Oh noes—a new deity has appeared in the latest Jesus and Mo strip. Fortunately, its existence is quickly dismissed:
(Mo’s description also applies to Scientology, Christian Science, and Mormonism.)
h/t: Linda Grilli
Oh noes—a new deity has appeared in the latest Jesus and Mo strip. Fortunately, its existence is quickly dismissed:
(Mo’s description also applies to Scientology, Christian Science, and Mormonism.)
h/t: Linda Grilli
As a palliative to Adam Gopnik’s recent atheist-bashing piece in the print version of the New Yorker, the same magazine, at its online”Culture Desk,” has published a piece by physicist Lawrence Krauss: “Why Hollywood thinks atheism is bad for business.”
The piece takes off from the much-discussed Oscar acceptance speech of Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Actor award for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Here’s a low-quality clip, which is the best I can do. What caused all the “controversy” was his thanks to God and his claim that “it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.”
Conservative talk-show hosts like Beck and Limbaiugh praised McConaughey for his piety, and claimed that it went against the grain of Hollywood’s pervasive atheism. To be sure, I didn’t see much negative reaction to what McConaughey said (and, truth be told, I didn’t find the speech so bad), and arguments like those of the Christian Post, that it showed Hollywood’s atheism because the applause was “tepid,” aren’t borne out (listen to the approbation in the clip above). Frankly, if McConaughey wants to parade his beliefs in a two-minute Oscar acceptance speech, who cares? He’s not imposing them on anyone else.
Krauss, however, takes the opposite view of Limbaugh and Beck, arguing, based on his experience (he was a producer for the film “The Unbelievers,” featuring him and Dawkins), that Hollywood is in fact biased in favor of religion. That’s because religion sells:
But Matthew McConaughey’s words of gratitude are far from the only sign that God is, in fact, alive and well in Hollywood. This month, major movie studios are doing more evangelizing than Pat Robertson, with the release of two Biblical blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which arrives in theatres at the end of March, dramatizes the famously incredible story of a man and his ark, while the unambiguously titled “Son of God,” released last week, provides the umpteenth dramatization of the Biblical story of Jesus. For those that like their religion more saccharine, April will bring “Heaven is for Real,” the film adaptation of the best-seller about a young boy who, after nearly dying on the operating table, convinces his family that he actually visited heaven during surgery. The evidence? He describes his experience in terms that bear a remarkable resemblance to the visions of heaven he had likely been exposed to at home.
When a non-religious person—part of a growing minority in the United States and the rest of the developed world—points out that these stories are facile at best and demeaning at worst, they risk being condemned as “strident,” or at least disrespectful of religious sensibilities (as Adam Gopnik mentioned in his piece on atheism in a recent issue of the magazine, and as I have experienced first hand). But since piety is profitable, studio executives have carefully tended to their Christian audiences, especially after the success of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” in 2004.
In fact, I look forward to “Heaven is for Real,” and its inevitable successor “Proof of Heaven,” based on the best-selling (and largely discredited) book of Eben Alexander. What a fine double bill that would make at an atheist meeting, complete with a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of Coke!
At any rate, it’s good to see some explicit atheism in The New Yorker, though Krauss’s piece does sound a bit self-pitying at times, citing the usual statistic that Americans distrust atheists more than anyone else, and stating that nonbelief is universally decried. (That’s about as useful as stating that broccoli is green.) But in the end, Hollywood is a business, and it will make movies designed to sell. There is no “freedom of speech” requirement in the movie industry, though Krauss implies that movies are marginalizing atheists:
No one can fault Hollywood for recognizing that religion, like violence, is often profitable at the box office. But this logic leads to a prevailing bias that reinforces a pervasive cultural tilt against unbelief and further embeds religious myths in the popular consciousness. It marginalizes those who would ridicule these myths in the same manner as we ridicule other aspects of our culture, from politics to sex.
It is not “logic” that religious movies make money: it’s a simple fact. Krauss’s victimhood stance seems a bit unseemly to me, but perhaps not to others. Further, listening to the speech above, I found Krauss’s reaction a bit over the top:
Similarly, McConaughey’s decision to open his acceptance speech with thanks to God—as in many similar statements, usually made by victorious athletes in post-game interviews—was widely regarded as a sign of humility: a mark of virtue, in other words. I would argue that it would be far more humble to suggest that his hard work, the incredible physical transformation he underwent, and the dedicated cast and crew who supported his acting experience all directly led to his winning the award, rather than his being specially “blessed” by a God who chose him for that privilege.
