Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Catholic Church wants to talk to us heathens....well, kinda....

- Fundamentalists: believe 2+2 =5 because It Is Written. Somewhere. They have a lot of trouble on their tax returns.
- “Moderate” believers: live their lives on the basis that 2+2=4. but go regularly to church to be told that 2+2 once made 5, or will one day make 5, or in a very real and spiritual sense should make 5.
- “Moderate” atheists: know that 2+2 =4 but think it impolite to say so too loudly as people who think 2+2=5 might be offended.
- “Militant” atheists: “Oh for pity’s sake. HERE. Two pebbles. Two more pebbles. FOUR pebbles. What is WRONG with you people?”
So the Catholic Church wants to improve its relationship with non-believers - provided those non-believers are the kind of atheists and agnostics the Vatican likes.
The church is creating a special "out reach" initiative to dialogue with. There is just one caveat. If you happen to be one of those pesky "new" atheists who don't say nice things about religion, then the Pope isn't interested in talking to you. Dawkins and Hitchens are out for sure. (Ironic, since Hitchens was called upon to fulfill the role of the "devil advocate" during a church hearing on the possible sainthood of Mother Teresa) Probably Sam Harris too. Not sure about the last of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Dan Dennett. Dennett has this Santa Clausy air about him that often beguiles the sharpness of his arguments. So maybe the beard will allow him to slip through. Then again, PZ Myers as a beard and I doubt he'll be invited. (Mind you, Dawkins and Hitchens did recently try to make the case that the Pope could be arrested for the on going Catholic sex abuse scandals under provisions of international justice. That might have pissed him off a little bit.)
What the church appears to want is "nice" atheists. "Noble" atheism is what they are looking for officially. Atheists who take the theology of the church seriously. Not the troublesome Dawkins or Hitchens types who, according to the Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi view the truth with "irony and sarcasm."
Uh huh.
It has always fascinated me how religious leaders, in our western context primary Christian leaders, feel they own the public stage. They ought to be able to get up on a soap box, preach and tell people how they ought to behave and where they will end up after death. But the atheists who get up and say "now hold on a minute, what's your evidence for any of that?" are just going to far! Silly us! Clearly we don't know that we are supposed to sit down and shut up!
The archbishops calls this sort of non-quiet atheism as "polemical" and not the type his churches wants to engage. You'll often hear in other religious circles this sort of atheism as "fundamentalist". A totally bizarre notion. A Christian or Muslim fundamentalist is so called because of their unswerving devotion to ancient religious texts and the teachings of their leaders. Nothing is questioned. In the worst cases they try to undermine secular institutions and science by introduction non-scientific claptrap into schools, or try to deny people access to health care they find morally objectionable. In the really really horrendous cases they fly planes into buildings and shoot abortion doctors.
The fundamentalist atheist follows...well nothing is taking as an unquestioned truth that cannot be examined and even over turned. Even the most well supported theories - from evolution to relativity - can be tossed aside should the evidence every warrant it. Our leaders...yah, we don't any. Dawkins et al are popular and persuasive. No one considers them "holy" and certainly they are not treated as, say, oh I don't know, a pope who speaks with divine permission and therefore cannot be questioned. Lots of atheists, for example, may agree with Hitchen's slashing moral and philosophical critiques of religion while at the same time tossing his political views into the trash heap. And when is the last time you saw an atheist, demanding more evidence for claims about the nature of the universe, blowing himself up and killing anyone nearby? When is the last time a preacher was shot and killed from an armed atheist?
The thing is the entire "fundamentalist" atheist thing is a canard, invented by some theologically minded types who have run out of anything else to say. This is in part, I think, because we don't take their claims all that seriously. Dawkins gets this alot. "If only he read up on more high medieval theology and took is seriously, why then he would be so rude as to dismiss the claims of our church." Of course the entire point is that all the sophisticated theology, and it is often very sophisticated, is meaningless if it's foundational idea - namely the existence of god - cannot be shown to be true. I mean, if I go on about the merciful nature of the Jabberwacky it might sound great....but if I cannot demonstrate that the Jabberwacky is real, well, whats the point?
Myers actually pointed this out a few years back with this brilliant Courtier's Reply:
"I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, "On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat". We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.
Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.
Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics."
It would seem that the "noble" atheism the church wants to engage in would be the sort that would accept this sort of rebuke as meaningful and really doesn't question the claims of religion with any particular vigour. And evidence? Who needs it, right? If you want to claim your wee piece of bread literally turns into the flesh of a guy dead for 2,000 years, who are we to question that!?
This of course, suggests to me that this is not a "lets all get along" sort of thing the church is up to. It's a "lets find heathens we can convert" effort.
The idea that, for example, Dawkins cannot have a civil or interesting discussion with a religious person is nonsense. He did a truly fascinating interview with Father George Coyne - completely worth watching and tell me if you think Dawkins is all full of "irony and sarcasm."
Secondly, the pope simply doesn't understand atheists who demand, above all things, evidence for claims about the nature of the universe, about morals, and about ethics.  Consider the following from the article linked at the top of this story.
In a speech to the Roman Curia back in December, the Pope first hinted at his plans to reach out to atheists.
"We, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists," he said. "When we speak of a New Evangelization, these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us."
No, no, no. The question of god does not remain present to us. In terms of evidence, there is zero reason to beleive in god's existence. There is no evidence to suggest the existence of a god or gods. QED. What is of interest, I think, is that what does the belief in this provable thing lead people to do? Are the claims of the religious demonstrable? Are they lead to good or harmful behavior? True, one has to often address claims about the existence of god as a starting point in debates with the religious, but this does not mean as the pope suggests that the existence of god is an unsettled questioned. It might be unsettled if he brought some evidence to the table...but I have a hard time seeing that happening.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blogging at CFI Canada

In addition to blogging here on the Handbook - which I will be doing more often now - I am also posting a blog over at the Centre for Inquiry Canada. You can check it out here: Fighting Atheism.