Monday, December 31, 2007

"I am reluctant to use the word atheist to describe my own unshakeable disbelief, and that's not because I'm ashamed, afraid, or even embarrassed, but simply because it seems so self-evidently true to me that there is no god, and giving that conviction a special title somehow dignifies what it denies. After all, we don't have a special word for people who don't believe in ghosts or witches."

-Jonathan Miller from "A Brief History of Disbelief."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jesus' Free Gift? Keep it please!

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

-Thomas Paine

We've all experienced it at some point or another. It might have been in the form of a Mormon god patrol stopping you in the street. Or maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on your door before mid-day on a Saturday. It might have been someone on a soap box, or someone handing out those insipid Chick Tracks. Or, if you are a glutton for punishment like me and voice your atheistic views on Youtube, it might have taken the form of an email, comment or private message.

However, you might have experienced it, it's the same: A Christian trying to convert you.

Now, I often hear from people who would rather so called "active" atheists and anti-theists just go away, "Why do you pick so much on Christians? You must hate Christianity more than any other religion." Well, this is demonstrably not true. A quick scan of his blog will show you I take aim at religion generally, and most of the big ones come in for their specific bit of criticism sooner or later. But the fact is I live in a predominately Christian society and therefore it is only natural that I comment most on the world I happen to live in. Where I living in a Muslim or Hindu dominated nation, I'd probably be picking on them more.

Of course, there is another reason as well. No Muslim or Hindu has never, ever stopped me in the street to try and convert me. The cold calling conversion attempt is something that, so far as I know, almost exclusively Christian.

What also marks the attempts by those Christians bent on converting others is how aggressive they are about. Now, maybe this just me, but Mormons in particular seem to be able to hunt me down like a pack of bloodhounds. Maybe I have a bubble over my head with the words "HEATHEN" written on it, or maybe the Mormons have developed some kind of advanced heathen sonar system or something. I don't know. But each year, a pack of three of them find me in downtown St. Catharines. Its a different god patrol every year, but one thing is common: They don't take no for an answer. They just don't.

Take this example from my last run in with the LDS god patrol:

Mormons: "Excuse me, do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?"

Me: "No thank you. Goodbye."

Mormons: "Well, sir, it will only take a few minutes and its a message you really need to hear."

Me: "No I don't. I said no. Good day." [walks away]

Mormons: [following] "Well, have you ever considered the power of Jesus to change your life?"

Me: [walking away, cracking knuckles] "What part of no do you not understand? You're barking up the wrong tree."

Mormons: [still following] "Well why do you think that, sir? What tree is that?"

Me: [getting annoyed, still walking] "Buzz off. I'm not interested."

Mormons [still following] "Why is that sir? Why aren't you interested."

Me: [stops and turns around] "Stop following me. Get lost. I said no."

Mormons: "Well, do you know anyone we might be able to call upon who might be more open than you that we can share the message of Jesus with?"

At that point I walked into a bank and the trio of mormons left. What I really wanted to do was introduce them to my knuckles. But I wasn't raised in a barn so I didn't. But man was I sorely tempted.

They just don't give up. But as annoying as Mormon missionaries can be, nothing can be the used car salesman pitch used by Evangelists. Seeing as logic and science and reason are not their strong points, their strategy seems to be to ask a series of stupid question which they obviously thing are so penetrating . Check out the following bits from a Youtuber named Helivz who has been trying to convert me for several days:

"If you claim that Christ, Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit is non-existant, then why are you atheists so hung up on it? There, thats proof enough that a supernatural world does exist; one for good and one for evil.
One day this whole world / universe is going to be governed by Christ and all His followers. Get used to it. If you like losing, then stay on the path you are on. If you like winning, turn to Jesus before it's too late."

" You are my evidence that God does exist. The fact that I believe in God, and that I irritate you is evidence. Now, can you prove that satan doesn't exist?Oops, I don't think so. He was impeached during his last term just before Bush took office."

"Go to a free, Bob Larson rally and you'll see public exorcisms. Still doubt it? Go and confront Mr. Larson to his face, or the person with the demon for that matter, that Larson is ministering to, and see for yourself. That demon will likely name off every secret sin in your life, past and present. I'm offering you proof, but be prepared to be humbled."

" Lets talk about Heaven now.
1.)Streets paved with GOLD.
2.) No more pain, death, sorrow nor devil.
3.) Sin, sickness, disease will be a thing of the past.
4.) Uninterrupted pure joy, peace, contentment.
5.) No more "Madonnas" and "Britney Spears" to lead people into hell.
6.) Eternal life. The list goes on and on.

Why pay a high price for the counterfeit when the best is free?!"

Now, that last is the one that caught my eye. Not because this remotely qualifies as a argument or evidence that the Christian sky god exists. But because of that last line. The one about Jesus being "free."

This is the saddest example of evangelism out there, and it is about as common as a te;evangelist sex scandal.

You see, Christians pull a line from the book of Romans in which Jesus's offer of salvation is a "free gift." Well somewhere along the way, some beliefs left the poetry of the New Testament behind for what I can only describe as used-car salesman preaching. Even more vapid than Pascal's Wager, this is an attempt to hustle you into a religion using pitiful, high pressure sales tactics.

You find this "free gift crap" everywhere. Like this website for instance where the "free gift" is offered. Run the words "Jesus" and "free gift" on Google and you'll probably find better examples.

I say its used car sales man tactics because it is that low-brow. You'll hear them say things like "You know, when someone offers you a free gift, you usually think "what the catch?" But there is no catch with Jesus's free gift. It's free! How many things to you really get for free? You've have to be insane not to take something that is free!"

This is really one step away from a some kind of Used Car's by Jesus commerical:

"Hi! I'm Jesus, and have I got a deal for you! Tell me, son, what's it going to take to put you into this religion today? I got a free gift for you! My prices are so low, you'd think I should be crucified!"

I really have to wonder on what kind of mind this sort of huckerism works on. Can you really imagine someone saying "Oh well, its FREE! Well, then I'll just jump on board!"

Of course its not really "free" is it? You have to give up your will, the right to free thought and subject yourself to the authority of those who run a church...and that has always turned out just so great in history, hasn't it?

Still, in a way, its still better than the "convert by stealth" approach advocated by this website

which recommends you become friends with an atheist first and then after burrowing your way into his life, start to work on his mind until he caves.Anyway, to any Christians that might be reading this - get the message. We don't want your "free gift" and we aren't impressed by your car lot sales tactics. So give it a rest!

Oh and before you go, do you have a minute to talk about Charles Darwin and how the Origin of Species will change your life?:

Monday, December 24, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 3

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

-Sinclair Lewis

So we come to Mr. D'Souza's last claim about the western world and Christianity. In my previous two parts I've shown that he, at best, overstates his case, but often leaves out important facts to bolster his claim that, in effect, the western world was built by Christianity. Science, morality...basically all the hallmarks of western civilization are, he claims, the direct product of Christianity and the Christian world view.

