Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ethiopia and Somalia

Below much of the American media's radar Ethiopia has joined non-Muslim Somali forces to defeat the Islamic Courts which had taken over Somalia. The war raged for about a week, and Bill Roggio at The Fourth Rail has been providing updates all along. If you wish to catch up go here and scroll down through the last several days' posts.

An Atheist's Pilgrimage (Pt. II)

On Tuesday we alluded to the account by Gary Wolf of Wired who shares with us his quest to find kinship among the "New Atheists." We noted that his search ultimately foundered on the shoals of the stridency, extremism, and weak thinking he found among three main representative figures in this movement. One should read his essay in its entirety because it's quite fascinating, but we'll offer some commentary on the second part of it here.

Writing about his interview with Sam Harris, Wolf says:

Harris argues that, unless we renounce faith, religious violence will soon bring civilization to an end.

This is a half-truth which Harris tries to pass off as a wise insight. It's true that one religion, Islam, is inherently violent and seeks to bring Western civilization to an end, but it's simply a logical fallacy to extrapolate from that fact to the claim that religion per se poses a threat to civilization. Does he really believe that religion is somehow inherently anti-civilzation? Does anyone really feel threatened by Mennonites, Amish, or Quakers? Does anyone seriously believe that his Christian neighbors wish to bring Western civilization to an end? Can Harris name just one Christian who presents such a threat?

Is Harris actually unaware of the work of historians who credit Christianity with creating, shaping, and preserving modern Western civilization?

While we're waiting for answers to those questions, let's pause for a moment to reflect on the legacy of 20th century atheists who have indeed been demonstrable threats to civilization as we know it, or who have committed genocidal acts of one sort or another. Our list might begin with Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Kruschev, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, The African Hutus, the Japanese leadership during the 1930s, and on it goes, seemingly without end. Yet who does Harris see as a threat? It's your grandparents and parents, the kids at school who comprise much of the honor roll, and the majority of people in this country who are the most generous givers in the history of the world.

"At some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God."

Oh? And what is it, exactly, that will make it embarrassing to believe in God? The discoveries by scientists of the astonishing fine-tuning of the universe? The incredible complexity of living things? The inexplicable nature of consciousness? Is it more intellectually embarrassing that one believes that a mind is responsible for a world filled with information or that it all happened by grand accident?

Harris is a doctoral student in philosophy. Surely he's aware of the utter failure of materialism as a metaphysic to explain much of anything at all about life. If anyone should be embarrassed it is the person who argues that life can have meaning and purpose, that morality can be grounded, and that justice and hope can exist in a world where death erases everything.

We discuss what it might look like, this world without God. "There would be a religion of reason," Harris says.

Great. And what do we base our confidence in reason upon? Why do we think that reason is a trustworthy tool for finding truth? If reason emerged as a result of evolution then it evolved to promote survival during the stone age, but survival is not the same as truth. A person who reproduces with amazing fecundity because of a genetic predisposition to believe that the gods will torment him if he doesn't will certainly promote the success of those particular genes but they have nothing to do with truth. If our reason is the product of non-rational reactions occuring in our brains then ultimately it is itself non-rational.

Harris wants to place his faith in reason but reason leads to nihilism and despair. To avoid these requires an irrational desision to live as if life mattered, as if it had meaning, as if anything had value or worth. Reason doesn't lead to these conclusions. Nor does reason lead to any kind of ethic except egoism and survival of the strongest. Harris, like so many atheists, envisions a world in which people live as if the Christian God exists, but he wants to replace that God with that which leads to a barren, desolate, hopeless hell.

See here and here for more discussion of the problem materialism has in trying to justify or explain rational thought.

Here in Los Angeles, every fourth Sunday at 11 am, there is a meeting of Atheists United. More than 50 people have shown up today, which is a very good turnout for atheism. Many are approaching retirement age. The speaker this morning, a younger activist named Clark Adams, encourages them with the idea that their numbers are growing. Look at South Park, Adams urges. Look at Howard Stern. Look at Penn & Teller. These are signs of an infidel upsurge.

Good Lord. South Park and Howard Stern are offered as testaments to the virtues of atheism? That's the best that Mr. Adams can come up with as examples of what we can expect in an atheistic world? And the modest little coterie of atheists led by Mr. Adams is proud that this is who comes to mind when Mr. Adams conjures up the names of prominent atheists?

Harris is typically severe in his rejection of the idea that evolutionary history somehow justifies faith. There is, he writes, "nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors."

Harris stumbles again. Certainly some rapists believe that rape is a good, so it's not true that no one would argue on its behalf. The question Harris needs to address, but never does, is on what grounds does he demonstrate that the rapist is wrong. In other words what reason can he give for believing that rape is bad? Any answer an atheist gives to this question distills to the simple fact that rape is something he doesn't like, but that hardly makes it wrong for everyone else. If Mr. Harris is right that there is no God then there simply is no right or wrong. Or, more to the point, might makes right, in which case there's no moral sanction attaching to the rapist's act.

"Would intelligent robots be religious?" it occurs to me to ask (of Daniel Dennett).

"Perhaps they would," he answers thoughtfully. "Although, if they were intelligent enough to evaluate their own programming, they would eventually question their belief in God."

This is a very odd statement for Dennett to make, for it unwittingly brings him as close as he could come to refuting his own atheism. One thing robots could not correctly deny is that they have been programmed by a mind. They might doubt it, but they would be mistaken to do so. Thus, for them to realize that they must have been programmed by a mind which transcends their robotic world, but to question their belief in such a mind teeters on the brink of nonsense.

I think Mr. Wolf senses the inadequacy of what he has heard from these three spokespersons of the New Atheism, and, without abandoning his atheism, he nevertheless shies away from identifying with them. Perhaps he will someday realize that chance and physics can no more write the robot's program than he himself can jump over the moon. Perhaps someday he'll realize that none of the arguments for atheism are any better than what he heard from Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. Perhaps on that day he'll realize that his search has led him, not to atheism, but to God.

Genuine Faith

I suppose this is a good thing, but I just can't help wondering how genuine one's faith is if you have to hire people to advise you on how to impress others with it:

Hillary Clinton has hired an "evangelical consultant" to help woo Christian conservatives in her likely 2008 presidential campaign.

The move comes after a similar political operative successfully aided Democratic candidates in several states in the midterm elections.

More than one-quarter of the nation's voters identify themselves as evangelical - a voter bloc that has long been courted by Republicans.

Clinton's new hire is Burns Strider, an evangelical Christian who directs religious outreach for House Democrats and is the lead staffer for the Democrats' Faith Working Group, headed by incoming Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Politics is all about image, of course, and the job of these consultants is to create an image of religiosity. Perhaps there is substance behind the image, perhaps not, but it seems phony, even Machiavellian, to have to hire someone to tell you how to express your faith in ways that will seem convincing to voters.

I doubt that neither Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan nor George Bush, three of the most genuinely religious presidents of the last thirty five years, felt the need to employ someone to do the job of burnishing their faith in the public eye.