Friday, January 30, 2015

Six Things David Marcus Gets Wrong (Out of Seven)

I've seen little commentary about the post that appeared on the Federalist website in December Seven Things Atheists Get Wrong by David Marcus. Starting off with a quick vignette about mediocre MSNBC fact-checking as a stand-in for all things atheist Marcus goes on to make seven assertions.

I'd normally leave these alone, because for they are mostly assertions with other assertions offered as support, but many of these claims are frequently tossed at non-theists as serious objections. So let's take a quick look through them, spot the holes, and move on to bigger and better things.

1. Religion Is About Morality, Not Creation Myths

Marcus starts us off with an attempt to claim the moral high ground, by suggesting that religion is concerned with how we live our lives, rather than how our lives came into being. Tell that to Ken Ham and his coterie. Or if Catholicism is more your cup of tea, Humani Generis by Pius XII in section 37 clearly states:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
So, Original Sin, a key point of Catholicism's moral framework is conditional on the literal sin of a literal Adam . Or in section 38:

 This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.

and 39:

Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers. 

We see that Catholicism in no way envisions a morality apart from the creation narrative.

So Atheists 1, Marcus 0

2. Religion Is the Foundation of All Morality, Not Merely an Expression of It

Marcus, after a glancing jab at Christopher Hitchens, tries to support his argument with the follow-up assertion:
All of us, whether atheist, agnostic, or a member of a religion, practice morality based on religion. Without religion there would never have been morality. There was no peaceful, Adamite paradise of moral choice which religion sullied millennia ago. Before religion, there was murder and rape and all manner of horrors just as there are today. 
Which is but a strawperson (check out an excellent post on the concept of religious strawmanning) of the actual atheist argument, aptly stated by Hitchens (quoting Steven Weinberg)

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it 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."

We see loving parents choose to hate their children because of religion, we see regions of the world where violence has festered for centuries because someone spoke Latin while baptizing half a village, and someone else spoke Greek while baptizing the other half. Religious relics that stood for centuries destroyed for "blasphemy".

So we can see lots of practical evidence of Weinberg's claim, but where is Marcus' evidence of religion as the font of all things moral? He doesn't feel obliged to provide any, after he dismisses Hitchens for something he didn't actually say. So "if Hitchens wrong, then Marcus right".

Not so much. Atheists 2, Marcus 0

3. Religion Was the Foundation of Society, Not an Addition to It

Marcus attempts to provide us with evidence in the form of an article by Marcel Gauchet, arguing that religious obligation created the linkages between people that evolved into society. Marcus then goes on to try and push the envelope by stating:
 It was this debt to supernatural, irrational powers that created the very notion of acting in accordance with what is good. Whether all, or some, or none of the admonitions in Leviticus or the Koran are really moral is beside the point.
So he goes from  arguing morality based on religion shared by everyone to a religion based on "supernatural, irrational powers" where the morality of the foundational texts is "beside the point". How does Marcus defend the idea that morality based on unverifiable supernatural pronouncements, that are per his definition "irrational" are superior to a morality based on social consent and mutual benefit?

He doesn't. He is too busy covering his backside by handwaving away challenges to his thesis based on the actual "moral" texts that have influenced societies. To be clear neither Christianity, nor Islam founded any societies, so whatever benefit to religion he seeks to gain with this argument, it would be fallacious to try and apply that benefit to either of those faiths.

We do see from prehistoric evidence of settlements as well as from early written history that societies were built on three things:

  1. Survival (ease in acquiring food, strength and protection in numbers,etc)
  2. Increased well-being (access to better living conditions through shared resources, division of labour, etc)
  3. Shared beliefs (some religious, others about survival and well-being, and some simple codes of morality and fair play)
We've seen these shared beliefs in animal research, and few believers want to give up their privileged position as "God's special creation" to share it with capuchins, bonobos and whales, so it's much more likely that the shared beliefs that helped build societies started with a basis in empathy and kin selection. From there, other shared beliefs have developed, including religious beliefs, but a cursory scan of societies today shows significant differences in well-being, achievement and social growth between those with religion as their societal foundation and those who support religion as one share belief option among many, with a strong secular framework to ensure that individuals and their rights are respected.

Atheists 3, Marcus 0

4. Atheists Do Believe

Marcus attempts a little sidestep to presuppositional apologetics here by questioning on what basis atheists can determine "right" from "wrong". Note that the idea that there is one absolute measure has been snuck in with that sentence. Yet, if we were to challenge Marcus to show us "right from wrong" according to his Christianity, it would be no time at all before we would point out contradictions.

Death penalty? Some Christians yes, some no. Contraception? yes and no. Eating meat? Yes and no. Corporal punishment? Yes and no. Feeding the poor? Yes and no. Obeying the government? yes and no. Masturbation? Yes and no. Keep in mind we're only considering Christianity here, and have't spread out to "religion" as Marcus does. This would multiply the contradictions.

Marcus has no objective basis for his morals. He picks and chooses along with everyone else, and while he decries science as a means of determining "right", it can work very well in determining increasing health, increased well-being, and so on. Certainly better than adopting one ancient text at random, in a sea of them. So yes, atheists have beliefs about better actions, but many do base them on science and evidence, contra Marcus' assertion.

