Thankyou Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – Happy Easter!

As a part of Easter messages in Australia, atheists have copped an earful. My first thoughts, aside from a mild irritation brought on by the sheer silliness of the claims, were that this was a beautiful thing. Yes.

I still feel this way today.

Dr Jensen

It was reported that Sydney Anglican Archbishop Dr Jensen, as part of his Easter address started out with a critique of atheists, that included sentiments along the lines of…

“It represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.”

(Miles Godfrey, ABC, 2010)

Oh dear…

I’m not offended. How could I be? It’s like watching Emperor Palpatine lose the ‘Yo Momma!’ fight on Robot Chicken Star Wars. Ah… Ah… Ah… Well… Ah… Yo Momma hates God!

And it’s open to the most delicious reductio.

Dr Jensen’s Christianity represents the latest version of the human assault on The Flying Spaghetti Monster, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that the FSM calls on us to submit our lives to him. Submission to the laws of the FSM which conveniently coincide with my own opinions.

Flattering? No. But it should give any Christians who share Dr Jenson’s sentiments towards atheists, an idea of how silly his remarks look to the godless.

The fact that these ludicrous ideas about atheists are held by one so respected and educated (even if a bit too conservative on industrial relations and the ethics of science), someone so mainstream, is telling. This is why I welcome Dr Jensen’s remarks.

Mr Pell

In addition to some pretty questionable historicism about Rome and Christianity, wherein it was reported that George Pell claimed that in relation to a host of Roman ills, “Christianity changed all this” (in relation to a host of then Christian norms, didn’t Rome change “all of this”?), George Pell reportedly belittled the role of the godless with a particularly silly statement.

“But we find no community services sponsored by the atheists.”

(AAP, 2010)

Mr Pell may be controversial, but he’s no pariah. At least in as far as public discussion goes – he’s taken seriously even if his own congregation aren’t particularly fond of him.

And even allowing scope for interpretation, in case he’s become victim to the ‘Pope… Nazi’ effect (even though his remarks weren’t off-the-cuff like Dawkins’), it’s hard to find an interpretation any less silly. At least I can’t find one.

On-off, over the last ten years, I’ve been a volunteer for the Salvation Army, and I’m an atheist. My mother, an atheist, works for Centrecare – the Australian Catholic welfare agency. I wonder if George Pell’s sermon will be cause for awkwardness when she returns to work next Tuesday.

Non-church-based community services like ITShare, that frankly do better work than the church alternative, community services that don’t turn away support from atheists (or anyone else), are well worth the attention of the George Pell’s of the world. They do their good work in spite of two major obstacles.

  1. Churches have an advantage – they have traditionally been seen as a source of welfare and have historically been a focal point for people’s good will, theist or not. This has resulted in a monolithic welfare infrastructure that newer providers have to compete with.
  2. The playing field is still rigged. It’s easier to become a community service provider if you’re church based. This historical advantage attracts more tender from government (atheists do pay taxes), and the automatic religious tax-exempt status makes it easier going than for secular charities who have to jump through all sorts of hoops to demonstrate not-for-profit status. Church based institutions simply aren’t held to the same standard of accountability, and are the beneficiaries of greater government largess.

If you keep this in mind, along with the fact that non-church based community services don’t usually advertise that they aren’t church-based, and that atheist sponsors and volunteers are largely happy to use the existing infrastructure and to work alongside religious people, you’ll understand why you don’t see “atheist charity” left, right and centre. Atheists have been quiet contributors to the welfare of a secular Australia.

But it’s not just George Pell that thinks this. And even if most Australians don’t think it, they don’t need to in order for the problem to have unacceptable consequences. All it takes is a minority with institutional power, and a public that doesn’t realise that there’s a problem.

I once dropped into SA Unions (then still the UTLC) for a chat with their then youth officer a few years ago. I told her of a workplace in Adelaide run by a powerful member of the Paradise Community Church congregation that at the time, filtered the non-Christians out of their workforce. In response to which she told me that resolving discrimination complaints against religious not-for-profits, were common business.

I can remember having my own naivety broken by this – I was talking about a private, for-profit enterprise. I hadn’t entertained the notion that discrimination was happening amongst the altruistic, supposedly moderate, end of Christian not-for-profits.

Eventually, seeing the relative difficulties non-church not-for-profits had in setting up shop, seeing a couple of non-Catholic teachers being fired from secular roles in federally funded Catholic schools, and later finding out from a appalled staff member, that I’d been denied a secular job position by a religious not-for profit on the grounds of my atheism, the truth hit home. There’s a problem.

