Robyn Blumner on truth and humanism

December 3, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I didn’t know that the Center for Inquiry (CFI) magazine Free Inquiry was online, but it is. And reader Nicole sent me a link to this article by Robyn Blumner, CEO of the CFI—an institution with a long history of fighting for humanism and secularism—as well executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Each of those organizations is a rara avis: a liberal organization that has not caved in to the woke “progressives”. (I keep getting tsouris, in the form of chastising emails, for using the word “woke”.)  Here we see Robyn taking out after the tendency of some Leftists to efface or hide the truth, and explaining why humanists above all should care about the truth.

Click on the screenshot to read (there are footnotes and references in the original text):

I’ll give a few quotes, but realize that I’m not scratching Robyn’s back because she scratched mine. It’s a good piece, and counteracts the woke “progressive” excesses of organizations like the ACLU (which Robyn used to work for).  Excuse my blushing here.

But the truth is under a sustained assault right now, and secular humanists need to stand up for it, even when that is hard.

It was relatively easy for most of us to condemn the allergic-to-truth rantings of former President Donald Trump. His lies were so transparent and prodigious that anyone outside the MAGA-verse could easily see through them. Many of us collectively recoiled at the reality-distortions he spun and how they were lapped up with religious-like zeal by his followers.

There are plenty of examples of how America’s right wing is a danger to truth-seeking institutions and standards. That is not what I want to focus on.

Because there is also truth-slaying happening in progressive circles generally in the name of social justice. And because so many secular humanists lean toward liberalism, it is here that we need to shine a light and, frankly, stop the insanity.

Agreed. So don’t give me tsouris for calling out the Left! Read on, though I’ve redacted one word in the first sentence below.

I commend to everyone Jerry Coyne’s terrific blog website Why Evolution Is True (https://whyevolutionistrue.com/), which you can subscribe to for free. An emeritus biology professor at the University of Chicago and a classical liberal himself, Coyne has been closely following the excesses and illiberalism of the woke Left.

There is no more stark example than the ways science has been twisted to conform to a social justice agenda.

Coyne describes the controversy in New Zealand where there is an official government effort underway to equate the indigenous Maori system of knowledge called “Matauranga” with the scientific methods of conventional Western science and that this different way of knowing be taught in science classes.

An appalled biology colleague of Coyne’s in New Zealand described some of the god stories of the Matauranga: “Tane the god of the forest is said to be the creator of humans, and of all plants and creatures of the forest. Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.”

There is some practical knowledge as part of the Matauranga, but much of its “science” is laden with superstitions, story-telling, and myths.

An obvious parallel is the teaching of creationism in science classes in the United States, which humanists reasonably decry as the injection of religion into a secular subject. As Richard Dawkins bluntly stated in a tweet on the issue: “Equally daft case for teaching Viking ‘ways of knowing’ in Norwegian science classes, Druid ‘ways of knowing’ in British science classes … Navajo, Kikuyu, Yanomamo ‘ways of knowing’ etc. All different. Truths about the universe don’t depend on which country you are in.”

Truth must be of higher value for secular humanists than acceding to equity demands from a minority group, no matter how sympathetic to them we may be.

Note that Richard will be visiting New Zealand last year, and the “other-ways-of-knowing” people are already sharpening their knives, for he enraged them by weighing in when the spineless Royal Society of New Zealand defended Matauranga Māori as being a valid “way of knowing”. Richard sent them an excoriating letter and also wrote to “New Zealand friends of science and reason.” It will be a magnificent clash between the eloquence of Dawkins and the determination of those who want to valorize an indigenous “way of knowing” that is largely legend, superstition, and religion.

But wait! There’s more from Robyn:

A prime [example] of science under siege by the social justice police—those who seek to impose their own view of social justice at the expense of free inquiry and the open-ended search for the truth—is in behavioral genetics. It’s a field that could not be more fraught. Any scientist who chooses to enter it risks being called a eugenicist or racist.

She goes on to praise Kathryn Paige Harden’s book on behavioral genetics, a book I praised in the WaPo for taking on the subject, but also criticized for not specifying how we can use genetics to achieve “equity”.

And one more bit. How often do you read stuff like this in the newsletter of a liberal humanist organization? I can’t think of any group, including the FFRF, that would say stuff like this (Blumner even goes after her old organization, the ACLU):

Then there is the current most radioactive subject of all: What medical interventions are appropriate for minors who may be suffering from gender dysphoria? This is a medical question with immense consequences, and the correct answer may depend on a range of individualized factors, making this highly politicized issue a medical quagmire.

Politics has elbowed in in disgraceful ways such as the order by Texas Governor Greg Abbott sending state investigators to inspect homes where minors are receiving gender affirming medical treatment, equating it with child abuse. As if these families aren’t facing challenges enough.

But the political Left has also gotten ahead of the science in ways that could be seriously harmful for children. For instance, James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, promotes puberty blockers for children as a hormonal way to pause puberty while a minor is gaining clarity on their condition. He calls the intervention “completely safe and totally reversible.”

Unfortunately, that’s not a scientifically supportable statement. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom says there is not enough data to draw that conclusion. The NHS website on treatment for gender dysphoria says “little is known” of the long-term side effects of puberty blockers and it is “not known” whether puberty blockers “affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones.”

Legitimate questions have been raised not only about the appropriate age of medical interventions but whether young girls are at risk of being unduly influenced by social pressure to claim transgender status. This is not a big deal if all we are talking about is pronouns, but it is a very big deal once medical science is employed. Statistics from the United Kingdom indicate that 70 percent of those seeking to transition in the past decade are girls wanting to become boys, which is significantly different from the past when by large margins males wanted to transition to female.

These questions are about getting at the truth. Yet just raising them is enough to bring down the wrath of the political Left and get you labeled a transphobe.

A recent column by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who cofounded Heterodox Academy, said he warned back in 2016 that “the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable.” Well, that time has come.

Indeed it has, indeed it has.

Oh, and Robyn recommends a book that deserves its encomiums:

Finally, I urge every secular humanist to read Jonathan Rauch’s important book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of TruthIn clear terms, Rauch explains the dangers to our social order of abandoning not only the truth but the objective rules we use to test whether a claim is valid.

The end:

. . .choking off dissent damages the essential underpinnings of a reality-based community. These actions, no matter how good the intentions, are helping to dismantle the knowledge-based world. The world that secular humanists are committed to supporting and protecting, and most importantly the world we need for all of us to continue to thrive.

I like that phrase: “reality-based community”. For that what secular humanists are, and what believers are not. I suppose you could call the religious (and many Republicans) “the fantasy-based community.”

