Posts Tagged ‘faith’

“10 Books That Screwed Up The World” — Make that 11

August 9, 2020

It sounded like my kind of read, found at a used book sale — Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up The World.  I’d say make it 11, though that would give Wiker’s book undeserved importance. (He actually covers 15; a subtitle refers to five more.)

Reading a few pages pegged the author as religious. So I looked at his bio. Yup — big time. He’s taught at various Christian-sounding venues and is “a senior fellow with Discovery Institute.” Which, Wikipedia’s article forthrightly states, “advocates the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design.”

Wiker begins with Macchiavelli’s The Prince. A “target-rich environment” for easy moralizing. Of course no modern leader should follow Macchiavelli’s advice. But Wiker seems to forget he wrote in 1513, when there was no concept of rulers serving, or accountable to, citizens.

Eventually Wiker gets to his real beef: “Christianity, Macchiavelli contends, focuses our energies on an imaginary kingdom in the sky and thereby turns us away from making the real world a peaceful, comfortable, even pleasurable home.”

This Wiker denounces but doesn’t actually try to refute. Doesn’t defend the idea of Heaven, nor deny its detracting from efforts to make good lives on Earth. But he does say Macchiavelli there “initiates the great conflict between modern secularism and Christianity that largely defines the next five hundred years of Western history.”

Wrong. Macchiavelli’s disparagement of religious delusions was not (alas) even a blip on the intellectual horizon. Most of those five centuries were consumed not by battles between faith and secularism but among differing Christian theologies — with the slaughter of great parts of Europe’s population. Kind of validating Macchiavelli’s point. Only quite lately has secularism, thank God, finally arisen to curb such horrors.

Next, Descartes. Responsible for “Cartesian dualism,” positing (contrary to science) something in mind or consciousness existing separately from our physical bodies. But even though some such dualism might seem necessary if our “souls” are to go to Heaven — which Wiker mocked Macchiavelli for rejecting — Wiker also mocks Descartes. For propounding “a ghostly soul banging around in a ghastly machine . . . A walking philosophical bipolar disorder.” Descartes’ idea was indeed crazyBut has Wiker got a better one to explain going to Heaven after our bodies rot?* Thus his attack on Cartesian dualism seems baffling.

Then Wiker derides Descartes’ “absolutely awful proof of the existence of God.” (Not that Wiker has a better one here either.) Basically, Descartes said that any idea in his head was presumably put there by God; so if he (Descartes) can conceptualize a being more perfect than himself, that being must exist. Though that was a glaringly poor excuse for an “argument,” Wiker goes to the trouble of explicating why. But what really irks him is Descartes’ implying God is what one conceives him to be. Wiker’s paraphrase: “we fashion God after our own hearts, rather than our own hearts and religion after God.” Causing “confusion of true wisdom about God.”

And where, pray tell, do we get that “true wisdom?” Wiker, typically, fails to say. But he presumes the conception of God that, by whatever means, got into in his own brain, was somehow the correct one — unlike the one in Descartes’ brain.

Reeling from so much foolishness, I skipped ahead to the Darwin chapter. Frankly expecting some good laughs, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wiker denies that Darwin actually originated the concept of biological evolution: “for some fifty years or more, it had been associated with political radicals . . . and gutter atheists;” it’s even traceable back to Epicurus. That’s flattering to Epicurus, a great thinker way ahead of his time. But as history these passages are bunk.** Before Darwin, some other people may have nibbled vaguely at the idea, but never had the Eureka moment, putting it together.*** Darwin’s doing so stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual triumphs.

But, creationist though he is, Wiker isn’t brave enough to frontally take on evolutionary biology, nor the Origin of Species. Instead he mounts a flank attack, on Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, trying to tar him with the “deep-down nastiness” of eugenics.Which, Wiker claims, Darwin was guilty of originating.

Eugenics is the idea of improving the species by keeping supposedly less fit members from reproducing. In early 20th century America this was sometimes done by sterilizing them. The Nazis simply killed them.