Heck, it’s not just that people are being discriminated against that’s the problem. It’s not good for the provision of community service. Things turned out more or less okay for me; I wasn’t that set back by the job refusal. What was absurd was that it turned out that I wasn’t replaced by anyone; the needed, specialised skills that I could have provided were denied the service recipients. It hurt their operation more than it hurt me!

If you really care about the provision of quality community service, then this has to get to you. This, as opposed to just being discriminated against, is why it gets to me.

The support given to religious community services by taxpayers and voluntarily by atheist individuals, and the support of non-church-based community services by atheists, is taken far too much for granted. This occurs at an institutional level, and thanks to poor awareness I think it’s allowed to do harm where institutions are mandated to do good.

Reform to the apparatus of secular pluralism is needed in Australia – especially where taxation, government funding, the church, and not-for profit organisations are concerned.

I welcome George Pell’s comments, bringing attention to the matter. Even if he’s wrong. Especially because he’s wrong.

Mr Fisher

Then we have Anthony Fisher, who is apparently tipped as George Pell’s future replacement, reportedly saying…

“‘Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating; Nazism, Stalinism, Pol-Pottery, mass murder and broken relationships: all promoted by state-imposed atheism or culture-insinuated secularism.'”

(Jacqueline Maley, 2010)

Oh dear. Stalinism and “Pol-Pottery” weren’t pushed by atheism; Stalinism and “Pol-Pottery” pushed atheism. It’s like saying that canned peas pushed Soviet communism; i.e. back-to-front.

You honestly and sincerely have the conviction that canned peas are a good thing? Oh no! We can’t have you going too far in our culture; you may turn our nation into a Soviet state!

And as for Nazi ideology being born of atheism, that’s just plain stupid.

For a start, Nazism, and European totalitarianism of the time in general, were born of a hodge-podge starting conditions – an array of causes. Singling any one cause out is inherently wrong-headed to begin with, but it gets worse.

Nazi ideology selectively borrowed from Christian culture and had plans for its own bizarre Aryan supernaturalism. Mein Kampf talked of the virtue of mandatory religious education in schools. And the anti-Semitism that was integral to the holocaust, where did that come from? Which particular institution had been pushing that particular non-virtue for over a thousand years prior to World War II? Where did the Nazis borrow the idea of the collective guilt of Jews for the death of Christ? Hmmm?

There is obviously a case to be made for the role of modernism in the rise of early 20th century totalitarian ideologies. There is obviously a case to be made that the works of individual philosophers who happened to be atheists were a part of the bigger mix – Marx more obviously for Sovietism, Nietzsche not so obviously for the totalitarian right.

But these instances of atheism are far from the only conditions the totalitarian ideologies were born from, and as far as I can see there’s little indication that it was the godless aspect of these philosophies that led to disaster. Marx, in commenting that religion was “The Opiate of The Masses”, was alluding to its pervasiveness as something that can’t be wiped out. Contrary to some readings.

People seem to forget that living conditions aren’t what they are today. The start of the 20th century was a period of deep unrest with a lot to contribute in the way of angry, authoritarian motivations.

As for Fisher’s implication that godless societies are doomed to selfishness and totalitarianism – this is just empirically false. Denmark and Sweden are largely without God, but their societies are particularly harmonious, and demonstrate a greater than normal level of cooperative norms (i.e. they value welfare more than most nations). Clearly Fisher is wrong.

If Mr Fisher is to become the head of Australia’s Catholics, even if he isn’t well liked by Australia’s Catholics, then he’s likely to be treated with a degree of deference and taken seriously. Yet he harbours absurd notions about a good portion of the Australian population and as he has shown, isn’t afraid to use his position to foment sectarianism. This deference is a problem.

Thankyou and Happy Easter!

Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – I thank you for these gifts. Quite sincerely.

For too long atheists in Australia, especially the noisy ones, have been asked why they’re complaining as if it were self-evident that we live in a society that at least if not made up of a majority of tolerant, secular people, was free of institutionalised sectarianism. At least to the extent of it not being a problem worth complaining about.

This, more than many things, has been an obstacle for Australian atheists trying to get a point across.

Easter of 2010 can now be celebrated when this point of public debate was decided. There is a problem and now it’s obvious.

The message, even if wrong, is welcome.

This isn’t cause for mere atheist triumphalism – a recognition that Australia’s religious leaders are rattled. This isn’t something for atheists to get angry about – it’s too pathetic for that – anyone not already sold on the message of the atheist bogeyman isn’t going to take this bile on board. Australian atheists don’t have to worry about being fired or lynched by Christians any more than they did last week.

