Monday, November 17, 2014

All others pay cash

The details of the argument aren't worth worrying about.  But since I saw it at Salon, and it prompts the need to respond, I'll respond here, but only to the titles, not to the idiotic content:

"1. Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic."

Unlike nationalism, politics, or the internet.  Do you really need examples?

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age.

Apparently all religion is Christianity or Judaism?  And what is this obsession with the "Iron Age"?  On-line atheists love that line, like it's the one irrefutable argument against "religion" (which, again, is apparently always Christianity and Judaism.  Although somehow these critiques are not anti-Semitic.  Criticizing Israel's foreign policy is anti-Semitic; declaring the foundational beliefs of Judaism a relic of the Iron Age is not.  Go figure.)

First, I want to hear these atheists decry the basic insights of Aristotle and Plato, not to mention the other foundational ideas of ancient Greece.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

One another note, one thing I learned in seminary is how similar life today is to the nomadic life of the time of Abraham.  The concerns of Moses are the concerns of anyone taking responsibility for a community today.  The tears of the prophets are my tears.  Despite huge cultural and technological differences, people across time and space remain much the same.  That is an insight of wisdom and history, not a dead weight keeping me trapped in the "Iron Age."

Well, no more than Western culture, which is still largely a footnote to Plato, is anyway.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

I assume by "faith" she means "Believing what you know ain't true."  If so:  hogwash.  Faith is not about believing despite your experience, but believing because of it.  As for "belief," it is only trust (i.e., faith) that makes me take seriously the claims of quantum mechanics, claims based more on mathematics than observation, more on ideas than experiences.  I can barely understand the terms of the theory of relativity, but I accept it as valid.  I cannot begin to prove true any of it's claims, and even the experiments I am told prove it true I have to accept as valid.  I have to trust the reports of them, in other words.  If I don't, does my computer stop working?  If I do, does my computer work any better than it does now?  I've been told quantum mechanics is involved in computer design.  Is this true?  How will I ever know, unless I trust the source of that information?

As Shakespeare understood in "Othello," everything we do is a matter of trust:  whether we trust each other (even Iago, whom we shouldn't), or trust the scientists.  I see some examples of their claims (my computer, for example), but they make far more claims than I can ever see the proof of.  Just as we just trust each other (and to erode that trust, as the story of Othello proves, is to destroy society entirely), we must trust some of what we are told.

Religion doesn't make a virtue of faith.  Faith is a virtue without which our societies cannot function.

Of course, to quote her at length just this once, this is just generalized bullsgeschicte (as we used to say in seminary):

Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. So sing children in Sunday schools across America. The Lord works in mysterious ways, pastors tell believers who have been shaken by horrors like brain cancer or a tsunami. Faith is a virtue. As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing.
So now the normal functioning of democracy has gone awry because of something that existed at the time of the American revolution, and was in fact a reason for the founding of some of the colonies?

Good to know.

 4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

I don't know where to start with this one.  Apparently churches suck up money that would better go to the United Way or the Red Cross or some charity that doesn't "work... tax free [and] gobble up financial and human capital."  At this point she's just ranting, really.

5. Religion teaches helplessness.

Or, as Jacques Derrida observed:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  At this point I'm tired of even arguing with the titles.  Res ipsa loquitor; the thing speaks for itself.

6. Religions seek power.

Again, unlike nations, or groups on the internet, or people interested in or involved in politics.   This assertion, in fact, is downright laughable:

In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When people feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens.
The usual critique of the church is that it is too wed to the society of which it is a part.  Now we find it is actually parasitic, and destructive of that society!  Damned if you do, or if you don't!  And it explains why Jews are successful in the world!  Because they aren't religious!

Or something.  Yes, I know that kind of joke borders on libel and racist, but Tarico's observation falls over the edge of the absurd.  The charges she makes against "religion" (by which she seems to mean Christianity and/or Islam, in this context) are the arguments used against Jews in Europe for centuries:  their very survival rests on destroying society as we know it.  I don't want to invoke Godwin's Law, but still....

