Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Responses to the New Atheism: Like It or Not

While reading literature on Atheism, I also fed myself a steady diet of books responding to the New Atheists. As in the last listing of books I posted, I will drop a picture of the dust-jacket on the left, state my 'Like' or 'Like It Not' in bold, sum the book up, and then give a small evaluation.

Like: It is reasonable to have faith. The Bible is a reasonable book that conveys reasonable truths that we can reasonably believe. Science has not disproven the Bible or discredited its moral teachings. There is no reason to accept the half-truths of the 'New Atheists', and every reason to re-visit the truths of biblical revelation.

Dinesh D'Sousa is clear, straightforward, and enjoyable to read. He meets the New Atheists on their own grounds, and uses their own sources to foil their attacks on religion, and on Christianity in particular. For the most part, his arguments are reasonable. However, just like the New Atheists, D'Souza often earmarks one side of the argument instead of presenting a wholistic look at the issue he is contending. To his credit, D'Souza is a wonderful rhetoritician and a persuasive writer. A certain lack of savvy follows from his inability to grasp the irony of arguing for a logical basis for faith, however. All-in-all though, D'Souza has produced a fine volume to add to the cultural conversation between religionists and anti-religionists.

Like It Not: A full-on counter-attack to Sam Harris' two landbreaking volumes 'The End of Faith' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation'. The worldview Harris presents in his infamous essays is utterly bankrupt, underscored by a vast ignorance, and nothing more than a charlatan's attempt at pedaling snake-oil metaphysics on a largely ignorant, unobservant culture.

Ravi Zacharias
is a prolific writer, and a compelling speaker. A former atheist himself, Zacharias has built up a large ministry to people of differing faiths, and non-faiths alike. His principle aim in this book, it seems, is to dispell the accusations Sam Harris has set out against religious people in general, and Christians specifically. Unfortunately for Zacharias, his book never gets off the ground. It stinks of reactionary emoting, not reasoned, and considerate truth-seeking. Oftentimes, Zacharias moves toward a point but suddenly drops off, leaving the reader attempting to estimate his conclusion, and never returns to finish his idea. He accuses Harris of being fundamentalist in his outlook, but does nothing to soften or diminish Harris' equal accusation that American evangelicalism, and radical Islam are dangerously fundamentalist themselves. More to the point, Zacharias' book, being from a former atheist, falls ironically short of showing why atheism is an illegitimate worldview. One wonders why a scholar of Zacharias' renown and intimate understanding of atheism could not offer a coherent rebuttal of atheism in a book that expressly sets out to do so. Sadly, Zacharias' book is a poor, poor read, and will most likely find its way to a used book store in the near future with a small inscription detailing the impoverished material inside. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Like: The so-called New Atheists have saddled themselves with the same burden as literalist Christians: they're both fundamentalists. Calling for the end of faith and religion while trumpetting utopian overtures about human moral progress is bipolar thinking at best, and does nothing to promote civil dialogue between atheists and theists. What is needed is not an end to faith, not an end to religion, not a new injection of Enlightenment utopian ideologies but the courage to engage reason where it leads, and embrace religion where it benefits humankind.

Chris Hedges is a poignant writer. In fact, I found myself elated, disturbed, frightened, and relieved by Hedges's critical appraisal of the New Atheists. And as much as the New Atheists want to balk at the notion of their position being fundamentalist, when their writings are distilled to their lowest elements, they come out just as fundamentalist as any typical literalist Christian group. Be that as it may, however, Hedges does not give quarter to religiosity, but attacks it just as fiercely as neo-atheism. So, all-in-all, Hedges's book is a hard-hitting attack on unthinking faith-heads, just as much as it is an attack on unthinking unfaith-heads. In that respect, it is a fair and balanced read.

Like It Not: Faith and belief in God have come under attack. Skepticism is undermining believer's confidence in the Word of God. People would do well to understand exactly what is being said about their faith, and exactly how to respond to it so that Christian faith can continue to flourish and nurture not just the believers, but the skeptics, too.

Timothy Keller
, while he has a wide-open and compassionate heart, comes across far too pedagogical, even cheaply condescending in this epistle. While some of the resources he has mined from are quite creative, they are dulled by the beige use of information he rambles out. More, while Keller seems to have a wide-ranging grasp of literature, philosophy, history, theology, and contemporary music, there is nothing in Keller's presentation of the Christian agenda that would give pause to even the most simple-minded literary atheist. His greatest strength in this book is that he can reduce large concepts into easily accessible and graspable ideas. Unfortunately, that same strength is also his weakness and his undoing: such simple presentations of Christian ideas leaves far too much opportunity to cut against the grain of his logic and undo his conclusions in ways that work against his evangelistic efforts.

