Those Fanatical Atheists

For the Ottawa Citizen, Dan Gardner asks just what is supposed to be so radical about Dawkins’ and other popular atheists’ views. Is it what they’re saying, or how they say it?

But just what is the core of Dawkins’ radical message? Well, it goes something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so. That’s it. That’s the whole, crazy, fanatical package.

Why does fighting for sense and sensibility in full public view make someone a radical? Why do some claim that atheists are just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists?

This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims (“John was the main creative force behind Sergeant Pepper”) and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important (“Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction” being a notorious example).

Or is it, as I suspect, the mere fact that they’re saying it all? The strange truth is that questioning religion is still equated with the crossing of a cultural taboo — even (strangely) among agnostics.

We’ve had this discussion here before, but the “fundamental” difference bears repeating: Fundamentalists ask us to accept metaphysical claims without evidence; atheists ask us to question everything — even atheism.

Re-published with public comments on

Music: Deep Rumba :: Si! No!

Religion in Second Life

A sincere religious community is developing within the synthetic atmosphere of Second Life.

Leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites estimate about 1,000 avatars teleport into churches, synagogues or mosques on a regular basis. Hundreds more list themselves with Buddhist, pagan, Wiccan and other groups.

The extracted video, both beautiful and eerie, gives me the willies, and I’m not exactly sure why. On one hand, it’s no more or less odd than any other simulation of the real world that takes place within the game. On the other, religion is all about community, and the religious community in 2L is virtualized – people never meet, and yet they do. Not sure what that means for things like religious involvement in local charities (are there soup kitchens in 2L too?), but I suppose it’s not so different than a drive-in church.

Thinking now of Europe’s great cathedrals and the centuries of hard labor it took to build them. Since Second Life is so heavily construction oriented (everyone’s both an architect and a contractor), will avatars set themselves to toil and construct some of the grandest and most ornate places of worship ever conceived?

Parallel question: Is Second Life a game, or is it something else? I know what Wittgenstein would say, but I’m not sure even the Second Life community itself have an answer to that one. If it is a game, what would that say about engaging religion within it? Perhaps “It’s only a game if you treat it like one.”

Music: Jim White :: Wayfaring Stranger

Peanut Butter: Atheist’s Nightmare

The fact that life has never spontaneously emerged from a jar of supermarket peanut butter is apparently all the proof we need that evolutionists are off their rocker.

What, Chuck Missler never heard of preservatives (added specifically to prevent life from spontaneously erupting from food?) Or that billions of years of planetary soup-making isn’t quite comparable to a cup of goo sitting on a supermarket shelf for two years?

And then there’s the other atheist’s nightmare: The banana, so clearly designed to fit in the human hand and mouth that it’s clear evidence of God’s handiwork. Never mind that bananas weren’t quite so well-engineered to fit human hands and mouths before we evolved them to do so.

KFC Seeks Blessing from Pope

Kentucky Fried Fish for Lent? The KFC corporation has contacted the Vatican, asking the Pope to bless its new Fish Snacker sandwich, thinking it will be popular among Catholics during Lent. If His Miter-ness grants the blessing, it will bind one of the world’s largest religions to one of the world’s largest fast food establishments, in an unholy union straight outta Compton. And the beginning of a trend that will result in churches handing out fast food menus during service, with sanctified items specially marked with circles and arrows and Google Maps mashups with driving directions to participating franchises. Corporate kickbacks could generate enough revenue to replace tithing.

Music: Bongwater :: His New Look

More on The God Delusion

Seems like you can’t shake a stick lately without stumbling on a discussion about “the new atheism.” Kids’ birthday parties, water cooler conversations at work, barbershop, discussion lists. Sparked by the release of new books by Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett, all of a sudden it’s OK to talk about atheism. We’ve had some great conversations here recently on the subject, but it seems like the topic is bottomless.

In a recent Wired cover story, the state of modern atheism was compared to that of homosexuality slowly emerging from the closet a few decades ago. When pressed, many people who publicly claim agnosticism turn out actually to be atheists afraid of offending the present company. Because to declare yourself an atheist is to say “All that stuff that means more to you than anything, that belief system you hinge your life upon? I reject it entirely.” In other words, it’s not polite to declare yourself an atheist. That’s what the “new atheists” want us to move beyond.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does an amazing job in this BBC interview of summarizing the views of contemporary atheism in ten minutes. Dawkins is extraordinarily well-spoken and charming, though some theists will no doubt find him strident.

Dawkins also has a great essay up on Yahoo: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God. Also worth listening to him describe the stunning predictive capacity of quantum theory to a Christian. If you’ve got an hour to spare, catch NPR’s interview with Dawkins. I found it fascinating and illuminating; a friend found it annoying.

iSquub is struggling with the paradox of feeling agnostic but agreeing with Dawkins’ line of reason:

Still, to me the most gripping part of this discussion keeps boiling down to that one thing: why is he an atheist, and I an agnostic? Why do I care? The god I’m agnostic about makes no perceivable difference in my life, yet I get frustrated when Dawkins uses what is pretty much an identical chain of reasoning to the one I use but suddenly leaps to an entirely different conclusion.

