April 7, 2010

Talks and debates

According to Sam Harris' bio on TED.com:
Adored by secularists, feared by the pious, Sam Harris' best-selling books argue that religion is ruinous and, worse, stupid -- and that questioning religious faith might just save civilization.
Here's a new talk by Harris, the author of the best-selling The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

A bonus:
Sam Harris and Michael Shermer recently debated Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on the subject of "Does God have a future?"

The Nightline Debate

Faith-based hatred

Science writer Clay Farris Naff wrote a marvelous essay in the Huffington Post, in which he makes a case for his belief that "at this historical moment it is in religion that hatred finds its most powerful and all-consuming expression."

Naff cites these examples of faith-based hatred:
  • The notorious Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket funerals of U.S. soldiers because "God hates fags." And God also apparently hates Jews.

  • Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur have published a new exegesis of the Torah in which the prohibition "Thou Shalt Not Murder" applies only "to a Jew who kills a Jew."

  • One Muhammad Hussein Yaaqub went on Egyptian TV to assure viewers that "The Jews are our enemies. Allah will annihilate them at our hands."

  • Apparently, God also hates President Obama, according to preacher Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church.
(By the way, Obama is not the antiChrist. Pat Robertson says so. He says the antiChrist is probably a Jew who lives in Israel today.)

Naff says:
If you suspect, as I do, that religion evolved as a human trait that conferred advantage on groups by increasing solidarity in the competition against other groups, then it's all too easy to see how hatred would become an enduring feature of religion.
The vast majority of conflicts have at its root some kind of religious reason. People have been cherry-picking their respective holy books for reasons to hate, and reasons why our in-group supposedly is superior to all other out-groups.

Think of how peaceful the world would be if, in a triumphant moment of rationalism, we got rid of organized religion. Instead of all kinds of "us-versus-them" reasons to hate, we just follow the universal ethical rule to be kind to all people. Will that day come?

April 1, 2010

"God hates fags"

Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, as some of you may know, is the name of the Westboro Baptist Church, the ragtag group of idiots and loons who "protest" at U.S. soldiers funerals. They claim that U.S. soldiers die in Iraq and Afghanistan because the U.S. military tolerates gays and lesbians. So, God is punishing them by killing them.
Michael Smerconish, columnist of the Philadelphia Daily News, sums up one such case: Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. At his funeral, his family had to endure the demented rantings of the Westboro Baptist Church, their placards that said "God Hates the USA," "Fag Troops" and "You're Going to Hell."
Al Snyder, the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, sued Phelps and Westboro Baptist. He won a $10.9 million award from a jury that was later reduced by the court to $5 million. Westboro Baptist, of Topeka, Kansas, appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court's verdict. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In the meantime, Snyder (the father), as the losing party in the federal appellate case, is responsible for $16,510 in legal costs of his opponents. Smerconish has written a column urging his readers to donate money and help Snyder pay these costs.
I am not a lawyer, and I don't know if an exemption to the First Amendment can be made for offensive speech at military funerals. That's a question for the U.S. Supreme Court.
I'm only interested in the tired old saw that religious people are more moral. I came across a video by the BBC about the Phelps family who heads this group. Granted, this is an extreme example. But anyone who believes anything religion tells him, on little or no evidence, is guilty of the same thing. It's only a question of degree. Some people who are religious are upstanding citizens. Some use their religion to justify killing others. People have been cherry-picking their respective holy books to justify anything, good or bad. Why not discard the holy books and just be good to everyone?

This is the video.

By the way, "Reverend" Phelps' estranged son Nate tells his story in an article called "Dad, the hateful preacher." He has a blog. And, "for those of you who suffer or who have suffered the effects of being raised in a fundamentalist environment, please join myself and Brother Richard at our Support group, "Life After Christian Fundamentalism."

March 29, 2010

Mayhem in the name of God

Another day. Another slew of reports about mayhem in the name of God.
  • Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up Monday in twin attacks on the Moscow subway, killing at least 38 and wounding at least 60, according to the Associated Press. The carnage blamed on rebels from the Caucasus region follows the killings of several high-profile Islamic militant leaders there. The rebels receive moral and perhaps financial support from al-Qaeda.

