WaPo editor: religion is necessary for a strong American democracy

November 8, 2020 • 10:00 am

The “proper” stand to take on religion these days, if you’re a science-friendly liberal, is to say that yes, you’re not really a believer, but you’re spiritual, that religion is in general good for The Little People, and that Richard Dawkins has ruined it all with his shrill and misdirected attacks on religion, which he’s mistakenly taken to be identical to fundamentalism.

Every bit of that is bogus, of course, but religion is the one superstition, the one delusion, that you simply can’t criticize in public. While you lose considerable reputation by attacking it, you lose nothing by extolling it. Indeed, if you’re an atheist who lauds faith, you’re seen as an affable and open-minded fellow.

Richard Just, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, isn’t a nonbeliever, but he’s the closest thing to it: a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue—the most liberal branch of Judaism.  (The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.”) But Just does go to schul, and apparently believes in a higher power of some sort. He’s leveraged his faith into a very long article in this week’s WaPo magazine, which, despite Just’s undeniable talents as an editor, is about the lamest defense of religion I’ve ever seen.

His thesis is this: American democracy is falling apart, the country riven with mutual distrust.  Also, America is becoming more secular, with the percentage of “nones”—those who are atheists, agnostics, or believers in “nothing in particular”)—rising from 17% to 26% in the last decade.

Just sees a connection here, blaming increasing nonbelief on “the erosion of the traditional norms that have sustained our democracy”. He means religious norms. Now Just is not calling for more fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians, but he thinks that the main characteristics of religion are just the ones we need to buttress American democracy. And so he argues in the article below (click on the screenshot to read).

The piece is so tepid and vapid that I can barely bring myself to offer a critique, for Just adduces no evidence for his thesis. (Well, he cites two psychological studies, but they’re irrelevant to his argument.) Rather, he simply asserts that religious faith is just the ticket for repairing our democracy.

Before I summarize the allegedly salubrious aspects of faith, let’s realize that Just is writing pretty much about the last four years of the Trump era, not about America over the last several decades. Perhaps our democratic system is unraveling, but I don’t see that—nor does Just offer any evidence for it. And, as I’ll mention below, he totally ignores the place where the real data lie: the European democracies that are not sustained by faith: the atheistic countries of Northern Europe, including Scandinavia. That alone refutes his entire article.

Need I continue? Very well. Here are the values religion can use to shore up the levees of democracy:

A lack of idolatry. This beggars belief. Religion, in America, at least, is idolatrous, but Just feels that it’s better to have religion than what has replaced it: a politics that has become a religion. Yes, that’s right:

De Tocqueville was worried, essentially, that if we didn’t worship God, we might exercise our instinct to worship through politics or politicians themselves. If this concern resonates with you — if you fear that some of our politicians have, in the past few years, become can-do-no-wrong cult-like figures in the eyes of their supporters — then you’re not alone. As Quincy Howard — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and coordinating director for Faithful Democracy, a multifaith coalition advocating democracy reform — put it to me recently, American politics is arguably “on the brink of being idolatrous at this point, and this goes for the left as well as the right.”

Remember that Just is writing as a Reform Jew, just a hairsbreadth from atheism, and doesn’t seem to realize how damaging religion, in particular Christianity, has been to America politics—perhaps the main force sundering America. But I won’t expatiate about that. The only argument in favor of Just’s argument is that many people seem to worship Trump. But who do the Democrats worship? Saying that politics is idolatrous resembles the argument of faithheads that atheism is a form of religion. It’s an assertion without evidence, and can be dismissed as part of Just’s argument.

Inner peace and emotional comfort.  Yes, these are the traditionally mentioned virtues of religion, and I won’t deny them, except to say that it’s false comfort to rest your peace and comfort on nonexistent propositions. For if the tenets of faith be not true, and Jesus did not live and die as the son of/part of God, then what comfort is there to be had?

Just:

There is, however, a more complicated element of de Tocqueville’s warning that is also worth taking seriously today. It has to do with inner peace. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, recently told me that he sees a sense of personal calm as one of the key contributions religion can make to our national life. “Religion offers peace. Serenity, if you will. And people want that too,” he said. “How do you deal with undesired uncertainties and fears and worries and doubt?”

When I put the question of whether and how religion could benefit democracy to the Rev. Michael Bledsoe, the now-retired longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, he spoke about how “authentic communities” can help to “leaven societies.” They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death. “This is a tapestry that’s being woven almost unseen by the rest of the culture,” he said.