Robyn Blumner on humanism vs. identitarianism

May 28, 2022 • 9:45 am

In her terrific new article in Free Inquiry—”a bimonthly journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Center for Inquiry”Robyn Blumner gives voice to things that have been bubbling up inside many of us but haven’t been expressed, either because we haven’t thought deeply about them or because what she has to say is unwelcome to many. (Blumner is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, CFI, and executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.)

And her message is this: identitarianism, which she defines from the Urban Dictionary as “A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit”—is, as her title shows, incompatible with humanism, a movement which she characterizes in a quote from Paul Kurtz, one of her predecessors:

“The Affirmations of Humanism”: We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity. (Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry, Spring 1987)

Click to read her piece. When I’m writing about a piece such as hers, I first print it out (I can’t read seriously on a screen) and then underline the parts I find most important or quotable. In this case, however, I wound up underlining the whole thing, as there’s not a word wasted. Rather than just give up and say “go read it” (you should and perhaps I should have just written that), I’ll give a couple of quote and perhaps my own take, but read it yourself for free:

Here’s her main message:

The division has to do with a fundamental precept of humanism, that enriching human individuality and celebrating the individual is the basis upon which humanism is built. Humanism valorizes the individual—and with good reason; we are each the hero of our own story. Not only is one’s individual sovereignty more essential to the humanist project than one’s group affiliation, but fighting for individual freedom—which includes freedom of conscience, speech, and inquiry—is part of the writ-large agenda of humanism. It unleashes creativity and grants us the breathing space to be agents in our own lives.

Or at least that idea used to be at the core of humanism.

Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.

This has given rise to a corrosive cultural environment awash in controversial speakers being shouted down on college campuses; even liberal professors and newspaper editors losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; the cancellation of great historical figures for being men of their time; and a range of outlandish claims of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and other crimes against current orthodoxy.

It has pitted humanists who stand for foundational civil liberties principles such as free speech and equal protection under the law against others on the political Left who think individual freedoms should give way when they fail to serve the interests of select identity groups. The most important feature of the symbol of justice is not her sword or scales; it is her blindfold. Identitarians would pull it off so she could benefit certain groups over others.

To show the misguided priorities of the identitarian project, Blumner slips in a description of an egregious act by the American Humanist Association, a group that, despite its avowed mission, has become too woke to bear.

Good people with humanist hearts have been pilloried if they don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle of the identitarian gospel. A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.

Blumner will certainly be demonized herself for the piece, as she criticize divisiveness, which is engineered deliberately by many so-called humanists who prefer exhibiting their virtue to improving society, and (like me) favors equality of opportunity over “equity” (equal outcomes):

This is what identitarians have wrought. Rather than lifting up individuals and imbuing them with autonomy and all the extraordinary uniqueness that flows from it, identitarians would divide us all into racial,  ethnic,  and  gender-based groups and make that group affiliation our defining characteristic. This has the distorting effect of obliterating personal agency, rewarding group victimhood, and incentivizing competition to be seen as the most oppressed.

In addition to being inherently divisive, this is self-reinforcing defeatism. It results in extreme examples, such as a draft plan in California to deemphasize calculus as a response to persistent racial gaps in math achievement,  Suddenly a subject as racially neutral as math has become a flashpoint for identitarians set on ensuring equality of outcomes for certain groups rather than the far-more just standard of equality of opportunity. In this freighted environment, reducing the need for rigor and eliminating challenging standards becomes a feasible solution. The notion of individual merit or recognition that some students are better at math than others becomes racially tinged and suspect.

Not only does the truth suffer under this assault on common sense, but we start to live in a Harrison Bergeron world where one’s natural skills are necessarily sacrificed on the altar of equality or, in today’s parlance, equity.

Of course, the identitarians’ focus is not just on racial issues. Gender divisions also play out on center stage. I was at a secular conference recently when a humanist leader expressed the view that if you don’t have a uterus, you have no business speaking about abortion.

Really?. . . .

Well, that’s going to get people’s dander up, but it’s good that someone with both power and credibility has said it. It is the drive for equity, not simple equality of opportunity, that is bringing the Left to its knees.

Blumner goes on to affirm that you don’t have to be a cop to have a opinion on cops, a poor person to have an opinion on poverty, and so on.  We’ve tacitly but mistakenly agreed on the Left that you can address problems relevant to an issue only if you have the correct racial, gender, or class credentials to expound on that issue.  And that’s what drives us apart: the notion that society is collection of moieties, each of which can only suggest solutions to its own problems. The basis of humanistic concern, the individual, is effaced, and here she quotes Kurtz again:

If the Affirmation quoted at the beginning of this article that rejects “divisive parochial loyalties” based on facile group affiliations isn’t a rejection of identitarianism, I don’t know what is. In his 1968 essay “Humanism and the Freedom of the Individual,” Kurtz stated bluntly:

Any humanism that does not cherish the individual, I am prepared to argue, is neither humanistic nor humanitarian. . .  Any humanism worthy of the name should be concerned with the preservation of the individual personality with all of its unique idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. We need a society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle. The existence of individual freedom thus is an essential condition for the social good and a necessary end of humanitarianism.

The individual is the most important unit in humanism. When our individuality is stripped away so we can be fitted into prescribed identity groups instead, something essential to the humanist project is lost. Those pushing for this conception of society are misconstruing humanism, diminishing human potential and self-actualization, and driving a wedge between good people everywhere.

Robyn is not saying that humanists shouldn’t concentrate on alleviating the problems specific to groups like women (viz. abortion rights) or minorities. Neglecting that there are group afflictions is in fact contrary to humanism. What she is emphasizing is that those problems should be tackled together, that no single problem should get overweening attention over others, and, most important, that nobody has a priority of opinion over others based on their gender, race, class, and so on.  If you adhere to the free-speech assumption that a clash of ideas is essential to moral and social improvement, then eliminating all groups but one or two from discussing an issue is a recipe for disaster.

At any rate, this piece is your reading for the day.

 

Dawkins and Blumner; Imagine No Religion Conference, Vancouver, CA, June 2015:

FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:

 

New Zealand hospital rejects a Christian chapel in favor of a multifaith one; Christians outraged

October 8, 2020 • 1:00 pm

According to the blog post below by Barry Duke at the Patheos site TheFreeThinker, and also from an article in the Otago Daily Times, a new hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand decided it would devote its chapel space to a multifaith facility rather than a Christian one. This has pissed off a lot of Christians, including the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, all of whom petitioned the Health Board to guarantee there would be a Christian chapel. No dice—the facility doesn’t have sufficient space. Read for yourself, especially the ludicrous justification for a specifically Christian chapel in the hospital.

Have a look at this one:

An excerpt from the paper (my emphasis)

. . . a petition signed by 52 people, mainly leaders of Presbyterian congregations across the South, but also including the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, the Right Rev Stephen Benford, seeks assurance from the health board that a Christian chapel and an office for chaplains be given priority for the new hospital.