This reminds me of Dan Dennett’s well known and wonderful essay “Thank Goodness,” where, after a cardiac event that nearly killed him, he thanked the doctors, nurses, and researchers that were behind his eventual cure, and gave God no credit. Krauss continues:
And yet, to say this out loud—in a culture many believe to be hostile to religion—is often taken for rudeness. Whatever one might hear on the right about a war on religion, in this country we still care more about catering to religious sensibilities, even in liberal Hollywood, than we do about encouraging the open questioning of the claims of the faithful.
First of all, McConaughey did not open his acceptance speech with thanks to God: he started by thanking the Academy, the other nominees, his director, and another associate. Then, at 1:30 in the video, he talks about God “gracing his life with opportunities”, adduces the Argument from Gratitude (all to audience applause and cheers), and then thanks his father and mother for his upbringing, as well as his wife, his kids, and other people I don’t recognize.
After all that, it seems a bit churlish to reprove McConaughey for not deliberately dissing God and thanking the other cast and crew. For, I think, that’s what Krauss is suggesting McConaughey should have done: what else would have been construed as “rudeness”? After all, it’s not construed “rudeness” when other recipients ignore God and thank their associates, co-workers and family. What only would have been “rude” is to say that he had not been blessed by a God.
One other comment: Krauss suggests that the idea of a war between religion and secularism in America is wrong; but I just don’t get his argument:
It is an article of faith among the religious right in America that we are in the midst of a war on religion (in which “religion” usually means Christianity), even though considerable evidence suggests the opposite. This defensive misperception is what led, earlier this year, to a proposed law in Arizona that would have legalized discrimination against gay couples on the ground of “religious freedom,” when in fact there was no evidence to indicate that the religious beliefs of any business owners had been legally infringed upon in the state.
In the minds of those who believe themselves to be targets of this war, the pernicious influence of Hollywood often looms large. Sunday’s Oscars—hosted by an openly gay celebrity, with two winners from a film about AIDS patients in the nineteen-eighties—might seem to confirm the culture industry’s reputation for liberalism and libertinism.
Well, maybe Hollywood isn’t at war with religion, but the rest of us, including Krauss, are. Heathenism has been let out of the bottle, and it isn’t going back in. In fact, “The Unbelievers” is the very sign of this conflict. If there’s not a “war,” who are we opposing?
The mating call of the garish red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)taken by Stephen Barnard. Males have the epaulets, which they display when looking for mates or defending territories, while females lack them. Stephen’s information:
700mm, ISO 2000, f/8, 1/3000, handheld. There are so many of these birds now—scores, after they’ve been absent all winter. They vibrate their wings when they call. That’s why the red-feathered display is blurry, even at 1/3000sec. Getting that sharp would require 1/8000 and better light.
Many of us have seen this New World bird, sitting perched atop twigs (or in this case cattails), displaying and singing its “trilling” song (listen to the variety of its songs here).
Its range, from the Cornell Ornithology site:
And fun blackbird facts:
The Feline Princess of Poland is back!
Hili: This mouse I just ate had an angelic taste.
A: How do you know? You’ve never eaten angels.
Hili: But I did once eat a sparrow, and sparrows have feathers, too.
Hili: Ta myszka, którą właśnie zjadłam miała anielski smak.
Ja: Skąd wiesz, przecież nigdy nie jadłaś aniołów?
Hili: Ale jadłam wróble, które też mają piórka.
Alert reader Su called my attention to this stunning photo of my town that appeared on the site Twisted Sifter. It was taken by Mark Hersch—with an iPhone! The details:
Taken from his window seat (with his iPhone) as he approached O’Hare, amateur photographer Mark Hersch captured this incredible photo that shows the famous Chicago skyline reflected in Lake Michigan below, just as the sun sets above. Talk about perfect timing!
And if you look really closely, you can see a second airplane in the center of the image, soaring above the clouds as well! Mark tells the Daily Mail:
“I was flying home to Chicago from a business trip recently. It was a cloudy day, late in the afternoon. We were flying eastbound, made a pass by O’Hare International Airport, then made a sweeping 180-degree left turn over Lake Michigan for our final westward approach into the airport. I looked down and through a narrow break in the clouds, I saw the shadow of the Chicago skyline projecting onto the lake. Oddly enough, I am a very frequent flyer and almost always sit in an aisle seat, but on this flight there were only window seats available.”