Like: All religions have at their core one essential message: compassion. The expressions we use to convey that compassion are what are known as 'religion'. We can class religion into two distinct spheres: mythos (what is believed and practiced) and logos (what is reasoned and taught). To write-off religion on the basis that it doesn't conform to modern concepts of science and reason is to give-up a great swath of rich cultural heritage, learning, and useful metaphysics that not only inform our deepest human yearnings, but provide the substance that recent skeptics have been parasitically feeding from.

Karen Armstrong
has done the world a favour with this her latest book. Her writing is clear, sagely, incisive, profound, and beautifully informed. The occasional bursts of dry humour to break the weight of vast historical data are well-placed and drive the reader forward on to new insights and discoveries. After wading through thousands of years of philosophical and religious concepts, Armstrong finally cracks the whip on the New Atheists in her epilogue, giving them a solid scourging for their purposeful ignorance, but at the same time applying salves to their wounds by informing the reader that their perspectives help the religious ask necessary and important questions. There is no shortage of delight to be found in Armstrong's latest book, and I hope every serious student of religion and the philosophy of religion makes use of it to deepen their understandings of the strange creature homo religiosus.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New Book!

Bought a new book today. Very excited about it! Here's a picture of the cover.

The book is by Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford historian renowned for his relentlessly balanced perspective. The book, Christianity: The First 3000 Years, traces the development of the Christian church beginning at 1000 years BCE (before the common era) to present day.

Here are a couple of reviews.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Argument from Historical Proximity: Invalid

I've been writing about my migivings with Catholicism lately. I've also been semi-debating an aspiring Catholic philosopher. Why the sudden focus on Catholic thought? I'm not sure. However, something occured to me today, and I'd like to share it.

Getting into academic jousting matches with Catholic apologists (and a good many Protestant Evangelicals, too, just to be clear) over differences in doctrine, or even just the sensibility of this-or-that doctrine has highlighted a tactic often used against me. I'd like to call the tactic in question, "The Argument from Historical Proximity."

The argument is as follows: historical figures closer to the time of Jesus have a greater, more precise understanding of the details attending Jesus's life, and the lives of people close to Jesus (e.g., the Apostles, Mary, the first Christians, etc.). So, if I were to argue that recent historical research casts reasonable doubt on the perpetual virginity of Mary, the argument from historical proximity would counter that Mary was most definitely ever-virgin because the writings of the early church fathers state as much. And because the early church fathers lived closer to the time of Mary, they would have more reliable claims on the status of Mary's bedroom activities than today's historians. The assumption is essentially that the less the passage of time, the more accurate the claim, and the less chance of distortions to confuse the claim.

On the surface, the argument seems to carry with it some validity: it seems reasonable to think that people in the second century would have less confusions to work through than people in the twenty-first century concerning church beliefs. But given a moment's thought, the argument breaks down on a crucial point.

If we reason from historical proximity, then we have to be willing to accept opposing claims as valid, too. The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 - 117) wrote extremely close to the time of Jesus and the first Christians, and was a contemporary of the early church fathers. Tacitus considered Christianity a "deadly superstition"; i.e., it was a grave error, and a falsehood. Emperor Domitian (AD 51 - 96) claimed that Christians were 'atheists' and slaughtered them. Pliny the Younger (AD 61 - ca. 112) commissioned the murder of Christians because he considered them hedonists and cannibals.

So, if we take claims opposing Christianity on equal footing with Catholic arguments from historical proximity, then we can reasonably say that Christians believed falsehoods, and were orgiastic cannibals who believed in an untrue God.

Clearly, the argument from historical proximity is groundless; just as groundless as it would be to argue for the falsehood of Christianity by claiming Tacitus, Domitian, or Pliny the Younger as truth-measures. Christians, and Catholics especially, need to move on to better methods of truth-seeking than quixotic claims to historical proximity.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Arresting the Pope: Good

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are planning on arresting the pope. Here is the article.

He should be arrested. Anyone else doing what he's done would be charged with conspiring, and aiding and enabling criminal activity. Oh, but because he's religious, he's beyond justice. *cough, cough* Bullshit!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Disbelief ≠ Pro-Government

Says Landon Oakes:
"So-called skeptics claim that they no longer believe in the superstitions and vain ideas of old; but this is only partly true: the more skeptical one becomes of God the less skeptical he becomes of government. Of all the tried ideas, including religious belief, none has been disproved so thoroughly as a large government."
See article here.

