. . . for it shows you know some biological terminology.
It’s a common atheist trope to call out those people who, after a tragedy, say that those who survived were spared by God, or that such survivals were “miraculous”.
In fact, such criticism has become so common that it’s almost a cheap shot, and yet it’s still worth pointing out the hypocrisy implicit in asserting loudly that survivors were spared by God while not mentioning that, by the same token, those who died must have been killed by God. The reason to mention such things is that they reveal not only how common faith is, but how inconsistently it’s applied. I say this not to cheapen the horrible pain experienced by the friends and family of the missing, but to suggest that perhaps it’s palliative to know that these deaths were not God’s decision, but the inevitable vagaries of a natural world. The answer to “why me?” is simply “shit happens.”
So two items about the missing Malaysia flight 370, which almost certainly has crashed without survivors.
First, according to WBRC News in Birmingham, Alabama (I also heard this on NBC News last night), a man who almost boarded the doomed flight is attributing his survival to God:
A man with a ticket for the lost plane to Malaysia called a last-minute decision not to board an act of God.
Greg Candelaria works in global technology services, which requires him to frequently fly around the world.
He planned to board Flight 370 for business and then meet his daughter, who is in China wrapping up the adoption process for her child.
“I think this is a God thing,” Candelaria said. “I don’t think it’s coincidence. Part of my motivation was to fly over there on business and meet my daughter and my new granddaughter.”
Company policy mandated Candelaria fly back to Houston for the flight to Asia instead of his original plan to fly from Spain.
If all had gone as planned, he would have been on the Beijing-bound Flight 370 that vanished this past weekend.
Has anybody ever asked one of these exultant survivors if they think that the deaths were also “a God thing”? I’d be curious how they’d answer.
Finally, reader Chris sent me a link to the MSN News “picture of the day” about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. The caption is this:
A sand sculpture in a beach in Puri, India, wishes for the well-being of the passengers of a missing Malaysian Airlines flight.
I find that ineffably sad in two ways.
I’m no movie reviewer (I’ll leave that to my nephew, who I hope will weigh in below), so my review of “12 Years a Slave,” which I saw last weekend, should be taken as the lucubrations of a tyro.
I won’t recount the plot, although there’s not really a spoiler, except to say that it’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, but was kidnapped and sold to Southern slavers in 1841. It took him 12 years—years in which he witnessed the most horrible degradation and mistreatment of his fellow slaves—before he regained his freedom. He subsequently wrote a book about his experiences and campaigned against slavery.
The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Academy Award this year for “Best Picture,” although, in a rare snub, McQueen didn’t also get Best Director (that went to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” a film that for some reason I have no desire to see).
The film garnered two other Oscars: one to Lupito Nyong’o as Best Supporting Actress, and the other to Best Adapted Screenplay by Mark Ridley. Chiwetel Ejiofor did a terrific job as Solomon Northup, but lost out to Matthew McConaughey from “Dallas Buyers Club” (a film that I will see). One note of interest: Brad Pitt, who co-produced the movie, makes a cameo appearance as the single white man in the south who eloquently decries slavery, telling a slaver that he will eventually reap retribution. The scene in which Pitt does this, though, strikes a false note; it’s a bit of unneeded moralizing put in the movie for no obvious reason except to make Pitt look good. The horrors and immorality of slavery were amply depicted without Pitt’s preaching.
My verdict: a very good movie but not a great one—but still one you should make an effort to see. It was beautifully photographed, the acting was excellent (particularly by Ejiofor and Nyong’o), and the story was compelling. But it was compelling not so much through the depiction of character, but because the story was so heartbreaking and the portrayal of slavery so graphically brutal. Perhaps that was part of the problem for me: the power of the movie lay largely in its scenes of brutality, particularly the repeated and bloody whippings, which reminded me of The Passion of the Christ. But as far as showing the degradation of slavery, this movie was not markedly superior to “Django Unchained” (granted, that was more of an “action” movie with more shootings and explosions). I repeat: this is an excellent movie well worth seeing, but for me will not take its place in the pantheon of great movies next to “Ikiru,” “Tokyo Story,” “Chinatown,” or “The Last Picture Show.”