This is a win for secularism. Thanks to the credibility of Dr Jensen, Mr Pell and Mr Fisher, the issue – sectarian privilege and contempt over and toward atheists – is now out there in the mainstream; open for discussion. It was never a fringe concern, and now for the first time, it really doesn’t look like one.

I really, quite sincerely, thank these men for sacrificing part of their holy weekend to make functional secularism (and the secular provision of welfare – thank you Mr Pell!) a hot topic. Couldn’t have done it without you, guys!

Dr Jensen, Mr Pell, Mr Fisher – Happy Easter!

~ Bruce

God = Singularity? Good luck with that

There has been an argument in theological/cosmological circles for a while now that I’ve seen from time to time but haven’t addressed, surrounding the existence of a singularity at the beginning of the Universe. Why?

For some reason that I honestly can’t fathom beyond some possible act of desperation, from time to time I’ve seen the singularity being called “God”. I want to have this post in place for the next time I see an example because I think it’s a really problematic argument.

Personally, I think that Coca Cola would make a better deity; the drink not the corporation. It has about the same capacity to give moral and spiritual guidance as a singularity, but with the added benefit of empirical evidence to buttress any ontological assertions. Although maybe a Coke bottle isn’t enough to hang The Infinite off of.

Yes, yes. Very clever. Grow up. Etc. Blah, blah, blah… It’s a reductio. Give a counter argument to show why it’s invalid, or live with it. I suspect most readers here will do the latter.

In case some of you reading this don’t know, there is no empirical evidence that singularities actually exist. They are simply inferred by our current, limited understanding of the Universe. Particularly the general theory of relativity.

Singularities are inferred in general in two (or more) places – in black holes and at the beginning of the Universe (and at the end in some inflationary models, and at the bounce points of some rebounding Universe models).

Get enough mass in a small enough area, and gravitational collapse will, according to the general theory of relativity, become intractable – down to a single, finite point of infinite density and zero width, height or depth. Time comes to an end (or a boundary) as well.

Why is this a problem? Why are singularities a bad thing to hang God (or anything else) off of?

General relativity, a theory which makes a host of testable predictions (including black holes),  provides an extremely accurate account of the way gravity works in the Universe. Quantum mechanics, which deals with the very small in a similarly successful way, doesn’t deal with gravity at all (at least not yet); gravity which is a very weak force, at the scale of the extremely small, isn’t particularly amenable to study. It’s like trying to study the smallest volume of the most diffuse gas – you don’t have enough to work with.

There is of course one glaring exception where gravity is significant on a quantum scale – the alleged singularity, or at least, the confined conditions at the heart of a runaway gravitational collapse. So what if it’s a weak force? Under these conditions you’ve got a lot of it, so much so that in a black hole, it should dominate the other, stronger forces.

The singularity should ideally be the place for general relativity and quantum mechanics to cross over. Indeed, necessarily if the two theories were to maintain logical self-consistency; by definition, both theories have the singularity within their domain and hence both need to explain it seamlessly.

But this isn’t the case. The situation is far from ideal. All those infinites get in the way of being able to tie one theory to the other. The math doesn’t work. The two theories as they stand, are irreconcilable. One or both has to change. And that’s before considering the fact that quantum mechanics normally deals with matter, while general relativity deals with space-time.

Hence the singularity isn’t something that can be reasonably asserted as actually existing. The singularity is a mathematical product of our current deficient understanding of the Universe, at precisely the point that our understanding fails. The part of theory that predicts singularities is the part that is broken. The singularity isn’t a thing, it’s a place-holder for a gap in our knowlege.

I use the word “gap” advisedly. As in “God of the gaps“.

Although maybe it’s even worse than that.

Traditionally, a God-of-the-gaps argument states that “where there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, God did it”. But this singularity mumbo-jumbo is different. This is a case of “there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, and God is it”.

God of the gaps theology traditionally reduce God’s role in the Universe as human understanding advances. God’s agency being squeezed out like the cream in a Monte Carlo.

However, if the singularity is ever done away with, if a theory of quantum gravity is developed that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics and doesn’t posit a singularity as a mathematical product, then that gap is gone. But instead of God’s agency being the cream in the Monte Carlo being squeezed out, it’s God itself.

It should be obvious that the rejection of the concept of the cosmological singularity is a possible, reasonable outcome of honest scientific conduct. Or even just a part of responsible speculation in an attempt to develop the first hint of a solution to a very difficult scientific problem.

The Hartle-Hawking theory is just such a speculation (see Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for an in-depth explanation). At least in as far as the Big Bang is concerned. By applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to space-time, specifically to the state of a given dimension (uncertainty of space-or-time) – Hartle and Hawking demonstrated in theory that it is possible that space time as we know it emerged from a region of uncertain space-time on the Planck scale.