This is not to say that Christianity isn't important in the history of the western world. After all, it has been the dominate religion for the centuries. For a long time questioning it publicly was a sure way to get yourself tortured and killed. Once the faith got most of its blood letting out of its system, questioning it publicly was still a sure what to ruin in your career. Sometimes it still is.

However, in as much as Christianity does inform our culture, D'Souza continually goes too far to claim that everything important about the western world comes from his chosen faith. And there is no more obvious example of this when he claims that democracy would not be possible without it.

His argument goes like this: Yes, the ancient Greeks had some kind of democracy thing going, but they had slaves. And its only through Christianity that slavery is abolished, because of course, Christians have always hated slavery, so therefore only true freedom comes from Christianity and thus so does democracy.

Anyone who knows the history of democracy, Greece, slavery and Christianity should already be able to spot the massive problems with D'Souza's argument.

First, he tries to downplay that democracy in Athens wasn't that important. Well, he would wouldn't he? To him, anything non-Christian isn't important. But the fact is that democracy beings as a radical experiment in Athens when the people rose up to depose their rulers and cease power for themselves. Without Athens there is no democracy at all. Our concepts of one person, one vote, of secret ballot, of the right of citizens to have a voice in their government and the right to choose that government all come from the Athenian experiment. (the idea of the rights and duties of a citizen being defined in a constitution comes from the great Athenian rival Sparta)

In fact, I will go a step more and say without these ideas we have no democracy at all. They are the bare minimum needed to have any kind of functioning democracy. Now, D'Souza wants to downplay this in favor of trying to say that because there were slaves in Athens, as there were, that this pretty much doesn't count.

Well, consider however, that in the Christian Bible there is not a word about how to organize a free society. Nothing about the right to vote, or run for office or any of the things that define a democracy. You do not get any instruction at all on democracy and political freedom. What you do get is a lot of talk about creating a kingdom, run by Jesus. No one gets to vote for Jesus. Or recall him from office. There are no checks and balances. No term limits. Not even a citizen's assembly. In fact, the very concept of citizenship is alien to Christianity because it is unconcerned with human freedom in the real world. To Christianity, this is all the opening act and the real show starts when Jesus literally conquers in the world at the end of time and is set up as absolute ruler. You can argue he would be a nice absolute ruler, but remember this - a gilded cage is still a cage.

Indeed it is very telling that Christianity chugged along just fine, thank you very much, under all many of totalitarian regimes for most of its history. In fact, Christianity didn't run into democracy until the concept was revived long after the dark ages ended. And when it was, did those thinkers, principally Christian because it was, after all, the only game in town, look to the bible? No they looked to Athens.

So of what the slavery issue? Well I've address this already in part one so I am not going to go back over it again. Just hop back a few posts and you'll find it. But to summarize it is very telling that Christianity functions happily in slave owning societies for centuries without much of a peep. Indeed, St. Paul counsels Christians to obey their masters and the Old Testament lays out rules by which slavery can be conducted. Nowhere in the bible will you find the phrase "thou shalt never keep slaves." And when Christian groups did get around to opposing slavery, groups like the Quakers, they had reinterpret the bible in a way that most Christians of the period were not. They became sectarian oddballs who stood with a growing secular intolerance toward slavery while the rest of the Christian world stood by.

What happened was not that Christianity created modern democratic notions forbidding slavery. Slavery died a very slow death, and often required the use of bullet and bayonets to do the job, not preaching. Wars like the American Civil War was not a battle of Christians verus evil slave owning heathens. It was a war that pitted Christian vs. Christian.

Instead, the times slowly changed. What Richard Dawkins called the moral zeitgeist changed. Christianity no doubt informs that change as more and more believers began to view the bible as a Quakers did on the issue. But even then it is not the exclusive domain of Christianity as D'Souza claims. For instance, the woman's right to vote was opposed by many religious groups, and the argument won on what was near completely secular political grounds.

The problem with all D'Souza's arguments is that he deliberate excludes important facts, presenting a black and white view of history in which Christianity beats back all negative things, leaving only good and positive things. It's the simply morality play of most comic books, ignoring the complex vagaries of human history in favor of scoring points with his conservative constituency.

It is not in Jesus that we find the roots of democracy, but in brave Athenian citizens who took the first steps toward creating a free society and inventing the very notion of democratic rule. It is not the bible that we find modern notions of equality and freedom but in the brilliant works and actions political men and women, some inspired by their faith and many without an a faith at all, shifted the political zeitgeist toward inclusiveness.

To claim this was the work of a single religion requires ignoring history and rewriting it as a religiously induced fantasy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 2 -con't

It took the Church until 1832 to remove Galileo's work from its list of books which Catholics were forbidden to read at the risk of dire punishment of their immortal souls.
-Carl Sagan

here is a story about Galileo.

Having engaged his in one man revolt against the Catholic Church, the scientist is dragged before the dreaded Inqusition. Forced to recant his findings that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the cosmos, he is dragged away to live under house arrest. And as he is about the leave the room he whispers under his breath "and yet it moves," in defiance of the Chruch's insistence that the Earth stands still.

Hell of a tale isn't it? There's just one catch. It's not entirely true. And that last bit about "and yet it moves"? Rubbish. Never happened. But its part of the myth that has become part of the story of what is often called "The Galileo Affair." Now in his attempt to show that Christianity is the inventor of science, Dinesh D'Souza sets out to do what he figures is a revolutionary act - debunk the myths around the story of Galileo. (Hint to Mr. D'Souza. No serious scholarship has every taken this myth seriously.) Morever, he oddly claims this is an "atheist" myth, part of some nebulous atheist propaganda machine meant to make Christians look bad. You can see his views on this here.

He is actually quite right about several things. Galileo was never tortured. He was also a huge egoist who was not going to be old by anyone what he could think or write. And that Galileo was too smart not to know he was really going to piss off the pope by making him seem a fool in this great book.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. (I wrote more about the detials Galileo affair on this blog here and I am not going to repeat them at this point. So pleas feel free to back and read them).

D'Souza is also right that the church tired, in its way, not to get into a row with Galileo. You see he had written a letter to a Duchess who had asked him if when the bible said the earth didn't move was the bible wrong? Galileo said, well, yes, in fact scientifically speaking the bible was wrong. Rome, which had already decreed that the sun centered system first proposed by Copernicus was in violation of scripture and church teaching, wasn't going to take that laying down. And D'Souza is also right to say that Galileo was ordered by the infamous Cardinal Bellarmine not to "hold or defend" the Conperincan view. (Galileo agrees and asked for a ceritificate explaing the Cardinal orders and recieves it, signed by Bellarmine himself.) But then, as D'Souza always does, misses the important facts in favour a pre-determine conclusion. He portrays the Church as being intellectually honest and patient, and forced to bring Galileo before the inquisition. Hey sas Galileo recants out of exhaustion but it otherwise treated with respect by the Inquisition (and office well known for its tolerance and honesty.) Galileo, whose defense at this trail is "dishonest" according to D'Souza, is placed under house arrest and lived in comfort until his death 8 years later. Moroever, he implies that Galileo is to the blame here. It's his fault, not the church's.