See my response here: false. Many a skeptic are anarchists, and apolitical. They really couldn't give a whit about governmental ideas and systems. Freethinking libertarians are necessarily disinterested in government, and avoid the titles 'anarchist' or 'minarchist' because they don't want to answer to the governments that would hold them in suspicion because of their philosophical anarchism.

More, the above quote is post hoc ergo propter hoc, and a prime example of the missing middle. Exactly how does the disbelief in God entail the support of government? More, what are the steps between disbelief in God that lead to endorsing governmental structures.

Perhaps the cracked lense of American politics breeds this kind of black-and-white thinking. Especially on the right-wing diet. Too bad black-and-white thinking forgets the spectrum of colours outside of its self-imposed limitations.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Mary's perpetual virginity. Ever a popular sentiment amongst Catholics, but one which seems at odds with reality.

Before I respond to the Catholic blither and blather of Mary's reproductive prudery, let's survey what it is Catholics believe on this count.

First, Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Jesus' birth. Second, after Jesus was born, Mary never engaged in sexual congress with her husband, Joseph. Third, Mary's perpetual virginity is distinct from the Immaculate Conception of Mary; the former refers to Mary's inconsummate marriage to Joseph, the latter to Mary's being born into the world without the stain of original sin. And finally, fourth, Mary's virginal status means that Jesus had no siblings. While being an obvious point, it is important to note number four because it provides a ready-steady defense for the use of the words "the brothers of Jesus" (Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3) to allegedly mean "cousins of Jesus".

If the gospel accounts of Jesus' arrival in this world are true, then there is no difficulty believing that Jesus' mother was a virgin before his birth, and during his birth. It was customary of Mary's time -- and is even sensibly encouraged today -- to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage. Mary was betrothed (i.e., engaged, to use modern terminology) to Joseph when she became pregnant with Jesus, which, to Joseph, appeared as infidelity until he was reassured by an angel that all was well, and that Mary was pregnant by God's doing.

This in itself seems like a peculiar infidelity that God would impregnate another man's wife (I think Zeus was prone to the same misgivings, so no surprise a similar motif would show up in a Hellenistic culture). Leaving that aside, however, if it was that Mary was born without sin, why couldn't God simply have used Mary and Joseph's eventual union to create another sinless person, but this time one that also happened to be God? Afterall, he created people from dirt; I'm fairly certain he could funnel himself through an egg.

All of the above notwithstanding, unless Mary remained betrothed to Joseph forever after, that is, unless Mary and Joseph together decided they would never get married but just live together raising Jesus, it seems unlikely, even supremely implausible that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth. Two things come to mind at this point:
  1. Mary and Joseph were religious Jews, and so, would not have lived together as a couple without being married; not unless they wanted to be stoned to death (recall the historical time and prevailing religion) for being considered fornicators;
  2. It has always been the sexual act that seals a marriage, that makes the covenantal bond between two people and the God/gods they are loyal to.
Given number two above, we would do well to keep in mind a tiny, niggling, insignificant triffle of a point: Catholics, by and large, believe that Scripture is God's inspired and inerrant word (set of writings) that is necessary and sufficient for understanding all matters of faith and morals. So let's just assume for a moment that Mary actually was married to Joseph, but the two remained celibate and thus preserved Mary's virginity. I think it would be fair to say that Joseph, unless he was one of the eunuchs Jesus later referred to (Matt. 19:11-12), might have "burned with passion" for Mary. And if Joseph had committed himself to live inconsummately with Mary, all-the-while lusting after her, it would seem that we have a couple of plausible contradictions:
  1. Mary and Joseph were witholding from each other, even knowing that at least one of them was desirous. This is a sin (see 1 Cor. 7:5) because it invites temptation into the marriage, and should only be done for a limited time; time enough for prayer and fasting, and then they were to enjoy marital bliss again.
  2. If it was sinful to withold from each other, then Mary's immaculate status is negated because she would've been sinning to enter a permanent, sexless marriage where one or both of the people involved would be sexually ungratified and desirous.
"Ah!" says the Catholic apologist, "you cannot hold Mary to a standard that God instituted through St. Paul approximately 35 years after Christ's death." Well, sure I can. And here's how: we're talking about what Catholics have always believed, not what they've ever known. There is not a single source in either scripture or tradition that can point to de facto proof that Mary never consummated her (eventual) marriage to Joseph. Thus what Catholics believe about Mary's permanent virginal status has no relationship with anything actually known. It is a supposition that lends Catholics a strange comfort, but seems at odds with reality when parsed by a slight flexing of practical logic.

