The Thin Veneer of Deeply Held Religious Beliefs

“I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim—so modestly and so humbly—to possess. It is time to withdraw our ‘respect’ from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.”
― Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever.

 

A recent interview on Fox News featured Robert Jeffress, an evangelical adviser to Trump and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas defending President Trump concerning the recent Stormy Daniels scandal.  To sum up the pastor’s position:  “We don’t care what Trump has done in the past.  What is important is what he can do for us now.” The “we” that the pastor refers to is the community of the faithful, the ones with the “deeply held religious beliefs”.  These beliefs can be jettisoned in a moment with a theological slight of hand when it suits the interests of the faithful.  These are the people who are suddenly seized with concern over the “sanctity of marriage” while having multiple spouses and divorces.  These are the people who want to rewrite our laws to enforce these “deeply held religious beliefs’, beliefs that they will jettison in an instant when it suits their purposes and gains them power over others in this world, the only world that actually concerns them, the only world they really believe in. The more fanatical of their ilk will tell you God actually talks to them and gives them instructions that the rest of us must follow. To even question this claim is now perceived as insulting to them and they will demand an apology from you for having the slightest doubt that the creator of the universe talks to them and them alone and has put them in charge. How dare you question them when they demand your time, your money and, most important of all, your unquestioned obedience and acceptance of what they say?  How dare you question God?

But there is a silver lining to this.  We see right through them now.  We see them for what they are;  parasites on society, a mental cancer that seeks to destroy this nation of laws and turn it into a theocracy with they, of course, occupying the position of ‘theo’.  Their ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ are the thinnest veneer over a festering infection of hate towards their fellow man that threatens all of us.  Stand up to them and call them out when they stop indulging in their pet sins long enough to become suddenly obsessed with what others are doing. Question whatever authority they pretend to have and tell them you won’t be spoken to in that manner by some other mammal, which is all they are.  We’ve had enough and we’ve seen enough of this divine hypocrisy. Its time to push them back to the margins of society where they belong.

 

The Death of a Friend

“A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.”― Christopher Hitchens

Monday mornings and I have never managed to come to any sort of rapprochement.  Mondays are not the sort of day one looks forward to for obvious reasons but some are far worse than others.  For me, this last Monday was one of the more terrible ones.  I was greeted with the news that an old friend had finally lost his ten year battle with cancer.  The news from the week prior was not good but we all expected him to make a recovery as he had many times previously.  Fate, it seems, had other intentions for our friend this time.

In this day of social media news spreads quickly. Well wishes and condolences started to stream in.  I found myself on the phone with mutual friends who I hadn’t spoken with in years.  I’ve always thought it a shame that that the only time we call or reach out to each other these days is when someone we know passes away.  It was good to hear their voices as it reminded each of us of a time when our friend was still there, laughing one more time about the adventures of our youth and the coming of age experiences we shared. As we talked and the conversations moved to what was now the all consuming event in our lives, the death of our friend, we seemed to part ways in spirit.  They took great consolation believing that the spirit of my friend ‘lived on’ in heaven and would be watching over those of us who were still dwelling in the land of the living. It was if they were talking about color to a blind man.

I’m a naturalist so I don’t have a belief in the supernatural which includes a place where the departed spirits go after this life is over.  All we have, in my view, is our brief time together while we are alive in this world.  I take consolation in the fact that my friend left a large body of work for us to enjoy and the memories I have of the times and experiences we shared.  I find it especially rewarding that I can look up at a sky full of stars and remember the many times we spent gazing through my telescope and waxing philosophical about life, the universe and everything, to quote Douglas Adams. These memories also create a sense of urgency in me to take out the telescope when I might not feel like it, to pack up the bass and head out to that Blues Jam when I would rather stay home and to sit down and write that article when all I’d rather do is surf Facebook.  We all have a limited time to do the things we want to do; some of us have more than others as life so often brutally reminds us. Eventually the silence of the grave will overtake us all and our voices will be extinguished.  But while we are alive our voices ring out loud and clear.  Now is the time to be heard, now is the time to make music and dance.  May the life of my friend and all he accomplished constantly keep this fire alive in me; I can’t think of a better way to honor his memory until that eternal silence overtakes me.