Oh and the kicker here: Galileo was NEVER charged with heresy, D'Souza says.
But facts are tricky things, particularly when you avoid them. D'Souza says this about Galileo's trail:

In 1633, Galileo returned to Rome, where he was again treated with respect. He might have prevailed in his trial, but during the investigation someone found Cardinal Bellarmine's notes in the files. Galileo had not told the present Inquisitors - he had not told anyone - of his previous agreement not to teach or advocate Copernicanism. Now he was viewed as having deceived the church as well as having failed to live up to his agreements. Even his church sympathizers, and there were several, found it difficult to defend him at this point.

Ah, but that is not the whole story. One again, D'Souza doesn't do his research. Galilieo is actually charged by the Inquisition with "vehement suspicion of heresy" a fact D'Souza leaves out. Then there s this business bout the notes of Cardinal Bellarmine that apparently cannot be found. Tsk tsk. Here D'Souza makse a massive blunder.

You remember that note that Galileo had asked for from Ballarmine explaining the order not to hold or defend the sun centered view? This comes into play in a big way. The Inquisition says Galileo's book violated Ballarmine's orders not to "hold, defend or teach" and produce a document to that effect. But the old buzzard Galileo has an ace card. He produces HIS certificate given to him and signed by Ballarmine. It only says he could not "hold or defend" the view, but it says nothing about not teaching it. The you know what hits the fan. The Dominicans running the show during the trail are taken aback. They are meticulous record keepers and this is unexpected. The signature on the Inquisition's document appears suspect. And this might be the loop hole that Galileo needs to avoid torture. (These documents are all kept in the Vatican archives which shows the Inquisitor threatening to torture Galileo if he does not recant. D'Souza might want to look em up.)

Anyway, despite this pretty shocking term of events, Galileo's fate is sealed. He is ordered to recant, and this is a BIG thing D'Souza leaves out, under the threat of torture. Galileo is an old man backed into a corner. So he surrenders and recants. He is placed under house arrest for his remaining eight years of life.

D'Souza is correct to say that Galileo was being directly confrontational with the Church. And his sly gambit of producing Bellarmine's letter didn't work. And then D'Souza gets really odd. He basically says the Church acted in good faith in handling Galileo. Good faith? Threatening to torture an old man for holding a view that was forbidden by Church doctrine? Placing his books on the banned this and threatening those who read them with dire consequences? He says because the evidence Galileo presented was no definitive (in particular Galileo's use of the tides of proof, which turned out to be wrong) that the Church was right to censor Galileo. Consider what he is saying here. It's Galileo's fault for exploring science and talking about it, not the Church's fault for suppressing knowledge. D'Souza is saying that Galileo should have just obeyed the orders of a dictatorial church!

No, Mr. D'Souza, you got it wrong by ignoring the facts. It is true that Galileo caused himself a whole world of grief when he mocked the pope in his book. But he was silenced by a church with thin skin, threatened by new ideas and so threatened him with tortured and his books were banned. This is not the actions of a reasonable opened minded organization that D'Souza wants us to believe the church was. It was a dictatorial power that crushed any opposition to its authority.

This is why Galileo is rightly revered today. For this great scientific work and his arrogant defiance of religious authority.

There are many myths about what happened to Galileo, most simplifying a very complex situation. Well all D'Souza has done is created another myth by ignoring the facts.

By the by here is Carl Sagan presenting some of the important details of this subject. Compare to anything D'Souza presents:

Monday, November 19, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 2

People believe that this disease is sacred simply because they don't know what causes it? But some day I believe they will, and the moment they figure out why people have epilepsy, it will cease to be considered divine.


The man pictured here on an Iraqi currency is

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, better known as Al Hazen.

He is a titanic figure in the history of science. His works on optics were absolutely critical in Europe in the 15th century when Europe was pulling it's ignorant ass out of the dark ages during the
Renascence. It was Al Hazen, a 10th century Arab, who figured out why we see what we see. That is, how light works.

He used logic, reason and experiment to demolish all the old theories about how we saw things - like the idea that light came from your eyes to light up what you were looking it. Al Hazen figured out that light came into your eye from all the objects around you. And the reason that your eye didn't get confused by all this input was that most of the light rays were refracted in your eye, allowing you to see some light, but not all of it. His work was used later in Europe to figure out problems in geometry, optics and architecture.

There is a pretty good chance you've chance you've not heard of Al Hazen. His name doesn't come up much in high school history lessons (or university lessons for that matter) and it appears, neither has Dinesh D'Souza.

You see, D'Souza likes to claim that everything good about the western world is the baby of Christianity. He really does. And this includes science. Take this from one of his recent blogs promoting his new book:

..where did Western man get this idea of a lawfully ordered universe? From Christianity. Christians were the first ones who envisioned the universe as following laws that reflected the rationality of God the creator. These laws were believed to be accessible to man because man is created in the image of God and shares a spark of the divine reason.
It's a lovely conceit I suppose. It's also completely wrong. Now it is true that for believers, a rational universe created by god makes sense, and explains for them why science works. However, it is utterly false to say that "Western man" first got his idea that the universe was knowable through reason from Christianity.

Apparently, D'Souza has never heard ofAnaxamander
, Epidicles or Anaxagoras or Hippocrates. These men went about figuring out how the universe worked long before a certain Hebrew carpenter was a twinkle in a virgin's eye. All of them opperated on the notion that the universe was knowable through reason. Not because a god had created it thus, but because that was how the universe was. Men like Democritus weren't even sure the universe and the Earth had been created at all, and suggested that everything had existed forever. Moreover, they looked for material explanations of the universe. In fact, it is from these Greeks that we get the term "cosmos" - the orderly universe. The important thing to note here is that these men came about to this realization without Christianity and their ideas formed the spine of what would become modern science.

Indeed, once the Christians had finished, or thought they had finished, crushing the Greek schools of philosophy with their crazy ideas of rational inquiry and logic, and Europe plunged into the dark ages, did they continue or improve upon the traditions of Greek science? Not in the least. They turned instead to mysticism and superstition. The bible was all the education anyone needed. Augustine's maxim, "believe and then you'll understand" ruled the day. The natural world, from this point of view, wasn't worth bothering about. You know, life is a veil tears and that sort of thing? That was dark ages Europe for the most part.

But, as Jonathan Miller points out, the term "dark ages" is little more than a cliche because it is impossible to totally wipe out free thought. But it is true that this period was one of deep ignorance compared to what came before it.

Yet rationale inquiry lived on, particularly in the Muslim world. It might be hard for us to imagine it now, with rise in Islamist terrorism and draconian Muslim laws regarding women and blasphemy, but there was a time when the Arab world was the most sophisticated culture on the planet. Long before Muslim clerics came up with the bizarre notion that in order to please god, Muslim societies had to try and restore their world to the days of the prophet, the scholars of Islam were the leading scientists on earth.