And it’s all delusional. Are we supposed to believe in unevidenced palaver because it brings us comfort? And, given the inevitable and increasing secularism in America, does Just feel we need to go back to faith? Granted, his is a nebulous faith without much dogma (read some of his quotes about Judaism), but it still depends on the existence of Yahweh.

Humility and doubt.  Again a howler. Maybe Reform Judaism brings humility, for argument and doubt are part of its package, but to characterize “humility” as an essential component of American religion is to misunderstand American religion. You want humility and doubt? Try science and rationality!

Just:

One value that is found in all the major religions is, of course, humility. “Believing in a higher power,” Hendi told me, “must make us humble in God’s presence, and make us realize that only God is perfect. We are not.” Faith, he added, instructs us to say, “I am right, and I know I’m right, but I could be wrong. My opponent is absolutely wrong but could be right.”

The thing that has surprised me most as I learned more about my own faith in recent years was how consistently inconsistent — how proudly riddled with uncertainties and outright contradictions — religious Judaism is. Consider this passage from Martin Buber’s 1923 book “I and Thou,” a touchstone of modern Jewish thinking about God: “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. … Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Every sentence about God here is essentially an argument with itself.

Note that Just avers a belief in God here: he’s not a “ground of being” guy. More important, doesn’t he realize that Reform Judaism is not the main religion of America? 43% of Americans are Protestants, 20% are Roman Catholics, and only 2% are Jews (and only a fraction of those are Reform Jews).  A high percentage of the Christian denominations are pretty authoritarian, espousing a particular morality that comes from the Bible (ergo from God).  There is no “doubt” in the minds of the Christian pro-lifers, no “humility” in those who oppose gay marriage. And none of these warts on American democracy come from secularism: they’re all a product of religious hubris.

Further, Just is a big fan of the “mystery” of religion, a supposed source of humility:

But because religion is fundamentally a mystery, it can also be a profound source of analytical humility and existential uncertainty. It can teach us to value, even celebrate, contradictions, to think constantly about how we might be wrong — an ethic that is the very opposite of the perpetual certainty now running rampant in American politics.

Yes, Trump’s religious base is certainly thinking constantly about how they might be wrong, aren’t they? How can we get them to be properly religious and embrace some doubt? Just doesn’t tell us. That’s because he’s not offering a prescription to fix American democracy, but simply expelling pious hopes into the ether. If he though hard about the issue, he’d advise his readers to join the nones and turn America into a Denmark West.

Just two more points showing Just’s cluelessness. The first is this (“Hendi” is Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University):

Churches continue to reflect the racial segregation of society as a whole. And how can institutions that drive people apart be a useful source for democratic values? The point goes beyond Christianity: To many secular Americans, religions of all kinds appear to be just one more marker of identity that separates us from one another.

It’s a major challenge, and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Yet in the long run, religion doesn’t have to be a divisive, rather than a unifying, force. Hendi told me that he thinks this is a crucial contribution that Islamic theology can make to our democratic mores. Islam, he explained, “is very particular about how God created us to be different and God wants us to be different, and that differences do not mean animosity or hatreds or negativity.” He added: “Our closeness to the divine depends on our ability to value those differences.”

What the deuce is Hendi talking about? Muslims value their differences from non-Muslims, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be the final faith and the Qur’an urges killing nonbelievers and apostates? I suspect Hendi is a weak-beer Muslim just as Just is a weak-beer Jew. But anybody who argues that Islamic theology can buttress American democracy by bringing us together needs to get out more.

As for the “evidence” that infusing America with more faith will strengthen our democracy, Just cites two studies:

None of this will necessarily assuage the worries of ardent secularists, many of whom may intuitively fear that religion correlates with an authoritarian mind-set. But academic studies suggest the situation is more complicated. One study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995, found that “authoritarianism was positively related to several different facets of less mature faith development, and negatively related to several aspects of relatively mature faith development.” Another study from the same publication reached a similar conclusion in 2007: It found a positive association between authoritarianism and religiousness, but a negative association between authoritarianism and “spiritual seeking.” In other words, yes, religion can line up neatly with anti-democratic forces — and it often has — but faith that is undergirded by the right kind of values can serve as democracy’s partner.

I urge you to look at these studies. One is based on surveys of college psychology students (a sample of 156), and neither of them surveyed nonbelievers (one explicitly surveyed only believers). Neither study says anything about what a purely secular democracy would look like.