The Laurence Krauss Debacle

A recent Buzzfeed article by  Peter Aldhous Azeen Ghorayshi Virginia Hughes

I’d encourage everyone to read the BuzzFeed article as it is not without bias against secularism.  That being said there are a number of things in it that concern me. First and foremost the article states that Dr. Krauss has been banned from the campuses of two institutions, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario in response to complaints made against him.  If true, this points to a pattern of behavior.  The second is Dr. Krauss’s response to the current allegations against him.

From the article,

In lengthy emails to BuzzFeed News, Krauss denied all of the accusations against him, calling them “false and misleading defamatory allegations.” When asked why multiple women, over more than a decade, have separately accused him of misconduct, he said the answer was “obvious”: It’s because his provocative ideas have made him famous.

“It is common knowledge that celebrity attracts all forms of negative attention from many different angles,” Krauss said in a December email. “There is no pattern of discontent revealed here that suggests any other explanation.”

My gut response to this is that his reply smacks of deflection.  After further reflection, I am convinced that is what he is doing. I am a big fan of his work.  His ability to communicate complex and difficult ideas is one of the best I’ve seen.  Ergo, his inept response to these allegations raises even more suspicions in my mind.

Dr. Krauss has already suffered some repercussions from these allegations according to a recent Gizmodo article. If the allegations are confirmed then it is the moral responsibility of all organizations to cut ties with Dr. Krauss for two reasons.  First, the behavior itself.  This sort of behavior should not be tolerated and it is up to the secular community to make a strong statement that it will not be tolerated within it’s ranks and follow those words up with equally strong actions.  Second,  the self-professed sine qua non of the secular movement is the pursuit of the truth.  We are fond of posting memes and quotes in social media and arguing in debates that it is the quest for truth that motivates us no matter how uncomfortable that truth may turn out to be.  If these allegations are proven to be the truth then Dr. Krauss’s initial denial was a flat out lie.  That permanently disqualifies him to be a standard bearer in an organization or movement that professes to hold truth as the ultimate good.

The Berlin Wall – A Melancholy Anniversary

“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

 

This month marked what should be a joyous anniversary of the Mauerfall – the fall of the Berlin Wall.  For on the fifth of February the Wall had been down as long as it had been up;  precisely 10,315 days had passed since the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall has always always been a part of me having lived under it’s shadow for three years and having been extremely privileged to have played a very small part in the effort which eventually brought it down. What makes this anniversary bitter-sweet is that the ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Thomas Paine that sparked our own revolution and were the ideas that inspired the spirit of the people behind that wall to demand freedom and ultimately tear down both the physical and ideological barriers that enslaved them are now despised in the very country which began because of the revolution those ideas inspired. The only revolution still standing.

I can still vividly recall that warm summer afternoon in 1979 when my flight from Frankfurt touched down at Tegel.  I was in West Berlin. Walking through the terminal to get to the taxi stand I noticed that there was an electricity in the air that was as palpable as the electricity you feel when walking the streets of midtown Manhattan.  In spite of being surrounded by everything foreign, the language, the items for sale in the shops I walked past, or the Polizei walking two by two, machine guns at the ready, the zeitgeist in that terminal caused me to feel like I was home in a very subtle but moving way.  This feeling of being home was able to anchor me over the next three years which turned out to be the most transformative years of my life.

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The Cold War was fought and won in buildings like this all over the world. Our duty station was only a stone’s throw from the Wall.  You could see the Wall and the oversized watchtower as you walked through the front gate every time you went to work.  It was a daily reminder of what you were fighting against.   The time spent off-duty with the wonderful people of West Berlin was a constant reminder of what you were fighting for. The people of West Berlin were amazing.  They taught me how much I took for granted.  They taught me resilience and poise under the most difficult of circumstances.  They taught me what good wine and what good beer was. Most importantly they taught me that the values we shared could survive any ideology, any foe, even an attempt to starve it to death. They were living proof of that. It was an honor to stand watch and defend them.

When the Wall came down it sent a clear message to the world that the rights of men and women to determine their own destiny, to be free to hold whatever ideas seemed good and right to them still had the power to transform nations. The power could be seen in all its glory in the streets of the city we once again simply called Berlin.