  • The New York Times reports that 9 members of the Michigan-based Christian militia group were arrested and indicted on sedition and weapons charges linked to an alleged plot. They were reportedly planning to to murder law enforcement officers in hopes of setting off an anti-government uprising.
And, oh, this week is Holy Week. Holy Week for Christians is a perfect time for contrition -- except when you're the Pope. Then you're exempt. Reuters says Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) is undeterred by the latest pedophile-priest sex abuse scandals. In his sermon on Palm Sunday, he credits faith as helping to lead "toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."

Petty gossip my ass.

According to the Reuters article:
Until the mid-1990s, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger seemed to share a widespread view in the hierarchy that sexual misconduct by priests -- even pedophilia -- could be cured by proper doses of Christian forgiveness and modern therapy.
Pedophilia is a crime. If they weren't priests, they would have been hauled in jail immediately. They can give these criminal priests all the "Christian forgiveness and modern therapy" they need -- but as long as they're locked away in prison and can no longer ruin the lives of children.

Pope Benedict headed an office (before his election as pope) that repeatedly didn't do the right thing when confronted by examples of flagrant sex abuse. In a letter to Irish Catholics, he blamed the Irish bishops for failing to apply church law to stop abusive priests. The Vatican has blamed the media for focusing on the pope. When you're the pope, you can blame everybody else.

British protesters in London are calling for the pope to resign. I don't know about the arcane rules of the Roman Catholic church, but if he were the CEO of a business, and he knew that sex abuse of children was taking place on his company's premises, he would lose his job in a heartbeat.

February 5, 2010

Nothing honorable about this killing

I thought Turkey was relatively secular and modern. Evidently I was wrong. Or maybe there are two Turkeys, the secular and modern big-city version, and the deeply religious and impoverished one.

Turkish police have recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl they say was buried alive by relatives, according to The Guardian. The apparent crime was done in an "honor" killing, carried out as punishment for talking to boys.
Her father and grandfather are said to have been arrested and held in custody pending trial. It is unclear whether they have been charged. The girl's mother was arrested but was later released.

Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter – one of nine children – had male friends. The grandfather is said to have beaten her for having relations with the opposite sex.

The murderers killed a girl because she was talking to a boy? Unconscionable. But let's not single out Turkey. The United States also has its version of the Taliban. It's called the Religious Right.

As of this moment, they plan to run a commercial during this Sunday's Super Bowl attacking abortion rights. (As for the group Focus on the Family, who is paying for the ad, I can quote a bumper sticker that I saw once: "Focus on your own damn family.")

The details of the case are blood-curdling. A post-mortem examination showed "large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried." (Italics mine.)

What is it about the ultra-religious of every cultural background that they can justify the oppression of women?

Asian-Americans least religious, more liberal

Check out this Gallup poll that says Asian Americans are less religious than other racial, ethnic groups:
Generally speaking, Americans who are less religious tend to be more Democratic and more liberal than Americans who are more religious, and Asians seem to follow this pattern. Comparatively, Asian-Americans tend to be less religious than those in other racial or ethnic groups. For example, just over half of Asians say religion is an important part of their daily lives, significantly lower than the percentage of whites, blacks, or Hispanics who say this.
The poll is about Americans' political leanings. Asian-Americans tend to be more Democratic and more liberal than average Americans, and supported Barack Obama over John McCain by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

Oh, incidentally, Asian-Americans also had the highest levels of education, according to wikipedia. Maybe that partially explains their lack of religiosity?

January 23, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein -- a 1996 winner of the MacArthur Award (also known as the "genius" award) who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton-- has written a new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God -- A Work of Fiction.

From the Publishers Weekly editorial review:
Cass Seltzer, a university professor specializing in the psychology of religion, hits the big time with a bestselling book and an offer to teach at Harvard—quite a step up from his current position at Frankfurter University. While waiting for his girlfriend to return from a conference, Cass receives an unexpected visit from Roz Margolis, whom he dated 20 years earlier and who looks as good now as she ever did. Her secret: dedicating her substantial smarts to unlocking the secrets of immortality. Cass's recent success and Roz's sudden appearance send him into contemplation of the tumultuous events of his past, involving his former mentor, his failed first marriage and a young mathematical prodigy whose talent may go unrealized, culminating in a standing-room-only debate with a formidable opponent where Cass must reconcile his new, unfamiliar life with his experience of himself. Irreverent and witty, Goldstein seamlessly weaves philosophy into this lively and colorful chronicle of intellectual and emotional struggles.
Oh, by the way, she's also married to Harvard and MIT cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.