Wiker quotes Darwin suggesting that unrestrained reproduction could lead to “degeneration.” Had Wiker stopped there, it might have seemed damning. However, he goes on to quote further words from Darwin, ones that (strangely enough) he actually calls “inspiring.” There Darwin said the human being had progressed, so that their “sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed . . . and finally to the lower animals, so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.”****

So where’s the problem? Wiker latches onto the word “sympathies.” This, finally, is his chosen line of attack: “[T]here are few moral concepts as slippery as sympathy. At best it substitutes indiscriminate niceness for goodness in human affairs . . . At worst, it . . . erases all boundaries between human beings and every other living thing.” From this claptrap Wiker goes on to deride the idea of animal rights. But that’s not all. He says that pursuant to Darwin’s own schema, “sympathy” was a trait imparted to humans by evolution. Then: “Here comes the nasty part. Evolution [which Wiker rejects, remember] is driven by competition, and competition brings extinction.” From that he leaps to asserting Darwin’s invocation of sympathy does not “extricate him from blame for the harsh racial eugenics practiced by the harder-reasoning Nazis.”

Huh? That’s it? How stupid does he think readers are? And meantime, for all Wiker’s anti-eugenics ranting, it’s never even clear why he’s against it — given his own attack on “sympathy” and expressed indifference to animal suffering.

His final chapter is modestly titled “A Conclusive Outline of Sanity.” Wiker says the problem with all 15 authors he discussed is their all positing that people have to be saved from something. As if salvation were not a fundamental concept of his Christianity. And how it could apply to Darwin is a mystery, but never mind. Anyhow, Wiker gives this example: “To save the world from male oppression, Betty Friedan would have women kill their offspring.” (Somehow I missed that bit in reading The Feminine Mystique.) Thus, Wiker maintains, all those books (including ones by Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill) are literally insane! And yet Wiker’s own final line says humanity does need saving— from that “madness of our own making.” And the savior is — guess who — the Man in the Sky.

I drew a different conclusion. That nonsensical religious beliefs like Wiker’s mess up one’s capability for rational thought. It’s his book that’s literally insane. Is this disgraceful screed what passes for intellectual work at faith-oriented institutions of “higher learning?” And what’s really scary is the parade of reviews on Amazon gushing favorably about it.

* I recently saw one Christian protesting that most of his co-religionists’ ideas of Heaven contradict the Bible. We do not go there after death, he said. Instead, we get resurrected at Jesus’s second coming. Or something like that. (Don’t look for me to make sense of this.)

** Wiker repeatedly misstates scientific history. For example, saying the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli claimed to see canals on Mars. Actually, Schiaparelli merely reported channels— “canali” in Italian, which got mistranslated as “canals,” notably by the American Percival Lowell.

*** Wallace did, around the time of Darwin’s book, but Darwin had been working on it for decades.

**** Darwin’s “bulldog” T.H. Huxley similarly said that evolutionary biology does not oblige us to play out “survival of the fittest” in our society — our aim instead should be to fit more of us for survival.

How old is the world?

April 25, 2020

Is the Earth around 4.5 billion years old? Or, just 6,022 and a few months?

PBS’s Independent Lens had a fascinating documentary about Kentucky’s “Ark Encounter” — to go with the “Creation Museum” I’ve written about. The documentary spotlighted some local opposition mainly to the project’s millions in tax subsidies. Surely unconstitutionally violating church-state separation.

This ark is a full-size imagining of Noah’s vessel. Really gigantic, costing in nine figures, to illustrate the ark accommodating every “kind” of animal. But apparently these Biblical literalists weren’t bothered by the implausibility of Noah and his three sons alone somehow managing such a huge project, without the modern technology they themselves used — not to mention the funding.

But of course that’s the least thing that might trouble young-earth creationists. They’ve calculated, from the Bible, Earth’s beginning in 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact! Biblical literalism taken to its ultimate, preposterous extreme.

Actually, the planet is roughly a million times older. If its history were condensed to a single year, then 4004 BC would have arrived on December 31 — at about 11:59 PM.