Now to the question of faith. Religion plays a large part in this movie, and in two senses. It is shown as a means by which the slaver controls his slaves by telling them that the Bible sanctions slavery and the whipping of slaves (which it does), and also that they should accept their lot. There are at least two scenes in which the slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) is shown preaching from the Bible to a forced audience of his slaves on a Sunday.
Clearly faith was used to control the slaves, quelling their discontent and serving, in the Marxist sense, as a kind of opium. But it’s also shown as a palliative for the slaves themselves, helping them accept a horrible existence which could not be changed.
In that sense, then, was faith good for the slaves? One might answer that the “opium of the slaves” was bad because it prevented them from bettering their own lot, but that was clearly impossible in the antebellum South. A slave rebellion would have been brutally quashed, as was Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, which simply led to the death of a few hundred blacks and no change in slavery. And remember, the slaves (at least in this movie) thought their faith was true—that they really were going to a better place after they died. So it was not a matter of believing something for which there was known counterevidence.
In that sense I cannot see faith as being inimical to the slaves themselves, although of course it was a pernicious device used to control “human property” and make them accept their whippings. But, given the South at that time, what was the alternative? What good would have come from trying to convince slaves that there was no God? In that sense it’s like the “dying grandmother” scenario in which you allow a religious woman to retain her faith on her deathbed. In this case I can see no advantage that would have come from trying to convince slaves that their faith was false.
Or am I wrong?
I am intensely interested in the question of the circumstances in which faith—defined as belief in an issue that is disproportionately strong compared to the weak evidence for that issue—is beneficial. According to Sam Harris, it almost never is. I agree insofar as faith keeps people invested in a delusion that won’t come to pass, and thus prevents them from taking action to better themselves. And it prevents people from thinking clearly about issues, usually to the detriment of better solutions (stem cell research is one example). But in the case of slavery, the notion that dispelling faith would prompt slaves to improve their lot isn’t realistic.
One possible example of the beneficial effects of faith is the placebo effect, something well established in medicine. Placebo effects have been shown to be beneficial in cases of depression, and even in things like knee surgery (yes, they’ve done “sham” knee surgery, where patients think they’ve been operated on for knee problems even though they’re just cut open with nothing done subsequently—and, surprisingly, this gives results as good as a genuine operation). In such cases the faith that you are being treated is enough to effect a cure, or at least substantial improvement. But in such cases one could, I suppose, argue that this isn’t really “faith,” for the patient really does think that he or she is getting genuine scientific medical treatment. Nevertheless, what placebo effects show is that mere belief in something that cannot possibly work the way it’s supposed to can still effect real improvement.
But how does that differ from belief in God, which can, despite God’s nonexistence, effect psychological benefits? I suppose many of you will answer that faith can be good for individuals, but as a system reduces well being overall.
I’m both pleased and saddened to report that the ginger tomkitten Jerry Coyne, fostered by reader Gayle Ferguson in New Zealand, has been adopted. I can’t reveal the details except to say that his future parent is a cat-lover well known to Gayle, and lives in Christchuch. His adoptive parent already has one neutered male cat, but has also built a huge, carpeted climbing apparatus for his cat which fills up much of the living room. That tells me that that Jerry will be well taken care of.
Gayle also reassures me that we will get updates and photos from time to time because she knows the adoptive parent (who lives in the same city where her parents live) and will no doubt visit Jerry in his new digs.
Since Gayle lives in Auckland, on the north island, she’ll have to fly with Jerry to his new home in Christchurch (on the south island) with Jerry temporarily sequestered in a cage. That is a measure of her dedication to these kittens. Here are some details she provided:
He won’t be leaving for a while yet, two weeks at the earliest. I need to fly down so I need to go when I can find cheap flights. There will be plenty more pictures. I still work with [name redacted] and so I’m sure it won’t be a problem to get updates. And I’ll be able to see Jerry whenever I go down to Christchurch. It’s going to be very hard for me to see these kittens go.
