Sep 25, 2007

When Wars Were Worth Fighting

There are several things I've wanted to write about, but in the last couple of days I've been spending most of my free time watching The War. Normally I don't watch TV, but for a Ken Burns documentary I'll always make an exception.

Small Steps

I made it on the blogroll at Pharyngula. Yes, I know, that's easier than getting on the "do not call" list, but every small step forward is important on the way to acquiring a critical mass of readers.

(Of course, now that I mentioned "acquiring a critical mass", I've probably made some NSA or FBI list as well...)

Sep 21, 2007

Conversation With Ed Brayton

Looks like I struck a nerve just enough and not too much: Ed Brayton wrote a long response to my previous post. It is a good response; he holds no punches, but doesn't hit below the waist. I think we have a decent conversation going, and, naturally, I disagree with various points he makes, so here goes my response. I'll address it directly to Ed, in second person. You (Ed) wrote:
The fact that it's "exactly like Dawkins" hardly changes my disagreements with Dawkins on the broader picture, especially on that subject. What human being, even someone deeply religious, would not agree with the statement that "religion provides a structure for people to divide into opposing camps, define themselves by membership in a camp, and kill the members of the other camp"? For crying out loud, Pat Robertson would have to agree with that statement; it's too bloody obvious for anyone to deny.

That's far from clear. Maybe Pat Robertson would say that all of those divisions and killing would be avoided if all people chose the right religion. Some religious people certainly would. Some others, not necessarily religious, would say that religion is incidental to those divisions, with no relevant role in generating them. Not Dawkins; he says religion is central to some of the world's most dangerous divisions. You seem to agree, at least with respect to Irish history. My point was that this is not a trivial agreement.
More importantly, it's not really a counter-argument to the claim that religion benefits the community. Only the staggeringly simple-minded think that there is a single simple answer to the question of whether religion benefits the community.

We agree here; the differences are purely semantic. So it isn't a counter-argument; it is a contrary statement that must be included for a truthful description.
Just as it is absurd to pretend that religion has nothing but positive effects, it's equally absurd to pretend that it has nothing but negative effects.

Right, but the symmetry is broken in American reality. The former pretense is the norm of public discourse, while the latter is considered impolite and offensive. In recent years, several authors have tried to rectify this unjustified asymmetry by giving public voice to the "impolite" side. Although such expression has a long tradition in America, from Tom Paine to Robert Green Ingersoll to H. L. Mencken, its recent professors have been called "new atheists".
Neither the name nor the classification seem very meaningful, but it has caught on, mainly because some other atheists have emphatically distanced themselves from this ill-defined group. And a similar division has arisen among those who defend science education from creationist subversion. I had implied that the two camps differ in how diplomatic they are; you say I am wrong:
The distinction between the two camps has nothing to do with being diplomatic; there is a serious, substantive disagreement between the two camps.

I am sure there are substantive disagreements, but I doubt that the flame wars and personal attacks on blogs can be explained that way. I think people tend to be much better at sorting out substantive disagreements than some barely perceptible character incompatibilities. It is also significant that the deepest hostilities arise between fellow nonbelievers and not between a believer and an atheist, who would tend to have deeper substantive disagreements.
I have one and only one concern and that is what is true. If I think an idea is absurd, I obviously have no problem whatsoever slamming it in very blunt language.

OK, but PZ Myers could have written the same thing. And Dawkins could have (and probably has) written the same first sentence. (He doesn't use "very blunt language", FWIW.) If you don't agree on what is true, perhaps it would be worth figuring out how to resolve the disagreements.
it is about the substantive question of whether religion itself - as opposed to the many stupid or repulsive beliefs within religion - is inherently absurd or dangerous. It isn't that I don't think it's diplomatic to call belief in God a delusion; it's that I honestly don't think it's delusional to believe in God.

The wisdom of Stephen Hawking's retort "I do not answer God questions" is validated if one observes that "God questions" are full of semantic traps that look like substantive issues. Is it possible that much of your disagreement is semantic? Both "religion" and "delusion" are used with so many meanings and shades of meanings that it is extremely easy for two people to talk about them and talk completely past each other, because they don't have common definitions of words.
Dawkins takes steps at the beginning of his book to avoid such misunderstanding, clarifying that he does not use "delusion" in a technical, psychiatric sense, and that the "religion" he is talking about does not include systems of belief, such as Unitarian-Universalist, with no doctrine about supernatural entities. But that may not be enough to avoid misunderstanding completely. After all, Sam Harris, another "new atheist", targets "faith" but not "religion"; in his understanding, "religion" requires neither dogma nor the supernatural. It may be that one has to write an entire book just to define one's terms enough to avoid most misunderstandings.
Now, there are particular conceptions of God that I think are inherently ridiculous and I criticize those ideas here every day.