To swallow that 4004 story, you have to torture a lot of facts. Or just ignore them. One is our seeing other galaxies millions, even billions, of light years distant. A light year is how far light travels in a year. The light from those galaxies took millions or billions of years to reach us. Case closed.*

Likewise, to deny biological evolution you have to work awfully hard waving away practically everything we actually know about life and its history. As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

The impresario behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter is Ken Ham. The documentary showed what a slick con artist he is. Speaking to a big audience of youngsters, Ham led them in a chant mocking scientists who say the Earth originated billions of years ago: Were you there?

What a killer argument. And if you believe, instead of those scientists, the Biblical story of creation — were YOU there?? And the people who wrote that Bible story — were THEY there??

Also shown was one young woman “scientist,” part of the Ark organization, to give it a patina of “science.” I put those words in quotes because, as one (real) scientist said, one can have the training and capability to do science, but actually doing it is another thing. The young woman “scientist” declared that the Bible is true. How does she know? Because it’s true. It just is. She believes it because she believes it.

As a child I found a price guide to check my Canadian coins. “I’ve got a valuable one!” I exclaimed to my parents. The 1913 dime has two varieties, one rare, one common. My rationalist dad said, “How do you know yours is the rare one?” I said, “I just know it!” I wanted to believe.

In science, facts dictate beliefs. Not the other way around.

Then the show profiled a young man, reared in young-earth creationism. It was very important to him to protect his belief by having all the answers. Which he got from creationist websites arming him with refutations to every fact of mainstream geology and evolution-based science. Refutations which gradually he came to see through as false, misleading bunk.

I’m in awe of someone able to do that, having such intellectual equipment, honesty, and courage. I had it easy; I may have believed in my 1913 Canadian dime, but never in religion. But for people who do, the belief is very powerful. The documentary showed several whose certitude and confidence runs deep. I always remind myself that certain as I am they’re wrong, they’re equally certain I am wrong.

But: what difference does it make, really, whether you think the world is billions of years old, or only a few thousand? If you understand evolution science, or refuse to? It doesn’t exactly affect our daily lives. Or does it? The belief isn’t in a vacuum. It’s integral to a whole way of thinking, to one’s relationship with reality, with existence itself. Indeed, people shape their lives around such beliefs. That’s why they hold them so tenaciously, and why freeing oneself from such false belief is often so traumatic.

Surveys show about 40% of Americans believe the 4004 BC story. These are more or less the same people who don’t believe climate science. Who believe Trump.

* Actually, young-earth creationists answer that God could simply have made that light travel faster. Or created all the stars, and made them visible, all on the first day. Belief in such literal omnipotence is a universal cognitive get-out-of-jail free card.

Trump is the Antichrist

August 31, 2018

Fundamentalist Christians have long been obsessed with the Antichrist. He figured prominently in the “Left Behind” books. Not an abstraction, the Antichrist would be a real person, come among us, the avatar of Satan himself, working to destroy God’s kingdom.

Turns out it’s true. The Antichrist is here. It’s Trump.

Isn’t it obvious, explaining everything? Firstly, the Antichrist could not be some two-bit player on the world stage. He’d have to be a huge figure, cutting a wide swath, as befitting his Satanic role. No one has ever filled that bill like Trump. No public character has ever so dominated the landscape.

And the Antichrist would, of course, be literally the anti-Christ. The antithesis of Christ and everything he represented. That’s Trump to a “T.”

Christ would never lie. Or “grab them by the pussy.”

Love thy neighbor? Canada and Mexico are our neighbors. (Not Russia.) And how about our more immediate neighbors, living among us? All those non-white people, all those immigrants? (And Democrats.) Trump is all hate-thy-neighbor.

Turn the other cheek? Trump tries to make the opposite seem a virtue — “fighting back.” That is, viciously smearing every critic or opponent. Calling them names. And now abusing his power to punish them (like yanking honest John Brennan’s security clearance).