The signatures are attached to a letter to New Dunedin Hospital programme director Hamish Brown, from Leith Valley Presbyterian Church minister the Rev Richard Dawson, which calls for hospital planners to revisit their plans and include a “discernable Christian presence” in the new hospital.

“Hospitals and the health systems in which they operate can largely be said to be an invention of the church and they certainly rely on values espoused by the church throughout its 2000-year history,” Mr Dawson writes.

“More than this, however, is the concern that the Christian faith will not be primarily represented within a city founded on Christian principles and a country in which, still, the largest group of people claiming religious adherence are Christian.”

He argued non-denominational chaplains at the new hospital would administer to the spiritual needs of anyone using the hospital, but said the nature of modern hospitals was due to the impact of Christian churches on ancient military hospitals.

And he asked that “the faith tradition upon which this nation and this city have relied on to guide them in forming an holistic health system be duly recognised”.

This is pathetic. While I don’t mind that they create a place to worship the supernatural in a hospital—after all, hospitals are places of grief and pain, and for those who are religious there’s no harm in creating a quiet for meditation or prayer—I do mind them prioritizing Christianity. And the rationale for that—that Christianity invented hospitals—would be ludicrous even if it were true. But it doesn’t seem to be true, as you find out quickly when you consult the Wikipedia article on “hospital”:

In early India, Fa Xian, a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled across India c. AD 400, recorded examples of healing institutions. According to the Mahavamsa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, written in the sixth century AD, King Pandukabhaya of Sri Lanka (r. 437–367 BC) had lying-in-homes and hospitals (Sivikasotthi-Sala).  A hospital and medical training centre also existed at Gundeshapur, a major city in southwest of the Sassanid Persian Empire founded in AD 271 by Shapur I.  In ancient Greece, temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius, known as Asclepeion functioned as centres of medical advice, prognosis, and healing. The Asclepeia spread to the Roman Empire. While public healthcare was non-existent in the Roman Empire, military hospitals called valetudinaria did exist stationed in military barracks and would serve the soldiers and slaves within the fort.  Evidence exists that some civilian hospitals, while unavailable to the Roman population, were occasionally privately built in extremely wealthy Roman households located in the countryside for that family, although this practice seems to have ended in 80 AD.

So much for that, but even if the very first hospital was constructed by the Christian church, that gives Christians no priority over other faiths in having a dedicated place of worship in a hospital.  As for the “faith tradition” of the country and which is supposedly majority Christian, well, the paper adds this:

[Hospital Programme Director Hamish Brown’s] report noted that between the 2006 and 2018 censuses the number of Otago people who identifed as Christian dropped from more than half (54.1%) to about a third (33.4%).

Those identifying with no religion rose from 38.8% in 2006 to 55.8% in 2018.

It seems to me that they need a Secular Center, not a Christian one!

h/t:Graham

Baptist leader tells us that God doesn’t want us to sacrifice the old

March 26, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here we have the New York Times once again pandering to religion, publishing an article that says we should help save lives, including the lives of the elderly, not because of humanistic values, but because God says so.  The author, Russell Moore, is described as “the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Read and scowl:

 

Moore’s point, which many people have discussed without invoking religion or God, is whether we’re going to let people go back to work prematurely because the preservation of the economy (and other social values) is more important than the lives that would be lost by an early ending of the quarantine. Well, that’s basically true, but surely we’ll have to resume normal life before the world is entirely cleansed of Covid-19, so that itself is a form of tradeoff. A more important issue at the moment is how do we give care to young versus old people, or people who are immunologically compromised, when care is limited?

We have only a certain number of ventilators, and if there are two people competing for one, one 25 and the other 80, who do you choose? Reason would suggest that you’ll create the most well being, on average, by saving the greatest number of years to come. And that would favor the younger over the older, those likely to survive over those likely to die. That is the only humane decision, and you don’t need religion to make it (simple utilitarianism will do). Already, Italy is prioritizing Covid-19 care for those under 60, giving older people palliative care. When there are limited resources, priority must be given.

Of course Moore is correct that we shouldn’t—as Trump appears to want—blithely allow older people to die in the service of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but such advice doesn’t require invoking God. So why does Moore stick the divine in?

For example:

A pandemic is no time to turn our eyes away from the sanctity of human life.

As opposed to other kinds of life?

We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.

There Moore is using the Bible as his source of ethics. Because humans (but not gorillas or ducks) are created in the eyes of God, we cannot automatically prioritize the economy and the fabric of society over people’s lives. But you don’t need the Bible for that. Try John Rawls, or Peter Singer (both atheists). And don’t forget that giving human life the highest priority over everything, including suffering, leads to spending millions of dollars to keep those in vegetative states alive, or to disallowing assisted suicide.

It goes on:

We must also reject suggestions that it makes sense to prioritize the care of those who are young and healthy over those who are elderly or have disabilities. Such considerations turn human lives into checkmarks on a page rather than the sacred mystery they are. When we entertain these ideas, something of our very humanity is lost.

Nope. Who gets the ventilator? The 25 year old or the 80 year old? Do we lose our humanity when we have to make such a choice? I don’t think so: we exercise our humanity.

But wait! There’s more!

. . .Vulnerability is not a diminishment of the human experience, but is part of that experience. Those of us in the Christian tradition believe that God molded us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life. Moreover, we bear witness that every human life is fragile. We are, all of us, creatures and not gods. We are in need of air and water and one another.

A generation ago, the essayist and novelist Wendell Berry told us that the great challenge of our time would be whether we would see life as a machine or as a miracle. The same is true now. The value of a human life is not determined on a balance sheet. We cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose since “we are all going to die of something.”

You don’t need to see life as a miracle to come to ethical decisions about triage or ending pandemics.  You need consider only well being versus other things we value. After all, there are thousands of deaths every year due to car accidents, falls in the bathtub, accidental discharge of firearms, and so on. In 2000, 17,000 people committed suicide with a firearm.  Many people (though not I!) would say that the value of firearms outweighs those of the lives lost using them, and that the value of cars outweighs the 15,000 or so people killed in vehicular accidents every year. We make these decisions all the time, weighing known loss of life versus social goods. I don’t happen to think that we need guns, but I do think we need vehicles, despite Moore’s claim that every life is a sacred miracle.  And during this pandemic, as we’ve seen from Italy, you simply can’t treat everyone the same way. Does Moore think so? (He doesn’t say, but that’s the implication).