Can you find the other airplane? I did! (It’s harder than a nightjar.)
From the BBC News London, we learn that a Jewish girls’ school in London has removed questions about evolution from exams.
A Jewish girls school in Hackney has been redacting questions on evolution on science exam papers because they do not fit in with their beliefs.
Fifty-two papers were altered by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School to remove questions on evolution.
The examinations body, OCR, says it was satisfied that the girls did not have an unfair advantage. It now plans to allow the practice, saying it has come to an agreement with the school to protect the future integrity of the exams.
But Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society said children were being penalised by being denied access to marks on those papers.
The Department of Education meanwhile has asked for assurances that the children will be taught the full curriculum.
There’s a video at the site, but I can’t embed it. Although the practice doesn’t appear to be illegal right now, it surely will when a nationally standardized science curriculum is instituted this fall.
It’s time for Britain to get rid of its state-supported faith schools. Given that parents can (unfortunately) legally proselytize their children at home, there is no justification for publicly supporting religious education outside the home. Really, my British readers, why do you tolerate this? After all, you’re supposed to be more enlightened, and less marinated in faith, than us Americans. Yes, I know you have no First Amendment, but you didn’t have to pass laws allowing such schools!
We had an intimation of this yesterday when Guerrilla Skeptic Susan Gerbic weighed in, and I definitely sensed this when I attended the Randi Foundation’s The Amazing Meeting (TAM) last summer. Criticism of religion was definitely an issue subsidiary to criticism of other forms of faith. In fact, after my TAM talk on the incompatibility of science and religion, I was followed back to the Speakers’ Lounge by an ex-minister, who harangued me for half an hour about my misunderstanding of religion. I found it amazing that a minister would even be at TAM. Is God off limits, but Bigfoot not? Perhaps I’ve brought this up before, but it still confuses me.
The skeptical movement is concerned largely with phenomena like homeopathy, alternative medicine, paranormal issues like ESP and telekinesis, cryptzoological claims like those of Bigfoot and Nessie, UFology, and so on. Yet it’s largely unconcerned with religion, or at least doesn’t deal much with it. In fact, it doesn’t deal with it to such an extent that I suspect that it’s avoiding dealing with it.
This puzzles me. Religion is every bit as unevidenced as Bigfoot, homeopathy, or astrology. And it’s certainly one of the most harmful of all these superstitions, probably exceeding alternative medicine in its inimical effects on society. So why, as the world’s premier superstition, and its most harmful, does the skeptic movement largely avoid taking on religion? I wouldn’t like to think it’s because so many people are religious, and we don’t want to offend them, because, after all, skeptics should be dealing with unevidenced claims in proportion to their harmfulness and prevalence. We’re not supposed to shy away from faith-based beliefs just because they’re common.
I have no answer to the question posed in the title, but thought I’d solicit the opinions of our readers. Or perhaps I’ve got the priorities of the skeptical movement wrong—but I don’t think so. In the end, all claims investigated and decried by skeptics, whether they involve Bigfoot, UFOs, paranormal phenomena, or religion, are undergirded by faith, and it’s faith—belief without good reasons—on which skeptical organizations should focus.
Here’s today’s xkcd, which is both enlightening and frightening. Notice that there is more poundage of cows than of people. And where are the cats?
I’ve had my run-ins with conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat, who writes for The New York Times, and they are largely about his criticisms of atheism (see for instance here, here, and here; in the last piece he responds to me directly). Douthat sees no way that atheism can provide a grounding for morality—a blinkered view if ever there was one—and also feels that the death of a materialistic worldview is impending (again, this is wishful thinking, supported by no evidence).
When Adam Gopnik published a piece in a recent New Yorker criticizing New Atheism and comparing it to religion, he received criticism from both me and Douthat. I argued that Gopnik was rigging the game by including human emotion (which of course atheists have) as an essentially irrational sentiment, analogous to religious belief. He even used the example of LOLCats, to which I supposedly imputed human feelings, as an example of atheist irrationality. In contrast, Douthat argued that Gopnik was simply wrong in his claim that most believers adhere to a nebulous Ground-of-Being God, and that theists really do see genuine intervention of the deity in our world.