Which is to say a region of space-time that is very, very small, but not infinitesimal.

Singularities are discrete, infinitesimal points (or rings in the case of a rotating black hole) of infinite density and zero volume, but when space-time is itself subject to the Uncertainty Principle as in the Hartle-Hawking theory, there aren’t any discrete, singular points in space-time in order for singularities to be possible. I’ll avoid using the phrase “impossible initial conditions” because even “initial” is in this scheme is by definition impossible.

At such a small scale, according to the Hartle-Hawking theory, quantum effects would hold sway allowing for time to emerge from a fourth dimension of space, and thus allowing the Universe as we know it to follow.

Still, it’s a speculative theory; testable predictions haven’t emerged from it.

It is useful speculation all the same, because it provides logical refutation against assumptions held to be a priori truths that restrict the way the Universe is theorised about. For example, the assumption that a finite Universe must have a beginning (a reoccurring theme in cosmological arguments for the existence of God) is ruined by the logical possibility of the Hartle-Hawking theory.

It may not cure our ignorance about what may actually lay at the heart of a black hole, but what this reasonable speculation and speculation like it does tell us, is that the singularity (and the “first cause” in general) is an ambiguous and unsafe place to park your cherished ideas!

Maybe somebody should put up a sign.

~ Bruce

Afterword: Aside from being a pre-prepared rebuttal, I’m writing this in anticipation of singularity-dogma, and the casting of singularity-rebuttals as alleged atheist propaganda, rather than responsible inquiry.

Atheist kindness

If there’s one particular argument over “who’s better and why” that I find disturbing, it’s the “theists do more/atheists do less to help the disadvantaged” trope. The PR associated with the “debate” over the issue has a way of making the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the very people who’s needs are supposed to be the purpose of the whole welfare venture, instrumental to other people’s self-image. Usually people who have more money than them.

Really, it seems quite selfish to me, this “we are kinder/just as kind”, kind of crap. You have these people who have a home, money and security, sponging off of the destitute for brownie points.

I’ve seen it in religious apologetics with the use of bad statistics, usually containing category errors which make unverifiable assumptions about those donating to charity. There are many avenues one can go by to help those in need, and most of them don’t discriminate against help on the basis of the life stance of the donor – hence they don’t exactly have a running census. You can’t just go and assume that all of World Vision’s work is the work of the religious – they seek donations from theist and atheist alike.

While I’m of the understanding that a number of church-based welfare agencies are pointedly non-proselytic (for example, it’s a violation of Centrecare’s code of ethics and social justice policy*), the same isn’t true of a number of religious aid initiatives. Let’s not mince words. Proselytism to the disadvantaged and vulnerable is predatory. It’s taking advantage of a lack of social justice to engage in coercion. Furthermore, it can get in the way of genuine relief efforts.

There are always resource bottlenecks in crisis situations. Even when infrastructure isn’t compromised, resources are finite and geared more closely to the supply and demand situation under normal circumstances. A large stochastic event drastically alters supply and demand in a way production isn’t geared to cope with. Take any of the serious Australian bushfires we’ve had in the past few years – we’re well equipped but in each relief effort you’ll hear words to the effect of “please no more clothes, just send food or donate directly to this fund”.

Storage space and transport are finite. Sending and storing things that aren’t needed doesn’t just not help – it can get in the way of relief efforts. A plane or truck carrying something that isn’t going to save a life could otherwise be used to transport something that could. In essence this is what John Stuart Mill called (and what economists call) opportunity cost.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Haiti’s infrastructure was rubbish before the earthquake. It doesn’t take Einstein to tell that it’s even worse afterward. And it shouldn’t be beyond the average person off the street to be able to tell that a solar power bible isn’t going to pull anyone out of the rubble, or administer CPR, or set up a field hospital.

The easy answer to this is “ATHEIST CHARITY!!!” It’s an easy answer and like many easy answers, I don’t like it. For one, I prefer secular charity. There are two big, albeit not-necessary implications calling a charity “atheist” – either one of non-religious proselytism or exploitation for political ends: a response to the calculated stereotype that paints atheists as necessarily selfish (something the current Pope is guilty of spreading around).

It appears to be very easy for atheists to be baited into exploiting the beneficiaries of their charity, if only inadvertently. Take the recent “atheist giveaways“. Well meaning, no doubt. Needed, no doubt. And no signs of proselytism – that’s good.

But… Filming the needy at their most vulnerable – when they are asking for help – to produce a video showing how atheists can be nice, is not okay. It’s exploitative.