Men like Al Hazen had kept the old Greek knowledge alive and were taking the next steps. Picking up where the Greeks left off and advancing human knowledge about the universe. And what is critical to remember about this is that Europe began to dig itself out of the dark ages because of an influx of Arab texts. Where once all Europe had was the bible, religious writings and scraps of Aristotle and
Ptolemy, now they had volumes of long forgotten Greek and Roman texts, complete with Arab commentaries - not to mention the direct writings of men like Al Hazen. All of these texts operated on that Greek idea of cosmos. That the universe was knowable through reason. An idea much older, and more profound, than any revelation found in the bible or koran.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Defend Freedom of Speech.

Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
-Salman Rushdie

Take a look at the cartoon posted here. Last year this was one of several cartoons printed in Danish newspapers that triggered violent riots in the Muslim world.

The problem for the faithful was twofold. One, in Islamic culture depictions of the prophet Mohmmad is a big no-no. Second, being commentary on the on going problem of the religiously motivated terrorism of Jihadists, they weren't the most flattering depictions of the prophet.

Of course some people will find this cartoon offensive. That is their right. But in a society with freedom of speech, it is also the right of the cartoonist to make such a drawing. However, in North America the cartoons were not republished out of fear of Muslim backlash. When newspapers and TV stations should have shown the cartoons as part of their coverage, and to stand on the principle of free speech, they trembled like cowards. Not long afterward, the United Nations began to consider adding blasphemy as a violation of human rights. This is effectively saying freedom of speech should bow to religious authority, when the fact is
freedom of expression means we have the right to blaspheme all we want. And it shouldn't be any other way.

The violent aftermath of the images,' publications, an aftermath that included the burning of churches and the death of people caught in the wake of the enraged mobs, lead several influential writers to sign a manifesto declaring the importance of freedom of speech.

Although a year old, the world hasn't changed much, so I am posting the manifesto here on the Atheist Handbook. Please take the time to read it. Add your own comments if you like or just repost it on your own blog or webpage. I won't comment further on the manifesto because it speaks for itself:

"After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism. We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.

The recent events, which occurred after the publication of drawings of Muhammed in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field. It is not a clash of civilisations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats.

Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations. The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose a liberticidal and unegalitarian world. But we clearly and firmly state: nothing, not even despair, justifies the choice of obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man’s domination of woman, the Islamists’ domination of all the others. To counter this, we must assure universal rights to oppressed or discriminated people.

We reject cultural relativism, which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical intelligence out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia”, an unfortunate concept which confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with stigmatization of its believers. We plead for the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical intellect may be exercised on all continents, against all abuses and all dogmas.

We appeal to democrats and free spirits of all countries that our century should be one of Enlightenment, not of obscurantism."

The original 12 signatories to this manifesto were
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Chahla Chafiq, Caroline Fourest, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Mehdi Mozaffari, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Antoine Sfeir, Philippe Val and Ibn Warraq.

More information can be found here

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sept. 24. Richard Dawkins Interview.

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses.
-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

During the run up to the Ontario provincial election I was doing the lion’s share of coverage for the St. Catharines Standard, the newspaper I work for.

It was a rather odd campaign, as far as these things go, because it become dominated by a single issue – the proposal by John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, to use tax dollars to fully fund faith based schools. What was odd about this was that this was not an issue on the public front burner when the writ was dropped. Indeed, the idea that this was a serious election would have been laughed at only a few months before. But the issue, manufactured thought it was, overshadowed everything else. Taxes, health care, transportation, the environment. All issues that were being talked about before the election played a second fiddle to the issue of faith based schools.

The original plan was to do a single comprehensive feature on the subject. And part of that feature was to look other places where public money is being directed at faith schools. As it happens, there were at least two places that could provide Ontarians with interesting case studies – British Columbia and the United Kingdom. When it came to the UK, I could think of no more fitting than Richard Dawkins to interview, and though his schedule is unsurprisingly busy, Prof. Dawkins took some time to talk to me about the issue.

But, as go the best laid plans of mice and men, the feature didn’t exactly pan out as planned. Space restrictions prevented me from writing the story as I had wanted and several bits were cut out. In order to save as much material from my interview with Prof. Dawkins and Jean Barman, a historian with the University of British Columbia, I wrote a second story exclusively focused on them.

But newspapers being what they are, I was unable to include the entire interview with Prof. Dawkins. Which was a pity as the content of the interview was great. So here is the transcript of the interview I did with Prof. Dawkins – an interview which began interestingly enough with him asking me a question, which nicely framed the entire discussion into its proper context:


Richard Dawkins: What is the current situation in Ontario?

Grant LaFleche: At present, the Ontario government funds a public, secular education system and a Catholic system. All other religiously based schools have to funded privately….

RD: Why Catholic?

GL: It goes back to the British North America Act that created the country. The act does not require a Catholic system, but allows for it.

RD: “So you are saying that Protestants don’t get government funding, but Catholics do…

GL: “Yes, that’s right.”

RD: “That’s bizarre.”

GL: It is bizarre, and that is one of the reasons one of the political parties is suggesting the extension of funding to other religious schools.

RD: Ah, ok. Yes.

GL: What is the current situation in the UK? Are there religious schools that receive public funding?

RD: For quiet some time there have been Protestant schools, Catholic schools, and I think Jewish schools which are partly funded by their respective churches and partly funded by with government aid. So there has long been such schools. And they represent most of the Christian denominations, plus Jews and what is going on now there is agitation from Muslims. It’s a kind of ‘me too’ agitation and it sounds like you’ve got the same problem. Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that the me-toos should all go, I mean all drop their faith affiliation, the government is sympathetic to the me-tooism saying well if the Christians have the faith schools the Muslims should get it too.

GL: Is there any way to determine at this point if this has had an impact on education, particularly around an issue like evolution which for some faith communities is very contentious?

RD: Up until recently I would have said no but there is some indication that the American disease of creationism is starting to infect British schools.

GL: What has this done to scientific education? The Christian schools I speak to here are very adamant about this. They want to teach creation, as early as grades 2, 3 and 4, and if they teach evolution is it taught as “just a theory.”

RD: My impression is even though you get a proper scientific education in British schools at a later age, young children are still taught the creation story. The people who lay down the national curriculum must know its nonsense, but somehow think its ok for children.

GL: Can you even teach something like science properly if a school say they have a theological objection to geology or biology or...

RD: Well of course you can’t teach it properly. It is a total and complete subversion of scientific education and a scandal when that happens.

GL: Why do suppose it is that the, as you call it, “America disease of creationism” has reached British schools, and I suppose somewhat to Canadian schools as well?

RD: Well, I have heard that about Canada and that is very worrying. I don’t have an explanation for it. It seems to be a wide spread infection. I guess we all of us get infected by what is going on in America sooner or later.