But one such column wasn’t enough for Douthat, and he’s just published the second at the Times inspired by Gopnik’s piece, “The return of the happy atheist.“
Douthat’s thesis is that atheists are once again happy compared to our dolorous godless predecessors, and he proffers several reasons for our newfound sanguinity. But he continues to predict the imminent downfall of New Atheism because it has moral and philosophical problems.
First, Douthat’s claim:
I don’t think there’s any question that something significant has changed in that trajectory between Kolakowski’s era and this one, producing a revival of Diderotian optimism among prominent atheists, and a burying of the “Waiting For Godot”-style angst that he described back then. The Hitchens/Dawkins types, with their “ecrasez l’infame” posturing, are the most obvious case study, but the phenomenon is broader than that: Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues — moral, political, existential — that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside. This confidence doesn’t just show up in the insult-flinging forays of figures like Jerry Coyne; it’s characteristic of more careful atheistic arguers as well (this recent essay from Paul Bloom being a good example), who may nod to possible problems with their intellectual synthesis, but for whom the array of potential difficulties never seems to add up to a single anxiety or doubt.
I’ll ignore his mischaracterization of how I dealt with his columns, as there was at best only a tad of snark, with most of my analysis dealing with his substantive claims. (Douthat is a rather thin-skinned fellow, and apparently has no idea what it’s really like to be attacked on the internet.) Rather, I want to ask whether the Old Atheists really were so miserable.
The idea that atheists were once serious, dolorous, and nihilistic is beginning to baffle me. The names proffered in support of this claim are always the same: Camus, Sartre, and Nietzche (Douthat also adds Kafka). As Douthat and others have claimed, these Old Atheists were deeply wounded by their embrace of godlessness; they had, as he argues, a “permanently festering wound.”
I don’t buy it. For every Camus and Sartre, I can give you an Old But Happy Atheist. Think of Mencken, Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Clarence Darrow. These were people who embraced life—in every respect as happy as people like Dawkins and even the insult-flinging Coyne. It’s time that someone delved into the supposed nihilism and gloom of the Old Atheists.
But let’s accept Douthat’s thesis for the nonce and look at the reasons he adduces for the advent of the New Happy Atheists. (Do click the links in all of Douthat’s prose.)
1. The rise of sociobiology. Gopnik argued that the resurgence of evolutionary biology helped fuel New Atheism. That’s true in part, but I think the whole story is the infusion of a scientific point of view into atheism, which made its adherents more insistent that the faithful demonstrate the truth of their dogma. In other words, New Atheism is distinguished by its insistence that religious claims are hypotheses. But Douthat wants to construe this more narrowly:
It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t. And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet. This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.
I doubt this. For one thing, few of us who discern the influence of evolution on modern human behavior claim that we’re doing that to justify that culture. That is, of course, the naturalistic fallacy, and many of us, including Peter Singer and Steve Pinker, think that moral instincts evolved in the distant past may no longer serve us well (xenophobia is one of these). Further, we discern a huge influence of culture on morality. That, after all, is one of the points of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: if morality and behavior are largely evolved and also hard-wired, why have they changed so radically in the past few hundred years?
2. The world’s increasing prosperity.
So of course the breezy optimism of the enlightenment seemed too optimistic by half; of course the cruel possibilities of a godless world were suddenly uppermost in people’s minds. But give us decades of declining conflict and growing wealth, give us the end of totalitarianism and the end of history, and suddenly the scientific-materialist project seems like it might be all we really need to reach those broad sunlit uplands after all. Nothing in the philosophical arena has necessarily changed, but circumstances control philosophical fashions as often as they’re created by them. So it isn’t thatsurprising that an age of plenty would give us Dawkins rather than Heidegger, Sam Harris rather than Camus, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette and Ricky Gervais rather than, I dunno, a stand-up comedian version of Rust Cohle.
I think Douthat has it right here in a sense he doesn’t intend: as prosperity rises, so the need for religion declines, and atheism becomes both more prominent and more palatable. If the optimism instilled by wealth affects atheists, should it not affect religionists, too? Or don’t they care about material things?
