Monday, October 6, 2014

Fly your flags high

Proposed (but never officially adopted) logo for the now defunct Atheist Discussion Group, a Boston-area enterprise active from 1998 on. The Latin above means "Christians for the flavor's sake."

A charming limerick from the young Saki (H.H. Munro, 1870-1916):
There was a young lady O'Brien,
Who sang Sunday hymns to a lion.
Of that lady there's some
In the lion's tum-tum,
And the rest is an angel in Zion.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Skeptical of the Bible? Have I got a book for you.

If I told you of a book that included the following topics, would you be interested?

  • "Contradictions and Errors in the Biblical Text"
  • "Distortion and Abrogation in the Bible:
  • "Refutation of Misleading Protestant Statements Regarding the Authenticity of the Bible"

You are interested, aren't you, you skeptics and revelation-scoffers. Well, let me not tantalize you cruelly. The book exists! In fact, it's a foundational text in the world of Muslim apologetics.

The six-volume Izhar ul-Haqq, Rahmatullah Kairanawi's magnum opus, was written (in Arabic, naturally) in 1864. Christine Schirrmacher describes the work thusly:
'The Demonstration of the Truth' (izhâr al-haqq) served as a summary of all possible charges against Christianity and was therefore used after al-Kairânawî's death as a sort of encyclopaedia since al-Kairânawî extended the material of former polemicists like 'Ali Tabarî, Ibn Hazm or Ibn Taymiyya to a great extent.
Check it out in English translation here. Don't be surprised if you have to pick around some bits that defend the existence of the Islamic god, even as you enjoy the take-down of the Christian one.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Religious typographical taboo: six points of contention

  1. While cleaning out some files earlier this week, I deleted an .epub version of the Koran from my desktop. And I wondered as I did it, would a believing Muslim have any difficulty doing the same, in light of the prohibition on destroying that book? (Because of that prohibition, Muslims in Iraq haven't destroyed the abhorrent Blood Koran created by Saddam Hussein. However, since it's "unclean" as well, they also can't put it on public display. Twixt a rock and a hard place, they are. The full-on theological debate over what to do with the damn thing rages on.
  2. My friend the religious scholar notes, when I shared the above thought with him, that there really isn't any issue of consequence of the copies being destroyed or threatened with destruction are in a language other than the Koranic Arabic of Muhammad. In Islam, it can be thought a kind of sin to read from a translated Koran. 
  3. My friend also points out: A better question is what happens to misprinted pages in Arabic editions..."
  4. An acquaintance had this to share. "My nephews went to Hebrew school in a Conservative (not even Orthodox) synagogue. Like in any school, there were plenty of handouts. Being about Judaism, the word 'G-d' showed up a lot. The kids were not allowed to throw out or recycle any handouts with "God" on them. The handouts had to be brought to some special place, where most likely a Rabbi got bribed (read: paid) to dispose of them "properly". These were #$%^&* handouts for kids in a $%^&* little school! I wish I were making this up."
  5. This same acquaintance alerts us to the religious trespass inherent in reading this on screen. "Look what we typed -- the word 'GOD' instead of 'G-d'! Who knew that an errant keystroke could hurt the feelings of the omnipotent creator of the Universe."
  6. From WP: "In Jewish tradition the sacredness of the divine name or titles must be recognized by the professional sofer (scribe) who writes Torah scrolls, or tefillin and mezuzah. Before transcribing any of the divine titles or name he prepares mentally to sanctify them. Once he begins a name he does not stop until it is finished, and he must not be interrupted while writing it, even to greet a king. If an error is made in writing it may not be erased, but a line must be drawn round it to show that it is canceled, and the whole page must be put in a genizah (burial place for scripture) and a new page begun."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Do theological divisions stick in your craw?