I agree. But once you take that position, you ought to allow that it is not unreasonable to hold a similar position with a different threshold of ridiculousness. It is also not necessarily true that more ridiculous ideas lead to more dangerous behavior. I've sided with Cal Thomas against Hillary Clinton intellectually, but if I had to choose one of them to make important decisions, it's slam dunk for Hillary.
there are also beautiful, inspiring and, yes, true ideas to be found in religion as well.

Dawkins must hold the same view; if he didn't, then his strong support for teaching the Bible in schools - as literature, of course - would make no sense.
Just as religion can motivate almost unspeakable barbarism, it can also inspire great kindness. For every bigot quoting Leviticus to justify beating up gays, there's someone like my stepmother, a fundamentalist Christian who, while she believes homosexuality to be a sin, nonetheless spent years taking care of my uncle while he was dying of AIDS. And she did that because she takes seriously Jesus' words, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me also."

That is clearly evidence that your stepmother is a good and kind person, but it is only circumstantial evidence for the positive role of religion. Like every Christian, your stepmother cherry-picked the parts of the Bible that suited her. (It is impossible to avoid cherry-picking because the Bible is too diverse and self-contradictory.) You dismiss the bigotry of Leviticus as if it was struck out of the Bible like the "3/5 of a person" abomination was struck out of the Constitution. But it was not; Leviticus is no less sacred to Christianity than the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (which, BTW, ends with a threat of eternal punishment, but OK, let's limit it to your quote). Your stepmother was driven by the latter because it fit her kind personality. But it does not follow that her religion caused her kind deeds. What role, if any, religion plays in that, is not a well-understood topic currently. (Note that the moral metaphors by themselves are not religion, in the sense Dawkins uses the word, without supernatural origin and retribution after death. Religious inspiration is presumably qualitatively different from inspiration from poetry.)
I simply know too many brilliant, well-educated people who believe in God to say that belief in God is an indication that someone lacks intelligence.

That's a straw man. Nobody relevant has ever made such a claim.
I've known too many good Christian people who spend their lives feeding the homeless, taking care of foster children and orphans, hiding political dissidents from death squads, etc, to believe that religion is uniformly bad.

And that is non sequitur. There are many good religious people (just as there are many good nonreligious people). That doesn't mean that religion made them good. It may have; but any such statements are mere conjectures at this point.
To give one obvious example, at the same time that some in the Catholic hierarchy were cooperating with the Nazis, hundreds of brave priests and nuns were hiding Jewish families from them, risking their own lives in the process. And I don't see how stupid arguments from creationists or vile statements from anti-gay bigots cancels that out.

And I don't see what there is to cancel out. Again you have people doing good deeds; and you and I agree that they are good deeds based on secular criteria. They may have been motivated by religion, but that is speculative. However, I challenge you to try to explain how the persecution of Jews would ever have happened without religion, Christianity in particular. Antisemitism is probably the most readily identifiable negative consequence of Christianity.
It simply doesn't have to be "religion is good" or "religion is bad"; religion is both.

Sure, but you can say that about everything. Love. Death. Democracy. Fascism. It means nothing without assigning it some value on the (possibly multidimensional) good-bad continuum. Which way does the balance tip?
And we can criticize all of those bad things and the ridiculous arguments used to rationalize them away without advocating, as PZ did recently, the "obliterating of religion."

Yes, we can, but what makes one approach inherently better than the other? Assuming that the balance tips toward "bad", would it not be reasonable to at least consider the desirability of disappearance of religion? (It wouldn't necessarily be desirable, it might still be better to preserve religion in a "safe, legal, and rare" form.)

As you see, we have considerable disagreements, probably many of them substantive. But I don't think you are an idiot or a dangerous person and you probably don't think I am. I don't think your opinions should be censored and I can't imagine you'd think mine should. Maybe this discussion can serve as a catalyst for ceasefire in some other web disagreements. As the commenter Sastra wrote on your blog about you and PZ:
But I love them both and want them make nice to each other. Won't hold my breath, though.

Perhaps Sastra and I can start a petition?

Sep 20, 2007

Ed Brayton is "New"!

Or should I say "fundamentalist"? Or "evangelist"? Whichever misnomer you choose to describe atheists outspoken in criticism of religion, like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris or PZ Myers (But what about H. L. Mencken or Robert Green Ingersoll?), this post looks like it was written by one of "those people":
Talk about leaving out relevant information. Well yes, Christianity has certainly been a huge influence on Irish culture for centuries, but that hardly tells the full story. Making that vague statement without pointing out that two brands of Christianity have been murdering each other for much of that time is a lot like whitewashing the truth.