But we already know some stuff about that, for we have an experiment. Atheism is rife in the democracies of Western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. How are their democracies doing? Pretty well, I think. Certainly better than America. Yes, the Right has been ascendant in some lands, but, in general, the healthiest democracies in Europe, and those that have the people who are happiest and most well off, happen to be those democracies full of atheists. The lesson: we don’t need no stinking faith to have a good democracy.

How Just comes to this conclusion is simply by revelation: the same way that most believers get their faith (aside from their parents, of course). As I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, hoping he’d publish this in his “Dissents” (he didn’t):

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

Just ends his 3300-word screed with an emission of gaseous verbiage; as Eliot said, not with a bang but a whimper. If you understand this, you’re better than I. But hey, it’s theology, Jake!

For [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel, we are meant to live in the world of space — the material world — six days a week, but on Shabbat, we are meant to celebrate the holiness of time. “Time,” he wrote, “has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars. … It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations.”

In the past few years, I have often felt that politics, with its never-ending loop of can’t-look-away ugliness, was stealing my time. Perhaps you have too. If our time is holy, then we simply have to figure out a better politics — one that is saner, more measured, more humble, more humane. Religion can’t solve every problem facing our democracy, but maybe, if we step into the mystery, it can help.

My response is this: no it can’t. Yes, we need to figure out a better politics, but faith isn’t useful for that. And everybody knows we have to figure out a better politics, anyway.

For your amusement, you may want to read some of the 1,600 comments by readers. A very large number of those readers aren’t buying what Just is selling. Reader Timothy, who sent me this link, attributes the pushback largely to the Four Horsemen, and I think he’s right.  Those who argue that the New Atheism was a dismal failure have to explain why so many of the religion-dissing comments would not have been conceivable had Just’s article been published in 1960 or so. New Atheism has done its job: it’s nudged the rock down the hill, and the rest is gravity.

Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!

Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

 

It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez

 

Andrew Sullivan: Sustainable liberalism requires God

August 29, 2020 • 1:45 pm

I want to add one comment to today’s earlier post on Andrew Sullivan. It gets its own space here because it’s is unrelated to the issue of violent vs. nonviolent protests.

One good feature of The Weekly Dish is that thoughtful readers write in offering criticisms of what Sullivan wrote earlier.  Sullivan then responds, and, to his credit, sometimes he admits error. But this time he touts God. Here’s a bit of one critical email and Sullivan’s answer (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

Well, yes, you have to have faith in an objective reality if you’re trying to do any effective politics, but liberalism depends heavily not only on the concept of objective truth, but on ascertaining what it is. But as for “general faith in a transcendent divinity”, well, that’s totally bogus. Why do we need belief in God to advocate liberal politics? It would seem the opposite to me: many right-wing tenets, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay positions, seem to depend on adhering to the will of a god or a faith.

It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god. (Sullivan’s a Catholic—a pretty pious one, I gather, though not an adherent to all Church dogma.) If you believe in an objective reality, then you must also believe that there are ways to ascertain what that reality is. But there is no way to ascertain the “reality” of a god, much less of Sullivan’s Christian god. The more urgent task is to weaken all faiths, not buttress them.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism.

Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund’s latest religion-osculating book

August 13, 2020 • 11:15 am

It’s been roughly four years since I wrote about Elaine Ecklund‘s efforts to show that religion and science aren’t in conflict and also that scientists are more religious than one might suspect (see posts here). A sociologist at Rice University, Ecklund has been funded, as far as I can see, nearly continuously by various Templeton grants, as their sub-organizations love her message of harmony between science and faith. And Ecklund’s analyses designed to show that have involved, in my view, a sometimes disingenuous presentation of the data—data that often don’t support her conclusions (read some of my earlier posts to find out how).

In the June issue of Free Inquiry, philosopher Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund et al.’s new book (screenshot of review and book below). The article is paywalled, but I’ve gotten permission to send Russell’s manuscript in Word, which is apparently nearly identical to what was published, to those who are interested (don’t ask unless you want to read it!):

 

The book, with seven authors (and, as you see, with Ecklund clearly the senior one), came out July 2 and was published by Oxford University Press. Click on the cover below to go to the Amazon site:

Part of the acknowledgments:

 

I haven’t yet read it, so you can use Russell’s review as a guide for whether you want to read it yourself. He’s quite critical, but, in the end, doesn’t think the book is completely worthless. After taking it apart for several thousand words, he does add an encomium at the end:

Finally, although I have emphasized what I see as an obvious pro-religious bias – and a certain amount of wishful thinking – throughout Secularity and Science, the large amount of money that went into the book from Templeton’s coffers was not entirely wasted. This book does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider. Secularity and Science is a resource, among many others, and I’m not sorry to have had the opportunity to read it. I certainly intend to make further use of its extensive information, notes, and bibliography. It just has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

The book interviewed 600 individual scientists in “elite” universities from several countries: the US, the UK (not including Northern Ireland), France, Turkey, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, most of which get their own chapter.