GL: Now, when I asked you previously about British religious schools you said that even a few years ago would you have said Anglican schools teach well…

RD: Yes. But even then I forgot to remember that young children were also taught about Noah’s Arc and Adam and Eve and that sort of thing. Not because, it seems, the teachers think it’s factually true but they just think it’s sort of what children ought to be taught as part of their culture I suppose.

GL: Does that have an impact on a student’s ability to learn fact based science later on? If you are a student who was brought up in a system that teaches you one thing in what we could elementary, jr. high and high school, and then toward the end they say tell you ‘Well, in fact things are much different that you were previously taught.”

RD: It’s a fascinating question. I'm just totally gob smacked because I've only just realized this is what elementary school children are being taught. I happen to be looking up the British national curriculum last week for a speech I am giving in Washington this coming week and I was astounded to find a whole big unit on Noah’s Arc.

The children are encouraged to discuss this aspect of Noah’s Arc and that aspect of Noah’s Arc. In a way it’s quiet educationally laudable. The children are encouraged to ask questions like “Would Noah have been frightened of the flood?” and “What do you think about the fact that God was willing to wipe out the whole of the world just because the people were sinful, except for Noah and his family?”

GL: Isn’t that a bit like counting the number of angels on a head a pin?

RD: Yes. It's teaching the children, in a sense, to think and to ask questions. But they are thinking and asking questions about things that are not factually true, which nobody seriously believes is factually true, and they never tell the children isn't true.

GL: What is the reaction to what you say about this from British citizens when they attend you lectures?

RD: Well what I am saying to you now about Noah’s Arc is brand new to me. What I usually talk about is the labeling of children, which has long been a bee in my bonnet. The description of a child as a Catholic child, or a Protestant child or a Jewish child or a Muslim child. I have long thought this is a form of mental child abuse because it ties a label around a child's neck that said what that child's opinions are on the universe, on life, on morality on humanity. The child of four or five is clearly much too young to have opinions on those things. And I used the analogy that you would never dream of talking about a Conservative child or a Liberal child or a Monetarist child or a Marxist child.

GL: Well, you just be laughed at.

RD: Of course you would. But you can talk about a Christian child.

GL: You mentioned this idea of “me-tooism” earlier. What’s your sense on how that is being regarded in the UK? Is something that is being accepted or not?

RD: Well, as you know, most people have a sense of fair play but they don’t think it through. They can see that it is unfair that there are Christian schools but hardly any Muslim schools but what they don’t see there are two ways of dealing with that. You can say “Ok, we’re going to make Muslim schools,” or you can say “Right, ok, we are going to scrap the Christian schools.” I think we should scrap the schools.

GL :One of the arguments here, when criticizing the idea of faith schools, is that once you fund the rainbow of religious schools you would end up segregating students from each other.

RD: That is a separate point and a very important one. It’s divisive. It’s discriminatory Even if the children are not systematically taught all Catholics are wicked or whatever the case may be, they get the idea there is a kind of them and us. That is an extremely evil thing to do to a child.

GL: What is the place in terms of public education for religion?

RD: I think you should teach comparative religion. Religion is a very important fact about human life, about anthropology about sociology, psychology and children need to know what it means to talk about Christianity, Islam, Roman Catholicism and so on. You can’t understand history without it. You cannot understand literature with out it. But what you must not do is teach a child you are a Catholic child you are a Muslim child.

GL: How should people who are concerned about this best raise this issue?

RD: Apart from voting and taking part in normally political activities like writing your member of parliament, what I talk about a lot is consciousness raising after the feminists. The feminists raised our consciousness about things like sex biased pro nouns. Its not that we have any law against talking about one man one vote, but when you do say that you feel awkward, you know you’ve said something people will object too. So consciousness has been raised. And I think we have to consciousness about the very phrase Catholic child or Muslim child and I think it can be done. I’m not quiet sure writing letters or interrupting someone who talks about a Christian child. “What do you mean a Christian child? Would you talk about a Keynesian child? What about a Republican child? Of course you wouldn’t.” I think if enough of us say that at dinner parties, letters to the editor and parent-teacher meetings we might raise consciousness in the same way the feminists raised our consciousness decades previous.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 1, continued

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?


When a old university friend of mine first encountered this famous, or infamous if you take your religion seriously, riddle from the Greek philosopher Epicurus on my Facebook page, she was, to put it midly, rather put out.

"This has to be one of the most narrow-minded quotes I've ever read," she said, and went on to explain that the god she believes in gave humans free choice and have the choice of doing what god wants or not. So if we use our free will for evil means, she argued, well there is not point in blaming god is there?

Of course, as passionately as she believes, my friend missed Epicurus's point entirely. He wasn't blaming god for evil. He was pointing out the inescapable paradox of the notion a god that the omniscient, omnipresent creator and ruler of everything in the universe who is also perfectly good. More simply put its the question evil, and Epicurus's little riddle hasn't been, in so far as I know, adequately answered by theists since he first suggested it. Far from blaming a god for evil, Epicurus was pointing out the absurdity of the notion of god (or gods). The very existence of evil makes an "all loving god" a logical contradiction.

This does strike right at the heart of Christianity morality as found in the Bible. "God is love" is a constant refrain among believers who regard the almighty as a benevolent source of all things that are good. Anything that isn't good simply isn't god's doing. Yet the texts themselves reveal a creature for whom the word "good" doesn't really apply even in the most liberal application of the term. True, in the New Testament god, through the figure of Jesus, only threatens humanity with eternal torture for the crime of not believing. But in the Old Testament, god is a bloody figure. He spends a great of his time murdering on a unspeakable scope. He commits global genocide at least once, order the wiping out of entire cities (save for the virgin women which his chosen people get the keep as slaves.) It is these acts of barbarism that would have made even the vicious Zeus flinch, that led Richard Dawkins to write in the God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Now, remember, Christians believe the god who asked Job to murder his son, who personally executed the first born sons of Eygpt, who drowned all life on earth, is the very same "god of love" of the New Testament. Frankly, once you read the Old Testament, and see its blood soaked theology, the claims of the New aren't important. I don't need to know anymore about the character of this god beyond the flippant disregard for human life in stories like Noah's Arc or Exodus.

Still, to play devil's advocate, if you'll forgive the phrase, lets concede for the moment that the Christian god isn't a blood thirsty manic with a desperate need to be worshiped. Lets assume he wouldn't murder anyone. Even then, Epicurus' riddle remains true. Because if god is all powerful and all loving, then he aught to prevent evil. But, if he exists, he doesn't. He allows it to flurish whenever and where it can.

This is a particular problem. For any decent person with even the slightest concern for their fellow bi-pedal mammals knows that a failure to prevent evil or suffering when it is in your means to do so, is an act of evil. If you walked past a person on the street bleeding to death which is the ethical choice? To stop and help or just to walk past? To walk past, to make that omission of action, is in of it itself an act of evil. This is also the god of Christian theology - the loving god with the power to stop evil, but refuses to do so. That is the kind of god that Epicurus called, correctly, malevolent.

