What he said:

Penn Jillette on Piers Morgan’s show (watch the first 10 minutes):

Wow, go Penn!

I love this example of atheist/Christian dialogue.  I thought Penn hit the perfect tone — approachable and friendly, yet still able to openly disagree with Morgan.  It’s funny to see how flustered and angry Morgan gets as he tries to bait Penn in the various traps believers like to lay out for nonbelievers (ie., the arrogance of atheists, the beginnings of the universe, death, etc).

I’m going to watch this clip again — and I’ll be buying Penn’s book, too.

good without god.

[more on my recent podcast interview]

Part of our discussion on Wednesday touched upon morality.  At one point, I ended up talking about where I find a basis for morality, since I no longer believe in a divine moral lawgiver.  I’ll readily admit that I’m not a philosopher, so talking about objective vs. subjective morality not an easy discussion for me to have. (part of me thinks believers get off a little too easy when it comes to answering these kinds of complex questions, because they can just say “God.” and be done with their answer.)

I ended up talking about the ethic of reciprocity, and how most ethical systems can be boiled down to this principle of doing good to others, because you would like to have good done for you.  I don’t think my answer was too radical of a concept, but then our conversation drifted into implications of individual selfishness and reciprocity.  (ugh)

Well, I wish I could have steered the talk of morality in a different direction.  I wish I could have brought up Psalm 14:1, and asked them about what they thought of the verse.  Psalm 14:1 reads:

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.

Now here’s a verse most atheists will recognize, because it’s one usually hurled in our direction. It’s the last part of the verse I would have wanted to talk about — the notion that the godless are corrupt, full of vile deeds, and up to no good. There aren’t many Christians out there who would admit to agreeing with the last half of the verse — but I know many people who still hold onto the idea that god is a necessary prerequisite to being good. But is it true?

Not according to evidence.

Part of my reading prep for the interview involved me reading the peer-reviewed article “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” by Phil Zuckerman. This article compared different societies’ levels of religiosity to their levels of violent crime, happiness and well-being indexes, health care services, standards of economic equality, education, and several other categories.  The result?

… societies with higher percentages of secular people are actually more healthy, humane, and happy than those with higher percentages of religious people.

The author was sure to point out that the amount of secularity doesn’t necessarily cause these positive factors in society, but being irreligious does not seem to be a hinderance to having a good and happy life.

I guess this brings me back to another point I wish I could have pressed the two Christians on — why do I need to be a Christian?  If evidence shows societies to function just fine (if not better) without religion, why do I need to be religious?  If I can find meaning and significance in the natural world around me, why do I need to add a supernatural belief on top of it?  If I can be good without god, why do I need Christian faith?

Still waiting for the answers to these questions.

Rationalizing Genocide

How did I spend my Sunday morning?  Writing out a long comment to a pastor who was attempting to defend the genocides of the Old Testament.  Here’s my response to his rationalizations:

Thanks for the time you took in writing out this response.  I can tell you put a lot of time and energy into it, and I would be open to reading a book you’d write on the topic!  I do have a few issues with some of your explanations.

But before I get too picky, can I just state the obvious?  Can you hear yourself defending (rationalizing!) acts of genocide?  I’m always dismayed when I hear someone mentally disconnect the argument they’re making from the act they’re defending.  To be honest, it was one of the primary motivating forces that helped me reject my faith.  I got tired of having to condone God’s go-ahead for genocide.

You say that applying our “cultural mores” onto the horrors of genocide is an “anachronism.”  I’m not sure what to make of that statement.  So genocide (ie., the systematic act of killing a racial/cultural group) is a value that is relative to the time one lives in?  I’m having a hard time imagining a period of time in human history when it would be excusable to slaughter an entire people group.

So proving to me that I’m being anachronistic is going to be a tough sell.  You’re going to have to show me that the moral precept we hold that genocide is wrong was somehow NOT wrong back then.  I have a feeling we’ll come back to the supposedly-moral framework of “God is moral, God told the Israelites to murder, Murder is moral.”  You may be content in such a framework, I am not.

I know that there are other examples of ancient literature where these acts of systematic murder are described, and I find those passages equally horrifying as well.  But the difference between reading the Illiad and reading the Bible is that people don’t put any spiritual credence in the former.

I’m disappointed that you describe genocide as simply “distasteful.”