Ecklund’s conclusions, some of which she’s published before in papers (see my earlier posts) are predictable, and Russell summarizes them at the outset:

Secularity and Science offers numerous conclusions about the countries that were studied. With the US, for example, the conclusions are, first, that American scientists are often hostile to religion because of an exaggerated sense of the fundamentalism of the American religious public, and, second, that discrimination against religious scientists undermines American science. But these claims are, to say the least, impressionistic and conjectural. In particular, no worthwhile evidence is presented for the second claim, which would be explosive if it were true. As we’ll see, American scientists are markedly less religious than the general public in the US, and that would have been the most obvious conclusion to report.

The book also offers four overall conclusions, not relating to any particular country:

  • “Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think.”
  • “Scientists – even some atheist scientists – see spirituality in science.”
  • “The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.”
  • “Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace.”

Little of this is helpful if we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between science and religion. . . .

Russell’s three big beefs are these. First, Ecklund’s most important claim is that “there are more religious scientists than we might think”, but “the authors fail to produce any evidence as to what ‘we’ might, or actually do, think.” That conclusion, then, is little more than wishful thinking to soothe accommodationists and Templeton.

The second involves Ecklund’s claim above that “The conflict perspective on science and religion [i.e., that they’re in conflict] is an invention of the West.”  Blackford calls this a sleight of hand with the word “invention because:

Why not call the conflict model a discovery of the West, rather than an invention, since nothing in Secularity and Science demonstrates that the perception of conflict is actually false? Or why not look for a more neutral way of making the point?

For all Ecklund and her collaborators tell us, some degree of conflict, or at least tension, between science and religion might be almost inevitable. This might be a genuine problem for the ongoing viability of religious faiths, even it was first identified in Western countries and has, so far, received little recognition from scientists in Asia.

Russell then goes on to demonstrate, as I did in Faith Versus Fact, that science and religion have different epistemologies and ways of obtaining “knowledge”, that religious methods, in contrast to science’s, haven’t lead to reliably true claims about the universe, and indeed often conflict with scientific claims, and that scientific investigation has continually eroded religious belief and the idea of a supernatural. I would call that a conflict, and I define what I mean by “conflict” at the beginning of my own book.

Finally, despite the claims above, the book demonstrates, as Russell shows clearly, that scientists throughout the world are less religious—often much less religious—then are the citizens of their own countries. There is no discussion of this in the book, nor why the general populations of most of these countries are much less religious than they were, say, a century ago. This is an important question, but of course ignoring it is in keeping with Ecklund’s career-long narrative as well as with Templeton’s agenda of science/religion harmony. To be sure, Russell says that these topics weren’t within the scope of their project.

Perhaps they weren’t, but surely this question should at least have been brought up. There are several reasons why scientists in general might be less religious than the general populace, including the enrichment of science with people who weren’t believers at the outset, as well as the loss of religious faith for those working in science. (I suspect both factors are in play.) But surely, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, the huge disparity in religiosity between scientists and their lay fellow citizens bespeaks some kind of conflict between religion and science.

I wouldn’t bet that Ecklund will investigate this important question in the future.

Five misconceptions about evolution: one is dubious, another wrong

July 3, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Prowling around at The Conversation, I came across a 2016 article by Paula Kover on common misunderstandings about evolution.  It’s important for those of us who teach evolution to know these, for we need to dispel them implicitly—or, better, explicitly—when we teach evolutionary biology. I keep a list on my computer, and you can see a comprehensive summary of such misconceptions at the UC Berkeley site Understanding Evolution.

Click on the screenshot to read Kover’s short article:

Kover’s list is straightforward, though not original (and, indeed, how could it be since these are well known?), and the first four are these are generally true, but #2 has a hitch and #5 is just wrong.  In the narrative below, I’ve put Kovar’s points in bold but I’ve made a brief comment on all the points in non-bolded text.

1.) It’s just a theory.  That’s used to discredit evolution since, although it is a theory in the scientific sense, evolution is also a highly substantiated theory—so substantiated that evolution is also a fact. Yes, this is one of the most common misconceptions about evolution.