Jerry’s four sisters are still up for grabs, so if there are any Kiwi readers out there who would like a female kitten (three tabbies, one ginger cat), make your wishes known below.
I am enormously grateful to Gayle for her kindness in rearing five tiny abandoned kittens and finding them homes—that’s no easy job. And I understand how hard it will be to let them go to foster homes after you’ve reared them.
Don’t tell Jerry that he won’t have his testicles, either!
One further note that Gayle provided as a comment on yesterday’s post:
The rescue agency who are adopting them out are http://www.gutterkitties.co.nz. If you’d like to make a donation to help with the medical expenses for Jerry and his sisters, and for the care of all the other cats and kittens in their care, you can do this at http://www.gutterkitties.co.nz/Donate%20/%20Foster%20For%20Us
A: Did you read the article by Victor Stenger?Hili: Yes, I like the notion that all the gods people have are just theoretical models, but that I am real.
Ja: Czytałaś ten artykuł Victora Stengera?
Hili: Tak, bardzo podoba mi się ta teza, że wszyscy bogowie jakich ludzie mają, to tylko teoretyczne modele, ale ja jestem prawdziwa.
Sadly, I cannot provide a review of the new Cosmos television show produced by Ann Druyan and starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, for I didn’t see it. I will probably watch it in rerun when I have time to see it properly. But I thought I’d provide one review, from Reverend El Mundo, and give readers who saw it an opportunity to weigh in. First, the Reverend and his cat Coco:
Hope you got to see Neil deGasse Tyson present the first episode of Cosmos last night. It was excellent and he did a fantastic job.
Check out the photo. I swear I did not set this scene up. My cat, Coco, watched the series on and off like this for at least 30 minutes! When I got up for a treat during an intermission, she’d walk over to the kitchen w/ me (for one as well) and then eventually come back and park her butt in front of the TV and watch more of the special! I have no clue what could possibly have gotten her attention for so long but she seemed to be really interested in something. Maybe it was Neil’s discussion of the treatment of Giordano Bruno by the Morans* of the day!
For my own edification, I asked the good Reverend what “Morans” were, and he added this:
The word “Morans” relates to my description for the ignorami of the era. The word gained popular circulation during the tortuous GW Beanbrain period (2000-2008) when the attached photo made its first intertubes appearance.
So, if you saw “Cosmos”, what did you think? Nearly all the reviews I’ve read online have been positive. And if you also saw the original with Carl Sagan, feel from to contrast/compare.
UPDATE: Another cat, sent BY reader Helene, also watched “Cosmos”:
Your reader, the reverend, is not the only one who has a cat that enjoyed Cosmos last night. Mr Mumps spent almost the entire program watching up close. Not sure why—the last time he did that was during the Olympics to watch skiers.
In the attached image, you can see him approving of the big bang.
I wonder what was appealing to cats. Do you think there is a chance that there are more Cosmos cat enthusiasts out there? I’d hate to conclude anything from a sample of only two.
One cat, however, stood out above all others for his bad behavior: the aptly named Mayhem, owned by reader Thaddeus. Here’s his entry:
Mayhem is notorious in the neighbourhood for breaking into people’s houses. I know of at least 5 houses in the area that he will just let himself into. One neighbour has such a problem with him that I am purchasing an electronic cat door to let his cats in and out and keep Mayhem out. Mayhem has also killed and at least part eaten: 2 guinea pigs, 2 hamsters, and a rabbit.
You can’t do many dirtier deeds than that as a cat. So I declare Mayhem the Titular Winner.
HOWEVER, all the finalists were so good that I could not let them go unrewarded. So, all finalists shall have books, with all the books being autographed by me, but Mayhem getting a special cat drawing.