Sure, make a video arguing that atheists are nice people. Make a video promoting the cause of welfare. I don’t have a problem with either. There are however, right and wrong ways of going about it.

Helping people isn’t easy work, much less so when done properly. Just because the Vatican (and others) really has it in for atheists these days is no excuse to make great displays of kindness at any cost – including the cost of the dignity of the disadvantaged. This PR problem that has been foist upon us by others is the problem of said others – we shouldn’t be sabotaging our better inclinations just in order to respond.

Further to this. It should become apparent that in as far as the motives for helping people are concerned, I don’t think that the identity of the helper is particularly relevant. When I’ve done charity work, I haven’t, nor will I ever give a rat’s arse about who I do it with. At least in as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

Seriously, if you’re an atheist reading this, ask yourself “would I deny help from a theist in helping my fellow human?” If your answer is yes, then you’ve got problems. Sure, you probably don’t want to proselytise or be a party to proselytism directed at the poor – I can relate. But that doesn’t prevent you from working with religious people.

I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it myself.

So what kind of “atheist charity” do you have if you have Christians and Muslims and fellow humans from various other religious affiliations at your side? You don’t have one. And if you aren’t church-based, and you don’t proselytise, what you have is a secular charity.

I’ve got a bit of a “faitheist” for a cousin, who likes to point out that there aren’t any atheist charities. Put simply, if you have a non-church-based charity that doesn’t proselytise and doesn’t care one hoot about who helps out, you’ve got as atheist a charity as many an atheist would ever want. Of course, these secular charities don’t stand out, but that’s not the point – they are numerous, but they’re there to help out, not to make a display.

Opportunity cost plays a part in this as well. Why waste energy on replicating welfare infrastructure that is already available to secular ends, even if the infrastructure just happens to church-based? Energy wasted on unnecessary replication of infrastructure is energy not spent on helping people.

That being said, atheists shouldn’t have their efforts frustrated either. There’s a lot of need in the world going unmet. So on the occasions that I’ve been made aware of secular not-for-profit initiatives aimed squarely at where need exists being discriminated against because of their non-religious status, I’m truly appalled. This comes down to opportunity cost as well.

A charity that serves X amount of utility, for Y amount of funding, displacing the utility provided by another contender (Z), where Xis being paid Y amount of funding to generate negative utility. Put more simply, they’re being paid to displace a better welfare agency and thus increase the need for welfare.

This can be put in even more sinister terms. Consider a thought experiment.

$1 million of funding is available to tender poverty relief. Using these funds, Charity A will alleviate $1.2 million of poverty; Charity B will alleviate $1.5 million of poverty. Due to denominational politics, Charity A gets the tender. The sinister aspect in this thought experiment is that the poor are paying $300,000 in opportunity costs so that Charity A can absorb $1 Million of funding into its infrastructure – along with all the political influence that buys – at the meagre cost of $200,000 (from tax-exempt income, of course).

This isn’t nearly as hypothetical as you may think. This, in various forms and with various sums, is essentially a lot of what happened with Job Network contracts under the Howard Government. Although the criteria for discrimination was more (albeit not entirely) secular – church-based institutions, along with more secular Job Network members, would be enticed carrot-and-stick to comply with new Job Network policy, attracting political influence at the price of giving political or religious validation to the Federal Government.

Concerns about what was best for the disadvantaged were pushed down the list of priorities as this religious-political horse trading was executed. Deserving, principled welfare groups (both church-based and secular) were themselves disadvantaged if they didn’t play along**. The needy being the end-recipient of this neglect.

The take-home message in all of this is that welfare agency, and not-for-profit attempts to better humanity’s lot in general, can be undermined when treated as political capital. Secular or not.

I am a big believer in secular welfare, and I think it the best way to bring about social justice – material needs being met with the best (albeit not infallible) guarantee of the preservation of human dignity. Not that I think for a moment that atheists have been selfish in the past, the renewed interest in welfare amongst the out-atheist community is to be welcomed. Just not as a PR exercise (why dignify anti-atheist propaganda with such a response anyway?)

In any undertaking of secular welfare however, we atheists need to keep in mind why we should be (not just why we are) going about it in the first place and let those justifications inform our strategies. We atheists are still quite capable of stuffing this up if we lose our way.

Perhaps instead of getting defensive in response to the fatuous “selfish atheist” charges, we just get on with the job and make explicit our expectations that our theist counterparts do the same. Appealing to them to join with us in opposing the treatment of welfare recipients as political currency.

~ Bruce

* Indeed, the policy goes beyond a “do not”, mandating that Centrecare workers take deliberate preventative steps against imposing their personal beliefs upon clients.