2.) Humans are descended from monkeys.  Well, this isn’t so clear. What is true is that we are not descended from any monkey living today. However, we did descend from primates that had long tails, the early members of the Catarrhini, a group of primates that includes the modern old world monkeys (Cercopithecoidea) as well modern apes + humans (Hominoidea). Another branch, the New World monkeys (Platyrrhini), are more distantly related to us than are Old World monkeys and apes.   (“Monkey” is a vernacular term, not a formal biological one.) But the point is that that the common ancestor of us, and all monkeys, in the Simiiformes, would have been called a monkey because it looked like a monkey. Here’s a diagram of our ancestry (we’re in the Hominoidea):

 3.) Natural selection is purposeful. Yes, this is a common misconception. Natural selection has no externally imposed purpose, and no consistent direction in terms of morphology, behavior, or physiology (i.e., there’s no evolutionary drive towards “greater complexity”). But there is one consistent direction: evolution by natural selection always improves the reproductive fitness of an organism. Fitness can go down, however, by other evolutionary mechanisms like genetic drift or meiotic drive.

4.) Evolution can’t explain complex organs. As Richard Dawkins masterfully explains in his book Climbing Mount Improbable, complexity is attained through a series of small steps, so an organ like the eye, which seems unlikely to have evolved de novo, did in fact not do so, but rather, in a series of small, incremental improvements of a light-gathering organ. We see this as plausible (for the eye) because we can make models of how fast a complex eye could evolve from a simple one (it’s pretty fast, see here), and we can observe in nature organs that function well but also resemble what we think are the intermediate evolutionary steps of our (and the octopus’s) “camera eye.”

Here’s what Kover says that doesn’t belong with the others, as it has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with theology and accommodationism. These are all her words:

5). Religion is incompatible with evolution

It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time. Contrary to what many people think, there is also little conflict between evolution and most common religions. Pope Francis recently reiterated that a belief in evolution isn’t incompatible with the Catholic faith. Going further, the reverend Malcom [sic] Brown from the Church of England stated that “natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense.” He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

Yes, but science posits that life arose from inanimate matter, and we know that all living things descend from one Ur-species. If what Kovar is referring to here re life’s origins is that “God could have done it,” well, we have no need of that hypothesis.

And in terms of conflict between evolution and the most common religions, the graph below, from a recent Gallup poll, shows that 73% of Americans accept a theory of evolution that involves either de novo creation (40%) or God’s tweaking of the process (33%, often to create the Special Species, Homo sapiens).

As far as what the Pope says, well, many Catholics (27%, as I recall) reject evolution and embrace creationism. They can’t even stomach their own Church’s position. Besides, Catholicism isn’t wholly down with evolution, for it accepts Adam and Eve as the literal ancestors of all humanity, which, as population genetics tells us, could not have been true. Finally, Catholics (and many from other faiths) think that humans are distinguished from all other species because we have a soul. There is no evidence for that.

A large percentage of Muslims also reject evolution outright and embrace creationism by Allah outlined in the Qu’ran. Many Orthodox Jews reject evolution as well.  And what Malcom [sic] Brown says about natural selection “making sense” has no bearing on the truth of evolution. To many, creationism makes more sense than evolution. You judge a theory not because it makes sense, but because it’s supported by evidence. After all, quantum mechanics doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Finally, examine the claim “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science and vice versa.” Nope, not true at all. Science works best when it stays far away from religion, rejecting any supernatural entities or forces. We don’t need that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine a way science would be improved by working with religion.

Religion, on the other hand, does need to work with science if it wants to avoid promulgating lies, but that is a “destructive” conversation, not a constructive one. What science does is tell religion where it goes wrong, as in its false stories in Genesis, about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, about Herod’s census involved in the birth of Jesus, and so on. Religion needs science if it wants its historical narrative to comport with reality, but many religions don’t care about that. And, again, science doesn’t need religion.

I’d recommend, if you want a list of the misconceptions about evolution, having a look at the Berkeley site I linked to above.

 

The Wall Street Journal touts “the science of prayer”

May 18, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Reader Frank sent me a copy of this article, which, being in the Wall Street Journal, is paywalled (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy).  Since I’ve become a more vociferous atheist, I tend to notice these things more often, and to me this sounds like a paean to God pitched as a “scientific” analysis of why prayer is good for you.

Now I’m perfectly prepared to accept that prayer might have salubrious results. After all, it’s a break from quotidian tasks, can be a form of meditation, and could serve, as it often does, as a conversation with an imaginary friend. As the WSJ admits, however, there’s not a whole lot of “science” to this, only a few studies and some anecdotes:

Scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power, of course. And they’ve done little research on any health benefits of prayer, largely because of a lack of funding in the medical community for spiritual research, says David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass.