It angers me that Moore claims God and the Bible as his arbiter of moral behavior when humanistic values lead to exactly the same conclusions he reaches:

That means we must listen to medical experts, and do everything possible to avoid the catastrophe we see right now in Italy and elsewhere. We must get back to work, get the economy back on its feet, but we can only do that when doing so will not kill the vulnerable and overwhelm our hospitals, our doctors, our nurses, and our communities.

Duhhh! (But I note that the Italian form of triage is in effect “killing the vulnerable”, but through inaction rather than direct action. The result is the same).

Truly, I can see nothing in his article that a humanistic atheist like Peter Singer couldn’t write, and without invoking the false idea that we’re made in the image of God. (How does that matter, anyway? God, who made us in His image, saw fit to commit repeated genocides in the Old Testament, and that selfsame God allowed coronavirus to spread over the globe and kill tens of thousands.) The “image of god” idea grates on anyone who thinks we evolved, and on those who believe we can derive our ethics (better, ethics, actually) without consulting a nonexistent being in the sky.  So I could have written this last paragraph—except for the final seven words:

And along the way we must guard our consciences. We cannot pass by on the side of the road when the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the vulnerable are in peril before our eyes. We want to hear the sound of cash registers again, but we cannot afford to hear them over the cries of those made in the image of God.

Why was this published?

Texas man endows first professorship of secular studies at a public university: UT Austin

February 8, 2020 • 10:30 am

You may already know that the country’s first—and still, I think, only—college program in Secular Studies is at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, founded by the estimable sociologist Phil Zuckerman. (You can see the curriculum here.)

Well, as the Austin Statesman (should they change it to “Statesperson”?) reported yesterday, The University of Texas at Austin has now received a $1 million endowment from a long-time secularist to fund a faculty position in secular research. It’s not a program, nor even a position for a new faculty member, but a lucrative chair for an existing UTA faculty member. And it’s the first endowed chair for secular research at a public university in the U.S. (They may exist in other countries, but I don’t know.)

Click on the screenshot to read the story.

Bolton somehow managed to accumulate a lot of money as a professor, which is unusual but, in this case, useful (he may have been independently wealthy). From the paper:

A Georgetown resident who has never set foot on the University of Texas campus has given $1 million to the school for a new professorship to focus on a growing segment of the U.S. population that holds no religious views.

The endowment is coming from Brian Bolton, 80, who is retired after a 35-year career in academia. He was an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1968 to 1971. From 1971 to 2002, Bolton was a professor of rehabilitation and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

Bolton said he has never visited UT but shares common values with the educational institution. “My 35-year career was dedicated to scholarship and research in academia,” he said. “I know UT is a great university, and that’s all I need to know.”

Bolton said he wanted to donate the money to make a lasting impact.

What’s curious about this report are three issues. First, a million bucks is enough to endow a new professor, but they’re going to choose somebody already on the faculty. I doubt that there would be someone already there who’s doing “secular studies” in the manner of Zuckerman.

The indented statements are from the Statesman piece:

UT will not be hiring a new professor for Bolton’s endowment but will choose one who is already on the faculty, said Justin Michalka, the executive director of development for the College of Liberal Arts. The university has not yet chosen who that will be, he said.

Second, the University’s director of development is curiously silent about Bolton’s endowment:

Michalka declined to comment further on Bolton’s donation.

Finally, the paper says there’s a university news release on Bolton’s endowment, but I can’t find it (my emphasis):

“During the past two decades there has been significant increase in the U.S. among those who associate with a secular worldview, a trend particularly pronounced in younger people, prompting increased research in this emerging field,” according to a university news release on Bolton’s endowment.

I’m sufficiently cynical to think that they’ve deep-sixed that statement (readers can see if it’s on the Internet), and are playing down the endowment. Perhaps they like the dosh, but secularism, while it may play well in Austin, isn’t particularly popular in the rest of Texas. Or so I think, and I’d be glad to be proven wrong. The reader who sent me the link to the newspaper piece is contacting the reporter to try to find the university statement.

Bolton’s endowment has already been announced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recounts his generous support of their organization—also implying that Bolton has a source of money beyond an academic salary.

Brian Bolton is a longtime Life Member, for whom the executive wing of FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, is named, due to his support of FFRF’s headquarters expansion. Bolton has also singlehandedly underwritten for a decade now FFRF’s essay contest for grad/older students, with up to $10,000 prize money in total. And he is financing a bible accountability project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society that includes subsidization of the cost of mailing FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel’s recent book, The Founding Myth, to every member of Congress last fall. FFRF will be publishing Bolton’s new work, tentatively titled Why the Bible Is Not a Good Book, this year. Bolton, who lives in Texas, will be speaking briefly at FFRF’s annual convention in San Antonio in November.

“Now, the best public university in an immensely important state has a researcher focusing on a woefully neglected segment of the population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s all thanks to Brian Bolton, who has been munificently boosting the secular movement.”

I’ve been to that new executive wing; it’s lovely, and must have cost a pretty penny. Here’s a photo I took when I visited in March of 2018:

By the way, if you’re ever in Madison, you must visit the headquarters. You can even pose with the life-sized statue of Darwin, as I did. It’s amazingly lifelike:

But enough about the money; here’s some more stuff about Bolton from the FFRF:

Bolton is a retired academic psychologist with a background in mathematics, statistics and psychometrics. His contributions in psychological measurement, personality assessment and rehabilitation psychology have been recognized by universities and psychological societies. His 10 edited and authored books include Handbook of Measurement and Evaluation in Rehabilitation, Psychosocial Adjustment to Disability, Rehabilitation Counseling: Theory and Practice, and Special Education and Rehabilitation Testing: Current Practices and Test Reviews. He is a licensed psychologist, Humanist minister, Karate black belt, and Distinguished Toastmaster.

If you want to read even more, nine years ago the FFRF featured an interview about Bolton on its “Meet A Member” feature. A few excerpts:

Where I’m headed: The same terminal condition as all sentient life forms — eternal nonexistence or everlasting nothingness.

Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant statesman and intellectual whose numerous accomplishments helped establish the robust government under which we thrive today.

A quotation I like: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” (George Washington, 1792 letter to Edward Newenham)

These are a few of my favorite things: Supporting animal welfare and environmental protection, reading philosophy and science, writing freethought articles, and raising African leopard tortoises.

These are not: FOX News, religious fundamentalism, sports evangelism, conservative politics.

How long I’ve been a freethinker: All my life.

Why I’m a freethinker: Even though I attended Sunday school as a child, my soul was never captured. My transition from indifferent unbeliever to outspoken nontheist was brought about by Falwell, LaHaye and Swaggart.