To summarize your arguments rationalizing genocide:
1. Genocide was not as evil of an act back then as it is today, so applying our 21st-century standards to this act is “anachronistic”.
2. Other people groups back then were committing genocide, so the Israelites were just following warfare protocol.
3. The ends justify the means argument: wiping out Israel’s enemies may have been unfortunate, but necessary — akin to the violence necessary to resolve other human atrocities such as slavery, racism, and fascism.
4. God compromised morality on behalf of the Israelites, and allowed them to commit such acts.
5. Israel is God’s “covenant people”, so “to maintain their cultural and religious distinctiveness”, wiping out a few ancient near eastern cultures is completely excusable.
6. The Midianites were bad people in their day, so they had it coming to them.

I asked you specifically about  Numbers 31.  I find it telling that you completely avoided commenting on the another morally “distasteful” passage in that chapter. Not only does God condone genocide, but he also mandates rape.

The Israelites went and destroyed all the males of the Midianites, but brought back as captives the “women and the little ones” (verse 9).   Moses then specifically goes to the Israelite army and tells them to KILL all the “women who had known a man” along with all the male children — *BUT* they could keep all the young virgin girls for themselves (verses 17-18).  As the chapter closes, these (32,000!) young girls were counted — along with the livestock — in the list of Israel’s war “booty” (32-35).  I don’t think I’m being anachronistic in being horrified by such actions on the part of such a God, and such a “covenant” people.

As I close, I noticed you describe yourself as a “good historian” — have you watched the PBS documentary of “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”?  This doc consults many historians, scholars, and archeologists who have the thesis that much of the OT as history is inaccurate.  The genocidal atrocities weren’t military coups, but more of a social/cultural revolution.

I’m curious how he’ll respond. I, for one, am feeling pretty sick inside after having to think about such atrocities. But, at the same time, I’m also glad I got out of the business of finding theological reasons to condone such cruelty.

In the meantime, it looks like Luke has posted a pretty comprehensive list of articles from theologians and non-believers who have responded to the OT genocides.  Check it out.

EDIT: I responded again, and here’s what I wrote: Continue reading Rationalizing Genocide

What he said:

[All religions] make the same mistake. They all take the only real faculty we have that distinguishes us from other primates, and from other animals—the faculty of reason, and the willingness to take any risk that reason demands of us—and they replace that with the idea that faith is a virtue.  If I could change just one thing, it would be to dissociate the idea of faith from virtue—now and for good—and to expose it for what it is: a servile weakness, a refuge in cowardice, and a willingness to follow, with credulity, people who are in the highest degree unscrupulous.

Christopher Hitchens
in the debate “Does Atheism Poison Everything?

Why I like to argue

(and it’s not just because I’m disagreeable)

I’m very vocal in my affection for Rachel Maddow.  I love how impassioned she’s been in covering the BP oil spill, I love how she’s social-justice minded, and I love how she doesn’t sink down to the lowest-denominator when covering the gong-show antics of Republicans these days (though there’s no shortage of material available).

One of the ways that Rachel is different from Keith Olbermann is how she doesn’t just take the easy cheap-shot when covering some of the wackier news of conservatives.  She takes a bigger picture approach, and it’s one that leaves the viewer (me!) in a place where I feel challenged and educated, not just entertained for a cheap laugh (a la “worst person in the world” clips, etc).

Last week offered one of those moments for me.  Maddow was covering the Sharron Angle interviews in Nevada — a little background: if you’re looking for wingnut Republican, Angle pretty much fits the bill in her platform stances.  But rather than just stringing together a bunch of clips that would just illustrate how silly this candidate is, Rachel took another approach, and made a commentary of why it’s important to open up conversations with people who you don’t necessarily agree with.  Here’s some of what Rachel said:

But when Sharron Angle‘s political career ended last night on local television in Nevada, it was a perfect case study in what happens if you don‘t ever talk to people with whom you disagree.  Because here is the thing – when your positions are never questioned, you‘re never forced to develop strong logic to back them up.  When your arguments are never challenged, you don‘t ever have to improve them.  You don‘t ever have to cast out arguments of yours that don‘t make sense or learn how to deal with evidence that appears to contradict your conclusions.

That‘s why I regret that we don‘t have more conservatives on this show.  Because I do have a point of view, of course, but I like talking with people with whom I disagree, both because it is fun and selfishly because it makes my arguments better. [my emphasis] link

Here’s the clip from the show:

While Rachel was talking in the context of politics, I can take what she’s said and apply it to other areas of discussion/debate that I love to take part in — including conversations on religion.