How would you “measure” the existence of a higher power? Does it have a size? Either there is one or there’s not one, but that’s detected, not measured. And here are three studies:

A 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine comparing secular and spiritual forms of meditation found spiritual meditation to be more calming. In secular meditation, you focus on something such as your breath or a nonspiritual word. In spiritual meditation, you focus on a spiritual word or text. Participants were divided into groups, with some being taught how to meditate using words of self-affirmation (“I am love”) and others taught how to meditate with words that described a higher power (“God is love”). They then meditated for 20 minutes a day for four weeks. Researchers found that the group that practiced spiritual meditation showed greater decreases in anxiety and stress and more positive mood. They also tolerated pain almost twice as long when asked to put their hand in an ice water bath.

This is a bit unclear to me: was the “spiritual” meditation all invoking the divine (“God is love”—a deepity if ever there was one)? What is their definition of “spiritual”? Well, I can’t be arsed to read that study, or to find out if the effects were permanent (I doubt it; I wonder if they did just one assessment at the end of the study.) As for the ice water bath, well, that’s not something most of us are prone to encounter.

Here’s another study:

People pray for many reasons, including for guidance, thanksgiving, solace or protection. But not all prayer is created equal, experts say. A 2004 study on religious coping methods in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who approach God as a partner, or collaborator, in their life had better mental- and physical-health outcomes, and people who are angry at God —who feel punished or abandoned—or who relinquish responsibility and defer to God for solutions had worse outcomes. It’s similar to the way a loving relationship to a partner brings out the best in you, says Dr. Pargament, the lead researcher on the study.

This says nothing about the efficacy of prayer itself, but about the relative outcomes of “loving” versus “angry-at-God” prayer. Were all the outcomes, good and bad, better than those placebo non-pray-ers or of “secular” prayers? And isn’t there a complication of those people who pray benignly having different personalities from those who are angry at God? Frankly, this description tells me nothing about “the science of prayer.”

Finally, there’s this:

Prayer can also help your marriage, according to several studies at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Researchers there have found that when people pray for the well-being of their spouse when they feel a negative emotion in the marriage, both partners—the one doing the praying and the one being prayed for—report greater relationship satisfaction. “Prayer gives couples a chance to calm down,” says Frank Fincham, eminent scholar in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University, who conducted the studies. “And it reinforces the idea that you are on the same team.”

Perhaps this is the case, though of course there are secular alternatives, like discussing problems with your spouse in a structured way, or having couples therapy.

At the end, author Elizabeth Bernstein recounts her own episode of prayer, uttered when her father had a heart attack and a stroke, and she prayed with the medical staff for his life to be saved (it was). Now she says the “serenity prayer” (“God grant me the serenity”, etc. etc) over and over again.

I find almost none of this convincing “scientific” evidence for prayer over other forms of meditation—save for the supposedly more favorable (and probably short term) outcome of “spiritual” prayer over “secular” meditation—and yet calling on your imaginary friend may indeed be a good strategy. But what it doesn’t do, and what the Wall Street Journal touts ever so subtly, the suggestion that there’s somebody up there who’s listening. Yes, “scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power”, but I claim that the underlying message of this article is that such a power exists. We just can’t “measure” it!

And, if prayer improves your mental health, and praying to numinous beings gives the best results, are we supposed to pray in that manner even if we have no evidence for such beings?

Another ludicrous “Thought of the Day” from the BBC: The Bishop of Manchester assures us that we have libertarian free will

May 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve long known that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a religious homily every day at a bit before 8 a.m. I’ve heard it many times, and grumble loudly at each homily. Yesterday, reader Neil called my attention to a particularly galling homily given yesterday by the Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. It especially irked me because it was about free will—his idea that we have it in the libertarian form.

Click on the screenshot below to hear the three-minute dollop of religious blather (I’m not sure whether the BBC leaves these things up, so listen soon):

As you heard, Walker rejects determinism, claiming that if we have no “choice” whether or not to commit an offense (i.e., the future is preordained), then humans beings “have no moral responsibility for what we do.”  He claims that his own Christian faith accepts a God “who has created a universe that maintains a beautiful balance between the predictability of mathematical laws and the liberty and responsibility which comes with free will.”  Now that’s some god!