He’s an animal and environment lover, too—a fellow after my own heart! We’re still digging to find out of the University of Texas deleted the announcement of the donation, and I’ll report back.

h/t: Reese

Nicholas Kristof still struggling about whether he’s a Christian; queries evasive evangelical writer

December 23, 2019 • 11:30 am

For some reason that I don’t understand, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has published column after column in which he asks theologians and other religionists about what they really believe. Do they believe Jesus was resurrected? Did he really perform miracles? As I wrote about his last column in April:

For a long time, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof has been interviewing religious people, struggling to somehow buttress his Christianity.  He’s written a number of columns in which he asks religionists and church leaders if he, Kristof, is really a Christian (see herehere, and here), for, like any sensible person, he has doubts about the miracles that underlie Christianity, and about concepts like the efficacy of prayer, heaven, and hell. He wants to be a Christian but is having problems. I think he’d be better off as a secular humanist (he holds a number of appealing liberal views), and that would also save us from the spate of tedious columns about religion flowing from his pen.

And indeed, the people Kristof interviews, like former President Jimmy Carter, usually disavow any literal belief in the foundational tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection, but still consider themselves as Christians because somehow the whole fictional story resonates with them. But doesn’t there has to be some acceptance of Christian truths to call yourself a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or Hindu?

Kristof is the soul of politeness in these interviews, but often, as in this week’s Q&A with Philip Yancey—a well known evangelical Christian writer who has sold 15 million books in 40 languages—Kristof is persistent in his questions. The upshot is that he shows these people for who they really are: glib but confused souls who can’t quite sign on to the literality of the Jesus story, but who somehow still think it’s true—and truer than other faiths that have equally assertive and dubious scriptures.  Yancey’s simultaneous skepticism and certainty should, as Hitchens said, be met with mockery and contempt. I intend to proffer some.

But not, of course, from Kristof, who’s still finding his way through the thicket of theological mendacity. Click on the screenshot below to see an enormous waste of column space:

Look how Yancey evades Kristof’s questions about Jesus’s virgin birth. (After the first exchange, Kristof’s words are in italics, Yancey’s in regular type):

KRISTOF Merry Christmas! And let me start by asking about that first Christmas. Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Doesn’t that seem like one of those tall tales that people tell to exaggerate an event’s significance?

YANCEY I’m smiling at the question. A hundred years ago, the Virgin Birth was considered so important that it made the list of five “fundamentals of the Christian faith.” Nowadays, with in vitro fertilization, virgin births are old news. For me, the issue centers not on the mechanics of reproduction but rather the nature of Jesus. In the Incarnation, God’s own self came to earth as a human. I wouldn’t pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA, but that’s the mystery the Virgin Birth hints at.

Here Yancey is completely evading the issue. Mary’s virgin birth occurred when she was not only a real virgin (well, at least a young woman), but certainly when she HAD NOT BEEN INSEMINATED BY A HUMAN.  That is not the case with in vitro fertilizations, where human sperm is required.  In vitro fertilizations are not “virgin births” in the Biblical sense of the word.

Note how quickly Yancey moves from the question Kristof asks to asserting that the virgin birth is really about the nature of Jesus. And while the godly writer is not certain about whether the Virgin Birth was real as most evangelicals understand it, and doesn’t “pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA”, he’s dead certain that Jesus was the incarnation of God.  How does he know this?  Presumably because the Bible says so. But the Bible also says that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Here we see some judicious cherry-picking by an evangelical.

Yet in the next exchange, Yancey implies that there really was a virgin birth, and it wasn’t due to in vitro fertilization. For one thing, there was no vitro back then.

KRISTOF So it’s no longer such a big deal? I can say that I doubt the Virgin Birth without whispering?

YANCEY It’s only a big deal if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, as most Christians do. Otherwise you have a different mystery: How did the child of two simple villagers end up changing history more than anyone before or since?

Here we have a Lewis-ian claim that if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, he couldn’t have changed history. Ergo he was the son of God, and if he was the son of God, and the literal son of God, there must have been somebody who impregnated Mary. After all, Jesus wasn’t haploid, and if he was the result of Mary’s fused eggs, he would have been a woman (XX chromosomes).

Yancey then evades the issue of theodicy, saying he “has no solutions” to Kristof’s questions about why God raised Lazarus but not dead children. Yancey’s solution is apparently that all will be made good in the hereafter: “Believe me, the hope of resurrection means something when you’ve just lost your child to a school shooter.” Well, yes, the hope means something if you believe in a hereafter, by why should we believe it? And Yancey, who seems to know so much about God, doesn’t know why He permits natural evils to occur at all.

Yancey goes on to verbally circumvent questions about miracles:

KRISTOF I also wonder: In embracing miracles, don’t we reject our own rationality? In my travels, I’ve met all kinds of faith healers who claimed to make the lame walk or the blind see. I don’t believe them — and I’d be even less likely to believe accounts that were written six decades after the fact by someone who had never met the healer (like the accounts in the Gospel of John). Why be skeptical of eyewitness accounts of U.F.O.s but not of Gospel accounts written decades later by people who weren’t even eyewitnesses?

YANCEY: Most scholars believe that eyewitnesses such as Matthew, Peter, John and Mary were major sources for the Gospels’ accounts. That said, I agree with your main point. Miracles are overrated as a basis for faith. Jesus’ disciples, who had seen miracles, all deserted him at his hour of greatest need. Jesus himself refused to perform miracles on demand, to impress the doubters. Most of them came about as a compassionate response to a needy person.

It seems strange to me that we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world. God is spirit, and all the great masters emphasize instead that we need to learn spiritual disciplines to commune with God.

Look at that first bit: Yancey claims that the miracles were real because the Bible says so, but then agrees as well that “miracles are overrated as a basis for faith.” Well, if you’re an empiricist and not a superstitionist, miracles are required for faith. But since Yancey’s a superstitionist, he simply says that you can see miracles but still have doubts—a position that doesn’t come close to answering Kristof’s question. And if we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world, well, maybe that’s because the Bible says he did—over and over again, and in both the Old and New Testaments. Why should we suddenly give up theism? God may be “spirit”, but to be a theist, as Yancey and his followers are, you have to think that God can intervene in the world.

Kristof then poses the devastating “Why does God hate amputees?” question, since God heals only those diseases that sometimes show spontaneous remission. He doesn’t replace missing eyes or limbs.

Again Yancey won’t answer the question, but moves to something else:

KRISTOF: . . . I note that people claim cases of miraculous cures where there is room for ambiguity, such as cancer going into remission. But prayer never seems to help an amputee grow back a limb.

YANCEY: George Bernard Shaw is said to have wryly observed that although he saw crutches and wheelchairs at shrines of healing, he saw no artificial limbs, glass eyes or toupees. Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems. In person, he affected only modest numbers of people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But he set loose a movement with the mission of bringing the good news of God’s love across the globe.