Chase money changers from the temple? Trump welcomes them in. Having promised to “drain the swamp,” he deepens it. Flynn, Price, Pruitt, Carson, Manafort, Cohen, Bannon, Wilbur Ross. Trump’s own corruptly milking the presidency for personal profit. A total swamp of sleaze.

Suffer the little children to come unto me? Even little children he makes suffer, ripping them from parental arms.

Loyalty? Christ was loyal to Peter even after Peter denied him; loyal to God even on the cross. Trump (who demands loyalty from others) is loyal to nothing and no one but himself. Least of all his country, which he’s betrayed to its worst enemy, Russia. (I didn’t write “sold out” because he actually got nothing in return.)

And did I mention the lying? “Lying” is an inadequate word here. Trump wars against the very concept of truth, to create a world in which reality and truth are meaningless.

But these are details. The big picture is indeed wholly at odds with the heart of Christ’s teaching. Trump is a moral black hole sucking in everything and everyone around him. A vortex of evil.

Now, realize that the Antichrist doesn’t wear a costume with horns and tail, proclaiming his identity. Of course not — the whole point, the real danger, is his deviously disguising it. To fool people, so the Satanic agenda can be achieved. Admittedly, Trump’s disguise is ridiculously thin, transparent to anyone with eyes to see. But Satan has thrown black magic dust in the eyes of Christians.

They say never mind his personal peccadillos, they like what he’s doing. That’s the snare, the dust thrown in their eyes. And what is he doing that’s so wonderful it could possibly justify the poisoning of America’s whole civic culture, everything it stands for — everything Christ stands for?

So these fools fall right into Satan’s trap, blind to their plunge into the vortex of evil — dragging down with them their precious religion itself, demonstrating its falsity.

In the fantasies of uber-Christians, like in those “Left Behind” books, the Antichrist is always ultimately defeated by the legions of the godly. But what if those legions are bamboozled into fighting for the wrong side?

They’re marching in Satan’s army — straight into Hell — where they will all burn forever.

How I Got Irreligion

May 11, 2014

imagesAt around age six, I was sent to a Jewish “Sunday school,” featuring Bible stories: Daniel and the lions, Noah’s ark, etc. I was fine with them, as stories. But then I realized adults took them seriously; troubled by this, I confided in my mother.

No theologian, she. But I distinctly remember her ending the discussion by saying, “Well, you do believe in God, don’t you?” I said yes. And I knew I was lying.images-1

I was no rebellious kid; in fact, a meek, go-with-the-program, clueless kid. But even at six, I saw right through religion.

Odd, this common locution, “believe in God.” We don’t say we “believe in fire,” or upholsterers, or aardvarks. Few have actually seen that beast, but an aardvark nonbeliever would be pretty weird. images-2For reality, “belief” simply doesn’t enter into it. Talk of belief in God implicitly bespeaks something other than reality.

Anyway, I went on to Hebrew school, Bar-mitzvah lessons, and the Bar-mitzvah itself, on stage in the synogogue, chanting the memorized gobblydegook. It never occurred to me to say no to any of this; again, I was a go-with-the-program kid. I actually did well in Hebrew school, if only to avoid humiliation when called on in class. UnknownBut I drew the line at anything optional, to the despair of my religious teachers.

Through it all, my disbelief felt like a shameful, guilty secret, a personal failing. Performing at my Bar-mitzvah, I considered myself a fraud. The sanctimony all around me evoked virtue, propriety, right-thinking. It seemed universal – with the sole exclusion of pitiful me. Never, anywhere, was I exposed to a dissenting viewpoint. This was the ’50s, with no Dawkins or Hitchens. Nothing to suggest I was not alone, or to provide any validation for my unbelief. What was wrong with me?

In that sense, I can understand how being gay must have felt – with no validation for that either. (So underground was gayness that not till my twenties did I actually understand what it was.)

Unknown-1Yet I never agonized; never made an effort to get with the program of religion. Notwithstanding how admirable faith might appear, to me it seemed just fundamentally false. The Emperor had no clothes.