As I write this Angela Merkel has told what remains of ‘the West’ that they can no longer count on America. Indictments of Russian interference in our 2016 Presidential election have been released.  We have a President who is suspected of entering into collusion with the Russians to steal the election. He currently is refusing to sign into law the strict sanctions against Russia the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed. Our love for freedom has morphed into a fetish for guns at whose altar we will gladly sacrifice our children by the dozens.  We have Nazis marching in our streets and running people down with cars. We have turned hate into a virtue. But, as I write this, it appears that a nascent democracy is trying to birth itself in Iran. They are shouting down the Mullahs, burning Korans and Hijabs in the street and are willing to risk it all for the values they hold and the rights they demand.  I hear the echos of the voices I heard on the streets of West Berlin in the shouts of the young people marching in the streets of Iran.  It is good to see the revolution of 1776 is still alive and well in the world.  It is sad to see it dying here in the land that started it all.

The human species – a naturalist conjecture

One question still unanswered in biology and one that is of special interest to me is what happened to our evolutionary branch that made us so different than our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree, the chimpanzees and bonobos? Putting aside supernatural explanations as well as wild speculation about aliens doing genetic experiments on our race as something to do while taking a break from construction of the pyramids, the correct explanation will be provided by science.

An excellent article on the Smithsonian’s webpage states that the difference between our DNA and our nearest relatives on the evolutionary tree is about 1.5%.  It is within this difference that the mutations that make us uniquely human are most likely to found.  There are various conjectures at this point but the one that rings the most true to me comes from a talk given by Dr. Brian Thomas Swimme which I was fortunate to stumble across a few years ago. The narrative goes something like this:

When you compare human infants and chimpanzee infants the similarities are striking.  As they develop, like most mammals, the young enter a period of play and exploration necessitating a constant eye on them by the mother and the extended family.  This period of play by young mammals is observable in all other species of mammals such as dogs, cats, bears lions, and even Orcas. In most mammals this period is short lived compared to humans, even in species that have comparative lifespans to ours.  Soon after this phase in most other mammals the genetic programs kick in and the adult forms emerge complete with the physique and skills necessary to be lion, or a chimp or any other adult mammal.  Not so with the human.  It appears that the genetic programs that are activated in our closest and most distant cousins are not activated in humans.  We retain a lot of the physical and mental features we had in childhood and adolescence.  How might this be explained and what are the implications for us as humans?

There is a set of genes called the Hox genes which control the rate of development in animals.  The conjecture is that there was a mutation or a series of mutations in the Hox genes in humans which resulted in the slowing down of our development. While most species’ young stay in that playful and explorative phase for a brief time, humans in many ways never develop out of it.  We retain that wonder and drive to explore our surroundings throughout our entire lives.  In other words, compared to other mammals, members of our species never completely ‘grow up’ and the genetic programs that kick in to make a Chimpanzee a Chimpanzee never kick in for the human.  As Swimme speculates, there are profound meanings for us if this is the case.  We retain that wonder and, as we mature, it changes into a desire to know and understand. We retain that playfulness and our desire to play and enjoy ourselves still fills us with longing.   There are also other implications to this.  When the genetic programs kick in to transform a tiger cub into an adult tiger all the necessary knowledge and skills are included.  No one has to teach a tiger how to be a tiger; the DNA does that.  In humans, this is not so. The adult genetic programs, specifically the ones telling us ‘how to adult’ never get turned on.  What does this mean?  In a very real sense it means that humans don’t know what they should do.  Lions and tigers and bears don’t suffer from the search for meaning and purpose, a search that seems to have afflicted humans throughout our history.

It is an interesting conjecture that, on the face of it, seems to point in the direction to where our uniqueness as a species can be found.  I’m hopeful that I will still be alive when the conjecture becomes theory.

Review: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton

I had read a lot of vitriol from the secular community regarding this book and made a point of re-reading Hitch-22 since Taunton referenced it in his opening description of Christopher Hitchens. So armed I was looking forward to reading it to see if all the ruckus was justified. As it turns out, the book is rather anti-climactic. There is nothing in the book that would lead one to think there was any deathbed conversion. I have respect for Taunton insofar as any discussions of conversion he writes about is no different than what one would hear from any believer contemplating the death of a non-believing friend who, during the time they were alive, had philosophical and religious discussions about faith and belief and fervently hoped for a last minute change of mind. The book centers on a trip through the Shenandoah Valley after a debate that Taunton had moderated and a subsequent trip after the debate that Hitchens and Taunton had in Billings Montana. I would recommend watching the debate between Hitchens and Taunton which is freely available on YouTube.