I’m not sure whether the Shaw quote was apocryphal, but I did find Anatole France asking the same question (and answering it); I discuss this on p. 117 of Faith Versus Fact. At any rate, note how Yancey gets around Kristof’s question by saying that “Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems.” But the question remains: why does Jesus (or his saints) only cure those diseases known to remit spontaneously? Once again Yancey evades, and fails has to answer why Jesus solves only a subset of our problems. And he still doesn’t tell us why Jesus waited thousands of years after humanity existed before appearing to only a small subset of people in the Middle East.

You’ll be amused to see how Yancey gives credit to evangelical Christians for curing AIDS, but I’ll leave you to read that for yourselves. Finally, in his final end run, Yancey evades the question of Hell. Does God really want those who don’t accept Jesus to fry forever?

KRISTOF: Yet evangelical tradition suggests that non-Christians burn forever in hell.

YANCEY: Jesus didn’t mince words when he talked about judgment, yet in his parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that we’ll be judged on how we treated those who were hungry, imprisoned, sick and in need of clothes and hospitality. Interestingly, he spoke of actions, not doctrine.

The more I know Jesus, the more I trust him as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands. I like the depiction of hell in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy “The Great Divorce”as simply a place for those who choose against God, and it may well be an ongoing choice.

So Yancey now accepts what C. S. Lewis said instead of what Jesus said?  For remember that Jesus says this, too (John 14:6): “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

This, and other verses, are the basis for the bedrock Christian doctrine that unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are simply not going to Heaven.  If there’s any doctrine that defines Christianity, it is that one. But Yancey circumvents the whole issue by saying “I trust Jesus as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands.” That’s contemptible, for Jesus already said that those who don’t accept him will burn in hell. In what sense is Yancey “content”, then? Is he content to think that, according to Jesus’s wisdom, billions of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and non-Christian believers are going to suffer eternal torments? 

Kristof, while asking good questions, doesn’t push Yancey very hard here, more or less accepting his answers. But Yancey’s answers are non-answers: just one evasion after another. It sickens me to see this kind of palaver (Yancey’s, not Kristof’s) portrayed in the New York Times as some kind of respectable belief. And Kristof still won’t give up and become a secular humanist, which is what he should be.

The New Yorker praises atheism (sort of)

May 19, 2019 • 10:00 am

UPDATE: James Wood has responded politely to this piece in a comment below, which you can find here.

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The article below (click on screenshot), by New Yorker literary critic and Harvard English professor James Wood, is a review of Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, but also a paean (of sorts) to secularism and atheism.

I once spent a pleasant few hours with James in a Harvard Square coffeeshop, trying to find out if he thought literature was a “way of knowing” (as I recall, he agreed that we can’t find truths about the universe from literature itself), and I don’t want to be hard on him. Most of his pieces for the magazine are excellent, and his literary judgment is keen. But I think he’s somewhat off the mark in this review. And that is mainly because he takes some gratuitous swipes at New Atheism (and, of course, the Great Satan Dawkins), as well as implying that we don’t need to consider evidence—or, rather, the lack thereof—when we give up religion.

When New Yorker writers bestir themselves to say something good about nonbelief, you can be sure of five things:

1.) They may praise atheism, but they will also diss New Atheism.
2.) They will disdain the need for evidence when deciding whether to be a believer or an atheist. Evidence is irrelevant. This is part of the magazine’s perpetual favoring of the humanities and their “ways of knowing” over science.
3.) They will conflate religion with “passion”. One example came from a piece in the New Yorker that, while praising this website, implied that I was quasi-religious:

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

4.) They will show a sneaking sympathy with religious belief and ritual; and
5.) They will lard their arguments with heavy literary knowledge and references

These features are all on view in Wood’s article, and all but #5 are missteps, though, as I said, I think the piece is generally good and certainly worth reading.

According to Wood, the thesis of Hägglund’s book includes these ideas:

a. Religion is bogus, but it’s not bogus just because there is no evidence for gods. In fact, evidence is irrelevant to nonbelief.

b. Religion is bogus because the notion of eternity, which Hägglund sees as inherent in most religions (including Buddhism and Judaism, which don’t have a concept of heaven), is incoherent and, even if comprehensible, is palpably undesirable.

c. Even religious people act as if they’re atheists because they mourn the loss of loved ones who die, and have no concrete notion of seeing them again. This is an attachment to the secular—a hidden atheism.

d. If we reject eternity, and realize that the here and now is all we have, then we must construct our secular values around that notion. Hägglund thinks that this drives us to a form of socialism. Why? Because we are all striving for maximal freedom in our finite existence, and thus must balance our drive for individual freedom with our social duties. According to Hägglund, capitalism is opposed to this by constantly trying to increase our work time and reduce our free time. To counterbalance this, we need a form of democratic socialism that will “reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time.”

Hägglund’s book, then, is a bipartite meditation on the uselessness of eternity and the need to accept our finitude, and then a set of ideological and political prescriptions on how to construct a society that takes our finitude on board. I’m not going to discuss this part: Wood talks heavily about Marx and Feuerbach, the architects of the kind of society Hägglund wants, and while this is interesting I’m not sure how convincing it is. Even Wood finds the author”s arguments for how to negotiate necessary labor with freedom unconvincing:

Rather than simply replace the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom—which would be impossible anyway, because there is always tedious and burdensome work to be done—we should be able to better “negotiate” the relationship between those realms. Hägglund gives an example of how this might be done when he talks about the way his own work on the book we are reading unites the two realms: writing “This Life” was labor, of course, but it was pursued as an end in itself, as a matter of intellectual inquiry. In a Hägglundian utopia, labor would be part of our freedom.

As Church Lady would say, “isn’t that convenient?” Academics like Hägglund already have that freedom. And Wood stresses the hypocrisy:

An ideal democratic socialism that harmonizes Hägglund’s idea of freedom with the state’s necessarily different idea of freedom will come to America, I guess, not just when the mountain comes to Muhammad but when the tenured academic willingly gives up his Yale chair for a job at New Haven’s Gateway Community College. Like many readers, I get anxious when literary academics use the verb “negotiate” at tricky moments; it forecloses argument, and seldom means actual negotiation. Indeed, Hägglund is unusually weasel-wordy when he concedes that such negotiation will demand “an ongoing democratic conversation.” That’s putting it optimistically.