Some believers imagine atheists will eventually “see the light,” if only on their deathbeds (or in the proverbial foxholes). Human psychology varies endlessly, so it does happen, but quite rarely in fact. None of the many atheists I’ve known has ever lapsed. My own conviction has only grown stronger over time. What was at first a “simple faith” (or lack thereof) has profoundly deepened as I have learned ever more about the history of religions, the human psychology behind them, and all their spectacular philosophical contradictions. And I long ago stopped wondering “what’s wrong with me?”

My humanist atheism is indeed the essence of what’s right with me. Believers feel their faith is what gives their lives meaning. Unknown-2And if that’s really true for a person, fine. But for all the consolation claimed for religion, many are tortured by doubt. Wrestling with doubt might be portrayed, by intellectualist apologists, as part of a wholesome experience of faith. But I’m not attracted by a hopeless effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. I don’t feel it’s possible to make proper sense of anything while laboring under so basic a mistake about reality.

I have never been afflicted by doubt about my most fundamental perceptions. There’s much about life and the cosmos I don’t yet truly understand (quantum mechanics; why there’s something rather than nothing; the minds of priests who rape children); but my pursuit of such understanding is not hobbled by a need to reconcile it with preconceived dogmas that can never be squared with reality. Being thusly free to see the world as it really is, I feel, enables me to fit properly into that reality, and to make a life of authentic (not illusory) meaning.

Anyhow, that’s me. If it’s not you, I won’t try to get you burned at the stake.

New Pope Frankie

March 24, 2013

imagesSo, 520 years after the discovery of the New World, the Catholic Church finally gets around to choosing a Western hemisphere pope. (Not bad for an institution that took over 300 years to actually admit the Earth goes around the Sun.) A bit of marketing to perk up a tired old brand? (Of course, he’s still an Italian by ancestry.)

The very first thing I heard about him was that he believes globalization damages the poor. Such belief is indeed an article of faith for the anti-capitalist left. It’s just one of many articles of faith that defy reality. In fact globalization has been a tremendous force lifting a billion people out of poverty.

Well, even if he’s economically clueless, at least it’s nice that he wants to help the poor and oppressed. But it seems he was pretty quiet, as a leading churchman, during the ‘70s Argentine “dirty war” in which politically inconvenient people were tortured and thrown from airplanes into the sea.

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

And let’s see how well this new guy deals with the ongoing problem of priestly pedophiles and their enablers. While the violation of children is disgusting enough, what always particularly struck me is this: surely any priest who molests children cannot possibly truly believe the fundamental tenets of the faith he professes to serve. So they are not just predators and rapists but frauds besides. Given this, it’s even more disgusting that they’re protected by higher-ups — who must likewise be frauds, traducing the faith they too claim to hold. So much for the idea of a God that sees all and punishes sin, with eternal roasting. Maybe the only ones who actually believe it are the poor schnooks in the pews.

And then there’s the scandal you don’t even know about: the huge Vatican bank scandal.

Another thing: all those who consider themselves good Catholics while rejecting key church teachings. Fine to reject such bosh, but a religion is not a mere label, it’s a set of beliefs, and if you don’t believe Catholic doctrine, maybe you can still be a Christian, but not a Catholic. According to its rules, Catholicism is what the Pope says it is. Admittedly, some of what popes say doesn’t make much sense. The whole celibate male-only priesthood thing, for example, is nowhere prescribed in the Bible, and actually just reflects some archaic fetishistic meshugass incompatible with the modern world. Pope Francis says it’s not doctrine but discipline. As if it makes priests better people. I don’t think so — and nor do all those scarred by the resulting priestly buggery. Changing this “discipline” would not destroy Catholicism; might just help save it.

Then there’s the birth control ban, again actually extra-Biblical, and reflecting a tortured casuistical twisting of ancient ideas that were barbarous to begin with. More unnecessary craziness that damages the church.

But here I am, violating one of my own basic principles: that in matters of religion, logic and reason cannot apply.