Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for December 2008

What topics haven’t we been blogging about on this site that would relate to our niche and make for interesting reading?




Hell and the scientific method

My good friend blogger James Taranto drops his insistence that there is no tension between American tolerance and a belief in eternal damnation for wrong-believers (not without getting in one last crude mischaracterization of my argument, however). 

Now he says that our disagreement boils down to the following statement of mine, from which he deletes the final clause:

[I]t is an empirical matter, presumably verifiable after the Last Judgment, whether unbelievers and the unbaptised are eternally punished, not just a matter of feeling. 

James pretends that I was proposing a scientific test today for what will transpire after death.  In fact, I was just stating the obvious: If hell is real, we will all find out–some of us directly–after the Last Judgment.  By contrast, the statement which James offers as an analogy to the belief in eternal damnation: “She is the most important thing in the world” is a value judgment that cannot be corroborated by actual experience. 

In an effort to be cute, James states that I “must be the only atheist who thinks [that] the Last Judgment is a real event.”   Earlier James accused me of lacking imaginative sympathy with religious belief; now he accuses me of believing religious doctrine.  I wish he’d make up his mind.



Miscellany, December 29

  • Per John Tierney in the Times, a new review of the literature has “concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control”, which may help explain why religious belief is often associated with greater success in such goals as personal health and marital stability. Mere going through the motions doesn’t seem to be enough, “Dr. [Michael] McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.”
  • A new Vanity Fair article based on interview with GWBush administration insiders includes this quote from David Kuo:

    “The reality in the White House is – if you look at the most senior staff – you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders,” Kuo said.

    “In the political affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at … basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.”

    Note, by contrast or otherwise, DH’s just-preceding post on GWB’s personal beliefs.

  • For those who haven’t overdosed on the subject, the gang at Volokh Conspiracy have a lot to say about the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” question, with attention to the use of the latter phrase (long before the recent culture wars) as an attempted way to avoid awkwardness between Christians and Jews. Relatedly, David Kopel brings word that readers of the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera, have now heard from one of the world’s touchiest atheists on the subject.

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Faith & George W. Bush

Austin Bramwell, He Still Believes:

Bush’s admirers credit him with political courage on par with Lincoln’s. Lincoln, of course, hated the “terrible war” that he felt his duty to wage. “Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln intoned, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Does Bush similarly hate the evils that his policies have caused? It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask the question. Yet according to Bush, the purest test of a leader is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of every calamity. Without the evils that his policies have caused, therefore, Bush could never have made the principled stands that he himself regards as the “big moments” of his presidency. Bush’s idealism, in short, means that he’s not just indifferent to the evil consequences of his actions but positively welcomes them as proofs of his commitment to idealism. In Bush’s mind, the our very failures in Iraq have shown how he has gloriously withstood the test of leadership. For all that other presidents have also claimed the mantle of righteousness, an idealism as fanatical as Bush’s has never been seen before.

One of the main points which my liberal friends have a hard time grasping is the conservative anger at George W. Bush for not being a conservative. Faith and hope are important human traits, and pure rationality leads to a sterile and indecisive existence (as evidenced in António Damásio‘s work). But all things in modest measures. One can not know the mind of a man, but on many an occasion I have wondered as to the similarity between the cosmic visions of liberal audacity and George W. Bush’s belief that if he believes it is so, it is so.




Which came first & why?

The piece that Walter mentioned below makes an interesting assertion:

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

This isn’t too surprising a comment from someone of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion; though denigrating “heathen Popery” is  no longer in fashion, there is often an implicit assumption that Protestantism superseded Catholicism in the same manner that Christianity supposedly superseded Judaism.  But instead of being grounded in soteriology, Protestant superiority impicitly relies a crass Weberian thesis that a shift in specific religious ideas drove social and economic changes more broadly.





America and Hell

A Pew religion survey  supports the hypothesis that American tolerance influences theology.

“We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven,”    [Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College, commented to to the New York Times.]   [I]n our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell.

Perhaps it’s not just a “poverty of imagination” that posits a potential tension between secular experience and traditional religious teaching.

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Matthew Parris, longtime fixture of center-right British journalism at publications like The Spectator, has been thinking about the intractable problems of Africa:

…I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition….

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Another version of the oft-heard “useful whether or not true” argument? An analogue to what economists sometimes call the “theory of the second best“? Or some third thing?

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Secular Intolerance

Gay activists are furiously denouncing the Rick Warren inaugural invitation as an imprimatur for intolerance.  At the same time, many in their ranks are trying to destroy the livelihoods not just of indviduals who donated piddling sums to California’s Prop. 8 campaign but of their co-workers as well.   This is not necessarily a winning PR strategy.

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God as Mid-wife

I just caught a glimpse of the grotesque reality show (a redundancy, I know) “17 Kids and Counting,” which chronicles the “family values” of Arkansas evangelicals Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 17 children.  The segment I saw was shot during the final weeks of Michelle’s 18th pregnancy and included discussions of the medical precautions being taken to meet the obstetric challenge presented by a 40+ woman with 17 previous births.  The hospital and medical sequence concluded with Jim Bob announcing unctuously: “Ultimately, we’re just putting our faith in God,” or something to that effect. 

The heck he is.   I would love for once to see someone really put his faith in God and forego the fruits of centuries of patient scientific work based on empirical proof, not faith.  Jim Bob cloaks himself in the superior virtue of the pious, and yet his actions in seeking out the best medical advice and care are indistinguishable from a heathen secularist. 

One might say, “Well, what’s wrong with a belt-and-suspenders approach?  Take advantage of medical science, but it can’t hurt to throw in a little prayer as an extra insurance policy.”    What’s wrong is the implication when announcing your prayer policy that you are morally superior to those of us without such a policy, even as you behave (rationally and understandably) just like everyone else. 

The baby was delivered safely on December 18.  I can guess who will get the ultimate thanks.  It’s unlikely to be the unsung generations of empiricists who have triumphed over the childbirth mortality of mothers and infants, a condition that has been the human race’s God-given fate for most of history.

And another guess: in those countries still plagued by high rates of childbirth mortality, parents pray with as much fervor as any Arkansas congregation.




Reason and Unreason

The appeal to unreason as a grounding for religious faith alternates regularly with the appeal to reason as a grounding for religious faith.

That’s very good, Heather. I’ve noticed the same thing. The believers get you coming and going. “It’s not evidence, it’s faith! But there is so evidence!”

And if unreason is a method, how does it lead to this religion rather than that one? Aren’t Vishnu, Thor, Poseidon, Ahura-Mazda, and the Great Manitou all equally unreasonable? How to choose?

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