That's exactly like Dawkins warning that religion provides a structure for people to divide into opposing camps, define themselves by membership in a camp, and kill the members of the other camp. It would be a one-sided argument if taken out of context, but not if used (as by Dawkins and Brayton) as a counterargument to the dominant/prevailing/background argument that religion benefits the community. As Brayton points out, it is a necessary part of the whole truth.

I am glad to see Brayton arguing like Dawkins because I think he made a mistake when he declared himself to be a member of... well, the opposing camp:
I am firmly a member of the first group, as are the vast majority of those I work with on this issue. Genie Scott, Rob Pennock, Wes Elsberry, Nick Matzke, Jack Krebs and nearly everyone I consider colleagues in this regard recognize that the dispute is over evolution and creationism, not over theism and atheism. But some, like Larry Moran, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Gary Hurd and others, are involved in an entirely different battle. For them, it's not enough to protect science education from the attacks of some religious people; religion itself, in any form, is to be attacked and destroyed by any means necessary.

I thin Brayton's self-classification is a mistake not only because I tend to think that Dawkins has the better arguments than the "appeasers", but also because Brayton - much like Larry Moran or PZ Myers - is temperamentally not suited for charming the religious, so he can be more effective if he doesn't try. He is quick to call some types of religious arguments idiotic, and he is usually right, but the division among anti-creationists is not about who is right (they all are), but who is diplomatic. And Ed is not diplomatic, which, BTW, is one of the reasons I read his blog.

UPDATE: Ed Brayton responds here.

Sep 13, 2007

L'Shana Tova!

For 5768 years, the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea have been fighting over the question: Who invented humor? The Jews or the English? I think this may settle the issue. Happy New Year to all my Jewish friends!

Do Religious People Give More, Or Just Lie More?

PZ Myers responds to an article by Jonathan Haidt which starts out great, but segues into a rant against "New Atheists". It is interesting to read both articles as well as comments. One of the many points of contention was this:
Haidt says that "surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,"

PZ offers plausible, but speculative, counterpoints before pointing out that such results, even if true, are irrelevant to the issue of whether religion is true. He also correctly points at the inconsistency of justifying Christianity (which is the de facto dominant American religion) on hedonistic and utilitarian grounds.

Still, I was curious about those surveys, particularly because Haidt accused none other than Daniel Dennett, the most cautious of the "New Atheists", of willfully ignoring evidence and of thinking morally under the guise of thinking scientifically:
I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Thankfully, a commenter critical of PZ provided a link to Brooks' own summary of that study. Another commenter linked to a mild criticism of Brooks on The Volokh Conspiracy. But there is a lot more to criticize!

Brooks' definition of "secular", based entirely on infrequent religious service attendance, includes 26% of the total sample. The most optimistic numbers I've seen for nonreligious in any poll are around 14%, which means that about half (and possibly more) of the so-called "secular" were in fact religious people who rarely or never attend services. Those probably differ significantly from the nonreligious, so which subgroup is driving the results? (RT) has an analysis of false self-reporting of attendance cites sources that estimate that, although about 40% Americans report that they attend services weekly, only 20% actually do. Brooks counts 33% of his sample among the "religious" based on weekly attendance; it would thus appear that a third of those are only included because they lied.

Even more interestingly, the RT page cites Barna Group data that, while 17% report giving 10% or more of their income to their church, only 3% actually do. So we know from previous studies that self-reported giving is exaggerated. The usual explanation is that people say they do what they think they should do, not what they actually do. If the religious have a stronger sense that they should give more than they do, they will exaggerate their giving more.

I think that's enough to invalidate any conclusions from Brooks' study, but, as a general rule, whenever you see a policy paper, don't forget to check the sources and the context. This was published by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. It is true that Hoover is more credible than Heritage and AEI - not everyone at Hoover is a hack - but keep in mind that Dinesh D'Souza is a fellow there. As a further clue to author's bias, note that Brooks approvingly quotes Robert Bork and Irving Kristol. I must say I would have more confidence in honesty and objectivity of a Vatican study on the same topic.

In light of such glaring problems with Brooks' study, I wonder how Haidt can honestly write
These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature.

He was addressing Dennett's statement that "[c]ertainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows" that "as a group atheists and agnostics are [less] respectful of the law, [less] sensitive to the needs of others, or [less] ethical than religious people." Well, I have proven above that Brooks' study is not reliable, so Haidt is the one not thinking scientifically when he uses it as evidence against Dennett.

Sep 7, 2007

This Is What My Soul Looks Like

Yes, I am a Pullman fan. Meet my daemon:

UPDATE: Hmmm... when I posted this, my Theonilla was a chimp; as I write this, she is a sparrow. I hope she settles in a silly form, not a cute one.
UPDATE 2: A sparrow, huh? No way. Captain Jack Sparrow, perhaps?