My take is that, for many of us, this is not a matter of being committed to agnosticism, but rather of not being prepared to make a positive statement that it’s insensible to base our personal or political lives on what amounts to myths. When quantuum theory can make predictions about our world with breath-taking accuracy while the story of the Trinity can make none, what are we waiting for? As Harris says, in no other field of human endeavor are we so willing to accept with indifference the possibility that an outrageous claim might have merit (as agnostics are). We’ve accepted agnosticism as safe and non-committal. It’s not impolite to be an agnostic, and agnosticism allows us to walk on the razor’s edge. Why not stand up and say “Fairies aren’t real?”

Perhaps agnosticism is just a “well, maybe” sort of allowance that we give. An allowance we would not allow in any other field of discourse when evidence is shaky.

Lighter side: Dawkins on Colbert. And recently called Dawkins one of the sexiest men alive. On the other side, Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief promises to present equally convincing reason in the opposite direction. I’m interested.

I was going to link to Dawkins’ interview with fallen angel Ted Haggert, but YouTube has “Removed the content at the copyright holder’s request.”

Oh, and Daniel Dennett recently had a brush with death (to which he says “Thank goodness!”)

Music: Talking Heads :: The Book I Read

Irrational Respect

What are fundamentalists protecting when they protest stem cell research? A three-day-old human embryo is a cluster of 150 cells, with no brain or nervous system, while the brain of a housefly consists of approximately 100,000 cells. More suffering is visited upon this world when you swat a housefly than when a three-day-old embryo is destroyed. And for this, we prevent a person with 3rd-degree burns covering her body from having new skin grown for her, or a leukemia patient, or paralyzed person from having a second chance. All for the sake of a blastocyst. What is the role of religion in this madness?

300,000 people across Africa die of AIDS every year. Most of those lives could be saved through the widespread use of condoms. And yet Catholic priests across Africa preach to their congregations that condom use is morally wrong. The priests therefore take at least some responsibility for preventable deaths. In the words of author Sam Harris, this is “genocidally stupid” behavior. What is the role of religion here? Is it helping or hindering humanity?

Harris has been on my mind all week. First a Newsweek article covering him and other influential atheists, The New Naysayers turned my head. Then I caught a 30-minute talk he gave to Pop-Tech 2005, The Future of Ideas (podcast). Found that so fascinating I also listened to a much more detailed, 90-minute version (MP3) of the talk I found via the Long Now Foundation.

What is it about religion that prompts us to “respect” others’ beliefs? How is it that a priest can become so convinced he can walk on water that he drowns trying, and still we consider religious beliefs beyond criticism in ways we don’t in any other field of human endeavor? Paraphrasing Harris: “If I stood in front of you and claimed that the Holocaust never happened, you would be under no obligation to respect my beliefs just because they’re my beliefs. You would demand proof. And, if I did a good enough job of proving my case, you would be expected to agree with me. But with religion, it’s different. People can make virtually any metaphysical claim they like, no matter how preposterous, and their beliefs will be ‘respected.’ Why? And more importantly, what kinds of harm does this intellectual double standard — this strange and irrational social acceptance of religion — inflict on societies? Why do even secularists and moderates respect religion, and where is this blind spot taking us?” (Harris speaks about this danger in all religions – he’s not on an anti-Christian jag).

I differ with Harris on this point of respect. Or maybe I just feel conflicted about it. There are religious people in my life for whom I hold tremendous respect, even though I can’t begin to understand their position, how they arrived at the point of religion. Because I know they’re rational, kind people, their religious beliefs don’t “diminish” them in my eyes in the slightest. I understand Harris’ point, but I also don’t feel tempted to stop respecting their beliefs.

Harris’ voice is calm and rational, yet he pulls no punches. He is compelling in ways many will not be prepared for. Those whose religious sensibilities are offended by intellectual challenge should steer clear, even though they undoubtedly would find clearings in the meadows Harris paints that they never expected to find.

I’ve been grappling with the question of whether I’m an atheist or agnostic for a decade, and with questions of faith on and off for a decade before that. Though some of Harris’ stuff is old ground, he covers so much territory, and covers it so well, that I find myself wondering whether it’s time to come to terms with the question once and for all.

What does it take to declare yourself an atheist? What kind of bravery does it require to put yourself so far outside the mainstream? How many people declare themselves agnostic rather than atheist because it’s less “offensive” to family and friends? Why is it that it’s almost impossible to imagine even the most warm, compassionate, ethical, intelligent atheist being elected to a public office? (“Even an openly homosexual candidate has a better chance of being elected to public office than an admitted atheist.”) Would an enlightened society be truly respecting of everyone else’s religious beliefs, or would it not have any?

Music: Wayne Shorter :: House Of Jade

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