Atheists 4, Marcus 0

5. Science Can’t Teach Us Right from Wrong

Not content to be wrong once, Marcus doubles down and makes his "evidence" from point 4 the basis of his fifth point. While the previous section provides sufficient refutation to the idea of "right from wrong" and Marcus' mistaken idea that he has objective knowledge about it, let's look at one of his points, "But even if we accept the premise that morality is entirely subjective, we still have to decide how to act."

Marcus misses the point completely that even if we believe there is an objective morality, we  still have to decide what we think it is and how it is to be applied in actual practice. So in reality, the limitation that Marcus attempts to assert for atheists is the same one faces by believers, our morals can only go as far as our understanding and ability to act. And contrary to his assertion that science can tell us nothing about moral choices, science in fact can show us the impact of moral choices on a society, such as research showing how the most religious parts of the United States show worse performance in several indicators of well-being.

So again, we have subjectivity, masquerading as objectivity to try and discredit other subjective ideas.

Atheists 5, Marcus 0

6. Religion Complements Science, It Doesn’t Oppose It

We saw in the discussion of Marcus' first point, that Pius XII forbade Catholics from even considering polygenism as part of a theory of human origins, because it contradicted the religious narrative he believed. Jerry Coyne, author of "Why Evolution is True" has also provided evidence on why science doesn't support these theological assertions, here and here. Likewise, Marcus' argument in points 4 and 5 that science play no role in morality and must give up the filed to religion, directly contradicts his argument here in point 5. Nuff said.

Atheists 6, Marcus 0

7. Ignorance of Religion Is Ignorance of History, For Atheists and Everyone

Yay! Finally Marcus gets one right. Although it borders on a tautology, since every discipline has an historical component and ignorance of any discipline leaves a gap in one's historical understanding.

That point aside, this post has shown how an ignorance of religion and its history would leave one unable to refute some of Marcus' arguments. The question arises why Marcus continues to suggest that atheists are ignorant of religious history when (1) there is so much good writing on the topic to show that the average atheist has a better grasp of religious history than the average believer, and (b) the simple refutation of some of Marcus' arguments with concrete historical examples makes one wonder why he didn't spend more time fact-checking his argument before publishing it, the same criticism he levels against MSNBC.

So in spite of his own foibles and the fact that atheists don't encourage anyone to be ignorant of religion, let's give Marcus a half point, for effort.

Atheists 6.5, Marcus .5

There you have it, common Christian objections to atheism and some initial starting points to challenge them. None of the arguments I've shared are meant to be the judo chop to the throat killer argument that ends the discussion. Rather, they're meant to cause the believer to pause and reconsider the basis for their certainty and their perception of the non-theist. From there hopefully some dialogue and better mutual understanding. And better society, based on something other than religion.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

How to Add Meaning to Life, Part 1

This will be the first of a series that I'll write on a sporadic basis. I've been intrigued with the idea of adding meaning to life since becoming a non-theist, since most theists*, whether they realize it or not, don't have that option.

Think about it. If a perfect God created the world and assigned objective truth to it all, then that truth in and of itself would be perfect. Nothing you or I could add would make it more perfect, and trying to do so would actually be doubting God, since we thought we could do better.

For those saying that God foreknew what meaning they would assign and assigned it Himself, this doesn't solve the problem. Try bringing flowers to your significant other and telling them they have no meaning at all from you, that it's only from God, and if they don't want to sin they shouldn't give any additional meaning to the flowers either. (You might also want to book a hotel room for the night before trying this little experiment, as you're likely to need a place to sleep)

So it's only apart from this worldview, of a perfect God and objective truth, that we can truly value things and give them meaning. Granted that meaning might only be relevant to you, or some things might develop shared meaning, where lots of us assign similar meaning and value to something, but we can still create meaning, like an artist.

Even an artist has to write a grocery list or sometimes doodles while on the phone, and in the same way most of us have built our experience creating meaning in mundane ways. We think about the look someone gave us in an elevator, or form an opinion of the driver who cut us off. We look around the house and decide it needs cleaning, or a new piece of art, or that it's cold.

We have a cup of hot chocolate, telling ourselves that it was the best cup of hot chocolate *ever* with a sigh tacked on for good measure. We smile thinking about someone we love and the time spent with them.

So we have the basic skills to create meaning down pat, and lots of experience, and yet so often we're still doodling by the phone rather than creating masterpieces. How do we change that?

I'll discuss that in Part 2, in the meantime, you might want to start by being more deliberate in how you think about things, and realize when the meaning you give something might be based on inaccurate or incomplete information. While you practice that, I'll give this some more thought, so that you'll be able to feel good about making the time to read the next post. :)

* I know there are Open Theists and some others who see God as something other than perfect, and as a result his Creation has room for improvement as well. Feel free to read along and glean what you might from this topic, perhaps you'll have some interesting insights to share as well.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Undignified Contrast: Canada, California and Death With Dignity

I was surprised on Wednesday to discover in my feed a story from CBC about Dying With Dignity having its charitable status revoked by the Canada Revenue Agency. While the organization has worked to make lemonade from the decision, stating that as a non-profit it will have more flexibility to directly lobby for legislative and policy changes, the decision still fails the smell test as other organizations who are much more active politically retained their charitable status.