In case you haven't had a chance to read her new novel, here's a video of Pinker interviewing Goldstein:

I like Rebecca Goldstein. She told Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source from Brown University, that she's
"not very uncomfortable with some of the belittling descriptions of religious people ...
Religion and religious emotion are so much more complicated than that. One of the things that Spinoza taught us, and it's being validated finally in neuroscientific labs, is that emotions and intellect, cognitions and passion, are inextricably bound up with one another. Cognitive states are also emotional states, and emotional states make cognitive claims.."
I know intelligent people, as well as stupid people, who are religious. Goldstein quotes John Locke to Lydon on religious enthusiasm, saying: look, it's not a source of truth. It is powerful and it is ecstatic." I happen to think that most religious apologists' arguments are hogwash, but we can disagree with each other without being disagreeable. I think that if anyone can pull off a book about disagreement that does not preclude reconciliation, Goldstein can.

Grab some popcorn, watch the great debate

ABC's Nightline will film "Does God Have a Future? A Great Debate".
  • Date: Sunday, March 14, 2010
  • Location: Beckman Auditorium, Caltech
  • Speakers: Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston, Michael Shermer and Sam Harris
From The Skeptic website:

New York Times bestselling author Deepak Chopra is an MD and board-certified Internist and endocrinologist. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and guest lecturer annually at the Update in Internal Medicine CME Course Beth Israel Hospital Boston Harvard Medical School. He directs the educational programs at the Chopra Center for Well Being. Hailed by Time magazine as one of the 100 icons of the century, and credited as "the poet-prophet of alternative medicine," Chopra is the author of more than 55 books that have been translated into 35 languages and sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

Dr. Jean Houston (B.A. from Barnard College, Ph.D. in psychology from the Union Graduate School and a Ph.D in religion from the Graduate Theological Foundation) is a scholar, philosopher and researcher in human capacities, and is one of the principal founders of the Human Potential Movement. A powerful and dynamic speaker, she holds conferences and seminars with social leaders, educational institutions and business organizations worldwide. She is the author of 26 books including A Passion for the Possible, Search for the Beloved, Life Force, The Possible Human, Public Like a Frog, A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story, and Manual of the Peacemaker.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of The Mind of the Market, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil and Why People Believe Weird Things. Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live.

Dr. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and the author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. Harris's writing has been published in over 15 languages. He is a Co-Founder and CEO of The Reason Project, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

January 20, 2010

The Bible, re-interpreted

Bart Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar and textual critic of early Christianity. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

According to wikipedia,
Ehrman became an Evangelical Christian as a teen. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and to textual criticism, to which he attributes the inspiration for an ongoing critical exploration of the basis of his own religious beliefs, which in turn gradually led to the questioning of his faith in the Bible as the inerrant, unchanging word of God. He now considers himself an agnostic.
He is the author of or has contributed to more than 20 books. Last year, he published another book called Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

Here's Ehrman being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air".

Go to hell, Pat Robertson

Even though I think the title "reverend" is an empty and bogus title, I wouldn't even apply it to you for fear of besmirching it.

That's how low you've sunk in the eyes of all decent human beings. You are a shameful excuse for a human being. You're senile, stupid and a racist to boot. What comes out of your mouth could charitably be described as oral diarrhea.

The death toll from the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake has exceeded 200,000. In the midst of so much suffering, Pat Robertson had this to say on his show, The 700 Club:

Robertson: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the Devil said, okay it's a deal."
What he was referring to, allegedly, was the 1791 slave uprising against the French at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French.

Haiti's slave revolt in the 18th century was the first and only successful revolt in the Americas to overthrow oppression. And, as the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, pointed out on the Rachel Maddow show, Robertson shows a woeful ignorance of history.


The only responsible response to the disaster in Haiti is to help in any way you can. Donate money, as I and a lot of Americans have done. Go to Haiti to help with rescue efforts, as a lot of Americans have also done. Go to Charity Navigator to give to agencies and NGOs that work to alleviate Haiti's suffering.

Pat Robertson is supposedly something of an "expert" on Hell. Good, because he's going to be in it when he dies.