Over at the Interpath Conversations group on Facebook, a forum member had a question to ask about the attitude of Richard Dawkins toward believers:
This video was shot in 2007, at around the 55:30 mark he begins a comment in which he ends up saying that it "sticks in his craw" to work with "decent moderate religious people." But in more recent years, I've heard him talk quite happily about working with progressive/liberal religious people and even called them something-like his "comrades in arms against ignorance."  
Earlier in the same comment he talks about belief in a supernatural creator being incompatible with science. But I know that many (if not most!) liberal/progressive religious people are not "supernatural theists" but rather 'pan-en-theists', even if they're unfamiliar with the term. 
So, my question is, does it still stick in his craw? Or, is he now more okay with working with liberal/progressive religious folk who aren't supernatural theists? I'm merely trying to understand his point of view, not looking for an argument. Thanks!
That's a pretty fair question! I thought it deserved to be brought outside of the silo of Facebook and added to the ongoing workings-out here of topics in belief, nonbelief, and interaction across those questions that divide us.

My answer to the forum member was as follows:
Thinking about his books and public comments, I would say that what sticks in Dawkins' craw is not working with such people (the 'softcore theists', we might say), but with the idea that persons committed to making society more welcoming of scientific/skeptical ways of looking at the world should be allying with persons committed to making the work more welcoming of supernaturalistic belief.  
That is to say, it is the organizational "working with" which is problematic -- which leads to issues of conflict over incompatible commitments -- rather than interpersonal "working with."  
You've likely heard the reasoning that by helping to normalize supernaturalistic belief of the sort that Dawkins finds unwarranted, moderate or liberal believers help to create safe conditions in society where more radical or dangerous strains of belief can find an entrance point and eventually flourish. This, too, is an organizational (or societal) dynamic, and not an interpersonal one.  
Compare this attitude to, say, Sam Harris' recommendation that nonbelievers be conversationally intolerant of supernaturalistic belief, when we encounter it in our personal lives. Now, Dawkins may well be impatient with the believers in his personal life; but as I understand it, his public and written comments along the lines of this "sticks in my craw" remark aren't expressions of interpersonal animosity.
Or did I get it backwards? Is Dawkins in his personal life someone who finds theists backward or foolish? Does he go out of his way to avoid dealing with them? On the other hand, does he see the value in forging organizational alliances with theistic groups who are working toward a shared goal? You know what, I don't think it matters, not in the case of Dawkins specifically.

What matters is that we recognize this as a fair question, and an important one. If you're a believer/nonbeliever, how do you feel about interacting with nonbelievers/believers? Do these feelings get in the way of opportunities to work together? Does working together mean we are compromising our principled commitment to endorsing and proliferating a worldview?

There's a conversation we need to have about how to work with people you think are wrong in some aspect of their thinking. It would have to touch on issues of humility, cooperativeness, conviction, civility, and good will. It might even be a conversation to have with folks at a young age, since as part of your interpersonal, social skill too;-kit the ability to work alongside and in productive cooperation with people you think are wrong is indispensable. So add this topic to the syllabus for secular Sunday School. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hey, SCOTUS: faith ain't internally consistent

From Slate's coverage of the Hobby Lobby trial:
Kagan questions [the] claim that one tenet of the Green family’s faith requires that they provide all their employees with health care while another tenet requires that they deny contraception.
What's to question? I am unaware of any reason from epistemology or philosophy of religion to assume, prima facie, that the tenets we commit to when we adopt a worldview to our purposes won't be mutually exclusive. It is fruitless to look for a hidden consistency in any ethics, be it supernaturalistic or not.

Yeats recognized early on that the challenge in life was to hammer his thoughts into unity; we all face the same difficulty. Sure, a person who wishes to live  "rationally"* is going to pursue self-consistency in their ethical and epistemic commitments. But the trick is in realizing that epistemic unity is only ever imperfectly obtained. With that insight, one realizes the needful thing for humans to learn is how to be comfortable and ethical even  with that limitation.

This paradox at the heart of a self-aware life reminds me of a line from David Milch's wonderful television series Deadwood: "I believe in God's purpose, not knowing it." I'm content, atheist that I am, to let the word "God" suffice here for the illusion of a predetermined course of a events in the universe. I believe: in not knowing the point of my life. I believe: I'm free to determine a purpose for myself, in that absence of a higher plan. I believe: there's no reason to think my purpose-driven commitments will be, on first or second or further consideration, consistent among themselves. I believe: a good person embraces this state of affairs, and learns to muddle through, seeking their purpose, despite their self-contradictions.