There is a direct relationship between Mary's assumed lack of original sin, and the Catholic claim that she was/is ever a virgin. The doctrine of original sin found its first expressions in the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, when he was arguing with Gnostics. But the champion of the doctrine of original sin, however, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Augustine reasoned that
original sin was both an act of foolishness (insipientia) and of pride and disobedience to God of Adam and Eve. He thought it was a most subtle job to discern what came first: self-centeredness or failure in seeing truth. The sin would not have taken place, if satan hadn't sown into their senses "the root of evil” (radix Mali).
But apparently Satan did plant a 'root of evil' into our nature such that our whole humanity -- that is, those things that constitute our unique human characteristics -- was forever wounded, depleted, broken. Characteristics such as our intelligence, affectations, sexual desires, and will were permanently enfeebled, according to Thomas Aquinas' rendering of Augustine. This enfeeblement is passed down, or transmitted, from Adam and Eve to all of humanity by way of concupiscence; that is, desire. The next logical step from desire being the transmitter of human enfeeblement is to suggest that the sexual reproductive act (the only way new people are made) is the purveyor of original sin.

This in itself does not make the sexual act wrong in Catholic theology. However, because Mary was to be the bearer of God himself, there could be no taint of sin in her. Hence Mary's parents' copulation, somehow, didn't transmit a wounded nature to Mary (how convenient, yet, sadly, entirely presumptuous). Mary was, it is supposed in Catholicism, therefore perfect in her human nature. Thus for Mary to engage in coitus with Joseph would imply the possible transmission of human sinfulness to any offspring copulating may produce. Since God had housed himself in Mary's womb, any post-Jesus children would be (conspicuously) bad, because apparently God and people shouldn't intermingle -- which brings up a whole other set of issues. For example, a smattering of gnosticism. But I digress...

Mary was above all base nonsense such as human sexuality; that seems to be the implication. In her perfection (lack of sin), she would not debase herself with the thrusts and stilted grunts of her imperfect husband. Never! The connection is clear: human woundedness is continued through sexual reproduction, which is beneath perfect people like Mary, so she abstained from conjugal relations with Joseph, who in turn probably experienced unbridled sexual frustration and was, due to an attrition of sorts, consigned to masturbation (which is also a sin in Catholicism). That is, unless by way of physical proximity to Mary, Joseph was able to master his sexual urges and content himself with a faux marriage; an unlikely possibility given the matrimonial customs of the time.

Before moving on to my last point, I will review, in short, the gist of my first three points:

  1. Mary would not have lived in a false marriage arrangement because this would implicate Mary and Joseph on the grounds of sexual sin: the surrounding community would've viewed a couple living together, and having a child together out of wedlock, as fornication.
  2. Mary's blameless and perfect nature would be blatantly stained by purposefully, and knowingly entering into a sexless marriage where her weaker, imperfect husband, Joseph, would burn after her with lust; i.e., Mary would've purposefully been tempting Joseph to sin.
  3. Mary's ever-virgin status, when distilled to its constituent elements, constitutes a form of gnosticism: she could not have copulated with one who bears the stain of original sin because her womb held the son of God; the perfection of God and Mary could not intermingle with the imperfection of a man.
These three criticisms give credit to the more sensible notion that Mary probably enjoyed her marriage as fully as any healthy married pair should. They also lend strength to the argument that Jesus most likely had brothers that were not simply 'cousins', but flesh-and-blood brothers. It is argued that when the Greek word adelphoi (brothers) was written into Scripture, it wasn't with the intention to convey a direct statement about the status of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas being related to Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). Heavens, no! Why keep things simple? Instead, concoct a story that they're all just 'cousins', or half-brothers from a previous relationship Joseph enjoyed. This is a blatant violation of Occam's principle of parsimony, and highlights the useless convolutions Catholics are willing to accept in order to hold in high regard a dogma that has no foothold in reality.

And this, in itself, begs an obvious question. If it is true that Joseph had enjoyed a previous marriage, and then entered into a marriage with Mary, why would he want to give up one of the specific pleasures marriage allows: sex? Unless it can be argued from silence -- as assuredly Joseph's possible previous marriage is an argumentum ex silentio -- that Joseph was done with coitus funness when he set his eyes on Mary, there's nothing to support the notion that Joseph would willingly enter into a sexless marriage. At the same time, to give credit where it's due, there's nothing to support the notion that Joseph would not enter into a sexless marriage. In either case, we have absolutely no evidence at all to conclude on the virginal status of Mary, and Joseph's willingness or not to entertain an inconsummate marriage.