The observation of a sociologist and a researched does not a firm conclusion make; unless, of course, you take their assertions on faith.  As for that last line, it's quite true:  unless you're talking about promoters of the "gospel of wealth" like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren; or the many Pentecostal variants in Central and South America, which are proving more popular than the Roman church at the moment.*

Of course, just what Zuckerman means by "popular religiosity" might also need to come under some scrutiny.  My guess is, it isn't what Ms. Tarico thinks it means.

But "religion" is only in America, isn't it?  And it only refers to Christianity in America; and then only to the caricature that Valerie Tarico is able to imagine, and regard as "real."

*This is the article Ms. Tarico is quoting.   It has found its conclusion, and races to find material to support it (rather than consider alternatives).  Mostly it documents a decline in religious affiliation, which is undeniable, and connects that decline to a rise in atheism (because everything is either/or.  Right?)   It's not a very well-grounded argument and it isn't interested in nuance, only in acceptable conclusions.  It uses the term "popular religiosity" without definition or explanation, except as a club to batter its point across.  And the fact the article is not published in an academic journal tells me a great deal about how carefully the subject is handled.  It is, in other words, worth the paper it is printed on.


  1. Zuckerman and Paul are both part of the Paul Kurtz alphabet soup groups pushing "secularism" and "skepticism" for which you can safely substitute the word "atheism". They are about as likely to look for information that could falsify their ideology as the Koch bros. funded Cato Institute is to falsify their market religion.

    I have come to the conclusion that anyone who has an association with those groups founded by the late Paul Kurtz can safely be considered to be dishonest and to misrepresent virtually anything impinging on their war against religion. And it is all about the promotion of atheism. The current war against religion was largely planned by Kurtz and his sugar daddy, Corliss Lamont.

  2. A few comments.

    Although somehow these critiques are not anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel's foreign policy is anti-Semitic; declaring the foundational beliefs of Judaism a relic of the Iron Age is not. Go figure.

    Reminds me of Jewish neo-cons comfort with receiving "support" for Israel from Evangelical Christians and discomfort with any liberal critique of Israel: somehow theological anti-Judaism (the only reason why I escape hell is some special "dispensation") coupled with opposition to policies and cultural changes that are by and large good for Jewish people in America is not unfriendly to Jewish but critiques of Israeli policy, which critical views are shared by at least 40% of Israeli Jews are anti-Semitic?

    One another note, one thing I learned in seminary is how similar life today is to the nomadic life of the time of Abraham.

    OTOH, a lot is different today than it was in Abraham's time (which was pre-iron-age, was it not). But that is one of the functions of what we in Judaism call "midrash", isn't it? Even by the Roman era, urban Jewish merchants had trouble relating to nomadic shepherds, so the midrash has Abraham's father being an idol-maker/seller (see Abraham was a merchant's kid, just like me!) and Isaac ends up, after the Akedah, studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber (see Isaac was a student, just like me!).

    I guess the tl;dr point is that just because a religion's formative years were in one era, doesn't mean religion cannot evolve to fit the era it's in.

    As for "belief," it is only trust (i.e., faith) that makes me take seriously the claims of quantum mechanics [...] I have to trust the reports of them, in other words. If I don't, does my computer stop working? If I do, does my computer work any better than it does now?

    Certainly I can say that quantum mechanics is based on more than just math and reasoning, because I have seen (and in some cases performed) experiments whose results are best explained with quantum mechanics. And I could tell you how quantum mechanics is involved in computer design (briefly, quantum mechanics allows us to predict how different dopants affect semiconductors and explains how semiconduction works in the first place). But still, you would have to trust me on some of this wouldn't you? I think Carl Sagan, an atheist himself, did a pretty good job in exploring how science, no less than religion, requires faith.

    As to your example of how your belief in quantum mechanics affects (or dare I write "effects") a computer's working, I have long had a germ of a science fiction story in my head (which you are welcome to write if you can figure out how to make it into an actual story) involving a biochemist who figures out that the energy required to make metabolic enzymes (etc) is more than the energy produced from the metabolism catalyzed by those enzymes ... and once this discovery is made and published, everyone starts wasting away (the story is told in the first person by the scientist who makes the discovery ... that scientist having gotten into the field because of his/her slow metabolism, which suddenly becomes the reason why the scientist is able to survive longer than everyone else).