Of course, there are comment arguments from theists, most of which revolved the free will argument my friend above offered. But how does free will result in a person being killed by a random lighting strike? Or an earthquake? Or a forest fire? We are at the mercy of natural forces that can, in an eye blink, wipe us out. If one believes the Christian notion of an all powerful ruler of the universe, then god can easily prevent the deaths of innocent people from such things. Yet he does not. This is no different than steeping over a bleeding person on the sidewalk. The lack of action is an act of evil.

Which brings us back to D'Souza's claim that morality cannot exist without god. Yet if you take the texts at their word, god frequently engages in behavior that is anything but moral. The old canard that says "God's morality is not man's", or as I like to put it, "thou shalt not kill unless god commands it," is simply an excuse and is, sententially or not, a justification for every horrible act one person can inflict upon another. The foundation of this morality, the morality that D'Souza would have us believe is the only thing keeping people from riping each other apart, is scrawled in human blood.

Yet in Epicurus we find not just a skeptic about the existence of supernatural dictators. He also offered up a morality and ethic grounded in human happiness - all without the directions of a cosmic king, thank you very much. Epicurus taught that the pursuit of happiness was the highest ethic ideal. Often misunderstood by the theist set as advocating rampant pleasure seeking, Epicurus was suggesting the absence of pain and suffering - a state of being he called ataraxia : a state free from worry and fear. (In fact, he explicitly warned against overindulgence precisely because it would cause suffering) So understand that we we seek pleasure for ourselves, and for others. This is a Greek permutation of what we now call "the golden rule." You do not inflict suffering on others because you do not wish it for yourself.

Epicurus, the great critic of very notion of god or gods (if they did exist, he thought, then they are utterly unconcerned with human affairs) also admitted slaves and women into his school of philosophy - rarity in that time and place - and advocated for a human egalitarianism.

The point behind all this is that D'Souza is correct when he says some Christians behave morality because they believe. But to say that morality is impossible without a god, and in particular without the god he believes in, is ridiculous.

In men such as Plato and even more so with others like Epicurus, we see a clear ethical and moral code that teaches doing good for its own sake, for helping those who need it, and avoiding inflicting harm on others. All done without a reference to cosmic god who is always watching, judging and ready to punish. Rather it is human beings struggling with the contradictions of our nature, and find a way to live what the Greeks would have called "the good life."

Long time men lay oppressed with slavish fear.
Religious tyranny did domineer.
At length the mighty one of Greece.
Began to assert the liberty of man.

Lucretius, an ode to Epicurus

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 1

The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that with the success of the atheist and anti-theist books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others, that believers would feel an obligation to strike back.

The faithful, particularly in our society in the west, often like to portray themselves as a prosecuted lot. This is particularly true of religious conservatives who imagine any statement that disagrees with their theology is a declaration of war. So we get the annual canard of the "war on Christmas" promoted by the likes of Bill O'Rielly on Fox News, or the recent call for a boycott of the upcoming film The Golden Compass by the Catholic League in New York on the grounds that atheism ought not be taught to children. These spastic attacks on non-belief betray, I think, a fundamental insecurity. They need, badly, everyone to conform to their belief systems. If an alternative view exists that opens the door to the possibility that they are wrong, and that seems to scare the hell out of them.

So a cottage industry has grown up in the shadow of the success of what is sometimes called "New Atheism." I've lost track of out many books have been published as responses to Dawkin's "The God Delusion" and Harris' "Letter to Christian Nation." Most of these books are fairly vapid and fail to answer the questions raised by Dawkins, Harris and others. Maybe that is why so many of them use the atheist author's names in their titles ( "The Dawkins Delusion" and "Letter from a Christian Citizen" for example) and even ape the layout of the book covers. Most of the time, these books simply fall back on tried old theist arguments from design and, more often than not, a variation of "the bible is true because the bible says it is."

More intellectually interesting responses do exist, fortunately. The ones I find the most interesting is presented by American Christian conservative Dinesh D'Souza, whose recent book "What's So Great About Christianity?" is the first attempt I am aware of to try and meet New Atheism on its own ground.

Unlike equally impressive theist thinkers like Alstair McGrath, D'Souza tries to use the same tools modern atheism uses - namely reason, logic, and scientific thinking. McGrath, for this all his brilliance, tends to fall back arguments that say "What I want say is there is SOMETHING about Christianity that we MUST pay attention too." Well, no we don't and that isn't much of an argument.

D'Souza on the other hand often lays out his arguments, at least initially, without directly quoting scripture. He doesn't present a nebulous "something" we should pay attention to. He is presenting a definite something, a kind of concrete Christianity that he argues from. This may be why he is, to my knowledge, the only apologist to hold his own against the formidable Hitchens in debate:

Of course, it's much harder to pin down a McGrath type argument because there isn't much there to grab. D'Souza presents claims that can be more directly scrutinized. And it should be, because D'Souza is presenting arguments that need to be careful considered.

During this debate with Hitchens, held at Christian college, D'Souza lays out his case as to why Christianity is "great". And while he presents his case with vigor, his mining of history is selective and at times, demonstrably false. And so while his claims as being the strongest defender of the faith in the wake of the atheism that Hitchens has played a role in reviving and promoting is not completely without merit, D'Souza certainly does not "debunk" atheism or prove the case the Christianity is true.

I'm going to address a few of the claims D'Souza makes during the Hitchens debate to illustrate what I mean. Here I will address his claim that without god we cannot be moral, and without Christian morals in particular Western Society would never have developed.

In part two I'm going to meet his claim that the Christian world view, and it alone, made science possible.

And in part three, I will address his contention that democracy is essentially a Christian invention - that is without Christianity there would no democracy at all.

....God, morality and an ring of invisibility....

"Without god everything is permissible," often appears in D'Souza's blogs and he repeats it in interviews and debates, including his debate with Hitchens. He sources it, as most people do, to the famous Russian author
Fyodor Dostoevsky, and specifically his book The Brothers Karamazov. Unfortunately for D'Souza, and others who constantly say "As Dostoevsky said...", the old Russian didn't actually write that.

Characters in the novel do express that exact sentiment while questioning whether or not god exists. But using that specific line as a direct quotation is incorrect. Moreover, Dostoevsky puts the words into the mouths of his characters and it isn't clear that Dostoevsky, a hard core rationalist, believed such a thing. Indeed the novel itself makes no authoritative claim about the existence or non-existence of god.
Dostoevsky, who to a degree mocks believe in god in the story, leaves the question unresolved.

So for an apologetic like D'Souza to attempt to use the novel as some kind of simplistic and authoritative declaration that morality is impossible without god,
and imply that was Dostoevsky's personal view, is strange indeed.

Nevertheless, the phrase, misquoted though it is, does sum up D'Souza's position nicely. Morality comes from god. And if god didn't exist - and by god he means the god he happens to worship - then there is nothing to keep human beings in line. Human nature, from this point of view, is fundamentally weak and people will behave immorally without the guiding hand of a supernatural being who can punish and reward.