Indeed. But let’s get to Wood’s criticism of New Atheism. Here’s some of it, channeled through Hägglund’s book (these are Wood’s words):

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

It’s clear that Wood isn’t interested in evidence, either, calling it “the pin dancing of proof and disproof”. But that’s bogus, for why would one reject eternity at all if you didn’t think that there was no evidence for it? If there were convincing evidence for a heaven, then surely we’d like to know about it and take it on board. If we knew that we would see our loved ones for eternity in some form or another (and yes, considering precisely what form gets you mired in the hinterlands of theology), we’d surely behave differently from how we do—perhaps mourning less when a loved one dies. Wood and Hägglund give plenty of evidence for literary figures showing the kind of mourning that seems inconsistent with a belief in eternity, including C. S. Lewis as well as writers like Primo Levi, Chekhov and Montaigne, but of course some mourning can still be consistent with belief in a heaven. After all, it may be some time before you see your loved ones again—if you even do. (If you believe in reincarnation, you won’t even remember them in the next life.)

It’s almost as if Wood (and Hägglund) don’t think evidence is even relevant to giving up religion: one can instead just say that the notion of heaven is incoherent, many people don’t act as if eternity exists, and therefore there are no gods.

But Wood is right that many religious people act as if this life is all they have. And he’s right that the notion of eternity as limned by various faiths isn’t something we’d really want. But he can’t help going after New Atheism and its dogged insistence on empirical evidence:

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.

This is an explicit criticism of New Atheism by Wood and an explicit rejection of the empirical argument made by people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  But again, that’s bogus. For, after all, why would you even be an atheist unless you were convinced, though a lack of evidence—or in the case of theodicy, positive evidence against a god—that gods and heavens didn’t exist? Only once you have dispensed with the idea of gods and heavens can you then buckle down and do the kind of work that Hägglund prescribes.

Note, too, that Wood calls New Atheism a form of “rationalist triumphalism” (a clear slur) and also gets in a lick against science when he implies that the New Atheist creed is “there is no God and science is His prophet”. This is unworthy of Wood and in fact inimical to his argument. I’d ask both Wood (who may be an atheist; I’m not sure) and Hägglund this question: Why don’t you believe in gods, heaven or eternity?” I’d bet their answer would be “Because there is no evidence for them.” And presto, you’re talking about the arguments of New Atheists.

I see I’m running on here, and can leave the rest of the article to you, but I’ll give one more quote. Again we see Wood apparently agreeing with Hägglund that the trappings of religion may be valuable, or even necessary, for modern humans. There’s also a gratuitous slap at Dawkins, who is apparently the Great Satan of Atheism.

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

This is the old argument that humans need ceremony and bonding, and religion gives us that. My response is that the churches and temples of Scandinavia have been closed down for a long time, and the country is no worse for it. People find their ritual and meaning in many ways, and as the growth of secularism and of the non-churchy “nones” continues even more churches will close of their own accord. And don’t forget that those temples and churches don’t just provide comity: they are often divisive toward those of other faiths, and enforce a kind of morality that is far inferior to secular morality. Not to mention that they buttress the habit of faith: belief without substantial evidence.

The reader who called this article to my attention said that Wood’s piece was “very positive on atheism.” I’m not so sure, and it’s certainly not positive on New Atheism nor its reliance on empirical standards. But you be the judge.

h/t: David

My article in Quillette: A rebuttal of John Staddon’s claim that secular humanism is a religion

April 24, 2019 • 8:45 am

Since I’ve now published in Quillette, I guess I’m not only a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, but also an alt-righter and a white supremacist. Or so the Perpetually Aggrieved might say.

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below, or go here, you’ll see my 1900-word response to John Staddon’s essay, also in Quillette, “Is secular humanism a religion?” Staddon’s piece, which was deeply flawed and misguided, answered the title question with a “yes”, but only by re-defining religion to mean “Anything that has a moral code.”

Tired of seeing everything from atheism to science to environmentalism deemed as “religions,” I wrote a critique of Staddon’s essay on this site and tweeted it to Quillette, saying that it was perhaps the worst piece ever published on their site. They invited me to respond to Staddon. After ascertaining that they offered a soupçon of dosh, I reworked my original piece for the site and published it under a declarative title:


I won’t reprise the essay here; you can go to Quillette if you want to read it. All I’ll say now is that I thought my piece was pretty uncontroversial: nobody with two neurons to rub together would see secular humanism (which is, after all, secular) as a religion. Further, Staddon himself defined religion as having three parts, and admitted that secular humanism contravened two of them that involved the supernatural and divine. Writing the essay was, to me, like shooting fish in a barrel.

But I was surprised to see the degree of pushback on Quillette: those who argued that science is religious or based on faith, those who agreed with Staddon that secular humanism is based on faith, those who claimed that environmentalism is religious, those who averred that religion is a net good for the world and atheism a net bad, and so on.

I guess I was mistaken in thinking that because Quillette‘s readers were used to more intellectual essays and less Internet acrimony, and were disaffected liberals, they would thus be pro-science and anti-religion. I was wrong. One theory (not mine) is that Quillette is read by many conservatives who delight seeing the pretensions of the Left being taken down. Indeed, several readers here have characterized Quillette as a right-wing site. Conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals, and thus a strain of conservatism might have engendered comments like these:

This first one is a partial comment which is too long to reproduce here, but the reader needs to look at Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

This is a good one: the reader not only misunderstands science, but disses scientists as having “bland and uninteresting lives.”

And with these I’ll pass on. But I’ll add that there are also some very good rebuttals of these arguments—some by readers on this site. The discussion is not as riddled with ad hominems as that on many other sites, so you might enjoy going over there and doing battle with the apologists or science-dissers.

 

The worst article ever to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a “religion”

April 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

In general I like the articles in Quillette: they’re generally left-wing but also critical of the Left’s excesses—a theme that has led some misguided ideologues to call the site “alt-right.” But this time the editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic (click on screenshot). The author, John Staddon, is identified as “James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University”. His answer to the title question, by the way, is “yes”.

This may in fact be the worst piece that Quillette has ever published:

Staddon begins by claiming that there are three elements common to all religions (his defining traits are in bold). I won’t argue with him except to say that the first and second claims show substantial overlap:

1.)  “The first is the belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul. All these are unverifiable, or unseen and unseeable, except by mystics under special and generally unrepeatable conditions. Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, these features of religion are neither true nor false, but simply unprovable. They have no implications for action, hence no bearing on legal matters.”

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether this claim is true of all religions (Staddon mentions no exceptions). But this characteristic is certainly not true of secular humanism, which is SECULAR.  So on this count Staddon shows that secular humanism doesn’t share an important feature of religion.

However, he fails to realize that claims about God, miracles, the soul, and so on, can indeed be testable under some circumstances. I summarized in Faith Versus Fact how there could be evidence for God and miracles (all provisional, of course, because this is empirical and semiscientific evidence). Carl Sagan also wrote about the conceivable but unobserved evidence for God.

