant on religious principle. Pluralism and coexistence of multiple communities is ardently to be pursued, but should not amount to a suicide pact.

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Feb/09

17

Pagans & Christians

In the late 4th century the Roman Empire was diverting its state subsidies from the customary pagan cults to the Christian church.  At the same time the public space was evolving from one where tokens of pagan piety were being replaced with witnesses to the Christian tradition.  The pagan elites resisted this change, and it is from this period we have some dialogues between elites from both intellectual traditions.  I was discussing with a friend recently how in late antiquity Christianity was a progressive and anti-traditional force, overturning norms which stretched back into the pre-literate past, passed from generation to generation.  Today where Christianity and conservatism are seen to be coterminous this might seem peculiar, but it illustrates how conservatism is context specific. What might be conservative in one age is radical in another.  Additionally, I would with some trepidation add that when some Christians appeal to the a priori Truths of their religion as the source of their views on how a Good Society should be ordered, it is in some ways as constructivist as the outlook of proposition nation proponents. Instead of an organically evolving society which changes incrementally from generation to generation, a Big Idea can reorder the constellations as the scales fall from one’s eyes.

Below are two sections of a debate between Symmachus, a pagan aristocrat, and St. Ambrose, which illustrates the peculiar late antique juxtaposition. (more…)

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Feb/09

16

Charles Darwin, Conservative?

Here’s an extract from a TNR piece by Alvaro Vargas Llosa on Charles Darwin:

“Herein should lie Darwin’s appeal to the right: The English naturalist gave scientific validity to the revolutionary idea that order can be spontaneous, neither designed by nor beholden to an all-powerful authority. The struggle for existence that drives natural selection according to Darwin has nothing predetermined about it. In fact, he maintained that the presence of certain habits, values and institutions, including religion–themselves part of man’s adaptation to the environment–can impact evolution. The instinct of sympathy, for instance, drives some stronger members of the human species to help weaker ones, thereby mitigating the struggle for existence.

“It is fascinating that conservatives who advocate for a spontaneous order–the free market–in political economy and decry social engineering as a threat to progress and civilization should resent Darwin’s overwhelming case for the idea that order can design itself. In an essay in the British publication The Spectator, the conservative science writer Matt Ridley reflects on the paradox that the left has claimed Darwin even though leftist political ideas contradict his basic teaching: “In the average European biology laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralized properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.”

“The bicentennial of Darwin’s birth is a good opportunity for those on the right who trash him as an icon of the left to give the author of The Origin of Species another chance.

Read the whole thing.

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