In conclusion, I think that the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity is purely a fabrication. Yes, many people have believed it for a good long time. However, the duration of a belief is no argument for its validity. Many people believed that the earth was flat for quite some time, but that is clearly not the case. From the reasons given by the Catholic church for Mary's eternal virginity, I have reflected some practical conclusions that show the weaknesses in the expectation that Mary was inconsummate in her marriage to Joseph. I could go on drawing further conclusions from the beliefs set out by Catholics, but it seems sufficient to say that Mary's constant virginity is a proposition based in silence, that when examined in a little detail becomes self-contradictory, disregards Occam's razor, highlights Catholic antisexualism, and therefore has no basis in reality.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ratzinger's Plausible Deniability Is Bunk

Apparently the pope needs no defense: he's clean, he's without stain, and he never involved himself in the alleged cover-up of child-raping priests. Everybody should be slapped on the hand for even thinking that Ratzinger might have something to do with protecting deviant priests, and the image of the church. Afterall, that reporter shouldn't have been so insidiously rebellious to question the authority of a leader he has no allegiance to. He deserved that slap. We should all practice assault when we don't like how questions make us feel, or when they show up our hyporcisy.

On the other side of papal obstructions to justice, the Vatican has offered three reasons why it isn't liable for the abuses thousands of its faithful have endured over the past 50 years:
  1. As the head of the Vatican, a city-state, the pope has immunity;
  2. American bishops who abused thousands of wee uns weren't actually employed by the Vatican;
  3. The 1962 document Crimen Sollicitationis does not provide proof of a cover-up.

Perhaps I'm out of my depth making comments on international politics and their interface with religious powers and power-mongers (e.g., the pope). So be it. But it does seem a matter of practical logic, to me, that if crimes are committed internationally, by priests of various nationalities, and who all happen to trace their legal fiat back to a single religio-political entity called The Vatican, that perhaps that single religio-political entity and the person who oversees it should be made accountable for the actions of the people he is claiming sovereignty over.

When Saddam Hussein slaughtered the Kurdish people, his immunity as head of the Iraqi state wasn't worth spit. On December 30th, 2006, Hussein was executed for his crimes against humanity. I'm certainly not calling for the exectution of the pope, not by any means. However, I am concerned that the pope's factual involvement in protecting the image of Catholicism, and the offices of the priests under him, amounts to nothing more than a chance for Ratzinger to plead plausible deniability on the world stage.

Let him deny it, if he dares. But to then move on and say that the bishops involved in covering up the actions of lecherous priests were not actually employed by the Vatican is a clear-cut case of four-square stupidity. If they weren't employed by the Vatican, they wouldn't have been acting in their offices. There wouldn't be any question of their alleged cover-ups because they wouldn't have been Catholic bishops. How fucking stupid do they really think the observing public is? The medieval period is over, Ratzinger. We're not baffled by ecclesial Latin anymore, and you certainly can't moonshine us any longer by suddenly changing the story and preying on our illiteracy.

Still, Crimen Sollicitationis is not proof of a cover-up. I'll quote the document, and you be the judge about whether it is a blatant attempt to keep sexual crimes secret, or just an exercise in fancy rhetoric.

"As, assuredly, what must be mainly taken care of and complied with in handling these trials is that they be managed with maximum confidentiality and after the verdict is declared and put into effect never be mentioned again (20 February 1867 Instruction of the Holy Office, 14), each and every person, who in any way belongs to the tribunal or is given knowledge of the matter because of their office, is obliged to keep inviolate the strictest secrecy (what is commonly called "the secrecy of the Holy Office") in all things and with all persons, under pain of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication, incurred ipso facto without need of any declaration other than the present one, and reserved to the Supreme Pontiff in person alone, excluding even the Apostolic Penitentiary."

To end this article, I would like to draw your attention to the words of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the following on March 29th, 2010. I echo his sentiments, and could not have phrased them any better.

"This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope—none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community—are part of a plan to embarrass him.

This hasn't been true so far, but it ought to be true from now on. This grisly little man is not above or outside the law. He is the titular head of a small state. We know more and more of the names of the children who were victims and of the pederasts who were his pets. This is a crime under any law (as well as a sin), and crime demands not sickly private ceremonies of "repentance," or faux compensation by means of church-financed payoffs, but justice and punishment. The secular authorities have been feeble for too long but now some lawyers and prosecutors are starting to bestir themselves. I know some serious men of law who are discussing what to do if Benedict tries to make his
proposed visit to Britain in the fall. It's enough. There has to be a reckoning, and it should start now."