Therefore, will the owners of the following cats please email me with their contact information (mailing address)?
Books will be dispatched ASAP, but be aware I’m under a book deadline and it may take a while for all of them to go out.
Congrats to everyone who entered! The entries showed enormous cleverness and also highlighted the unrepentant cats who wreak havoc in their homes—or, in the case of Mayhem, in other people’s homes.
UPDATE: Some people in the comments are indulging in various psychological speculations about Eric’s motivations, health, etc. That is simply not on here, and I’ll delete posts like that. We must take the man at his word that he is leaving for the reasons given below, and then engage those reasons. Please avoid personal comments.
The former Anglican priest Eric MacDonald—I say “former” guardedly, as he never officially left the priesthood—taught me a lot about theology, for which I’m very grateful. But now he has finally parted company with New Atheism, and announced that decision in a long post on his website Choice in Dying:”In which I take my leave from the New Atheism.” Much of the post consists of exchanges Eric had with either me or other commenters on this site, and perhaps you’ll be familiar with some of it.
I’ve put below the two crucial paragraphs in which Eric summarizes his reasons for fleeing New Atheism:
However, as time went on I found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical. Some of that theology may simply be composed of what have come to be known as “deepities”, though that classification seems to me to have arisen because of the unwillingness of atheists to engage with what theologians and other religious believers have to say in defence of their worldview. And that it is an opposition of worldviews is, I think, something that has been lost sight of.
I think some of this comes out in the following conversation. There seems to be a belief that theology must simply be delusional, because there is no objective supernatural existent corresponding to the word ‘god’ — or at least that no “slam-dunk” arguments can be produced for such an existent. Consequently, it has become fairly normative to believe that religion has to do with “confected” entities, and religious thought itself not only delusional but even pathological. (Boghossian — in his book on making atheists — repeats the accusation that faith is pathological in his book so often that one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.) I do not think this is true, even though I dissent from much that is said in defence of Christianity. Empirical science is not the only source of truth or understanding. Indeed, I believe that the new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm in the course of what Robert Conquest has called The Ravaged Century.
I find the first reason odd because, when I was beginning to read theology, Eric made a number of valuable suggestions for readings in Sophisticated Theology™, but always added that he doubted that I’d find anything substantive in it. For he didn’t, and, sure enough, I didn’t, either. Now, however, he seems to have changed his mind, and implies that there is something substantive in such works—and that we New Atheists are simply too obtuse or blinkered to detect it.
But there isn’t anything substantive. Before you can discuss the nature of God, however deep and nuanced your discussion, you have to provide rational arguments for the existence of a God. No theologian, however sophisticated, has done that to my satisfaction, and I’ve read a lot of them. Absent such convincing evidence, theology simply becomes academic speculation about the nature of an unevidenced being.
Further, Eric doesn’t seem to realize that many New Atheists, including many on this site, were former believers and are in fact quite aware of even the most sophisticated theological arguments. I’m always impressed at how much knowledge there is about the arguments of people like Plantinga, Haught, Richard Swinburne, or even C. S. Lewis. It’s almost as if we have no right to even discuss God until we have precisely the same knowledge of theology as does Eric.
But that is theological Whack-a-Mole. I, and others on this site, have really tried to engage the arguments of those Sophisticated Theolgians™ who have promulgated and defended their worldviews. But what can you say about someone like, for example, Alvin Plantinga, who simply asserts that it is “reasonable” to believe in God as a “basic belief,” because the Christian God has endowed us with a special sensus divinitatis to detect divinity? That’s a supposedly sophisticated argument, but fails on two counts, both of which we’ve discussed. (What about those who don’t have that sense, or whose sense tells them that another religion is true? And what do you say to the argument that because it is not irrational to believe in a God, that therefore one must take it seriously? You can say the same thing about UFOs or any unevidenced supernatural or paranormal phenomenon) Most believers hold their beliefs because they think they’re based on something true about the universe; but so long as those believers cannot adduce evidence for that truth that convinces the rest of us, we needn’t take them seriously. There are no “slam-dunk” arguments against fairies or Bigfoot, either, but grownups don’t take them seriously—for the same reason we New Atheists don’t take God seriously. Empirical investigation is not about “slam dunk” arguments, but about the best explanations for phenomena.
