Saturday, November 15, 2008

Atheist Charities

Richard John Neuhaus on why religious organizations which provide government-subsidized social services should be free to prosyletize:

"The legitimate interest of government is in seeing that the social services for which it contracts are effectively provided, and, if the providers want to tell people why they're engaged in good works, that's their business. It should make no difference whether the providers are faith-based, faith-saturated, or atheists. The last is an academic point, of course, since, for some reason, there are few atheist charities."

Neuhaus is correct, of course, not only about the paucity of atheist charities, for which the reasons are not mysterious, but also about the right of faith-based charities to discuss with their beneficiaries the motivations for their benevolence. It's no business of the state's whether these organizations seek to persuade people to join their fellowship or not. The state's only concern should be whether the services being paid for with tax-payer's money are being duly provided.

As for the dearth of atheist charities, one need only ask why, in a godless world, anyone should care about the poor or the infirm. These people are the losers in the Darwinian lottery and there's no obligation to artificially sustain them. The obligation to care for the poor is imposed upon us only by God, not by nature, and it is out of love for Him that we love those He loves. If God doesn't exist then other people have no claim on our compassion or our purse, and there's no reason for us to not turn a blind eye to their suffering.

Indeed, if God does not exist then Sartre was probably not far from the truth when he noted that hell is other people.


Either the Multiverse or God

Tim Folger at Discover Online has a great piece on the choice confronting contemporary thinkers about what lies behind the universe's fine-tuning.

For those new to the discussion, fine-tuning refers to the fact that almost every fact about the universe has to be almost exactly what it is in order for the universe to be the kind of place in which higher life forms could thrive.

This means that hundreds of forces, parameters, values, etc. must be set to, in some cases, incredibly precise tolerances in order for the universe to exist at all and to be able to support life.

To take just one example, Hugh Ross invites us in Why the Universe Is the Way it Is to imagine that the universe were an aircraft carrier. If so, then had the mass at the beginning been off so much as the mass of a single fleck of paint, the universe would never have formed. Actually, Ross goes on to say, the tolerance is much less than that. In fact, if the mass of the universe were the same as the mass of an aircraft carrier it would only have to have been off by the mass of a billionth of a trillionth of the mass of an electron for the carrier to be unable to support living beings.

In the Discover article Folger interviews scientists who consider this amazing precision and conclude that there really are only two alternatives. Either the universe was intentionally designed or it's just one of a vast number of worlds which each possess different laws and forces. Amidst so much diversity the existence of a universe like ours, they aver, becomes much more probable:

Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi�verse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn't even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non�religious explanation for what is often called the "fine-tuning problem"-the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? "If there is only one universe," says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London, "you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don't want God, you'd better have a multiverse."

Precisely. In order to avoid having to admit that there's a God a lot of people are prepared to believe in a near infinite number of universes that they can neither see nor measure nor say much at all about. I daresay that were it not for the fact that the alternative was God, no scientist would be seriously entertaining a theory whose only purpose seems to be to serve as an escape hatch for atheistic materialists.

Folger's article does a fine job of explaining all the relevant ideas and will help you become conversant on an issue which we will no doubt be hearing much more about as science continues to discover more and more examples of the astonishing precision with which our world is engineered.

You might also want to pick up Hugh Ross' book which describes this precision in a fashion very accessible to those with a minimal background in science. It can be ordered by phone from my friend Byron at Hearts and Minds Bookstore.


Re: Economic Basics

A student of mine named Alison wrote a response to Economic Basics. It's so good I thought I'd post it here, slightly edited:

I have to agree that handouts are not going to do any good in helping the poor. My parents are business owners in Connecticut. They own and operate an orchard, and can only hire seasonal help so you can imagine what kind of people we get for three months every year. They are minimum wage workers and for the most part, they are pretty poor.

Minimum wage in Connecticut is $7.65, which is quite a lot of money to pay someone to stand around and make cardboard boxes, but it is still not enough for someone to live on. Nearly every year minimum wage gets raised, but if you can't live on $7.65 per hour, do you think that you will be able to live that much better on $7.80? It seems doubtful to me, but it is just enough to make my parents consider how they can get by with fewer employees, cutting the number of jobs available.

Then there's the issue of unemployment checks which is totally bogus. These people that my parents hire for one season will go and file for unemployment the day the season ends. It doesn't matter that many of them are mothers who want the summers off anyway and can't work during that time. It doesn't matter that they hardly worked during the couple months for which they were hired. And there's no way out of paying these people for unemployment. There is a huge difference between unemployment for a mature worker who lost his job after 15 years and someone who decided give working a try for a couple months. If we never helped them out in the first place by giving them a way to earn money for a little while, we'd never have to pay the unemployment, but since, as my dad says, he "did them a favor and found some work for them to do," he's being punished.

So again, they make every effort to get by with as few employees as possible. Forcing businesses to pay unemployment to every employee who wants it is stupid and is in no way going to help the plight of the poor. Instead it's going to create more poor because small business owners can't compete and will eventually be added to that list of the unemployed.

Alison says it well. You don't help the poor by making it tough on business. One despairs that the lesson will ever be learned by our politicians in Washington.