2.) “The second element are claims about the real world: every religion, especially in its primordial version, makes claims that are essentially scientific—assertions of fact that are potentially verifiable. These claims are of two kinds. The first we might call timeless: e.g., claims about physical properties—the four elementary humors, for example, the Hindu turtle that supports the world, properties of foods, the doctrine of literal transubstantiation. The second are claims about history: Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, the resurrection—all “myths of origin.” Some of these claims are unverifiable; as for the rest, there is now a consensus that science usually wins—in law and elsewhere. In any case, few of these claims have any bearing on action.”

First of all, this overlaps almost entirely with claim 1, for things like resurrections and miracles and the soul are claims about the real world, and some are testable. There could, for example, be a soul that is somehow detectable (people used to weigh dying people to see if they lost weight when they died and their “souls” left the body). In fact, I’d say that claims about heaven are in principle more testable than claims about literal transubstantiation, which the Vatican has immunized against disproof by making the “transubstantiation” undetectable by empirical means.

But we see in the last sentence of #2 what Staddon really wants to see as the defining trait of religion: something that “have a bearing on action”. That brings us to #3:

3.) “The third property of a religion are its rules for action—prohibitions and requirements—its morality. All religions have a code, a set of moral and behavioral prescriptions, matters of belief —usually, but not necessarily—said to flow from God, that provide guides to action in a wide range of situations. The 10 Commandments, the principles of Sharia, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, etc. 

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science. But it is as rich in moral rules, in dogma, as any religion. Its rules come not from God but from texts like Mill’s On Liberty, and the works of philosophers like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett and Bertrand Russell, psychologists B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and “humanist chaplains” everywhere. “

Yes, most religions do have a morality, at least the theistic ones. But Staddon doesn’t seem to realize that the morality of religion has two features which differentiate it from the morality deriving from secular humanism. (I’ll add here that there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond “Do what benefits other people.”) The variety of secular-humanistic morality makes it far less comprehensive than the morality of religions, for secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule. Indeed, Staddon recognizes this:
Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked

First, much of religious morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims. So the view that abortion is murder, for instance, comes from the view that fetuses, like adults, have souls, and therefore aborting them is murder. The prohibition of homosexuality comes from scripture, both in Islam and Christianity. And so on.

Second, religious morality largely comes from interpreting what is God’s will—sometimes in the “divine command theory”: the view that whatever God says is good is good. (This overlaps, of course with my point above.) In contrast, the morality of secular humanists usually (and should) come from some basic non-divine principles about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but in the end are grounded on preference. While the foundations of secular morality are subjective, they largely coincide for most of us, and encompass some version of Sam Harris’s view that “objective” morality means maximizing well being.

I’ve objected to Sam’s view not because it’s not a good guideline for action (it almost invariably is), but simply because it’s not as objective as he thinks. You have to sign on to the idea that “maximizing well being” is the highest good, and not everybody might do that. How do you show people who reject the well-being criterion that they’re objectively wrong?

In other cases Sam’s criterion is not practicable. How do we weigh the well-being of animals versus humans when we cut down rain forest, eat meat, or use animals in medical research? How many mice have the well being equivalent to one human? How do you trade off wealth versus health? My objection, in other words, is not that Sam’s utilitarian rule is not generally the best one, but that it’s not objective in its claim that science can decide the most moral thing to do. (Given some constraints, science may be able to decide what will maximize well being, however.)

If you do accept the idea that most secular humanists have a similar morality that derives from an intuitive grasp of maximizing well being, a view that goes hand in hand with liberalism and empathy, then you get a very different morality from secular humanism than you do from religion.

Most important EVERYONE has a moral code, but that doesn’t make everyone religious. For, in the end, Staddon decides that only item #3, rules for behavior and right action, counts as religion. Thus everyone in the world is religious save sociopaths and others who have no moral rules. That makes Staddon’s characterization of secular humanism pretty much of a tautology. To wit:

But it is only the morality of a religion, not its supernatural or historical beliefs, that has any implications for action, for politics and law. Secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as any other faith. It is therefore as much a religion as any other. But because it is not seen as religious, the beliefs of secular humanists increasingly influence U.S. law.

This is about as dumb a claim as you’ll see a respected academic making. It completely evades both the dictionary and the vernacular conceptions of religion, and makes everybody religious who has a view of right and wrong. It also ignores the diversity of moral views among secular humanists. I’d take issue, for instance, with Staddon’s argument that secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as that of, say Sunni Islam or Southern Baptists.

So the whole piece is bogus, resting on a nonstandard definition of “religion”. But why does Staddon twist language this way?

Apparently because he doesn’t like the kind of morality that he sees flowing from secular humanism, which contravenes what I think is his own conservative view of morality. He gives three examples of how secular humanistic “faith” has affected people’s actions and the law in ways he clearly disapproves of.

One is the legalization of same-sex marriage. The second is the existence of “blasphemy rules,” like “it’s immoral to dress in blackface or use the “n-word”. I myself object to the extreme censoriousness affecting some of these actions (though the two cited are abhorrent), but I see this as the result of people trying to create a harmonious world (sometimes in misguided ways), and not at all the same thing as a religious dictate. The passion of opposing blackface may be of the same intensity as the passion of opposing abortion, but that doesn’t make the former religious, except insofar as you use “religious” as a synonym for “passionate.”

Staddon’s third example is weird: humanist Fred Edwords’ (Staddon misspells it as “Edwards”) opposition to the erection of a 40-foot cross in Maryland on public land. Not realizing that opposing that is simply enforcing the First Amendment (an Amendment supported, by the way, by many believers), Staddon argues that “It seems to be the faith of a competitor that Fred objects to.” In other words, by allowing people to erect nonreligious monuments on public land but opposing religious ones, Edwords is supposedly showing the religious side of secular humanism:  no competitor monuments allowed. To make a pun, this is monumentally stupid.

Staddon goes on objecting to asking political candidates about their religion, something I think is fair if their faith would influence their actions as an elected official, but I desist. In the end, Stodden fails to prove his thesis since he admits that secular humanism lacks two of the three defining traits of religion, and then he implies that anybody with a moral code is religious.

That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s weaselly reconciliation between science and religion in his book Rocks of Ages. In that book, Gould’s NOMA Hypothesis was that science is about finding the facts of the universe, while religion’s bailiwick is meaning, morals, and values. Gould ignored the long tradition of secular ethics, and, addressing that lacuna when I reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement, I said this:

Finally, it need hardly be pointed out that atheists are not automatically amoral. Gould senses this difficulty, but finesses it by claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise. To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels”, and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people”. But one cannot evade this problem by defining it out of existence.

Gould was wrong, and so is Staddon. Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?

h/t: Michael, who says, “I remember this same guy rabbiting on about ‘scientific imperialism’ a decade ago.  I found a video of Staddon doing that; it’s only two minutes long, and I’ll leave it to you to react/rebut.