** This is all relative of course – even those that came through the process relatively unscathed weren’t at all happy about the horse trading for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the effect upon the provision of service.

Rob Smith: A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhounds

I’m currently plodding around the back-end of my Internet communications, consolidating accounts, redirecting subscriptions and so on in preparation for a better blogging experience. All the while, light shows are popping up in people’s yards around my neighbourhood and I’m too busy to blog about it at the moment. So in the Christmas spirit, Rob Smith makes his fourth guest appearance here at Thinkers’ Podium.

Rob here again folks. Look, I know I run a charity that sings hymns for neglected greyhounds, but this hymn is for the readers. Let’s not take the piss too far, eh?

It’s not like I sing to the greyhounds. I sing for them!

A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhoundsrob_smith

By

Rob Smith
Continue reading “Rob Smith: A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhounds”

Is this mainstream enough for you II?

Last week I blogged about how it’s the common conception that (with the exception of the US) bigotry against atheists is something that exists at the margins of religion in the developed west, and asked if a few examples of mainstream bigotry were mainstream enough.

Some of you may already be familiar with the story, but now ex-British PM and political father of the Faith School, Tony Blair, in much the same style as the Pope did with environmental issues, is blaming godlessness for what our PM, Kevin Rudd, calls “free market fundamentalism”, and for the subsequent World Financial Crisis.

Talking about materialistic individualism under the title ‘Without God’s Truth at its centre, no community can fulfil its potential‘, Blair tells us that…

“The danger is clear: that pursuit of pleasure becomes an end in itself. It is here that faith can step in, can show us a proper sense of duty to others, responsibility for the world around us, and can lead us to, as the Holy Father calls it, caritas in veritate.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

For a start, he’s got his logic wrong. Blair starts out arguing for the logical necessity of his favoured cause, so asserting instances of how it can be the case isn’t enough. One needs to establish that alternatives are impossible (i.e. in “no community” is it possible without “God’s Truth“).

And it would help if exceptions to the alleged faculty of his favoured cause weren’t undermined by well established history. If only Tony Blair had used his relationship with George Bush Jr, so as to get him to more involve his religion in politics, Wall Street would be a-okay right now! Oh, wait!

theatheist

I is in your industries, winding back your economy.

Blair’s ill-thought-out polemic is nothing more than dog whistling to anti-atheist prejudice, with a halo.

And it’s directed largely towards mainstream religion, not the fringes. Nor is it delivered in such a denominationally specific manner as the Pope’s blaming atheists for environmental woes – it’s interfaith. By the terms of Blair’s argumentation, any God will do.

If you are of the interfaith persuasion and you buy Blair’s line, please spare me the pretense of tolerance. This rubbish has far too great a similarity to tales of greedy Jewish bankers ruining European economies.

But it’s not just economic woes as a result of atheistic, secular materialism (which for reasons of obvious convenience, always seem to get surreptitiously treated as synonymous with practical and/or philosophical naturalism). Blair brings out the old chestnut of Fascism/Sovietism/Maoism.

“After the experience of fascism, Soviet Communism or viewing life in North Korea or the cultural revolution in China, it is easier for us to grasp the dangers of a too-powerful state.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

What has this to do with secular societies? Specifically, how is the totalitarian state a logically necessary outcome of secularism?

Hello! Denmark! While a secular nation like Denmark is capable of not being totalitarian, totalitarianism can not be a logically necessary outcome of secularism. Unless Blair is going to equivocate with a new definition of what a community/nation’s “full potential” is (which could have other, possibly more disturbing consequences than just poor logic) Denmark breaks Blair’s entire case! (While there is a national church, the populace – the community – is very godless as is the governance).

And just how is the theocracy in Iran treating its own religious communities? And how’s the supposedly reformed, and deeply religious Afghanistan going? Men can still legally beat their wives and misogyny is rife. Apostates can still be executed and the constitution prohibits the passing of any law contrary to the word of The Prophet. Which word of The Prophet of course depends entirely on which sect is in power at any given time.

Of course, only to a man like Blair with the blood of thousands on his hands, a public funded faith school legacy that discriminates on the basis of a student’s religion, and an uncanny ability for mental gymnastics, can examples of religious persecution like this not contradict his claims of categorical religious moral monopoly. Naturally he won’t see exceptions to his thesis – he won’t let himself.

Blair finishes of by praising the latest Papal encyclical, one that condemned atheism – painting atheists as necessarily environmentally irresponsible, and claiming that relativism and self-serving individualism were the only alternatives to God. Of course as has been typical with these childish Papal outbursts, Godless ethical systems such as preference utilitarianism, which are neither self-serving, nor relativistic, aren’t mentioned. Why mention the existence of something if it prohibits your claim of logical necessity, right?