As for “other ways of understanding,” I claim that Eric was never able to produce a single “way of understanding” truths about our universe that didn’t at bottom rest on empirical evidence and reason. The examples he gave—history, archaeology, and so on—use precisely the methods of science to fathom truth. So if by “understanding” Eric means “apprehending what is true about the cosmos” (after all, he says “truth or understanding”), let him list the truths apprehended by “other ways of understanding.”
Finally, I don’t consider religious people mentally ill, but there’s a case to be made that they are delusional—delusional in the same way that people are deluded about homeopathy, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster. All of those believers are victims of a delusion in the sense that the Oxford English Dictionary uses the word “delusion”:
a. Anything that deceives the mind with a false impression; a deception; a fixed false opinion or belief with regard to objecting things, esp. as a form of mental derangement
The part I agree with here is that religious teachings do give people false impressions (though not usually promulgated by others intending to deceive), and proffer fixed false opinions or beliefs with regard to obecting things. I wouldn’t go so far as to call religion a “mental derangement,” but it’s certainly a deviation from the kind of things that people accept as “true” in their daily life. It is accepting things of the greatest import for one’s life without sufficient evidence for so doing.
We see not an iota of evidence for a god when there should be such evidence, and therefore can provisionally assume that a god doesn’t exist—or, at our most charitable, can suspend judgment on the issue. (Most skeptics, however, don’t “suspend judgment” on the existence of Xenu, Thor, or Bigfoot). Therefore, a firm belief in an unevidenced God—and most Americans do have such firm belief—is a delusion, based on wish-thinking and a “false impression.”
In claiming that New Atheists are obtuse in understanding the real meaning of religion, and that there are other ways beyond science of apprehending truth (but refusing to specify which truths are apprehended), Eric has now allied himself with the religious community he supposedly abandoned. I am very sad about this “deconversion,” and don’t really understand the reasons, but we have clearly failed to engage his apostasy. My one suggestion for him, should he be reading this, is to engage not us, but the former ministers who form the private community of the Clergy Project. For it is there one can find other ministers, many once deeply engaged in faith, who decided to leave it all behind. Surely not all of those can be accused of misunderstanding religion!
After a lot of temporizing (well, I was busy), and compiling past rules with the help of the “Roolz Angels,” I have finally compiled the guidelines for readers who wish to post on this site. You will find them as a permanent widget on the left sidebar, comme ça:
Under “Da Roolz!” you will find the guidelines given below, which of course will be modified over time. But at least there is something permanent to which you and I can refer readers. If you click on it, you’ll see the following. Feel free to make suggestions on this post:
Here are “Da Roolz,” guidelines and strictures for posting on this website. The site has evolved since it was created in 2009 to provide evidence for evolution, and now covers a variety of topics that strike me as interesting or newsworthy. I like readers to have fun, weigh in with their opinions, learn, educate, but also respect the personal integrity of other readers.
Gayle Ferguson, owner of the abandoned kitten Jerry Coyne (as well as his four sisters) has sent me some more pictures of the rapidly-growing kittens. I am also informed that Jerry will be neutered in about two weeks (ouch!) and then put up for adoption. Here are the latest photos with Gayle’s captions (indented):
Jerry and his sister Hoover
Jerry cuddles Hoover
Jerry and his sister Molly
And this next photo and caption make me want to cry:
Jerry and a potential adoptive parent.
I am of course glad that Jerry will get a loving home, for Gayle wouldn’t let him have otherwise, but I’m also unspeakably sad that he will go away, and we’ll no longer be able to watch him grow into a fine orange tomcat. And they’ll probably change his name, too.