And to Walker, as with the bulk of the respondents in the Sarkissian et al. study I’ve mentioned several times, you can’t have moral responsibility in a world without libertarian free will.  Of course, without moral responsibility, you can’t be held accountable by God for your sins, sins that may include choosing the wrong savior, or no savior at all. Those who deny that libertarian free will is prevalent must reckon with the vast number of believers who are true libertarians.

(I’ll mention again that I believe people must be held responsible for their acts, but not  “morally responsible” if you construe that, as I do, as meaning “you could have chosen to do a different thing”. But of course I still believe in reward and punishment, though I won’t reiterate my reasons for the umpteenth time.)

Now you may try to tortuously parse the good Reverend’s words to say what he really means is a compatibilistic free will that, deep down, accept determinism of our actions. But I think you’d be dead wrong, for Walker states at the outset that he clearly rejects the mathematically-based determinism of science. No, he’s talking about pure libertarian free will—the kind that his sheep accept.

I’m surprised that, in a country where—although there’s a state church—Christianity is on a precipitous decline, the BBC still emits a “thought for the day” that is invariably religious. Seriously, my UK friends, why does this persist? Why don’t you write en masse to the Beeb demanding either that it ceases dispensing this goddy pabulum or give nonbelievers a chance to say something not only substantive, but bracing and true? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some words that came from science, for instance?

In fact, this happened once. Richard Dawkins was invited to give the Thought for the Day. He didn’t mince words: goddy explanations were the stuff of toddlers. After that, a humanistic thought was never broadcast again. Neil reported this:

Any mainstream faith may provide the piece, but humanists are excluded, apart from on one occasion when Richard Dawkins was allowed 3 minutes to say his piece, prior to being banned forever for saying we should be more adult in our understanding than accepting simple explanations of the world.  You can read his words here:

And here’s one bit of Richard’s talk that surely irked the BBC:

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

The crybabies are actually at the Beeb, which apparently cannot stand the idea that there may be no God, or at least don’t want to endanger public morals by promulgating such a Dangerous Idea.

Look, I know Britain has a state religion, lacks the equivalent of our First Amendment, and that the BBC is owned and run by the government. But they seem curiously immune to religious freedom and the rising tide of secularism in their land.

If you’re in the UK, have you ever complained about this daily insult to our ears and intellect? If not, why not? If a lot of people objected, would they stop it?

Here: have a libertarian free-willer:

The Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester

NBC News, reporting Jerry Stiller’s death, touts heaven

May 11, 2020 • 6:15 pm

The great comedian Jerry Stiller, who often performed with his wife Anne Meara, passed away this morning at age 92. Reporting on his life and comedy, NBC News finished the report with these words:

“Meara passed away five years ago. Now this legendary pair is laughing together again.”

Now if that isn’t a paean to togetherness in the afterlife, you tell me what it is. You might be able to confect a tortuous interpretation, like a Sophisticated Theologian®, but I see the words as a sop to the religious.

We are constantly inundated by these nods towards religion and religionists, and this is one of them. It sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s a lie.

Let’s just watch them laugh together when they were alive. Here they are on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, with Meara trying to kiss off her ardent boyfriend.

A physicist and science popularizer osculates the rump of faith

February 9, 2020 • 10:30 am

I have mixed feelings about physicist Brian Greene. On the one hand he’s a good popularizer of science (I don’t know much about his achievements in physics research), and an eloquent speaker.  In collaboration with his partner Tracy Day, he also organizes the World Science Festival in New York, a good endeavor.

On the other hand he takes lots of money from the John Templeton Foundation to run the World Science Festival, and there’s always some Templeton-sponsored events that reconcile religion and science or enable “spirituality”.  In fact, Dan Dennett withdrew from a Festival panel when he learned it was backed by Templeton (see the first link in this sentence). And Greene has always been reluctant to say anything bad about religion, despite the fact that he seems to be an atheist. Although he’s said that “there’s much in New Atheism that resonates with me“, he’s admitted that his strategy is less confrontational and less antagonistic than scientists like Dawkins. In fact, as we see below, it no longer seems the least confrontational and antagonistic, but rather worshipful.

And, as I’ve related before, I’ve been collecting signatures of secularists, scientists, and other well known people on a copy of Faith versus Fact, which will be illuminated by Kelly Houle (like WEIT was), and then auctioned off for charity. (We made about $10,400 for Doctors Without Borders.) The new book has even more signatures, including every living Horseperson, Julia Sweeney, Steve Pinker, Dan Barker, Anne Laurie Gaylor, three Nobel Laureates, and many more, so I’m anticipating another big donation—to a different humanitarian charity this time.  Everyone I’ve asked to sign the book has obliged save one:  Brian Greene, whom I encountered in Aspen. When I handed him the book, told him what I was doing, and asked for his signature, he looked at the book and refused. That disturbed me, for it seemed that he didn’t even want his name written on a book that’s critical of religion, even if the goal was to get money for charity.