The standard line is that it’s either God or self-interested nihilism. This is absurd. The mere existence of ethical philosophies such as that of John Stuart Mill (again, neither self-serving nor relativistic) show this standard line to be a false dichotomy. The fact that these secular ethical systems have been popular in philosophical thought since the 19th century, shows how mind-bendingly ignorant the standard line is. If you consider a godless categorical imperative (also not self-serving, nor relativistic), you can extend this willful ignorance back to the 18th century.

And what I’ve mentioned doesn’t exhaust the list of non-self-serving, non-relativistic Godless ethical systems anyway. (You only need one example of an exception to break alleged logical necessity, so I won’t expand the list further.)

Nobody is necessarily bound to ethical relativistic nihilism in the absence of God. This is basic philosophical history and the fact that Tony Blair and The Pope flunk it in order to prosecute a grudge against atheism is rather telling.

How telling is it then, when religious moderates take this tripe seriously? And how many moderates do you think are likely to take it seriously.

~ Bruce

Is this mainstream enough for you?

We’re often told that’s it’s only those whacky-at-the-fringes types that have the chip on their shoulder, and that any comparison between them and the mainstream is a straw man. It’s misrepresentation instrumental to intolerance.

Or at least, when the numbers of aggressive, bigoted, fundamentalist types are pointed out to be quite large, we are often told “but we aren’t like them!” It’s usually true. The bigots amongst the fundies tend not to have had the same education or (unless they are televangelist) economic opportunities as the more moderate theist.

This raises a question. Are the intolerant persuasions less persistent in the ranks of the moderately religious, or are they just more gentrified? Does this gentrification help us to underestimate the size of the underlying problem and is it only when the facade crumbles away that we get a look at what’s really going on?

A few mainstream examples of tolerance in action come to mind. Some more respected than others.

“Without God, everything is permitted.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I know I can’t start my day properly without burning a baby over an open fire. Mmmm. Crunchy, fatty baby crackling. There are people who would seriously give pause at me making this joke. They would seriously ask, failing to appreciate my humanity (and telling us something disturbing about their’s), “what if not God stops you from doing such things?”

Maybe Dostoyevsky is a bit old to be drawn against the modern mainstream.

“Though atheism, historically considered, has meant no more in the past than a critical or sceptical denial of the theology of those who have employed the term as one of reproach, and has consequently no one strict philosophical meaning; and though there is no one consistent system in the exposition of which it has a definite place; yet, if we consider it in its broad meaning as merely the opposite of theism, we will be able to frame such divisions as will make possible a grouping of definite systems under this head.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “atheism isn’t what I’d like to represent it as, but if I characterise it as what I want to, I’m able to associate it with a heap of definite systems that otherwise I couldn’t.” What profound intellectual dishonesty!

Francis continues!

“One system of positive moral atheism, in which human actions would neither be right nor wrong, good nor evil, with reference to God, would naturally follow from the profession of positive theoretic atheism; and it is significant of those to whom such a form of theoretic atheism is sometimes attributed, that for the sanctions of moral actions they introduce such abstract ideas as those of duty, the social instinct, or humanity. There seems to be no particular reason why they should have recourse to such sanctions, since the morality of an action can hardly be derived from its performance as a duty, which in turn can be called and known as a “duty” only because it refers to an action that is morally good. Indeed an analysis of the idea of duty leads to a refutation of the principle in whose support it is invoked, and points to the necessity of a theistic interpretation of nature for its own justification.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “Without God, everything is permitted.” Never mind that there’s no demonstration of how it is logically impossible to arive at ethical decision making without invoking theology – you would think that with so damning a judgement, the prosecutor would take his evidence a bit more seriously. But no. It’s just assumed. Pre-judged.

This is mainstream stuff. Or at least it was in its time.

Moving on…

Skipping past the practical and pseudo-atheist (an exercise in manipulating terms to yield palatable conclusions), Jacques Maritain wrote.

“Finally there are absolute atheists, who really do deny the existence of the very God in Whom the believers believe — God the Creator, Savior and Father, Whose name is infinitely over and above any name we can utter. Those absolute atheists stand committed to change their entire system of values and to destroy in themselves everything that could possibly suggest the name they have rejected; they have chosen to stake their all against divine Transcendence and any vestige of Transcendence whatsoever.”

(Jacques Maritain, 1953)

Charming stuff. And this from a chap who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I guess seeing an outgroup as set out to destroy in themselves, things that you value, or perhaps misinterpret, needn’t be reconciled with the purpose of the UDHR. That humans can hold irreconcilable ideas to be true at the same time is uncontroversial.