Most apologists are guilty of causal simplification in their arguments against unbelievers and Taunton is no exception. This should preach well to his followers to which this book is very clearly directed. For the unbeliever and/or the fan of Hitchens this book does have something to offer and I’d recommend reading it if for only these two reasons. If you are looking for a compendium of tired old canards and jingoist slogans against atheists this book is for you; you’ll not find a better one. The other and more important reason is to see the paucity of Taunton’s thinking which is representative of the sort of mind that finds Taunton’s sophistry impressive. It is readily apparent Taunton is quite pleased with himself and his conclusions which makes one feel a bit obligated to extend a degree of pity towards him.

Taunton takes Hitchens’ expression of “keeping two sets of books” and accuses Hitchens of doing the same thing both in his movement from the Left to the Right and his subsequent support of the Iraq war and his desire to spend time with Taunton (they genuinely liked each other) to find out what Taunton believed and why. Taunton assumes that it is not possible to possess a mind that allows facts to change your opinions over time about your beliefs, even deeply held ones. One cannot sit in the pew every week making the outward professions of faith while at the same time holding doubts about certain tenets of one’s faith and working through these issues in one’s mind, according to Taunton’s thinking. You either believe or you don’t. Questioning is what Taunton would have you believe is “keeping two sets of books” and he accuses Hitchens of doing exactly that. While publically being a firebrand atheist up to his passing, Taunton interprets Hitchens desire to understand his friend’s thinking as evidence that Hitchens was himself “keeping two sets of books” and furthermore was evidence that Hitchens was really considering converting in much the same way Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s younger brother, converted later on in life. Anyone who has read Hitchens would see through this in an instant. A more apt example of what Hitchens considered “keeping two sets of books” would be Ted Haggard, the anti-homosexual preacher who lost everything when his long time homosexual relationships and drug usage were exposed.

As I write this review I am reading an article about Taunton resigning from his position as director of the Fixed Point Foundation after being confronted with allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with two young women on the ministry staff, according to sources familiar with the situation. If true, hopefully this will correct Taunton’s misunderstanding about what “keeping two sets of books” actually means.

Life does begin at conception – a secular view

A recent article from Newsweek was making the rounds in social media this week reporting on the new strategic draft issued by the Department of Health and Human services.  The draft includes language that defines life as beginning at conception.

“HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”

The comments on this article were cleanly divided across ideological lines: those against abortion considered this a major victory while those for abortion considered this a major setback. It is neither and that debate seems to be nothing more than a red herring at best. I think the science is quite clear: life, whether it is human or otherwise, does begin at conception.  Once the egg and the sperm fuse the resulting DNA is human DNA which, for those of us who have their worldview informed by science, is the sine qua non of being human.  The DNA is unique to the developing embryo and will stay just as unique throughout the entire gestational period until the mother gives birth. The mother and the child are separate and equal both in fact and, as I will argue, under the law.

The anti-abortion argument goes something like this:  if you grant that the child is a child from the moment of conception (granted) then aborting the child at any point along the timeline spanning conception to birth is murder since you are taking a human life. It follows then that we should legislate according to this understanding since our laws consider murder a capital crime and our legal system, rather than aiding and abetting this, should be consistent in outlawing and prosecuting those who engage in this practice as they would any other individual or group who commits murder.  The question is, does this argument follow from granting personhood and the subsequent legal rights that personhood entails in our society to the developing child?  My contention is that it does not.

What the understanding that life begins at conception does do is grant both the mother and the child equal rights under the law. This is what logically follows, not the idea that the ending of the child’s life is murder anymore than the death of a mother due to complications while carrying a child to term is murder.  In a secular society that follows the rule of law, we are all considered equal under the law.  If we are all considered equal, including the developing child, then no one, including the developing child, has the right to use anyone else’s body for any reason, including survival, without that person’s consent. That is the proper legal stance that government should hold and should base it’s legislation on.  Given this understanding, the decision whether to have or to not have an abortion is left with the mother, her conscience and her doctor’s advice.