At any rate, the Guardian has an interview with Greene, as he has a new book out.  You can read it by clicking on the screenshot.

 

Most of the questions are about physics, and some of the answers are interesting, like Greene’s response to the question of where and when he’d go if he had a time machine, or what big problem in physics he’d like to see solve.

But there’s also this question (in bold) and his answer:

In your book, you talk about the “majesty of religion”. What do you mean by that?
There’s a tendency, certainly among some scientists I know, to judge religion by whether or not it gives us factual information about an objective reality. That’s not the right yardstick. There are many others who recognise that the value of religion is found in its capacity to provide a sense of community, to allow us to see our lives within a larger context, to connect us through ritual to our forebears, to alleviate anxiety in the face of mortality, among other thoroughly subjective benefits. When I’m looking to understand myself as a human, and how I fit in to the long chain of human culture that reaches back thousands of years, religion is a deeply valuable part of that story.

Here we see Greene floating a version of Steve Gould’s NOMA idea: that religion is not intended to give us factual information about reality, but rather is beneficial to society in other ways. Further, he’s advancing a kind of theology by arguing that the way to judge the value of religions should completely ignore any factual claims they make about the universe. (In fact, since Greene appears to be a nonbeliever, he realizes that “alleviating anxiety in the face of mortality” requires not only a false claim about the afterlife, but an essential claim “about an objective reality.” Absent that factual claim, there’s no alleviation of anxiety.

Further, while touting the benefits of religion, Greene neglects its downside—not only its palpable falsity, but its divisiveness, its oppression of women and gays, its instillation of fear in children, the people it has tortured and killed because they belong to the “wrong” faith, the smothering morality in spreads among its adherents, and so on. No, you won’t hear a bad word about religion in this interview.  Certainly religion is an important part of the “long chain of human culture” (how could we understand the Inquisition without it?), but I for one don’t see the “majesty of religion”.

About the argument that religion can’t be judged by whether it makes factual claims, well, I think many—perhaps most—believers would take issue with that. As I wrote in a 2018 post about a thinker (Stephen Asma) who also asserted that religion is all about making people feel good and connected, and that its truth claims are irrelevant:

 But do most people think that religion’s truth claims are bogus, or irrelevant? Here’s what a random poll of all Americans (not just believers) think is true; this was taken by the Harris organization five years ago. These are all metaphysical claims, of course:

A personal God concerned with you  68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God   68%
Jesus was born of a virgin   57%
Jesus was resurrected   65%
Miracles   72%
Heaven   68%
Hell and Satan   58%
Angels   68%
Survival of soul after death   64%

Further, many well known religionists have recognized that religious belief depends on truth claims. Here are three quotes I often use as well:

“I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection  of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.”  —John Polkinghorne

“A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.” —Ian Barbour

“Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than  just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.”—Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

As I’ve said before, the biggest opponents of Gould’s NOMA idea aren’t scientists—most of whom are nonbelievers who don’t care about religion or reconciling it with science—but believers and theologians. They, at least, recognize that the truth claims of religion are vital in getting people to not only accept it, but to follow its dictates, including coughing up the dosh (10% of your income if you’re a Mormon). The three quotes above are only a small sample of those sentiments.

And as for religion’s ability to bring people together, I added this in that earlier post:

Religion is really about morality, consolation, and emotional connection. 

[A quote from Stephen Asma} :”Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power?”

If that’s the case, then give me secularism any day. For religious “morality” is often twisted and warped, more about people’s sex lives than their character. It tells them who to copulate with, what to wear, what to eat, whom to hate, and how often you should pray, and in which direction. How is that good?  And of course here are some results of Catholic “moral power,” a list I often give in talks:

Opposition to birth control (leading to an increase in STDs, including AIDS)
Opposition to abortion
Opposition to divorce
Opposition to homosexuality
Control of people’s sex lives
Oppression of women
Sexual abuse of children
Instillation of fear and guilt in children

If that’s the heart of Catholicism, please do an Aztec-style cardiectomy!

I didn’t mention Islam, but one could make similar arguments for that faith—and many others. I haven’t read Greene’s new book, but I suppose I should look at least at the bits about the “majesty of religion.”