* and we mean by this, pace Clifford, to live according to a system of beliefs each of which was acquired in a sufficiently informed fashion.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What is the Inferno of peace?

On NPR this morning I heard another report about Christian militia reprisals against the Muslim minority that took control of the Central African Republic last year in a coup. About French peacekeepers looking on while a body is mutilated by a mob, cut into pieces. About Rwandan peacekeepers there under the auspices of the African Union, haunted by the knowledge of what happened in the marshes and village of their nation 20 years ago, in '94. The speaker is Emergency Director for Human Rights Watch, calling from the nation's capital, Bangui. He describes the situation as being out of Dante's Inferno.


This makes me think: we have ready literary models -- we might call them myths, or memes, with equal accuracy -- to describe horrific violence. Why don't we have models of justice, or of conditions so intolerable to the human spirit that justice and peace is brought about immediately, that are as ready to be called upon? We need to make people of vision and ethical motive have touchstones they can use to communicate an an urgent and cogent way about situations in need of immediate remedy. It says something about the level of our global civilization that Dante's Inferno would be a universally recognizable symbol for horror, but that we don't have a universally recognizable shorthand code for conditions of peace and civil harmony.

A Roman Catholic priest in CAR brought the entire Muslim population of his community, numbering in the hundreds, into the church, and declared that they are under the protection of God. This presumably stopped whatever revenge attacks might have been planned against them by their Christian neighbors.

What empowers the Rwanda soldiers -- what explains their capacity to bring about a more positive outcome? Memory of atrocity; a sense of obligation to prevent the recurrence of evitable history. Civic authority. What empowers the peacemakers? Cultural references that are universally accessible and uniquely motivating; a vision of peace that can be readily understood and shared among new stakeholders. Cultural authority. What empowers the priest? The respect afforded to, consolidated in, his special role as mediator between the mundane and the everlasting (which may be defined as contingently as one likes...). Moral authority.

I think about these matters as I try to imagine a society without theistic religion; as I endeavor to think through and look past the enormous privilege of my fortunate birth in a more or less intellectually and religiously free society, to think of the civic needs and human nature of societies where such freedom is reduced or absent entirely. There are different levels of freedom in different parts of the world, and the freedom of a society may change from year to year, as regimes and generations change and seasons pass and technology disrupts and transactional patterns evolve.

To skip a good deal of analysis and admit simply to what is on my mind: I see the need for, the potential usefulness of, a secular Bible. A tool that can be held up, tangible, in all its undeniable here-it-is-ness. A reference that can be returned to; a blueprint and a checklist that can be consulted time and again. A foundation plan for inhering civic, cultural, and moral authority in whomever wishes to act in accordance with the account of peace laid out therein.

We need stories other than Dante's beautiful awful intricate catholic Inferno. A civic humanistic canon, as widely accessible as possible without losing the haecceity peculiar to the material of myth. A textbook of emotional engineering. The Good Book compiled by Grayling is a gesture in the right direction, but we need more experimentation along these lines. Josiah, what do you think?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On religious monuments in government buildings

Continuing the conversation started by the proposal to place a statue of Satan at Oklahoma's state capitol, the Facebook team at CBS Boston has asked a question:
Should commissioners approve the monument, or should religious monuments not be allowed at a government building?
Well, no.

The civic space should be equally accessible to all members of the community, since it is owned collectively by that community.

Philosophy and ethics are determinedly private matters, and cannot be readily translated into public language that we can all partake in. It isn't about removing contentious symbols that might offend some people; it is about making sure our government does its work in a language we can all speak. (See John Rawls for more about the distinction between private and public language.)

Here's an interesting thought: Why don't we think of the concrete absence in the public space of symbols that are religious or similarly "private" in nature, as a monument in itself? A monument that says something in its silence about our solemn shared commitment to a form of government in which persons of all and any creed can all participate equally.

(cross-posted to the Boston Atheists blog)