This is not a particularly new argument. It's one of the oldest declarations by fiat made by theism generally and Christianity in particular. But D'Souza take the argument a step further and claims, as he does during the Hitchen's debate, that without Christianity the West wouldn't be able to behave morally. That is, Christianity brought morality to us. He makes this claim forcefully in several ways, particularly when discussing the foundations of modern democracy, human rights and so on. I'll discuss more of this specifically in part three (where we'll talk a little bit out historical context) but here the critical point is that D'Souza is saying that the West would not have morality but for the faith.

To put it all another way, without god, the argument goes, we humans decide our morality ourselves. Hence the phrase "anything is permissible." Without god if I say raping a child is good, then it's good. There is nothing to contain every nasty impulse a human being has. One imagines, through this lens, that the pre-Christian world was a barbaric place where no one cared about morality at all.

Well, can we test his claim out? If his claim is true, there should be nothing akin to doing good for it's own sake, or philosophy that discussed a godless origin to universal morality before the Christian era. Well, how could there be? The idea here is that Christianity brought a moral code that had never existed before.

So I present Exhibit A: Glaucon.

No I didn't just sneeze. Glaucon was the older brother of Greek philosopher Plato and it is through a discussion between the pair in Plato's famous Republic that we find a Christainless, and godless explanation for morality.

The books is primarily concerned with one question: "What is justice?" and Plato, through the character of Socrates, takes the long way around to presenting an answer.

In the course of a conversation Glaucon gives us a description that I rather suspect D'Souza would agree with if god is taken out of the question. Glaucon tells a story about the a magic ring, the Ring of Gyges that can turn it's wearer invisible. Thus armed, the possessor of the ring can do whatever they want. No one will be able to punish them. Glaucon is making the case that people are ONLY just when their fear punishment. (Rather like the Christians who say that people are only good because they know god is watching.) With the ring all things are premissible, and human beings being weak as they are, will behave unjustly whenever the chance to do arises.

So to take this analogy to our present discussion, using the Ring of Gyges is like living in D'Souza's world without a god. Everything is premissible.

Socrates though, takes a rather dim view of this. He argued that what is just is an innate quality of human nature. To act unjustly is, ultimately, to act against oneself. When reason rules over our impulses, he said, we keep ourselves in check. As a result, one does good things because they are good. You act justly for its own sake. So the truly just man doesn't need the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. The just man would not use the Ring of Gyges for ill gain, Socrates said, BECAUSE it is unjust.

I recommend you read the Republic in its entirety because what Plato was saying is critically important. If morality only exists because someone enforces it, then it isn't really moral at all.

So here is a pre-Christian line of thought that suggests a very ethical and moral philosophy, doing good for its own sake, that does not require a god at all. Indeed the imposition of a divine morality would, by this view, cease to make it moral. The very existence of Plato's Republic dashes the notion that morality, by definition, is Christian.

Of course, we all know that morality is not absolute. It evolves. Nearly all societies in the past thought slavery, torture and various other abuses were prefectly fine at some level or another. This includes Christianity, by the by. But as society matures and grows things change. What Richard Dawkins calls "the moral zeitgiest" changes.

D'Souza is correct when he points, for instance, that the Quakers used their belief that all men are equal creations of god as a justification to attack the institution of slavery. But what he leaves out is that the Quakers were a sectarian anomaly. Most believers of the day had no problem at all with slavery because the Bible itself contains no injunction against it. Graven images have a specific commandment banning them, but no such rule for slavery. Not surprising given the book was assembled during a period when slavery was as common place as breathing. It takes Enlightenment era Quakers to reinterpret the Bible, ignoring bits like St. Paul telling slaves to obey their Christian masters, to come a moral conclusion that slavery is wrong. Can we really discount the era these Quakers lived in, an era where the ideas secular humanism and the rule law are reborn in their modern sense? To view them in a kind of religious vacuum is, I submit, foolish.

What's my point after all of this? While I agree with him on most things, I will not go as far as Hitchens to say religion "poisons everything." There are enough examples of religiously motivated people doing good to say "everything" goes a bit too far. But that said, when one considers the great moral acts of people like the Quakers necessitated a drastic reinterpretation of the texts, D'Souza's notion that morality comes from Christianity is rather suspect. Rather believers will pick and choose their morality just like everyone else.

I think Plato was right. While it is very difficult to know the exact origins of our sense of morality (although we know much about it from an evolutionary point of view) there is something of an innate sense of morality in all of us. But it is a vague thing, easily changed by cultural influences. So it is not that Christianity created morality, but that it was used by some in a highly selective manner as justification for their morality. So wherever our moral sense comes from, it doesn't come from religion - particularly a religion which claims to be the sole source of an immutable morality.

The question of right and wrong, of how to treat ourselves and others, has been around in Western culture long before anyone heard about a carpenter's kid preaching in the Holy Land. It is something we still struggle with today, and is far bigger than any declaration of faith.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nobody expects...the Iowaian Inquisition??

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Sinclair Lewis

You know, I would normally rant about this for at least 2,000 words....and I probably will later. But its 2a.m. and this particular issue just honks me off so much I want to scream. The Inquisition is alive and well in Iowa and the Inquisitors all look like lawyers and moronic administrators.

The following is reposted from the DesMoines Register. It pretty much speaks for itself. If you won't say there was such a thing as talking snakes, you might get fired.

Teacher: I was fired, said Bible isn't literal

by Megan Hawkins, Des Moines Register

The community college instructor says the school sided with students offended by his explanation of Adam and Eve.

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

"I'm just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master's degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job," Bitterman said.

Sarah Smith, director of the school's Red Oak campus, declined to comment Friday on Bitterman's employment status. The school's president, Barbara Crittenden, said Bitterman taught one course at Southwest. She would not comment, however, on his claim that he was fired over the Bible reference, saying it was a personnel issue.

"I can assure you that the college understands our employees' free-speech rights," she said. "There was no action taken that violated the First Amendment."

Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha's Metropolitan Community College, said he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.

Bitterman's Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was "denigrating their religion."

"I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn't given any more credibility than any other god," Bitterman said. "I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there."

Bitterman said he called the story of Adam and Eve a "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney. He declined to identify any of the students in the class.

"I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here," he said. "From my point of view, what they're doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century."

Hector Avalos, an atheist religion professor at Iowa State University, said Bitterman's free-speech rights were violated if he was fired simply because he took an academic approach to a Bible story.

"I don't know the circumstances, but if he's teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn't be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve," Avalos said.

"So it'd be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.

"You don't fire professors for giving you a scientific answer."

Bitterman said Linda Wild, vice president of academic affairs at Southwest, fired him over the telephone.

Wild did not return telephone or e-mail messages Friday. Bitterman said that he can think of no other reason college officials would fire him and that Smith, the director of the campus, has previously sat in on his classes and complimented his work.