If Maritain sparks your interest, go check out his version of “critical” versus the likes of Kant or Hume (the phrase “prejudice” comes to mind). He’s well published and liked by Catholic philosophers so you should be able to find something around the libraries. At the very least you can see his prejudice if you follow the link in the above citation, where he alleges a “dual inconsistency” in atheism that is entirely a product of the rigged terms he’s himself decided to use.

Perhaps something a little more contemporary?

What about Francis Collins’ assertion that a capacity for ethical reasoning (not an evolved “do or don’t list” for those contemplating using the popular straw man that “evolution determines what is moral”) is not possible as a product of the combination of evolved altruism and evolved reasoning. That God had to do it.

Aside from the very real problem this scientific prejudice (and it is a prejudice – there is no evidence to support Collins’ position) presents, can you not see how it feeds into the “atheists are denying their God given morality” dogma? Atheists need God to be good. Atheists don’t have God, or are going to lose his blessing. Collins may not believe that atheists are incapable of being moral (or he may – really, I don’t know), but he’s clearly an enabler.

One has to wonder how much people have invested in this trope. Ken Miller, famous opponent and critic of Intelligent Design, and star witness, saw fit to flatly lie about the content of Sam Harris’ criticism of Collins’ prejudice when the latter was appointed as director of the NIH (under which research said prejudice is particularly relevant to, i.e. mental health.) That’s a big about face in terms of positions on religious interference in science – one is left wondering if there was any other motivation other than Collins’ views being less repugnant to Miller than the theology of Intelligent Design.

What’s Miller’s interest in the ideology of God being necessary for ethics, and why’s he willing to look the other way for Collins but not others? And why so dishonestly? Could the slings and arrows hint at some kind of projection going on?

Let’s move on shall we?

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where his existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.”

(Pope Benedict, 2009)

Yep. Without God, a feverish race to possess the most possible is permitted. Which if Ratzinger’s shoes and accommodation is anything to go by, is also permitted by God. I’m not seeing much in the way of a moral monopoly going on here. “Go forth and multiply”, anyone?

Perhaps Ratzinger thinks his urges for the splurges would be worse without God, but he doesn’t need to project his flaws onto the rest of us. I’m an atheist and I’m happy living in my low-cost, ex-public housing home in a working class suburb, thank you very much. Oh, and my shoes are cheap as well.

One could make the case that the current Pope is hopelessly out of touch with his flock and completely upstaged by his predecessor. Fair enough. One could infer that he’s not necessarily the best indicator of the mainstream, or at least the mainstream for Catholics in the developed west. That would be a bit more of a stretch.

Still, there’s plenty more atheist hate floating around the mainstream. Take Steve Harvey. Successful comedian. Star of his own Warner Bros. sitcom. He has a nationally syndicated radio show that’s kicking out radio staples from their time slots. He’s the 2007 syndicated personality of the year, beating out has-beens like John Tesh.

He’s in touch with the people. He’s also a bit of a dickhead.

Here he is chanelling Dostoyevsky, albeit without the gentrification.

Spot the self-contradiction. (1:12)

He starts out saying that he doesn’t believe that atheists can’t be moral, like he knows it’s wrong, then once he gets going… It’s like his cognitive biases are playing ping-pong with the peanut in his skull.

But maybe I’ve strayed to far. Maybe unlike all the other alleged moderates (I guess there’s always going to be disagreement as to what constitutes one), Steve Harvey is probably a bit too born-again.

Still, you have to wonder. What would the moderates look like with the gentrification stripped away?

~ Bruce

Rob Smith on ‘Worship at the temple of Onan’

Young men and women, have you ever felt guilty for your need to pleasure yourself? Have you ever felt guilty because of need arising before marriage? It could just be that you’ve been misled as to what The Bible alludes to. Rob Smith spills the beans in his second guest appearance at Thinkers’ Podium.

Hi everyone. I’m Rob, as you probably guessed from the introduction. Between work and running my unregistered charity, Hymns for Neglected Greyhounds, I pitch in as a youth group elder at the Uniting Way Church of The Blessed Tree. I’m also a part-time external student studying theology at the Sydney Theology of Faith University (STFU).

Obviously I’m not a theologian yet, but I do get quite a lot of young adults coming to me and asking if it’s okay to masturbate, or engage in pre-marital sex. So as Bruce says, I’ll spill the beans. (And to keep Bruce and Tipper happy, I’ll put all the smut over the fold.)

Worship at the temple of Onanrob_smith

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Rob Smith

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