I once had a friend who never understood the merits of a good argument.  One night another good friend and I were duke-ing it out over the cinematic worth of The Hurt Locker (she hated it, I liked it), and for some in the room with us, they were quite upset to see how impassioned each of us were in our position.  But we weren’t “fighting;” we were seriously discussing our positions — and afterward, we learned more about each other in the process (not to mention the fact I got to gloat over all the Academy Awards the film eventually won).

It’s for these reasons that I enjoy opening myself up to all the untouchable subjects of conversation (read: politics and religion) — namely, because I like to be challenged just as much as I like to challenge.  It’s just a shame that many people today would rather surround themselves with ideological clones, rather than opening themselves up for debate.

Pragmatically pro-life

In an article “Libertarians Realizing Rand Paul Is Not One of Them“, there was an interesting section on Paul’s extreme anti-abortion views.  The quotes from the article are originally found in this Reason.com article by Jacob Sullum.  Rand Paul supports “any and all legislation that would end abortion or lead us in the direction of ending abortion,” including “a Human Life Amendment and a Life at Conception Act as federal solutions to the abortion issue.”

Part of the power of the pro-life position is in its rhetorical positioning of supporting “life,” and of course it sounds good to say “life begins at conception.”   There’s even rhetorical power in claiming that “abortion is murder” and that all such procedures should be banned — but what does it PRACTICALLY mean to hold such positions?

Sullum quotes this report by Ari Armstrong:

The logical conclusion of abortion bans is that government agents should forcibly restrain women to prevent them from getting abortions. After all, if abortion is murder, as advocates of abortion bans routinely claim, then driving down the street to obtain an abortion is morally and legally equivalent to driving down the street with a loaded shotgun to blow your neighbor’s head off. Police have every right to arrest and forcibly restrain threatening individuals. If abortion is murder, then a woman who declares her intent to get an abortion has threatened murder and must be strapped down if necessary to ensure delivery.

But a fertilized egg is not a person. A fertilized egg does not properly have the legal rights of a born infant. Abortion is not murder. Women have every right to take birth control drugs or obtain an abortion. Abortion bans place a woman’s body under the control of the government and threaten to unleash a heavy-handed police state.

This is the tack I like take when I’m talking to people who are anti-choice — mainly because I think it’s important for anyone to be able to recognize the logical outcomes of the position you hold.

I also like to point people to this NYTimes article Pro-Life Nation, that describes the quality of “life” for women in the country of El Salvador (the only country in the world whose Constitution codifies “life begins at conception”).

I’m not out to change people’s minds when it comes to this issue — but I am out to make sure people understand the reality behind the rhetoric they’re spouting.

My kind of church

I spent my Sunday morning, in my pajamas, watching this debate:

(part 1 of 11)

Is There Meaning in Evil and Suffering?
Description: A panel discussion and debate on the meaning of evil and suffering from theists Dr. William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, atheist Dr. Bernard Leikind (a plasma physicist and senior editor of Skeptic magazine), and Hindu Dr. Jitendra Mohanty (one of India’s most distinguished Hindu philosophers and professor at Emory University).

These are the kind of debates/discussions I enjoy the most — why waste time arguing over the existence of something unprovable, one way or another?  It’s far more interesting to talk about the problem of evil. These kinds of discussions confirm for me why I rejected Christianity.  In this debate, the explanations provided by Craig and Zacharias for the evils allowed (condoned?) by an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God fell FLAT.  It basically boils down to “trust God to work things out in the end,” which doesn’t answer the question (not to mention it’s unsatisfying).

One thing interesting to note when watching this debate (and it’s a trait I’ve noticed when talking with believers) is how quickly Zacharias and Craig divert themselves away from specific examples/questions of evil or morality and rush back to the generalized platitudes of their faith.  For example, in the debate above, when talking about absolute morality, at one point the naturalist asked the theists whether they thought divorce was immoral.  Faster than you could bat an eyelash, Zacharias diverted away from the question into generalizations.

And I suppose I can’t blame ’em, because the rhetorical power in saying you have absolute objective morality lies in being able to make the statement without having to provide specific examples to back it up.

A final lesson learned from the above debate: I think Ravi Zacharias is far more of a jerk than William Lane Craig (and this is saying a lot, because I am *not* a fan of Craig’s snarky delivery).  In the debate, watch how Zacharias first responds to the naturalist (Dr. Leikind), and you’ll see why I award Zacharias the “asshole apologist” award.