"As a taxpayer, I'd like to know if a tax-supported public institution of higher learning has given veto power over what can and cannot be said in its classrooms to a fundamentalist religious group," he said. "If it has ... then the taxpaying public of Iowa has a right to know. What's next? Whales talk French at the bottom of the sea?"

Reporter Megan Hawkins can be reached at (515) 284-8169 or

Monday, September 3, 2007

Facts Matter

“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes”
- Jawaharlal Nehru

On occasion, I post a video blog on Youtube. Typically, it is not much different in tone or style than what I present there on the Atheists Handbook.

Back in June I posted this video addressing the myth that western democracies were founded upon "Judeo-Christian" principles. The thrust of m
y argument, which I will discuss in further detail in a moment, is that western societies in fact were NOT founded on religious ideas at all. That our constitutions are secular, and secular for very good reasons. And that neither our laws, our courts, or our governments are in any way religious institutions or founded on religious ideas. In the video, I asked believers to explain why it is they seem to believe that Canada or the United States are in fact founded on religious ideas. Where, I asked, in the bible do you find anything about democracy?

Well, the response I got from believers was bland to say the least. But then I am not the most popular Youtuber, as they're called. I have only a few videos and a handful of subscribers. Those who agreed with me chimed in, but the the faithful remained silent. Until recently.

I received a reply from a person who goes by the handle of "Sman54" and he posted a
reply to my video that reads:
The question about the judeo christian society thing.
Here's my answer, and i believe it to be 99.999999999% true.
Democracy is based on Judaism, believe it or not. Judaism started the idea that the human should be blamed for his wrong doings. Back then, they blamed everything on the roman, greek, w/e gods who say they suduced the person into doing something bad. The jews basically came along and said "no, it's the humans fault and he should be punished rightfully so." Judaism is Christianity but with a few different ideas, same with Islam, except Judaism is over 3,000 years older. The ten commandments are on the top of the supreme court, if you haven't noticed, everything from judaism is from christianity. That's why they say judeo-christian, the golden rule, sin, heaven, all that is judaism, christianity just popularized it, i guess.

That little pop you just heard in your head was part of your higher reasoning center overloading and burning out.

According to this fellow, democracy is a creation of an
cient Hebrew people because non-Jews were stomping about blaming gods who seduced them into doing wicked deeds:

"Hey man, don't blame me for sleeping with your wife, Zesus made me do it."

"Oh, I see. Well, jolly good then. I will go through stones at the Temple of Zesus..."

The Jewish people, on the other hand, took responsibility for their transgressions and changed the zietgiest from chaos to self restrained order. Then came the Christians who through some kind of slick marketing campaign (Jesus R' Us?) made the ideas popular. And then came George Washington and the rest is history!

Although Sman54 believes this is "99.9999999%" true, and was likely being honest about his thoughts on the matter, he is just plainly damn wrong. He is not even close to being right. He is wronger than the BeeGees playing at Hendrix tribute concert.

It is actually fairly staggering any believer would say that, given the contents of the bible. There isn't a single free nation ever described in the new or old testaments. There are lots of kings, emperors, despots, and even Xerxes shows up once. God himself spends an i
nordinate amount of time threatening, bullying and harassing people, and when that bored him, he went round butchering men, women and children. Heck, the bible even supports the keeping of slaves, and the new testament counsels slaves NOT to rebel against their masters. But never a word about a free society. Never a mention of constitution, or rights and responsibilities, or the right to choose for one self.

The idea that democracy and the idea of personal responsibility was an invention of the people who first cooked up the stories of the old testament is more ridiculous than the fundamentalist view of how the human species developed from only two people. (see the diagram to the right)

Of course, the facts of history tell us a much different story, no matter how much believers wish it were otherwise.

We trace democracy back not to ancient Jews, but to ancient Greeks. The idea that the rights of citizens can be defined not by a holy book, but in constitutional law was first dreamed up by the Spartans, and we still carry a bit of their ideals with us today.

But it was the Athenians who really went radical over the whole idea. They booted out the tyrants, and set about electing their own leaders. Decisions were made, not in a throne room or by some group of religious fathers whose sole qualifications were that they understood the local scribblings of supernatural things, but by the people themselves in open political debate.

It's true the Athenian democracy was not as free as ours. Citizenship was something of an exclusive club. Women and slaves could not vote. And to keep anyone from amassing to much power, Athenains held a popularity contest every so often that would exile someone for a period of ten years. In effect they were "voting people off the island" long before anyone heard of Mark Burrnett. (In fact, it is from Athens that we get the word "ostracize")

Democracy was never a religious institution. It wasn't in Athens. It wasn't in the Roman Republic. And it wasn't when the entire idea was reborn during the Enlightenment. Democracy has always been non-religious, and that is how it is today able to provide freedom of and from religion.

And of course, democracy comes with something else. Personal responsibility. Voting itself is a powerful act of personality responsibility. Democracy is founded upon the idea that we act, all of us, for the collective good. Our responsibility is to ourselves and our fellow citizens.

On the other hand, the
Judeo-Christian outlook places fate in the hands of the sky god. This is particularly true of Christianity, and even more true of Christian fundamentalism. Your first responsibility is to the god of choice, not to your neighbors. And by "believing" your sins get washed away. There is a reason evangelicals like to say "not all good people go to heaven, and not all bad people go to hell." (this means, that faith is the most important thing, not actions. An evil bastard who turns to the bible and becomes a believer, from this point of view, is heaven bound regardless of what they have done. Meanwhile, a non-believer who spent his or her life helping others is doomed to hell for his crime of disbelief.)

Judaism, Christianity and Islam thrive rather well in dictatorships. Not surprising since all three religions were born in parts of the world in the grips of totalitarian regimes. Political freedom wasn't even on the agenda.

So if history tells us that democracy was not Jewish, was pre-Christian and was not in any sense a religious institution, why do some of the faithful today claim that it is? I suspect is it for crass political reasons. This was something created by those with a more theocratic rather than democratic agendas. Because you cannot find in our constitution or laws, any references to their god, their commandments or other scriptural doctrines, it is pretty hard to get people worked up. But if you tell them the nation was based on their interpretation of their faith and the evil heathens are taking it all away, well it becomes much easier to get them to froth at the mouth.

It is the national myth of what Michelle Goldberg calls "Christian Nationalism" in the United States - a kind of twisted historical revisionism which interprets all events through a particular religious lens, all determined to prove that their sectarian view is the only "correct" one and they should rule. (If you have not read Goldberg's book "Kingdom Coming" I highly recommend it.) Fact don't matter to this group any more than they do to any other historical revisionists. It is just dishonest and it twists or even ignores facts. How else can you come up with a statement like emocracy is based on Judaism."

But as the man says, facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes. Smart man that Nehru. India's first prime minister. We need more politicians like him.

The problem of course, is that the more these revisionists push, the more our politicians give ground for their votes. And the more we lose touch with the facts of our past. And if we do that, if we lose where democracy came from and why, we lose a piece of ourselves.

Facts matter