In contrast I read about the introduction of Right-to-Die legislation in California in the wake of Brittany Maynard's death. This will provide Californians with an opportunity to debate the issue, to determine which arguments are valid and which can be set aside, and if some Death With Dignity measure is adopted, to put in place safeguards to avoid abuse or pressure on those who are ill.

While Canada is often touted as being more progressive than the US and more tolerant on issues, this appears to be one topic where we've allowed our government to promote some views over others, which restricts free discourse as much as the prohibition of unpopular views.

On a positive note, any donations made to Dying With Dignity before their status change will be eligible as a tax donation and will be able to be used by them after their change in status. So if you can, help them set up some financial reserves to assist in the transition and to help them achieve their new mandate.

Even if you don't support their message or are uncertain about where you stand (while I fully support self-determination and assisted suicide to ensure death with dignity, I don't get warm fuzzies about euthanasia and don't currently support someone making the choice for others) supporting them will ensure that the discussion continues and that people have access to information so they can reflect and come to informed decisions about an important topic.

So kudos to California for taking the next step in an important social discourse, and Canada let's work to ensure that we maintain the ability to do the same.

The SCOTUS Confession decision: What you haven't been told

There's been lots of commotion about the decision by SCOTUS to not hear the case involving the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and one of its priests. The diocese claimed that the court permitting testimony by a woman who claims to have been molested at age 14 would violate the "Seal of the confessional" and damage the free practice of religion.

In an interview the woman, now 20,  shares that 6 years ago she spoke to the priest while in the confessional about how she was being abused by one of the parishioners and asked his advice. She claims he told her to tell no one and to "take care of it" whatever that means.

Catholics have been talking about immeasurable damage allowing this testimony will cause to the church, to religious liberty and how no one will confess because the Seal has been broken and they will all go to Hell. They talk about the poor priest and how he will be forced to choose between God and going to jail.

Here are two things you might have heard, and one I'm quite certain you haven't.

1. The Diocese wants to shut the woman up. The Code of Canon Law (Canons 983 & 984) claims the Seal of Confession is to protect the penitent. It specifically prohibits the confessor (priest) from using the information heard. The diocese claims that the seal also silences the penitent and prohibits them from speaking, so the court must not hear the testimony about the Confession. The Code doesn't mention this at all, and even if it did, would put the diocese in the esteemed company of Jim Jones and the church of Scientology who also took extreme steps to limit what their members could share with outsiders,

2. The woman wasn't a sinner with regard to the abuse. This 14 year old was abused and raped by an older man. There was no consent possible, so even if you believe in sin, you have to acknowledge that there could be no sin on her part because there was no willingness. (Those of you who want to split theological hairs and try to find ways that one could sin by being sexually abused are welcome to share those ideas somewhere else, goodbye)

Since she wasn't acting in the role of a penitent with regard to this particular item of communication, the "Seal" doesn't apply here, and there should be no limit on her testimony or his response. The case sought to determine whether his response to the request for help was negligent and it's perfectly reasonable for the court to do so.

3. The priest could have avoided the entire thing. No Catholic commentator has shared what would have been the simple solution to the whole dilemma. Let's remember that this abuse occurred after Cardinal Law and Boston; after the abuse investigations in Orange County and after the US Council of Catholic Bishops implemented their training program and "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse in the church.

So in Baton Rouge, when a 14 year old girl shared with the priest in the confessional that one of the church members was abusing her sexually and she needed help, what could the priest, aware of the importance of "zero tolerance" for abuse have done?

He only needed to say, "This is awful, and I will do anything I can to help you. You did nothing wrong, and have nothing to confess about this abuse. As you know, I'm not supposed to share anything that might be considered part of a confession, so to make certain that no one will question, my getting help for you, let's officially finish the confession, and you tell me this one more time. Then I will contact the authorities and make this right for you."

That's all he had to do.

Many Catholic commentators have wrung their hands and moaned that if she had only told him outside of Confession, he could have helped her, placing the blame and onus on a scared and abused 14 year old. Instead let's put the responsibility where it belongs, with the college-educated older man who understood Canon Law and who supposedly was commanded by the US Bishops to have "zero tolerance" for abuse. He was the mature person with power in the situation and the responsibility lay with him.

The next Catholic who brings this up to you as an example of how their "religious freedom" is in danger, ask them why they support a negligent individual who failed to demonstrate "zero tolerance" and a Diocese that cared more about silencing a victim and limiting their liability rather than fixing a gaping hole in their "zero tolerance" policy and negligence by their staff.

Remind them that with freedom come the requirement to exercise it responsibly. There's a quote they claim to attach a lot of importance to about not harming "the least of these." Perhaps they could write to the Diocese and suggest they spend some time on the other side of the Confessional trying out the phrase "mea culpa" rather than demanding their rights.