3. The death of communism.
In a related sense, too, the fall of the Soviet Union and the intellectual collapse of Communism have actually been good for atheism’s credibility, in ways that weren’t necessarily apparent before the Berlin Wall came down. You might have thought, back when Kolakowski was writing, that the death throes of the world’s most famous atheist experiment would deliver the last rites to any remaining atheist utopianism as well. But actually, by sweeping the embarrassment of Communism off the world stage, 1989 and all that probably made it easier for atheists to be quasi-utopians again, because they no longer had to defend or explain away a dreadful, cruel attempt at a godless paradise on earth. With the U.S.S.R. gone the way of all flesh, they could simply say that their ideal society is “Sweden, but even nicer” — in which case the argument that atheism and human progress go hand in hand no longer seems so transparently contradicted by reality.
Douthat fails to absorb the difference between Sweden and Soviet Russia. Yes, they were both godless, but the latter forcibly so, with the godlessness part of an overarching ideology that was quasi-religious. (And no, I’m not making that up: read The Gulag Archipelago to see how Stalin was worshipped as a god.) And, at any rate, Kafka and Nietzsche weren’t around when Communism really took hold.
4. The rise of militant Islam.
And then, too, to the extent that any force has replaced Communism as an antagonist-cum-alternative to Western civilization, it’s been Islamic fundamentalism, which almost seems laboratory-designed to give the idea of atheism-as-Progress a new lease on life. It’s not a coincidence that figures like Hitchens and Harris, in particular, grabbed the spotlight successfully in the years immediately following 9/11 — not because Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban solved any of the problems inherent to atheist materialism, but because they made a religious alternative look infinitely worse.
Again, Douthat is giving a good reason for the rise of the New Atheism, but not for its “optimism”. Sam Harris’s book, and its New Atheist successors, were indeed inspired by the excesses of Islam, but only because they underscored the imminent threat posed by religion. To me, those books did not promulgate “atheism as progress” any more than did the works of Ingersoll or Mencken. Rather, they proposed atheism as the only feasible solution to religiously-inspired hatred and mayhem.
I’m sure there are many other changes in the world that correlated with the rise of New Atheism, and I’m equally sure that Douthat could confect reasons why they make New Atheism “happier” than Old Atheism. But I’m not convinced that the Old Atheists really were so unhappy. Read Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist if you want to see high-spirited atheism before 9/11.
In his last two paragraphs Douthat gets down to those brass tacks that he really wants to hammer in—the dangers of atheism:
But among the intelligentsia, [New Atheism and its causes] does seem to have helped put to rest certain doubts about the association of unbelief with moral progress, by creating a landscape — particularly around issues related to sex — where all right-thinking people have decided that the Christian churches are on the wrong side of history once again. Again, as with radical Islam it’s not so much that in this landscape any of the internal tensions afflicting the secular project disappeared; it’s just that the struggles of the churches have made a religious alternative suddenly seem more untenable, more out of date, or (in the case of gay marriage, especially) more of an infame.
What all of this adds up to, probably, is a story about external developments shaping intellectual fashion, which in turn supplies a reason to be doubtful that the various problems with today’s happy atheism — problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see — are sufficient on their own to drive secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead. Instead, it will probably take some as-yet-unlooked-for external shock to push the ship of secularism’s below-the-waterline weaknesses onto their next collision course.
I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll ask you to click on those four links to see what lurking problems Douthat sees in New Atheism. They’re about the dangers of materialism and its supposedly inimical effect on morality. And those with “eyes to see” comes down to the single renegade philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose last book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” was roundly criticized by philosophers. Maybe Nagel has eyes to see, but so does Dan Dennett, who was one of many who excoriated Nagel’s book.
Douthat doesn’t like materialism and naturalism, but so far it’s the only game in town. When he comes up with some real evidence for the truth of Catholic dogma, and shows us why it’s the right religion—one better and truer than Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism—then I’ll listen to his criticisms of godlessness.
Regular Diana MacPherson recently announced that she’d bought herself a new camera outfit for her birthday, carefully omitting the crucial information about her self-present. Then she sent the following photos with birds’ IDs:
Today my new camera arrived & I was able to take some nice shots of the hungry birds at my feeder. The first is a male downy woodpecker: Picoides pubescens (you can see he is a male by the red feathers on his head). Next is a female downy woodpecker (lacking the red feathers) & the last picture is a junco – a Dark-eyed Junco: Junco hyemalis.
Note the omission (again!) of the crucial camera information. When I wrote her saying “No info on the equipment; no pictures”, I got back the following:
LOL! I’m using a Canon 5D MKIII with a 300 mm f/4 Canon prime lens & a 1.4x telextender to give me 480 mm. These were shot at ISO 800 f/9.0.